22 April 2022

"It's always important to have mentors" - musician spotlight with violist Stephen Upshaw

By Lark Music

Having first picked up the viola at the age of 10, Atlanta native Stephen Upshaw made his concerto debut aged 17 and has gone on to win competitions and play in festivals all around the world. He’s performed at Boston’s Jordan Hall, London’s Barbican and Wigmore Halls, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, among others, and is a member of Riot Ensemble and The Solem Quartet. Here, he discusses finding inspiration, the power of a music teacher and the silver linings of the pandemic.

What musician inspires you the most?

There are too many to list! I’ve had many wonderful teachers in my life. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, home of Marilyn Seelman, violist and pedagogue extraordinaire, and she completely changed the course of my musical life – seeing a future brighter and bigger than I had ever envisioned for myself.

I then went on to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where Carol Rodland taught me all about co-ordination, tension-free playing and musical abandon. Martha Katz guided me in the great art of playing chamber music and how to search for the perfect and most creative sound at any given moment. And Katarina Miljkovic opened my ears to (and sparked my passion for) the vast array of music written since 1950.

I then finished my studies in London with the great David Takeno, whose irrepressible enthusiasm for music and unbelievable work ethic continue to be an inspiration to this day.

Is there a story about how you acquired your instrument(s)?

I was very fortunate to be selected by the Stradivari Trust to become one of their supported artists. With their help, I was able to secure my early 18th Century English viola. This beautiful instrument still excites, challenges and inspires me as much today as when I first played it nearly ten years ago!

How did you learn to play your instrument(s)?

The moment came when, aged 10, I decided to play the viola in my school orchestra. It became clear immediately that I had found the medium and instrument that sparked my imagination. Unusually, I never played the violin or indeed any other instrument before the viola – my first read notes of music were in the dreaded alto clef! It seemed that everyone else wanted to play the violin, and my lanky limbs and desire to be different made the sultry viola a natural choice.

“I love learning from artists in other disciplines whose work I admire.”

What was the first music poster that you bought and what made you choose it?

The first poster I remember buying wasn’t actually music related at all – it was from the farewell tour of the great Merce Cunningham Dance Company at their final show at the Barbican. I’ve always been hugely inspired by the spirit of creativity that sprung up in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century – John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs. They were all great artists in their own right but were also fascinated by what was going in in other fields. This curiosity is something that also forms a large part of my work and I love learning from artists in other disciplines whose work I admire.

How did Covid-19 impact you? Were there any positive opportunities or any particular difficulties you faced?

Of course, the pandemic was a huge challenge to all musicians – suddenly having all our work cancelled was a huge blow. Fortunately, as my musical life mostly involves chamber music, I was able to rehearse with my colleagues as soon as restrictions allowed. Having the extra time to reflect and concentrate on long dreamt projects yielded some exciting developments – the main project being our debut Solem Quartet album, “The Four Quarters”. This disc really gave us a chance to project a vision of who we are as a group and what we value, and I doubt we would have had the time to commit to it during a normal busy concert season.

What is the best tip you would give to someone aspiring to be a musician?

Technical and musical excellence is always the most important grounding and should be an understood baseline. After that, think about why you want to make music. Who is your audience? Who do you want to tell these stories to? How can you communicate your passion and conviction about what you play to someone else who may have never heard your instrument or style of music before?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Seek out people you admire and would like to collaborate with and have a conversation about your mutual interests – it’s always important to have mentors. The music industry can seem cut-throat from the outside but the more we cultivate sharing experiences and advice between colleagues and generations of musicians, the better!

Want to find out more about Stephen or connect?

Facebook: @stephen.upshaw
Instagram: @stephenupshaw
Twitter: @stephenupshaw
LinkedIn: Stephen Upshaw

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