Classical Viola or Die
Updated: Jul 2, 2018
The day I fell head over heels in love with the viola was one of the most important days of my life. I’d been an unsatisfied violinist since the age of five and can confidently say that I wouldn’t be a professional musician today if I hadn’t found my voice and soul in this beautiful instrument. I came to the party quite late – I didn’t make the discovery until the age of 22, and within months of making the switch I’d sat my 8thgrade AMEB exam and gained entry into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to study with Roger Benedict.
All I knew at the time was that I wanted to play this instrument that spoke so closely to my soul that it felt like an external reflection of my own voice. I didn’t think too much about the institutional pathway that lay ahead of me – entering a Conservatorium environment filled with expectations and requirements, following the trajectory of a ‘successful’ classical musician or else being seen as a failure. I just wanted to play the viola, and continue expressing my love for music. I subsequently suffered from huge performance anxiety and increased depression (that had already started as a teenager), and an overwhelming heartbreak that the only path as a violist I saw before me was one I didn’t want to take. What was lingering for me just over the horizon was a realisation that the journey as a musician is as personal as every other aspect of our lives, and I needed to stop looking for traditional routes to take and start finding my own.
I tried everything: I went overseas and worked with a string quartet on a cruise ship for a year and saw the world. I set up a thriving string teaching studio in Far North Queensland for three years. I acquired my teaching certificate and moved to New Zealand to try my hand at classroom music teaching. I took on a role as Head of Strings at a prestigious private school just outside of Brisbane. I loved teaching but felt constrained within the institutional mindset that only allowed creativity within a set of parameters, objectives and boxes waiting to be ticked.
I finally returned to my home town, Orange, NSW, exhausted after my itchy feet had eventually taken me to California, USA, on and off for two years to pursue a long distance relationship whose ending proved to be a blessing in disguise. I finally had had enough – of wasting time not doing what I truly love, and looking for my purpose in all the wrong places.
Taking up an interim role as Head of Strings at the Orange Regional Conservatorium, I began to experiment with my viola. I reached out to all the established contemporary musicians in Orange to find out what they were doing in their careers. I found passionate creative entrepreneurs eager to write music and perform it wherever they could. And most importantly, it was their own music, from the heart, and that could be whatever they wanted it to be. I was truly inspired. I had always looked up to classical-violinist-turned-indie-rocker Andrew Bird, so I started to learn some of his songs with a loop pedal. Learning this music I had loved for so long inspired me to start writing songs of my own about my time in California and the emotional turmoil I had been through in my travelling quest for love and purpose.
Three realisations have since made my solo project ‘Amy Viola’ gain momentum. Firstly: I’ve truly accepted my uniqueness as an individual and musician, outside of the institution I’ve attempted to conform to time and time again, and I actively seek out unique and unusual opportunities with my viola (my current project is a show tour of Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’ album, with viola improvisation and backing vocals). Secondly: technology is my best friend! My three-channel Boss RC-300 loop pedal not only allows me to perform complex, intricately layered pieces, but is the perfect songwriting companion. My Firewood Acoustic preamp allows me to equalise my sound so that the audience hears a rich, deep amplified viola sound. Lastly, instead of seeing my fellow musicians as critical, competitive colleagues bandying for limited work and opportunities, my perspective has shifted to see a wider enclave of passionate individuals who love to share and help as I take my first few steps writing and performing new, original and unique music.
From a greater perspective, I believe that the future of music is what we, the artists, decide to make of it, as it always has been. There is now more money being spent on consuming music than ever before, but in new and unusual ways. I’ve realised that it is the unique, authentic voice calling out over the general hum that will turn heads, and I’m excited to see some of my classical colleagues coming to the same understanding. I will be forever grateful for the world-class training and instruction I received as a student. I am also grateful that I’ve finally found the emotional space to step into my own musical persona, away from the rigid framework, and into the brave new creative world waiting to be crafted by those who have a passionate voice with something to say.
Amy is a musician, composer and educator living in Australia. Her new songwriting project ‘Amy Viola’ is a uniquely crafted, soulful and raw account of her life as a gypsy musician told amidst sweet vocals and looped layers of deep, rich viola.Find out more at www.amyviola.com