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Check Out Holly Nelson’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Holly Nelson. Them and their team share their story with us below:

Violinist Holly Nelson grew up in Connecticut and began studying the violin at age four. At age 18 she moved to New York City to begin an undergraduate degree in violin performance at the Mannes College of Music and after graduation worked as a freelancer in New York City for many years. In 2020, she moved to Baltimore, MD to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Peabody Institute of Music of Johns Hopkins University as a Deans Doctoral Fellow. When she moved to Baltimore, Holly fell in love with the city’s beautiful gilded age architecture, fantastic seafood and going for walks around the harbor as well as Baltimore’s many leafy green parks and delicious ice cream shops. (Holly has a hard time picking a favorite, but Taharka Brothers, The Charmery and B’more Licks are all top contenders!) She quickly established herself as a freelancer in Baltimore and has been lucky to perform with Baltimore-based ensembles such as Mount Vernon Virtuosi and the Emmanuel Episcopalian Church choir and chamber orchestra as well as DC-based ensembles like the National Philharmonic and Maryland Lyric Opera. She has been featured in the Emmanuel Episcopalian Church’s concert series and recently gave a recital at the iconic Mount Vernon venue An Die Musik with her ensemble The Raven Trio.

In 2022 while still completing her doctoral coursework at Peabody, Holly was awarded a Fulbright Grant to Argentina (’23) to study the performance practice and pedagogy of the violin in tango music. Originally introduced to tango music by Grammy Award-winning pianist Emilio Solla when she performed in his tango ensemble at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in 2014, Ms. Nelson plans to continue studying tango music performance intensively with Guillermo Rubino and Pablo Agri, two of the foremost tango violinists in the world, while living in Buenos Aires for nine months. During her Fulbright grant, Ms. Nelson will also present classical violin recitals and master classes at universities and community music schools throughout Argentina.

In addition to the Fulbright Grant, Ms. Nelson was recently awarded the Peabody Institute of Music’s Presser Graduate Music Award, the conservatory’s most prestigious award. The 10K prize “is designed to encourage and support in a special way the advanced education and career of truly exceptional graduate music students who have the potential to make a distinguished contribution to the field of music.” Ms. Nelson will utilize the Presser Award funds to support her tango music studies, teaching and concertizing throughout Argentina as well as the founding of a Baltimore-based tango orchestra, giving community outreach tango concerts in Baltimore City and the surrounding communities and the development of a tango workshop for classical musicians upon her return. Ms. Nelson is especially grateful for the award because it will allow her to contribute to the cultural life of Baltimore, a city which has already given her so much— from the world-class musical education she has received at Peabody to numerous performing opportunities in Baltimore that have shaped her profoundly as an artist.

In addition to studying and performing tango music, Ms. Nelson is equally passionate about championing new music. As a Britten Pears Young Artist Program fellow in 2019 she premiered new works for chamber orchestra in Aldeburgh, England, and returned in 2020 as concertmaster for performances in London and Aldeburgh. In 2018, Holly performed with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble as a fellow at Banff’s Ensemble Evolution program in Canada. As co-concertmaster and Contemporary Ensemble violin fellow of the Atlantic Music Festival in 2017, Holly premiered 22 works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, and in 2014 and 2015 toured Switzerland and Luxembourg as a member of the Lucerne Festival’s Young Performance Ensemble, performing Tod Machover’s FENSADENSE for ten instrumentalists and electronics. At the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2010 Biennial Opening Gala, she premiered Rashaad Newsome’s piece FIVE for amplified quintet, MC and dancers.

An enthusiastic performer of chamber music, in 2018 at Domaine Forget in Quebec, Holly gave chamber recitals with faculty members Philip Chiu and Miguel da Silva as a full scholarship student, and in 2017 directed, produced and performed in a fully-staged production of L’Histoire du Soldat at Bard College. She has performed as a duo with pianist Elliot Figg for the NYC-based contemporary dance company Ballet Next at the Kaatsbaan Dance Center in Tivoli, NY and at Long Island University’s Kimball Center. From 2018-2020, Holly gave monthly recitals as Artist in Residence at the Twin Towers Life Enriching Center in Cincinnati, OH.

Ms. Nelson’s eclectic musical interests also encompass early music, leading her to perform in San Francisco with the American Bach Soloists and with NYC-based period ensembles The Sebastians, Project Amadeus, Operamission and The Clarion Music Society. In 2016 she toured Taiwan with harpsichordist Hsiu Tzu Ryan, supported by a Taiwanese arts grant. From 2016-17, Ms. Nelson performed regularly at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art as a member of The Orchestra Now. Ms. Nelson has recorded for Naxos as a member of the Chamber Orchestra of New York and previously was a member of the Binghamton Philharmonic.

