Kelly Gronli is a wonderful mom and a professional musician who has assiduously worked on her craft since she was ten – she’s also a superb music teacher and the newest Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter. See her remarkable story below.
I was privileged to first meet her four years ago – about one year after I retired. I played the oboe for three years in junior high, but gave it up because of the conflict with high school athletics. At the Marylhurst University Annual Dinner in 2012, I asked Dr. John Paul, Director of Music, if they had any adjunct faculty members who were oboe instructors.
Thus began my relationship with this extraordinary musician who is the Principal Oboe for the Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet Theatre and the Eugene Symphony and frequently plays in Oregon Symphony appearances.
Her musical talents first surfaced when she was three and asserted, “Mom, it’s about time we girls started playing the piano!” Those lessons started the musical journey that saw her Advanced Band instructor relent after he initially said, “No you didn’t!” Kelly showed him that she had, in fact, memorized the complete major and minor scales.
Kelly’s mom was her mentor and manager and found both the orchestras and bands in which Kelly played through junior high and high school. She started going to summer music camp at age 11 at the Sewanee Music Festival on the campus of University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee – her summer routine for five years.
I have learned in my lessons when Kelly hums or sings an excerpt in dulcet tones from a piece I am trying to learn, that she also has a strong and beautiful singing voice. Perhaps this was honed by her youthful roles in such productions as “The Music Man” when she was in grade school as illustrated below.
Her music instructors opened doors and she graduated from high school one year early so she could go to music conservatory at Harid Conservatory – at age 16. Tuition was by scholarship and the only cost was for housing.
She was the youngest of about 60 students of which about 80% were gifted foreign students. She lived on campus in Boca Raton, Florida, a distance from her home in Vienna, Virginia. (Harid is now a school of ballet.) She majored in Music Performance and during the summers she performed at embassies in the Washington DC area.
Next came graduate school in the Chicago area (Evanston) at Northwestern University where she worked on her Master’s Degree in Music:
“The woodwinds program of Northwestern University has a long and distinguished history – it combines the study of performance, pedagogy, music theory, music history, and scholarly research and writing.”
She achieved this goal in one year when she was just over twenty (while part-time waitressing) and her Master’s recital featured the challenging Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss (Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra). The video below is the First Movement in Saint Saen’s Oboe Sonata – one of the other pieces played in that recital. (You may have to turn your volume up slightly for this first video. The videos below are YouTube and you may have to left-click on the square to engage the video)
Another example of her ability to make beautiful music with the oboe is exemplified by one of my favorite hymns I asked her to play spontaneously at one of my lessons:
A weekend trip with a friend to the University of Wisconsin at Madison is where she first laid eyes on Patrick, the guy who would become her future spouse (now of twelve years).
While living in Evanston, she decided to audition for Second Oboe in the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra – a part-time position in which she competed with nineteen other people to win the chair.
I was curious about what constitutes an audition for such a position so I asked Kelly about the typical audition experience she labels as “expensive, stressful and difficult.”
“An audition is run in rounds. The first round or preliminary round is always blind or behind a curtain. Each candidate is assigned a number and everyone plays the same pieces usually comprised of a portion of a solo work (almost always the exposition of the Mozart oboe concerto, for an oboe audition) and a few excerpts from orchestral works.
People usually play for about 10 minutes. The audition committee will then make cuts and decide who they want to hear again. If there aren’t many candidates to begin with the second round could end up being the final round or the committee can decide to hear just a couple of candidates again. Sometimes candidates will be asked questions during the finals, usually inquiring about moving to a new city or something on their resume. An audition can last 1 day or a few days depending on the number of candidates.
Well, she was awarded the position and she and Patrick moved to Tacoma where Kelly also became the Principal Oboe in the Bellvue Philharmonic Orchestra. Waitressing duties at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant also were on the agenda and meant she was able to spend time around people besides musicians….
A move to Portland came next to balance the distance between Tacoma and Eugene after Kelly, in a competition with twenty-five people, became Principal Oboe in the Eugene Symphony. By that time she was giving oboe lessons to about fifteen adult and younger students. While in Portland, Kelly soon began to sub in the Oregon Ballet under Director and Conductor, Neil De Pointe.
Adding to her resume were some appearances as a sub in the Oregon Symphony under new Musical Director Karlos Calmar, playing the English Horn – another instrument in the Kelly Gronli arsenal……(You will hear her play it in two of the duets below.) She also became a good friend with Oregon Symphony Assistant Principal Oboe, Karen Wagner.
