Sunday, March 26, 2017

[Book Review] Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life UnstrungGone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: As a member of Penguin's First To Read Program & NetGalley, I received this galley in exchange for an honest review.

Part 1: From The Book Cover

The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off — and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice. Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, the great violinist Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.” And at twenty-one, she found “the one,” the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned. Then, in a London cafe, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight, she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence. In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.

Part 2: Recommendation

I don't usually read biographies and memoirs but when I saw this book and read the book description, I felt compelled to read it. Why? I don't even know who Min Kym is and I haven't heard of her, but I had to read her memoir. I'm not sure exactly what prompted me to request the galley but I did. It could probably have something to do with the fact that I tried and had to give up playing the violin because of the extremely soft, almost missing flexor tendon on my pinky finger, that I can't properly hold down the strings to produce the right sound. So yes, this book intrigued me.

The book opens with a scene where Ms. Kym is checking in her bags at the airline ticketing counter and was told she had to check in her violin and something terrible happens then the next chapter opens at the very beginning, the one event that would catapult her into the world of music and competitions and the different teachers and mentors that she's had over the years and what each of her violins meant to her.

I play the piano and I did attempt to learn the violin but I am by no means a professional musician but I do understand this phrase when I came across it in the book when Ms. Kym said, “…I knew right away that holding a violin, playing a violin, was not simply for me, but it was me.” There are some instruments that is very easy and comes naturally to a person and in my case, despite the initial resistance, it was the piano. Back when I was first learning the piano, I preferred the voice and romance of the violin but all we had was an ancient, Weinstein & Sons upright piano with a cracked sound board. But I figured, learning how to read music on a piano will translate into all other instruments anyway so I learned and played the piano. Years later, when I was working, I bought myself a beginner violin, a Hoffner, because I still wanted to learn how to play another, more portable instrument. It was either a violin or a flute but the violin won. It was slightly awkward for me to hold, and the sound was just as Ms. Kym described her first violin as "harsh" sounding and the harshness of it was probably largely due to my inexperience as a violinist. I think I tried and practiced on that violin for a year to two and gave up. The instrument was just not for me. Five years later, I sold it to the mother of another beginner violinist. Hopefully, that child will fare better than I. So for everyone who can play a violin, I'm highly in awe of you guys.

Moving halfway across the world and having to leave my piano or my Yamaha Electone Organ behind, I started to miss playing the piano at around the 7-year mark so when I finally purchased a Yamaha Portable Grand DGX-660 Digital Piano and played music again for the first time in 7 years, I completely understood how Ms. Kym felt when she said, “…I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time" because that was exactly how I felt when I played the piano on my DGX-660. Sure, there is nothing like the sound of a good acoustic instrument but I was looking for a more portable, and practical instrument since I can't fit a baby grand piano anywhere in my house and I honestly don't want the cost of maintaining one and I want to have the rhythms and different voices that my Yamaha Electone Organ has just in the form of an 88-key piano.

Reading this book, I'm not sure if Ms. Kym was romanticizing her "relationship" with each of her violins but her attachment to each of her instruments, especially to the 1696 Stradivarius was really something that made me think, perhaps that feeling of attachment only applies to violinists? Why? Because she described her rare, 1696 Stradivarius violin as "…It felt as if three hundred years ago, Stradivarius had held his hands over a length of wood and fashioned this violin just for me, that all her [the violin's] life, my Strad had been waiting for me as I had been waiting for her… It was love at first sight, love and everything else: honor, obedience, trust, everything… This was marriage till death do us part, made in heaven right here on earth… I'd met my soul mate." See what I mean about romanticizing violins? Ms. Kym did mention that pianists aren't like that at all about their pianos, which I feel to be true because pianos are not as portable (unless you get a digital one that you lug around everywhere) and pianists usually just play on whatever piano is available at the venue unless you're some hotshot piano player who has the means and money to transport their grand pianos everywhere. Although, I have to say that pianist are very loyal to their brands. There's always a debate going on as to which piano brand sounds better: Steinway & Sons, Yamaha, Kawai, or Baldwin to name a few and we pianists, would defend our brands to the death especially when it comes to our personal instruments. I mean, you can't really demand a venue to provide you with the brand and model you prefer to play on unless you ship your own. So yes, I do agree with Ms. Kym that pianists, don't have this level of attachment to their instruments like violinists do.

This book climaxes to a point in time where her Strad was stolen and the depression that came after it, which was understandable and very dark. The confusion that surrounded the whole thing and the painful reality of finding and buying another violin. She finally ends up with an Amati violin and the book closes with this heart-wrenching realization, "…My Strad is Gone but I can still hear the call of it. My Strad is Gone but I can play again. I have memories of the Strad and the Strad will have memories of me. When it is played again, out in the open, on stage, in front of an audience, it will remember me. It will open its heart and remember me" to which these words resonated so much with me when I went back home last December 2016 and saw how dirty it's keys were, how neglected and forlorn my Weinstein & Sons upright acoustic Piano was and my Yamaha Electone Organ was. Both are in sad need of repair (all the black keys of the foot pedals of the Yamaha Electone Organ are not producing sound anymore) and both need cleaning and the Weinstein badly needs to be tuned and I was a bit outraged and terribly saddened that no one cared for them both. They're both gone from me but both instruments and I will have memories of each other, of the love and care we shared for 12 good years.

In conclusion, this book has changed how I look and feel about the instruments that I have throughout the years (though not as many as Ms. Kym has gone through with her violins) and I learned a lot on how a violin is made and how structured a life of a child prodigy was. I've always thought about what if I started early with the piano and went on to Conservatory music instead of getting a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting and what if I had a job as a musician instead of an accounting job? This book has given me insights to what a musician's life is like so at least the wondering on my part has lessened and to be honest, I wouldn't trade a thing but I would've liked to have at least tried it first (like going to Conservatory Music in College instead of Accounting) to see how far I could go with my music. Gone by Min Kym is a well-written, emotionally charged, thought-provoking and sometimes dark memoir but in the end, you can clearly see the subtle changes and the triumphant come back of a wiser, stronger Min Kym.

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