Good Life

Penn State violinist lives life in tune

Music is about many things, but timing has to be one of them.

Emmanuel Houndo has managed to tear himself away from any one of the nine classes he’s taking this semester, the occupational hazard of a double major in violin performance with a side dish of health policy and administration.

“Busy” is a difficult market for any student at Penn State to corner, and Houndo isn’t laying claim to the mantle. As the only freshman first violinist in the PSU orchestra, his reality is best understood as that of a man caught in a love triangle with a course catalog and a sheet of music.

“I’ll be doing homework and it’ll be like, ‘dang, I should be practicing right now,’ ” Houndo said.

The reverse just as often holds true, but today the scale has tilted in such a way that the violinist still hasn’t had a chance to warm up prior to unpacking his instrument in a piano-bearing room somewhere in the depths of Simmons Hall.

Instead, he’s relying on the residual heat generated from a few quick scales to propel him forward into a string rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” — a performance he will then repeat when he decides that the first iteration didn’t live up to its potential.

To the untrained ear, both sound more or less the same — good, maybe even great — but Houndo is more finely attuned to, well, tune.

He’s been doing this since the fourth grade, ever since an initiative at his Philadelphia elementary school tried to inject new life into the music program by pairing available students with a lonely instrument.

Houndo chose the violin on the recommendation of his teacher.

“I was just doing it just to do it. It was fun,” Houndo said.

He was 8 years old when his family relocated from West Africa to Philadelphia, largely to pursue better educational opportunities for the kids. In the Houndo household, academics were a parental prerogative of the non-negotiable sort.

Emmanuel’s willingness to comply was compromised only slightly by the burgeoning awareness that he not only enjoyed the violin, but was pretty good at it to boot.

“I have this philosophy that even if you feel like you don’t have a talent, you can work hard for it,” Houndo said.

YouTube videos posted by other violinists provided points of comparison, a way to match his developing skills against those of other musicians from around the globe. Houndo’s own contributions to digital posterity were meticulously crafted, shot and edited over the course of a week, posted as equal parts lark and calling card.

“I like to be very thorough within each process,” he said.

One of his better efforts was a violin cover of Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” — and in a turn of events that almost certainly proves that the internet is a much smaller place than purported, the singer saw his video and lent it the ballast of her own Facebook feed.

Houndo was ecstatic — so much so that his mother had to remind him to do his homework, a nod to the same balancing act that has defined his life both before and ever since.

After his sophomore year in high school, Houndo turned off the video camera to focus on getting into a good college. And now with his freshman year at Penn State halfway in the history books, his attention has shifted to maintaining the tension between his vocation and avocation.

And at this point it’s not necessarily clear which is which.

Houndo has twice withstood the siren song of the television industry in order to remain in school. That’s where the policy and administration side of his brain, the one that’s concerned for people who don’t ready access to health care, is thriving. He would like to help, if he can, and wonders if the exposure to be gained as a musician could benefit that cause — if maybe the world really is big enough for Clark Kent and Superman to exist at the same time.

“That picture is so blurry right now, because again, there’s a lot of opportunity being thrown both ways,” Houndo said.

In the summer, he’s hoping to secure an internship with Carolinas HealthCare System, a nonprofit hospitals network. Beyond that, there are always eardrums willing to accommodate a talented violinist.

Right now he’s taking it a day at a time, open hour by open hour.

“I’ll be all right. I’m going to be all right,” Houndo said.