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Teen members of Violin Virtuosi grow musically, personally on concert tour of Argentina

At the core of the nationally acclaimed Violin Virtuosi are eight teenagers with a deep passion for classical music.

Most of the group's violinists are also students of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's Pre-College String Academy, a summer program for gifted young musicians.

The group recently returned to the U.S. from a three-week concert tour in Argentina.

Violin Virtuosi
The talented teens of the Violin Virtuosi are seen here in Argentina, where they spent three weeks, from late May to mid-June.

The Virtuosi violinists who went to Argentina included Brian Allen, 16; Alex Ayers, 19, a junior at the Jacobs School; Yoojin Cho, a Virtuosi alumna; Amy Lidell, 15; Gregório Lopes, 14; Ren Martin-Doike, 18; Misha Sanderson, 18; and John Smith, 17, a recent high school graduate who will attend the Jacobs School in the fall. They traveled with Jacobs Professor of violin Mimi Zweig, artistic director of the Virtuosi and director of IU's Pre-College String Academy and Jacobs Dean Emeritus Charles Webb.

(Not) lost in translation

After each of the group's Argentina concert performances, the audience members embraced the Virtuosi and wanted them to continue playing once the show was over, Zweig said.

The Virtuosi performed in grand concert halls that included the Teatro El Circulo. "After our first few notes as a group, each member of the Violin Virtuosi was smiling ear to ear playing in the beautiful Teatro El Circulo," Martin-Doike said.

The Virtuosi also received warm welcomes from their host families, local violinists and audience members. "Meeting with audience members after concerts -- though the language barrier sometimes renders communication difficult -- is a testament to how universal the 'language' of music is," Martin-Doike said.

Although the trip revolved around music, the Virtuosi members still made time to play chess, bond with one another and practice their Spanish. "Our growing friendships have really enriched our musical performances," Martin-Doike said. "We also had a lot of fun learning new Spanish phrases together, our favorite of which is 'buena suerte,' or 'good luck,' which we said together before each performance."

Dining together was another favorite group activity. "The food has been one of the main highlights of this trip," Lopes said. "It has been wonderful to enjoy it and there is great variety of tastes and styles to choose from at every meal."

Practice, practice, practice

The young violinists of the Virtuosi practice solo daily for about three hours, working together as a group Saturdays throughout the year, usually from 9 a.m.-noon. "It doesn't take up any time because it is my life," Allen said.

Group members' lives surround their practice sessions, which can make conventional schooling challenging for some -- and unrealistic for others.

Several members of the Virtuosi are home-schooled (or once were). Allen switched from the public school system to home-schooling when he was in eighth grade. "I needed more practice time -- that was the main reason," Allen said. "While we were researching to make the decision, we realized how many bad influences there are in high school. That really helped our decision."

While many teens spend hours perusing social networking sites, most members of the Virtuosi don't have the option of using time aimlessly.

"I used to have a Facebook (account), but then I just stopped," Lopes said. "I didn't have time to waste, but I was just wasting it anyway. Now that I'm back on track, I don't have any time whatsoever."

Somehow, Lopes juggled the Virtuosi, track and field and Tri-North Middle School's eighth-grade curriculum. But his worlds collided at times. Prior to the three-week Argentina trip, Lopes had to complete all the assignments he would miss while he was away.

Music: A tie that binds -- and separates

Juggling school assignments is just one of the difficulties faced by the young musicians. Their non-musician friends sometimes are unable to comprehend the necessity of long practice hours or their passion for the violin.

"When you're not a musician, you don't understand," Smith said. "They think, 'Why do you practice so long? If you practice a half an hour, isn't that OK?'"

Smith may have initially been interested in violin because of his friends, but his adoration for the instrument has remained constant since he was 8 years old.

The interest is entirely self-motivated. Smith said his family is "not a music family," and that his parents thought his interest in the violin would pass. "All my friends did it and I really wanted to try it, and my parents thought I was crazy," he said. "They let me try it and thought I would go to a couple of lessons, but then figured I would think it wouldn't be worth all the practice time."

Martin-Doike found her passion for the violin by following in the footsteps of her sister at just 5 years old. "I was a copycat and my sister played the violin," Martin-Doike said. "I used to sing from a young age and my parents said, 'Why don't you play the cello and do something different?' But I refused." She started with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." These days, Martin-Doike is working on Bela Bartok's Viola Concerto.

Although music has been a part of these students' lives since they young age, some don't like to listen to music when they're not practicing. "I don't even listen to music," Smith said. "Maybe it's because I play music so much."

Lidell gave her iPod away because she said she doesn't have time to listen to music. "I didn't need it," Liddel said. "I didn't put anything on it. It just gave me the cultural effect of having one."

The group members have grown together not only musically, but personally as well. Their long practices, their renowned performances and their world travels may have something to do with it. But it also comes from their faith in one another to practice outside of when the Virtuosi meets. It is this team mentality that keeps the group in tune with one another.

"We are pretty flexible and we can cover for each other if something unexpected happens, but it really is a team so everyone needs to be on their game," Ayers said.

--By University Communications intern Alyssa Goldman

This article was orginally published June 17.