Brenda Garcia, and Nikolas Lopez-Gonzalez, have come a long way since they started playing the violin in middle school. The pair is still in high school, yet they have already performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as part of the Civic Youth Ensemble.
A clip of their performance shows the gusto with which the teens approach music, meeting the challenge of Bach (Fugue in G minor) with passion and precision. They admit that sight reading is difficult for them, but you wouldn’t guess it watching them perform. If you look closely enough, you can see them floating away with each note. Years of practicing classical music have infused them with the drive needed to meet musical challenges head-on.
Months before the DSO recital, the idea to play with the Civic Youth Ensemble was brought to them by Peter Whorf and Nensi Bakiu, their respective violin instructors at Michigan State University. When asked about their musical goals, both saw musical performance as a future aspiration. Each teen separately recorded a piece and submitted it online. Garcia and Lopez-Gonzalez auditioned, and then they forgot about it, thinking it was a long shot.
Garcia’s recorded audition was Bach’s Concierto for Two Violins. She was on summer vacation in Mexico when she received an email.
“I was excited, but I didn’t think I would get past the audition process,” Garcia said. “I feel very fortunate and thankful for the opportunity.”
Garcia is inspired by classical masters like Bach, Mozart, and Paganini, but it was Mariachi music that got her interested in playing the violin. Her dream is to dance Ballet Folklorico and play the violin with a Mariachi band. Garcia looks forward to college because there, she will have a place to experiment with this idea, in particular, the Wayne State University campus, which already has a Ballet Folklorico dance troupe.
“Mariachi music is very happy and can express pain, too… It’s marvelous,” she says.
Of her violin roots, her father bought a violin for himself. “I picked it up one day and started to play. My dad saw that I enjoyed playing the violin, so he told me to work at it.”
She spent a month learning and then sought tutelage at Michigan State University, where she has been learning for the last three years.
Even at such a young age, she understands it’s important to be herself and demonstrate her own interpretation of the music.
Inspired by her love of Mexico, Garcia watches the Mariachi Extravaganza, one of the most important Mariachi festivals in the world, and the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, considered the premier Mariachi group in Mexico.
She lists off influences, such as Itzhak Perlman, a violin virtuoso and a superstar in classical music, and Chloe Chua, a child prodigy from Singapore.
“When I feel like I can’t keep going, I watch progress videos on YouTube,” she says. It motivates her to keep practicing the violin. Sometimes, she learns in fragments, picking up the hardest parts first until she masters them and then moving on to the easy parts and she puts it all together. Learning is a work in progress, Garcia says.
Lopez-Gonzalez auditioned with a different piece—Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Both Garcia and Lopez-Gonzalez are taking coding classes. Lopez-Gonzalez says that he hopes to make an app to connect music lessons to people in places where music lessons are hard to come by—places like Bogotá, Columbia, where he grew up.
As his friends were listening to Colombian and Latin pop music, Lopez-Gonzalez says it was difficult for him to pivot to classical music on the violin when the rest of the country was moving to a different beat.
Lopez-Gonzalez can play 11 instruments, including the flute, piano, guitar, cello, accordion, and ukulele, but the violin is the instrument in which he is most proficient. He recalls asking his parents for a violin six years ago, and though the guitar was a common fixture in his home, it was difficult to convince them to purchase one.
He speaks wistfully about studying music in college and one day playing first violin in a principal orchestra. His top schools of choice are Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Cleveland Institute of Music, and The Juilliard School. Though he has come a long way, Lopez-Gonzalez admits it wasn’t always easy.
He credits God and his Christian upbringing for imbuing him with musical ability, but he also recognizes that it takes perseverance.
“A lot of people start to play, and when it doesn’t go right, they give up, they say this isn’t for me,” Lopez-Gonzalez said. “Sometimes the resources aren’t there, but it is possible to learn an instrument.”
Musically, what challenges him is the expression and sentiment behind a piece, what brings it to life. He often thinks about one of his favorite musicians, American violinist and three-time Grammy winner Hilary Hahn, and wonders what she thinks about when she plays. He is currently learning a piece by Jean Sibelius for a possible future audition.
“Since I was little, I liked music without lyrics,” Lopez-Gonzalez said. “I find it fascinating how classical music can express a pure emotion without words.”
Estefania Arellano-Bermudez is a lifelong Detroiter. She has published in the Telegram News and believes words evoke magic.
This story was made possible by the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The goal of the initiative is to build trust between the news media and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities to strengthen representative democracy.