Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

The women of Sybarite5 push boundaries with strings and entrepreneurship

By Audrey Sakhnovsky

Look no further for the role models young female musicians have been missing.

Cellist Laura Metcalf, violinist Sarah Whitney, and violist Angela Pickett are taking charge and making their own waves as they juggle musicianship and its many dynamic experiences.

In anticipation of Sybarite5’s performance of its new program Outliers February 13 at Schwab Auditorium, the women of the string quintet discuss their unique positions in the world of music and how they’ve taken advantage of the career freedoms and opportunities with the chamber group.

Question: Having gone through years of schooling with various musical institutions and being a teacher yourself, how would you say female involvement in classical music has changed over the years?

Laura Metcalf: I think the main change I’ve noticed over the years is that more women are stepping into leadership roles, from artistic administrators, to conductors, to independent entrepreneurs. I think the spirit of entrepreneurship that has begun to penetrate our field has empowered women not to wait to be given opportunities but to seek them out for ourselves.

Sarah Whitney: There are definitely more female leaders and innovators. Women aren’t scared to challenge the rules and make their voices heard.

Angela Pickett: During my musical career, the most significant change in regard to women’s involvement in classical music has undoubtedly occurred on the podium. When I was younger, female conductors were often seen conducting choral ensembles, but the larger orchestral podiums were almost exclusively occupied by men. Even though this has changed thanks to trailblazers like Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, the term “maestro” is still prevalent and conjures a distinct image of a masculine persona. Looking back, I’m happy to report that I had the opportunity to work with both of these women during my time at Juilliard from 2004–2006. But of course, from my seat in the viola section, I can’t claim to have any idea of how they may have struggled to obtain such opportunities in their own right. That may be an entirely different article!

Q: How did you get your start in playing string instruments? How did you know this was what you were meant to do?

LM: I was inspired to play the cello by my younger sister. She played before I did, and when I was 9, everyone in my school had to choose an instrument. I chose cello despite my parents urging me to try something different. Now I’m a professional cellist, and she’s a partner at a law firm!

I didn’t have one “a-ha” moment when I knew I wanted to do this professionally, but I did have several experiences attending large summer festivals in high school and early college where the feeling of being immersed in a community of young people who loved music as much as I did was intoxicating. These festivals also made me realize how many excellent instrumentalists there were out there and motivated me to work as hard as I could to succeed.

SW: Both my parents played violin as a hobby, so I grew up in a musical household. Apparently, though, the real reason I started is because I wanted to be cool like my older brother! When he started playing violin, I begged and begged my parents to get me my own violin when I was 4 years old!

AP: My parents enrolled me in the Suzuki violin program before I even had the presence of mind to know what was happening—it was two months before my 4th birthday! From then on, I was heavily involved in all the activities that the Suzuki program entailed. My father attended my weekly private lessons and made sure I always completed my daily practice sheet. I went to Saturday group classes for both the Suzuki repertoire and Newfoundland/Irish fiddling. I attended the Atlantic Canada Suzuki Institute at the end of June every year, and I couldn’t wait until school would finish because that meant it was time for summer music camp! When I was 10 years old, I joined the Suzuki junior chamber orchestra and subsequently moved on to the senior chamber orchestra.

When I was 12 years old, I was invited to audition for a job! I was chosen as a tourism ambassador and would perform Newfoundland fiddle tunes for tourists coming off cruise ships.

Through my teenage years, I went on to join my local youth orchestra and then the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. I formed a piano trio with some friends, and we played together every Friday afternoon until the end of high school. I could go on about my musical development. I didn’t even mention my piano studies or memberships in award-winning choirs, but you get the point. I have been immersed in a musical environment since I was 4 years old, and when it came time to apply for colleges, I couldn’t even imagine doing anything else!

Q: Did you ever face any scrutiny/sexism in your career as a musician? Was there ever a time when you thought you weren’t being taken as seriously as your male counterparts?

