Erin MacCurtain

Scientist Experiences Moving Reunion with Her Violin

November 11, 2009 10:04

Maya Shankar was on a course to becoming a professional violinist when a terrible set back turned her life in a completely new direction. Music was a part of her past until a surprising phone call changed everything, again.

At 16, Maya was studying with renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman and preparing for a career as a professional violinist. One day, she was practicing a Paganini Caprice when she heard a pop and felt a searing pain in her finger. "The pain didn't go away, and I visited several doctors," she recalls. Maya spent a year trying to overcome the injury. "Eventually they told me I had to stop playing completely. I was devastated."

Maya went on to Yale University feeling like she had lost part of her identity. She remembers going to the extra-curricular bazaar and looking longingly at the Yale orchestra table. "I was feeling this pull towards the music organizations," she says, "but I knew music could no longer be a part of my life and I had to explore other options."

Maya soon found other interests and enveloped herself in studying cognitive science, working in various labs with both monkeys and humans and became very involved in community service and social justice pursuits. At the end of her time at Yale, her scientific work was honored by one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. She was the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and is now pursuing her Ph.D. at Oxford University in England.

Maya hadn't played her violin in seven years, when she accepted an invitation to attend the Academy of Achievement Summit in South Africa. Two weeks later she received an incredible phone call.

"Maya," said the caller, "Joshua Bell will be attending the conference and we'd love if you could play a duet with him."

Maya thought to herself, "You must have the wrong Maya. This Maya doesn't play violin anymore!" But she paused and a moment of hopeful enthusiasm took over and she felt herself blurting out, "Yes!"

After weeks of procrastination, she finally picked up the violin again for the first time in seven years and found that not only did her hand feel better, but that playing felt natural. On just 15 minutes a day of practice, she was able to prepare for what turned out to be the performance of her lifetime, and a joyful return to music.

Although pursuing her Ph.D. remains her central focus, Maya has been slowly integrating music back into her life. Right now, she plays only 15 minutes a day while she builds up her strength, but as she says, "It's so wonderful experiencing the musical world again!"

Maya is featured in performance on this week’s episode of From the Top, as part of From the Top’s 10th Anniversary Alumni Spotlight Series. Tune in on participating stations and online at

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