Natalie Loughran Takes First Prize at the December 2021 Primrose International Viola Competition

Natalie Loughran plays viola on stage with orchestra

First prize winner, Natalie Loughran, performing at the 2021 Primrose International Viola Competition held at the Colburn School. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Colburn spoke with violist Natalie Loughran who won first place in last month’s prestigious 2021 Primrose International Viola Competition about her music development and experience at the weeklong competition.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

Would you tell us a little bit about yourself, such as where you’re from and your education?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and then moved to Princeton, New Jersey during high school; so I’m kind of from both places. I started on violin at the age of five, four or five, I believe, with Suzuki instructor named Gerry Rice. And I was with her actually for about 10 years and she was the one who influenced me to switch to the lovely instrument of viola. She’s a violist herself, so she knew that I didn’t have the eight hours a day of practicing in me to be a violinist. And she introduced [the viola] to me, and I really fell in love with the instrument—just the gorgeous sound. And honestly this week [of the Primrose competition], it showed a lot about the temperament of a lot of violists and how we’re such a loving, warm community. I’m very happy to have done [the competition].

And then I did a lot of Philadelphia pre-college programs such as Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and Temple Music Prep, and then I started Juilliard. I went into the New York scene in my undergrad. I started in 2016 with Roger Tapping, and he was just an incredible teacher. He has a smaller studio at Julliard, but really unique players. And he really just encourages everyone to find their own voice, which I really admire. I’ve really gained so much from him in the past six years. Then at my masters, I stayed with Roger, but split between him and Misha Amory. It’s really just been such a joy to work with two of the most incredible quartet violists in American history. It’s pretty exciting; it’s been such an incredible journey so far.

You’ve touched on some of this, but would you go back into your five-year-old mind to think about what it was that drew you to music and ultimately what led you to make that definitive decision to make the transition to viola?
Yes—both my parents are actually classical musicians. My mom is a cellist and my dad’s a conductor, so I really grew up [around music]; we watched family videos a few weeks ago and I saw my sister and I listening to music all the time and dancing around ourselves. And it was really just a part of us growing up, which I’m very appreciative of—I think that at such a young age, it really sticks with you. They started me on violin. I think I started on piano first, which did not last long. I still can’t play, which I wish I could. It’s hard to remember exactly how it worked, but I remember them telling me that I really couldn’t put the violin down.

My teacher was pretty strict about having a controlled practice hour in the day where I was monitored to make sure I was doing the right things. I wanted to walk around and fool around with it, but wasn’t necessarily allowed, which I think was a good thing. She really encouraged a stable technique from the beginning, which I think has really helped me. Even recently throughout the past years, I haven’t had to think about that so much, which I’m grateful for. I really just loved it from the beginning. And then switching to the viola; it’s hard [to recall]. I also don’t necessarily remember what it was like when I was 11 years old…but I do remember loving the sound. I was practicing violin and didn’t love all the screeching that I was having all the time. So the C-string, it was just an awesome trade for me. The depth and the soul of a viola is unparalleled, I think.

What is your favorite genre or time period of music that you like to perform?
Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I think Brahms has had a special place in my heart for a very long time. My teacher, Roger Tapping, just wrote a whole article about this and his love for Brahms, which I think has really rubbed off on me. Just how well he [Brahms] knows how to write for the viola, especially in the quartets, quintets, and sextets. Just the incredible viola parts, but also the clarinet sonatas that were transcribed by Brahms for viola I think work beautifully. And not to mention also his symphonies and things like that that I really love to play. But this summer, I really dipped my toe into more contemporary music, which I haven’t done before, at the Yellow Barn Summer Music Festival. Now I have a whole new love for this different genre that I haven’t had before, which I really appreciate. So it’s been fun to explore that.

You’ve spoken about music, but what else do you enjoy investing your time and energy into?
Over the past few years, I’ve been really into yoga. I’ve had quite a bit of back, shoulder, and neck pain from playing viola. That’s one of the downsides of this incredible instrument is that it comes with a few injury prone things. And I also play quite a large viola. It’s about an inch more than most people play, which adds weight. So I’ve gotten into yoga to help really decompress mentally and focus my attention to my breath, which is also so important in being a musician. Also physically, I find yoga very helpful because it stretches and also strengthens at the same time. I feel like it’s all encompassing and kind of what I needed; it’s helped me quite a bit.

Congratulations on your Primrose International Viola Competition win! What led you to audition for the competition?
Competitions have been on my mind over the past few years. I’ve done a few, and to be honest, they’re not always my favorite thing to do just because of, I mean, it’s competitive—it’s stressful and honestly, a little bit of it can be a grueling thing to go through. And it’s hard to have something that’s so personal, being judged right in front of you; it’s not a natural thing. I feel that every competition that I’ve done, I’ve come out a better violist. Maybe it’s just because I push myself more, but also the feedback from a lot of different people is/has been hard, but very helpful.

