by Charles Cassady
This summer, a veritable symphony of runners competed in the Burning River Endurance Run and Relay, a 100-mile run for seasoned athletes in the Cuyahoga Valley. One participant originally hailed from Independence, but ventured about 3,900 miles from Paris, France, for the Ohio conquest. And did it in the midst of a thriving music career.
Winning in the female category and finishing eighth place overall was Alyssa Hoffert Walters, a 2008 graduate of Independence High School – and now a resident of the 12th Arrondissement in the French capital.
“Growing up, I never imagined living in a foreign country in my wildest dreams,” she said.
Walters earned a Bachelor of Science degree in music education from Case Western Reserve University in 2012, and then attended the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut.
“From as early as I can remember, I’ve always loved and been intrigued by every aspect of music,” she said. “My grandmother … was one of my first major influences as she harbored one of the greatest passions for music of anyone I’ve ever encountered. She would spend hours playing hymns on her electric organ every day and also sang in our local church choir.
“To her great joy, I finally began studying piano formally at age 8 and would continue my private studies into college, even after I became serious about studying the saxophone in high school.”
Walters credits retired Independence school music director Ken Gunlicks for his support, lessons and recruiting her into the school’s wind section. “He became one of my greatest mentors and inspirations for continuing to pursue being a professional musician and educator,” she said.
Recital halls and instruments did not discourage her interest in the outdoors and sports. “I played volleyball and ran track in middle and high school, but only got into distance running when I was at Hartt, where I ran my first half and then full marathon as part of the conservatory’s charity team,” said Walters.
“From then on, I was hooked. In addition to road and trail running, I’m also a dedicated climber. Just a 25-minute train ride from my [Paris] apartment is the famous Fontainebleau forest where bouldering – climbing without ropes – was first invented.”
Musically, Walters’ career also ascended. Besides piano, she tried clarinet, but “the first time I played a saxophone it was game over. It just made sense and felt so natural.” She won a slot as principal saxophonist with the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony at CWRU and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Her first trip to France was that ensemble’s 2008 summer European tour. Winning scholarships and prizes, she performed with the CIM orchestra and the Firelands Symphony.
“I also sang with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and competed with the Glassmen of Drum Corps International during the summer – the first time my two passions of high-level athletics and music converged,” said Walters.
Her post-graduate work included teaching music at Shaker Heights High School and Independence High.
“The trajectory of my life changed completely when I auditioned for and won a Frank Huntington Beebe Grant to further my studies of music abroad. I ultimately chose to study in Paris,” she said.
“Paris is the ultimate pilgrimage for any serious saxophonist, and luckily I had a network of other saxophonists who had done so beforehand to help me figure out all the logistics of living abroad, since I didn’t speak much French at the time.”
This September marks Walters’ seventh year in Paris, where she has held residencies and performed primarily chamber music. “I also enjoy performing with local chamber ensembles and currently teach saxophone and music theory,” she said.
Of course, there were a few distractions. The pandemic postponed live music performance for two years and pre-empted Walters’ marriage. In July 2021, after quarantine led to changes and delays, she wed businessman Jamie Walters, of Stoke-on-Trent, England.
“I met Jamie shortly after moving to Paris in 2016 through our amazing Paris-based expat running group, Let’s Run Paris, which we now both help organize and pace biweekly runs as well as regular events for,” Walters said.
If COVID had an upside for the couple, it was the extra time to concentrate on running, climbing and backpacking in Europe. “I’m especially motivated regarding ultra running, since it allows you to run in some of the world’s most stunningly beautiful yet challenging environments, including the famed 100-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in the Alps.”
She ran the 100-kilometer version of UTMB in 2019. (The course crosses three national boundaries: Switzerland, France and Italy). This December, Walters is scheduled to run the Valencia marathon in Spain. And, of course, there was the Burning River.
“It’s been wonderful in more recent years to connect with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park trail running community whenever I’m back in Cleveland,” she said. “They were the primary reason why I was encouraged to come back and run Burning River, besides the fact that the CVNP was the first place I started running. So it seemed only fitting that my first U.S. trail race and first-ever 100-mile race should be there.”
The physical activity, one might say, harmonizes with chamber-music saxophone.
“Fitness is certainly important as a musician, especially for wind players,” said Walters. “This is where music and athletics really converge. Knowing your body well enough to have complete control and be able to recognize, and then get rid of, any unnecessary tensions or bad habits while playing that can easily lead to overuse injuries.
“It’s something that every musician – just like athletes – must watch out for if they want to keep performing at a high level for years to come.” ∞