2020 marks 37 years with WASO for Viola Helen Tuckey. We spoke to Helen about how she went from piano to viola and orchestra life.
Helen describes herself as a late starter to her orchestral instrument having chosen it in her early teens as she liked to do radical and different things, “We had a first-year high school project on an instrument of the orchestra. Most students chose the flute, the trumpet, the drums. My equally radical best friend and I picked instruments no one else did - she chose the tubular bells, I chose the viola.”
At the time, Helen was having piano lessons from a teacher who also taught violin, viola, cello and double bass. This teacher suggested a string instrument might be a good choice in addition to piano, “With a late start, viola was a better option as I would have more chance to play in an orchestra later on.”
Helen’s optimism with her playing was somewhat dampened by a visiting relative who greeted her with a tut tut upon hearing her play, “The raw sounds coming from my new $20 viola (a nice shiny orange one, included bow, case lined with bright green felt and box of resin) were not appreciated, she later invited me to listen to a recording of Jaqueline du Pre playing the Elgar Cello concerto to show me how music was meant to sound. No ego-stroking from my family!”
For Helen, music and reading were great escapes to a wider world beyond the Aussie suburbs, “ABC FM was yet to happen but we always had classical music on the radio, with lots of local live broadcasts too. I was encouraged to read freely and anything, and did. My early teen bedhead bookcase had Little Women, Australian Frogs, Lives of the great composers, plus comic books and Agatha Christie.”
“The 1970s were an exciting time for the arts in Australia, and to be a feminist teenager. After first year high school, many of my friends left for private schools or scholarships to far-off elite schools, something I hadn’t applied for.” When the choice came up at school between needlework and typing, Helen chose typing and consequently found herself in a new cohort of girls, focussed on leaving school and joining the workforce as soon as possible, “If you were a girl the big goals were becoming a typist, and even a secretary and receptionist if you were super bright (marrying as soon as possible of course). If you didn’t pass typing and flunked school, a dreaded fate was the noisy assembly line at the Holeproof Factory making and packing singlets, socks and jocks for long hours.”
After a while in the typing class Helen had an invitation from a friend to go along to hang out with a new group of “cool kids”, “It was put to me that I would be taken for a ride on a motorcycle and even get to wear a leather jacket. I mentioned this to my Mum, and without batting an eyelid, she said, ‘That’s so interesting, but guess what, we’re heading in to check out a new suburban youth orchestra that’s meeting this evening” - an equally terrifying but even more intriguing possibility, irresistible, and the start of my orchestral life.”