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Virtuoso violinist

Isabelle Aboaf


ISABELLE Aboaf possesses a repertory and a reputation that would satisfy violinists twice her age. But this 15-year-old has no room for flashy egos or arrogance. Music is sufficient unto itself.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘You’re the only violinist I know who’s 15 and can play all these things,’” says the rising sophomore at Grandview. “I’m here to tell you that I am not the only one.

“When you are looking for opportunities to perform, you realize how many other kids love exactly what you love, and are willing to work as hard if not harder.

“Egos bug me, so I don’t have a big one,” Isabelle laughs inside Temple Sinai’s empty chapel. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because my family doesn’t support that kind of attitude, which is a good thing.

“I don’t feel the need to please anybody. I feel like the music speaks for itself, and I don’t have to speak for it.”

Music aficionados, friends and fans can hear Isabelle seemingly effortless rendering of Pablo de Sarasate’s demanding “Zigeunerweisen” on YouTube.

Isabelle, whose last name is pronounced ab-waf, also performs the violin solo in “Kol Nidre” at Sinai, her synagogue.

On that night of nights, hushed solemnity accompanies her to the music stand. Isabelle raises her bow as a thousand congregants anticipate that first plaintiff note.

Does her heart flutter a bit?

“I’ll be honest,” she says. “It’s not a very difficult piece to play. But it is very beautiful. And I don’t feel any pressure. No one’s going to critique me or rat on me: ‘Oh, she missed that note!’

“I guess there’s always a slight nervousness lurking somewhere, but Sinai feels like a large family. And if you’re in your zone, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Isabelle glimpsed her first violin during one of her father’s concerts. She was just a babe in arms. “Maybe the violin was the only instrument I could see from where I was sitting,” she posits.

At age four, she began studying the Suzuki method with teacher Kathleen Spring. The Suzuki method, also called the mother-tongue approach, is modeled upon a child’s facility with language acquisition.

“Why the violin? It’s hard to remember what I was feeling when I was four,” Isabelle says. “It has this really beautiful tone, if you learn to play it correctly. And it was a very pretty instrument.”

Isabelle never felt that she was gifted. Whatever success she’s attained — which is considerable by anyone’s standards — stems from disciplined training.

“Some things come easier to certain people,” she says. “Take all these really famous violinists who make their debut at age eight. I’m never going to be one of those people, but it doesn’t bother me.

“I don’t think I’m special. It’s a combination of lots of hard work and playing for a really long time. With time comes experience.”

She’s quick to list artistic forms that exceed her grasp: photography, the piano (“too uncoordinated”), dancing (“I am so not a dancer!”).

The violin alone speaks to and through her.

“What do I feel when I’m playing the violin? Really fortunate to have the luxury of owning an instrument, which a lot of kids don’t have; being able to study this instrument; and to make this really gorgeous music.

“It’s one thing to listen to music, but you develop such a deeper connection to music when you play it. It makes me unbelievably happy.”

A sheepish grin crosses her lips.

“Sounds corny, doesn’t it?”

A BEAUTIFUL teen with long dark hair, deep hazel eyes and flawless skin, Isabelle discounts physical attributes. She’s content being herself: an ordinary person who happens to excel at the violin.

She structures her practice sessions — anywhere from a half hour to two hours a day — around school. “Homework comes first,” she says. “And when AP tests roll around, there’s a little less practicing. It depends.”

A vegetarian, Isabelle loves cooking and baking. “I read cookbooks,” she confesses.

“I enjoy hiking and biking, things like that — and shopping with friends.

“Yes, I am normal,” she emphasizes. “I will confirm that.”

Isabelle proudly belongs the Denver Young Artists Orchestra’s senior division. “It’s a professional orchestra that plays music that the Colorado Symphony can perform.

“It’s an incredible experience to be a part of that — to play with such capable kids. It’s really not unusual to find kids my age performing at that level, because they are at that level.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one. Then I’d feel lonely.”

To describe her family as musical is an understatement.

“My grandmother has “a profound love of opera, which I don’t share. But she loves it.”

Her mother Jennifer plays the flute, her father Alan is a trombonist with the Aurora Symphony, and brother Aaron has picked up the trumpet in earnest.

