Everyone falls into their passion their own way. Maybe an early trip to an art museum or a concert provides a spark of inspiration. For senior violist Katie Baird falling into music was a “happy accident.”
“In sixth grade, I was really into my computer science class,” Baird said. “But halfway through the semester, the teacher quit. We had to find new electives. I was like ‘I don’t know what orchestra is, but it sounds fun’.”
From striving to type 70 words per minute in sixth grade computer science class to being one of the most accomplished musicians in the Fred Fox School of Music, Katie Baird has had a decade of success after success. But, the road to being such a high achieving musician is not always a linear one.
“I came in [to college] as a general music major, but I wasn’t really sold on that,” Baird said. “I ended up changing my major to biosystems engineering, and I even considered moving into psychology or neuroscience or computer science.”
Enter Professor Molly Gebrian.
For Katie Baird falling into music was a happy accident
When Baird started her Arizona journey, the viola program was not as robust and acclaimed as it is today. It was not until Professor Gebrian joined the faculty that things changed.
“She changed literally everything for me,” Baird said. “She taught me how to practice so that I could like actually make improvement. She was also the first teacher I’ve ever had who had complete confidence in me.”
And complete confidence it was.
“Katie is one of the most hard-working, dedicated students I have ever taught,” Professor Gerbrian said. “She holds herself to a very high standard and is always prepared and enthusiastic about continuing to improve.”
Baird is the type of student that goes above and beyond. To her, college is not about just playing the songs and getting the grades. It is about going the extra mile and growing in every way possible. Which is why this past summer, Baird worked on a groundbreaking project: a database of viola music by underrepresented composers.
“Historically, classical music has been very whitewashed. Dead, white men is all we play really,” Baird explained. “I noticed that we were having a disconnect because there is not enough representation.”
Baird set out to repair that disconnect and create an online space where music by composers of all backgrounds could be found, played, and celebrated. The team, led by Professor Gebrian, consisted of Baird, fellow student Dorothea Stephenson, and a handful of librarians and professors across the country.
The goal was to find at least 500 pieces and in the end, the group found 1,600.
“Katie did more work towards developing this resource than anyone else,” said Gebrian. “She single-handedly added over 800 of the works included in the database, which required extensive research and time, including working from sources entirely in Spanish. It is no exaggeration to say that this database would not exist without the immense time and effort Katie put into it.”
Finding this much music certainly involved going down the rabbit hole of composers, but Baird was up for the challenge.
“I would work on it for five hours at a time, not realizing an hour would pass,” Baird said. “The more I did it, the more I would find.”
>> American Viola Society | Underrepresented Composer Database
After spending so much time working on this mammoth of a project, Baird felt that her work was not done.
“I felt I really found my voice through these pieces, so I thought to myself, ‘I need to know who these composers are. I need to talk to these composers,’” Baird said. “How often do you get a chance to talk to Beethoven or Mozart? You can’t. But a majority of these composers are living, so I knew I needed to jump on this chance.”
That is how Baird’s podcast, “Behind the Score,” was born.
After working on a piece by Alice Hong, Baird reached out to her and asked if she could play her piece for her and interview her for the podcast.
“I really wanted to have a platform where violists from all over could find these composers and actually hear their voices and hear their stories,” Baird said. “Because so far there hasn’t been a platform like that. I always wish it existed, so I thought, ‘why don’t I make it?’”
Baird aims to bridge the gap that exists between composers and performers.
As a researcher, an entrepreneur, and an academic, Baird excels. On the stage, she is an extremely musical, passionate, and artistic performer.
As a violist, she has had the opportunity to perform for some of the world’s most celebrated violists, including international viola soloist Kim Kashkashian and former violist of the Grammy award winning Cleveland Quartet Martha Strongin Katz.
“Katie has made outstanding progress in her artistry, technique, tone, vibrato use, intonation, and musicality since she began studying with me,” Gebrian said. “Every time she performs in studio class, the other students are astounded by how much improvement she has made.”
In spring 2021, she was named Presser Scholar for the Fred Fox School of Music. The Presser Scholar award is given to a student who demonstrates a high level of academic and musical accomplishment and embodies the qualities of leadership and citizenship.
It is no surprise that a young violist, or any young musician for that matter, would want to follow in Baird’s footsteps. And for those aspiring artists, she has two pieces of advice.
“Always do scary things,” Baird said.
Baird reminds students that all of the growing happens outside of the comfort zone.
“Yes, it is so scary, but each time you step out it will become less scary,” Baird said. “You will get to the next level and more opportunities will present themselves the more you get uncomfortable.”
The second piece of advice Baird gives is to always be an advocate for yourself.
“If something that you want doesn’t exist, make the opportunity for yourself,” Baird said. “Go out and do it, because you can do that.”