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Erin MacCurtain

Scientist Experiences Moving Reunion with Her Violin

November 11, 2009 at 5:04 PM

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

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 5:40 PM

What an inspring story.  Thanks for sharing it!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 5:55 PM

Cool for her!!!


From Amy Jean
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 5:58 PM

 Wow. An amazing story!! I'm really happy for her=)

From Jasmine Reese
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 7:15 PM

That's so nice of Joshua Bell!

From Bart Meijer
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 9:05 PM

I can relate. What a joy!

From David Rowland
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 9:05 PM

Wow! I'm speechless! What a dream come true!

From Christopher Liao
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 9:20 PM

Inspiring. Welcome back to the violin, Maya, wherever you are!

From John Platen
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 1:17 AM

So many questions were not answered in this piece? Had she tried again in those 7 years? What was the original diagnosis? Why does she think the pain went away? What had she tried to solve the problem? So many great players are hurt and cannot play right now, knowing some of these things would help so many! 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 4:15 AM

It sounds miraculous and happy, but a few pieces of the puzzle are missing.  Who called Maya and asked her to play with JB?  Didn't the caller know that Maya hadn't played for years?  Why was Maya chosen?  She recovered well enough to play a duet with him, but now she can only practice for 15 minutes a day.  It must have been a short duet.  Since she hadn't played violin in years, she must have had an awful lot of catching up to do in a short time to play well enough to play w JB.  This sounds like an urban legend to me.  However, if she did have a spontaneous recovery after 7 years, I'm very happy for her.

From Elizabeth Musil
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 6:41 AM

Here's a video of Maya Shankar where she talks about her experiences. 


From Royce Faina
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 3:45 PM

wonderful story!

From Erin MacCurtain
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 6:23 PM

Thank you all for your comments about my post. Maya Shankar is a wonderful person and an inspirational story about the power of music. I did want to respond to a couple of the questions I've seen in relation to the article. 1) The phone call invitation to play with Joshua Bell came from the directors of the Academy of Achivement. Maya had been invited to attend the conference for her research as a cognitive scientist and Rhodes scholar. The organizers saw on her resume that she had been an award-winning violinist and decided to ask her. Maya has said that even though she hadn't picked up the violin in years, she always felt like she was still a musician and as she describes on the From the Top radio episode she couldn't believe herself when she agreed to play. She says she procrastinated for weeks before beginning to practice out of fear of what would happen  2) As for the injury and recovery, out of respect to Maya's wishes I can not disclose the details of her injury. But it is evident that resting her hand for all those years alleviated the symptoms she was suffering from as a teenager and by only practicing a limited amount each day she is being careful not to aggravate it again.

From Bernard Wong
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 8:45 PM

What a wonderful person and story.  She has such beautiful tone & sound.  I wish her the best. Thanks for sharing the story!

From Vartkes Ehramdjian
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 2:23 AM

Hello fellow violinists,

I fully understand Maya, for I have gone through a similar tragedy.
I was not studying with Perlman nor Heifetz, but  with a great maestro from Bologna Italy Alberico Stefanatti.

I was 24 and at the top of my solo career, when i seriously damaged my left forearm in a car accident.
It was the end of the world to me, and I had stopped living.
The damage worsened when they removed the cast and discovered that there was 10 degrees of difference between two vital bones. (which makes playing on the G string terribly painful)

I had no Phd, nor like Peter Oundjian had studyied conducting with Herbert Von Karajan.

But (miracles do happen)  with time and help from great teachers from the former USSR, i slowly but surely overcame the obstacles, by practicing 15 minutes a day, and eventually reaching to the level of playing "L'ecole moderne" de H. Wieniawsky, and  N. Paganini 24 caprices, and of course master pieces by J.S. Bach, J. Brahms violin concerto.

My advice to  younger violinists is not to give up,under any circumstances when you face a similar situation.  Work slowly, and with time you will surely get back to your level and back to the instrument you love which is the violin. 





From Sanjay Jayaratne
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 6:37 AM

What an inspring story.  Thanks for sharing it!

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