We had the good fortune of connecting with Christina Ebersohl and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christina, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
A lot of people outside of the overall music industry understand and acknowledge that ageism is alive and well. Pop stars and rap artists are often idolized for their youth and potential. However, a lot of people don’t realize that the classical music industry struggles with the exact same issue. Follow any number of classical music social media accounts and it becomes apparent almost immediately. Videos are posted of young players with the title “Watch 14-year-old violinist play…” or “Listen to 21-year-old up-and-coming cellist…” You notice more and more that the younger players are highlighted on the accounts. Dive in a little deeper and you’ll notice that major competitions and scholarship programs—which are key for a lot of classical artists to begin making a name for themselves—have young cut-off ages. Somewhere, somehow, the classical music industry determined that talent, skill, and potential have an age cutoff. I spent part of my twenties enlisted in the US Army as an Arabic linguist. And after I received my Honorable Discharge, I lost my sight and had to relearn how to do everything all over again. So, by the time I had recovered and found my footing again, I was already considered “too old” to be taken seriously by many. One professor after an audition even went so far as to tell me that the best I could hope to achieve is an amateur hobbyist.
Thankfully, many working inside the industry recognize this issue and combat it actively. The truth is: your potential doesn’t disappear just because your age increases. Your teens or twenties aren’t the only time you can successfully make a career in the classical music world. What is most important is commitment, a willingness to learn, and hard work—and that doesn’t disappear just because you hit thirty.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am a classical violist. Not to be confused with the violin. What’s the difference? —you may ask.
The viola is the bridge between the violin and the cello, residing in a warm and impassioned world, with music that ranges from the highly technical of a violinist to the deeply soulful of the cellist. The viola is the only instrument that does not have a standard size, and therefore, are all just a little extra unique and special. And, the viola was also a hidden player for hundreds of years, finally finding its way to the spotlight as a solo instrument in the last 100 years.
In so many ways, the viola breaks the mold of the tradition and ventures its own path.
So, it seems fortuitous that I fell in love with the instrument and dedicated my life to be a concert violist.
Growing up, I played a lot of instruments—piano, flute, guitar, tuba, voice, oboe—the list goes on. I just had this overwhelming love of music that couldn’t be contained inside me. However, none of the instruments I played brought that deep love fully to the surface, and it felt like it was locked away. I knew, somehow, that I needed to play a stringed instrument. The way they could shape each note, each phrase, each breath—it was like giving voice to your very soul.
When I first went to college, I took the basic music courses needed to get my Associates degree, but I still had no idea how to pursue the instrument I wanted. When I graduated, I applied to several conservatoires and was accepted on piano … but there was no love in my heart for the piano.
And no money in my bank to pay for school.
So I did the most logical thing I could think of—I joined the Army to pay for college!
My short time in the Army was an intense learning experience in growing up, showing up, and being myself. I enlisted as an Arabic linguist and truly enjoyed my time in service, but a few years after my enlistment, I became incredibly sick.
I received an Honorable Discharge and returned home, where I purchased my very first viola.
I began immediately—practicing, watching videos, taking multiple lessons weekly. I progressed extremely quickly and took to the instrument like a fish to water (or Bach to an organ?). Only a year into lessons and I was already looking into going after my Bachelor degree in Viola Performance.
Then, everything changed.
I woke up in the hospital on Labor Day and couldn’t see anything out of my left eye.
Thus began the multiple year journey from doctor to doctor, as I continued losing my sight. In February 2015, I was declared legally blind and my whole world crashed down.
How do you possibly live and work as a classical musician if you can’t see?
But one day, I heard a recording of Richard O’Neill performing Henrich Biber’s Passacaglia on viola and it broke through my depression. No way was I giving up the one thing that gave me joy and meaning and happiness.
