A Violin Prodigy’s Journey of Love, Loss, and Self-Discovery
“I think love for music is as important to life as food and water and air. Without it, life is mere existence.”
World-renowned violinist Min Kym was declared a child prodigy in her youth, and later became the youngest ever foundation scholar at the Royal College of Music. Susan Cain is the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and is the co-founder of Quiet Revolution. The two recently sat down at Strand Bookstore in New York City to discuss love for music, overcoming grief, and the astonishing story behind Min’s new memoir, Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Susan: You were a child prodigy in violin. What did that mean and how did that happen?
Min: It’s funny, when I was 12, I was playing a concert in Spain and the interviewer asked me, “So, what’s it like to be a child prodigy?” How do you answer a question like that? The thing about being a child prodigy is that the minute that label is given to you, there’s this immediate expectation from the people around me and from myself to live up [to the label].
It created a divide between my peers and myself, and it was quite difficult. At the same time, I don’t want to paint it as all bad because of course, there are some wonderful positives of being a child performer and living that life.
Susan: How did you become one in the first place?
Min: The idea of playing this human-shaped instrument, and the beautiful sounds that it was capable of, filled me with this sense of romance. [One day] I went to the V section of the children’s encyclopedia and found a picture of a violin. I drew a picture of the violin, cut it out, and practiced [playing] it under the bedsheets for a week.
Susan: A paper violin?
Min: A paper violin. I made my sister draw a picture of a piano as well so we could play duets. I knew from the moment I picked up a real violin, at age six and a half, that it was going to be an incredibly important thing in my life. I knew my life had changed.
I didn’t feel, at that point, any kind of expectation or pressure. I don’t come from a musical family. My mum didn’t even consider that the progress I was making was particularly advanced.
Susan: You galloped through the violin curriculum.
Min: But it felt very natural. It was like learning a new language and already being able to speak it straight away. But because I was aware that it made me different, it caused a sense of isolation. I did all that I could as a child to mask that, and pretend that it was normal.
Susan: When you were writing, did you also have a sense of isolation from those who might be reading the book?
Min: I was revealing emotional secrets, things that I’d never expressed before in words, because before any of this happened, my preferred way of communicating was through the violin. For the first time, I was using the medium of words to describe those feelings. Writing the book made me realize how unusual my childhood was. I had never really thought about it before.
“When you play, you merge with the violin. It becomes part of your being, part of your body. It really is an extension of who you are.”
Susan: This book is a love story. It’s a story of love and loss, and it’s also a story about grand devotion to art, to music, and violin specifically. And yet, you’re also an amazing writer. Where did that come from, and did you have to struggle?
Min: It was bursting to come out. There were a lot of feelings [about] the theft of my violin, [which] was also the theft of my identity. Confronting that, it all came pouring out, almost without punctuation. Transferring those feelings onto the page comes from the same place as music, and is very similar to it.
Susan: I want to talk about the love affair that you had. At twenty-one you were presented with the Stradivarius that became yours.
Min: I refer to the relationship with the violin in almost human terms. Of course it’s not a human being, but it is a very unique relationship. When you play, you merge with the violin. It becomes part of your being, part of your body. It really is an extension of who you are.
It’s like a dancer, with their body and their feet, or a jockey with the horse. It’s such a symbiotic relationship, and it really is one of equals. Spending so many hours getting to know an instrument and finding its personality and its quirks and its identity, you can’t help but develop this close relationship.
Susan: You described different kinds of love for a violin. Some are love at first sight and others develop over time. With your beloved Stradivarius, that was love at first sight.
Min: [An] absolute thunderbolt. When I was twenty-one, a dealer came to my parents’ house, and he had two Strads in his case. I could feel everybody willing me to choose the other violin, which had a magnificent sound, but it didn’t sound like me. So I picked up what became my violin, and I played that first note. It felt so true, and it had this incredible bell-like quality, but real steel brilliance underneath, and I just knew. It was that feeling of coming home. I know it sounds a bit daft, but it was almost as if 300 years ago, this violin had been made for me.
Everything just fit in that moment, and I felt that life was going to take off. And then it did.
Susan: You describe the connection with this violin in terms of its size and sound, and also in terms of some emotional character that this particular violin had. It had a sensitivity and fragility that resonated [with] you.
Min: Well, it had been through the wars. It had a big hole, so that bit was replaced. It had a warped note, which is a note that doesn’t ring true. And it would sulk if I didn’t look after it. It was very sensitive to weather… It was a bit of a diva actually. But if I treated it well, it would fly.
