The apartment room was cluttered with memories—autographed photos of famous musicians, Russian paintings, programs from concerts whose music had long ago evaporated into the air. By the window a slender young woman stood playing the violin, tossing off difficult runs like so many spring flowers. Her teacher, an older gentleman, was hammering out the accompaniment on a grand piano, listening intently to her every note, calling out instructions in a heavy Russian accent. The music seemed to burst from the room into a thousand fragrant blossoms.
Her teacher stopped abruptly. “No! No! Go a little deeper into your soul!” he pleaded. “That’s the German style you’re playing. In Russia and America we do it this way.” He picked up his violin from the piano and demonstrated. “Put more of nature’s tranquility into your playing. And don’t slide to the note.”
She started playing again, bow moving effortlessly across the strings, eyes carefully measuring the page of notes and lines before her that she somehow magically translated into music. Too soon the piece was finished, and she turned to her teacher.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “I would say that was excellent. You have a cool head and a warm heart, which make you a fine violinist. You have talent.”
On that sweet note, Lois Watkins finished her lesson with Raphael Bronstein, one of Russia’s finest violinists who now teaches talented young musicians at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. So she packed up her violin, said thank you and good-bye, and started threading the busy west side streets of Manhattan leading back to her apartment.
Whether taking or teaching lessons, conducting, performing with the National Orchestra, or playing jobs around the New York City area, Lois Watkins is up to her violin in music, and she loves it. To her, music is a way of sharing—and just as important, a road to excellence.
“When I perform, I just want people to enjoy the music, and forget about their problems. I try to keep in mind what the composer wanted and also to incorporate what I think the music conveys,” said Lois. “In order to do this well, I have to be the best musician I can—and that takes work. But the results are worth it. When you know you’ve played well, there’s nothing like it. It gives you confidence, makes you respect yourself, and you enjoy giving your music to other people. It’s creating something, and that’s very satisfying.”
Lois grew up in a home where making music was almost as popular as talking or eating. All ten of the Watkins family are excellent musicians, and often enjoy musical sessions together. Lois’s musical philosophy was shaped in that home environment.
“A good musician will create a feeling in the listener,” said Lois. “If you go to a concert and hear a lot of fast notes and nice music, you are not necessarily touched. If it doesn’t make you thoughtful, or angry, or make you feel love or compassion or somehow more sensitive to life, I don’t think the performer has been successful.
“Because so many feelings are generated by music, we need to be choosy about what we listen to. Some music is definitely not good for us. I feel that if it puts you in a train of thought that is not conducive to gospel standards, then it’s wrong for you,” she added.
Lois rents a room on the west side of Manhattan from two elderly sisters. The apartment is close to the Manhattan School of Music where she takes classes, so she can easily walk to school. Her mother attended school in that same building years before when it housed the Julliard School of Music. Lois’s parents met and married in New York City and now live in Pelham, New York, about an hour away from New York City by train. Each Wednesday Lois takes the train to Bronxville, not far from home, where she teaches violin to aspiring musicians in the fourth and sixth grades.
“It’s fun to teach when the students practice and really enjoy the lessons. I have some good students. And when you teach, it helps your own playing because you learn to analyze problems and overcome them. I’ll probably always teach a little, but mostly I want to perform and conduct. That’s what I’ve put most of my efforts into,” Lois added.
“Conducting is my main interest, not just being a violinist. For two summers I attended a conducting school in Hancock, Maine. I was the youngest person there. I’ve conducted a lot of major orchestral works and have done some conducting here in New York City. It’s difficult to break into, though, and not many major music schools have conducting as a major, so I’ve decided to concentrate mostly on my violin while I’m here taking classes. One of the best ways to learn to be a good conductor is to play in various orchestras and observe conductors. I’ve played under some of the finest conductors, like Aaron Copland, Seiji Ozawa, and Zubin Mehta.”
She’s also spent summer at outstanding schools and music camps like Tanglewood (where she received the award for the outstanding chamber music musician), Saratoga (where young musicians are taught by the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra), and the Meadowmount School of Strings, taught by many members of the Julliard faculty. Competition for participating in these schools is very tough. “I’ve been very lucky,” said Lois.
But it wasn’t simply luck that put Lois where she is now in the world of music. A lot of hard work was part of her formula for excelling.
“I started playing the piano at age four and the violin at seven,” said Lois. “I also picked up trumpet and French horn, which I still play occasionally. At the beginning I didn’t like the violin because it didn’t sound very good when I played it. The violin is a hard instrument to coordinate, because your left hand is in an awkward position, and you have to vibrate it. Even the bow is awkward to hold at first. It takes time to develop your muscles for playing. It’s easy to sound bad on the violin at first.
“But you have to have patience and plug away until you can start making it sound half decent. Sticking with something you don’t like at first teaches you self-discipline. You’re not going to enjoy every teacher you get in school, every assignment you have, every job you get in life, but there are benefits to sticking things out.
“I started out practicing for half an hour at the beginning, then 45 minutes, then an hour, and eventually an hour and a half. My parents really encouraged me. By high school I was practicing two hours a day, which really isn’t a lot. I practiced regularly, though, and if I wanted to go out and play with friends, I had to practice first to make sure it would get done.
“It was tough when I was younger to learn that self-discipline. But then I got to the point where I made practicing high priority and did it on my own. It was good for me because it helped me to regulate my time and learn how to get things done,” she said.
Today Lois usually plays the violin about eight hours a day, divided between practicing, lessons, orchestras, and playing odd jobs like weddings and musicals. And she thoroughly enjoys that schedule.
One of the highlights of her week is practicing with the National Orchestra, whose purpose is to prepare musicians for professional orchestras. Young musicians from around the world compete for acceptance by the orchestra. If you survive the string of intensive auditions and are accepted, you’re given the opportunity to work in a professional kind of situation.
“You sign a three-year contract with the orchestra and receive a salary,” said Lois. “We practice three times a week and give four concerts each year at Carnegie Hall with guest conductors and soloists. We go through a lot of orchestral music, which is great preparation for eventually joining another symphony.”
In addition to the enjoyment she receives from daily participation in the music world, one of her most rewarding experiences is sharing her music in church meetings. It puts her talent in perspective, she said.
“You can almost bear your testimony through music. I’m asked to play a lot in Church meetings, and that’s a very satisfying aspect of music. Church members really appreciate music because it’s such a spiritual part of the meeting. People are really touched by music. I dedicate what I play to my Heavenly Father, because it’s not really my music that touches people, it’s a gift from him.
“When I play for church, I always try to create a setting that’s conducive to worship. I never pick fast, showy pieces. I think the piece should be melodious, not too long (about three or four minutes), and not boring. I try to play pieces that will put the listeners in a worshipful mood and try to choose something that’s not too far from their musical experience.
“Music plays such an important part in the quality of our services that we need to give our very best. It’s important for people in the Church to develop really excellent musical talent. No musician should take performing in church lightly, whether he or she’s an accompanist, director, choir member, or soloist,” she said.
Lois started to gather the books and music she needs for her National Orchestra rehearsal downtown at Lincoln Center, where the New York City Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and New York City Ballet perform, along with many of the world’s finest musicians. She’s going to do some studying at the music library at the center, too, so plans to get there about two hours before rehearsal time. Just across the street from the center is the Church’s visitors’ center and the chapel for the Manhattan Wards.
“I love the excitement of being in New York City, which is an excellent training ground for musicians. It’s a terrific place for me to be learning more about my profession—I’m getting good training and experience. I can’t help but improve my music!”
And she ran off to catch her bus.