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Violin Virtuosi member Brian Allen wins international competition with help of teachers, family

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Brian Allen, 16, has music notes floating around in his DNA.

His mother, Jan Allen, has a master's degree in voice, and his father, Don Allen, taught violin lessons part time.

His musical family -- along with years of intensive practice -- contributed to his winning the Lions Club International Global Youth Music Competition June 30 in Sydney.

Allen, Brian
Brian Allen

Brian competed against finalists from Australia, Canada, China, Ecuador, England, Korea, Taiwan and Tunisia. Prior to the final portion of the competition in Sydney, Brian won the regional and national titles after competing against other American violinists via YouTube.

Before the Lions Club competition, Brian primarily participated in local competitions in Bloomington and Indianapolis. He is also a member of IU's internationally acclaimed Violin Virtuosi, a collection of eight young violinists from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's Pre-College String Academy.

"I have always enjoyed competitions," Brian said, "but this is my first really big win. It gives me courage to face new challenges. It boosts my confidence and encourages me to win more."

Don Allen felt that his son had a good chance in the Global Youth Music Competition because Brian was already fluent in the competition's repertoire, including the required but seldom played piece, "Polonaise Brillante," by Henryk Wieniawski.

"As a violinist I could gauge what was going on," Don said. "Even though there was strong competition, I felt like he could place."

IU's Violin Virtuosi (Brian Allen is second from left, back row).

Still, father and son were both nervous during the competition.

"Brian says he gets nervous at first, but Dad is nervous all the way through," Don said.

Besides already winning an expenses-paid trip to Sydney, Brian also received the first place prize of $10,000.

While many 16-year-olds would put $10,000 toward a new car or computer, Brian will spend some of his prize money on a new bow -- specifically, the one he borrowed for the international competition.

"I fell in love with it," Brian said, "the first two notes I played."

No matter which bow he uses, his passion for the violin is evident with just one stroke.

"He is so totally in love with the violin and music," said Mimi Zweig, IU Jacobs School of Music professor of violin, artistic director of the Violin Virtuosi and director of IU's Pre-College String Academy. "We are on the same wavelength."

All in the family

Brian never had to explain his love of music to his family. It was expected. The discovery was to happen in a matter of time.

"They totally get it," Brian said.

At 3 years old, Brian listened in on one of the violin lessons his father taught and asked if he could learn how to play. "I always wished I could do that," Brian said. So his parents enrolled him in Suzuki violin lessons when he was 3 and a half years old.

"Dad loves to hear me play," Brian said. "He wants to occasionally coach me, and I really like his input."

And although he appreciates his dad's help and suggestions, they disagree with each other from time to time.

"Sometimes, I disagree with his opinion, but I never have the power to overrule him, so I ask Mimi (Zweig)," Brian said. "And he is right a lot of the time so that humbles me."

Although Don helped Brian find his passion and talent for the violin, he said he couldn't be his teacher because Brian is "beyond my capabilities."

"It's like a doctor doing surgery on his son," Don said. "You just don't do that. I had to back away. It was very difficult, but I had to let him go for it."

At 7, Brian began taking lessons with Brenda Brenner, associate professor of music at Jacobs.

"His first teacher at IU, Brenda Brenner, made him," said Zweig, his teacher for the past two years. "I'm just the icing on the cake."

Brenner, Brenda
IU Associate Professor of Music Brenda Brenner began teaching Brian Allen violin when he was 7.

Brenner credits Brian's family for his outstanding work ethic.

"Brian's family has committed to his success," Brenner said. "They have given him every opportunity to succeed, which has been a big bonus for him."

"As a struggling violinist and teacher, I know that it means everything to have a good teacher," Don said. "If you don't have a good teacher to guide you, it doesn't matter how much natural talent you have."

A full-time job

The Allens are originally from Virginia; Don's electrical engineering job led to an Indiana transfer, where the family chose to remain so Brian could study at the Jacobs School.

"It all fell into place," Don said.

Playing the violin is at the core of Brian's life. He switched from the public school system to home schooling when he was in the eighth grade so he could get more practice time.

"We couldn't do it part time," Don said.

And even though hours of practice and lessons can be tough, Brian has realized that the extra practice time makes a difference in his playing.

"I feel like I'm constantly improving," Brian said. "I always like to move ahead in repertoire really quickly. That was my goal when I was really young. I wanted to get through those cheesy, bad pieces or just not-so-awesome concertos and move to the awesome concertos."

In his spare time -- which he acknowledges he has little of -- Brian socializes with his music friends and plays card games such as Euchre, Rummy and Egyptian Ratscrew. He also enjoys doing community service. This summer, he traveled to Georgia for a youth group mission trip, where he built and painted houses as well as gave out food.

A bright future ahead

Brian's short-term plans will include lots of practice time throughout the fall to prepare for spring competitions and possibly early entrance into college.

As for the long-term, Brian has always dreamed of being a solo concert violinist like Joshua Bell, but has recently "wised up" to the facts of how much touring goes with that type of career.

"It is a very hectic lifestyle," Brian said. "It's not stable, especially if you have a family." He has yet another goal now: to be concertmaster of a major orchestra.

Zweig, Mimi
Allen currently studies with Jacobs Professor Mimi Zweig.

Zweig said she is sure that Brian will have a successful career as a violinist.

"He'd better stay in touch with me," Zweig said, looking over at Brian. "Cutting my students loose to go to the next step is one of my greatest joys. It means I did my job well."

No matter what the future holds, his father hopes that Brian's attitude and personality stay the same.

"Not only is he a great violinist, but he is a nice person, and that means a lot to me," Don said. "If you're not a good person, what does it all mean? People always tell me that they really like to be around him. He is also handling the success very well. It is not going to his head, and as a parent, that's important to me."

-- By Alyssa Goldman, University Communications intern

This story was originally published Sept. 16, 2010.