Susan: I was struck [by] the level of care that you devoted to this violin. You were living in not very nice apartments and foregoing money for clothing and basic needs, all of it going into the upkeep and improvement of the violin.
Min: Yes. The violin represented everything that I lived for, worked for. Wherever I was in the world, if I got out my violin and played it, I would feel like I was at home. For a long time it was very difficult to look back at those years. It’s still difficult to talk about it.
“I realized when the violin was gone that I’d built my life on sand.”
Susan: How old were you when you lost the violin?
Min: I was about thirty-two when the violin was stolen. It was just like any other day. I was with my then-boyfriend, and we argued about who would be looking after my violin, and he persuaded me to let him look after it. It was one of two times I ever let anybody look after my violin, so I was terribly anxious about it. But it was stolen from his side.
Even well-meaning people would be quite perplexed at why it was such a devastating event for me. It went beyond the theft of my violin. In many ways, it was the theft of my life. There was a period of several months where I couldn’t even listen to music because [the grief] was so intense.
Susan: You stopped listening, you stopped playing?
Min: Wasn’t playing one thing. Music is such a powerful thing, and it was too painful to listen to music. But it was Bach that got me back to wanting to listen to music and to play.
Susan: What was it about Bach that brought you back?
Min: Bach is so pure, and there’s no barrier between the music and the listener and the performance. I felt that I was able to start connecting emotionally and reengage in the world. Bach is the ultimate detox.
Susan: Where is your Strad [now]?
Min: [It] was found after three years, but for a variety of complicated reasons, I wasn’t able to buy it back. So it belongs to somebody else now.
I’ve been playing [another violin] for about nine months. I knew that it was going to be a special relationship because when I was driving back from [first] playing it for an afternoon, I remember wondering when I [could] next play on it. There was a connection there. It has been a slow burn, and I am starting to feel like it’s becoming part of who I am.
My playing is changing as a result of it, because you’re always changing to suit the instrument. Every day it’s teaching me how to play anew. It’s forcing me to reevaluate previous interpretations of anything that I might have played, so I’m playing completely differently, and I think that’s a really good thing. Because life always goes on. When my violin was stolen, I felt [like] my life stopped. And now with the help of this violin, I feel like things have opened up again.
Susan: You [once] said that even if you were to have the Strad back again, you’re a different person now because of the experiences you’ve been through since that loss. And the Strad is a different violin because of what it has been through and suffered at the hands of thieves. Would you welcome having that relationship rekindled?
Min: There was a time that I obsessively thought about what would happen if [we were] reunited. [But] then I realized that that wasn’t a healthy place to be, because I would always be looking back, and I needed to start looking forward. Life is so unpredictable, and we have such little control over what happens. What I really know from this whole process is to trust my gut instincts, because a lot of the decisions that were made were actually as a result of not listening to my core.
“I think love for music is as important to life as food and water and air. Without it, life is mere existence.”
Susan: You feel like because you weren’t listening to your gut, that led to this result?
Min: Part of being a child performer is that you learn professionalism very early on. With that comes a price: I felt that I had to say yes to everything. It took me a lot longer to really listen to myself and start making decisions for myself. I’d reached my thirties and I still hadn’t said no. I realized how far removed I’d become [from] my true self, and the only time I was able to be my true self was through music and performance. That’s why, I think, I’d invested so much of my life in music and the violin, and I realized when the violin was gone that I’d built my life on sand.
Susan: When you talk about it, you sound incredibly mature and philosophical, and in the book you also come across as very wise. You’re incredibly heartfelt, you’re not holding anything back. Is there a difference between your presented self and your written self?
Writing the book and exploring the bits of my life that had been neglected meant that for the first time, I was able to nurture those sides again. It was important to be able to say, “You know, I have the right to feel this way.” The funny thing is, when I shared these secrets, I realized I didn’t need to hide my feelings so much. It was a way of reconnecting with the world.
[Questions from the audience]
Audience: From before you lost the Stradivarius to now, what has been the change in how you play?
Min: It’s difficult to say, because we’re constantly evolving. I do think the essence of the way I play has always been the same, whether I was six years old or now, because it’s a unique blueprint. But you draw from life experiences and you expand, building upon those skills as a deepening love for music. And I think [love for music] is as important to life as food and water and air. Without it, life is mere existence.
Audience: Do you feel that there’s innate knowledge of music that people are born with, or is it all learned?
Min: I think that anything creative, like music, is just part of nature. I think it was Saint-Saëns who said, “Music is all around us. How much of it do you want to put down on paper?”