This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
You started taking lessons at Colburn when you were four years old. How did you get your start here?
My older sister actually started piano lessons here, so I’ve been coming here since I was born to sit in on her lessons. When my parents asked me what I would like to play, I said violin. But when I started, I really wanted to quit. I didn’t like it, and I hated practicing. My mom didn’t think it was right to quit right away so she asked my teacher, Margaret Shimizu, ‘She wants to quit, what should we do?’ And she said, ‘You cannot quit until you’re 18 years old.’ To a four year old, that felt like the longest time.
Do you still hate practicing?
Now I see it as an opportunity to get better, rather than torture, even though it may seem so at times. My view on practicing changed when I realized that you have to practice to get better. I kind of knew that already, because when I was younger, I used to be a competitive swimmer. From a swimming standpoint, there’s certain things you have to break down so you can improve on them. You can’t go to a swim meet and drop time if you don’t put in the work.
What has it been like being here for so long?
Colburn is like a second home. I do my homework here, I take my naps here, I practice and I eat here. It’s my home away from home.
What’s your favorite thing that you’re involved in here?
My favorite is probably being in the Honors String Quartet because there’s only four of us and there’s no conductor. It’s an intimate experience. We have to come to rehearsals prepared, and it’s always a lot of fun. We always end up laughing. Mr. deMaine is our coach. He’s the Principal Cellist across the street at the LA Phil, and it’s really nice for me to work with him. He always tells us that he’s not the one doing any work, he’s the one kicking us in the butts to do work. He’s providing us tools in order to work on our own. Since he’s a full-time musician, he’s not in town a lot, so sometimes it can be a while between our coachings. It helps us learn how to operate by ourselves.
Why do you love music?
I think that in music there’s something that you can’t express in words. There’s only a certain amount of feeling and emotion you can convey through words. Words in themselves are limited and I think that sound is such a different way of experiencing things. Especially now that music has changed so much—now we listen to rock and roll and pop music, so sometimes I feel like words in songs limit imagination, while having almost clean and pure classical music opens up a world to anything you want.
My favorite movement for viola is the Hindemith Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1, Mvt. 4. There’s a lot of anger in it and oftentimes I’m very mad at world. There’s homelessness, poverty, and a lot of problems that I can’t change. It makes me very angry, and I think that that almost terrible sounding music is how I feel about those problems. Mr. and Mrs. Coletti always tell me that I don’t play with enough emotion, so that’s an aspect of my playing that I’m trying to work on. I had this lesson once where Mr. Coletti said, ‘Play one note and make it very sad,’ and I was able to do that, but when he told me to make it happy, he said, ‘Johanna, you’re not very convincing.’ So it requires a lot of life experience in order to convey emotion in music. Our conductor once told us that 90% of what you’re going to do is the notes on the page and the next 9% is the stuff around the music, like dynamics and making it go faster or slower, and then he didn’t say anything about that 1%. So someone in the orchestra said, ‘What about that last 1%?’ and he said, ‘Oh I don’t know. Maybe it’s just life.’
What motivates you to keep playing?
When I play a piece of music, I’m giving back to the community. This weekend, I put on a concert for Door of Hope, which is an organization that helps homeless families find homes again. My quartet from here, the Meraki Quartet, performed the Beethoven String Quartet “Razumovsky,” and we each did a couple of solos. We raised over $2000 that day. It makes me so happy to know that I’m helping someone. There are people out there who are less fortunate than me, and didn’t have the opportunities that I had. I can’t go into their lives and change it all around, but I can give them something that might help.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve been thinking a lot about double majoring, so I’m looking at colleges with strong music and science programs. I’m really interested in biology, so if I had to choose, I would go into biology. I like having an explanation for how things work. I don’t like to accept anything for how it is, I have to understand why it works and why it matters.
But I really like music too. A couple of plans I’ve come up with are to study neuroscience and see how music affects the brain, or to become a burn doctor and deal with trauma patients. I think music would help me there, because it would teach me how to calm myself.