Profile by Jane Ledwell
I tell my students, you have to be able to do six different things at the same time to be a professional musician,” says Natalie Williams Calhoun, but the energetic PEI Symphony cellist with the quick and quirky sense of humour doesn’t mention limiting yourself to six things.
We chat in the moments between coordinating dropping her child at school, updating websites on the fly, and performing in the pit orchestra for a preview of Evangeline. Somewhere in her schedule she also fits teaching cello and piano, conducting the senior Singing Strings, working nationwide for the Royal Conservatory of Music, and rehearsing and performing with the emergent quintet Atlantic String Machine.
Natalie’s musician parents started her on piano at age three. She later chose the cello after deciding violin was “too high-pitched and squeaky.” She laughs, “I can play the violin, but as my strings students will tell you—I suck… There is definitely a difference in personality (between violin and cello). The violin gets the showy-offy parts. My personality is more in the middle range—I’m more like the relaxed, steady, in-the-middle people.”
Says Natalie, “It takes me five years to get settled in a place and get my name known. I’m in my sixth year here in PEI, now.” Finding a place in the music community, she says, is helped by the diversity in musical styles here. “It’s challenging finding classical music performance opportunities, but that’s not unique to here—and it’s just a good reason to make things happen.”
One “happening” is the string quintet Atlantic String Machine. “Sometimes, you wonder if someone is up there and really has a plan…” she says. The quintet—five members with at least “six different lives going on”—came together as other players found themselves moving to the Island or here more frequently. “It has been my sanity-saver,” says Natalie. “It is pure joy. I can rehearse with them for three hours and not feel annoyed. Our personalities fit well, our sounds fit well… we’re all kind of quirky… I get to flex my arrangement muscles… I just think this is really blessed.” The group is planning its first recording this fall, with performances that capture their eclectic tastes and personalities.
Another “happening” came from “weird happenstance.” Natalie arrived in PEI with her husband and then-ten-month-old son and began to make connections with other stings players, and met Singing Strings co-founder Jen Clement, just as Jen’s partner and co-founder John Clement was facing Alzheimer’s. “Jen asked, how would you like to help with John and take the senior group?” Natalie recalls. Since then, “They’ve tolerated my craziness. It is a really good fit.”
This summer, Natalie led the senior Strings—18 youth between 13 and 20—to a competition in Vienna, with stops in Salzburg, Prague, and Munich.
“I was so proud of us,” Natalie says with a glow. “The competition in Vienna was tougher than the kids expected,” she admits. “They were a little overwhelmed by the high standards… but that was part of the reason for going.” And yet, she marvels, “There are professional musicians who have never played in some of those halls we got to play in. Outside Vienna, playing in these tiny little churches that have stood there so long… Who knows who might have been in these tiny little spaces before us?” Natalie is also pleased to say, “We gave people over there a concept of where PEI is and what it is.”
Getting back from Vienna has been for the youth “a bit of a let-down after a big goal, but,” Natalie says, “we’ll find other things to work towards.”
Natalie’s next goal is both local and ambitious: “I really want to make sure classical music gets to smaller communities in PEI… So much is centralized in Charlottetown and Summerside. If we focus all our attention there, we miss out. When I play weddings, I get to play in all kinds of wonderful churches with good acoustics. Why are these places left to just sit?” For Natalie Williams Calhoun, a vacant space is just another reason to create music.