December 2009

Might As Well Jump

L.A. Philharmonic principal keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin takes it to the edge—and over


Joanne pearce martin, la philharmonic, skydiving, my l.a. Photo by Frank W. Ockenfels 3

Lake Elsinore looks like a grace note from 12,500 feet above the ground. In the tiny plane, a lone woman fights powerful gusts to jump to what, instinctively, seems like impending doom. But this solo isn’t being played out by a typical aeronautics pro. Just before hurtling toward the county of Riverside below, she gives the thumbs up and emits a battle cry: “L.A. Phiiiiilllll !”

Huh? “L.A. Phil” is a curious decrescendo for a skydiver who has logged more than 500 jumps in 13 years. But this isn’t just any skydiver: Joanne Pearce Martin is the principal keyboardist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If those pursuits aren’t daunting enough, the extraordinary piano, organ, celesta, harpsichord, synthesizer (and sometimes Mac) player has gone so far as to risk it all as a BASE jumper (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth—in other words, the fixed objects from which one can leap) and licensed pilot known to practice aerobatics at Lake Piru. (Figure eights, anyone?)

The chances of a skydiver incurring a head injury, dislocated shoulder, broken bone or even death (to the tune of about 60 per year) are actually not high, and BASE-jumping stats are largely undocumented because the death-defying sport is illegal in the U.S., with some exceptions. No matter, either can cut short a stellar musical career.

The dichotomy of Martin’s passions doesn’t faze her in the least. The Zen-like musician sits at an ebony Steinway in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert Hall, her fingers turning out a perfect Chopin E-flat nocturne, her bare feet gently coaxing the pedals. “Practicing for a concert can take six to eight hours daily, but that never poses a problem,” she says, eloquently transitioning from Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song” to Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag.”

Martin may indulge in daredevil pursuits, but her profession is always in mind. When a live performance looms, she hires someone to pack her parachute, since the work is hard on her hands. Other times, she packs it herself, and no, her hands are not insured. “It’s all about minimizing risk and living life,” she says. “Every time we leave the ground, there’s risk.”

Even as a kid growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she ascended high above others. Plunking out tunes like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” on the piano came naturally. Tagging along with dad in the family plane made her at home in the cockpit. Giving her first concerts at age 6, then winning the Philadelphia Orchestra student competition at 12 prepped her for the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she graduated in 1986.

With little downtime, Martin began performing with top orchestras and chamber ensembles worldwide, both as a soloist and at festivals. A break at the San Diego Mainly Mozart Festival served as a prelude to her first skydive in 1996, when she and L.A. Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour became restless between stints. “It was Martin’s idea,” she says with a laugh. “Eight musicians said they’d go— in the end, it was only us.”

The tandem jump widened her horizons. “I’d never experienced anything like it,” she recalls. “You have complete freedom from everything solid and familiar in life.”

Since then, Martin has convinced a half dozen other Philharmonic staffers to parachute with her, including former associate conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. “The sport is like collective music making,” she says. “It bonds you.”

But when she set her sights on BASE jumping, her coworkers politely declined. So in 2004, she took off solo for Angel Falls in Venezuela to dive off a 3,212-foot cliff. Since a BASE jumper starts at a lower altitude than a skydiver, it can result in less aerodynamic control, so it is inherently far more dangerous. “You see solid objects fly by at high speed,” she says. “Stepping off the cliff isn’t the scariest part. It’s the postage stamp–size landing.”

Exhilarated, Martin hit her target. “Being airborne is like performing live,” she says. “It’s a tightrope walk. I never know what’s going to happen. I might be inspired to turn a phrase differently or do an embellishment. You leave everything behind.” She plans to up her score by participating in Bridge Day, West Virginia’s once yearly jump, and if it becomes legal in Yosemite National Park, it’s on to El Capitan.

Now, when her performance schedule permits, she might grab her husband (also a jumper and pilot) and Ludo, their Jack Russell, and soar somewhere or—one of her proudest accom­plish­ments—take a 13-hour trip with her father from L.A. to Allentown.

But Martin is far from flighty. When grounded, she volunteers at Project Angel Food and recently recorded a solo CD entitled Barefoot. But it’s her eighth season at the Phil that truly makes her heart soar. “Music is my big passion,” she says. “It’s my life. Without it, I couldn’t breathe.”

Heidi Dvorak is a writer and editor whose work has appeared nationally. She plays the piano, and yes, her first leap from a plane was with—and at the urging of—Martin.