Ms. Erin Wight, our Juilliard Curriculum Specialist visited BSB Shunyi from 31st October to 2nd November and was interviewed by our Year 6 students Joy and Nick. Please see all the interesting questions and answers and get to know more about Erin!
Questions by Joy and Nick (Year 6 students)
Answers by Erin Wight
- Why did you choose to learn the viola?
I started to play the violin first when I was seven because I loved pandas at that time, and I saw a cartoon about a panda bear playing the violin. I thought that I should play the violin. I really liked to play the violin, but when I went to college they needed viola players because there weren’t enough so I started learning the viola. It is similar to the violin and when I played it more I found that it had a really special sound that is very different to the violin, it is mellow and deeper.
- What is the difference between a violin and a viola?
The violin and the viola have very much in common; like the way you play it and its shape, but the viola is a little bit bigger. The strings on the violin are E, A, D and G. The viola has three of the same strings but instead of the high E it has a special low one so it starts with A then D, G and C.
- At what age did you start learning the viola?
I started playing the viola a little bit when I was sixteen but I got serious about it when I was nineteen.
- What was your favourite part of studying at Juilliard?
My favourite part about it was being around so many other musicians that loved music as much as I did so I always wanted to play and learn the viola. The second thing I liked was going to New York City because there are so many different things that are interesting there.
- Can you briefly outline the ‘Juilliard Creative Classroom’.
The ‘Juilliard Creative Classroom’ is focused on core works, which are important pieces of music. There are activities for all ages of musicians to learn the core works so there are ways for kids in early years to learn something about a piece by Beethoven but then there are also activities for eighteen year olds to learn something about Beethoven. The idea is so we can all learn about these pieces of music by doing things like creating our own musical or making pieces that are inspired by their music or making decisions like the composers did or just listening really carefully and figuring out what jumps out to us in our imagination as we explore the music. The creative classroom can help students of all ages understand music in really important ways and be excited about it.
- Where do you mostly perform concerts?
Because I live in New York City I mostly play there and most of the time I play in small groups of musicians so I don’t usually play in full orchestras. I mostly play with five to ten musicians. I really love playing music that’s written by composers who are alive and compose music today. This way I can meet those composers and we can talk about their music and figure it out together. So I play a lot of contemporary classical music. Sometimes I do get to travel to and I’ve played all over the world. One of the special concerts was in Mongolia where we performed outside on sand dunes, and you could see camels in the distance. It was really amazing. Another place was in a hall in Switzerland because I played a really crazy piece that had a lot of electronics so my viola was hooked up to a computer. When I would play it would make the computer play all these other crazy sounds.
- Can you tell us about your proudest musical moment?
My proudest musical moment was when I was in college and I just decided to switch from violin to viola and they had a concerto competition where all the musicians would play all kinds of instruments. They would learn a concerto to show off their instrument and one person would be chosen to play with the orchestra and they were the concerto winner. I got into the final round of the competition and I thought that I might be good at the viola after all. I felt really proud that I made it that far and even though I didn’t win the competition, just getting into the finals made me feel that it was a good decision.
- How many hours do you play the viola each day?
Well, it depends on the day, actually. If I could practice as much as I wanted to in a day, I would say I like to practice at least 3 hours a day. If I had 5 hours that would be amazing, but I don’t think I could do that every day. But, because now as a grown up I’m doing lots of different things, some days I’m travelling, some days I’m taking care of my son, some days I’m teaching, Ijust have to squeeze in however much time I can get. So it might be an hour but if I have a free day it might be up to 5 hours. When I was in school our teachers at Juilliard told us we should be practising 5 hours a day.
- Do you only play the viola or do you play any other instruments?
I also sort of play the piano but I’m not very good (laugh) but I like to play the piano when I have a chance. I like to sit down, read through some Chopin, some Mozart, I just figure things out but I sound really bad so I wouldn’t want anyone to come an hear me play. Still, I think it’s fun so I like to do that. That’s probably it, violin, viola and piano.
- What hobbies do you have other than playing the viola?
I really like to go hiking. I like to be outside a lot. I like to cook and I especially like to bake things, cakes and stuff. I also like to read a lot if I have time, I could just sit there for hours. So being outside, and cooking and reading, and I like spending time with my family. Those are my favourite hobbies.
