By Jill Girgulis
Interview completed in September 2020
Published in November 2020
Photo credit: Anna Longworth
For baroque violist Tavya McCoy, she has YouTube to thank for her first exposure to the sounds that would eventually shape her performance career.
“When I was in high school, because of where I lived in California, we didn’t get an opportunity to hear a lot of live orchestral music, so I was super into YouTube,” says McCoy. “I was listening to a lot of music all the time, and one day I just encountered this Italian baroque orchestra. I was super obsessed with that sound for quite some time, and it was my first real encounter with baroque music.”
Like many young string musicians, she began with the violin. “I started playing violin when I was 11, but my family could not afford lessons for me until I was 13 or 14 or so,” says McCoy. “So, I worked very hard with my teachers who were really generous — they gave me discounted rates for my lessons, and I took on jobs such as walking dogs to support my lessons.”
McCoy continued her lessons and eventually went on to participate in various music festivals throughout her high school summers. She started her post-secondary education at a small college in Utah in a violin performance program, but then transferred to Mill’s College in her junior year after being plagued with injuries from playing the violin. The transfer was partially motivated by her fear of potentially needing to make a career switch, should the injuries persist.
“I tried political science for maybe three days, and then decided that was terrible,” McCoy laughs. She then reasoned that she might as well attempt viola to see if it made any difference for her pain while playing. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great fit, and it was during her undergraduate degree that baroque viola came onto her radar once again.
“For a long time, I’d been interested in historical performance, but I never really got the opportunity to explore it until I went to the Baroque Performance Institute (Oberlin) one summer,” she says. “Before, I was scared to try to commit to historical performance, because I wasn’t really aware that it was actually a viable career path.”
After undergraduate studies, she entered a master’s degree program in viola at the University of Illinois. It was in the summer of 2019 that she began seriously contemplating the pursuit of historical performance full-time.
“By the end of my first year of my master’s degree, I had started feeling less connected to my sound as a modern player,” she explains. “I played some baroque trio sonatas with a friend of mine over the summer, and then I said, ‘I think this is what I want to do.’”
She decided she wanted to officially make the transition to historical performance with the commencement of the new school year in the fall of 2019.
“I didn’t totally quit modern viola at first, but basically I spent a lot more time focusing on baroque viola,” McCoy says, describing how she dedicated the past year of her master’s degree to this new objective, even though she wasn’t technically in a historical performance program. Now, one year later, the decision seems to have paid off.
“I’m much happier, and I feel less afraid of things. Previously, I was very much in a shell, and starting to think that I had to do things a certain way, but now, I have more resilience,” she says. “I feel more freedom to make decisions on my own, less constrained. The parameters seem to be much wider than what you can do on a modern instrument. I really enjoy being able to add my own ornamentation that hopefully makes sense, and if it doesn’t, then you try again next time, and it’s not such a big deal.”
The baroque orchestra at the University of Illinois consisted of five or so musicians at any given time, often including McCoy’s teacher, harpsichordist Charlotte Mattax-Moersch.
“Our teacher was really excellent, so even though some of the other students maybe hadn’t had a lot of baroque experience, she explained it all really well so that we actually created some coherent performances,” says McCoy. “Though it was small, I was grateful for the experience we were able to have, and we did put on some fun performances!”
Now that, as of May 2020, she has officially completed her master’s degree, McCoy has her sights set on and is currently applying for further schooling. This time around, she aims to attend a music conservatory overseas and properly focus on historical performance.
“Basically, my goal now is to get into one of two schools in Europe that I’m very interested in, in Germany and Switzerland,” McCoy says. “There’s so much information that I feel I would benefit from being in a conservatory environment. I want more experience, and also to connect with other people my age who are doing this.”
As for her plans for the immediate future, “I have an apprenticeship with the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado,” she says. Due to the pandemic, McCoy is starting with virtual lessons from some of the musicians, with the hopes of interacting and performing with the ensemble in person in the winter.
As well, McCoy is currently under the tutelage of Sarah Darling — with whom she connected with thanks to Mount Parnassus founder Catalina Guevara Klein. She’s very glad to have a mentor, as motivation for playing was difficult earlier in the summer, without any recitals or concerts to prepare for.
“I tend to always seek out a certain kind of teacher, one that’s not going to be very hard-lined and straight, so she does have that in common with my other teachers,” McCoy says of Darling. “She has a very smart approach to playing. She understands why she does things a certain way, and then explains that to me, which I prefer instead of when teachers just say to do something without any justification.”
Though still in the early months of working with Darling, McCoy is pleased with the learning experience thus far.
“I’m already seeing visible progress in my playing,” she says. “Recently, [Sarah] taught me to do these figure eight motions with my bow, a fencing sort of motion, and it’s surprisingly helpful for getting my bow arm prepared to play!”
It’s not uncommon for violists to occasionally cross over to the violin, but since this isn’t an option for McCoy, she is able to be creative with her performances.
“I’m kind of a weird baroque violist, because ideally, I would probably play violin as well, but thanks to my pain issues with the violin, I just play a lot of violin music on the baroque viola, and figure out how to make it work,” she says.
“So, I think I am capable of fulfilling a role that might be somewhat more virtuosic, even though it’s not typical. There are a lot of options in the baroque world — there are just so many ways to arrange parts, and make different pieces work however you like.”
In fact, there isn’t an aspect of historical performance that doesn’t appeal to McCoy.
“In baroque music, I kind of just love everything — I love solo playing, chamber music, and orchestral playing as well.”
Photo credit: Anna Longworth