A seasoned LA Philharmonic artist now taking her career in new directions as the visionary leader of the Taos School of Music.
“There are more creative options available to the new generation of musicians….The creativity and resilience shown in how we artists have adapted to this pandemic has given me hope for the future of our young talent.”
Project Jumpstart’s Entrepreneur of the Month is violinist Elizabeth Baker, who’s pivoted from a 40-year career as an orchestral musician with the SF Symphony and the LA Phil into a high-powered leadership role as Executive Director of the Taos School of Music. Read on to learn more about the unexpected twists in her career journey (including steering the Taos School through the COVID-19 pandemic!); what big-picture values keep her focused despite an unending to-do list; and what other lessons about life and music she’s learned along the way.
Violinist Elizabeth Baker received her Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory as a student of Andor Toth. Further study with Josef Gingold at Indiana University led to a Master of Music degree as well as a Performer’s Certificate. Ms. Baker moved to Taos, New Mexico in 2017 following a 40 year orchestral career as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for 10 years, and then 30 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She appeared as soloist three times during her tenure with the LA Phil, all premieres, and all receiving critical acclaim. Ms. Baker also performed chamber music with her colleagues from both orchestras, as well as with XTet and Bach’s Circle, LA based chamber groups that appeared at Chamber Music Northwest, Sedona Music Festival, South Bay Chamber Music, and Bach Festivals in California and Oregon. In addition to appearing on the Taos Chamber Music Group, Montage Society, and Santa Fe Pro Musica, Ms. Baker is on the faculty at the New Mexico School for the Arts. In October 2018 Elizabeth became the third Director of the Taos School of Music in its 56 year history and is an alumna from 1975 and 1976. She plays on a Sanctus Seraphin Violin made in 1733, previously owned by her late mother Virginia Voigtländer Baker.
Project Jumpstart: You graduated from the Indiana University School of Music with a Master of Music degree with Distinction and a Performer’s Certificate. What was your time like at IU, and what advice would you give your younger self if you could go back in time?
Elizabeth Baker: Arriving at IU in the fall of 1976 was a time of excitement and anticipation for me. The great Josef Gingold had invited me to join his studio and I was determined to make the most of that opportunity. To fully prepare for my lessons with him, I scheduled 5 hours of practice a day, taking some time off on weekend evenings. I was up at 6 am and in the practice room by 7 am to get in two hours before classes. Then I took my 2 hours of assigned practice time before orchestra rehearsals. After that, I took a short dinner break before getting in one more hour of practice and then on to what homework needed to be done. Bedtime was around 11 pm. Exercise was limited to walking the mile to and from school.
In January 1977 I learned that there were a few openings in the San Francisco Symphony and was encouraged by my mother, also a concert musician and Assistant Concertmaster of the SFSO, to take the audition for “experience”. Mr. Gingold helped to prepare me for this audition. At the end of an exceedingly long audition day in March, I was offered a position with the orchestra. To join the orchestra by the late fall I accelerated my studies with required recitals to complete my degree by the end of 1977. I literally owe my orchestral performing career to Mr. Gingold.
My advice to my younger self would have been to tell her not to slack off from her practicing between the end of the spring semester and the intense summer study coming up. She would have avoided having to practice 6 hours a day to finish preparing for the first of the two recitals required for her Master of Music degree. Cramming is NOT a good idea, not for the mind or for the body.
PJ: After 40 years of performing with the San Francisco Symphony and then the LA Phil, you left your orchestral career to explore other opportunities. What was that decision-making process like?
EB: My husband, Toby, and I both have Taos connections. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, my husband-to-be was in the audience at the Taos Community Auditorium watching me perform as a student at the Taos School of Music Chamber Music Festival back in 1976. 15 years later we met in 1991, not knowing about this connection. It was only after we had dated several months that this was revealed, and the rest is history. We were married in 1993. In 2005 we purchased property in Taos with the plan to build a home in 2016. Toby, a successful architect with Walt Disney Imagineering, would retire in 2016 to design and have our home built. I would retire from the LA Phil in 2017. After my final Bowl concert on September 16, 2017, we departed to “re-tire” in Taos and re-invent ourselves. We have been overjoyed to live in such a beautiful setting.
PJ: Soon after retiring from your orchestral career, you became Associate Director of the Taos School of Music in June 2017 and then became Executive Director in October 2018. How did you come to find these roles?
EB: My plan in moving to Taos was to refocus my performing on chamber music, volunteer with the Taos School of Music and to contribute to, or start, an El Sistema type program in Taos. I had volunteered for many years at the LA Phil sponsored YOLA program (Youth Orchestra LA) based on the El Sistema model from Venezuela. I thought this would be a good way to contribute to the Taos community. Over the previous five years I had established performing connections with several chamber music groups based in New Mexico and a chamber orchestra based in Santa Fe. However, this was to take a complete turn. In November of 2015 I received an email from the then Executive Director of the Taos School of Music, Kathleen Anderson, daughter of the first Director and founder of the school, Chilton Anderson. Seemed she was looking to make some changes in her life and wanted to know if I was interested in taking over the Directorship of the school. I remember reading the email over several times just to make sure I was reading correctly. Over dinner I read the email to Toby and he smiled broadly and gave me a big thumbs up! My life was to change in ways I could not even imagine.
PJ: Are there any big mindset shifts you have had to make in the career change from performer to executive director? Any tough lessons learned?
EB: The biggest shift has been trading the hours previously spent in orchestra rehearsals and concerts for my duties as Executive Director which is manifold in its responsibilities. One of my favorite duties is to interact with our faculty, incoming students, and our valued patrons. I still have a performing career, albeit less active, which keeps my soul fed.
