Introducing Dr. Elizabeth Whitehead Chappell, String Music Education Specialist

What is your name?bioUNT

Elizabeth Whitehead Chappell

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, but I have spent every Summer of my life in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I consider both places “home.”

How are you connected to the UNT Viola Studio?

I am a Visiting Senior Lecturer of orchestra music education and Director of the String Project at UNT. I have many students who are in the UNT viola studio, and one of my housemates is Dr. Gerling! When I accepted the job at UNT, I needed a place to stay during the week (my family is in Austin, so I commute to Denton) and when Dr. Gerling’s house was mentioned, I committed without even meeting her in person because I knew that I would get along well with a viola professor.

Did you choose the viola, or did the viola choose you?

I started the violin at age 7 with the University of Texas String Project and played through high school. My freshman year at the University of Kansas I was a music therapy major with a nice violin scholarship. About mid-way through the year I found myself talking to the viola professor and I think that he offered me to try out a viola for fun. I can’t remember how the viola came to be in my hands exactly, but I do remember the pure exaltation of playing it for the first time. I don’t think that it took more than a week to find a viola, switch my scholarship and start playing viola in orchestra. By pure luck (or fate) I found my viola at a local used music store filled with junky guitars and drum sets. It was a beautiful instrument that I played until just a few years ago. I don’t know how it ended up in that music store, but it was part of the whole “meant to be” story.

Tell us about your viola! Who made it? How did you come to play this instrument? Does it have a name?

I’ll warn you, this is a tear jerker story. My best friend, Amy Farris, who I met in high school All-Region Orchestra (25+ years ago) purchased an incredible Anne Cole viola with the inheritance that her very special grandmother had left her. The “Dove” was her most prized possession and she played it on her solo album “Anyway,” as well as on many others, including those of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys and Exene of X. A few years later, Amy became very ill. When she felt that her time was coming to an end, she told me that she was leaving me the Dove in her will. She told me it made her happy to think about how much I would enjoy playing it. I was so honored, but it was a gift I would have rather not have received, if you know what I mean.

To say that that the Dove is a magical instrument would be an understatement. It is classified as a 15 inch viola, but it is really wide and makes a 16″+ sound. Anne Cole names all of her instruments, they each have a theme. Mine is the “Dove”. There is a dove carved at the base of the scroll, the tuning pegs have little dots of real turquoise at the ends, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” lyrics (NAACP theme song) are written in calligraphy in the interior of the instrument. This song speaks to me because my passion as an educator is to create opportunities for all students, regardless of economic status or race, to play in orchestra (viola preferably!) 🙂

Who is your favorite violist? (To listen to or as a mentor)

I have two, Clara Gainer and Celeste Chappell, my daughters who are 19 and 14. My favorite bass player is my 11 year old son Finn. I know, sappy, but that’s what motherhood can do to you.

Do you come from a musical family?

My dad’s mother played the piano by ear and was a fabulous performer, but my immediate family was not musical. I am an only child and both of my parents were visual artists. My cousins (from my mother’s side) who I am pretty close to, are musical. When we get together we play old time fiddle music, Bob Wills, and sometimes some Irish tunes. We have guitars, an accordion, fiddles, and an African Kora. One of those cousins is a luthier in Western Massachusetts (shirleywhiteviolins.com). Of course I mentioned before that my children are string players, so my husband Chris (who is a visual artist) is the only odd man out in my current immediate family.

What are your career goals?

I am living my career goals right now. Training a new crop of orchestra teachers every year and working with the string project students is my idea of the perfect job!

What made you want to pursue music as a career rather than as a hobby?

When I was a teenager I thought that I wanted to be a marine biologist. One Summer I worked in a lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. It was fun and interesting, but I found myself wishing that I was playing music instead. It was a constant feeling I had so I started bringing my violin to practice during my breaks. That Summer made me realize that music was my path.

If you could take a lesson from any person, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?

I guess I’d have to say Shinichi Suzuki. I mean, come on, of course Suzuki! Really though, I would have liked to have observed him teach to see the things he focused on, and the approach he would take to make improvements. I’m afraid I would miss something if I was taking the lesson with him.

Who has been the most influential musician in your life?

I have two. Bill Dick and Laurie Scott from Austin, Texas. Bill Dick was my middle school orchestra director and my high school violin teacher. I admire his ability to individualize instruction for his students and it was lessons with him that inspired me to make a career in music. Laurie Scott was my supervising professor for my doctoral dissertation. Any students that study with Laurie improve at least ten-fold because she sets up a multitude of successful experiences within each lesson, and leads students to play more musically which is, of course, why we are all here. She lives and breathes the ideal of “every child can.”  Incidentally, Bill and Laurie are close friends and co-authors of “Mastery for Strings” and “Learning Together”.

What is your favorite memory, thus far, of being a musician?

My favorite musical memories are from the podium. I love making music myself, but I -really- love teaching others to make music. The first thing that comes to mind is a scene from my last middle school concert that I conducted. I had about 150 students ranging from 6th to 8th grade (with anywhere from a few months to a few years of playing experience). I was standing in the middle, leading this unpredictable group in “Stand By Me” by Ben King. We had slap bass and violin solos and violists who wanted to play the violin solo so they were playing in third position… it really could have gone pretty wrong. Instead it came together better than ever, and the musicians, audience, and conductor shared a very special musical moment.

Do you have any skills or hidden talents your fellow studio members wouldn’t know about?

I love to sew and I’m pretty good at it. I have made several wedding/bridesmaid dresses as a seamstress for hire, I worked for a tailoring shop in college, and I have at least 4 sewing machines set up in my sewing room right now!

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