Meanwhile, Patrick graduated magna cum laude in Geography from Portland State University and the couple got married in 2004 – five years and one day after they met in Madison. He now works for Northwest Natural Gas Co.
Another successful audition and Kelly’s resume now included Principal Oboe for the Portland Opera in addition to continuing similar positions with the Eugene Symphony and the Oregon Ballet – while still teaching. In her “spare time” she was elected as a Director on the Executive Board of Musician’s Union Local 99.
In 2011, Kelly and Patrick welcomed their first child, Dane, who I know from my interactions with him during the last four years as a delightful and personable five-year old, who loves his new sister, Piper, their daughter who just turned one-year old in May.
It is a privilege to have an instructor, who is not only a gifted communicator, but also has such extensive experience ranging from playing under Director John Williams on multiple occasions, but has also appeared with such luminaries as the world’s pre-eminent violinist, Yitzhak Perlman (three times); cellist, Yo Yo Ma, Marvin Hamlisch in addition to playing in the orchestra during appearances by Roberta Flack, Ray Charles and Debbie Reynolds.
Another highlight was playing with Phish’s (Patrick’s favorite rock band) guitarist, composer and vocalist, Trey Anastasio, when he played at the Oregon Symphony. Patrick also plays the drums in his own band.
And while Kelly’s musical career has been noteworthy, balancing her part-time positions in different cities, motivating her students with continued admonitions – if I’m typical…… (“sit up straight, breathe from your diaphragm, look ahead at the notes in the music, fix your embouchure, sit up straight…..”) and being a good parent is a continuing balancing act.
Asked to identify her most stressful moments, she immediately offered two – Playing a concert with the Eugene Symphony while suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy. After the performance she burst into tears and went to the Emergency Room.
- Playing a concert in Eugene while she was nine-months pregnant because there was no back-up oboe in the Eugene Symphony at that time (the baby was delivered the next day).
The most traumatic occurrence dates back to Feburary 11, 2007 when she and two Eugene Symphony colleagues (Kjersten Oquist and Angela Svendsen) were commuting back to Portland late one Sunday evening after a rehearsal in Eugene. A woman, who was later convicted of manslaughter, DUI and assault, collided head-on with their vehicle near Albany after the woman drove the wrong direction in the northbound lane of I-5. Kelly’s two colleagues were both killed in the resulting collision. The driver received a sixteen-year prison sentence.
Kelly also is a craftsperson, of sorts, since she makes oboe reeds for her own use and that of her students. The oboe is one of the few woodwinds (besides the bassoon and the English horn) that employs a double reed.
This idiosyncratic mouthpiece “consists of two pieces of cane fastened together with an opening at the tip (which are) fastened to a metal tube, the lower half of which is normally surrounded by a piece of piece of cork.” (The tube is inserted into small opening at the top of the instrument.) Wikipedia
Oboe reeds are only 7 millimeters in width and very fragile and temperamental leading to the joke: “How may oboists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twenty, because they will have to try that many to find one that works for them.”
The “temperament” of the oboe reed and the very specific structure of the “embouchure” (the way in which a player holds the reed in his or her mouth) may be one reason why learning to play an oboe is so difficult and the sound emanating can range from “horrific to hand sculpted by an angel – with no middle ground whatsoever.”
While at times Thebeerchaser has reflected that trying to re-learn the oboe in retirement is a fool’s errand, it has been a worthwhile experience. After all, I met an inspirational instructor, friend and superb professional musician in Kelly Gronli.
The highlights were appearances in the last two years at the Pittock Mansion during the Christmas holidays, when at Kelly’s urging, four of us (Pianist, Faith Carter; Flutist, Sarah Rose and Kelly and I on oboe) played one of the two-hour gigs the Mansion offers to volunteer musicians while visitors are touring the impressive dwelling.
Before the first appearance in 2014, Kelly advised me that eating a banana would help with nerves. She was correct although I have to admit to supplementing that fruit with a shot of vodka before I left the house (I wanted a vegetable extract too…..)
To listen to one of the lighter numbers we played at the Pittock during our last practice session, click on the video below:
And finally, two short duets (oboe and English horn) with Kelly and one of her students………..whose motivation to re-learn the oboe has significantly increased his affinity to drink beer!
You will see and hear more from Kelly Gronli as she continues to teach and entertain classical musical fans throughout the Northwest in the coming years. Raise a mug to the newest Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter!