A man sitting in a chair in front of a red curtain playing the chelo.
Cellist Zach Williams, who graduates from VCU this semester as a music performance major, has been playing cello for more than a decade. (Photo by Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: From Johann Sebastian Bach to The Acacia Strain, as long as music is in his future, cellist Zach Williams will be happy

Williams, a music performance major, earned the rare opportunity to participate in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma through the Richmond Symphony.

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Few people ever get the opportunity to meet the most esteemed person in their field, let alone spend an afternoon working with them. Cellist Zach Williams became one of those few last semester when the Richmond Symphony selected him to attend a masterclass with the world-renowned Yo-Yo Ma.

With his pierced septum and tattoos, Williams is not what you might typically think a cellist looks like. Undoubtedly he is just as likely to be found listening to Black Sabbath as Beethoven. But Williams, who graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University this semester as a music performance major in the School of the Arts, has been playing cello for more than a decade — often with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra.

He jumped at the chance last fall to audition for a spot in the orchestra’s master class featuring Ma, but was stunned when he found out he had made it.

“I was just sitting on the couch, scrolling through my phone as usual,” he said. “And then I get the email and … ‘Oh my God, I really can’t believe it.’ At first it just took a second for reality to [sink in]. … It was very exciting. And I was really honored that they thought that I was good enough to get to work with them.”

A man wearing a mask standing next to another man who is also wearing a mask and sitting in a chair holding a cello.
The Richmond Symphony and the Richmond Symphony School of Music hosted "A Cello Master Class with Yo-Yo Ma" on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Here, Ma provides feedback to Williams after listening to him play. (Photo by James H Loving Photography

As part of the class, Williams played his selection for Ma, who then came on stage to provide feedback and workshop ideas.

A lot of Ma’s feedback dealt with emotion.

“A big thing that he said that stuck with me was, ‘If you don't feel what you want to feel in a certain section — If you don't have a specific feeling that you want to convey — then the audience is not going to feel that,’” Williams said. “So just trying to get all those different characters to come out more and having a better understanding of what you want certain parts of the piece to sound like.”

It was something Williams would never have thought of on his own. But every performance since that masterclass has been better and more expressive because of it, he said.

And the experience was an affirmation — not that he needed it — that he made the right choice in sixth grade to switch from playing guitar to cello so he could join the school orchestra. The transition was easy. Although guitars and cellos are drastically different in some respects, he said, they are both string instruments. 

More importantly, he just likes the way the cello sounds.

“It's so appealing,” he said. “I might be a little bit biased because I have been doing it for a while, but I think it's the most enjoyable to listen to and the pieces that are written for it are just great. I really don't think there's another instrument that could do what we do as well.”

Early on, he realized he couldn’t see himself doing anything else and began taking private lessons with various mentors. That led him to studying with Dana McComb, an instructor in the VCU Department of Music, as an underclassman in high school. 

McComb was a big reason he decided to study at VCU.

“I really like her teaching style,” he said. “I like how we work together. So I wanted to continue studying with her. And the music program [at VCU] was really good. … This is what I have the most fun doing and the fact that I knew there were jobs that would allow you to do this as your career … that seems like a really good fit for me. Even like the first couple of years of playing, I [thought] this is what I want to do.”

Williams still plays guitar — mostly metal and rock — and fiddles with bass here and there. On the cello, he plays “your standard classical repertoire,” such as Mozart and Beethoven. But, he said, the cello is definitely applicable to more than just classical music, pointing out metal bands that have saxophonists and “really out there” instrumentation.

So, a cello in rock music would not sound out of place.

“But I also really like Americana and folk music and stuff like that, which [the cello] is definitely a lot bigger in that sort of scene,” he said. “It could apply to other stuff outside of classical music.”

After graduation, Williams plans to take a gap year before returning to school to study.

Beyond that is a tough question to answer, he said.

The choices are almost endless because he likes to play lots of different kinds of music. Being in a heavy metal band sounds “super fun," while he’d also be happy playing more folk and Americana type of music. He could do both, he said, since he doesn’t want to limit himself to one type of sound. Or, he may start a band or join a chamber music group.

“As long as it involves music though, I'd probably be pretty happy,” he said.

Two men searing face masks shaking hands in front of a piano. The man on the right is holding a cello. Behind them another man stands behind the piano.
The Richmond Symphony and the Richmond Symphony School of Music hosted "A Cello Master Class with Yo-Yo Ma" on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Zach Williams, senior performance major at VCUarts Music, was chosen by audition to participate. Zach collaborated with Daniel Stipe, piano, for his master class performance. (Photo by James H Loving Photography)