Wherever Natalie Helm goes, Ricky follows. At this point, she’s so familiar with the weight of carrying him on her back she forgets he is there.
It happened just a few weeks ago, when she stopped for a bottle of wine on her way home from a concert. “Excuse me,” said a woman behind her, grumpily squeezing past Helm. “What do you have that cello in here for, anyways?”
“Sorry!” Helm squeaked. “I take it with me everywhere.”
It’s normal for her. Helm’s prize cello, a Raphael di Blasio cello from 1803, never sits in a hot car. Instead he goes with her to the bank, the grocery store and even on impromptu museum tours. The cello is named “Ricky” after her grandfather Enrico Cretella, because both hail from Naples, Italy.
She’s worked too hard to earn Ricky, who only came into her life two years ago and was essential in earning her newest position. They worked together to against 45 other applicants to win her seat as the Sarasota Orchestra’s new principal cellist.
“Ricky and me, we got this,” Helm said. “It’s a team effort.”
The cello is a part of her now. He never stays away from her for long.
Serious about music
Helm, 29, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky: a place where, she said, “classical music wasn’t a big deal.”
Regardless, her mother, Linda Jones, insisted that Helm and her sister, Rebecca, play instruments. Rebecca chose piano, while Helm started playing Suzuki violin at age 3.
She always loved the sound of the cello, though, and switched instruments at age 11.
“I totally liked the cello better,” Helm said. “My mom didn’t think I was that serious.”
The first thing she played, as soon as she had mastered the fingering, was Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. It was “The Cello Piece” for Helm as a child, and it’s remained one of her favorites that she pulls out and plays when asked at family gatherings.
The sisters were home-schooled, but participated in a whirlwind of activities: swimming, dance, horseback riding, Girl Scouts and youth orchestra filled their days. In junior year of high school, when it came time to focus on a career, Helm’s after school activities started to fade out. Cello took precedence.
“I couldn’t imagine not playing, was the thing,” she said. “It was never even an option to not do it, so I said, ‘okay, I guess I’m quitting everything else.’ It wasn’t an a-ha moment. It was just part of who I was.”
Helm received her BA from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with cellists Peter Wiley and the late David Soyer, and then earned an artist diploma from the Colburn School in 2014. Most recently, she held Principal and Cello Fellowship positions for the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra and is currently a member of the Des Moines Metro Opera.
With her first full-time job at a professional orchestra in Sarasota, Helm replaces Abe Feder, who had been principal cellist from 2008 to 2016. He joined the Dallas Symphony in the fall. Sarasota has been a welcoming community, she said.
“One thing I’ve noticed, and everybody has said to me, is that you are never going to find a friendlier orchestra or more supportive atmosphere,” Helm said. “From day one – and I’m not just saying this to butter up – everybody has been right. There’s not a competitive bone here. It’s for the well-being of everything, and I love that.”
Helm said she spends an average of 25 hours a week practicing on her own outside of orchestra rehearsals, which run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Most people don’t realize how much solo work is done to prepare, she said.
She gets up at 7 a.m. every day, no matter what time she went to bed the night before. Mornings are for music, like they have been since she was a child.
“You’re not going to luck into this career,” she said. “You have to work for it, nonstop, even once you have a job. And you have to be careful not to let that change your love of music.”
Sometimes, Helm said, the best thing to do is not even touch the cello. Instead, she will listen to old records, paint with watercolors, or volunteer with the Humane Society of Sarasota – anything to give a fresh perspective to pieces that can become stale unless given new context.
While Helm practices a lot on her own, she spends even more time with the other 45 core members of the Sarasota Orchestra.
“You’d think we would get tired of each other, but we don’t,” she said. “There’s a group text for each section. The strings and brass usually hang out, with a little bit of woodwinds thrown in there. We go out after concerts sometimes, and on rehearsal days we get lunch. It’s a really friendly, supportive atmosphere. It’s not like this in most other places.”
Helm’s friend, principal second violinist Samantha Bennett, described her as very committed and easy to work with.
“I met her a few years ago, and we attended the Spoleto Festival in Charleston together,” Bennett said. “Natalie is just the kind of person who sparkles when you’re around her. It’s so easy to become friends with her. She’s like sunshine.”
Being a professional musician is wonderful work, Helm said, but not easy. Twenty years of practicing every day, plus a half dozen auditions a year, has led her here.
“It’s awesome to be principal cellist. You feel like your voice is heard a little bit more,” Helm said. I guess the downfall of the job you don’t get to choose where you live – but sometimes you nail it and you end up living in Sarasota.”