While many parents share a love of music with their children, it’s not as common for two generations to actively make music together — and it’s even rarer for them to have the opportunity to do so in a full-scale orchestra. But Steve Davis and his daughter Katharine had the chance last year when Katharine joined him at the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, making them the only current parent-child duo among the 60 musicians who perform there.
Both Steve, who plays viola, and Katharine, who plays violin, say that their music is simply a “hobby,” but they both still share a strong passion for performance, especially because it gives them the chance to be a part of something bigger, together.
“It’s always been part of that bigger experience, when you’re in an orchestra where it’s something that you can’t do without all the other musicians,” Steve Davis explained. “You can’t have that really exciting, impressive music without the other 50-60 musicians beside you all being coordinated and playing together.”
Steve Davis’ interest in stringed music started the day his preschool teacher brought a violin to the classroom and played it for her students. He remembered going home and announcing to his parents how much he liked violin, but he didn’t start taking lessons until he was in fourth grade. He studied both violin and piano, and he started performing in his high school orchestra when he was a freshman.
His interests changed, however, when his orchestra put out a call for viola players and he volunteered.
It’s a shared experience. Sometimes, you just look at the other person and raise an eyebrow at something the conductor said. You develop this shared bond over an experience that you both have.Steve Davis
“There’s always a shortage of violas,” Davis explained. “It’s just one of those in-between instruments that people often forget about, [even though] it’s critical to the functioning of an orchestra.”
Davis switched to viola during his junior year, discovering that he actually “kind of liked it” compared to the violin.
“Violin’s a little screechy sometimes,” he said with a teasing smile at his daughter. “It gets way up high. The viola’s got a more mellow sound, and I really enjoyed that.”
While Davis played violin for his senior year of high school, he decided to focus solely on viola afterwards. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College to study computer and spent his free time in the college’s orchestra — though he had to audition for the viola section on his violin, since he didn’t yet have an actual viola. While there, he met his wife, Viktoria, who played violin as well.
After relocating to Oregon for Viktoria’s graduate school, the Davis family moved back to the southern Minnesota area, settling in Madelia. Along the way, Steve reconnected with a former college roommate, who was playing with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra and invited him to audition for it, too. Steve joined the MSO in 1991 and has played violin with the orchestra for 21 consecutive seasons, only missing two concerts—one for the birth of his son, Karl, and the other for his kids’ dance performance.
While Steve insists that music is “just a hobby,” he’s also been involved with the Minnesota State University-Mankato Community Orchestra, the Mankato Youth Symphony and several chamber ensembles.
“It’s been a really fun time and a good hobby,” he said. “It’s not like my profession—it’s just something that I really enjoy doing.”
Given that Katharine Davis was attending her father’s MSO concerts since she was a baby, it wasn’t very surprising when she also expressed an interest in learning a musical instrument. Her parents gave her a child-sized violin when she was around two, mostly to get the feel of the instrument, since she was too young to really start lessons.
Katharine’s interest was further piqued around age five when the MSO began offering concerts aimed at little kids, such as the Family Concert Series. That’s when her parents decided to start her in violin lessons—though Steve Davis soon learned that it would be best if he wasn’t the teacher.
“Lessons with me did not really work,” he said ruefully. “It’s not a great situation trying to teach your own kid things because you get frustrated too easily. I think you know the kid too well in some ways. So we started her with the Mankato Suzuki School of Music when she was six.”
When Katharine was nine, she joined the Mankato Area Youth Symphony Orchestra’s younger ensemble, North Star Strings. She said she immediately fell in love with orchestral performance.
“I really, really enjoyed being in an orchestra and being part of a group and making all this music together,” she said.
A few years later, she moved up to the main Mankato Area Youth Symphony Orchestra, where she eventually served as both principal second violin and concertmaster. Along the way, she also became the youngest member of the MSU-Mankato Community Orchestra, joining her father there three years ago.
Katharine also spent several summers at the International Music Camp outside Boissevain, Manitoba, as well as other music-themed camps in the area. Steve Davis was also part of some of these camps, acting as an adult mentor for budding violists.
“All the camps were focused on orchestra and being a part of the whole group, and I’ve really, really enjoyed that,” Katharine said.
The Davis father-daughter pair had the chance to play together once more last year when the MSO announced open auditions. Katharine decided to audition, receiving a few pieces of music from the orchestra and selecting a solo piece as well.
