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From poverty to prodigy: star violinist turns to other musicians in need

April 15, 2016 at 8:00 PM EDT
Rachel Barton Pine is one of the most accomplished violinists in the world, but her upbringing wasn't one of privilege -- as a ten-year-old prodigy with an out-of-work father, she bought her concert clothes in thrift stores and relied on space heaters for warmth. Now, Pine uses her success to help other disadvantaged violinists escape poverty. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: music with a purpose, a story about a violinist charting her own musical path.

Jeffrey Brown tells us exactly how her music is hitting the spirit.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an unlikely setting for a classical music performance: a homeless shelter, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, in the shadow of the nation’s capital, where concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine played a special engagement for the residents.

There was music from many eras and styles. Along the way, Pine offered bits of musical history.

RACHEL BARTON PINE, Violinist: So, Mozart was from Germany from the late 1700s.

JEFFREY BROWN: And told them a bit about herself.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: And we were often one missed payment away from losing the roof over our heads, which was the scariest thing of all when I was a little kid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pine, in fact, knows something of the plight of her audience. Her father was mostly unemployed, and the family had to scrape by.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: So, We had these three sort of grocery crates rescued from the garbage and this one little electric heater. And I would rotate it every 10 minutes, so that, as part of me was warming up and thawing, another part would be starting to freeze.

But we had to do unusual things, like get my concert clothes from a thrift store and try to fix them up to be something presentable for stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Pine tours the world a good part of the year, traveling with her husband, Greg, who serves as her manager, and their 4-year-old daughter.

But she feels a pull to give back wherever she goes.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Sometimes, I go to hospitals. I have even been to prisons, and just wherever music can uplift people’s spirits. That’s the meaning of being a musician.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you have a life on the road that is different, in the sort of traditional performing and then playing in places like this.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Absolutely.

Well, yes, I think more and more artists, especially with the younger generation, are really understanding the value of community engagement. If we only played for the converted, we would be not honoring our gifts to the fullest extent.

JEFFREY BROWN: One spirit lifted today, Ray Simmons, who told us of falling on hard times and finding hope in Pine’s music and his own.

Do you have to hold onto something?

RAY SIMMONS, The Community for Creative Non-Violence: You have to hold onto something. You have to hold onto your sanity.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RAY SIMMONS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: For you, it sounds like you hold onto your music too.

RAY SIMMONS: I hold onto my music quite often. That’s what gets me through, knowing that I’m going to — yes, I’m going to play my way out and sing my way out of this place, for sure, for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pine started young. She gave her first recital at age 5, played with a professional orchestra at 7, and with one of the great ones, the Chicago Symphony, in a concert of young performers at age 10.

MAN: And now super-duper Rachel Barton makes her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, she formed a foundation to help what she calls poor prodigies with things not covered by traditional scholarships: accompaniment fees, sheet music, transportation to competitions.

To date, she’s helped 70 young people. Another project, Global HeartStrings, supports aspiring musicians in developing countries such as Haiti.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Music programs here in America, we kind of take for granted, like rosin to put on your bow hair, or, you know, a shoulder rest, so that your violin will sit on your body properly.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 21, on the brink of a major career, the doors of a Chicago commuter train closed on the straps of her violin case, trapping Pine. The train dragged her 200 feet, severing her left leg and mangling her right foot. Fifty surgeries later, she walks on a prosthetic leg.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Really, of course, it was a case of corporate negligence, because there had been many, many prior instances before the day that I happened to get hurt.

And, thankfully, they have changed their safety procedures. Everybody has something they have to deal with, and this just happens to be mine.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the concert violinist is also a heavy metal lover and performer, a regular headbanger, here playing Metallica’s “One.”

RACHEL BARTON PINE: So, at first, it was like the mainstream bands, but then I started to get into the classic thrash groups like Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, early Metallica, Pantera (INAUDIBLE). Like, this music just grabbed me. It was so intense.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you were playing classical music, playing Bach during the day, and then at 10:00, you’re listening to…

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Anthrax.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthrax.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: So, it sounds silly to say I relaxed to this like headbanging metal, but, yes, I could just turn off my brain and rock out.

I started playing these things on my instrument and realized, wait a sec, this is actually very sophisticated music.

JEFFREY BROWN: For us, she played Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”

Maybe, Pine says, she can help bridge these disparate musical worlds.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: One of my goals has to been to get fellow headbangers out to the symphony. There is nothing more intense than 100 people on stage playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. And, you know, it’s just an experience like none other.

JEFFREY BROWN: A hundred people on stage, or one at a homeless shelter, where Rachel Barton Pine gave residents a taste of her newly released album, her 30th, called “Testament: Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.”

In Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heavy metal on the violin.

And you can watch all of Rachel Barton Pine’s version of “Crazy Train” on Art Beat. That’s online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

And for more online: Rembrandt retold. A video artist has tied the 17th century Dutch painter’s work to a modern story, one of cancer, tragedy and growing up in South Central Los Angeles. You can view the touching piece on our home page.

And more from our Race Matters series. Journalists share their experience reporting on race and policing. Watch highlights from a town hall hosted by special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

All that and more is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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