Emily Karosas has the world on a string — and if there’s one thing she knows, it’s strings.
Just ask the judges at the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist String Competition, who awarded the young violinist top honors during the 2015 MTNA National Conference on March 23.
Karosas, who began taking Suzuki violin lessons at the age of 5, is a graduate student at Penn State and an active member of the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra. She ascended through the state, district and national tiers to claim the competition’s $3,000 prize.
Below, the violin virtuoso talks about her musical background and the challenges yet to come.
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Q: You’re a graduate student at Penn State. What are you studying?
A: I am currently a second-year graduate student in the master’s of music program studying violin performance. Professor James Lyon is my adviser and private teacher who, until his sabbatical this semester, taught me weekly.
Q: You’ve been playing the Suzuki violin since age 5. What has kept you passionate and engaged all of these years?
A: My mother established the rule in our home that once her children turned 5 years old, they were to choose an instrument to play. The youngest of three daughters, I listened to my oldest sister, Katie, begin the violin, and my sister Justine start piano lessons. When my time finally arrived, I decided to follow my oldest sister’s steps by also choosing the violin.
Although I loved playing the violin for the first few years, I reached a point in junior high when I wanted to quit. It was too hard, and I didn’t want to practice; I wanted to hang out with friends and play sports — not spend two hours each night with my violin. Although I was stubborn, my mom encouraged me to keep working. She pushed me to practice every day, keeping a keen ear on my progress as she listened from another room: “That’s out of tune, Emily!” I’m sure I rolled my eyes at the time, but I am forever grateful for her persistence. If she had let me have my way, I definitely would have quit.
In my later high school years, I developed a greater love for music and chose to apply to collegiate music programs. I then cultivated a personal desire to work hard and improve, no longer by force but out of a sheer ambition to be a better musician.
Q: Do you play any other instruments?
A: Unfortunately, I do not play any other instruments. I have a basic understanding of the piano, and desire eventually to enhance this skill so that I can accompany my students.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of playing the violin?
A: Every violinist faces different technical challenges, but as I’ve grown in my understanding of the instrument I would say that the most difficult aspect is bow control. Held in a precise yet loose manner in the right hand, the bow controls a great deal of the expressive capabilities of the violin, and thus requires utmost refinement. Then, in the end, we have to make it look and sound easy!
Q: You’ve performed with the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra and the Japanese band Mono. Do you find yourself continuing to learn new things about your craft?
A: I think every musician would say that we are never really done learning, both about our individual instruments and about music in general. Sometimes it feels daunting, like a never-ending work cycle, but mostly it’s exciting to know that there is always something new to discover.
Personally, each time I practice, I strive to assess the minutest details of what I am doing so that I can uncover mistakes. I hope I never reach a point where I say, “OK, I’m good enough,” but instead live with a constant drive to improve.
Q: You play in many styles, including classical, fiddle and pop. Do you have a favorite? Why?
A: While most of my experience is in the classical realm, various circumstances of my career have provided me with opportunity to perform in eclectic styles. Though it may not be a specific style, I would say that my favorite performing venue is in the church. I love to play hymns, not only because they are exquisite pieces of music, but also because I believe that music is meant for the glory of God.
Q: You also teach at State College Suzuki Program. Has that experience changed your perspective or caused you to look at being a musician differently?
A: I started teaching at the State College Suzuki Program in the fall of 2013, and today can confidently say that I would not have advanced as much as I have musically these past two years without my students. There have been many occasions where I’ve noticed a problem in something a student of mine was doing, pointed it out to them, then went to my practice room and realized I was doing the same thing.
In another respect, seeing the face of a young child light up when they understand something and improve is difficult to beat. Though my students look to me as their teacher, I have learned a great deal about patience, hard work and genuine joy from them.
Q: How did you get involved with the MTNA Young Artist String Competition? Was this your first year competing?
A: Professor Lyon nominated me for the competition last summer, encouraging me — as he always does — to go for it.
Yes, this was my first year competing.
Q: This was a three-tiered competition — state, Eastern and nationals. Did you find yourself getting more comfortable or more nervous with each round?
A: One of the benefits of the competition is that participants were required to perform the same repertoire at every division. Thus, as I advanced through the various stages, I become more and more comfortable with the music I was performing.
On the other hand, the pressure increased with each round, as I knew the caliber of my competitors was intensifying. In many ways, though, especially at the national level, I wasn’t quite sure I even had a chance of winning. So, I resolved to not worry about competitors or victories, but instead to focus on performing my best and enjoying the wonderful music I had the opportunity to study.
Q: What’s the first thing you did after you found out you won the national competition?
A: Immediately upon hearing my name announced as the winner, I distinctly remember putting my hand on my forehead and saying, “Oh my gosh!” I couldn’t stop smiling! Once I returned to my seat, my mom enveloped me in a huge hug and we both tried to contain our excitement and sit quietly for the rest of the announcements. It wasn’t easy!
Mostly, I remember walking out of the room with my mom and both of us repeating, with beaming smiles on our faces, “Praise God, praise God!” I believe wholeheartedly that my musical abilities, including the time I’ve had to cultivate them, are a gift from God, and meant to be used for his glory. I pray that he continues to use my victory at MTNA to make his name known.
Q: Where will your next musical challenge come from?
A: I am working to refine excerpts from orchestral repertoire required for auditions into professional orchestras. There are many of them, and they are quite tricky, but I am enjoying working on them, and hope to utilize them well in upcoming auditions for ensembles.