Tell me a little bit about your childhood and how you discovered the violin.
When I was little, we lived in a trailer in the woods on the border of northern Wisconsin. My upbringing was everything you could probably imagine as the antithesis of the classical musician.
My family did a lot of wood chopping, hunting and fishing. Then when I was a little older, we moved to Wausau, Wisconsin. That community had a wonderful music program—very similar to what we have here in Great Falls. In fact I think part of what made this position so attractive to me were the similarities between my hometown and here. I have a special affinity for the Great Falls Public School system because I know what a music program like this can provide for a child that grows up in a family like mine.
In fifth grade, the school orchestra teachers came around the elementary schools with all of these instruments, and we could choose to play one of them. I wanted to play the cello, but because of its large size, I wouldn’t have been able to ride the bus, so I “settled” for the violin. I remember the first time I picked up the violin and ran the bow across the string. It was like I had been struck by lightning. Nothing was ever going to be the same for me after that! There were, of course, other things I had wanted to do as a little girl like being a ballerina or a scientist, but when I touched the violin for the first time, it was all over. I didn’t have any idea what it meant to be a professional violinist, so I just practiced a lot at home and auditioned for the local youth orchestra. One of the private music teachers, Paula Beard, to whom I owe my life, scooped me up under her wing and took care of me.
She helped me find the resources I needed to take music lessons because my family couldn’t afford them, and she helped me get a better violin by finding a generous donor who paid for a portion of it. I got a job selling shoes at JC Penney to pay off the rest of it. In short, I had a lot of help along the way. Ironically, my first teacher was a member of the same quartet that Thad Suits was a part of in Minnesota before he moved to Montana, so they played chamber music together when I would have been in diapers, and then they both ended up having this profound impact in my life.
The first time I touched the violin I knew that is what I wanted to do, and it was through the grace and support of some generous people in my hometown that this dream of mine became a reality. A lot of times string players start music lessons at a very young age, and that wasn’t an option in my family. Today I am still determined to “catch up.”
Well, I think you’ve done an excellent job of “catching up” if that’s what you want to call it!
I sometimes feel like I still have major underdog syndrome. When I was a teenager, it was so easy for me to get discouraged and say, “Well, what if I had been provided the opportunity to study music at a younger age, just think about how much farther along I would be by now,” and I didn’t realize at the time how much of a blessing it was going to be for me that I had the experience that I did because it really provided a way for me to connect with and relate to the kids in Great Falls so that I could help them develop their talent when they get bit by the classical music “bug.” Oftentimes kids here are the same age and developmental stage I was when I was introduced to music, and they haven’t had access to music lessons since the age of four or five. I have had students who have grown up through the public school music program who have then gone on to audition for the Great Falls Symphony and have their own music studios. There is nothing more gratifying than to see that happen.
You have a unique ability to inspire our kids to work hard because your testimony is proof that you can make it as a professional musician even if you weren’t a child prodigy. What do you think are the most important factors in keeping music alive in a community like Great Falls?
Just like with the Shop Local movement, what makes the Great Falls Symphony so special is the fact that it is the Great Falls Symphony. One of the realities of orchestras across America in mid-sized cities and towns is that a lot of the members don’t live in the local area. My first music job was with the Green Bay Symphony. I did not live in Green Bay, so I commuted to Green Bay to rehearse and perform—as did about 75% of the orchestra. When the Green Bay community learned that their symphony was not local to their community, there was a lot of backlash. The Green Bay Civic Orchestra was formed in response to this, and only members of the Green Bay community were permitted to perform in that ensemble. Sadly, the professional Green Bay Symphony folded after 101 years. That was really devastating for me to watch, but it was also a stark reality check that what makes our organization so special is that it is completely rooted in Great Falls. This is really unique! It hardly exists anywhere else in the country. For large orchestras like the Chicago Symphony, if you win an audition, you move to live in Chicago and you assimilate to the area, but here, we have a very rare melting pot of nine professional musicians including myself, who have won auditions, moved here and planted roots here, and the rest of the members of the orchestra have embraced us into their community. Our unique makeup is something we should all be very proud of.
We are actively keeping ourselves alive and thriving through our partnership with the Great Falls Public School’s music program and through our Youth Orchestra programs. They act as feeder programs for our professional orchestra and many of the musicians and staff members involved in the symphony today have participated in the Youth Orchestra. My plea to parents is to be intentional about supporting your children’s love of music by getting them involved in the Youth Orchestra and by providing private music lessons for them. Someday they may be in the symphony!
