Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Her electric symphony

10/17/2018 12:00PM ● By J. Chambless

Johnson began playing the violin in the third grade at Bradford Heights Elementary School.

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

It was the evening of the 2013 talent show at Downingtown Middle School, and Julia Johnson's parents Charlie and Anne Johnson sat nervously in the auditorium waiting for their eighth-grade daughter to perform on the violin.

They loved the swirling sounds that came from their daughter's room at home when she practiced, but this was different. This was go time. Her time. A live performance. Mothers and fathers and students filed in to take their seats, and they knew that at some moment in the evening everyone would collectively focus their eyes on their daughter, and hear the sounds they had heard coming from that room since Julia was in the third grade, when she told them she wanted to learn to play the violin.

From the audience, Charlie and Anne faintly heard the herky-jerky banter of the backstage, knowing that somewhere in the scrum of techies and the stage props and costumes, Julia was likely pacing back and forth, and when her time came to perform, Julia walked to the center of the stage, and with the focus of a lion eyeing its prey, she lifted her violin to her left shoulder and immediately busted out a piece by recording artist and violinist Lindsey Sterling.

When it was over, the audience stood, applauded and many couldn't contain themselves over what they had just heard coming from the young girl and the delicate machine she was carrying. Everyone in the middle school auditorium, it seemed, was smiling, all except the musician.

With a face that blankly registered the moment, Julie Johnson looked into the appreciative audience and saw what the rest of her life would look and sound like.

By virtue of the delicacy of its construction, an acoustic violin contains a series of intricate parts that work with the person who plays it to form a sound that many have called the equivalent of a musical prayer. There is the body or corpus, the neck, the finger board, the bridge, the sound post, four strings and various fittings, known as tuning pegs, the tailpiece, tail gut, end pin and the chin rest. Its body is made of two arched plates that are fastened to a garland of ribs that make up the “side” of the instrument, and made into the shape of an hourglass.

Since she began taking lessons at the Bradford Heights Elementary School in Downingtown in the third grade with her teacher Heather Siegfried, Julia Johnson has become one with this finely-made music machine. Now a 17-year-old senior at Downingtown West High School, Johnson has spent most of her life dedicated to pursuing her dream of becoming a widely-known violinist, traveling the country and the world and performing her own compositions.

A review of her journey reveals a how-to of dream making: early lessons, followed by more advanced tutorials with former West Chester University music teacher Rebecca Ansel, who now teaches Johnson in weekly classes at her Collingswood, New Jersey home; a daily practice routine in her home studio, fashioned around her academic schedule, that includes work on classical and jazz compositions, learning new songs that she plays at concerts and gigs; and writing her own songs with the help of some very cool music software and her digital audio wokstation, which she's done since her freshman year.

Perhaps the most important notch on her musical belt was her attendance at a music camp held at the Berklee College of Music in Boston this past summer, where she embarked on an intensive schedule of workshops, tutorials, performances and networking with other young musicians.

“I'm looking to attend a music conservatory next fall and major in musical performance and musical production,” she said. “I want to find a college that will fit me to where I want to go musically. I want to find a college that will lead me in the direction of my dreams, rather than form me or mold me into just what they have to offer.”

When she first started playing the violin, Johnson never thought that she would ever be able to make a living doing it.

“In middle school, you rarely think about what you're going to be doing for a career years from then, and for me, playing the violin as a career that I never knew was actually possible,” she said. “At that age, everybody wants to be an actor or a rock star or somebody famous, but slowly, as the dreams of my classmates to become rock stars began to die, mine never did.

“I realized that I still loved playing the violin, and I got more into the instrument, and began to figure out how I will be able to make it.”

Johnson now has another instrument that she believes will further support her dreams: an electric violin, which she has performed with at live shows at the Flash in Kennett Square in 2017 and 2018, and at several private shows and functions. She first came upon the instrument when she was in the eighth grade, during a trip she made with her family to North Carolina, on a visit to a friend and her family. During the trip, they stopped in the Electric Violin Shop in Durham.

Johnson tried nearly every electric violin in the store. It's all part of her need to branch out, not only with instrumentation, but with musical composition.

“I was brought up as a classically trained violinist, but as I get more into the music industry and knowing that this is what I do, I've recently brought jazz music into the equation,” she said. “Jazz music and classical music are two totally different styles. In classical music, you learn your part, and then you begin to understand how your sound will contribute to the larger whole. You have to conform to form and technique.

“In jazz, it's more like, 'Here's the bigger picture, and here are your options.' Jazz is the universal language of music.”

There is no one definitive how-to handbook that shows a young musician how to get into the music industry, but as she approaches the end of her high school years and prepares for college, Johnson is not naive to the fact that finding the right doors – specifically, the ones that open to performing, recording and representation – can be a daunting task, and nor are her parents.

“When Charlie and I realized how serious Julia was about music, we would talk between ourselves and ask, 'How can we make her dreams happen and allow her to do it in an industry that has a lot of uncertainty around it? How can we give her the tools, and help her achieve her dreams?'

“At some time, you reach a point when you decide whether your interest is in fact, a passion, and we know that Julia has reached that point. She's going to find a way to do it, because music is a part of her.”

“For me, music has become my cycle, and one component of what I do feeds directly into the next,” Johnson said. “I love writing music, and when I'm done writing I want to perform music, and when I finish performing music, I want to write more music.

“It's the cycle that has proven to me that I need to make this my life's work.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline