Ask a former student of Karla Epperson what they loved about their conductor, and they’ll tell you how special she made them feel. Ask Epperson what she’s loved most, and she’ll tell you it’s the kids. The longtime South Sound music educator has conducted the two youngest Tacoma Youth Symphony orchestras for the last 20 years, and Saturday will see her final concert with the organization.
Everyone will miss her.
“The woman is a treasure,” says Spencer Hutchins, a former board member and president for the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association. “The TYSA will feel her loss. She’s given her life to music education, and her heart and soul to the kids.”
Hutchins would know. Now 31 and owner of Keller Williams Realty in Gig Harbor, he played violin as a middle schooler in the Tacoma String Philharmonia, the more advanced of the two string orchestras coached by Epperson. Like many of her young charges, he progressed to the upper ensembles, but she stayed in his life as piano accompanist, then friend, then professional colleague.
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“Karla is one of the most engaging teachers I ever had,” Hutchins says. “She made us feel like she really cared, like we were doing something great. That gave us a love of music and of playing in ensemble together.”
In rehearsal, Epperson is unflappable, coaching finer musical points while joking with students and handing out Red Vines as bribes.
“I want them to learn, but I want it to be fun,” Epperson says.
Having grown up in Aberdeen, Epperson studied cello at the University of Puget Sound before a career in music education that included teaching choir, strings and orchestra at Olympia High School, starting a strings program in the Bethel School District, teaching music education at UPS and finally her youth symphony stint, which included directing the beginner summer camp and overseeing auditions for dozens of students.
She still conducts the Peninsula Youth Symphony, accompanies students on piano, plays organ at local churches and cello gigs with her trio — all of which she’ll continue after she retires. But she’s also looking forward to more time to travel with her husband, Gordon, especially the road trips they love to do — plus gardening and crossword puzzles.
“I just felt it was time,” she says about the decision.
But while Epperson praises the supportive symphony staff and parents, as well as their collaboration with local teachers and school districts, the thing she’ll miss most about conducting is the kids.
“These kids are so excited to be there,” she says. “They give me hugs, they hide the Red Vines, silly things like that. I’ll miss seeing their wonderful faces every Saturday.”
Epperson has no children of her own. Instead, she has hundreds like Hutchins, who come back to visit rehearsals or invite her to weddings.
“I always tell them they belong to me,” she says, smiling.
Karla Epperson farewell
Who: Tacoma String Symphony and Tacoma String Philharmonia, directed by Karla Epperson.
When: 1 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Urban Grace Church, 902 S. Market St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $10 floor, $21 balcony. Reception to follow.
Information: 253-627-2792, tysamusic.org.