All photographs by Adam Ydstie.
Summer has officially hit Tacoma, which means you may have already contemplated escaping the heat by heading to the movies. But did you know that there’s a Tacoma connection with a current big-screen blockbuster?
You may be surprised to discover that a young classical violinist now youtube sensation from Tacoma just happens to make an appearance in the documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me.
Since early 2011, Tacoma violinist Grace Youn has been cataloguing her undeniable talent to little fanfare online — but all that changed when, on a whim, she decided to try her hand at some original arrangements of pop songs, sharing her interpretations as one-take videos. Through her youtube channel, Grace began connecting with new fans and a growing, inventive network of violinists.
Grace started drawing more than just friend and peer views last summer when her cover of Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks went viral, racking up more than 280,000 views.
Grace has since uploaded over 25 different violin performances, all original arrangements of hits from David Guetta to Nicki Minaj.
Now Grace has more than 4,000 subscribers, over 600,000 views on her channel, and more than 1,000 likes on her facebook page at the time of this publishing.
In May 2012, Grace captured further attention when she won the Rockin’ Fiddle Challenge, a contest conceived by internationally-acclaimed violinist Adam DeGraff in which he invites other violinists to share their interpretation of his arrangement of a pop song through video. In this case, the song was a catchy arrangement of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and Grace won handily with an accomplished performance.
The flourish and fun Grace displayed in her video was immediately captivating so I invited her to meet me at Metronome Coffee to share her story.
Grace is a tiny, vivacious, thoughtful, and articulate University of Puget Sound student majoring in music. At only 20, she impresses with her maturity, drive, and bravery – since her senior year of high school, she’s been rigorously forging her own path and following a dream that now is picking up serious momentum and gaining her international attention.
Learning to Love the Strings
Born in Radcliff, Kentucky and transplanted to Tacoma when she was four years old, Grace and her three older siblings learned to love classical music from their parents: Grace’s brothers both took violin lessons and her sister played piano and french horn. When told she was too short to play cello, Grace too started violin and piano lessons at 7.
Although initially (like most kids learning an instrument) she was at turns ambivalent and resentful of the practice requirements, it became clear that she had a natural talent for the violin – her photographic memory and perfect pitch didn’t hurt either.
At 9, Grace joined the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association and it was in that collaborative environment where she really began to love and appreciate playing. With the Youth Symphony she discovered that “making music with other people, with friends, can really be an awesome experience.” Grace played with the Youth Symphony until she graduated from Curtis High School, nearly a decade.
The summer before her senior year of high school, Grace began taking lessons with Dr. Maria Sampen, Director of Strings at the University of Puget Sound and a professional violinist.
Finding inspiration and mentorship from Dr. Sampen cemented a serious decision for Grace. She knew she was going to have to make it clear to her parents that she wanted to pursue violin as a career. And this wasn’t going to be an easy sell.
Grace’s parents saw the family’s musical pursuits as strictly recreational. And until Grace, the view had persisted: all her siblings moved past music and now have successful careers in software engineering and the law; her father is a pastor and her mother is a Registered Nurse in Puyallup – Grace was the first to shake things up.
Although violin had always been a major aspect of her life,her parents were reluctant to see their daughter choose such a difficult path. “It wasn’t in my parents’ minds at all for any of us to become professional musicians because of the whole starving artist image. When I told my parents I wanted to pursue violin it was a mess.”
Embracing the Challenge
Right after high school graduation Grace told her parents that, with or without their support, her ambition was to pursue music academically and professionally. She had already performed college music auditions around the country, and after weighing the options, Grace chose to stay closer to home and attend the University of Puget Sound not only because of financial aid and scholarships, but in large part because of the encouragement of her teacher, Maria Sempen.
“It was hard – at that time Maria was the only person who supported me, everyone else was like ‘you’re not going to make it.’ It was hard when the people you love don’t support what you choose to do, but if you want something enough, you’re going to fight for it. Knowing that, and trying to make it happen was a source of energy to push through it.”
Much to Grace’s relief, support continued to grow, especially in her new academic setting where, once again, Grace could enjoy the fun and challenge of collaboration.
Grace is thoughtful when she considers the past few years.
“There’s something I’ve realized in this short life of mine: that your greatest enemy is yourself. People set up their own obstacles and barriers. Starting violin and choosing this path wasn’t the easiest thing. I started with very little support but there’s been a complete 180 in the last few years. Now my parents come to all of my concerts and they’re always so excited about seeing me perform anywhere.”
Bolstered by growing support from her friends and loved ones, Grace was ready for a new challenge: without realizing it, this fresh ambition would lead her into a new and distinctly “millennial” chapter of her life.
