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Cellist Bonnie Hampton on 7 Decades at SFCM

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Ahead of a special Chamber Music Tuesday performance on December 7th, Bonnie Hampton shares her unique history, her biggest advice for new musicians, and what she believes sets SFCM apart.

December 3, 2021 by Mark Taylor

By Mark Taylor

Since the 1950s pianist, cellist, and instructor Bonnie Hampton has seen the San Francisco Conservatory of Music grow from a minor school of music on a quiet street, to become a major powerhouse in music education in the heart of the city’s Civic Center. 

Born in Berkeley, CA Hampton was drawn to the cello at the young age of four and soon fell in love with classical music, specifically chamber music. Her career has taken her to perform in places like Asia and Europe, but she loves her West Coast home. The SFCM newsroom sits down with her as she takes us through her life in music. 

Tell us about your introduction to music?

My mother was an amateur musician, she was a violinist and part of a quartet, and they would sometimes do performances and at weddings and things like that. I remember going to concerts at a young age, music was just a very active part of my life.

There was a piano in the house and a cello in the corner of the room and I got curious about it. As a 4-year-old I remember playing with the instruments, and the next thing I knew, I was having lessons. I think at that time it was encouraged for kids to start on the piano, I was about 8 when I started the cello and then that took over. I remember in my teens taking lessons and going to so many concerts. I soon was invited to start playing with quartets like the Griller Quarter, and then fell in love with chamber music.

I caught the ‘Chamber music bug’ very early and knew that is what I wanted to do. I remember as a 17-year-old, I got invited to play a recital in Sacramento and I remember I wrote back, as only a 17-year-old would do, “Oh I only play chamber music now!” I was very much bitten. 

I got invited as a young person to perform with many groups in the 30s and 40s. It was a very rich musical life growing up here in California. I had many opportunities to play as I grew up and traveled all over the world. I am like a homing pigeon though, I can travel, but I always come back to California. 

How has SFCM changed since you started in the 1950s?

I’ve been teaching here at the conservatory for various patches of time since I started, but overall there has been a great deal of positive change. It was a rather small building on Sacramento street when I started, but there was a wonderful spirit that we had about the school. The two women who started the school (Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead) were still there, and there was quite a lot of music making and it was an exciting time to get involved.

So much as happened and changed with the conservatory but there was always a feeling or a sense that we were creating something new. We are not entrenched here. I am very optimistic about the future of the conservatory because that sense has continued today. That’s sort of the mission we have here. As we enter this next era of music, we still have that feeling of doing something for the first time. We are becoming more international and as we grow the quality of the musicians and the music we make is only going up. 

How do you prepare for performances?

I practice and prepare way ahead of time. Some of the best musicians I know start to prepare a year in advance, when an orchestra performance is first scheduled! I tell students to work on a piece, then let it rest, work again, and let it rest. Be consistent and play well. 

Learning the notes to a piece is one thing, but to absorb the music and have it inside you is quite another. It’s like reading, you can’t learn how to live from reading a book, you have to live it through experience. It takes time. 

When teaching, what do you hope to pass onto your students? 

I want to give students the skills to succeed as a musician, it’s one thing to play well, but it’s another to succeed. Music is an art form, but it’s also a business. You are creating music that you want someone else to pay you for. If you want to do this you have to provide something worth listening to. 

Also, as a teacher, your job is not to make a copy of yourself, but to help students create their own communication of music. Young musicians are still figuring out what kind of musician they want to be and that needs to be encouraged. I want students to find their own voice and their own way of making music, that is very important. 

Any advice for young musicians? 

As a musician it’s important to keep an excitement and enthusiasm about what one is doing.  There are times that it is very hard to be a musician but if you hang onto that excitement, it is very rewarding. 

You also have to present yourself professionally and seriously during auditions, even if they do not pick you, they will remember that you played well, and if you didn’t play well! I remember I had a very talented student who took three or four auditions before getting a spot with an orchestra, but he never gave up, and eventually he was hired because they remembered that he played well. 

In all seriousness learning to play an instrument well is hard, we all have work no matter how talented we are. I have worked hard but I have always loved what I am doing. Now that I am in my 80s, I look back and I feel so lucky to have had the musical life that I’ve had. Yes, there have been disappointments, but I feel so fortunate. 

For today’s young musicians, you don’t know what opportunities are going to present themselves, so I think it’s important to get out there and take every experience possible, I certainly did in my 20s. 

When approaching music, figure out what the music is saying and what you want to say. Your first task is to play well. 

Hear Bonnie Hampton perform in a new SFCM Chamber Music Tuesday featuring the Telegraph Quartet on December 7th. This performance is for SFCM ID holders and invited guests, but all are invited to watch the livestream at 7:30pm.

Learn more about studying cello at SFCM.