One challenge has been to stay focused on the goal amid the many challenges that might distract me. I am devoted to the Taos School of Music because of the transformational experience it provides to our students, faculty, and concertgoers. I know this because I was once a student in Taos for two of my most formative years as an aspiring violinist. My two summers in Taos cemented my love of chamber music which remained a focus in my life over 40 years as an orchestral musician and continues to this day.
PJ: Being an executive director must be overwhelming at times, with so many meetings, commitments, responsibilities, and projects to keep track of. How do you stay motivated, inspired, and creative when things get intense?
EB: There have been times when the learning curve has felt too steep, the to-do list never ending, and I have felt completely overwhelmed. When I took on this position in 2018 my computer skills were quite underdeveloped. I am a trained performing artist and had not spent much time in front of the computer. Thankfully, my husband became a big help in this area. In January of 2019 I was encouraged by our web developer, Susan Preston of Clearly Presentable, to take an online course led by Seth Godin called The Marketing Seminar. I am forever grateful for taking this course as it taught me several important values: “What do you offer; Who do you serve; What is your promise to them; What change do you hope to make?” Our students, faculty, and patrons are our “family”. As a school we need to serve our family and keep our promises to maintain and build their trust. These values I keep ever before me even through the hard days. The first summer reminded me that all the hard prep work would pay off once the students and faculty arrived to begin their time together.
PJ: The COVID-19 pandemic left many in the arts world reeling. What was it like for you as a recently appointed executive director facing all these unknowns and anxieties, and what helped you keep a steady hand as you led the Taos School of Music through 2020?
EB: Over a two-week period, last March our school lost its two performing venues and lodging for our faculty and students as the Town of Taos and Taos Ski Valley completely shut down with no opening date planned. In some ways we were lucky to be one of the first summer music programs to withdraw our program because it gave us the time to brainstorm and come up with a great plan to keep the school’s program alive. The previous summer had been my first year at the helm and had felt like drinking out of a fire hose. Now I was looking at drinking from a different fire hose and come up with a plan for the summer. Right off I could not see a summer without chamber music in Taos. I was resolved to keep my promise to our faculty, students, and supporters. The decision was made to pay our faculty salaries, invite our students back for 2021 without having to re-audition, and to create a Virtual Festival for our supporters.
My idea was to curate this festival with our artistic director Robert McDonald out from a 15-year archive of student recordings and have our faculty provide us with their own recordings. The original concert schedule of young artist (student) and faculty artist concerts would be adhered to. An initial list of noteworthy performances from our faculty became the basis from which the remainder of performances were chosen. Hours were spent in this process; however the tradeoff was hearing amazing performances from our talented young players. With the invaluable assistance of our web designer, Susan Preston, we came up with a plan to incorporate a live element into the concerts. I was not sure how it would all work but knew this was the right thing to do.
PJ: Were there any adaptations or new discoveries from 2020 that represent something that you hope Taos can keep doing in the future as you look ahead to this summer’s program?
EB: The Taos Ski Valley, where the Taos School of Music takes place, adopted stringent safety protocols this ski season. As a result, the number of COVID cases in this area was kept to single digits. This summer the school is working with the TSV Inc. to adopt these protocols to keep everyone safe. We are also hoping that most, if not all, of our students and faculty will have been vaccinated prior to coming to Taos.
The streaming element made me realize that our program had the possibility of reaching a much wider audience. I had not anticipated this. It is unknown if live indoor concerts will be possible this summer, so a hybrid of last year’s festival will be adopted. Instead of streaming past recordings, all our concerts will be video recorded and streamed a week later to allow for post-production work. This will also keep our students and faculty safe which is a big priority for us.
Should our state go into the least restricted tier we will be able to invite a limited audience prioritizing with our concert sponsors and benefactors. COVID safety protocols are being added to our program and the local community has been incredibly supportive in assisting us with acquiring the necessary PPE.
PJ: Have there been any interesting changes you’ve noted in the field of classical music since you started working? What do you think young musicians entering the profession today should be aware of?
EB: When my career began in 1977 a career as an orchestra musician, gaining employment in one of the top symphony orchestras was one of the most stable and lucrative paths to take. It was also a great way to make music, collaborating with world class musicians under great conductors. Although any profession has its ups and downs, I loved the 40 years I spent performing music from the finest composers, under great conductors, with the finest musicians, for thousands of music lovers.
Today, I still feel that a career in music can be rewarding in many ways for any talented musician willing to make the sacrifices necessary to realize their dreams. My teacher during my Oberlin Conservatory days, Andor Toth, told me that I had to want to be a musician more than anything to make it in the music world. He was right. This fact has not changed in over 40 years.
What has changed is that there are more creative options available to the new generation of musicians due to the rise of the internet among other advancements. The field of classical music, like most of the arts, has taken a huge beating during COVID. The creativity and resilience shown in how we artists have adapted to this pandemic has given me hope for the future of our young talent.
PJ: What are you looking forward to in 2021?
EB: First off, I am looking forward to the safe arrival of our students and faculty.
Witnessing the transformation that occurs in the lives of our young artists during their time in Taos.
Getting to know the students better and develop lasting relationships.
Being immersed in the healing power of chamber music from the performances of our faculty and young artists.
Thank you so much to Elizabeth Baker for taking the time to give us an inspiring look at her versatile career as both a performing artist and an executive director!
Elizabeth Baker Recognized for Entrepreneurial Spirit with 2020 Concert Livestreams | Taos School of Music
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