Worth the Fight
Grace doesn’t go out of her way to flaunt her internet celebrity status: “I don’t usually tell people about the youtube channel – in fact, when my professor found out, it was because I was in the music office one day, eating animal crackers during a break from practicing.”
Grace came into the music office on campus only to discover that multiple faculty and the Dean of the School of Music were all buzzing the traffic on her youtube channel, which had exceeded 200,000 views at the time. Dr. Sampen and her violinist husband Tim Christie heard the commotion and asked Grace why none of them had heard of her online popularity before and she demurred “It hadn’t come up in conversation!”
During that time Grace was finding outlets outside the internet: as she launched her youtube channel she also began exploring off campus. An avid and discerning coffee drinker, Grace started frequenting Metronome where her cased violin, a near constant companion, began to draw attention.
Local musician Nate Daley, then a barista at Metronome, was the first to reach out and invited Grace to play with him and his band, A Leaf. Grace again embraced improvising on the fly with no sheet music to guide her.
Grace’s drive to seek out challenges was primed for the Rockin’ Fiddle Challenge. Although she’d won numerous awards for her classical violin work, (most recently she was a 2012 National Finalist in the prestigious Music Teachers National Association Young Artists Competition), the Fiddle Challenge is her first win outside of classical music.
Grace shared that “classical musicians are traditionally boxed into a set of values where fun is not part of the equation” and it is clear that the times, the expectations, and the ways of exploring classical music are changing.
Before her win, Grace had made an impression with Adam DeGraff. Adam had created an arrangement of Stairway to Heaven shared through a youtube performance, and Grace loved the solo so much that she figured it out without sheet music and performed it in her own video.
“Adam DeGraff is one of my favorite violinists. He melts all these different genres together – hip hop, jazz, rock– still with the classical tradition mixed in. What I really like about him is that he really pushes the limits of the violin, like how can I make my violin sound like a guitar on distortion without a distortion pedal? He stopped putting any barriers to his playing.”
Adam loved her cover and this appreciation galvanized her choice to compete.
“It was a huge challenge to change up it up,” Grace said of her submission, “I thought it was so brilliantly conceived that it would be so hard to change up and if you were going to add any improv it had to be done in a way that seamlessly flow and work merely as transitional material, not make a new section. That’s what I was focused on when working up my interpretation.”
Clearly it worked: says DeGraff of Grace’s winning performance:
“Grace Youn is a fabulous young violinist that, I am excited to say, effortlessly weaves between genres and brings as much rock and roll to the violin as she does classical precision and refinement to rock and roll. She recently won my international violin competition, The Rockin’ Fiddle Challenge, jamming on my arrangement of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” but not without a nod and a wink to Bach with a very deft quote of the old master’s E Major Violin Partita. First time in the world THAT has ever been done.”
Grace not only won, but was then was invited by Adam to perform with him at the prestigious Insbrook Institute Summer Music Academy and Festival in Missouri this past June. Their resulting collaboration is spirited, inspiring, and a fitting tribute to the potential of online connectivity.
With her classical bubble officially shattered and a rock sensibility rapidly developing, it’s easy to see Grace emerging as a key player in the scene of genre-busting classically-trained musicians using the internet to share their passion — what Adam DeGraff (with a zealous call to action) dubs the “rock violin” movement. As he says on the website for his band, The Dueling Fiddlers:
“We are dreamers. We believe more is possible and that some rules are meant to be broken. We are The Dueling Fiddlers and we are rock violin. The duel is not between Adam and Russell, but between boundary and possibility, self-imposed limitations and our wildest dreams. Rock violin is about inspiration, not fear. It’s about forgetting the plan and letting passion run the show. We are rock violin, and whether or not you play the violin, you are too. Stand up. Join the movement.”
Joining the Movement
This enthusiasm voiced not only by Adam DeGraff, but by many other contemporary musicians, is more than just a recommendation for music appreciation- it’s an invitation for everyone to use the tools available to share.
This “movement” is encouragement to participate and collaborate, the two elements that first inspired Grace to truly love playing. And now, thanks to her savvy web presence and staggering talent, Grace is building connections and working with artists that she never dreamed she could reach just a year ago.
Grace believes in audacity. “You have to put yourself in a position to get lucky,” she says. “I didn’t think about it when I started these things and I still don’t think about my youtube channel and facebook page as being really serious – but this is me having fun doing what I love, and loving what I do.”
