Rachel Barton Pine
What’s incredible about the 38-year-old award-winning, world-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine is how relaxed she is. She talks easily — long smooth sentences that never lose a beat — and with warmth and humor about the life she leads which, on musical ground alone, would prove daunting — a touring schedule that keeps her hopping week after week all over the globe and country, performing with top orchestras, writing, blogging, serving on boards and giving master classes. She’s also working on a publishing project to put out new editions of etudes, with companion DVDs, that reflect her preferences for dynamics, fingering, bowing, phrasing. And she advocates everywhere and seemingly all the time for greater appreciation of all kinds of music, especially on behalf of the minority youngsters served by her charitable Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation.
Although she was clearly tired, she was eager to talk about a recent music marathon that she compares to an Olympic decathlon — playing all 24 of the Paganini Caprices. “A huge technical challenge” as well as a test of physical stamina for which she prepared by watching her diet and sleep and training her muscles, the Paganinis are not, she concedes, a feat for everyone. But no surprise to learn that she’s readying up to do them again at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. “right in front of the portrait of Paganini [by Delacroix].” And she’ll be going on tour to do all five Mozart’s violin concertos — in a single evening. She will have not only memorized her solo parts, of course, but also, like Mozart, be conducting — cueing and playing with the string section. The idea is to gain insight into individual pieces by playing them all together. Need it be said that Rachel Barton Pine also writes program notes and, as time and occasion permit, talks to audiences and suggests what they should listen for?
Add to her daunting list of commitments the constant and joyous time she spends with her husband and 11-month old daughter, and the total far exceeds 100 percent. How does she do it? And how did she do it, coming as she did from a poor family (her father was unemployed for most of her “precarious” childhood), and they often had no phone or electricity). She helped support the family from the age of 14, traveling to jobs all alone. Talk about overcoming difficulty and meeting challenge!
A clue might lie in her daughter’s name, “Sylvia.” It’s from Latin, meaning “of the woods” and the wooden instrument Rachel Barton Pine plays is, like her child, an extension of her soul. She would like to instill in the youngsters who benefit from the charity she founded in 2001 that same drive, along with “an awareness of and appreciation of classical music.” Many of them, blacks and Latinos, are poor as she was, and so her foundation provides for instrument loans, grants for career education and for a role model supplemental curriculum, String Students’ Library of Music by Black Composers.
The youngsters she talks to often ask what she “sacrificed” to achieve. Her answer is not surprising — nothing. One reason is that she was home schooled in a way that gave her more, not less, practice time. She knows that “home schooling” (also known as “unschooling” because it does not follow grade or semester order) puts some people off because they associate it with a hippie lifestyle or a religiously motivated replication of the classroom at home. Ironically, however, it was the principal of the Lutheran school she was attending when she was eight and in the third grade, who suggested to her parents that home schooling might be “the most practical way” for her to pursue her passion for music. The experience, which she stayed with her until the age of 16, was terrific, giving her more violin time since the academic schooling was more diffuse, “inner directed” and going on 24/7 every day of the year. One summer, she recalled, she went on a “math binge.”
Whence the extraordinary energy? Well, she did start young — a child prodigy who knew by the age of three that music “spoke” to her. “I am a violin,” she recalls saying. By age five she was deeply committed to playing and at age seven made her debut playing in all manner of styles — classical, blues, rock, folk. The violin she points out is “many instruments.” Clearly, however, her marriage helps sustain her. Her husband, 100 percent supportive, is on the road with her 100 percent of the time, consulting with his computer clients by way of Skype and cell. She laughs when she notes how they met — in church. Had they tried online, they would have passed each other by – he was a minor league baseball pitcher and she liked heavy metal. But they both loved music and history.
There were also mentors along the way who gave her professional advice, including making CDs, and an “ethical perspective” about honoring concert dates, even if a more lucrative opportunity came along. Her Master Plan, she says, is to go on playing until she’s well into her seventies, then “retire gracefully.” Gracefully? No doubt. Retire? Inconceivable.