Isabelle’s dad is Sephardic. His parents hail from a French colony in Egypt. Jennifer is Ashkenazi. “My maternal great-grandmother was born in Russia.”

Asked if she prefers Ashkenazi to Sephardic or visa versa, Isabelle hesitates.

Jennifer cocks an ear from her seat in the temple foyer, awaiting her daughter’s response.

“I think I connect more with the Sephardic,” she says. “It’s the more exotic side of my family. Maybe I just like to think of myself that way.”

Jennifer turns around in the foyer, somewhat surprised.

“I’m not saying I have anything against my Ashkenazi roots at all,” Isabelle qualifies.  “Mom always says I got my brains from her and my looks from my father.”

Amused glances travel between mother and daughter.

The conversation will no doubt continue on the ride home to Centennial.

FOR her Bat Mitzvah project, Isabelle performed a benefit concert for Innovation Africa, a charity bringing new technology to Africa. It was a natural coalescence of passion, Judaism and mitzvah.

Two other concerts followed for BuildCreateKenya, which enables arts education in Kenya, and a fourth benefit is on the books.

“This is good for me as a person and as a musician,” she says. “I get to review all the pieces I’ve learned that year and share them with everyone at a single event.

“One day I want to travel to Africa and join the service efforts going on there.”

Music offers a release, not just for poverty-stricken bodies but souls in need of sustenance.

“I realize that funding for the arts has declined at schools throughout America,” she says. “Fortunately, my high school has major performing arts patrons. But the cuts are unfortunate. Performing arts is its own sport, and has brought culture to so many people.

“The kids I raise money for in Africa have no funding for the arts. There are terrible nutritional problems in Africa that must be addressed. But these children also need creative outlets to help them through the hard times.”

If Isabelle wants to relieve stress and elevate her own spirits, she enjoys a good fiddle tune. “I love fiddling, although I’m not very good at it. There’s one called ‘Fiddle Faddle’ by Leroy Anderson. I also love Aaron Copland’s Hoe Down from ‘Rodeo.’”

While the classics find their purest voice in her slim fingers, Isabelle also likes piano ballads, country western  and certain popular tunes.

“But I’ll never be into rap or electronic music or things like that,” she grimaces. “I’m not a hard rock person, either.”

American mythologist Joseph Campbell described a peak experience as hitting your stride with absolute, unshakable confidence. You can do no wrong.

Similarly, artists can reach a transcendent cloud that wraps them inside a cocoon of unerring perfection and grace.

Has Isabelle felt this bliss?

“It happens on rare occasions,” she says. “Because I memorize every note I learn, memory mistakes are the biggest errors I make.

Every now and then, though, I kind of surprise myself — especially if I’m not expecting a very good performance.

“Sometimes it just happens, and I get this really good feeling inside. It’s hard to explain.”

On the YouTube video of “Zigeunerweisen,” her eyes widen slightly as she completes a particularly arduous passage. It’s very subtle, but the joy is obvious.

Take a look.

ISABELLE’S repertoire includes violin solos from “Schindler’s List,” Jules Massenet’s haunting “Meditations from Thais,” Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20 for Violin and Piano,” J.S. Bach’s “Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major,” and numerous other works.

Ultimately she wants to join an adult orchestra. To reach her goal, she must begin tackling major concertos, a time-consuming and laborious task.

“If you want to be any good at it, you have to play them for a long time. That’s my next endeavor.”

Anyone who is serious about the violin or piano or singing as a child entertains visions of success.

Some have what it takes. Others show promise. Many surrender their dreams because they lack confidence or accept a teacher’s negative assessment.

How would Isabelle counsel a teen trapped at the crossroads of doubt and desire?

“It’s a waste of time trying to be like other people,” she says firmly. “The most rewarding feeling is doing something for yourself.

“This is the opposite of striving to reach somebody else’s goal, or being other than who you are.

“It’s so degrading to pretend you’re someone else.”

Abandoning one’s aspirations for whatever reason can carve a river of regret that spans past, present and future.

“You don’t want to look back on your life and say, ‘Look at all those times I doubted myself,’” Isabelle says. “Focus on the good things. It will happen, eventually.

“That’s what keeps me going — knowing that what I want will happen one day, and when it does it will feel so wonderful.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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