Just before my seventh birthday a man called Rudolph Sabor came to my elementary school in Kent, England recruiting students to start a brand new program in my area. It was the beginning of a Suzuki experiment and the lessons would be free. Mr. Sabor came to the school, talked about the violin and then gave some simple coordination and pitch tests to the assembly. Those who passed were given free lessons.
After a few years in the Suzuki program I auditioned for a Saturday music school in London called Trinity College of Music, Junior Department. I loved this school and enjoyed every minute of our classes. I was taking piano, violin and viola lessons, orchestra, choir, extemporization and improvisation classes, and we were writing our own compositions each week. A broad beginning which has served me well.
At 18 I entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. This was an exceptionally challenging environment with a terrifically high level of performance and study. After a year of taking lessons in everything, I decided to focus just on the viola. Without doubt one of the best music schools in England, we had great professors (including my viola teacher, Ian Jewel), facilities, location and tradition all wrapped into one. It was an amazing experience and one I feel lucky to have had.
Three years later – one year away from finishing my undergraduate diploma at the school I went to a summer program in Switzerland and met Paul Coletti. He was generous enough to offer me a place in his studio at the Peabody Institute in Maryland and I was thrilled and excited to see a new country and study with such a great player. The Royal Academy was extremely supportive and even paid for my plane ticket to the US! They told me to see how it goes and let them know if I wanted to stay. I had never even flown before so this was the adventure of my life at that point!
I settled into life in Baltimore and enjoyed the atmosphere and class at Peabody – making some life long friends. After a year or so I became Paul’s teaching assistant and that experience prepared me well for my first teaching position. I have a great fondness for Peabody and truly grew in both my playing and as a person during my time there. After I completed one year of the Graduate Performance Diploma, the RAM surprisingly gave me my undergrad degree with a First Hons. I decided to stay on at Peabody – ultimately ending up in the Artist Dilpoma program –a very prestigious program that was hard to get into.
Whilst a student in the Artist Diploma program I interviewed for the position at the University of Washington and was invited to join the faculty. My husband and I moved to Washington State and began our seven year relationship with the Northwest. That time was as important to me as any time in college – I learnt a tremendous amount from my colleagues and really grew into the player I am today. The pure experience of playing concerts and teaching great students dramatically affected who I was and who I wanted to be. At the UW I made my first ever CD ‘Portrait of the Viola’ with my student viola, hosted the 2002 International Viola Congress and also joined The Bridge Ensemble, a piano quartet. We toured Russia and gave lots of concerts and also recorded a work written for us by Giya Kancheli for ECM New Series in Germany. It was also here in Seattle that I met the wonderful collector David Fulton who loaned me several amazing violas to play including a small Joseph Guadagnini and a large Amati that was stunning.
In 2003 Michael and I moved to Santa Barbara to start my new position at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Right at the same time I was elected president of the American Viola Society and bought a new house! Since moving here I have made two more recordings ‘Walton’ and ‘ Prokofiev’ and a couple more this summer (2010) among other exciting things. Santa Barbara is a stunningly beautiful place to live and we are about 1 minute from the beach. We love the community here and the sheer beauty of nature all around us and it never gets too hot or too cold! My studio continues to absorb me and I love teaching and working with my talented students. Campus isn’t a hard place to go to work when we are situated right on the peninsula and moments from the ocean.
Helen currently lives in Santa Barbara with her husband Michael (also a violist) and their two Burmese cats and a black Pug.