Maya Shankar: A Violinist Lost And Found

Watch the profile of violinist Maya Shankar

Part of the fun in celebrating any anniversary is reminiscing about the past. That's certainly true in the case of From the Top's 10th anniversary, and we've had great fun catching up with performers from our first decade.

This week's guest is violinist Maya Shankar, whom I first met as a 12-year-old on one of our pilot episodes. We invited her back on the show twice more before she graduated from high school.

After that, we lost track of Shankar. It wasn't until a producer caught her name in a list of Glamour Magazine's Top 10 College Women that we learned what she was up to. Surprisingly, she wasn't earning national press for her music, but instead for science.

As a senior in high school, Shankar suffered a serious injury in her hand. The sound of "hand injury" strikes fear in the heart of any musician, and in Shankar's case, she was advised by doctors to stop playing altogether. She had been studying with Itzhak Perlman, and worked for almost a year with just her one good hand before calling it quits. At 17, Maya now had to answer the most daunting of questions: "What do I do now?"

A Violinist Revived

At Yale, Shankar enveloped herself in cognitive science and social activism. Spending long hours in the lab (with humans and monkeys) didn't seem that hard compared to the countless hours she spent as a child perfecting an etude. As a senior, she earned a Rhodes Scholarship and prepared to move to Oxford, England, to complete her Ph.D.

Just when it seemed that she'd left music far behind her, she received a phone call that changed everything. This summer, Shankar was invited to attend the Academy of Achievement Summit in South Africa. The organizers knew that Shankar had been an award-winning violinist and invited her to play with Joshua Bell. She says that in a moment of shock — and hopeless optimism — she accepted.

After weeks of procrastination, she finally picked up the violin again for the first time in seven years and found that, not only did her hand feel better, but playing felt natural. On just 15 minutes a day of practice, she was able to prepare for what turned out to be the performance of her lifetime, and a joyful return to music.

Shankar's story of reconnecting with the violin reminds me that music truly is powerful stuff, and a gift that should not be taken for granted. Shankar's focus remains with science research, but her experiences playing in South Africa and back on From the Top have awakened a part of her identity that she had thought she'd have to leave behind. I look forward to seeing what the future brings for this accomplished and delightful young scientist and musician.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.