100 Creatives 2014: John Cramer, Freelance Violinist and Concertmaster at Opera in the Heights

By Maha Ahmed

Fri., Sep. 19 2014

When John Cramer was 6 years old, he hated the violin. He wanted to play the piano, but his family only owned an old violin that his father played long ago, so he bore with it and followed in his father’s footsteps. His mom also sang in a choir, leaving the Cramer household with everything but a shortage of musicality.

Eventually, once Cramer started playing in a string quartet during high school, music became a lens through which he started seeing the world. “We would get together after school and just play. Most teenagers would want to go to the mall or go play sports. For me and for my friends, we were just music nerds. Fun for us was to go to the music stores and buy sheet music or going to the record store to pick up an album. We’d go home and we’d listen to it and we’d want to play the music. It was really about being able to make music. That was, for me, what was always very exciting.”

When he translated his passion for music into a career, he initially tried to make it as a freelance musician, taking gigs every time they were offered to him. But with a young family to provide for, he realized this wasn’t viable and that he needed a day job. “For me to be a freelance musician now means that I’ve given myself the freedom where I don’t have to focus on my violin playing for my survival. I have another job that pays the bills. So that allows me the best of both worlds–I’m able to play music, the music that I enjoy and not the music that I have to do, and it’s more on my terms.”

It’s this understanding of the financial struggles that young artists face that makes Cramer so adamant about appreciating and supporting the local arts scene. “If someone is doing a cello recital or a violin recital, I definitely want to go. If someone is doing a reading of a novel that they’ve published or a book of poetry, an art exhibition of their work, for me that still is important to support, especially with the local artists. Because it’s a tough, tough business.”

Photo courtesy of Opera in the Heights

What He Does: “I am a freelance musician. I’ve been a professional musician for over 40 years. And so I’ve been with Opera in the Heights for 5 years, where I’m the concertmaster. So I’m a violinist in other venues in Houston, with other performing arts organizations or churches, concerts, recitals. And of course I’m also a recording artist, so I have this one CD and then I’ll be doing some more recording work later in the year. So I keep musically active on a number of fronts, but primarily as a performer.”

Also, as concertmaster of the Opera in the Heights orchestra, Cramer is responsible for determining the bowing for string instruments, tuning the whole orchestra, playing violin solos, and generally leading his colleagues.

Why He Likes It: “That’s how I breathe. Music is my breath, it’s my passion. It’s how I relate to the world. Music allows me to be aware of the moment. So it keeps my head away from thinking about the future or the past, it keeps me present.”

What Inspires Him: “I always think, ‘What can I do in my role to help bring this music alive?’ and ‘What can I control so that the audience can have the best experience possible?’ Because for some of these audience members, it’s their very first opera. It never ceases to amaze me. I’ll talk to people because I’m right there by the first row, there will be these young kids from high school going to their very first opera, dressed up like they’re going to the prom, and they have no idea what it is. And to see the look on their faces as they’re experiencing this for the first time, for me it’s very exciting and I feed off of that energy. It makes me want to do the best that I can do so that people can come away with a good experience.

“I also travel extensively, so being exposed to foreign cultures and other ways of life allows me to appreciate how much we’re really all the same even though we have such a diversity of cultures and languages and customs and foods. So when I travel, I have this curiosity and interest in seeing how people approach life and how they interact with their environment, and I use that as a real point of inspiration that I try to express musically.”

If Not This, Then What: “I do have a whole other career, I work for a health system as my ‘day job,’ if you will. And even though I’m not a doctor, I work in a large hospital system. So, I guess, if I couldn’t be a musician, I would want to be a doctor or healer. I would probably do something in alternative medicine because I love studying plants and herbal medicines. I’ve studied aromatherapy, I’ve worked with essential oils but I would be doing something related to the healing arts or energy healing. I would just love that to be another area where I had to spend time focusing time, learning skills and acquiring knowledge.”

Photo courtesy of John Cramer

If Not Here, Then Where: “If I weren’t living in Houston, I would want to be some place in the desert. The desert climate. Some of my favorite places in the world are, because I’ve had the fortune to travel extensively. I loved Southeast Asia–Singapore and Thailand, or I also love the Middle East, even though that’s crazy because it’s just so politically insane. I would say though that Sedona is one of my favorite places in Arizona. If I had to place anywhere else specifically in Texas, it would probably be the Hill Country–Austin or around the Austin area.”

But for Cramer, Houston’s brimming arts scene draws him to his home. “I love Houston. There are other places in the world that are geographically more awesome, but what I love about Houston is the people. They’re extremely down-to-earth, and I feel at home in Houston. What’s so exciting about these parts, the best-kept secret and what most people do not realize, is how much artistically is happening and the creativity that exists here. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.”

What’s Next: “Next, I’m working on Rigoletto. I have a new album, called “Somniferious: Part II,” coming out in December, and with Opera in the Heights what I’m really excited about is the last opera of this season–Carmen–my daughter, Julia Cramer who sings opera in Germany will be singing the role of Micaëla in the Opera in the Heights production, so for me it’s a real treat that my daughter can be singing on stage and I’m on the pit. So as a dad, that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

See full article HERE.