From the Lab to the Stage

Elly Toyoda was one of the 30 Blackbird Creative Lab fellows in June, 2018. Last month, she joined Eighth Blackbird as their violinist at the University of Oklahoma. Elly will also be playing additional engagements with the ensemble February 14, 2020 at Gettyburg College and February 16 at The National Gallery in Washington DC. Elly recently reflected on her fast trajectory with the ‘Birds…

Elly Toyoda at the University of Oklahoma, 2019

After experiencing Eighth Blackbird live for the first time, I knew that I wanted to be part of such a dazzling ensemble in the future. Being selected to participate in their Blackbird Creative Lab in 2018 brought me closer to my goal of discovering the golden formula that makes the sextet’s performances so captivating. 

The formula— from what I could gather— is constant exploration of possibilities beyond the given music and the composer’s or the musicians’ initial assumptions or expectations. For example, when preparing Kamala Sankaram’s Kivalina at the Lab, faculty member and choreographer Ros Warby and fellow Lab alumna Xuan Zhang worked with my group to incorporate choreography and videography to bring new dimensions to the music. We were not only playing it, but embodying it; so an audience could then not only hear it with its ears, but with its whole self as well. I realized that I find much joy in the creative, generative practice of making music, not just the re-creative part that occurs in performance. This seminal experience also reinforced my belief of what the essence of music is: when an inanimate object (indeed, a wooden box with steel strings or a piece of metal with keys on them) can produce sounds that resemble living and breathing things, we, musicians, can tell a story that can transport listeners to another world.

Eighth Blackbird, Elly Toyoda and Zach Good at University of Oklahoma, 2019

Eighth Blackbird often brings extraordinary life to the music it plays even without cross-disciplinary elements, pulling its listeners to the edge of their seats. Hearing them perform Holly Harrison’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup at the Lab Showcase Concert in Chicago last March was one of those instances, so I was particularly excited to learn I would get to play this piece with them in Oklahoma! What I noticed from performing the Harrison and other pieces with them, was that they gain the energy from the audience and the environment in that moment, and respond to it accordingly. While staying true to the score and its intricate nuances, they are enjoying and living in the present, and always involving the audience in the music. This type of flexibility and commitment could only thrive from solid preparation, entailing detail-oriented rehearsing and deep analyzing of the compositions. It was inspiring to take part in this process and observe how that manifested in live performances. This dynamic way of being has fueled my ideal model for rehearsing and performing going forward. 

Eighth Blackbird with Elly Toyoda and Zach Good at The University of Oklahoma, 2019

My personal intent is to be involved with this type of music-making as much as possible, and hopefully to enrich others’ lives in the same way it is for mine. In addition to performing on the stage, one of the practical ways to spread this joy is to teach. Hence, I am pursuing a doctoral degree in violin performance with hopes of expanding my teaching opportunities and what I can bring to my future students. I am so grateful for being included in the residency at the University of Oklahoma, and several more in the new year. Being a student myself, it was certainly nerve-wracking and surreal to give my first-ever masterclass to musicians close to my age, but I was incredibly excited to share in the process of them receiving Eighth Blackbird’s guidance, which for me has already been a life-changing influence. 

Elly Toyoda with student at University of Oklahoma, 2019

I think most musicians would agree that there is nothing more gratifying in our careers than simply playing great music with great musicians, for audiences of all types. My days at both the Lab and the Oklahoma tour were exactly that. Both were tremendous learning experiences and a ton of fun, that reminded me why I make music and how I want to go about it; what more could I possibly ask for! I can’t wait for my concerts with them in the new year.

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