In this weeks edition of our Alumni Spotlight, we had the pleasure of reconnecting with harpist and 2008-09 NYO alum Kristan Toczko. A native of New Brunswick, Kristan has since gone on to win the OSM Standard Life Competition in 2010, was selected as a 2014 Young Artist of the Year by CBC Radio 2, and has numerous accolades to her name related to her work with her harp duo, Duo Novus. With soloist credits that include working with the Vancouver Symphony and l'Orchestre Francophonie, it's no surprise that Kristan is regarded as one of Canada's premier young harpists. Currently based in Toronto, we had the chance to speak to Kristan about her beginnings with the harp, the challenges that came with transitioning from the academic to the professional world, and her touring plans for 2017.
1. When and how did you first get involved with playing music?
When I was 8, I saw a harpist perform at my church in New Brunswick. My parents wanted me to learn an instrument, so when I was asked which instrument I wanted to learn, I said “the harp!” I think my parents were surprised by my answer, so a year later they asked again which instrument I wanted to play, and like it happened the day before, I replied “I already told you, the harp!” I began lessons later that year.
2. What do you remember most about your experience performing with the NYO in 2008 & 2009?
I have so many wonderful memories of NYO that I couldn’t possibly list them all! I loved the community and friendships that I built from NYO, and some of those people are still my closest friends today. I loved the excitement, drive and passion that everyone shared for music. Mahler symphonies were programmed both years and I have so many fond memories anytime I hear or play Mahler. I remember playing games with everyone on the bus, madrigal singing, and racing down a hallway with a double bass travel case as part of a scavenger hunt!
3. You have had the opportunity to study at McGill and Yale at the post-secondary level. What has the transition been like for you from student to full-time musician?
To be honest, it wasn’t a perfect transition. The first year out of school I had no idea what I was doing, nor how to move from the student scene to the professional scene. After a year out of school and doing a lengthy pros & cons list, I decided to move from Montreal to Toronto. Although I had no planned work, I had enough friends and connections in the city that could help get my foot in the door. It ended up being a good decision, as I’ve been able to work in and out of the city subbing with NACO, Windsor Symphony and Thunder Bay Symphony, among others. When I moved to the city, it was a little daunting, but I sat down and spent many hours working on my brand, my website, posting ads looking for students, writing emails and contacting every contractor, orchestra, harpist and friend I knew in the city. And that’s how it all started.
4. Along with being the first place winner of the OSM Standard Life Competition, what are some of the other things you’ve done on or offstage that you are most proud of?
One thing I’m really proud of is how Duo Novus, my harp duo, was able to organize a mini tour to the Netherlands on a budget of $0. I remember spending all fall grant writing and emailing organizations. It came together very last minute but we did it and won our first Canada Council grant, making the rest through fundraising. This led me to discover that you can really make anything happen. As Leonard Bernstein said “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
I’m grateful of the fact I am able to travel so much for my work. Performing in both chamber and orchestral settings, I’ve been able to travel across Canada, the USA, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. This season I’m scheduled to perform with the Jalisco Philharmonia in Mexico, and perform with the Beijing Symphony on their Canada-USA tour.
Off stage, I have a little hobby of photography. During my time at Yale, my photography developed and I gave headshots to many fellow musicians. I have since done over 100 photo sessions and now have my love of photography as a small business on the side.
5. Based on your experience, what are some valuable tips you can give future NYO members?
Don’t wait until people contact you first for work. Make the initiative! And don’t live waiting for that perfect job to come your way. Make the best of where you are now. Be content with what you are given in the moment and make realistic goals to help you get where you’d like to be.
Practicing is important but don’t spend all your time with your instrument. Learn how to present yourself well as an artist and network.
You can learn a lot from others, ask people for advice or help. Most of the time people are really happy to give advice and tell you all about their experiences!