LM: When I was starting out in the freelance world in New York, there were definitely gigs and opportunities that I got not because of my playing, but because the employer wanted a female instrumentalist with a certain look. I sometimes got the feeling that my playing level was not important in those instances. However, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t often have that feeling anymore. I’m more confident in my experience and abilities.

SW: Yes. I’ve had leadership experiences where I’ve felt like I wasn’t being listened to or that my opinions weren’t as valuable. But the rise of empowered women is amazing, and I’m feeling a shift in the music world for sure.

AP: Actually, no. I can’t say that I have ever had this feeling per se. I will say that I have worked with a lot of male musicians who exert an air of superiority, but I don’t consider this to be gender specific.

Q: Do you feel freer in your career opportunities when working outside of larger orchestral groups? Is there a greater freedom for women outside of them?

LM: The answer to both of these questions is yes. I think many chamber musicians choose the more “precarious” (in terms of stability, job security, etc.) career path of chamber music because the tradeoff is worth it to them. In a small group, not only do you have the chance for your voice to be heard, but executing ideas big and small can happen so much more quickly.

Sybarite5 has been together with the same personnel for ten years, and over that period, we’ve accomplished and evolved a great deal as a group, but we’ve also been able to pursue outside projects and groups, and to grow our individual careers, which in turn helps the group even more. I’ve never been part of an orchestra, so I can’t say for sure, but I’d imagine that pursuing such a wide range of projects outside of the main job would be significantly more difficult. And yes, going back to my comment about entrepreneurship, I think these “DIY” careers allow women to go for what they want immediately without waiting for that shift in the whole system to give them more opportunities.

SW: The beauty of being in a chamber group versus a large orchestra is that I’m the only one on my part. In an orchestra, you’re in a section of players, and the goal is to match and fit in with everyone around you. Since there’s no one else playing my part in Sybarite5, I get to make many more artistic decisions, which I love!

AP: Absolutely. Sybarite5 occupies about half of my time, and that allows me to pursue other projects and collaborations outside of the quintet. The thing that most distinguishes this type of career from an orchestra position is financial security! I can’t distinguish between the sexes here. Maintaining a quasi-freelance career requires an incredible amount of dedication and hard work. In addition to simply playing your instrument at the highest artistic level, there also is personal admin, scheduling, PR, artistic development, and on and on. It takes a confident individual to even attempt this type of career pastiche, and while they may face discrimination at some point, it is simply another of the many obstacles that they must overcome to pursue their passion.

Q: What advice would you have for young, aspiring female classical musicians?

LM: Put in the work. It doesn’t sound glamorous, and a lot of it isn’t. Yes, talent, ideas, and determination are great, but I think so much of success in this or any field is just about working really, really hard. Don’t think about approaching the work itself any differently because you’re a woman. Hard, focused work toward clear and reasoned goals—even when faced with setbacks and the inevitable instances of sexism—will pay off.

SW: Stay true to yourself. Don’t feel that you have to follow a certain career path or be a certain way because someone is telling you that you should. It can be very scary, but you will be much happier in the long run!

Q: Who are your favorite composers? What is your opinion on what seems to be the lack of contemporary female composers? Is there really a lack of new work being created by females, or is it instead that the work is just not being recognized and played in concert?

LM: My favorite composers are (Maurice) Ravel and (Johannes) Brahms. I find their chamber music particularly sublime. I wish I could say that some of my favorite composers are women, but unfortunately, I think we develop stronger attachments to music that we hear earlier in life, and for a very long time, female composers were seldom featured in classical music. That is starting to change now; within the last five years or so I’ve noticed organizations making more of an effort to get music by female composers heard, but there’s a long way to go. I hope it’s just the beginning of a surge toward equality that keeps gaining momentum, because there is so much incredible music being created by women. For example, Caroline Shaw’s emergence as a contemporary music superstar is an incredibly positive development, and we just need many more stories like hers.

AP: I have many favorite “classical” composers, but I have a major weakness for (Claude) Debussy’s piano music—maybe because as a string player it is an area of the repertoire that I never get to play! (I am listening to Debussy as I compose these answers!)

In terms of contemporary composers, I have too many favorites to mention! I am fortunate to have many friends who are composers, and whose music I love to perform and promote, that I couldn’t choose between them! Of course, there are fewer female composers, but there are significantly more now than there were when I was younger.

In my contemporary music world, there is no distinction between male and female composers. I’m sure this is due in part to the fact that I live in New York City, which is an incredibly diverse market with a breadth of composers and range of musical styles. Furthermore, I perform regularly with an ensemble that prides itself on performing brand new and high-quality compositions. Sybarite5 plays the music of several female composers, and it is because we genuinely love their pieces. If we can really connect with a composition and feel the need to share it with our audience, it doesn’t matter who the composer is!

Questions for Metcalf

Was the cello section normally majority men? How’d you find yourself playing the cello?

LM: I think that men were in the majority of cellists around me as a student, but not by a lot. There was always a decent number of female cellists, yet almost all the really famous cello soloists were men, and unfortunately that’s still true. I admired Jacqueline du Pré so much; she was and still is my inspiration because she played so fearlessly and passionately.

Do you find more fulfillment through performing with popular artists, like having performed with Adele, or your classical works? Would you say you do those performances more for the excitement and opportunity, and less for the true artistry of playing?

LM: There is something undeniably exciting about being part of something huge. Being onstage in an arena or playing on a TV show with a popular artist, knowing millions are watching, is thrilling. I’m always grateful to be given those types of opportunities, and to experience a different kind of energy than I’m used to. But if given the choice, intimate, acoustic chamber music is my favorite kind of music making and always has been.

Were you and your husband (Rupert Boyd) always on board to work together as a duo? How did it come about?

LM: We actually started playing as a duo to allow us to be together more! We were already a couple when we became a musical duo, and we were both touring all the time, but separately. So we started building up some cello and guitar repertoire to see what we could do with it, recorded and released the repertoire we found or arranged, and now we have a busy schedule as a duo with concerts all over the world. We liked working together so much that we also started a concert series last year called GatherNYC. It’s a weekly, Sunday morning concert series where we pair hour-long musical acts with storytelling and a brief meditative moment of silence. We invite the audience to socialize over coffee and pastries beforehand in hopes of building a welcoming, inclusive community around music. We’ve presented twenty-four concerts already, with some of the top artists in New York City, and are starting up again in a few months! I never expected that I would be working so much with my husband, but so far, it’s been really great!

Questions for Whitney

You are part of the quintet, but you also teach, blog, offer classes, do speaking events, perform duets with your longtime friend Julia, and wear many other hats. What role do you feel most comfortable in?

SW: I honestly can’t say that I’m more comfortable in one role more than another! I’ve been a performer the longest, but all of my roles are an integral part of who I am as a musician and person. It brings me such joy when I can make people happy or help them have a better day, week, or year, and whether it’s through sharing music or teaching, I strive to achieve this with all of my roles.

What gave you the idea to start your “bloglette” The Productive Musician?

SW: When I went to music school, I had no idea that being a successful musician was way more than simply playing my instrument well. I wanted to create a resource for musicians that I wish I’d had. Musicians struggle with a lot of the same issues, but many of them aren’t addressed in school, and there are few resources out there. Also, some of these issues can be uncomfortable to talk about, yet things that we all inevitably are dealing with or have dealt with at some point—for example, performance anxiety, fear of failure, self-doubt. I hope my blog can help musicians be more successful and fulfilled and bring awareness to the three most important pillars for success beyond playing our instruments—efficient business skills, health and wellness, and an empowered mindset.

Audrey Sakhnovsky, a Penn State senior majoring in journalism and English and minoring in psychology, is a marketing and communications intern at the Center for the Performing Arts.