Meet the Musician: Assistant Principal Violist Elizabeth Oka

Where did you grow up? Did you come from a musical family?

I grew up in Monrovia, a suburb of Los Angeles. My mom is a piano teacher and she was definitely the driving force behind my involvement in music. Growing up on a peach farm in Missouri, she had always wanted to learn to play the violin but never had the opportunity to do so until college, by which point it was too late to pursue a professional performance career. She was determined to give my siblings and me the ability to do that if we so chose, so we all began Suzuki violin lessons at age three. As a child, I was not exactly thrilled about the idea of practicing, but I was fortunate to have a wonderful teacher, Margaret Shimizu, who set me up with a solid foundation and helped me develop good habits. My brothers still play their instruments casually, so when we're all home for the holidays we sometimes attempt to play chamber music. This usually ends in blood and tears.

When did you start playing viola?

I switched from violin to viola at age 13. I have to confess I made this change not for any profound artistic reasons or sense of a true calling, but rather to avoid studying with a certain violin teacher who was supposed to give me lessons that summer. I'm very glad I did end up switching, though; viola ended up suiting me in a way the violin never had.

Age 8, Halloween performance

What is your position in the orchestra?

I play a lot of offbeats! My actual title is Assistant Principal Viola.

Describe your auditioning experience with our orchestra?

When I auditioned in January, I woke up with a nasty cold my first day in D.C. I was devastated because I had prepared rather meticulously and had been feeling confident about things. The audition was a three-day process and by the day of the finals, I was so sick I ended up taking a nap in my warmup room instead of actually warming up. I guess the one upside to feeling so terrible was that I had no energy left to be anxious. I remember being very grateful for the small touches, including a designated "quiet zone" to relax backstage and bananas at the check-in table.

Where did you go to school?

I attended Tufts University for my undergrad degree, where I double majored in English literature and music. At the time, I wasn't sure a performance career was in my future and I wanted to keep my options open. In retrospect, I probably could have picked a more practical backup degree...

I went on to New England Conservatory for grad school with Martha Katz and then attended Indiana University for a performance diploma. After that, I was a fellow at the New World Symphony for two years.

What are you most looking forward to this season?

I'm looking forward to getting to know my colleagues better as we make music together. I'm also really excited to play Tosca!

What do you like to do when you are not playing viola? Any interesting hobbies?

I had a health scare a few years ago and have since become somewhat devout with regards to my health and fitness. I'm not great at committing to one activity, but depending on my mood I can be found running, biking, weight lifting, hiking, boxing, rock climbing, or doing yoga. Having a strong, functional, and balanced body is so important as a musician, especially when you're playing three-hour operas all the time.

Eating is very important to me, though I actually didn't know how to cook until about five years ago. During grad school, I lived in an efficiency apartment with no kitchen, so I had to make do with whatever I could conjure up using a minifridge and microwave. This caused me to develop quite an appreciation for cooking; these days I love to experiment in the kitchen and try new recipes.

I also love to travel; I've only recently had the means to do so, but in the past few years I've been fortunate enough to visit South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Austria, Colombia, the Bahamas, and Greece. Next year I'm planning a trip to Japan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Age 4, seems that my love of eating and music has always been a constant!

Who have been the most Important influences/mentors in your life?

I absolutely would not be here today if it weren't for the many teachers and mentors I've had along the way.

My teacher in undergrad, Lenny Matczynski, is the reason I fell in love with music. When I began studying with him, I was timid, insecure, and afraid to be myself (both musically and personally!). I thought that playing the viola meant being in tune, having a good sound, and not messing up. Needless to say, this did not make for a very fun or rewarding experience, and I didn't particularly enjoy music. During the course of our lessons, Lenny overturned a lot of my preconceived ideas and radically reshaped my approach to music. He was all about the big picture, and demonstrated how music could express deeply personal things, which was a revelation to me. The idea of saying something with your playing-- making a statement about who you are as a person-- is something that inspires me to this day. Classical music has all these necessary rules and constraints, but I have found great satisfaction in finding my own way to do things. I owe so much to him as a musician and a person!

Martha Katz is a wonderful musician whom I had always heard about and respected, so I felt truly lucky to study with her at NEC. She patiently worked with me on bringing colors, drama, and nuance to my playing. She had an extremely subtle way of teaching where I wouldn't even realize I was being taught-- I would often I would catch myself referring back to something she had mentioned in a lesson and having it finally "click." I am so appreciative of her wisdom and insight.

I'm also incredibly indebted to Ed Gazouleas, my teacher at IU. I first studied with him in Boston and in a few short lessons, he solved issues that had been plaguing me for years. When he accepted a faculty position at Indiana University, I realized that continuing to learn from him was more important than my lack of enthusiasm about living in the Midwest, so I picked up and moved to Bloomington, Indiana. It was without doubt one of the best choices I've made. I can't think of anyone more skilled at helping students take the next step in their playing. He is incredibly perceptive and insightful, and has this uncanny ability to pinpoint the precise problem while also keeping the big picture in mind. He gave me the tools to teach myself, and instilled in me a drive to continue improving, analyzing, and asking questions. There is always more to learn!

Visiting Santorini this past summer