- Can you name your three favourite pieces of music
That’s a really hard question, it’s really hard for me to pick favourites as it depends a lot on what mood I’m in. There is a piece that’s a chamber piece. It’s for two violins, viola and two cellos. It’s a quintet, a cello quintet by Schubert, and most of the time no matter what type of mood I’m in I like to listen to that. There’s also a piano trio by Beethoven; it’s for piano, violin and cello. It’s one of the first big pieces of chamber music that I played as a violinist when I was young, I felt like I was playing this really important serious piece of chamber music. It’s called the Archduke piano trio. I can’t think of a third one. I guess my number three one would change depending on what day you ask me.
- What is your favourite type of music?
I have a couple, again I can’t pick favourites. I enjoy classical American folk music and I really like salsa because I like to salsa dance. But, I would say there are things that make me curious and excited about most kinds of music. Each style has a thing that is really special and I really enjoy trying to figure out what that special thing is, so it’s hard for me to pick favourites.
- Who are your favourite composers?
I’ll pick a couple that I really like right now, that I like listening to a lot. One composer that I’ve been listening to a lot is somebody who’s actually a friend of mine, but he is writing music for a lot of really big famous orchestras. He wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his name is Andrew Norman. I really enjoy his music. I’ve been practicing a piece that he wrote on the viola lately and I just really, really like playing that piece because I enjoy the way he writes.
Another composer that I really love is Brahms. I love all of his chamber music, string quartets and piano quintets. They’re just so, so beautiful. So Brahms is another favourite and I’ll pick a third if I can think of one. I’m going to say, for today, Debussy. When I first heard his music I felt like there were so many colours and kinds of sounds. It was so exciting, I didn’t know music could sound like that. Those are my classic composer choices.
- Can you tell us a little bit more about the Toomai String Quintets involvement in the community engagement program at Carnegie Hall?
The Toomai String Quintet is a chamber group that I started when I was in Juilliard with some friends of mine, two violins, viola, cello and bass. We really thought it was important that live music, people playing music right in front of you, was a chance for everyone to hear it no matter where they are from or what their background is. We were really excited when he had this opportunity from Carnegie Hall to join this program called ‘Musical Connections’ that sent musicians to unexpected places. We had a residency for a year where we would go to this hospital in New York City and we would play in different parts of the hospital every month so we might play for people who were just waiting for their doctor’s appointment. You know, normally waiting rooms are very unpleasant places to sit, so we would play there. Or if the hospital were just trying to help people understand how important it is to eat healthily and take care of your heart, we would play in the lobby and they would have a big event and we would talk to people. We also played in places that were quite challenging. We went to a maximum security prison, a penitentiary for people who were put in prison for their whole life. They started a music program there, teaching these men who were in prison to play instruments. and we did a concert with them. They wrote pieces for a quintet to play and we played their compositions for them and had a concert. Actually that was one of my favourite performances too, I should have listed that because it really felt like we were doing something special and meaningful for people who had a very difficult life. You know something very challenging happened to them and now they were trying to be better people and that’s part of what happens when you’re in prison for so long. People were trying to change who they were and when we did that I wanted to be part of helping. It felt very special. But we also play in places like libraries and we play in places like schools for kids so it’s not only serious places. It can be some very fun and pleasant places that don’t always have musicians to come and perform there. That was a very nice thing.
- If you weren’t a violist what job would you want?
If I weren’t a violist? Well, when I was in college I had a tough time deciding if I wanted to be a musician or if I wanted to be a doctor. So for a while I was taking a bunch of science classes and trying to practice violin all the time and I really, really loved science. I was really excited about those classes but the thing was I really wanted to practice my violin more than I wanted to practice chemistry. Whenever I had to choose I was like “Oh! I wanna go practice violin instead.” So that helped me decide that for the time being I would go into music and I am really happy doing that. But I still really love science and it would be very interesting to be a doctor. Also because being a doctor also involves people and it’s about helping people. The other thing that I think I would enjoy is to be a teacher, a classroom teacher. I would really love to be an early years teacher, that would be really wonderful. My sister is a teacher, my mum was a teacher and so was my grandma.