Introducing Kathryn Steely!


What’s your name?

My name is Kathryn Steely – I sometimes go by my full name Kathryn Schmidt Steely.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in central Kansas and am the first professional musician in my music-loving family.

How did you come to the viola?

I admit – I didn’t start on the viola, but I got there as quickly as I could!  I started playing violin in third grade.  I remember walking to school one day and deciding, along with two of my friends, that we would play the violin in school, just to be different since all of our other friends wanted to play the flute.  I played violin from that point on, including playing in the youth orchestras for six years in Wichita,  about 30 minutes away.  I had another good friend who happened to play the viola and we would switch now and then to try out our solo pieces on the other’s instrument. She was fascinated by the quickness and higher, thinner sound of the violin and I absolutely loved the richness of the lower voice when playing her viola.  I always thought that the violin concertos I was playing sounded much better on viola!  I started taking lessons on viola once I started my undergrad degree and won a position with a regional orchestra on viola during my sophomore year.  That was pretty much it.  I loved being in the center of the harmony, conversing between upper and lower parts, and really enjoyed exploring sound from the middle as opposed to the top down. I sold my violin at that point and never looked back!

Are you a Juilliard student?  Were you?  Or do you now work as part of the studio?

I have never been a Juilliard student but have had a long relationship with Heidi Castleman.  I studied with Heidi at the Cleveland Institute of Music and was able to do a wonderful pedagogy independent study with her during that time, something that has shaped my teaching in profound ways ever since.  I am honored the ACHT studio has invited me to participate in the studio blog!  I keep myself busy as the viola professor at Baylor University and will become president of the American Viola Society in 2014.

Tell us about one of your favorite performances?

While a number of favorite performances come to mind, the all-time favorite occurred in a somewhat unusual situation.  It happened in the context of a faculty search for a collaborative piano faculty member. I was playing 2nd movement of Franck Sonata (on viola, of course…) and Clarke Morpheus along with one of the candidates.  We had just enough time to run the movements prior to the interview recital, and when we went on stage, everything clicked in a very special and surprising way, especially because we did not know each other at all. Even though this performance was for very few people, I have never been more “in the zone” or had better communication with a collaborative partner.  We both had utter and complete freedom of flexibility and nuance.  It was a truly beautiful musical conversation!

If you could perform any viola piece, what would it be?

I love chamber music and that is very much my focus at present.  Recently I have played a fair amount of flute, viola, harp repertoire and I would love to return to the Bax Elegaic Trio with my current group. I have not played late Beethoven quartets in a long time though and so that is on my to do list as well.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

I have been thinking about playing the Bach 2nd Partita.  The Chaconne in particular is such a profound and moving work and, since the instrument I am currently playing on has a shorter string length, playing this movement is now possible whereas with my previous instrument, my hand was just not large enough to accommodate some of those chords elegantly.  I suppose this is another case in which violin repertoire just sounds better to me on the viola!

Who made your viola and how did you get to be the one playing it?

I am currently playing on a viola made by Alan and Sarah Balmforth which I have had since 2009.  The instrument has sloping shoulders; making high positions easily accessible.  It also has relatively wide lower bouts and I have been really happy with the C string.  It has been fun to get to know this instrument over the past few years and I think we are growing well together as team.

You are forced by the United States Government to not practice for a day.  What do you do with yourself?

Maybe spend time reworking my herb garden layout?  Learn to make really good curry flavored ganache for chocolate truffles?


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