For as long as she can remember, Carol Honigberg wanted to be a professional musician.
"I started the piano at 6. I just always loved to perform," she says, sitting a few feet from the Steinway grand piano in her Highland Park home.
Born in Chicago and raised in Oak Park, Honigberg got her Master of Music degree from Northwestern University. Her teachers have included legendary instructors Rudolph Ganz, Gui Mombeaerts and Marguerite Long. She traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe as a chamber musician and soloist, and continues to perform — despite a career-threatening injury last year. (After badly injuring a finger and being told she would never again play professionally, Honigberg defied that diagnosis.)
Today she expresses her passion for classical music in myriad ways, as a performer but also as a teacher and as artistic director of the Pilgrim Chamber Players, a nonprofit ensemble she founded that is celebrating its 16th season. The group presents five concerts each season, as well as outreach programs for the young and elderly in schools and senior living facilities. In 2009, Honigberg received the City of Highland Park Mayor's Award for the Arts. She teaches at the Music Institute of Chicago's Lake Forest campus. Honigberg and her husband, Joel, have four children and eight grandchildren. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Did you grow up around music?
A: My father (Dr. Abraham Schultz) really wanted to be a violinist, but it was the end of the Depression, and so he became a doctor instead. My parents went to the symphony and the Lyric until my father was about 88 or 89. He went until he couldn't anymore. They loved music, and it really was a part of our lives.
Q: What was the best advice your parents ever gave you?
A: One thing my father said was, "Never say 'can't.'" I was the oldest of three but the only one who became a musician. My father certainly was very encouraging.
Q: Do you still get nervous before a performance?
Q: Do you have a routine that you follow before a concert?
A: No, I don't. I wish I did. I performed in Europe for 10 years, and I played in Paris, Holland, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland. It was fun. Often I was alone. Sometimes my husband was with me. But it might be a little easier to perform now than it used to be.
Q: How musically inclined are your children?
A: My son Steven became a professional cellist, and he's in the National Symphony Orchestra (in Washington D.C.) — he (joined) at age 22, and he's done a lot of playing everywhere.
Q: How have things changed in the 16 years you've been running the Pilgrim Chamber Players?
A: When we started, we had a core group of musicians, and they gradually started to leave for various reasons. I decided that I loved putting together unusual combinations of instruments, (so now it's) looser and much more interesting for the audience. Also, at least one concert a year we have a living composer who comes to hear their work. We brought Allen Krantz this year. (The concert was March 17.) He came to hear his piece for guitar, violin and cello.
Q: You do outreach programs too?
A: We do an outreach for Highland Park schools for young kids from ages 3 to 6. They are wonderful audiences and so cute. We do two concerts a season for young kids and two for seniors. We really have loyal people who love to come.
Q&A can trimQ: Do you listen to pop music?
A: Yes and no. I like a lot of the songs when I first hear them, and after five minutes — that's enough. And it's also too loud.
Q: Who are your favorite composers?
A: I especially love the French composers (Claude) Debussy and (Maurice) Ravel. And always (Frederic) Chopin.
Q: Did you have a mentor?
A: I studied in Paris with Marguerite Long. She was very famous and in her late 80s when I studied with her. She was a fixture in Paris during her lifetime. Her husband died during World War I, and she was a widow and had this apartment from the '30s that hadn't been changed in 30 years. It was a wonderful experience. My husband took me to the first lesson, and after that he told me how to get there. So I drove myself, but I got a little lost driving around the city. The roads were so confusing, and I ended up coming in late. I told her what had happened and she told me to come with him from then on. And he did.
Q: Have you ever had a student students who wanted to quit and you didn't want them to?
A: Sometimes — because kids are so overprogrammed. One student, every afternoon it's something different — cello, ice skating — they don't stop. But I do feel that music lessons are fantastic for children. They learn how to organize themselves and work toward a goal. ... Sometimes a parent's dream is what they push on their children, versus the dream that is inside of the child.
If a child questions their practicing and they don't want to do it, then they will stop at some point. (To become a professional) they have to be really, truly dedicated. You have to dedicate your life. And if you are that dedicated, then music will never leave you. But it has to come from within. You can't really force it.
Q: Do you still find teaching rewarding?
A: I love to see the kids grow. In fact, I just went to a wedding of one of my students (Mary Vanhoozer, currently at the Cleveland Institute of Music). She met her husband in music school. She got her bachelor's degree in music and her master's and now a doctorate in piano performance, and that probably was the biggest thrill I think I've had. That was really special.
Carol Honigberg and the Pilgrim Chamber Players have concerts April 21 and May 19. For details, go to pilgrimplayers.org.
When Carol Honigberg isn't playing piano, she finds joy as a gardener. "I love to garden. I have a vegetable garden. It's so rewarding. Especially tomatoes and cucumbers, but I always try other things."