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From the NRO to the New World Symphony, violinist loves the community that comes with playing music

By Shauna Farnell

Growing up in Singapore and learning to play the violin at age 5, Natalie Koh didn’t relish playing an instrument until much later, when she realized it didn’t have to be a solitary pastime.

“I didn’t enjoy it much until I was a teenager,” the 26-year-old says. “I joined my school’s band in middle school and high school. That’s when I played the flute. It was my first exposure to ensemble playing. I also played the viola in a couple chamber groups. I had the choice of playing violin in a string ensemble, but at the time I looked at the violin as something very academic. I ‘rebelled’ and wanted to play another instrument. That’s how I met some of my closest friends and realized music can be fun. I realized I really did like playing music with other people.”

Koh was 16 before she began playing the violin with other people, joining a group of professionals in Orchestra of the Music Makers.

Natalie Koh Riverwalk Center by Elaine Collins

Natalie Koh, co-principal violin II, NRO 2023 by Elaine Collins

After high school, Koh served as conductor for her high school’s alumni band. She attended Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, earning her Bachelor of Music as well as the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award and the National University of Singapore Society Medal for Outstanding Achievement. Koh continued with her alumni band even after moving to Chicago, where she pursued a Master in Music at DePaul University.

While studying at DePaul, one of Koh’s professors suggested she apply for the National Repertory Orchestra. She did and was accepted in 2021. That first summer performing with the NRO in Breckenridge was pivotal for her beyond simply improving her musical skills.

“Not only did it improve my sight-reading skills, but made me more efficient in the way I prepare and practice music. It made me listen to a lot more music – new music by living composers. That was meaningful, also just being surrounded by musicians from all around The United States,” she says.

Even more meaningful, the experience arrived at a crucial juncture in her life.

“I was going through a rough time in school,” she says. “I was wondering if I should play the violin or even continue in music. The NRO changed my mind. Genuine music-making with real musicians was something I wanted to give a chance. The first summer was life-changing. If it wasn’t for the NRO, I may have dropped out of music.”

Graduating from DePaul in 2023, Koh returned for her second summer with the NRO, this time as a co-principal violinist.

Natalie Koh by Elaine Collins

Natalie Koh at Dillon Reservoir by Elaine Collins

“The first summer I was a section violinist. At the time it was a lot. The biggest pressure was to learn the music in time. I looked up a lot to the principals in the front seat,” she says. “The second time as co-principal, it was exciting but nerve-racking that I had to live up to the people I looked up to.”

She had no trouble living up to it. She even launched into the NRO’s 30th season in Breckenridge as an opening night soloist. It marked her solo debut.

“It’s always been something I wanted to do but had always been scared of,” she says. “That solo will always be one of my standout memories and highlights of my time with the NRO.”

After wrapping up her second summer in Breckenridge, Koh moved to Miami, where she earned a fellowship with the prestigious New World Symphony. She is embracing every detail of the experience with the perspective and wisdom she gained in Breck.

“I’m transferring a lot of what I learned with the NRO,” she says. “The bulk of the benefit is learning that much music, also working with different conductors and the rotation of seats. I’m enjoying and embracing my experience here so far.”

Koh’s ultimate goal is to land a full-time position with a major U.S. orchestra.

“People who play in an orchestra do it because they love it,” she says. “Having that similar aspiration of making good music together with people who have the same vision as you is heart-warming, but even something more than that. Symphonies possess that grandeur, but also give you that whole feeling of community.”

Photos by Elaine Collins @breckhappens