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‘Viola Mom’ is the classical clown of TikTok

New York Philharmonic player Rebecca Young is earning new fans and racking up likes with her irreverent takes on the classics.Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic associate principal violist Rebecca Young knows that most of the people who watch her irreverent videos on TikTok are less than half her age, and she owns it.

“That’s how I got the name Viola Mom,” she said in a phone interview from her New Jersey home. “People were saying, ‘You’re our mom now!’”

But long before she was “mom” to a massive horde of TikTok teens, she was mom to Emma, her 17-year-old daughter, who often drafted Young into appearing in videos on the platform. One went viral after commenters recognized Young.

“They were just like, ‘What?! Is that Rebecca Young?! And I’m like, ‘Who knows me? I’m just an obscure person in the orchestra!’ But some of the comments were asking me to play something,” recounted Young. She responded with a lightning-speed “Orange Blossom Special,” performed in yoga pants and a hoodie. Commenters clamored for more.

Exuberance comes easily to the violist, who held the principal chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for one year in the early ’90s. The same zany antics that got her voted class clown in high school served her well in hosting the Philharmonic’s interactive Very Young People’s Concerts — and now, in enlisting her Philharmonic pals to play along on TikTok.


She launched her own channel, @ry_violamom, in December and it took off instantly. During filming on the streets of New York with piccolo player Mindy Kaufman, a young passerby recognized Young, saying, “Oh my God, you’re Viola TikTok!”

“I’ve been looking for this kind of creative outlet for a really long time. I love the orchestra, but I’m one of 100, and I have so many ideas,” said Young, whose most recent videos include a 12-person rendition of whaling-song-turned-viral-hit “Wellerman” and a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” condensed into 60 seconds. “It’s become this ... I call it ShtickTok.”


Q. Did your daughter make you start your own account?

A. She didn’t make me start the account, I just eventually did it. She had to help me edit at first, and now I know enough that I can do it on my own, and each time I do another one I learn more. I’m about to start learning how to do something like Final Cut Pro so I can film on my camera, put it in there, and change the timing of things.

Q. Fractions of seconds really count. [TikTok limits the duration of videos to one minute.]

A. It’s the hardest part of this whole thing. But when I was thinking about starting to do this, I was doing a little research online. I haven’t done social media till now at all. The piece of advice that kept coming up was “just do it.” Just make a video because if you don’t you’re not going to learn, but each time you do it it’ll be a little bit better. So I took that advice and I jumped in.

What I’ve been really surprised about is the fact that most of my colleagues are not just willing but eager to get involved. I get these comments that say, “How are we getting players from the New York Philharmonic for free?” It’s because we’re having so much fun!

Q. Do you think you’d have had time to do the TikTok channel if this were a normal Philharmonic season?


A. I don’t know! When you have responsibilities, including the kids and the dogs and the commute and the music to learn and the music to bow, it leaves a lot less time. But now that it’s a priority for me there’s no way that I’m going to give it up. Starting here, it’ll probably lead to doing longer things.

Q. I was wondering how much the Philharmonic was getting involved with your TikTok.

A. Not at all. This is mine. The Philharmonic has been very supportive; they actually asked me if I would take over their TikTok. And I said, “I’ve been in the orchestra for nearly 35 years, and this is the first thing that’s really been mine, so if you need me for something specific I’ll help, but I’m not giving this up to do that.”

I’m asking people as friends to do this, and I have a queue that’s getting longer and longer. I love fulfilling requests; the most asked for musician in the orchestra is Anthony McGill. I sent him a screenshot of a few of those requests and he said yes. We may have to wait until the weather gets warm, but at least I have him on board.

Q. Has this given your creativity a boost during quarantine?

A. One-hundred percent. I have a bounce in my step. With COVID, and politics, and concerns about the music profession, it was very scary for a while. There were moments at the beginning when I actually had a full-blown panic attack. And it was like ... I’m not like that. I’m not prone to panic attacks. But since I started getting into these things, it really has given me so much pleasure.


And the connection to the people I’m reaching with this... the teen audience is something [new]. With this stuff, you’ve got their attention, and who knows, we might even get them into the hall to hear a concert. I mean, that’s not the point. It’s just, I think music can be fun. You don’t want to feed people vegetables all the time. You’ve got to give them dessert. Some of the classical music can be vegetables, and what I’m doing with it feels like dessert.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.