Arts & Leisure

Sofia Hirsch: Life as a pro violinist in Vermont

SOFIA HIRSCH HAS made the violin her life’s work. Here she is playing for the Opera Company of Middlebury’s gala in 2018. Photo by Max Kraus

A small, three-year-old girl in Ontario grinds her bow across all four strings. She coaxes out an imperfect G major scale in whole notes, her very first feat on her very first violin.
These were the humble beginnings of professional violinist Sofia Hirsch. Today, with about 35 more years of practice under her belt, Hirsch continues her musical career with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra (VSO) and other ensembles across Vermont. Thankfully, the bow grinding has become graceful gliding.
Some of Hirsch’s favorite memories from her 18 years with VSO include performing alongside Yo-Yo Ma (who “truly is everything that anyone’s ever said about him,” Hirsch swooned) and the Danish String Quartet. She has enjoyed guidance from VSO conductor Jaime Laredo, and has even played for Bernadette Peters and her band. “Mind-blowing experiences,” she enthused.
A 20-year-old Hirsch couldn’t have told you that she would end up playing violin professionally. In fact, Hirsch wasn’t playing at all at the time. Her path to a professional music career was far from straight.
She grew up surrounded by music. Everyone in her family played an instrument, and everyone practiced every day. Her sister, the cello; her dad, the flute and clarinet; her brother, the piano; and her mother, the violin.
Hirsch’s mother was her teacher and inspiration. Violin isn’t even Hirsch’s favorite instrument; piano is. But her mother’s passion drew Hirsch to the violin.
“I was three years old, my mother played the violin and sounded great, and I wanted to sound like that,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch’s mother demanded a lot of her — she saw Hirsch’s passion for the instrument, and encouraged her to pursue it professionally.
“Since she wanted me to be [a violinist], I wasn’t going to be one,” Hirsch explained her mindset as a rebellious teen.
Instead of music school, Hirsch studied public policy and women’s studies at University of Vermont. She graduated in 1993. During her sophomore year, her older brother passed away.
“He always accompanied me for every audition and competition,” Hirsch said. “When he died, I stopped playing.”
Her violin hiatus lasted nine years. “I had shut everything up inside me,” Hirsch remembered, comparing herself to a bank vault with all her emotions locked tightly inside. “I really believed that I’d given it up for life.”
She moved out to Telluride and became a self-described “ski-bum,” living in the woods with her boyfriend at the time.
“Since I wasn’t playing the violin and had decided I was never going to, I went rock climbing,” Hirsch said. “I did all these things I couldn’t do my whole life, because you can’t mess up your hands [as a violinist].”
Then, she moved to Boulder and tried out pre-med for a year at the University of Colorado. She considered nutrition school or Chinese medicine. She ran kitchens in various small restaurants.
Nothing stuck.
“I tried really hard to pursue other things,” she said. “It’s not that they didn’t work out; they could have if I had wanted them more. But I didn’t want them more and I didn’t know why.”
Hirsch was still figuring out what to do with her life when she got married and moved to Vermont. So, following her mother’s suggestion, she did what she knew — she became a violin teacher.
“I was just going to teach,” she said. But a few years into her return to playing, “the vault was open, I was in,” she said turning the lock to an invisible vault with her hands.
“I thought, ‘you dummy, your mom was right.’” Her return to the art allowed her to access places that had shut down in her. “It felt so me,” she said. Hirsch had no doubts — all she wanted to do was play violin.
And so, she did. She joined the VSO in 2001. She began performing with Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, Burlington Chamber Orchestra, Middlebury Opera Orchestra, and Northern Third Piano Quartet.
Hirsch has also participated in and helped develop many musical projects. During an interview in July, she was preparing to go on tour with the Farm to Ballet project, an outdoor classical ballet performance choreographed to a live performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Concerto. Hirsch was the violin soloist, accompanied by five other string players.
Hirsch hasn’t played outside of Vermont. “There’s been no reason to,” she said. Some people are surprised by this. “People say to me: ‘You guys live in Vermont, you can’t be any good, because if you were you’d be in New York or Boston.’”
Hirsch combats this mindset, which she called “uninformed.” She is passionate about the immense amount of talent she sees in the state. “Players in this area are incredible musicians. I would put them up against anybody,” she said.
With VSO, Hirsch plays one concert per month on average. She receives the music three weeks to one month in advance, and is responsible for coming to the first rehearsal with those notes learned. She must know how to play the pieces at different tempos and with different bowings.
In preparation, Hirsch practices for two to three hours a day. Then, the orchestra has four rehearsals before each concert. Even after years of performances, she still gets nervous; she worries that “a moment of lost focus or fretting about a less than perfect note will end up making a performance less than perfect.”
In some ways, Hirsch sees her perfectionism as an asset.
“Classical training requires so much precision and exactitude. It’s about refining and refining the most basic moves, about producing one single bow stroke that sings,” she explained.
But she knows it’s both a blessing and a curse. Hirsch has had to come to terms with never achieving perfection.
“In a music career, every day you are faced with the fact that you will never get the music to be nearly as beautiful as your heart wants it to be and that’s tough… It’s torture every day, picking up my violin and thinking I’m just going to fail again,” she said.
And yet, Hirsch can’t imagine herself in any other career. “I love being a part of it even when I fail constantly,” she emphasized. The challenges are worth the end result — reaching people’s hearts with music. “Music is really powerful and subtle and sneaky and uplifting in those moments when you just think there’s no hope.”
Of course, the moments of near-perfection also keep Hirsch motivated. She dreamily described “the minute the bow hits the string and the violin just vibrates and sings to the heavens and there’s no tension.”
Hirsch’s advice for aspiring violinists? “You have to keep the want for more as your primary focus, otherwise you’re not doing enough. You shouldn’t be over confident in your abilities… Practice enough to get close enough to what you want.”

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