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Want to Succeed? Get Outside Your Comfort Zone: An Interview with Violinist Mia Laity

July 31–August 4, 2017   |   Vol. 131, Week 9
Previously aired:   June 20–24, 2016   |   Vol. 127, Week 7

Professional violinist Mia Laity says she wouldn’t be where she is today without her homeschool education. What made homeschooling work so well for her? Find out on this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

In this podcast, we’ll talk about:

  • The moment Mia discovered her calling
  • How homeschooling helped Mia become a professional musician
  • What a typical day looks like for Mia
  • The biggest challenges Mia has had to overcome
  • Mia’s encouragement for young musicians

“Homeschooling really encouraged me with being curious and being self-starting, being motivated to analyze information and explore further applications past the textbook lessons.” —Mia Laity

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Is your student a budding musician, or just someone who enjoys the beauty of music? Either way, you won’t want to miss this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat, as your host Mike Smith chats with Mia Laity, a homeschool graduate who is now a professional musician.

Mike Smith: My guest today is Mia Laity. She’s a homeschool graduate and a professional violinist. Mia, welcome to our program today!

Mia Laity: Thank you for having me.

Chopsticks to concertos [0:26]

Mike: Mia, you clearly love music, so much that you made a career out of it. What is it about music that you enjoy so much?

Mia: I just love how different sounds and variations on those sounds can be put together to create different textures and different worlds. And that how these worlds also change over the span of a song or a piece. And I really love enjoying and exploring how each note takes meaning from the notes that came before it and the notes that are going to come afterwards.

Mike: Well, let me ask you a question: Was there a specific moment in your life when you discovered you really wanted to be this professional violinist?

Mia: Well, I guess the most specific moment that I could give you is one from when I was maybe 2 and a half. My family was living in Texas and I saw a Mariachi band playing at a grocery store. And later at home, I got a wooden spoon and chopstick from the kitchen and I was pretending to play violin, and I was being the violinist in the band. Because after that, when I actually started playing, I gravitated to it so much that playing violin was so much of something that I did that my career had already started before I realized that I had one, if that makes sense. I just wanted to play and have the opportunity to play.

Mike: It does. How old were you then?

Mia: When I actually started playing, I was 3.

Mike: Wow.

Beyond the notes and rhythms [1:49]

Mike: Mia, why did your parents decide to homeschool you, and what was that like for you?

Mia: It was a combination of things. I was taken out of public school in second grade.

But first of all, my mom has always taken a very active role in my development and education as a person. And she was actually already teaching me at home while I was in school. So she was the one who taught me how to read. She was the one who did math with me. And so she was really already homeschooling me before we had officially declared it.

And I think secondly, the other thing that really led to my parents making that commitment was that the other families we were meeting through violin lessons and group classes were homeschooling. And so I think that for my parents, making that that commitment made a lot of sense, and fortunately for us we already had a homeschooling community to access.

Mike: How did homeschooling pave the way for your career in music?

Mia: First of all, it gave me so much flexibility, as homeschoolers we know that teaching to just one child can actually be much more time-efficient than when you’re trying to take into account a whole classroom of maybe 20 kids. So I had a lot more time to practice while still learning everything that I needed to learn. And we could also rearrange my schedule without sacrificing education. So I remember one time we timed my so-called spring break to coincide with the week before a concerto competition, when I would already be preoccupied. So it was a win-win: I had more time to prepare, and then I also knew that I was really focused on my schooling. So nothing was sacrificed.

And also, I think that homeschooling really encouraged me with being curious and being self-starting, being motivated to analyze information and explore further applications past the textbook lessons. And that’s really carried over to music, because a lot of what makes music so special is what happens beyond learning the notes and rhythms and what’s on the page—as a teacher of mine actually told me, asking yourself, “How can this be more beautiful?” and making that happen. And a lot of that kind of work has to be inspired by your own initiative, and I think that homeschooling with my mom really fostered that in me.

Practice, practice, practice [4:06]

Mike: Mia, tell us about your life as a professional violinist. What does a typical day look like for you?

Mia: Well, it differs, but right now I’m playing with an orchestra called The Orchestra Now. And for a typical day in The Orchestra Now, for instance, we’ll have a rehearsal in the morning, and then a seminar/discussion meeting about the pieces that have been programmed this evening, and then another rehearsal. And some of these rehearsals are with the big group, and some of them are with a smaller group within the orchestra—so maybe just violins, or just strings. And all my other free time throughout the day is for practicing that music and the music that is to come, and then figuring out what projects that I want to do on my own on the side.

Mike: On average, every day, how much time do you spend playing the violin?

Mia: Six to eight hours.

Mike: Woah. What about your fingers?

Mia: Well, they’ve built up a little bit of the muscles, I think, over the years, so you don’t go from 0 to 100 just like that. So it’s more of an endurance game.

Mike: Is there a concert or performance that’s been the most meaningful to you, and why?

