Spotlight on Symphony and Jaxx Violist/Singer/ Songwriter
Anastasia (An Yá) Yarbrough

I continue to be impressed at the number of amazing female musicians, composers, songwriters and vocalists in this area. I never get tired of or take for granted the opportunity to meet, greet and become friends with so many talented women by being among them. This month’s case-in-point is classically-trained (She studied with Lila Brown and Sheila Browne) Asheville and Hendersonville Symphony and Brevard Philharmonic violist—and wildlife sociology advocate—Anastasia (An Yá) Yarbrough.

We met at a weekly jazz jam, going on six months ago, when she introduced herself to me upon the recommendation of a mutual friend. Because networking is the essential approach we take in order to keep ourselves working and sharing with the public what we love most, she and I shared a powwow conversation. At the end of it, she gave me what is fast becoming her trademark, mama-bear hugs.

I instantly found her to be direct, friendly, savvy and solid on her path in life and career. At that time I was booking and hosting the monthly Female Artist Spotlight Nights at The Block off Biltmore. Landing a slot at one of these showcases, she explained, would enable her to showcase her developing solo act, whereby she uses a looping device to record live on stage and in the moment, riffs and rhythms to engage and then play over, allowing her to sound like three or four instruments at once.
We settled on a performance date for the series. What happened that evening this past summer, was an experience none of us had ever seen before. Her command over the entire looping process proved she had been working diligently on effective and compelling arrangements of some of her favorite, mostly jazz, tunes. When she added her earthy, rich and soulful voice to varied tunes, it proved her prowess as a strong lead, improvisational singer.

Since then, and most recently, we shared the stage at my annual holiday variety show at Isis Music Hall where each year, I invite various players and singers to join me on stage for two sets of duets and solo pieces to what is notably a full house. I pick the tunes for each of the musical guests and one of the tunes I asked An Yá to play and sing was a Bill Withers tune, the classic “Lovely Day.” It was one of several pinnacle moments in the show and at the end of her delivery, she received an incredibly well deserved standing ovation.

Before this show, I asked her if I could send her some questions to be used in this feature, so that we could all get to know her a little bit better.

You were born and raised in Memphis TN. Tell us a bit about your upbringing.

Yes, I grew up with mom (who was a single parent), my younger brother, grandmother, and extended family. I have a fairly large extended family. I grew up with many cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Was there a defining moment that set you on your musical path?
As a child, I used to sing all the time, mostly alone in my room. I called it “privacy time” and my mom was really big on honoring privacy since we lived in such a small house and had to share pretty much everything. I was always drawn to music, constantly exposed to it through the radio and old records. I always liked singing with others but I wasn’t a fan of performing; I just wanted to share the experience of making music with others. Strings class in middle school introduced me to instrumental music. That’s where I learned how to read music and play an instrument. In 7th grade, I started on the cello and a year later switched to the viola. I’ve been playing ever since.

For someone not well versed in classical or chamber music, but with an interest in learning to listen, what pieces of music or artists would you recommend?
Prokofiev is pretty awesome. I’m particularly fond of his fifth symphony. Brahms is excellent to listen to for chamber music. His quintet no. 2 in G major is the best. Hindemith is also great for solo viola.

Talk about the experience of rehearsing with and then performing with the local symphonies of which you are a part.
The basics of any rehearsal are about coming together as an ensemble to find a shared understanding of the music at hand. For symphonic and chamber rehearsals, the emphasis is on hearing where our parts fit in the piece as a whole and on solving problems that may arise in interpreting the thoroughly composed music before us. Usually for symphonies, we have a few rehearsals before the dress rehearsal where we run the program in concert order then we play the concert.

Was your interest in classical and jazz simultaneous or chronological?
No, I actually didn’t get into jazz until a few years ago. I’ve only been playing for a year, but I started listening heavily to jazz after discovering Esperanza Spalding and Regina Carter. I’ve been completely immersed in jazz since then. Playing classical music often felt compulsory because of my instrument but once I discovered jazz violin, I knew I could do more with the viola. I feel more musically at home learning music from a jazz frame of mind.

Where did your dedication to wildlife sociology stem?
It came out of my first degree. Before animal studies were a thing, I designed my undergraduate major around the intersections of wildlife biology, sociology, and philosophy. I was always interested in animal behavior. In fact, I had dreams of being like Jane Goodall or David Attenborough. The more I read philosophical and sociological texts exploring nonhuman animals as subjective beings, the more I wanted to be part of that paradigm shift. Obviously now, I am nowhere near being like Jane Goodall in my career, but those initial interests are still very much with me even if I’m not pursuing them as an academic.

Explain the chronology of your education; the places and years you acquired your degrees and scholarships.
I have two bachelors: one in natural resources, the other in music. I got my first one in Vermont in 2008. The second was at the School of the Arts in Winston Salem this year in May.

What brought you to Asheville?
I came to Asheville for the first time in 2009 while participating in the Young Adult Residency program at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC. I was intrigued by the town then. I came back to live in 2011 working at the nonprofit Green Opportunities as an Americorps VISTA. I worked for a couple of years in the nonprofit sector here in Asheville. Then I drifted back into music, playing with the Blue Ridge Orchestra and small gigs around the area. I decided to commit to music full time, so I went back to school and got a degree in music. I’ve been working full time in music ever since.

What do you think of the local jazz scene; it’s musicians and any friendships you’ve forged?
I’ve met some awesome, well-rounded musicians in Asheville’s jazz scene. I’m particularly fond of Jason De Cristofaro. He’s been wonderful to play with and
learn from.

Future music and wildlife sociology goals?
I’m looking to venture even deeper into modern jazz and develop more of my original music. I’m not sure how to manifest my interests in wildlife sociology with music, that’s still a work in progress. I’m exploring some ideas at the moment, but nothing is official. In the meantime, I keep active as a growing music professional. Though they remain separate at the moment, I satisfy my interests in nonhuman animals through activism.

To learn more about her past and present, I invite you to visit her beautiful website, www.anastasiayarbrough.com

Peggy Ratusz
Written by Peggy Ratusz