Kimberlee Dray, Violinist - Coming Back Stronger Than Ever
By Jasmine Reese - Kimberlee Dray gave up playing violin for 10 years amidst financial and medical struggles. She's an adult re-starter violinist. However, her story of success is unique in the world of amateur musicians.
Like most people, she's busy with obligations to family and career. But since picking up the instrument again at 29 years old, she's played as a soloist with multiple orchestras, performed in masterclasses for great musicians such as Joseph Silverstein, studied with Nina Beilina and other legendary names in the business such as Aaron Rosand, landed professional recital gigs, and most recently has gained Instagram fame through her commitment to practice solo Bach Partitas and Sonatas for the "100 days of practice" challenge.
So, what's her secret? How has she overcome the stigmas associated with starting later in the music industry, especially in the classical genre?
From what I can tell, Kimberlee's strength lies in her ability to adapt, to not let feelings of regret enter her mind, and her love of practice. She looks forward to practice like most of us spend a greater part of the year waiting for our mother's fabulous holiday dinners. She also contributes her succcess to her teacher, Nina Beilina.
"My art really comes from Nina Beilina," Dray said. "She gave me everything."
Kimberlee began playing violin at eight years old. She grew up in a small agricultural community. Lucky for her, the tiny town did have one violin teacher. Her father took her to one of the violinist's recitals. That's where her journey began.
Flash forward to college, she was surprised to receive a scholarship for violin performance.
"I never saw myself as anything outstanding," Kimberlee laughed. "It was the shock of my life to have received a large scholarship to study music in college. I always planned to major in English. But, when I received this opportunity which came with the chance to study with famed violinist, Nell Gotkovsky, I had to think. When it came down to it, I decided to major in violin performance for one reason alone -- to learn "The Lark Ascending." My goals with violin have never had a career attached to them. They are all musical goals."
However, the opportunity to learn the Lark Ascending never came while in school. She fell in love, married her university sweetheart, and worked to help them both complete their education. They never took out any loans, and lived a "lean" life, according to her. She didn't touch the violin for 10 years.
On top of general rustiness, another life-changing event occurred. During those 10 years, she took up another activity - running. "I ran a lot," she said. "I still run, but not as much." One day, the symptoms began. Dizziness, light-headed, a sense of disconnection, imbalance and subsequent falls, and after the initial symptoms came the profound vertigo.
She'd go deaf. She'd feel nauseated. The pressure in her ears left a sound of constant running water - like a shower.
After a while, a diagnosis finally landed on her shoulders - like a burden: Meniere's disease. It effects everyone differently. For Kimberlee, it was the middle ground between the absolute worst and mild. Despite the battle, she's grateful for the health regimen and insight that this struggle has given her. As of a few years ago, she's lost half her balance and one-third of the hearing in her left ear. But, she's thankful.
"I've had a miraculous recovery which I continually work on," she wrote in her blog in 2010.
The most amazing part of her medical story is where the violin comes in.
"I've learned to play through my attacks without falling over," she states in her blog entry. "I've learned how to listen differently, even when I'm totally deaf in my left ear. I'm able to feel intonation in a different way, using my other senses. It helps that my fingers are well trained soldiers, having spent quality time in scale and étude books. At this point, I've gotten so good at working through my attacks, no one would know I was having one unless they directly addressed me when my back was turned."
Today, Kimberlee gives us great news.
"Since writing this blog entry in 2010," she explains, "practicing the violin has led me towards total remission of my Meniere's symptoms for the last six years. As long as I practice, I have no symptoms. It is a rather dramatic example, but I think I started going deaf, because I wasn't listening to myself. Meniere's is the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the motivation I needed to pursue my soul's calling."
Kimberlee's love for the violin is palpable. Even more so, her commitment to practice, playing opportunities, and learning is further evidence of her dedication. She's making the steady shift from amateur to professional.
Her dream to play Ralph Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending was fulfilled when she won a competition and performed the piece with an orchestra. She's working on her first recording - a collection of new music - for solo violin. She'll play her own compositions and other composers' works. Her musical plate is full.
"Almost every day, I wake up with a new musical goal in mind," Kimberlee said. "I am fascinated, excited, in love with this instrument. I love the sound, and I crave freedom to create with it. If I had no one to clap for me or tell me I was doing anything great; if I had (and I have had) people writing me hate mail, mocking and criticizing me, I would still wake up and play my scales and find my bliss. I didn't always know this about myself. It took many years to admit it and allow myself to serve it."
She brings up an interesting point. It does take courage for us to live our truths, especially when the world tells us it's impossible. So, what's Kimberlee's practice routine?
"That varies, but it always includes [a] healthy dose of scales including arpeggios, thirds, sixths, octaves, tenths, fourths, fifths, and sometimes modes," she said. "I have played all the way through every étude book, some of them many times, but the books I find most helpful are Kreutzer and Sevcik. There are also exercises from Ysaye and Urstudien from Flesch that are also great! I follow that up with Bach and then move into repertoire. If I am under the gun and have to learn my repertoire in short order, I skip the études, concentrate on Bach for intonation, and move right into my repertoire."
Despite not touching the violin for 10 years, she has no regrets about the gap in her education.
"I believe I was meant to follow this exact path, precisely as it is unfolding. Every difficulty I faced made me stronger, made me more capable and gave me what I could have had in no other way."
How does she fit practice into a busy schedule?
"I developed an attitude a long time ago based in gratitude. Rather than focusing on practicing as if it were some terrible duty looming over me like a taskmaster waiting for his payment, I see it as something I am blessed to be able to do. I greet the day with the attitude [that] at some point I will find time to practice, and the moment always comes! My favorite trick is to leave my violin out all day - not in the case - because it is much easier to practice when you don't have to get it out of the case. Twenty minute [slots] scattered throughout the day add up to a lot of practice time."
Any tips and advice for adults just starting or getting back to it after many years?
"The violin is athletic. Just as you would not expect yourself to run a marathon immediately, you cannot expect yourself to practice hours on end until you have methodically and gradually worked up to it through steady work. Just like any sport, you risk injury when you do too much too soon. It's not just duration, but also intensity. Bach is a totally different physical requirement than Meditation from Thais or Handel Sonatas. You will hurt yourself if you try to learn the Ciaccona too quickly without properly preparing yourself for that challenge. Paganini is an even higher requirement. It all comes gradually and with steady consistent practice. I try not to get impatient and I rest myself when I know my limbs have had enough. It all comes back eventually, and there is no real age limit on improving.
Learning is a choice, though, and you have to get very honest with yourself if you want to improve. You must learn to listen. It can be excruciating to face reality. Older students also have challenges because there are fewer performance opportunities, almost no competitions, and often the routes to top level teachers are closed. It is unfair to compare yourself to younger students when the deck is stacked so high in their favor. The expectation adults have of themselves and of each other can be unrealistic and adverse to cultivating a supportive environment for learning.
Knowing all this, be gentle with yourself! Do your best to navigate around the obstacles and provide for yourself other ways and means of making opportunities available to younger players happen for yourself. Have an open mind and the loopholes will present themselves! It's a great time to be an adult beginner with unprecedented access to learning and being involved in music in non-traditional ways."
Fiddlershop’s "Music is for Everyone" blog series features interviews with professional, amateur, and student musicians who inspire through their unique musical stories. Their example proves that music truly is for everyone, and we hope after reading, you’re motivated to begin and/or continue your musical journey.