With Heart In Tune: Music is Kristin Roach’s passion

These days, Kristin Roach’s main professional space is a stone chapel at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where she’s assistant organist and assistant music director. While the downtown church rebuilds its 1927 parish house, the chapel doubles as rehearsal hall, robing room and place to keep all things choir-related. Roach also has an office in a nearby building, but she’s most at home anywhere where there’s a piano.

The improvisational nature of the space — a rack of robes stands near the door, seats for the singers are scattered around — isn’t likely to bother her. For 15 years, until she joined the church staff last fall, Roach was a multitalented freelancer with a gift for multitasking.

Her résumé boasts an impressive array of titles: pianist, organist and harpsichordist, soloist and chamber ensemble member, chorus master, conductor, opera coach. Besides her participation with an array of San Antonio musical organizations, she has worked in Paris, San Francisco, Miami Beach, Tulsa, Aspen, Colo., and Buffalo, N.Y. “I love variety,” she says of her years of parttime or short-term jobs.

Growing up in San Antonio, Roach says, “I knew I wanted music to be my life as early as fourth or fifth grade.” She started with Mom and Me piano lessons, sang in the choir her mother led at MacArthur Park Lutheran Church, added the flute in elementary school and sang and played her way from MacArthur High School to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance.

A few years ago, she learned to play the organ and earned certification from the American Guild of Organists.”Nobody ever asked me to choose to be just one kind of musician,” she says.

Roach, a soprano as well as a keyboard player, remained involved with vocal music, building simultaneous careers in opera — as voice coach, accompanist and musical director — and choir accompanist and director. Freelancing in opera alone, she says, “could be almost full time.”

Asked if it’s true that people tend to love or hate opera, Roach laughs and says, “So do I! I love the music, the big voices, but if it’s bad, it’s really bad, and it goes on forever!”

At the time of this interview, Roach is settling into her San Antonio life again after several weeks in San Diego, where she was principal pianist and assistant conductor for a production of Samson and Delilah, starring world-class mezzosoprano Denyse Graves. Now she’s back home, where she’s director of three choirs, and her vocalists range from preschool through high-school age. From hobnobbing with professional opera singers on the international circuit, she’s back on the mommy track, doing pickups and drop-offs for her young sons, Kyle, age 4, and Karl, who’s almost 8.

While her sons were younger, she says, “I wanted to be a full-time mother as much as I could be.” As a freelance musician, she could get up when her children did, get them to school and preschool and come home and practice the piano. Now that Roach has a fulltime job, the morning pace is a little more hectic. “I’m working through some of my other commitments,” she says, including a longtime association as accompanist and backup conductor with the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio — whose calendar conflicts, unfortunately, with St. Mark’s.

As she completes some of the assignments she agreed to before starting at St. Mark’s, her work and home life will be more structured. Though she is grateful for the many extended family members who have helped her with child care, she says, “I’m hoping to be able to get to more soccer games, do more things at school.”

As a freelancer, Roach says, “You have to say “Yes’ when the phone rings.” For her, that has meant working with nearly every high-profile musical organization in and around San Antonio — the San Antonio Symphony, Lyric Opera of San Antonio, Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, Camerata San Antonio chamber ensemble and the Cactus Pear Music Festival. She also founded and produced a CD for the Trinity Jazz Project and coached the “Opera to Go” program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, while keeping her hand in with sacred music as organist at the Episcopal Church of Reconciliation. “People here appreciate my playing,” she says.

Disparate as these styles and venues seem to be, Roach sees plenty of connections among them. While talking to a colleague recently, she says, “We were observing that church and opera are not that different. You’re working with ancient hymns and 300-year-old music and trying to reinterpret them in a fresh, creative way that speaks to your audience. As a musician, you’re supporting the clergy or the cast. The experience (in both settings) should be very passionate, very emotional.”

Working with young people is not that much different from working with professional opera singers, she says. The latter “are cast for their voices,” she says,”and some may not have much formal musical education.” As a coach, she teaches technique, music history and notation — “the same skills I’m teaching here,” Roach says of her main charges, the elementary-age Boy and Girl Choir who lead worship weekly at one of St. Mark’s Sunday services. She also subs as conductor of the adult parish choir when filling in for St. Mark’s music director Edwin Rieke. “This job uses all my skills,” she says. “I get to sing with the choirs, do some coaching, play piano and organ, help a group work toward their goals and work one-on-one with singers.”

Even working with one of opera’s most acclaimed divas isn’t that different— sometimes. Graves, who sang at President Gerald Ford’s funeral, reported about a week late to the San Diego Samson and Delilah, so Roach didn’t get to know her well. Because of her stature in the opera world, “She was “Madame Graves’ most of the time,” says Roach. However, the superstar singer, based in Virginia, came with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter, who stayed for the five weeks of the production.

Graves and Roach once got into a backstage conversation about finding a good school — Graves was looking for a Montessori school for her daughter, while Roach’s sons stayed in San Antonio, where Kyle attends the Circle School and Karl goes to Serna Elementary. “She has the same concerns many of us have,” says Roach, “the need to be a good parent balanced with the need to lead a full, artistic life.”

While Roach has done much of her creative work with groups, large and small, her current challenge is to find time to complete the recording of her first solo piano CD, Come to the Waters, a classical conceptual album to include works with water themes by composers whose work spans centuries. “I should probably just set a date for a concert (to introduce the album),” she says, not entirely joking. “That would get me to finish it.” That might have to wait until after this summer, when Roach will accompany St. Mark’s Parish Choir to Bristol, England, for a week in residence at the Anglican cathedral there.

She enjoys passing on a love for music to others. “I meet so many adults who tell me, “I wish I had learned to play the piano,’ or “I wish I could sing,'” says Roach. “There is such a joy factor in being able to sing or play music.”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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