World-class cellist changes tempo to teach Idaho kids

HAILEY — Ellen Sanders has performed with Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Smokey Robinson and Dionne Warwick. Today, she primarily performs for kids in the Wood River Valley and she couldn’t be happier.

The world-class cellist is teaching for the first time, hired in July by the Blaine County School District. The job change came with major life changes for the 49-year-old California native.

“I’m still in the middle of my career as a cellist, but I knew I should be teaching future musicians,” said, Sanders, living by her new hastag — #LivinInAPostcard.

Sanders used to wake up before dawn, in time to tackle her methodical, hour-long commute over the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Now she wakes to the pristine views of the Sawtooth Mountain Range, a calming hike on the Greenhorn Gulch trails, followed by a 12-minute commute to school.

“I now have a life without traffic,” she said. “I’m ready for mountains, rivers and trees.”

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The performer

Sanders grew up as a child of two amateur flute musicians. They met while playing a duet.

She played Beethoven’s First Symphony at age 12. At that moment, she knew music also would be her career.

“I still get the chills playing Beethoven,” Sanders said.

Her primary language is music — words become sounds, colors become feelings and arms become instruments. When she plays her cello, those abstract ideas make sense. The easiest way to understand is to listen, she says.

After graduating from Oberlin College and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sanders traveled the world to perform. Israel, Greece, Japan, Croatia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. She has played with some of the best musicians in the world:

Opera San Jose, San Francisco Opera, Sun Valley Summer Symphony, Napa Valley Symphony and Silicon Valley Symphony  

She was principal cello of Santa Cruz Symphony, assistant principal cello of Opera San Jose and a regular member of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. She also performed frequently with the San Francisco Opera.Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 1.49.47 PM

“I’m no superstar,” Sanders said. “I was not a natural talent. I worked very hard to learn the instrument.”

Moving to Hailey is a homecoming for Sanders. She has spent the last 25 summers playing with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and she’s been a faculty member of the  Summer Music Workshop since 1998.

“Ellen is a world-class musician and has always been a favorite teacher with our students,” said Jenny Krueger, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony executive director.

She’s still performing. She is on a seven-city tour with a pianist and three guitarist. She plans to wrap up her prior commitments then focus on the performances of her students.

“I am going to miss playing in big orchestras,” Sanders said.

The teacher

Sanders isn’t new to teaching, though this is her first attempt at a career in teaching. She coached students for 25 years and taught for 10 years in the San Francisco Symphony’s Education Department, making weekly visits to middle and high school music classes to coach cello sections and chamber music groups.

“I get to plant the music seed for students and many will keep it for their entire life,” Sanders said.

Sanders heard about the Blaine Schools teaching job while working in Sun Valley over the summer. She immediately applied and was hired. She divides her time between teaching for the Blaine County School District and the Sun Valley symphony’s year-round School of Music.

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“She may not have a teaching certificate, but she has an incredible teaching philosophy,” said Rebecca Martin, the orchestra director at Wood River High School.

Sanders teaches orchestra at Wood River High School part of her day and middle school honor orchestra program and elementary strings through the Sun Valley School of Music the other half.

“I’m living through the philharmonia orchestra from my youth symphony glory day, because I schedule program music that I loved in middle school,” Sanders said.

Her biggest challenge as an educator is to get students to take on their own learning and gain confidence in their abilities.

“I need to be a resource for students, but I can’t be the reason why they want to do something,” she said.

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Andrew Reed

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