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Symphony violist Jeannette Wee-Yang finds life balance in Spokane

UPDATED: Wed., July 28, 2021

Jeannette Wee-Yang is assistant principal viola in the Spokane Symphony and principal viola in the Spokane String Quartet.  (Hamilton Studio)
Jeannette Wee-Yang is assistant principal viola in the Spokane Symphony and principal viola in the Spokane String Quartet. (Hamilton Studio)

Born and raised in Singapore, violist Jeannette Wee-Yang’s music education began with piano, but her curiosity soon steered her toward other instruments. She studied violin for a time, but as a middle child – with her older sister studying violin and her younger sister studying cello – viola seemed a natural choice.

“I have to say, my personality is more suited to being a violist than a violinist,” Wee-Yang said. “I don’t mind doing it, but I don’t necessarily want to lead or be in the spotlight.”

She also preferred the viola’s range, the lower register and sonority of the instrument. “I didn’t really love it until I played it,” she said. “But it really spoke to me then.”

She was already firmly on the path toward a career in music when her family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, during her third-grade year. And by 11th grade, she was playing in the University of British Columbia Orchestra where she would continue playing through her undergraduate years.

After earning a master’s degree from Indiana University, Wee-Yang moved to Milwaukee, where her husband was working through medical school. There, she started substituting in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and also held a permanent position with the Milwaukee Chamber & Ballet Orchestras. But after a few years of homesickness, Wee-Yang decided that it was time to find a home closer to Vancouver.

“We had three young kids at the time, and taking two airplanes to visit my family was crazy,” she said. So when a viola position opened up in the Spokane Symphony, Wee-Yang jumped at the chance to audition. And today, 17 years later, Wee-Yang is assistant principal viola in the symphony and principal viola in the Spokane String Quartet.

“It was perfect,” she said. “In so many aspects of life – not just playing music. It’s a balance of everything.” Working with fellow violist and symphony music director James Lowe has been especially exciting, she said. “He knows everything, so we don’t get away with much,” she said, laughing.

Despite not being able to make music nearly as much as she would’ve liked this past year, Wee-Yang has filled her extra time with outdoor activities and teaching music lessons online.

“It was weird, but I have to say it’s a nice thing to take a break from playing and then come back to it because you suddenly appreciate it so much more,” she said, explaining how taxing rehearsal schedules can become on top of other responsibilities. “It’s getting to realize again that you love music and that it’s not just a job.”

To aspiring musicians, Wee-Yang offered the following advice: “Only go into music if it’s the only thing you want to do. Finding work in music is very competitive, so if you can afford to pursue music professionally, know that you are really lucky.”

Wee-Yang will perform Dvorak’s “Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 97” with fellow symphony and Spokane String Quartet member Helen Byrne at Arbor Crest Winery at 7 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, call the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox box office at (509) 624-1200.

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