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Sunny (Story Featured on KPCC)

I first met Sunny when she was a student in the 4th grade 7 years ago at Castelar Elementary School – a low-income Title 1 school situated in Chinatown and known for being the 2nd oldest school in the LA Unified School District. Sunny was learning to play the violin in their school-wide music program that Education Through Music-LA had implemented. In the violin section during ETM-LA’s Music Unites the World festival, I had noticed a generally shy but confident child who beamed with joy and smiled ear to ear as she played. She seemed to be both happy and content – but focused with steely determination. After the festival, I congratulated all the students; and as I made my way to Sunny, her grandmother Nece had graciously thanked me.

Nece shared as I listened as intently as I could – how she had loved singing back in the day…especially jazz and listed all the greats…and was deeply grateful that Sunny gets to learn music in school.

From that moment on, both Sunny and Nece held a special place in my heart. As I got to know them more, I discovered Sunny did not have her parents around to raise her, that she needed to be a voice and care for her grandmother – and that they were struggling with financial hardship.

The following year, I continued to see Sunny blossom in 5th grade in the music program – she was thriving musically and academically. After graduation, she was selected for a special scholarship program at Colburn School but for a different instrument – the clarinet. And while she joined the public middle school orchestra program, Sunny was hungry to go deeper on the violin.

While I had a very full schedule, I felt compelled to do something because I I had witnessed how the violin had become Sunny’s outlet that brought her joy, pride, focus, and motivation in life. And I saw her incredible potential. So, I decided to take her under my wing and gave her free lessons. I also saw that she needed a better instrument, so, my husband and I decided to dip into our savings to get her a nicer violin.

Two years ago, she was accepted to the prestigious LA County HS for the Arts. The rigor of the high school orchestra combined with the heavy coursework was both welcoming but terrifying. The orchestra music alone was repertoire typically played by professional orchestras.

On top of that, Sunny and Nece were forced to move out of their apartment due to rising rent costs and gentrification. Hopping from one temporary housing situation to another, there were times Sunny had to travel up to four (4) hours round-trip by bus just to get to her lesson.

I remember one particular lesson when I really heard what was going on in her life manifest in her playing. Vibrato is a technique crucial to violin playing – it provides warmth and emotion in the music you are paying. It’s like seeing something in 3D instead of 2D.

Demonstration with vibrato — [play example];  Demonstration without vibrato — [play example]

For students who are learning to play vibrato, often times they might have a concept of what they want it to sound like based on the recordings they’ve heard from great violinists. They rush through the process to get to that product.

But, as with learning any skill, you have to go through the proper steps. You can’t skip steps – it’s like baking a cake.

To play vibrato correctly it requires a type of relaxed control — patience, letting go, and trusting yourself and the process.

During this lesson, I could see some of the things she was facing outside of music come through her playing. I could tell it was challenging.

Her hand was tight and her desire to produce a fast vibrato was not only uncontrollable, it was potentially going to hurt her arm in the long run. And the attempt to control in this manner was choking the very voice she was trying to so beautifully convey. To achieve vibrato correctly one cannot force it. Rather, it requires a slow, patient and methodical approach so the left hand maintains flexibility and looseness.

We spent nearly the rest of the lesson problem solving on how to achieve a relaxed but controlled vibrato – being mindful of her breathing and self-aware of where she may be holding tension. We furthermore explored how building the technique affects the pitch, sound, and nuance and expression of the music.

That lesson brought a breakthrough in Sunny. She began to grasp the idea that she can both be in control while completely loose and flexible. And that she can give herself permission to exhale and slow down. That in one small movement of the finger – in building the technique of vibrato the right way, it could impact the expression and creativity of her music. It was so beautiful to see Sunny become more heightened in her awareness of her own self as she truly began to wrestle with the complex relationships of body, mind, soul, and expression.

This lesson is resonating in other areas of her life. Whether it’s managing her overwhelming schedule, new challenges, or handling frustration, anxiety, and emotions.

Through music – and the relaxed control it requires – Sunny is continuing to let go, be patient, and trust. I love getting to see her smile from ear to ear.  She is joyful. She is Sunny.

– Victoria Lanier, Executive Director, Education Through Music-Los Angeles


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