Viola profile: Katie Heller

Posted on: February 26, 2021 in: Comment & Media>Player profiles

In our final Viola profile, Katie Heller tells us about how she became “hooked” on the viola, her most treasured memories at CLS – from touring and recordings with Richard Hickox to our recent Cathedrals Tour – and her passion for music education.

What inspired you to start playing the viola?

I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a violin student. After graduating, I was having a busy freelance career (including playing the violin in CLS), but I used to always listen to the viola line when I was playing and craved the depth of the low C-string. At the start of a string orchestra course in Aldeburgh one summer, Hugh Maguire (violinist) announced that they had booked one too many violinists and were short of a viola player. He asked for someone to “have a go” if Aldeburgh provided a viola. I found my hand in the air, and that was it – I was hooked.

Tell us about your time at CLS.

After auditioning for CLS on the violin, I was asked to replace someone at very short notice for a tour to Germany in 1985. I joined the Orchestra as a violinist quite soon after that, I think. I have lots of favourite CLS memories, old and new, but my very favourite was recording Britten’s Peter Grimes with Richard Hickox in 1995. Somehow the whole project was just magical and passionate, and I remember a huge amount of humour too. Also, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Hickox was another great collaborative project that brought huge joy.

I love the players in CLS and that is what makes the Orchestra so special for me. Everyone gets on and is supportive of one another throughout the organisation. I like the diversity of projects and programmes and there have been some great innovative ideas in the last few years. One of these is the Cathedrals Tour where we play chamber music, larger scale pieces and join with the local cathedral choir and choir leader to perform a specific piece. Hearing what each choir brings to the same music is fascinating and fun for the Orchestra to share in the creative process.

Katie, Joely and Katherine
Katie with Joely and Katherine in Comfortable Classical (photo: Suzi Corker)

I also really enjoy our string programmes, when the group is directed from the violin by Alexandra Wood. We are all encouraged to take responsibility and be completely involved and the results are fantastic. I love being part of a team, and being allowed to have a voice and Alex has a gift for allowing space for all of us. Playing the viola part in operas is just the best thing in the world (well, most of them!) so I have thoroughly enjoyed playing at Opera Holland Park for many years. In the education and outreach side, working with animateurs in schools is often fun and I have been involved in taking music into hospitals since CLS started it many years ago.

What else to you get up to?

Outside of CLS, I love playing in period instrument ensembles. I am a member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and very involved in their education department. I am lucky enough to have two old violas and bows and I love the sound and style we play with on gut strings.

I have always been fascinated to find the different learning styles of children, both in schoolwork and violin-playing, so quite a bit of my time has been spent exploring that over the years. I have studied the Montessori method, kindergarten music training, brain gym, and have taught the violin and coached the local youth orchestra for many years. I want to learn more about autism, so that I can help my talented violin pupil achieve her best. These days, I am learning new skills, having to teach via Zoom and being useless at technology! I also spend quite a bit of time arranging music for various things – some is for duets or string quartet, or whatever is needed. I do it all by hand! And any opportunity to play chamber music for fun or for concerts is always snapped up and I can’t wait for that to come back soon.

Aside from music, I always have an art project on the go as working with colour helps me feel whole and balanced. I have a press, which I use for printing and I love not quite knowing what will emerge. I am not a tidy artist! I had a few paper mâché projects on the go in March but am now making paper earrings and cards. I try to make all my own birthday cards, just for fun. 

Of the two things I am dreadful at, cooking and gardening, only the latter has seen any improvement since March. I do want to be able to grow courgettes and tomatoes again next year in my tiny garden, so I had better read up on what I am supposed to be doing with the garden now to prepare it.

Katie’s alternative ‘Nine Ladies Dancing’


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