“I walked in, and they asked me, ‘Can you play this part from this piece?’ so I did, and then another part from another piece, and then a little bit of my solo,” Katharine explained.
Katharine joined the MSO last fall, performing her first concert with her father in October. The orchestra has a surprisingly small number of in-person rehearsals—about four two-and-a-half hour segments per concert—with musicians expected to practice their parts on their own for the most part. Katharine said she practiced about an hour a day and was aided by the fact that her violin teacher, Mark Wamma, is also a member of the orchestra.
“Depending on the music, there’s definitely some practicing at home that should happen,” Steve agreed, adding, “but it doesn’t always happen as much as it should. We both have pretty busy lives outside of the orchestra.”
While Steve and Katharine didn’t actually sit near each other in the orchestra or interact one-on-one, they still both appreciated the bond of making music there together.
“I think it’s more the community,” Steve said. “It’s a shared experience. Sometimes, you just look at the other person and raise an eyebrow at something the conductor said. You develop this shared bond over an experience that you both have. You get inside jokes about whatever thing happened, when somebody accidentally dropped their instrument or whatever. There’s stuff like that that develops when you’re in a group together.”
Steve and Katharine were able to perform in two concerts together: “Celebrate Mankato, Past and Present” and the holiday-themed concert, “The Snowman.” In March, however, the orchestra was forced to end its season prematurely because of COVID-19, canceling all its upcoming concerts.
“It’s been a challenge this year, but it was cool to have the two concerts that Katharine and I could play together,” Steve said. “It was too bad that it was cut short, but it was fun. I think for both of us, music is something that we love doing, but it’s not a profession for us. It’s not something that we want to do more than just a hobby or a thing to experience that sense of community. We miss it because it’s not happening, but it’s not the end of the world. It just means that we need to work a little harder to get our instruments out and make sure that we’re actually keeping up our skills and practicing.”
While Katharine said she greatly enjoyed her time with the MSO, she can’t come back for the next season because she’s heading off to college. She graduated from Minnesota Connection Academy in May and has plans to attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts this fall. Her plan is to double major in dance and women’s studies, and she may also minor in music. No matter what, though, she wants to keep playing in some way or another.
“[I still want to play], not as a post-college career but in the college orchestra,” she said. “I really do enjoy it, so I’d love to continue doing it as a hobby.”
A Fun Fact About Katharine
While Katharine said she greatly enjoys playing the violin, her true passion is dance. She has been dancing as long as she has been playing music, and she has been a member of the Mankato Ballet Performing Company for five years. Last year, she danced the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“When she was younger, we weren’t sure which way it was going to go, whether she was going to be much more interested in the violin or more interested in the ballet,” Steve Davis recalled. “The last couple of years, the ballet won out, and that was definitely where she was more committed, with her practice and everything else. The violin is important, but the dance is the passion.”
However, Katharine said she doesn’t plan to pursue a dancing career after graduation.
“I really enjoy doing it, but the professional dance environment isn’t quite for me,” she said. “I don’t really know what I want to do once I graduate from college, but I have four years to figure it out.”
A Fun Fact About Steve
One of Steve Davis’ hobbies is making stringed instruments. He has made a violin and a five-string viola (pictured it the photo of Steve and Katharine together). He’s also currently working on another violin, while his son Karl is trying to convince him to make a cello.
A Family Activity
Every member of the Davis family plays an instrument—or several. Steve’s wife Viktoria plays both violin and trombone, though she tends to focus on the trombone, playing with the New Ulm Municipal Band. Meanwhile, son Karl plays cello. Sometimes, the four Davis family members join together for a string quartet.
“We have done a few little family quartets, which were fun, because we’ve got two violins, a viola and a cello, so it all fits together,” Steve Davis said.
The Mankato Symphony Orchestra
Founded in 1950, the Mankato Symphony Orchestra is a nonprofit organization focused on providing high-quality musical experiences and promoting musical education in South Central Minnesota. Almost 2,000 people have played in the orchestra throughout the years, ranging from full-time professionals to passionate amateurs, and nearly 12,000 people attend the orchestra or its outreach programs every year. Another 50,000 listen to its concerts on the radio.
For more information, visit https://www.mankatosymphony.org/.