In this weeks edition of our Alumni Spotlight, we had the pleasure of reconnecting with violinist and 2008 NYO concertmaster Amy Hillis. Hailing from from Saskatchewan, Amy has since gone on to study at the San Francisco Conservatory and is now completing her doctorate at McGill. Along with her studies, she has also exposed chamber music to many young Canadians through her work with the Horizon String Quartet. While also working as an in-demand chamber musician in Montreal, we had the chance to speak to Amy about her NYO touring memories and some of the highlights of her career to date.
1. When and how did you first get involved with playing music?
I have my parents to thank for introducing me to music from a young age. They started taking me to violin lessons when I was five years old and gave me my own tiny violin. At the time, I was probably most excited to show off my "open string" tunes to my younger sisters but I am forever grateful for this early opportunity to recognize the joy in making music. I also remember attending symphony concerts with my mom as a young girl. I loved watching the orchestra play, including seeing the double bassists' energy, the trumpets' confidence and the concertmaster's leadership. This awe for the orchestra has inspired me to play with orchestras throughout my career so far.
After two summers of staying in Delaware Hall in London, Ontario and two tours with NYO to Ontario, Quebec and the United States, I feel like I have two lifetimes-worth of memories from my time with the orchestra. The friends I have met at NYO are still some of my dearest friends today, even if we've only had a chance to reunite in person a few times over the past ten years. I will always remember our beach volleyball games, late night Harry Potter-reading sessions, watching Roger Federer win Wimbledon, and of course the gatherings in residence and on tour to cheer on the Saskatchewan Roughriders. One of the musical experiences I will always treasure was the opportunity to work with Sir Andrew Davies. As concertmaster leading Beethoven's 5th Symphony, I remember being extremely nervous before our first (and only) rehearsal with the esteemed Maestro. Then I realized that this wasn't all on me- I was playing in an incredible orchestra with whom I was honoured to be a member. Embracing the support of my peers, it was a real high to help interpret the new musical ideas coming from Sir Andrew Davies and perform the symphony with a fresh energy.
I'm grateful for the variety of work I get to do on a daily basis but I have to be careful to balance my practicing with my research. I try to perform solo and chamber music recitals as much as possible so that I feel like I am first and foremost a performer, no matter how many academic hurdles I have to jump as a student. It's helpful that my research and work as a teacher ends up supporting my knowledge and confidence as a performer and vice versa. As long as I stay true to my timelines and have regular "check-ups" on my projects- academic or musical- I've found that I thrive as a musician who gets to "wear many hats."
I remember attending a workshop during my first year at NYO about outreach concerts and performing for young audiences. I remember thinking that I would love to someday perform as a professional for kids and inspire others who aren't as familiar with classical music to develop an appreciation for it. Since this became a priority for me, I've been lucky to have many opportunities to perform for new audiences. I've coordinated five different tours with my string quartet and we've visited over 150 schools in Canada at which we perform and teach young audiences about string instruments and chamber music. I've also created an undergraduate course at McGill which gives me the opportunity to teach other musicians in a variety of chamber groups how to develop an engaging presentation for a "new and inexperienced" audience (often at elementary schools in Montreal.) This work with young audiences has been both educational for me as a performer and incredibly rewarding as a musician.
Do what you love and embrace what it is that makes you the most proud to be "you". Everyone has something special and unique to offer as a musician in terms of their skills, interests, and musicianship. It is a beautiful and liberating realization to know that you can (and should!) say something genuinely personal with every note you play. It's important to learn from those who are more experienced and to constantly search for improvements in technique and music-making. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you and with those who push you to the next level. Setbacks and "failures" can be the most effective learning experiences if you are willing to learn from them. There is no substitute for solid preparation and hard work but when the performance arrives, take the time to enjoy what you do and get lost in the music.