Although she may be having fun, Grace’s enthusiasm and joy is fueled by a willingness to continue to learn beyond the walls of academia,. That passion for learning is something she seeks in a role model: “I look at the work of YoYo Ma where he’s performed not only on Sesame Street, but done work like the Silk Road Project, where he works with musicians from around the world, exploring international classical music traditions – and the Goat Rodeo Sessions where he explores fiddling traditions.”
Grace also loves and recommends checking out The Portland Cello Project, the aforementioned Dueling Fiddlers, Time for Three, violinist for Lupe Fiasco The Mad Violinist, and Project Trio – a three-piece that features a beatboxing flautist.
The One That Didn’t Get Away
Grace may be an artist but that doesn’t mean she isn’t shrewd. Initially Grace double-majored in Music and Business Leadership, so when she received a call from Paramount Pictures about her Katy Perry “The One That Got Away” mash-up video, asking if she would sign off so her video could be included in the Katy Perry documentary, she didn’t let the excitement go to her head.
Grace held off on signing the release to avoid surrendering the rights to her arrangement. The people at Paramount were not dissuaded: their Vice President of Music offered her a nonexclusive license, allowing her to retain her rights. With negotiations finalized, you can now can see Grace on the big screen.
Connecting and sharing are crucial components of the growing trend of musicians adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, but her interaction with the professional side of music had lent Grace insight:
“The music business is very much a people business. It’s about who you know and making those connections; and through all of that, I try to be completely transparent and genuine. People have told me that sometimes that doesn’t always work but I figure, even if it doesn’t always work, I’d rather live my life knowing I’m a good person, living truthfully, and chasing my dream the honest way.”
Grace may have handled the Paramount Pictures negotiations with expert aplomb, but that doesn’t mean she can’t see what a big deal it is: she’s deeply humbled to be included in such a huge movie and has shared her thanks online with her fans, encouraging them to help her choose another Katy Perry song to cover in honor of the documentary.
Keeping Up with Grace
I asked Grace how she’s planning on handling other opportunities after such recent successes, and she shared some indispensable wisdom:
“I received some awesome advice from Tim Christie, my teacher’s husband, that I live by now: ‘When you think about taking a gig you look at three criteria. The first thing being, does it pay? The second is, will it lead to more opportunities, and finally, is it artistically satisfying?’ When you’re starting it out, it really only needs to meet one criteria, so you can build connections. Then, as you progress with your career, it needs to start meeting more criteria.”
It’s an excellent credo to consider, especially in an age when anyone and everyone has an idea for what an artist should do next, and offers for non-paid “exposure” roll in with increasing regularity.
Grace hasn’t had too much time to consider paid gigs just yet – this summer, instead of taking a break, Grace powered full steam ahead, filling seven weeks with violin festivals: the Insbrook Institute in Missouri, Chicago for the Northwestern Violin Institute, and the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival in Leavenworth. Don’t let the term “festival” fool you – these are rigorous “violin boot camps” where you practice for six hours a day and then practice some more.
So what does Grace do in her free time? She admits that violin takes up quite a bit of time but she also loves photography, cooking, and baking. “I figure if I don’t get in to grad school or music fails me, I’ll just buy a winnebago, open up a food truck, and tour the country taking lessons.”
She continues with another signature moment of Grace-insight, stating,
“the cellist Pablo Casals always said ‘I’m a human furst, a musician second, and a cellist third’ and that’s the way I kind of see my life too. I’m a human being first, I’m just a normal person trying to live my life, follow my dreams, and hoping that I’ll eventually make it. Yes, I do other things and people think I’m a good violinist but that’s not all I am.”
I know I may be starting to sound like a broken record after profiling The Writers Block and Marissa Meyer, (and maybe it’s weird that now all my role models are younger than me) but I can’t get over how inspiring, autonomous, and exciting Tacoma talent is – now Grace too is a role model for anyone struggling to invest in their own skills, honor their dreams, and forge ahead.
At only 20, she’s followed her heart, trusted her gut, and augmented all that heart and gut with a discerning perceptivity.
I’ll leave you with two thrilling examples of Grace’s facility: at the end of our interview, I asked Grace if she had any parting words of advice – she laughed but then said,
“Any dream is worth chasing. Some people have more obstacles than others–not having anybody support me through this for a long time was definitely hard but it made me stronger person; I really fought for it. I know that if I want this enough I’ll find a way and it will be more rewarding; I’ll appreciate what I have more.”
And last, of all Grace’s performances, my current favorites are two of her most recent: a soulful and soaring cover of David Guetta’s anthemic Titanium, and an explosive, potent recital performance of the final movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor.
If these recent videos are any indication, Grace’s rock and roll spirit and classical precision have really begun to integrate, resulting in increasingly sublime and exhilarating performances. I can’t wait for more.