By Eric Dicaire
Article reproduced from the Schulich School of Music blog (English only)
Marina Thibeault has many talents as a musician. Their virtuosic ability on the viola pairs with a deep knowledge of several musical traditions, incorporated masterfully into their performances. It’s no surprise, then, that Viola Borealis (2022) won a JUNO for Classical Album of the Year (Large Ensemble).
We’re honoured that Marina will return to the Schulich School of Music as an Assistant Professor of Viola this Fall. Once a student at our School (MMus ‘16; DMus ’22), Marina is now ready to steward our young musicians on their own musical journeys.
In this Q&A, Marina talks musical influences, the link between music performance and athleticism, and what makes Schulich a great place to learn and teach.
You earned your master’s and doctoral degrees in music from Schulich. And now, after performing and teaching elsewhere, you’re back! What is it about our School that keeps you coming back?
I first fell “in love” with academia during my master’s at the Schulich School of Music. All my musical training beforehand was conducted in a conservatory setting, where the emphasis was on performance. During my Masters, I was exposed to various areas of research, from composition seminars with Prof. Chris Paul Harmann on Lutoslawski and Penderecki, to Understanding the Performer’s body with Dr. Isabelle Cossette. Both courses have forged my identity as a performer and researcher, and it’s at McGill that I learned how to juxtapose both parts of my life in such a fulfilling manner.
This positive experience led me to pursue doctoral studies at McGill. I was completing my doctoral residency at the Schulich School of Music when I was offered the Assistant Professor of Viola and Chamber music position at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 2019, I moved to Vancouver with my family, and completed my doctoral project, while navigating a full-time faculty position and a busy concert schedule. It was not an easy task, but I felt compelled to complete this important chapter at McGill. I am so thankful to have had the support from Professor André Roy, my mentor since 2014, and my entire doctoral committee, who were empathetic of my atypical situation. Now that I can call them my colleagues, I feel thankful that I will have a chance to support and train the next generations of violists and string players and help them prepare for the right career path for them.
You’ve accomplished a lot since finishing your doctorate in 2022. What stands out to you as a particularly memorable or impactful experience since then?
The project that I am most proud of is the release of my third album under ATMA Classique, Viola Borealis, that also won a JUNO Award for Classical Album of the Year (Large Ensemble).
On this album, I explored the musical links between several northern cultures — from the 2016 concerto by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks to solo works by Anishinaabe composer Melody McKiver to the very first viola concerto, composed around 1716 by Telemann. I was joined by l’Orchestre de l’Agora under conductor Nicolas Ellis (MMus ’15) for the album.
The works by Melody McKiver are dedicated to the memory of their grandmother, a survivor of the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ontario. The six movements of Reckoning were originally improvised by McKiver on the viola, using a pedal to activate electronic effects.
During the summer of 2020, I became interested in this music and got in touch with McKiver to inquire about a potential transcription for solo viola. They advised a selection of two movements from Reckoning—the second and sixth—that were more suitable for solo viola. “Niizh” (meaning 2 in Anishinaabe) is a rather evocative movement “looking at the wounds inflicted on nature, and attempts to preserve it.”  The piece plays with nuances, allowing an expressive chant to emerge through passages with double-stops, harmonics, micro-trills, and circular bowings. “Ningodwaaswi”—which means “six”—represents “an introspection on various stages of grief.”
Robert Drisdelle, the producer of McKiver’s album, produced the first transcription from the recording. Reducing the music to notation and removing the electronic loops proved to be too limiting. Furthermore, although I had permission from the composer to play their music, I was concerned about the possibility of cultural appropriation. An ethical protocol guided our working relationship, similar to this scenario eloquently presented by Dylan Robinson in his 2020 publication, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous-settler Musical Collaborations:
I argue that performances involving First Peoples and non-Indigenous performers are not merely symbolic reflections of reconciliation—visual representations of working together by playing and moving together on stage—but a primary site for audiences to feel reconciliation’s non-representational pull of resolution. Inclusionary music acts as a site of affective investment where the push and pull of harmonic development and drive toward resolution arouse and sustain desire.