And this competition specifically was such a warm environment of violists, I’m even getting messages from people who I haven’t met that were also competing that were [saying], you sounded beautiful, congratulations…It’s nice to have that support, and I had a good amount of friends too that were there from Julliard. Two of the others who placed second and third are good friends. It was a nice environment to be in—and I also now can say that because I won. So it’s a little bit easier for me to say that; I definitely acknowledge that not everyone is feeling that way.

Leading up to the competition, how did you prepare for it?
It was kind of a bumpy road of feeling like I was very confident in how I was preparing and then some weeks felt terrible, and I would think, I’m not going to go. It was quite a bumpy road, but I started by preparing—there was the Walton Viola Competition at Julliard that was at the beginning of the semester. So I really got my Walton up to where I wanted it, kind of early on, which was good I think because then I could bring it back in a fresh new way after that. Then after the [Walton Viola] Competition, I scheduled my graduation recital a week before the Primrose Competition, which I’ve never done before, and I was kicking myself because I [knew] this was so much to try to do in two weeks. But I had videos of my performing, and you learn so much by listening to yourself perform. So I listened back and just having the feeling of playing all of my repertoire through for people in a formal way was a great way for me to prepare.

How was the weeklong experience for Primrose?
Definitely by the finals, I was pretty exhausted. I had never done three big rounds in a week before, and it was a good amount of repertoire, though not too much. But to have so much pressure on you, three times in one week is quite a lot. But as I said before, I think going through that you come out a better musician technically and even with thicker skin. Overall it was exhausting, but very rewarding.

When you were announced as a finalist, what was the first thing you thought or did?
It’s funny; my boyfriend was actually there with me and he’s a violinist, which was really nice to have that support. But I wasn’t so happy with how I played in the semi-finals, and I was beating myself up over that and he thought I played beautifully. So we actually made a bet about me getting into the finals, and he won because I got in. The bet was that I had to go golf with him Sunday morning. So that was the first thing that I thought about and was, oh gosh, like yay finals, but now I have to golf Sunday morning, which turned out to be very lovely. But I think I was also very excited to play Walton with an orchestra. I’ve never actually played with a large orchestra like that before; it was a difficult experience, but I had so much fun.

What does winning the Primrose Competition mean to you?
It’s been honestly very surreal. I knew that this was obviously what I was striving for and I’m so happy, but it’s like, whoa; I wake up and I’m is this real life? It’s been something that I’ve strived for probably as long as I’ve known about the competition. And it really gives me the confidence to go in the direction I’ve been wanting to go in. I feel that this helps me and guides me along to do whatever I work hard to do or what I want to do. That’s not the best way of putting that, but I feel like this gives me the fuel to strive harder to achieve more things and really just pour my passion into this art form that we do.

What does the legacy of William Primrose mean to you?
Oh, it means so much. He was really just one of the best violists in the history of violas. And I read a little bit about his teaching style and his playing style and obviously listened to incredible recordings that he’s made. His legacy means so much—I think as violists, we wouldn’t be where we are now with this important solo instrument if it weren’t for him. And Lionel Tertis and many other violists of that generation really were the first ones to be, this is a beautiful instrument and it needs to be heard alone. I’m eternally grateful for that, definitely.

In addition to the cash prize, you also received invitations to perform at the 2022 American Viola Society Festival & 47th International Viola Congress in June and then an invitation to participate in the semi-finals of the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh International Competition in May. Besides those two invitations, what else is on the horizon for you?
It’s funny; I’ve been so much a planner my whole life. What am I going to audition for next? Where am I going next? And it’s grounded me definitely a lot and validated what I’m doing, but I’ve tried within these past few months to get away from that a little bit; I’m trying to go with the flow and see what happens. This [Primrose] was really the last thing that I have had planned. So now, for me the next step is going with the flow and getting back a little bit of what’s going to happen next, but I think there’s something to be said about spontaneity and just seeing what happens with my life and my career. And I’m really excited for that to happen.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for someone preparing for a competition, specifically a music competition?
As much as the technical work we have to do and all the hours of practicing we have to put in, I think the most important thing is staying true to your own musical voice. And trying to express that in the best way possible and having that really be on the forefront of your mind, because it’s easy to get caught up in, oh, I messed up this note or this didn’t go as well as I thought, but I think the biggest thing that will shine through is your voice and how you feel about what you’re doing. So, yes, that’s been the biggest thing for me.