Music career began in local honors band

Kelly Zimba, principal flutist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, remembers well her involvement in the Pittsburgh Diocesan Instrumental Music Program.

As a student at St. Louise de Marillac School in Upper St. Clair, she earned a spot on the South District honors band.

Zimba said, “This was my only chance to play with the full complement of band instruments and was my main motivation to continue playing the flute.”

She recently reached out to Sister Serafina Viagrande, who has headed the Diocesan Instrumental Music Program for many years, to thank her for the work that has meant so much to students and continues to influence budding musicians.

“My Catholic grade school band was quite small at the time I was in it,” Zimba told Sister Serafina, “and I would have quit playing if it weren’t for the honors band. It was something that I truly looked forward to every year.”

Zimba, a former flute fellow with the New World Symphony in Florida, has performed with the Pittsburgh and Detroit symphony orchestras, and was a two-time fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. She holds bachelor’s degrees in flute performance and music education from the University of Michigan, and completed graduate studies at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

Zimba, 28, frequently returns to Pittsburgh to visit family, and performed a concert Dec. 22 with Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, principal harpist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, another Pittsburgh native, at First Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

Her parents, Dave and Patty Zimba, belong to St. Louise de Marillac Parish; her brother, Ryan, is a student at the University of Pittsburgh who attends Mass at the Newman Center and St. Louise; and another brother, Matt, is a member of St. Bernard Parish in Mount Lebanon.

Her mother, who introduced her to the flute at age 4, also played flute in the honors band when she was in the eighth grade, probably about 1975, Kelly said.

“She attended Nativity Catholic School, where my grandfather (Francis Heilmann) taught band in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before teaching elementary orchestra until 1990 in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District,” Kelly said.

She decided as a high school junior to pursue a career in music. “Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive; I knew that I was a little fish in a big pond and that the music world was unbelievably competitive.”

Kelly had gotten a taste of that competitiveness on her first diocesan honors band, when she was seated 16th out of 16 flutes.

“I was oblivious to the concept of chair ranking until the end of the first rehearsal when I realized I was last,” she said. “This did not really matter to me as I was just so excited to be playing in a full ensemble for the first time.”

The efforts by Sister Serafina to recognize musical excellence among students made a huge impact on Kelly and motivated her to strive even further.

“Sister Serafina has done an incredible job keeping instrumental music in the Catholic schools,” she said.