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Kimberly  Simpkins

Back to School for this 'Late Starter', or My Amazing Musical Journey, Part 1

February 9, 2013 at 10:02 PM

Last month, I took a huge step in my life to do something that I have not done in 20 years...I am going back to school! As of January, I am a candidate for a Master of Music in Violin Performance and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

My journey from beginner to Bachelor's to Master's candidacy, like life in general, has been quite a zig zaggy, windy road, but it has certainly been an adventure!

If you would care to know about my amazing musical journey, read on, and come back for part 2!

I started violin at age 10 in a public school music program. To this day, I cannot say why I decided to play the violin. I grew up exposed to music of all kinds, and had older siblings who were in band. My mother had played trumpet. She was taught by her father who played in big bands. My father was an avid music listener. I could pick out tunes on the piano and had a pretty good ear even as a child. I always loved music, and I grew up in a family that had diverse tastes in music from classical to jazz, world music, and pop. The thread of music is woven into my family and my childhood.

Still, I do not recall ever saying I wanted to play the violin or any other instrument, until they showed up at my school one day showing us the different string instruments. I took the paper home, my mom signed off on it, and I ended up with a shiny new violin. I can still remember the smell of the varnish and blowing the little plastic pitch pipe that came with it.

I picked it up fairly quickly, and my teachers seemed to think I had a gift. It was no big deal to me, because I had a good ear and I knew how things were supposed to sound, so I worked hard to make sure they sounded right. I was one of those "gifted" kids that was kind of good at all my subjects, so being "good" at violin was not really all that spectacular to a kid who always makes the honor roll.

It wasn't until junior high, when I was beating out high school students in the county orchestra chair auditions, that I got bit by a bug and started to take this talent a little more seriously. Plus, I was sounding better and was beginning to enjoy the violin, and the challenges and rewards of playing. In 9th grade, I was sitting first chair in our county wide orchestra, and playing in the city orchestra. In 11th grade, I was concertmistress of the All-State Orchestra. My senior year, I was the county orchestra's concerto competition winner, and I played "the other" Mendelssohn violin concerto.

I never had formal private lessons, (my single mom couldn't afford them) but I did study here and there with several county orchestra teachers who graciously poured into my talent for free. One came to my school once a week and gave me lessons in the instrument storage closet. Nothing really consistent, though, mostly I would get what I call "bootleg lessons" before an audition, or before I had to play for something. I did a lot of listening to recordings (my mom worked in a public library so I had access to a LOT of classical music), and dreaming of one day being able to play in a big symphony somewhere.

By high school, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to major in music. Not education, but performance. I got accepted to a reputable program at a North Carolina university, got academic and music scholarships, and off I went.

I got a reality check my freshman year of college when my professor, Trevor Williams from the Royal College of Music in London, England, expressed regret that I had "started so late". He seemed to feel that with the right exposure and motivation, I could "catch up" and advance even more. So, he gave me a trip to London, at his personal expense, for a month, for intensive study and for him expose me to all kinds of things I "missed out" on that the bootleg lessons never gave me. He wanted to open up my world to see what I could become, so in that month, he introduced me to the various "schools" of violin playing. We studied videos and recordings of Heifetz and Szeryng and Oistrakh. I met and played for his students, they played for me. I went to concerts at Royal Albert Hall. His family was very hospitable to me, as I stayed in his home. I got to see the sights of England. It was the trip of a lifetime for this little 19 year old girl from North Carolina!

I learned a lot during that trip, but one thing I discovered is that, in order to become whatever it was that he thought I had the potential to become on the violin, I would literally have to sell my soul to this instrument. He kept stressing that with "lots of work" I could be...I don't know...good? Better? It wasn't an insult, it was a compliment, because he heard potential and felt I was worth the investment.

But I wasn't sure I was ready for that level of intensity. I wasn't ready to pay the price. So, I went back to my college in NC. Trevor Williams stayed in England and did not return to teach at my university, so I got a new professor for my last 3 years. She was wonderful! She nurtured me and encouraged me, and guided me through to my Bachelor's Degree. I still flourished, if not at the level that Trevor Williams had hoped for, but not shabby, all the same. I got a scholarship to attend the Eastern Music Festival the last summer I was eligible to go before I aged out, and I was selected to play in a master class with Josef Gingold! (I played the Barber for him!)I graduated cum laude from my university with a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance in 1993.

My time with Trevor Williams was not in vain. Even though he has passed on, I owe him a debt of gratitude for believing in me and being willing to invest in me. (I got to see him again in 1997 and tell him this...what a gift!) One thing I did take away from that experience is that I fell in love with world travel. I think I loved the experience of going to England, hanging out with English people in English homes eating English food, flying in airplanes and seeing the sights every bit as much as I enjoyed the lessons and learning. I knew that whatever I ended up doing, it would absolutely have to involve traveling.

In addition to my violin pursuits, I was very active in my faith. So when the opportunity came for me to be part of a Christian missions organization as a VIOLINIST, I jumped on it! It was a group that used music as their missionary tool. Some people go to other countries on medical missions, to build wells and houses, to feed the hungry...but these folks went to other countries and played music to bring hope, healing, and faith.

So, when I graduated from college, instead of becoming a professional violinist, I became a musical missionary! I spent the better part of my 20s "on the road" with this group. I traveled all over the United States, Canada, and the world. I got to go to places like India, Kenya, Iceland, Nicaragua, the Middle East, Armenia, Cyprus, Vietnam, China: altogether close to 30 countries with this organization alone. No, I did not get paid...I actually had to raise money to do this, like all missionaries. I made life long friends, I got to play my violin all over the world, and give my life to something I believed in. I got to see music change lives. It was bliss.

All good things come to an end, though, and in my final year with the group, I met and married our team drummer and came off the road to begin a new journey. Marrying him in 1999 led me back into the world of professional symphonies and began a new phase of my musical life, including performing and teaching, which eventually leading me to where I am today...but not without more zig zagging!

Stay tuned for "the rest of the story", when I share where my musical journey has taken me since.

From Elizabeth Kilpatrick
Posted on February 11, 2013 at 4:33 PM
How did you get involved with music missions? I am interested in something like what you did but have no idea how to go about it!
From Kimberly Simpkins
Posted on February 12, 2013 at 4:02 AM
Hi, Elizabeth! Thanks for stopping by. To answer your question, way back in 1992 this group...called Celebrant Singers...did a recruiting tour at my college, and I attended the interest meeting, where I learned more about them and auditioned for them. I had never heard of a musical missionary (or "musicianary" :) ) until then! I had a heart for missions and I wanted to use my gifts and talents (I'm not gifted with hammers and nails or things like that, lol!). They fit what I was looking for, and I fit them. They are still in existence today. In fact, my family did a short term outreach with them in 2010. I don't know of any other groups doing this type of work, but I would imagine they are out there. Hope that helps!

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