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Khelsey Zarraga takes part in a variety of work: she is a freelancing violinist, teacher, music administrator, and an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Khelsey made her way to Indiana where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Violin Performance from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Outside of her busy work life, Khelsey enjoys baking, and describes herself as “an expert Netflix binger and napper.” She also enjoys travel, noting that her first job out of graduate school took her around the world. Khelsey worked on a cruise ship, playing as part of a string quartet with whom she traveled to Australia, Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, and throughout the United States and Mexico. “You have no idea what your life could be like; have an open mind. Don’t shut things down just because you’re not sure if it’s for you.”

KhelseySideviewKhelsey commits time to being a CMPI mentor, joining a program that she first heard of through her work with the Fifth House Ensemble, a chamber music group she performed with and contributed to as their community partnership manager. When she was first auditioning and interviewing for the position at Fifth House, she wasn’t sure if she was the right person. Her passion for equity in the arts and her experience in the field made her a great candidate and won her the position, where she was asked to reach out to James Hall, the CMPI Project Director, to form a partnership.

On CMPI, she says, “This program is so great, I wish I had this!” Khelsey shares that she was lucky to have a great teacher growing up, but she knows that it would have been even better if she had been able to come up with a lot of people that looked like her, especially before going into college. Khelsey says that she has learned so much through CMPI already, and notes, “I really just believe in the mission.”

KhelseyDComposedMentorship has always had a big impact on Khelsey’s life. She says that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the mentorship of her teachers throughout her music study. Mark Kaplan and Stephen Wyrczynski taught Khelsey during her time in Indiana. She says that Kaplan’s teaching philosophy was without ego. “No matter who you were, his sole goal was to make everyone the best musician they could be. He gave me the freedom to not be too hard on myself as a musician.” About Wyrczynski, she notes that she was endlessly encouraged, as an individual, and as a Black and Latinx student at Jacobs. “He pulled me aside and said that we should play chamber music together. It blew my mind because he was a big deal!” Khelsey notes the impact he had on her passions concerning DEI, and her own personal identity. “I could talk to him about my experiences as a Black person. I didn’t always embrace that part of me that wanted to make changes in the classical field. Through talking with Steve, this nugget that was always inside of me has grown and grown.”

D-Composed KhelseyTriois a Black chamber music collective that Khelsey is a violinist and member of. She shares that her work with the collective reflects her interests in DEI work as well. “Until I joined D-Composed and started working with them, I had never seen an audience filled with melanated faces.The music is so curated to the Black experience. Black people deserve to be seen in the classical music space. Period.”

Khelsey emphasizes a simple message, “Give yourself some grace.” When asked what advice she would have for her younger self she says, “Don’t limit yourself. Everyone has their own path, and you don’t know your path yet, but it will be the perfect path for you! There are limitless possibilities for you.” Kindness is also a theme in her approach. She says, “Especially when doing new things, you need to be kind to yourself. Training in music helped me with that. When you’re practicing you can’t help but be hard on yourself because you’re trying to be PERFECT. I needed someone to say that it’s okay that you’re not perfect.”

To close, Khelsey humbly shares a last sweet message, “I just want people to know that it is okay. It is okay to struggle, to not be perfect all the time, and to give yourself some grace. Always come back to that. I wish someone would have said that to me. You’re going to be hard on yourself, but make some space for grace.”


Credits to Sulyiman Stokes for three performance photos; credit to Eric Snoza for headshot

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