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Arts & Culture

Alum Has Grammys on a String

Boundary-Breaking Violist Performs Behind Lizzo

By Maya Pottiger ’17, M.Jour. ’20

Chelsey Green (seated second from right, front row) plays her viola in support of Lizzo, whose performance opened the Jan. 26 Grammy Awards broadcast.

Performance photo by Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images; selfie courtesy of Chelsey Green

Chelsey Green (seated second from right, front row) plays her viola in support of Lizzo, whose performance opened the Jan. 26 Grammy Awards broadcast. Green (at right, below), takes a selfie with fellow backing musicians at Staples Center in Los Angeles, site of the awards.

The familiar throaty belt of “I’m cryin’ / cuz I love you” filled a silent Staples Center, then a 23-member all-female chamber orchestra struck the first chord, punching the star-studded audience with a wall of sound.

Chelsey Green D.M.A. ‘17 moved her bow across her viola in unison with the other musicians as genre-bending hip-hop sensation Lizzo dramatically opened the 62nd Grammy Awards on Jan. 26.

“It’s just one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments,” Green said on Friday. “I’m so glad we had a dress rehearsal the previous day because it takes your breath away for one second to say, ‘I’m on the stage at the Grammys.’”Chelsey Green and fellow musicians pose for a selfie at Staples Center, site of the 2020 Grammys.

It wasn’t Green’s first high-profile performance—her resume includes performances with Stevie Wonder and Wu-Tang Clan—but it was her first time in front of such an acclaimed audience. She was grateful she couldn’t see any famous faces from the stage, only the illuminated 8 and 24 jerseys honoring former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who had died earlier that day.

Green began playing violin when she was 5. Growing up in Houston, Texas in a musical family—her father is a music director of over 30 years, and her uncle and grandfather both play jazz on the saxophone—Green had firsthand exposure to all the possibilities music offered. Now she plays in different and melding styles: pop, R&B, classical, jazz, gospel and hip-hop.

“I grew up from early on never having a limit on what my violin could do,” Green said. “I’m so grateful for that because I never put it in any type of box.”

This is a mission Green sees reflected in Lizzo, who sometimes plays flute in her performances. In an age where everyone is trying to stand out, Green noted how many contemporary artists are changing their tunes on what a classical instrument is. “They all make music,” Green said.

Green came to UMD after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin and getting her master’s at Johns Hopkins University. She earned all three of her degrees on viola, which she took up in college, drawn in by its mid-range timbre and responsibility to carry the harmony.

Katherine Murdock, an associate professor of viola in UMD’s School of Music who worked closely with Green, described her as an incredibly hard worker, and a wholehearted musician and person.

“[Chelsey] is somebody who not only believes deeply in what she does but really is what she does,” said Murdock. “There’s a complete synergy between her music and who she is.”

In her contemporary jazz ensemble the Green Project, Green splits her playing time between violin and viola, also adding in vocals. She is an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she teaches violin, viola and cello, as well as a number of ensembles.

Something Green admires in Lizzo’s approach to flute is that “it’s not elevated, it’s just part of a pop song.” It takes the stigma off the hard work and classical training that go into mastering an instrument, instead making it relatable, Green said. In her own career as well, old limitations of style—and who gets to play what—are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

“The young kids, they don’t even realize this is something new. For them, it’s always going to be their normal,” Green said. “That’s what we worked hard to achieve so they wouldn’t have to search long and wide to see someone who looks like them representing them on a different level with that instrument.”

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