While McKiver did not appear on the stage with me for this project, they granted me permission and support to work with a third-party arranger, violist François Vallières, to continue on with the adaptation of the works for solo viola, preserving much of the richness from the original adding double stops and harmonics as substitutes for the electronic effects along with other expressive markings.
Rest and self-care are increasingly recognized as important parts of performance and musicality. How do you include rest and self-care in your life, and how has it impacted your own musical practice?
I have worked with a sports psychologist since 2014. I learned to plan my practice strategically, to vary the volume and intensity throughout the week, and include one complete rest day per week and after important events.
The viola is a particularly athletic instrument, due to its large size. Monthly osteo appointments as well as two strength training sessions per week are crucial to keep my body healthy. I also train for triathlons (swim-bike-run). In fact, I participated in my first Ironman 70.3 in the summer 2023 in Victoria, BC. Much of my creativity derives from the beautiful landscapes that I soak in while being in movement. Sleep and nutrition is also so important, and hard to maintain while being on tour. I very much view my musical life as an athlete. Making the “right” choices for me doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, it feels like I am making an investment in my wellbeing. The better I feel, the more I can help others and contribute to the world in a way that is fulfilling to me.
What’s your advice for students looking to be more mindful of their mental health over the coming academic year?
Music is a wonderful medium to foster consciousness, awareness, and mindfulness. While everyone’s needs are unique to their own upbringing and life circumstances, I strive to set a good example for my students by showcasing what has been working for me, and only hope it can serve as an inspiration to them.
I am very much looking forward to teaching a seminar this fall, entitled Exploration in Creative Processes and Performance Enhancement Techniques. This course explores artistic legacies and missions, approaches for effective practicing, rehearsal techniques, creative performance practice, and interdisciplinary connections. This course is inspired by all that is important to me as a 21-century musician, navigating a demanding field, thriving for a sustainable and fulfilling career.
McGill also has extraordinary initiatives such the Student Wellness Hub, which I very much look forward to taking part in!
You’ll be providing private instruction to students this year as well as coaching chamber music ensembles. What do you hope they take away from their work with you?
My teaching is based on infusing deliberate practice, mindfulness, and self-sufficiency in my students’ habits. Each student gets a well-balanced technique routine specifically curated to their needs. One of the most efficient ways to develop their self-awareness is to ask them questions frequently. While working on the repertoire, I often ask them this set of questions:
- What is the character?
- What sound do you need to achieve this mood?
- What do you need to do technically to bring this to life?
This follows them in the practice room as they craft their artistic vision. It is then my turn to help them express their own interpretation in the most efficient way.
Most teachers see their students individually only once a week. One of my top priorities is to deepen the quality of their practice throughout the week, so that they can become their own guide, and one day, find a passion to teach as well so these principles can be passed to many generations.
I get most satisfaction when students are curious, enthusiastic, and driven by the journey of learning. The outcomes will come generously when the students are present in each step that it takes until they reach their goals. This is what makes music research so fulfilling. I consider myself a forever student and I always dream of further research and ways to make my playing/ practicing more efficient.
Whether you play a quartet or a sonata with piano, score study is essential. Prepare your own part before the first coaching or lesson, but also, be aware of how it fits with the others. This not only saves tremendous rehearsal time but makes the knowledge of the piece much richer and everlasting. Part of the life of a violist is being a chameleon and transforming our sound depending who you are supporting, or if you have the primary voice.
Of course, accuracy and consistency are important, but not at the expense of expressivity. With the three questions related to character/sound/technique, the student is always thinking of expressivity first, while pairing it with technical tools to support their ideas. These two processes go hand in hand and rarely are dissociated in my studio (unless we are de-rooting unhealthy technical habits!).
What would you consider “essential listening” for any music lover, across any musical genre?
Franz Schubert, Winterreise. I dream of playing the whole cycle on the viola with piano, one day. I have been studying the text of various translations for a few years. I am obsessed with Ian Bostridge’s version with Julius Drake.
Located in downtown Montreal, Canada, the Schulich School of Music embodies the highest international standards of excellence in professional training and research. We’re known for our programs in orchestra, opera, jazz, early music, and contemporary music, and our leadership in sound recording and music technology creates unique possibilities for collaborations with the music community at large.