Becoming a Baroque Violist

Last year, AYO violist Katie Yap was a recipient of the prestigious Ernest V. Llewellyn Scholarship and has since had a very exciting year musically. With the scholarship funds Katie bought a baroque viola, specifically made smaller to assist her in playing to her full potential.

“It is a 15.5’’ instrument, which is as small as the maker could go. I asked specifically for this size, plus a neck that is thinner than usual, as my small frame requires me to play a little instrument.”

As Polish luthier, Jan Pawlikowski was making her instrument, he wanted to ensure the viola produced these loud and rich tones whilst keeping the viola compact. Back in 2018, having played the instrument for two weeks Katie says the viola already sounded mellow and complex – unusual in brand new instruments.

“I have confidence that it will develop into a beautiful caramel sound, which will complement my style of playing really well. As I progress in the early music world in Australia, having my own instrument will allow me to develop my own sound, and reach higher degrees of technical excellence.”

We chatted to Katie a year on from receiving her viola about the freedom of playing a baroque instrument of her own and the opportunities it has presented for her throughout the year.

“I’m a freelance violist, and I do about 50/50 modern and baroque viola. That means a lot of swapping between instruments! Before I had the great pleasure of owning my new, almost one-year-old viola, I was borrowing a friend’s instrument, or re-stringing my modern viola with gut strings. Neither of those situations are ideal – I knew I couldn’t hold onto my friend’s beautiful viola forever, and no string instrument likes to be restrung too often.”

“Between the baroque period and now, instruments have gone through some subtle but substantial changes – the angle of the neck to the body has changed to make higher tension possible for the strings, so the bridge and soundpost have changed accordingly, and of course, we now use metal strings instead of gut.”

“Owning a baroque viola has allowed me to switch between instruments without worrying about any of that, and it’s also allowed me to develop my own sound on an instrument that’s really mine, which is just wonderful! Everyone who’s heard it has commented on how lovely it is, which makes me feel like a proud parent!”

Katie expressed the past year of performance was “wild”, with musical engagements both in the freelance world with numerous Melbourne ensembles and playing her new baroque viola with Van Diemen’s Band, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra and her early music ensemble, The Muses’ Delight.

“I’ve been presenting my own concerts on my new baroque viola, playing with chamber music partners like Lucy Price, Dan Curro and Krista Low, all baroque cellists, and Shaun Lee-Chen, a baroque violinist."

“In July I was fortunate enough to go to Europe to take part in the Helicona International School of Improvisation, where I studied the art of baroque improvisation – and then I went to London to join the Academy of Ancient Music in recording a CD with them!”

Since the scholarship, Katie has been selected as a finalist for the Freedman Classical Fellowship, a nationwide competition for Australia’s best young classical musicians.

“The Freedman Fellowship final is the big thing that I’m working towards at the moment. I’ll be playing pieces that are very close to my heart.”

“The final is being held in Sydney on October 20, where I’ll be playing it out against two amazing colleagues, double bassists Rohan Dasika and Jonathan Heilbron. It’s going to be a concert of warm, fuzzy tones – especially because I’ll be playing my set on my baroque viola!”

Since purchasing the viola, Katie has been on a journey of improving her performance both technically and musically, getting to know the new sounds of the instrument and how it has affected her playing.

“It’s one thing to learn to play a new type of instrument, but totally different to learn to play one specific one. Each instrument is unique, and the beauty of a brand-new one is that it moulds to the sound of its own performer. So, the same instrument would sound slightly different if someone else was playing it in!”

“It’s to do with the way that the wood molecules respond to sound vibrations, and since everyone plays differently, those vibrations are unique to the player. I think that’s basically magic, and it forms a really strong bond between player and instrument. So I’ve been playing the viola in, but it’s also been playing me in – teaching me about how to create different sounds and how it speaks (or not! Gut strings can be very squeaky).”

Throughout her career as a musician, Katie has had many high points which have shaped her playing and success, taking her overseas and leading to discoveries of how music can create bonds and help those in need.

“I’d say I’ve got three high points, for different reasons.”

“The first one has got to be playing a chamber music tour across Australia with Van Diemen’s Band, an early music group led by baroque violinist Julia Fredersdorff. There were just the six of us, and the music making was effortless – despite being the youngest and least experienced member of the group, they floated me up to their level of musicianship with such a sense of camaraderie and mutual joy in music-making. It was like finding a musical family!”

“The second is playing with the Australian World Orchestra under Simon Rattle. I was having a difficult time figuring out what I wanted to do with music, and though I ended up deciding to take a more portfolio career-style path, it showed me what an incredible bond can be formed between orchestra and conductor, and how important trust is for truly sublime music making.”

“The last happened over the course of my time volunteering at immigration detention centres in Melbourne. I met a young man, an asylum seeker from Iran. He had been in detention for four years at that point, both offshore and onshore, and while we were taking our usual weekly jam session, he came over to me at my ‘violin station’. I would bring a couple of instruments to these sessions, and give a crash course on Hot Cross Buns or Mary Had a Little Lamb to anyone who was interested! He shouted over the racket of the jam session, “I want to learn the violin”, and he really meant it. So each week, I would come back and we’d have a lesson in a corner of the noisy room, and I saw what access to music, even in this less-than-ideal setting, did for someone with a desperate desire to find a purpose, to have a sense of progress in a place of seemingly endless monotony, and a means of wordless self-expression. We continued lessons for two years in detention, where he would practise four hours a day. Now that he’s out in the community with a more functional life, he still calls his violin ‘my girl’, and practises whenever he gets the chance.”

Applications are now open for the Ernest V. Llewellyn Scholarship for string players in 2020. Find out more.