Mia: That’s a tough one. If I had to just pick one, I would say it was a very special concert for me in 2009. I was invited to play in Carnegie Hall as part of the New York String Orchestra seminar. It was a really special program. And that concert, I was 17. So being 17, in that historic hall for the first time, and we were also playing Beethoven’s 5[th symphony], which is a huge pillar of classical music, and I was under the musical genius of Jamie Laredo. It was Christmas in New York City. It was something truly special and awe-inspiring and it really made me take pause and think, “Wow, this is what I do. This is really, really something special.”

When I grew up I was always seeing concerts, seeing videos of concerts in Carnegie Hall, and hearing about it. And there’s that old saying that’s always going around: “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” And so of course, that was definitely on my mind when I walked into that stage.

Facing your fears [6:12]

Mike: Mia, what are some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to get where you are today?

Mia: Well, I’d have to say stage fright, to be honest. I grew up pretty fearless, on the stage with my violin. I didn’t really get nervous, probably because I didn’t really think about it. It just felt really natural.

But when I got older, and fairly recently actually, I got caught in the trap of assuming that every moment in a performance was completely in my control. And then I would get frustrated and very upset with myself if something didn’t happen exactly how I planned it. And that feeling of not being in control and of being powerless on stage became really disabling. And eventually it was at the point where I was getting nervous about the possibility that I would get nervous and not sound the way I wanted to—which was a terrible, self-fulfilling spiral.

Eventually, and this was over a pretty long span of time, and with the support and encouragement of other musicians and also through a series of lower-pressure performances where I felt safe, I eventually got to the place where I could accept that I didn’t need to control everything, and to trust the preparation, have faith in the practice and faith in the moment, and to embrace the spontaneity of performance, because that’s actually one of the most beautiful things when your performing is that it’s this piece of music is coming to life in that moment for the audience and it doesn’t need to be a micromanaged rehash. So I had to really come to terms and have peace with that.

Mike: Mia, I’m assuming that when you play a piece, that you’re trying to hit every note perfectly. Is that right?

Mia: Yes.

Mike: Have you ever been able to do it?

Mia: Well, I guess there’s always more levels that it could be a little better. But I’ve found that—I have had performances where I’ve played every note, but I’ve found that when I was obsessed with and only focused on that, the music lost a little bit of specialness and of magic, because it sounds like somebody just reciting a speech instead of really meaning every word.

And so, if you focus instead on really communicating with the essence of that piece of music, and meaning every note that you play in musicality, it will actually come around that each note was in fact perfectly in tune.

Mike: Well, that’s intriguing, and it’s really interesting. But what’s the best part of being a professional musician, for you?

Mia: For me, it’s getting to play music and getting come up with new ways to share it with people and then obviously the sharing of it is a really wonderful opportunity.

Mike: So you’re really expressing yourself, in a way, as you play the violin, aren’t you?

Mia: Yes, absolutely.

Never stop exploring [9:03]

Mike: Mia, what do you hope to accomplish with your musical career as you go forward?

Mia: I am really, really interested in creating different opportunities for people to experience music in a unique way. So I really love cross-genre collaborations and alternative venues. And I actually have some projects in the works that I’m hoping will create total immersive experiences for the audience. So I’m hoping in the rest of my career to create new ways for audiences to interact with and really totally experience music.

Mike: Well, that’s fantastic. Now, we have some young musicians listening out there today. So what advice would you have for them?

Mia: I would say never stop exploring. There are always new ways to make sounds and different ways to play things. And listen to your teachers, because they can really guide you.

Mike: What else would you suggest?

Mia: I would suggest trying to take advantage of every opportunity. I mean, obviously you can overdo it, and you don’t want to burn yourself out or compromise what you are doing with your music. But some of the things that I think I learned the most from and that I enjoyed the most were things that I really wasn’t expecting to get to do. So you have to say yes to things.

Mike: What would one example be of that?

Mia: I went to the Manhattan School of Music for my undergrad, and I was only in classical—and that’s really only where my comfort zone is. And Manhattan School of Music has this really amazing jazz program, and they have one class that allows cross-registration. So it was Jazz for Classical String Players. And that was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life, is play without music, because it’s different than playing by memory when you’re actually making up the notes that are going to come out. And the improvisation that I’d never done before was so scary, but it made me see music in a completely new light that I’d never ever considered before.

Mike: Well Mia, we really have enjoyed having you be with us this week on this program. And thank you for sharing your story with us. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Mia LaityPhoto of Mia Laity

Mia Laity is a violinist dedicated to creating eclectic avenues for music to intersect with everyday life, infusing the classical music tradition with young electricity. She is an active performer in the New York City area, appearing regularly in Groupmuses and also in performance with conductor-less string ensemble Shattered Glass and the Chamber Music Society of North Jersey.

Mia graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied violin performance with Laurie Smukler and chamber music with Sylvia Rosenberg. She is an alumna of Kneisel Hall, Aspen Music Festival and School, New York String Orchestra Seminar, From the Top, and the National Orchestral Institute.

Mia has performed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Geffen (formerly Avery Fischer) Hall, Disney Hall, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Town Hall NYC, and Carnegie Hall. She is currently a violinist in New York’s new orchestra, The Orchestra Now.

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