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Prodigies or Not: Menuhin Competition Inspires Young Austin Musicians

The best young violin players in the world are in Austin right now for the Menuhin Competition. It’s the first time the prestigious contest featuring players under 22 years old has been held in North America.

UT’s Butler School of Music is hosting the 10-day competition. And it’s a rare opportunity for aspiring young string players in the area to see what’s possible with a lot of hard work.

“It’s considered the Olympics of the violin. It’s also called the F1 of the violin," Butler School of Music Interim Director Glenn Richter says. “We’re getting an international and a national exposure and flair that is very special for Austin.”

And it's special for North America. The Menuhin Competition has been held every two years all over the world over the past three decades – but never on this continent. Project Manager Kevin Crook says it’s appropriate that Austin was its first stop in the U.S.

“Austin, Texas with its history with Texas Swing and fiddle music is a really good marriage with classical music and it’s a town that’s so used to live rock music and it’s nice to sort of celebrate live classical music in the same way," Crook says.

The youngest competitor in this year’s Menuhin Competition is just 10 years old. So it makes sense that to reach that level so young – you have to start early.

At Austin's Monarch Suzuki Academy, Saturdays are busy. There are no empty parking spaces outside of the Methodist Church where the school meets. And Sunday school classrooms at are taken over by violin, cello and guitar lessons.

Down the hall, a group of parents with infants and toddlers march in a circle on a colorful carpet. And downstairs, a handful of rambunctious kindergarteners name the notes and symbols on flash cards.

“I started as a Suzuki violin student when I was three years old. So I started where my students in this school are now," Monarch owner Shana Guidi says.

The school follows the Suzuki method – basically that kids can learn an instrument the same way they learn a language.

Guidi made sure her own daughter startedhearing music in the womb. And kids at the school start learning an instrument at age three.

“We try to catch kids kind of after potty training and before the language development pathways close in the brain," Guidi says.

Emma Garrett’s daughter, Sarah, started on the violin when she was three.

"She loved listening to music and she would pretend to play her toys as violins and so it was like, ‘well, I think she’s really ready to start the violin.’ And she loved taking lessons with Miss. Shana, it was kind of the highlight of her week," Garrett says.

Daniella Sideh’s kids also started young. But she says that doesn’t mean they’re giving up their childhoods.

“Oh they should absolutely be a kid but a kid still brushes their teeth and kid still has a bedtime," Sideh says. "For me, it’s just one of those things. Yes, they absolutely need be a kid but there are certain tools that I feel like it’s my responsibility to pass through to them. There are certain values, there are certain concepts that I feel like it’s my job to instill so that they will be happy, content, well-rounded adults.”

And the parents and staff at Monarch say that’s the goal for their young musicians. After all, not every kid who takes gymnastics classes or rides in a soap box derby ends up in the Olympics or Formula 1 racing. And not every young violinist will be in the Menuhin Competition.

Upstairs in the school’s advanced class, 12-year-old Lizzy Jones and 14-year-old Chet Fagerstrom are split on what the future holds.

“Music would be a more fun way to make a living than sitting down behind a cash register for eight hours," Fagerstrom says.

“I don’t really want to grow up and have violin as my profession – but I think it’s still fun to play it and I could probably play it throughout college and high school and maybe make some money," Jones says.

There’ll come a time when all of these kids – from the babies getting their first introduction to music – to the pre-teens learning new skills on their violins – will decide what role music will play in their lives. They may not end up in the Menuhin Competition. But the families at Monarch Suzuki – including Daniella Sideh’s – at least plan to go watch while it’s in town.

“I think there’s just tends to be a celebratory vibe in those places of music and discipline and working hard and I think it’s inspiring and great.”

The Menuhin Competition runs through March 2.

The Monarch Suzuki School is giving a series of performances Saturday, March 1 starting at noon at the Whole Foods in downtown Austin.

Disclosure: The Butler School of Music is an underwriter for KUT 90.5.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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