Congratulations on being a recipient of a grant from the Montana Arts Council for a recording project that you have been working on this summer. Please tell us more about your project.
Yes! Thank you. In March when everything shut down, I started looking for ways to keep moving forward in my playing, and essentially one thing lead to another. I always like to explore these sort-of-forgotten and decaying corners of Montana and one of the things we have are these Cold War-era military installations along the Montana/Canada border. I went to five different locations across the state, and in the absence of being able to perform in an acoustically curated concert hall, I thought, “Let’s find out what these giant concrete monoliths of the Cold War sound like when you play Bach and new music in them!” So, this idea became a seed for a solo album that I’ve titled “Decommissioned.” This project was a real push for me artistically because I was stuck in a car for hours in 100-degree weather, and then I would have to essentially break into an old building with no facilities and no promise of safety. After all of that I had to play beautifully!
I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I’m really proud of the album. It’s not perfect, which is a real empowering thing to admit. A lot of artists, including myself, struggle with perfectionism and wanting everything that we do to be flawless. We listen to recordings that are engineered to perfection by professional recording companies and pieced together from many, many takes, and then we compare ourselves to that perfection. This quest for perfection has been a source of a lot of strife throughout my life as an artist, so having put myself in the absolute least conducive circumstances for success, and then playing the absolute best that I can, was really good for me as both a violinist and as a person. I plan to use what I have learned from this experience as a source of encouragement for my students who are struggling through some of the same unreasonable expectations of perfection.
The album is currently being pressed, and will be available on USB cassette with video so that you can see these structures that may or may not be accessible to you, depending on how brave you are and how long they stay standing. Copies will be available at the Great Falls Symphony office for purchase.
How do you think live music positively impacts our community?
There is sort of a permeable membrane between the audience and the symphony, and I am so appreciative of that. What we do cannot be done without everyone working together, and that is really a beautiful thing to be a part of. You can’t have a symphony with just one or two musicians and you can’t have a symphony without an audience or an administration or board or support staff. Our collective experience when the symphony performs is so special because it represents a total cross-section of our community.
How has your work as a musician and an educator changed during this COVID-19 pandemic?
I’ve been able to pivot my primary focus as a traveling performer and devote more time to teaching during this time. I have also been forced to get creative in the ways I connect with my students because so much of their education has moved online. I am constantly evaluating how I can maximize the educational value of their lessons. I think all of my kids have struggled with the pandemic in some form or another, and so I gave them all a little pep talk at the beginning when I saw that it may be a long time before we return to normalcy in how we get together and perform. I told them how lucky they are that they have the violin. This instrument is something so personal to them—it’s theirs—and it’s rewarding to push past artistic barriers in the instrument through hard and intentional work. I’ve seen some of my students make incredible progress during this time, and I’m so proud of them. I’ve also never been home this much, because I usually spend a lot of time traveling and performing. As I reflect on this time at home, I am filled with so much gratitude about what we have here in our community. Out of the nine years I have lived here, this is the first time I’ve spent my entire summer in Montana, andI got out to see corners of the state I’ve never seen before.
The dedicated support of our entire community makes Megan’s story possible! Our collective pursuit of artistic excellence demonstrates how much we can achieve when we work together.
Please consider a year-end gift to the Great Falls Symphony. Your support will help us continue to pursue our mission to infuse cultural vibrancy into the Great Falls community through transformative music events and education programs.
The violinist on her personal journey, planting roots in Great Falls, and music-making during the pandemic
After a national search in 2012, Megan Karls was selected to serve as Co-Concertmaster of the Great Falls Symphony orchestra and violinist with the Cascade Quartet.
Megan is also a member of the Boise Philharmonic, and has performed as Concertmaster for the Billings Symphony, Bozeman Symphony, Butte Symphony, and with the conductorless String Orchestra of the Rockies.
In November 2020, GFSA Executive Director Hillary Rose Shepherd sat down with Megan to discuss her life as a musician in Montana.
She is one of nine professional musicians who are employed by the Great Falls Symphony and who live, perform, and teach music in our community. Megan loves making her home in beautiful Montana, while also performing across the country in chamber music and orchestral engagements.