I started playing the violin just before I turned four. I grew up in Nebraska and went to a Montessori pre-school on a farm called Prairie Hill. Prairie Hill happened to have a Suzuki violin program there and when I heard the other kids playing these 1/16 size violins I begged my parents for lessons. They rented my first violin and I immediately fell in love with the instrument.
Before we jump into the interview, you should know a few things about my parents. My mother is a professor of Creative Writing and amateur flutist and my father is a professor of Actuarial Science, which is risk analysis, and knows nothing about music. My parents divorced when I was five. My mother moved to Illinois for three years before returning to Nebraska and my father stayed in Nebraska. I would travel between each home every other week and had two different Suzuki violin teachers—one was a very kind, sweet teacher and the other was a strict Chinese teacher who picked me up and turned me upside down for yawning in my very first lesson. Both parents made me practice almost everyday but they approached my violin studies from very different directions. My mom saw music as “fun” and we would often jam together while my dad took a much more analytical and disciplined approach to my lessons stressing repetition (“you must play this song five times with no mistakes”) and sometimes making me play with the CD to which I would exclaim “But dad! It’s too fast!!” My parents also come from very different cultures. My mother is American born and of German descent while my father is from Guyana, South America. My mother had a more relaxed mindset towards child rearing whereas my dad was incredibly strict. These opposing forces in my life lead to an incredible balance of discipline and artistic expression.
What were your thoughts about starting lessons?
Mom: At first I didn’t want to, I thought “this is going to be a big time investment.” And it sure was. But you so badly wanted a little violin, so we gave in. Watching the Suzuki method unfold, I was struck by the genius of it. You were learning a paradigm for learning. Whether your kid is going to be a musician or not, all kids need to learn how to learn.
Dad: I thought it was a great idea. I never had the chance to study music—well once I had the chance to take math or piano lessons. I went with math. I didn’t know kids could do violin. At Prairie Hill [a Montessori Pre-school], they had a Suzuki violin program. it was fortuitous that the violin was part of the education at your pre-school.
Did I always like to practice?
Mom: You never objected. I never had a problem getting you to practice. You were 3 years and nine months when you started. At the beginning, you would practice 3-5 minutes. But then I discovered that if I played the flute or piano with you, you would play 30 minutes or so. It was a lot of playing for a little kid. Because you were playing so much, you progressed very quickly. We would work on lesson stuff and make-up our own things. When you hit book five, the material was too tricky and I had to stop playing with you. By then you were highly self-motivated, you didn’t need me to play with you any more. I remember when you jumped from 30 minutes of practice to an hour a day. It was a huge leap. You were maybe nine or ten years old.
Dad: You were always disciplined. Practice wasn’t like “let’s have ice cream” [laughs]. We did it everyday. You didn’t always want to but we made you. Once you got tired, you would shut down. You would make lots of mistakes. But you always tried.
What kind of practice habits did we have?
Mom: When you were little, 4 or 5 we didn’t really have a schedule. It was whenever we got around to it. When you were a bit older it was usually right before dinner. However, it did become tricky with all of your homework and after school activities! But we made sure to practice everyday.
Dad: We would practice regularly and usually more than was recommended. At least 30 minutes a day. After we got divorced, I made daily practice part of the schedule and you practiced sometimes more than 30 minutes a day. Your teacher wasn’t very demanding but she was very nurturing. It was very important for you to have her in your life. I don’t know anything about music, but I do know that music is mathematical. I was teaching the fingering, the mechanical things. That’s what I was doing. I never learned to play Twinkle as they recommend in Suzuki. I thought it was silly. I tried to in whatever way I could ask you to bring emotion to the music. I didn’t know how to do this technically but we always had that emotional element in your practice.
Was there a point when it became clear that it was all worth it?
Mom: Yes, You had a recital. After the recital, this woman came up to us and said “she has such musicality.” It was one of those moments when someone named something that I was on the verge of knowing about you. The way that you played, there was so much passion. Not all other kids played that way. You were probably ten years old.
Dad: I never expected this to become a career. I wanted you to get something I never had. This was about discipline. I was preparing you for medical school. I thought you would become a physician and play violin on the side. Music was something I missed in my life. All I can play is the stereo [laughs]. I know I would have been a good musician if I had the chance, so I wanted you to have that opportunity.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Mom: No. I think we did everything right. I didn’t have a plan for you to become a musician. I was taking you to all these lessons and music festivals not expecting you to be where you are today. Your dad and I played integral but different roles. Your dad pushed you to take musical opportunities (such as studying at Interlochen when you were thirteen) while I was more of the nurturing and supportive role. It really worked.
Dad: I wish I had saved up more money [laughs]. Your musical training has made me understand America and racism. The biggest shock in your musical journey was how people saw you. You never got the acclaim and applause that you should have when you were growing up. People couldn’t hear what they should hear; and couldn’t see what they should see because you didn’t fit their stereotype. As a foreign born black person, this was the first time I saw the obstacles black Americans face.
What advice would you give to parents who are just starting their Suzuki journey?
Mom: Learning any new skill is very hard. Be prepared for the difficulties and challenges. It isn’t easy. If you play an instrument, play with your child. Even if you aren’t very good, just make music with your child. I would also say, if your child wants to quit I’d suggest to stick it out. Don’t let them quit. There is a lesson in sticking to something. One thing I never encountered with you was the desire to quit.
Dad: Consistency is the most important thing. Be consistent with your child and demand that the child take practice seriously.
Any memories you’d like to include?
Mom: When we went to your first fiddling contest. At home we just figured out how to fiddle. I love bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers. We messed around at home, figured out some tunes, you went to the competition and won first place. What was clear was who was self-taught and who had training. Even then your musicality came through. You were this little black girl on stage, in this plaid dress blowing everyone out of the water!