Ms. Nelson completed her bachelor’s degree at the Mannes College of Music and her MM at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), where she was the teaching assistant to Giora Schmidt. Her mentors include Ann Setzer, Garrett Fischbach, Kurt Sassmannshaus and Daniel Phillips. Holly Nelson is currently a Deans Doctoral Fellow at the Peabody Institute of Music where she studies with Vadim Gluzman.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
During the pandemic, especially at the beginning of my doctoral program in 2020, it was sometimes a struggle to remember why I was a musician in the first place. All my live concerts were canceled and none were scheduled for the foreseeable future. Not having the opportunity to perform live, connect with an audience or travel— some of my favorite aspects of being a performer— was extremely disheartening. It also made me question if I would be able to sustain a career in music depending on how long the pandemic might last. It is challenging to balance working and completing a graduate degree under the best of conditions, but during the pandemic, it was almost impossible to earn money as a musician, so I truly struggled. Social distancing restrictions and limits on mass gatherings for health and safety reasons made concerts, gigs and even in-person teaching nearly impossible. I did some online violin teaching via Zoom during the pandemic but found it far less satisfying than teaching in person. The violin is a very difficult and sometimes awkward instrument to learn, especially early on.

In order to succeed, a student needs a great teacher who can set up their posture and way of holding the violin correctly from lesson one and then constantly reinforce the concepts of good posture, proper technique, playing without tension, etc in every subsequent lesson. It is extremely difficult for a student– especially a very young one— to learn the violin without at least some in-person support from a teacher who can physically position the instrument properly for the student, help them with their posture and hand position, etc. There were times when I sincerely wished I could reach through the Zoom screen to correct my young students’ bow holds! Thank goodness for Baltimore’s beautiful harbor walk and for the flowers I grew on the roof of my apartment. They helped me keep my sanity during what was certainly a dark and frustrating time for most musicians. Now that things are opening back up and life is mostly back to normal post-pandemic, I am so incredibly excited and grateful every time I have an opportunity to perform.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
As a violinist, I love pushing boundaries and engaging in cross-genre collaborations. Some of the most exciting projects I have been a part of have involved dancers, MC’s and improvisation, such as visual and sonic artist Rashaad Newsome’s pieces FIVE and Swaggawolf. Improvisation is something that most classical musicians are not comfortable doing, so I am very proud to not only be able to improvise but to truly thrive doing it. I have experience performing in a variety of musical contexts in addition to classical music: jazz, pop, rock, country and tango music, to name a few. As much as I love classical music, I also truly enjoy playing in other genres. To me, it’s all just music. I feel equally at home performing with an R&B band or DJ as I do with a classical string quartet. I’m certain that after I return from my Fulbright studies in Argentina, tango will become an even bigger part of my musical focus.

Recently, I began performing with The Raven Trio, a musical ensemble composed of violin, flute and guitar that I formed with fellow Peabody students. It’s quite unusual for that grouping of instruments to perform together, which means that we often need to create arrangements of existing works for our instrumentation or commission new music to be written for our ensemble. The reward is that together we create a truly unique, refreshing sound distinct from other existing chamber ensembles. In our debut concert tour to El Paso, TX we performed works by Spanish and Latin American composers and made it a point to include not only classical works but also compositions that incorporate elements of Latin jazz and South American folk music. We were proud to include lots of free outreach performances at local middle and high schools during our tour. Music shouldn’t be limited only to the concert hall. I am a firm believer that it is the civic duty of artists to bring music to the community, wherever they may be.

In the last few years, I have come to enjoy teaching more and more, especially at the college level. My first experience working with college students came when I was a teaching assistant to Professor Giora Schmidt during my Master of Music degree (2018-2020) at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) in Ohio. I had an absolute blast leading studio classes, teaching a bi-weekly violin technique class and giving supplementary private violin lessons. After that, I was a guest teaching artist at Fordham University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (2021.) I am currently an adjunct professor of violin at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and truly look forward to teaching my students every week. The ability to share my knowledge and experience with them and witness their excitement when they accomplish musical goals brings me profound happiness.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
One of my favorite childhood memories is of going with my mother to see superstar violin soloist Sarah Chang rehearse the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the Hartford Symphony. I was about 10 years old. My violin teacher at the time was friends with the personnel manager of the orchestra and arranged for us to sit in the audience and observe the rehearsal for free. I remember getting chills as my mother and I were let in through the performer’s side entrance along with members of the orchestra carrying their instrument cases, thinking “so this is what it’s like to be a real musician!” As Sarah Chang played through sections of the fiendishly difficult concerto accompanied by the orchestra, I was impressed by how comfortable and confident she appeared. She occasionally stomped her stilettoed foot when she came in with an explosive entrance, tossing her hair in a rock ‘n roll manner. In addition to being wowed by her electric stage presence and phenomenal playing, I remember thinking that her leather pants and sparkly crop top were the epitome of cool. (After all, I was 10 and it was the 90’s!) Seeing a young woman excel in a leadership position, all while looking so effortlessly cool, was a very powerful experience for me at that age. I’m certain it inspired me, in ways both conscious and unconscious, to work diligently toward my own musical goals.


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Martin Chalifour Ty Chee Photography

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