In concert: Cindy Helton
“If someone needed help choosing what string to play, to me it’s an easy question. If you like the spotlight, than the violin is for you. But if you prefer being in the background, the viola would be the better choice.”
Cindy Helton is quiet. It takes a few questions before she gets comfortable, but even when the words start flowing she speaks slowly and chooses her phrases carefully. It’s a sign of thoughtfulness, and she has a subtle sense of wisdom about her.
Those close to Helton would not be surprised she considers herself comfortable “in the background” or serving as a “supporting role.” For the same reasons, fellow musicians close to Helton would not be surprised she plays the viola.
“The viola is like a supporting role, it’s beautiful but not the pretty and famous one,” she said.
It’s happenstance how she stumbled upon the viola in the first place, but after many years of playing the instrument, Helton said the viola has always been the right choice for her.
Her musical career started in the fourth grade when the North Charleston native became part of the Charleston County School District strings program.
“I didn’t like the violin because of the high pitch, and I loved the cello, all of those deep, full sounds, but I had to walk to school.”
And so, at nearly 10 years old and only concerned with how far she would have to carry a heavy instrument back and forth between school and home, Helton made a choice that’s sparked a lifelong passion.
She explained the viola is a compromise between the two instruments – its high string is the violin’s lowest note and its low string is the cello’s second highest.
But after graduating from high school and marrying husband and military man, John, the couple moved away from the Lowcountry for his U.S. Navy and Coast Guard careers. During the 18 years away Helton carried her viola from place to place and played at home but “didn’t find an opportunity to do anything with it.”
When the family moved back to the Charleston area in 2008 Helton saw an advertisement for the Summerville Community Orchestra.
“I’m a shy person … but I finally got up the nerve to call and everybody at the orchestra welcomed me with open arms. I was so glad.”
Helton’s now in her sixth year of playing with SCO and she even serves as the orchestra president, a liaison role between the musicians, the board of directors and the equipment manager.
For her the position is another way she can support others.
“I accepted the position of president viewing it as an opportunity to serve this wonderful group of musicians by helping to ensure that the things going on behind the scenes, things the audiences do not see, are taken care of. I can think of no better support role.”
Helton fills most of her time being a supportive mother, grandmother, wife, and Old Fort Baptist Church member, but the rest of her time she devotes to practicing her viola and playing with the orchestra.
“There are so many personal rewards for me with getting to do what I love, to see the reactions of the audiences. There’s almost an electricity, it’s like they can tell when you’re really into it. I think that has a lot to do with that we are local musicians. … I think the audience can tell if you’re up there and you love what you’re doing or if you’re just going through the motions.”
Of all of her performances with the orchestra, Helton said this year’s 9/11 performance at Summerville Baptist Church was her favorite.
“The audience got up and sang with us. It still gives me chills. For me it was very powerful.”
For Helton the experiences of playing with the orchestra were worth risking the possibility of embarrassing herself in front of the audience, and she encourages others to put themselves out there too.
“I think one of the best things a parent can do for a child is … allow them to discover what it is they truly enjoy. Music opens up a whole different world for people.”
Helton still plays her original viola from all those years ago.