Sayaka Kokubo

Seattle Symphony Viola Sayaka Kokubo was destined to be a violinist — until she discovered the beauty of the viola’s sound.

By Andrew Stiefel

At first it seemed Sayaka Kokubo was destined to be a violinist. Both her parents are musicians in Japan and they expected her to follow in their path. “I never really practiced the violin, I didn't really like it,” she recalls.

With the encouragement of her teacher, she switched to the viola. “I always had this feeling that I was just a failed violinist,” she says. All that changed in high school when she heard another violist. “He had the most gorgeous sound and I was in tears. What was I thinking? It’s such an amazing instrument.”

She started practicing with renewed focus and energy, eventually auditioning for music schools in the United States. While a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she met two people who had a major influence on her life.

“I was a struggling music student — I had a student visa, so I couldn’t work,” Sayaka explains. “A couple from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Dorothy and Harold Byers, invited me to stay with them. Living with them was really inspiring because I was able to see how orchestra musicians live, practice and prepare during the day.”

They weren’t the only people who helped her along the way — she also needed an instrument to win competitions and auditions. “Hiroshi Iizuka, a viola maker in Philadelphia, let me borrow one of his violas for two years. That’s the instrument I used to take orchestral auditions,” says Sayaka. “I bought the instrument after I won this job and I still play it today. He really helped get me to where I am today.”

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Posted on September 19, 2019