The rest, I suppose, is history. I spent years training with specialists on how to navigate and work while blind, I was a guinea pig for my schools to figure out what worked for blind music students and what didn’t, and I was the ultimate “yes” man—taking every opportunity that came my way, even if I wasn’t sure how to do it yet. I’ve graduated at the top of all my classes, and—until this year—none of my colleagues or professors knew I had so much less experience than them because I showed up, put in the hard work, and challenged myself to be the best I could possibly be.
Now, I’m a concert violist (preparing for Doctoral auditions), the Editor of the Journal of the American Viola Society, and a known advocate for music and music education accessibility in the field.
In many ways, the viola breaks the traditional mold. And in many ways, so do I.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I feel so fortunate because I live in Colorado Springs, but I spend most of my days in Denver—so I get the best of both worlds! If a friend comes to visit, we would have to check out places from both.
In Denver, we would absolutely have to catch the CSO perform. Not only do I hold the upmost respect and love for the principal violist (yay, Basil!), but their performances are phenomenal, and the hall is beautiful! In a similar vein, taking in a show at the Clocktower is always on the list. It is such a fun venue and they always host the most entertaining acts. I was fortunate enough to see Puddles Pity Party there a few years ago and would recommend the venue AND the act to anyone!
Denver is a foodie town, so you really can’t go wrong. I’d insist on arepas from Quiero Arepas. We could even be one of the cool kids and dine at Avanti Collective Eatery, where you can get arepas, fabulous wood-fired pizza from Golami’s or one of their other fantastic options. Another go-to spot for me is Zeps Epiq Sandwiches. I stand firm in saying that their tofu Bahn-mi is still, to date, the best in Colorado.
The Springs, while a little less flashy, offers up just as much delicious grub as Denver. The Odyssey Gastropub in downtown Colorado Springs has—to date—some of the best food in the city. Additionally, Slice 420 Pizzeria is my number one comfort spot. Not only are their NY slices amazingly tasty, their mission is fantastic and their team always makes you feel at home. And we can’t forget coffee! If I’m taking someone for coffee in the Springs, it is absolutely going to be Corter Coffee Roasters. Their menu is science-themed, their customer service is top-notch, and their drinks are FANTASTIC. Any coffee shop that can add a touch of sea salt to my morning pick-me-up with caramel has my vote forever.
But the Springs isn’t just about the food. We have some of the best outdoors entertainment around. Start with the ever-so-popular Garden of the Gods. Any visitor to Colorado should see it at least once. The Paint Mines are another fantastic hike not far out of town. And the Manitou Cave Dwellings and Cave of the Winds always offer ample entertainment.
Needless to say—I think my guest and I would be well-fed, well-entertained, and well-exercised by the time their short week trip was up!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Truthfully, I’d never have made it this far if it weren’t for the teachers who believed in me. My first viola teacher, Chris Bock, took me under her wing and pushed me to challenge myself at every turn. She recognized the love of music I had flowing through me and brought it to the surface. Joël Belgique was my first college music instructor. He recognized my passion and would often give me extra lessons for free in his home to continue working on technique and musicality. He knew I was all in and he went all in with me.
My second undergraduate teacher was Kenji Bunch. Kenji was the kindest, most accepting of all souls, and he was the first person to encourage me to find my own musical voice. He would often listen to a whole piece or movement during a lesson and then say, “I see where you are going with that. Let’s try this to make it more convincing.” And I’d watch my ideas flourish and grow.
And lastly (but by no means, least) Basil Vendryes, my graduate viola instructor. Basil is tough, direct, but the most loveable teacher you could ever want. He’ll tell you the hard truths, but then he’ll grind away with you to help you polish and shine your talents. And most of all—he has always believed in me. From the beginning, Basil has always said that he wants people to see me for my talent, not as a diversity token. His tough love has pushed me farther in my career than I ever thought I could go.
So, a shoutout to the four people who believed in me, mentored me, and molded me into who I am today. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you!
Peggy Iileen Johnson; Paige Hampton