Rachael Kennedy

I’ve spent quite a while trying to work out how to describe my relationship with the viola da gamba. (No, this is not a type of prawn: it’s a cross between cello and guitar which was popular among musicians in the eighteenth century.)

Should I tell a funny story? There are lots of those, like that time when one of the strings on my instrument started to unravel during a performance. There was a level of embarrassment to the situation, to be sure, but it was vastly outweighed by the physical comedy of watching and hearing the viol (colloq., viola da gamba) temporarily fall apart onstage. It was an informal performance in a supportive environment: to laugh seemed appropriate to me.


There was also that time my instrument was mistaken for a guitar. Easy mistake to make when it’s in its case, but it made me chuckle internally. (‘And it's the exact same thing but instead of playing it like this you tip it on the side... cello, you got a bass.’ An eighteenth-century instrument was allowing me to live School of Rock in real time.) And there are the times I’ve taken the viol to the pub. Think a suitcase is bad? The viola da gamba is, too, but on average it’s about 100% more fragile and 1000% more susceptible to generating requests for explanation.

What about a coming-of-age story? That one’s relevant. I would say that it was through the viola da gamba that I’ve grown most as a musician. I learnt to interact socially through music while playing in a group of viols on a residential course; I began my journey towards playing the instrument in a sung, more natural way on that course, too. Some of the non-musical parts of me also came of age through the instrument: for example, going on residential courses allowed me to stay away from home for days at a time. These courses meant that for the first time I could act on my own terms (with no pastoral supervision), allowing me to interact with adults however I judged fit. There are parts of my life untouched by music-making, but it is through this activity that I have learnt a lot about myself and about the kind of person I want to be.

"There are parts of my life untouched by music-making, but it is through this activity that I have learnt a lot about myself and about the kind of person I want to be."

The viol has provided a fair number of challenges for me. There were moments when I felt like an outsider to ‘the norm’ when growing up because I spent a lot of my free time playing an obscure musical instrument. This was before I realised that there was no ‘normal way’ to grow up. There were also times when I felt insecure about my playing: I started the instrument at age 14, later than a lot of performers start their main instrument. I played music in partnership with something that was fundamentally fragile, vulnerable and unpredictable and there were periods when I didn’t have formal lessons due to academic demands. 


Mountain View

Breaking boundaries: An interview with Bastille

But what I associate most with the instrument are those moments of great connection, of intimacy, of self-actualization and of love. There are times I’ve played music with someone I’ve just met and it allowed us to connect in a way that talking could not in just a few short minutes. There are the times when playing the viol has allowed me to deliver in front of an audience when I would not have had the confidence to speak; there are the people with whom I’ve spent glorious hours playing this instrument with and friends who’ve loved and supported me for who I am and in what I love doing, however niche.

Through playing this instrument I have met people and made friends of many nationalities, many ages and many walks of life. The viol has given me a window through which to glimpse so much special music and so many dedicated, passionate and kind people. The university has a ‘consort of viols’, open to anyone from complete beginner level (contact details on the Music Faculty website, where you can also arrange possible instrument rental). But my top recommendations would be related to what I have gained from viol playing, that is, the continued aspiration towards kindness, towards listening, towards acceptance and towards valuing everyone.