At age 2, Kathryn Eberle practiced holding a pretend violin made out of a margarine box and a ruler, with dental floss for strings.
Her willingness to plant her tiny feet on footsteps outlined on the floor helped her learn correct stance, while she worked to raise the cardboard fiddle to perfect playing position. Her dedication to proper instrument positioning as a child was a harbinger of good things to come.
Her mother made sure Kathryn heard good music for many hours each day and took her daughter to her first violin lesson on her third birthday.
Eberle doesn't remember her first lesson, nor much else about learning to play the violin. Like eating, it's just something she has always done, nearly every day of her life.
This is the Suzuki way, the popular music instruction method pioneered by Japanese educator Shinichi Suzuki, who taught that music skills should be acquired like language: by hearing and imitating, very early in life.
Last year, at age 28, Kathryn Eberle replaced Gerald Elias, who held the post of Utah Symphony associate concertmaster since 1988. (Elias has gone on to national attention as a writer with a series of thrillers set in the music world.) Despite her youth, she brings more than a quarter-century of intensive music study to the position.
Changing of the musical guard • Finding a musician with the skill sets for both sides of the associate concertmaster job isn't easy, said Alexander Kerr, who was concertmaster for the Aspen Festival for several summers with Eberle as his associate concertmaster.
Kerr was a young concertmaster himself, at age 26, of Amsterdam's esteemed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He maintains a busy solo and chamber career and is now concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Utah Symphony concertmaster Ralph Matson said Eberle played brilliantly in her audition. "Kathryn took charge and presented herself as irresistible," Matson said. "She's a really wonderful person to work with, and I'm delighted that she's here."
Kerr said Eberle won't have problems exercising leadership in an orchestra filled with players who have decades of experience in the Utah Symphony.
"People are willing to listen to what she has to say. She knows the job, and people can see that as soon as they meet her," he said. "Being the associate is even trickier than being concertmaster, because you have to be good at both jobs one of those being a supportive role," Kerr said. "Kathryn's a fantastic violinist; that goes without saying. But she's also very flexible and incredibly likable."
Matson said he and Eberle come easily to consensus regarding musical decisions. He admires her confident playing and leadership abilities, her sense of humor and her ability to get along well with orchestra members.
"As associate concertmaster, I view it as my role to support Ralph any way I can," Eberle said. "Anything from turning the pages on time to supporting him from a sound standpoint and trying to emulate his body movements."
It's been a relatively smooth transition from Elias, who retired in 2011, to Eberle. "We had a very good situation with Jerry," Matson said, "and the idea is to fill every strength with strength. If you go through Kathryn's rÃ©sumÃ©, she has done really extraordinary things from her early teen years. She had had experience being a leader in very distinguished situations."
Besides excelling in her supporting role, Eberle performs as concertmaster when needed, including for many of the orchestra's pops and education concerts. She also sat as concertmaster for two Masterworks subscription concerts last season at the behest of music director Thierry Fischer, who is keen to give her such experiences.
"I was able to observe," Matson said. "She's a terrific concertmaster and a terrific leader."
Learning the craft • Eberle's violin lessons began at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music in her family's hometown of Nashville, Tenn. As she grew older, she spent after-school time there almost daily, taking lessons and learning music theory, ear-training and ensemble playing.
She says her life felt normal and ordinary, thanks to supportive parents who gathered their family for dinner each night and never missed her music recitals or her brother's sports activities.
Becoming a professional musician was a natural progression. "There was no one special moment, no turning point, no epiphany," said Emily Eberle of her daughter's path in life. "We kept putting one foot in front of the other, continuing with lessons."
When Eberle was a teenager, attending a summer music camp, she met acclaimed violin teacher Robert Lipsett, of Los Angeles' Colburn School. He asked the family to move to Los Angeles for Kathryn's music lessons, but they had a life in Nashville.
Instead, with the help of scholarships, mother and daughter flew to California for lessons with Lipsett every other weekend for the remainder of Kathryn's high-school years. (Utah's Will Hagen, a young violinist whose star is on the rise, also traveled regularly to study with Lipsett.)
Eberle won scholarships to the University of Southern California for undergraduate training and Colburn School for conservatory work. Next, she attended New York's Juilliard School, where she performed as concertmaster of the Juilliard Orchestra while earning a master's degree.
"Juilliard is able to bring in some of the best conductors from around the world to work with the orchestra," Eberle said. "It was a wonderful training ground to be exposed to all of these conductors and learn how to adjust as a concertmaster to each conducting style and rehearsal style. It's an experience that has been invaluable, especially here in Utah."
Eberle has soloed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Louisville Orchestra and others. She was a member of the St. Louis Symphony and has worked as a guest concertmaster with the Omaha and Richmond symphonies.
Expressing herself in Utah • Eberle said she is happy with her new life in Utah. She enjoyed playing on Salt Lake City's NOVA and Vivaldi Candlelight chamber series last season and looks forward to appearing on the Intermezzo series this week. And she's enthusiastic about continuing the ski lessons she started last winter.
Things have gone well with her day job, too. She credits her supportive family and good training, along with everyone in the Utah Symphony organization.
"It's really been a great fit, so far," she said. "This is an exciting time for the Utah Symphony. So much of the credit belongs to Maestro Fischer, for bringing his enthusiasm and passion and intensity to not only the orchestra, but also to the community." In addition, she praised Matson's support and musical example.
Mark and Emily Eberle got a big payoff for their devoted parenting last spring when Kathryn Eberle sat in the concertmaster chair as the Utah Symphony played Mahler's Symphony No. 4 under Fischer's baton.
Emily Eberle was pleased to hear people around her complimenting the young concertmaster. But seeing Kathryn do her job was even better.
The lovely Mahler symphony includes extended solo passages for the concertmaster, played on two violins (one tuned a whole step higher than usual). They were played beautifully. And the communication between Fischer and the orchestra was heightened through Eberle's body language.
"She leads a lot with the scroll of her violin, and the orchestra feels a stronger tempo I see that," Emily Eberle said. "And she's very expressive with her face, especially in that piece. Seeing that connection between orchestra and conductor made me feel very proud and grateful for all the time, energy and hard work she put in to get where she is."
'Appalachian Spring' in summertime
The Intermezzo Chamber Music Series presents its fourth concert of the 2012 season, featuring Utah Symphony musicians and others with Utah connections performing Schubert's Octet in F Major and Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite for 13 Instruments.
When • Monday, Aug. 6, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Westminster College's Vieve Gore Concert Hall, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $18; $15 for seniors; free to students with ID.
The Utah Symphony's 2012-13 season
Music Director Thierry Fischer will conduct 12 of the 18 Masterworks performances on the Utah Symphony's 2012-13 season, including a four-concert Mendelssohn symphony cycle and Tchaikovsky celebration.
First up, though, is a pops concert with guest vocalist and pianist Michael Cavanaugh in a musical tribute to Billy Joel, conducted by Jerry Steichen.
When • Sept. 7-8, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Season subscriptions are on sale now at 801-533-NOTE or http://www.utahsymphony.org; single ticket sales begin Aug. 14.