This week we interviewed Karen Burgman to learn more about her life as an artist: the challenges she’s faced, how she found the opportunities she’s had, and how she’s been able to impact others through her art.
Check out the video and transcript below!
Karen Piranian Burgman has performed in Europe, Canada, and coast to coast in the USA as a solo and collaborative pianist. She has performed in notable venues such as Carnegie Hall, Jordan Hall, The National Gallery of Art, Boston Symphony Hall, and the Toronto Center for the Performing Arts where she premiered a work commissioned in her honor. A graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, she has won numerous prizes for her collaborative piano playing. Cleveland Classical praised her for her “mastery of the complicated runs and arpeggios and a percussive clarity that grounded the whole performance in (to borrow Wallace Stevens’ phrase) ‘lucid, inescapable rhythms.’”
A “Playbill” writer, Karen composed and arranged music for the Broadway show, “Amazing Grace.” She was a featured composer with nine other renowned female composers for the piece “Because I am a Woman,” which was commissioned by Dr. Joseph Ohrt and premiered in Boston in February 2016. She has been recognized for her artistry by the acclaimed composer Morten Lauridsen, who dedicated “La Rose Complete” to her. Karen is active as a chamber musician and collaborative pianist, performing regularly with other world class artists such as faculty of Juilliard and Oberlin, musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and internationally renowned performers.
She was recognized, at age 33, for her impact as a music educator by receiving an award onstage at Verizon Hall, selected as a finalist for the “Ovation Award.” She is certified as a Dalcroze Eurhythmics instructor, having trained at Oberlin, Juilliard, and Carnegie Mellon. Karen is passionate about music education; she has taught students from beginners through high school, leading masterclasses and training for college level musicians, and she also teaches and mentors other teachers. Karen is on the faculty of the internationally renowned Credo Chamber Music Festival. The founding artistic director for a regional community music school and a choral program in PA, she resides in Bucks County with her husband and three musical daughters.
Aubrey Leaman: Alright so to start, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do, what kind of artist you are?
Karen Burgman: Sure. So I’m a musician. I’m a pianist, that’s my home in the music world. I’ve done a lot of other things, conducting, composing, I love collaborative work so I do a lot of accompaniment and chamber music. Really enjoy that. And also having three young children, very involved in helping them with their instruments and their singing and collaborating together in our family which is really really joyful.
A: Yeah that sounds great! So when did you first realize that you loved piano or you loved the arts in general?
K: I think I knew that I loved the piano before I even started to officially learn it. My parents found me at their piano with an upside down backwards postcard, you know, improvising and singing at the top of my lungs and having a great time. I was a really young kid. So they got me lessons and I always knew I loved it. I also loved the violin. I started that a few years later. I loved to sing, I loved it all. But it wasn’t till high school that I really knew that piano was like my home, that being at the piano was where I felt really the most myself.
A: By the way I’m actually, I got my undergraduate degree in piano as well! So…
A: I feel this yeah, this piano connection.
A: I relate. That’s so great! So it sounds like you knew or your parents knew at least that you were artistically gifted from a young age? Were there other people who kind of helped you realize yeah, this is maybe a career path I should follow?
K: Definitely, there were quite a few. So my parents for all of us, five children, we got the opportunity to study instruments and we had so much classical music in our lives, in our home. It was just a very great place to enjoy music. But my first piano teacher is the one who told my parents I had perfect pitch and that I should probably, you know, consider going as far as possible with the instrument. There were others like my high school orchestra director (I played violin in his orchestra). He was so thrilled with what he saw happening in my life, my faith and my music-making, that he actually wanted to produce my first CD. And that had to do with the testimony going on at that time in my life with a serious injury, the doctors didn’t think I’d ever be able to play again. So going through that hard time and coming through that, this orchestra director of mine wanted very much to affirm and to encourage me and so that began my first recording experience too with several to follow, and starting a label. And that was just again a person who wanted to affirm and encourage me along in my path, for which I am forever grateful. There were others as well.
Again, my high school choir conductor, who gave me a lot of opportunities, brought me to Carnegie Hall for my first accompanimental experience there, and other things to just affirm. And he also commissioned a piece in my honor before I graduated from high school, which was really exciting and opened up other things in my life that I’m very grateful for, as well. So I feel like I’m standing on many people’s shoulders.
And when I think about my college years, Dick Ryan spoke so much truth into my life and really helped to, really helped me to understand why certain things were important that I believed to be important, helped me to understand why from the scriptures and helped to give me a lot of freedom as an artist because it came right from God. And there was also a pastor in my life during those years in college who shared a lot of truth with me that helped me to get so much deeper as an artist, again more freedom that came from God, and then also Peter Slowik at Oberlin Conservatory, another one of those people coming alongside, encouraging, affirming, giving me the opportunity to be part of a community called Credo, lots of Christian artists who live out their faith. That was extremely influential in my life, continues to be. So I can’t possibly name them all but I’m just very grateful!
A: Yeah no, that’s quite the list! I mean that sounds great, you had so many people, it sounds like in different areas, kind of leading you with this kind of faith and arts focus together. I’m wondering if I could return a second, you mentioned you had this injury, that the doctors thought you would never be able to play again. First of all, I’m sorry that you had to experience that. That sounds awful. How did you cope with that, if you don’t mind me asking?
K: Yeah it was a very intense moment in my life. I think when I look back, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me because music-making was so much a part of my identity, who I was, that with that door closed I had to really dig hard for the answer of who am I apart from music. Who am I?
And I’m really grateful for that because I think if that hadn’t happened in my life I really would identify myself as a musician, that’s who I am in my core. But because of that injury and the closed door temporarily I found out that my identity is in Christ. I’m loved by God forever perfectly and whether I get to make music or not, whether I fail, or whether I enjoy success, all of it is part of this journey but it doesn’t define me. My definition is that I’m loved by God and created by Him for a purpose and in knowing His love I can love Him back and I can love others, and that’s what I’m here for and that’s what this is all about. So it certainly informs everything I do as an artist. It’s like I can’t separate those as two separate categories. It’s part of the core of who I am. So the injury was actually due to my playing. The more I practiced and competed, the more my hands were basically falling apart. There was a teacher who was my chamber music coach. She said that she thought there was the chance that I could overcome this injury by retraining my technique. Essentially I had to throw 13 years of training out the window and start from scratch. And…
A: That’s fun.
K: …rebuild! And then I also had to take some time before college, I had to defer, I actually deferred at Northwestern, love that place.
K: And I had to sort of just put everything into this and give it a try, building from scratch again. And in a year and a half I was playing better than I ever had without pain and the door was wide open. But I was walking through that door with the understanding that music didn’t define me, and that if God wanted me to play there was a reason for that, I should just hold loosely to it and be grateful for it. And so then I went to Oberlin and continued on my musical journey. But I’m really grateful to be able to play. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about that.
A: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing, by the way. Let’s see, what questions do I have…I guess, can you say a little bit more about what your job looks like right now and then maybe how you wound up there?
K: That’s a great question. Every year since my graduation from Oberlin has looked different. The balance keeps shifting and there’s nothing permanent about any of this. In light of the last year with COVID, most of my work right now is virtual. I have a full studio and any of the playing that I’ve done, at least I would say for the past year, has been virtual. And I still…I’m still writing music, I’m still really enjoying almost more than ever the connection with my students and seeing how important it is for them to continue to express and to search for beauty during this time. So I really enjoy it and I value it. I think that what comes next is going to be a surprise to me again because so many things have changed in the last year, but my professional experiences have included a lot of variety, so I’ve done a lot of collaborative playing.
I’m in the Philadelphia area, so some really great artists that I enjoy playing with, also through Credo Chamber Music, I’m a coach there, and I toured with the Credo trio for a time. I teach eurythmics and I also have started a couple programs. I started an arts academy that’s now owned by a college and will go well past me. And also together with the team, and also a choral program that will also go well past me [laughs] as a bright future, but those are not things that I’m involved in right now. I also have done some composing, I have music that was on Broadway in a show, just a lot of variety. And I enjoy the variety. For me, I think that’s really exciting and stretches me and especially when it’s an area I didn’t expect to be in, I didn’t specifically train for, I get to go by faith and see how God brings these things into my life and has a purpose for me and I can grow in the middle of all of it. I really enjoy that process [laughs] as much as it’s outside of my comfort zone.
A: Yeah. How do you find these opportunities if you haven’t been trained in these various areas? I mean, does things just pop up from people you know, or how do you come across these things?
K: It’s all relationships, all of it. And I feel like, it’s not because I send hundreds of Christmas cards every year to let people know I’m, you know, still playing. It’s not like that, it’s like when God brings a relationship into my life, Dick Ryan, through InterVarsity and studying the Bible and having conversations, that’s led to wonderful ministry opportunities together with him. This faculty person from Oberlin, Peter Slowik, I played in his studio, we talked, we had discussions about our faith, next thing I was going to his program and then teaching in his program and that has had all kinds of other wonderful opportunities spin out from there. The Broadway opportunity was helping to start this music school, which is another whole story, but in the process of interviewing people I met someone who was actually working on a show for Broadway and after our interview he called me back and said I wonder if you’re the person I’ve been looking for to help me take some of my ideas and turn them into concrete vocal and piano arrangements and the more we talked the more I prayed the more I could see this was right from God.
So I wasn’t looking for that, I was thinking I was interviewing him for something else, and it just goes like that. And I feel like, if I could give one piece of advice, it’s not that I have figured out how to build a career, I just think the most important thing is to know God and to really listen to Him carefully. Because not only did He give the gifts, but He’s provided all the help along the way for me and the specific things that He wants me to do with these gifts. So it’s not up to me to figure all of that out. I feel my responsibility, working hard at the same time, practicing, being diligent, I feel my responsibility is to pay close attention to His voice, and it’s just, it’s the most exciting way to live that I know about [laughs]. I never know what’s coming next!
A: [laughs] Yeah, I can relate to a little bit of that, too. It’s like, you just never know.
K: Can’t plan it.
A: Nope. So, kind of related to that then, and this can be our last question, are you able to express or communicate truth or beauty as a pianist? And if so, how?
K: That’s just of the utmost importance to me because our Creator is a God of love and connection and of beauty and truth. I feel in a way that I’m like, I guess you could say a missionary or a conduit. When I play, when I express anything at all, I’m connected to Him first. And so what’s true and beautiful and lovely and powerful that comes from Him, is available to me. So oftentimes when I play I feel His power and His closeness. I feel like I’m part of something. I don’t understand all that He’s doing, who’s in the audience, but I know that He’s at work, and I’ll give you an example.
I was on a trip with my family recently and we were in the mountains and we were driving to a small town and on the way passed a retreat center I’ve always wanted to visit. So we just quickly pulled off the road and drove through past the gatehouse. They said you know, help yourself, drive around, 1200 acres. And it felt very spontaneous, it wasn’t the plan to be there, and as we entered this beautiful chapel, one of the tour guides there just asked, do you play the piano? Never met her before. “I do!” you know and she said, “well please! Can you go into the chapel and just play a little bit?” So I did and while I sat there and played I really had such a strong sense of God’s presence and His encouragement with this whole crazy past year with COVID, I’ve had my own fears and concerns about the future and I just felt His assurance that He’s in control and I can trust Him about the next steps and the future.
So while I was playing I just felt this sense of His presence, and I just improvised, I played hymns, just whatever came into my heart just came out. And I didn’t realize that there was a couple sitting in that space going through a very very painful time. And the wife was just sitting there crying and at the end of my time when I stood up to pack up she came up to me and she said, “You have no idea how much I needed that today and I’m so glad I was here at the moment you were here. This is exactly what I needed and I know that God answered my prayer.” I had no control over that. I was just following the next step, I was responding to God at the same time He was taking care of me, and truth and beauty were communicated to someone in need. And I could never take credit for that. I could never take credit for that. But I’m so glad that I could sit down at the piano and play my heart out.
So I think truth and beauty, that combination, Aubrey, is like dynamite. It’s the most incredible combination of potential, because the truth shared together with beauty I feel directs us right back to our Creator. And even for people who don’t know Him, perhaps they can get a sense of Him, and of something bigger than them in that moment, and it’s one of the reasons I love art and music, any kind of creativity, so much. It kind of helps me see my place in the world and keeps my eyes on things that are much, much bigger than what I see around me. So I would say yes, yes, yes! [both laugh]
A: Yeah, it just makes me think about, there’s this verse in Romans where Paul is talking about, you know, basically God’s presence is all around us. You can’t help but see it. And it’s just what you made me think of. That’s really beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that story and just for sharing everything you have shared in this interview. Is there anything else you want to say before we close? Any final comments to young rising musicians or anything like that?
K: Yes, thanks. I would just say, of course it’s so important to work at your craft, and that takes discipline and perseverance, and so I think it’s important to have people in your life to encourage you with that, so in the process of that I think for the Christian artist, the one who knows God, the most important thing is to learn to recognize His voice, to search the scriptures, to know who He is, what He’s like, how He loves, and what’s important to Him, so that as He directs and nudges I find that artists with their very very sensitive hearts can be so in-tune with His voice. And I think that that’s the most important way to live as an artist. Because when you stay connected to your Creator, your source, who gave you the gifts to begin with, there’s the most incredible confidence there in the relationship to know that yes these gifts are important. Yes there’s a purpose for them.
And in terms of fulfilling that, it’s not up to the artist to figure that out. It’s up to them, I’ll say for myself, to me, to listen to His voice and respond. And there’s so much great joy in that, and I think there’s also so much freedom because since He has given the gifts and there are purposes for those gifts there’s plenty of space and room for each artist. And it doesn’t usually feel like that. It feels like there’s just…there’s just scarcity of jobs and time [laughs], money, resources. That’s what we sort of get from our culture. And it can really lead to a lot of panic and stress and anxiety. But I think leaning on Him and listening to His voice is the most joy-filled, peace-filled, faith-filled way to live out your calling as an artist. So I think that’s the most important. Of course we can’t skip practicing. [both laugh] But I think it goes hand in hand with this idea of relationship with our Creator.
A: Great. Well thank you so much, Karen, for joining us, and I really appreciate your time.
Thanks for visiting Artist Set Free! For more about Karen, visit https://www.karenburgman.com/