CapRadio Classical and Jazz is celebrating Women in Music all month long, including four spotlights on local musicians who have made an impact in our community.
You never know how music will enter your life or where it might take you. For some, it’s a preordained path set by circumstance. For others, it can show up in a seemingly random way.
In Deborah Pittman’s case, she was handed a clarinet by a band teacher, and that moment changed the entire trajectory of her life.
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Pittman made her way to California in 1981 to play clarinet and bass clarinet with the Sacramento Symphony. After a tenure of nearly 10 years, she landed a teaching job at Sacramento State — a position she’d hold for the next 22 years. Something of a polymath, Pittman is also a composer, a writer and a performance artist, in addition to having her own pottery studio located at the Brickhouse Gallery and Arts Complex in Oak Park.
Pittman recently spoke with CapRadio Classical Host Jennifer Reason to discuss the power of music, where it took her and the role her father played in helping her get there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On picking up the instrument
I was in a special, accelerated math and science program where I was supposed to do seventh, eighth and ninth-grade curriculum in two years. My parents were very excited about that. So, I had to go to a special school outside my neighborhood, and I got there and thought, “Oh, nobody looks like me. Nobody is talking to me”. I was a very, very shy, withdrawn child, and I was starting to turn more and more inward. I thought, “maybe I should run away. I don't know how I'm gonna go home and tell my parents this.” Then we go to seventh period, and it's music, and my teacher handed me a clarinet. By the time I got home, I didn't really care about that accelerated class; I didn't care about math and science. Literally, it was that fast. I knew five notes, and I thought, “This is going to be my life.”
On moving from Brooklyn to Sacramento
It's kind of interesting. I grew up always wanting to play on Broadway. I got to Broadway, and I found it to be a really intense place, especially for somebody who looks like me. I was playing in a revival of “Oklahoma,” and I was playing with some gentlemen, and I use that term very loosely, who I'd played with many times who never seemed to find me to be a threat. I can't even say some of the words that these guys said to me, it was unbelievably ugly. I reached the point where I found myself very ill one morning, and I went to the emergency room, and the physician said to me, “This is really bad. I don't know why you haven't come in sooner”. I said, “I didn't know I was sick. I just thought I hated my job.” So when the Sacramento Symphony opportunity came up, I was on a plane.
On her other artistic endeavors in Sacramento
When I left the Sacramento Symphony, I was very interested in exploring other modalities with my clarinet, so I started to write pieces for the stage and included classical instruments. The first piece that I created was a piece called Peter in the Hood. It was based on “Peter and the Wolf,” and the wolf was this really hip guy named Leon Lobos.
On the power of music and its role in communities
The arts heal. When I went to school in New York, the arts were a very, very big part of education. I've been in residence at many schools over the forty-plus years that I've been here, and these kids are starving for it.
On the influence of her family
My dad really hated that I played the clarinet. More importantly, he hated that I played “that” kind of music. I couldn't watch the Leonard Bernstein concerts on PBS, and I'd say, “Why?” He’d say, “that has nothing to do with us.” But he's supported me every step of the way. As long as I stayed in school and as long as I got degree after degree, he was there. I have this little story at the end of my father's piece. It's called “Earl Takes a Solo Bow,” and he came up on stage to give me flowers at the end of a concerto that I had played. Then, when I went off, and the stage manager directed us back on quickly, I turned around, and there was my dad following me back onto the stage, and he bowed with me.