A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung
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The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off -- and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice
Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.” And at twenty-one, she found “the one,” the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned.

Then, in a London café, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence.

In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.


“The hours fell away as I read this spellbinding tale of love, loss, and above all devotion to art. You probably don’t know what it feels like to be a child prodigy or a world-class violinist, but you will after reading this luminous memoir. And though you may already know what it means to grieve and to love, you’ve never had the chance to experience these things through the far-seeing eyes of Min Kym.”
SUSAN CAIN, author of Quiet

"Kym’s evocative writing style will make even nonmusicians appreciate her passion for music and for her violin.”


***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Min Kym

It started like this.

We were a Korean family, living in London. My father was a mechanical engineer working for Daewoo, before the company started making cars. It wasn’t so famous then. We’d been living in England for three years. Like my older sister, I was learning English at school. At home we spoke Korean. It was perfectly natural. We’d be going home eventually.

Meanwhile, we got to learn English ways. Every week I would go with my sister to the local music school my mother had found in the Yellow Pages, and every week I would sit there, kicking my heels while my sister had her piano lesson. She was good, my sister. I would listen to her play and wonder whether it would ever be my turn. I started writing, picked up the pen with my left hand. No, I couldn’t do that. I had to put my left hand behind my back, use my right. At school no one had batted an eyelid, but my mother was worried about what people would think when we went back to Korea. In Korea it was considered bad luck to be left-handed. So I became right- handed. Korea was still our final destination. We went to a Korean church, and, once a week, to a Korean school two and a half hours away. But the journey gave me nosebleeds so my mother taught me to read and write Korean at home. It was important. Korea was where our home lay.

Then, one day, my mother asked me the question I’d been waiting for, and everything changed.

“Do you want to play?”

She’d already decided I wasn’t going to play the piano. There was only one piano teacher in the school and no avail- able slots on the day of my sister’s lesson. If I chose the piano, my mother would have to accompany me on another day, and that would have defeated the whole purpose of the exercise. It had to be something else. There were only two spaces free at the same time as my sister learned her piano: a trumpet space and a violin space. The trumpet didn’t appeal at all. But the violin! I leapt at the idea.

I had to wait a week, a week where the space lay open, un- used, where a violin waited for me, untouched. I found it al- most unbearable. The prospect gnawed at my bones. I had to do something. Before we went to bed, my sister and I would often play little games, act out little plays with each other. One of us would be a waitress, the other a customer; one of us would be a doctor, the other a patient. I always imagined, at that age, that I would be a doctor. I had been in hospital myself and had liked the doctors who looked after me, liked the idea of growing up to be like them, helping patients get better. Now, I insisted, we would not play a game at all. We would play duets. So my sister made a paper keyboard while I copied out the shape of a violin from our children’s encyclopedia and cut it out. Together we played our duets. When it was over I took my violin to bed, played it some more, under the bedclothes. It was silent, but I could hear it. It weighed nothing, but I could feel it.

My best friend was also taking violin lessons. She offered to lend me her quarter-size, but it was too big. So my mother went down to the local music shop and bought a tiny eight-size violin. It was a harsh, factory-made thing from China, but when I held it I could feel the romance within. I had a history of teaching myself to play instruments. I’d taught myself the piano, recorder and harmonica. By the time the day came around, I’d worked out how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

It might have been then, on my first lesson, or it might have been my second; it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but let me say that I knew right away that holding a violin, playing a violin, was not simply for me, but it was me. Every- thing about it seemed so easy, so natural; the way it settled on my body, my fingers so utterly comfortable in that position. There was nothing awkward or alien about it at all: my arm stretched out, my hand grasped the neck, my chin and shoulder pressed to the body, my legs firm on the floor. There was a normality to it that seemed completely familiar. I knew I could play anything. Anything. This was not arrogance— I was a shy child, reluctant to come forward, to give voice, to take center stage—but more simply that I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element. I could swim in this world. I could dive and soar. I could ride crests and float down streams, swim with or against any current. I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time.

