Unlike many of Deborah Kim’s talented peers in the music world, the high school junior didn’t pick up a violin until she was 10.
“At first, I didn’t want to start anything new,” said Kim, a student at Green Hope High School. “I thought it was too late, because all my friends started when they were, like, 4.”
It wasn’t too late, but it wasn’t easy, either. Kim said she practiced nearly eight hours every day the summer before her sophomore year of high school. Those long days nearly drove her to tears, she said.
But a year later, at the age of 15, she was on stage at Carnegie Hall. Now 16, she’s set to do it again in May. The performance comes a month after leading the Durham Symphony Orchestra as a soloist as the winner of the orchestra’s young artists competition.
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“I may be playing in the orchestra while she’s a soloist,” said Shelley Livingston, Kim’s violin teacher who also plays with the DSO and teaches some of the area’s most promising young string musicians. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
Musicians are required to submit videos to audition for competitions such as the America Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition, Kim’s first Carnegie Hall appearance in July 2015, and the American Fine Arts Festival in May.
David Wilson, who teaches Kim as Green Hope’s orchestra director, said judges for both competitions likely were struck by the consistency of her sound.
“You can kind of tell when someone gets lucky and has a good run-through of something, as opposed to when they can nail something every time,” Wilson said. “That’s Deborah.”
On a recent school day, Kim demonstrated by playing a portion of one of her pieces in a Green Hope practice room. She apologized for the “cheap violin” she was playing – she typically leaves her more expensive one at home – but her talent was evident.
A juggling act
During the school year, Kim plays two to four times a day. Thursdays are busiest. Between orchestra class, chamber ensemble, a lesson, and practice at home, she’s holding a bow for about half her waking hours. She’s placed in other youth symphony competitions throughout the region and was the Duke Youth Symphony concertmaster in 2015.
That’s in addition to schoolwork and the Advanced Placement courses she hopes will lead to pharmacy or engineering school. She hasn’t decided yet.
“She’s just trying to make sure she’s making wise decisions and taking advantage of all of her talents,” Livingston said. “She’s really got the whole package.”
Despite Kim’s skills, she hasn’t considered a career in music, and she’s unsure about how violin fits into her future. She’s considering a minor in music performance in college, although Livingston said she’s hoping to talk her student into a double major.
“I can say I play violin pretty proudly,” Kim said, which is about as close as she comes to bragging.
But her actions, if not her words, suggest she understands her gift.
“It’s huge having someone like Deborah who does take the time to help her classmates who might not be on her level,” Wilson said. “She’s giving advice about how to play something, but it’s also just her being in the room. Her posture and her approach to the instrument is visible to the other kids.”
Kim said she has only recently begun enjoying violin on its own terms instead of as something she does because her parents want her to. As much solitude and sacrifice as it has required of her, Kim’s playing now seems to be helping her connect with others and discover new things about herself.
At her first go-round at Carnegie Hall last July, Kim met another teenage musician from the Cary area, a pianist. They became friends and began playing at local retirement homes when they got back to North Carolina.
“I felt something as I played for them,” Kim said. “Some of them were clapping even during the performance, and some of them cried. It touched me really deeply.”
Since then, she’s started a group at Green Hope – “Senior Serenades” – that performs at area retirement homes twice a month.
“She fires up when she plays now,” Livingston said. “Music is organized sound, and you can see how she’s organizing the music. She’s not just playing notes and beats and rhythms – she’s really playing music.”
Henry Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan