By Lauren R. Giannini
Professional musician, concert clarinetist, avant-garde performer, recording artist, chamber musician and college professor are some of the “hats” worn by Jean Kopperud in her unusual and eventful career. She has even played her clarinet while jumping out of airplanes and dangling from a parachute. She rode western until she was about 15 and got back in the saddle at 43. She did some eventing at the novice level. She hauls her horses to Boston so that eventer Adrienne Iorio can as Jean says, “very nicely but firmly can kick my butt.” She schools at third level in dressage with aspirations to achieve the FEI Level.
With all that, it’s hard to imagine Jean being afraid of anything, but one incident in particular changed the course of her academic focus and impacted her entire life. “I wanted to be a small animal vet – I had a scholarship, but when they started sending information about pigs and cows and there were almost no girls in vet school, I got scared,” Jean recounted. “I ended up changing my major to music and by my sophomore year I was on fire. Music is like riding: it’s really interesting and I was practicing for hours every day. I had a dream about going East for my junior year and I went to Julliard for graduate school. It was all very exciting once I was in school. I loved performing and I was totally hooked.”
Jean had taken piano lessons when she was very young, but she didn’t enjoy it. “At 10, they offered instruments at school and the band director wanted me to play flute – I said ‘no way – it is a girl’s instrument’ and I left,” she recalled. “The next day I went back and said I wanted to play clarinet. My parents weren’t happy, but I made a deal with them. They couldn’t ask me anything about my clarinet lessons and I didn’t tell them anything.”
Her virtuoso expertise, coupled with the fact that she was a marathon runner, garnered Jean her first performance art job: a 45-minute solo piece for a clarinet player who dances the entire time, entitled “Harlekin” by Stockhausen. “I was working as a musician, but I quit waiting tables, enrolled in dance class, worked with a choreographer and six months later I came out with this humongous piece,” Jean said. “Harlekin was totally new in the performance art area and it earned a lot of press. Harlekin is where I discovered myself. I got out of the box and followed a different path with a more theatrical bent to it.”
Jean stayed really busy for years. She earned her Master’s in Music at Julliard, studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and toured the world – literally – logging lots of air miles as concert soloist and chamber musician while playing in the U.S., Canada, Europe, China, Japan, the Caribbean and Australia. She parlayed her passion for skydiving into a music theatre work called “CloudWalking.”
She is respected as one of the most versatile and innovative clarinetists in the world and renowned for her virtuoso performances which are reviewed with adjectives like “superhuman” and “unforgettably visual” and “magnificent,” to name a few. She has an impressive curriculum vitae, to say the least, and you can experience Jean’s clarinet playing with the Thüringer Salonquintett on the “Live in America” CD and also on the Albany Records’ CD, “Extreme Measures” – for clarinet and piano, which features all of the works commissioned and written specifically for Jean.
Something happened, however, triggering a return to riding and purchasing a farm and just finding a better balance for herself in terms of life in general. The crisis came when Jean was 43, living in a high-rise in New York City, working seven days a week. “I started looking around – I had a lot of recordings, a bunch of concerts – and I thought, is this it? I enrolled in art school, but that didn’t work,” she recalled.
“I read an article about Peter Leone’s Lionshare Farm in Greenwich, Connecticut and I called up and asked for lessons. From that moment on I had found the solution. Six months later, I bought Snickers and my farm in North Salem, New York, which I kept for 10 years while I commuted to my New York City life. I have a full-time job, a concert career, four horses, and I do my own farm work. The horses are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jean’s life also encompasses her beloved animals. She has two show-quality dogs, Boxers. Her horses include her first ever, Snickers, now 25, and Hanno, now 11, the “packer” with whom Jean partnered to get her feet wet eventing. Baku is her eight-year-old Trakhener, doing First Level dressage.
“I bought a Danish Hanoverian, 10, showing Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire-I,” Jean said. “I’m hoping Avanti can teach me to teach Baku and Hanno.”
Jean has ridden with a number of seriously good equestrians, including eventer Darren Chiacchia and dressage trainer Elizabeth Niemi. Paula Cahill comes to her New York farm and Jean will ride Avanti in Florida with dressage trainer Marco Bernal. Every six to eight weeks she takes lessons with German dressage trainer Christian Garweg.
“I have known Jean more than 10 years and have been working with her off and on all that time,” said Elizabeth. “She is very fit. She can ride well. She’s a musician. She’s artsy. She wears cowboy boots and she’s a professor, knows how to deal with the public and with college students. She’s very nice. She isn’t your average dressage queen. She’s really into her dogs, her horses and her music.”
If only every mid-life crisis could turn out this well. Jean owns two farms, having bought one next to Wellington last year at the bottom of the market. “It was a great bargain and I had a sabbatical and moved to Florida for the winter with the dogs and horses,” she said. “It was an empty house and I furnished it. I built a barn and dressage arena. I was good to go. Even though I can only go there a couple of months every year, I have it. The realtor described it as a little spot of heaven. It’s gorgeous, perfect.”
Jean still plays the clarinet – very modern, very avant-garde music, what she considers “brand new stuff, wild stuff” and she teaches. “About seven years ago, University at Buffalo (SUNY) offered me a job I couldn’t refuse,” she said. “I’m a professor at UB and I still teach master classes at Julliard every spring. My farm in Clarence is near Buffalo. As a teacher, the thing I’m special at – and this is my love – I work with students who are performing. They’re engineers, dancers, basketball players and actors as well as musicians. I’m only into psychology as an amateur, but I have learned that if you run your life well, you get everything you want. Animals, music, farms – I have gotten everything I want.”