There was a problem. I was shown how to work the big horsehair bow with the nub of rosin, shown how the hard nut transformed into a soft, white powder, covering the strands and seeping into the air. The bow thus oiled, I found out how to draw the sound out, how you had to coax it. But the rosin gave me asthma. I was allergic to it, wasn’t able to play for more than half an hour before being felled by a terrible wheezing, my chest seized in an iron grip, my lungs convulsed, fighting for air that wasn’t there. I was put on steroids to keep the attacks at bay. But rather than being a hindrance, my asthma became an indication of my talent. I couldn’t practice like anyone else, couldn’t put the hours in. But it didn’t hold me back. I could still progress; progress at a rate that was way outside the norm. Asthma, the potential debilitating nature of it, became a mark of my agility, a badge denoting a child who possessed unusual skill. Other children got asthma. Only, mine proved I was unlike the others. It marked me out.

I swam fast now, immersed in my element. I reached Grade 2 in the first eight weeks, and a month later came Grade 4. I know it sounds unlikely, but that’s how quick and easy it was for me. It was just a natural thing to do. I picked it up. I played. My only frustration was the sound that was coming out of the wood: I knew it could be better. My goal right away was not to sound like a baby. I wanted a grown-up voice, instinctively knew the difference, knew what a grown-up voice was, how it should be. The ear was the driving force, not the fingers. The fingers were merely muscle and bone. The playing—what it is, what it should be, what it must be—came from the ear. The ear was my element too. I had perfect pitch.

I had always lived in a world of sound. I can hardly re- member a time when I could not read music. My mother claims she never taught me, and I certainly don’t remember learning. What I do remember is my father coming back from a business trip and bringing with him a little xylophone, the name of each key—A, B-flat, B, C—painted on the colored slats. Perhaps that’s how I learned. Certainly the words of music became my favored language, how I heard the world, interpreted it. A bicycle ring was an E-flat. The squeak of a door, C-major. When I heard people talk, I listened to the rhythm of their voices, their inflections, rather than the matter of their actual words.

Grade 2, Grade 4, it sounds like hard work. It was work, I suppose, but it was mainly fun. I could do it. My teacher probably pushed me, but I was never aware of it. Lessons weren’t lessons, they were little journeys, everyone a little different, every one leading to a new destination. We played duets. He called me his little assistant as I went around the class, tuning all the other pupils’ instruments. I was the youngest in a class of ten. He understood that, above all, I was a perfectionist, that it mattered absolutely to me, the sound that came out, that it was never just about the notes. He made me think of music as a story. Most of the pieces I played with him— Wieniawski’s Légende, Elgar’s Salut d’Amour—he’d tell me a story, and where there wasn’t one, I would make one up, cobble tales and myths together, Icarus flying too close to the sun.

He would give me records, on birthdays, holidays, Christ- mas; not all violin music, but always classical music, always food for my ears. Beethoven’s Fourth was like a schoolgirl crush, I fell in love with it so hard. There were others, but the one that stood out, the one that confirmed everything that I already believed in, was the double album by Austrian-born violinist Fritz Kreisler. I had never heard of Kreisler before, knew nothing of the legend that surrounded him, never fully understood (although I think I knew it deep in my heart) the magnitude of what a violin, the right violin, could offer. But hearing Kreisler play was when I heard the evidence of the possible; when I realized what the violin was truly capable of, that it had a voice, a personality, a view of things. Kreisler showed me how it lived and breathed and raised its soul to the heavens. I listened to his recording of Brahms and Beethoven, but also his own compositions, the “Liebesleid,” the “Liebes- freude” and the “Schön Rosmarin,” and pieces of utter charm such as Dvorˇák’s “Humoresque.” I played them over and over again, never tiring, only wondering at the great marvel of Kresiler being Kreisler; how his playing was Kreisler: how his violin was Kreisler, how every note he played was Kreisler. Maybe it was then that I understood that I had a voice of my own too.

By this time I had graduated from my factory Chinese violin to a better-made quarter-size. I was both sorry and relieved to say goodbye to it—though it has never really left me. I have it still. It was, and still is, a part of me, as are all the violins I have owned. I have kept them all—all except one.

My sister had graduated from our little music school, to the Purcell School in Harrow on the Hill. Like the time of her music lessons, I grew envious of her age. She was nine; I was seven. She’d come back with grown-up tales of singing in the choir, of playing music all day, and there I was, languishing in my ordinary school with my meager weekly violin lessons. I longed for release. Then, one day an unexpected opportunity came. I was with my mother at the Purcell School, collecting my sister. I had my little violin with me. The head- master, John Bain, was there. He said, “Can you play that?” He asked it as a kind, indulgent question any grown-up might ask a little girl, but I took it as a request. Certainly I could. I took out my violin and played. I played Bach’s Concerto in A minor. After I finished he said he thought he might be able to bend the rules: I would be allowed in two years earlier than usual. And considering the burden on my parents, he would see what he could do about financial help.

One brief hour on one afternoon and the future suddenly shone ahead. I could almost see it.

I was already living in two worlds, the world of music and my other life at school. Or was it three: music, school and home? Our home life was certainly very different from everyone else’s. As young children, my sister and I would never start our meal until our father had finished. When we had finished, then would come our mother’s turn. Father first, children second, mother last: that was the immovable Korean order. Other things that seemed perfectly normal to us would have perplexed and outraged our friends. If I wanted to drink a glass of water, I would ask permission. It wasn’t a question of being refused a glass of water, it was a question of respect, of acknowledging the pecking order. It ran from top to bot- tom. My father wouldn’t let my mother drive. She would have liked to, but he was adamant. His word ruled, but we hardly saw him. By the time we woke up, he would have already gone to work. By the time he came back, we were already in bed. At the weekends he’d be off to play golf, so we didn’t see him then either. He was a remote but kind man, with a deep and sometimes fearsome voice. My mother’s voice was warm and funny but with an unpredictable edge of volatility to it. She cooked and fed us all, did the housework and lived alone, with a distant husband. After a night’s drinking he’d often come back late with colleagues, expecting her to run up a small banquet for his guests. And she would be proud to do so. It was the Korean way.

It wasn’t a question of right or wrong, it was simply how things were done; the man, the woman, the children. And children, I think, were seen a peculiar light: loved, but in a way not quite human, not exactly objects or dolls, but with an element of malleability within them, to be moved about, or not. My mother would leave me alone quite a lot. She’d take my sister to the doctor or go out shopping and leave me alone, no concept of time in my head, no idea when or whether she was coming back. I’d hide behind the curtains, heart pounding, petrified that someone might knock on the door. It wouldn’t happen now, but back in the eighties it was quite a normal thing to do among the ex-pat mothers; Korean mores asserting their influence. Korean children were required to show much more independence than children in the West. Back home there was nothing unusual in seeing infants— some no older than four—walking to school on their own.

I went to the local state primary school. I’d made friends with a girl down the road. I liked my classmates well enough; they were friendly and I enjoyed learning new things together. But being the only Korean family in the community, my sister and I stood out. My sister in her new school seemed to handle this better than me. I saw her blossom and grow in confidence and I longed to become as much a part of this new world as she seemed to be. One morning, at assembly at my own school, the headmistress put on a record. It was folk music. Some of the bigger boys and girls had prepared a dance and I was captivated. I felt the music working its way inside me, taking shape. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder, a voice in my ear:

“What’s wrong with you? Do you want to dance or some- thing?”

It was one of the big boys. I could hear the sarcasm. Mortified, I realized that I’d been moving to the music. My cheeks burned. Everyone was looking at me. I shrank back and took hold of myself. After that, whenever I heard music I would take great care to check that I wasn’t moving to it, to restrain myself. But now I told myself all that would soon be over—I would be going to a music school where there would be others like me who played musical instruments, and where it didn’t matter if I moved to the music. That’s what music did: it moved you. One way or another it got you going, in- side, outside, every side. And it was going to be my world, my coming world!