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08/30/2011 - By Tobi D. Tesoriero
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Striking the Perfect Note
When describing most 18-year-olds, the word accomplished does not usually top the list of adjectives. But in James Livengoods case it applies. James, a recent graduate of Holmdel High School, is a truly accomplished young man. Through his hard work and determination he has distinguished himself as a recognized and admired violinist. Playing since the age of four, James has performed in top notch venues and was selected to be a member of Juilliards extremely prestigious and competitive pre-college program. As if that's not enough, his strong academic record coupled with school service is equally impressive. He was the Student Advisory Board President, member of the National Honor Society and of course performed at school functions.
Impressive as that all is, James did not stop there. He also took on the challenge of playing high school football in his sophomore, junior and senior years. As grueling and competitive as football is, James was undaunted in his quest to experience the camaraderie of team sports and the rush of competition, despite the fact that he had never played before!
As Edison once said, Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. James genius in violin along with his aforementioned accomplishments in academics and sports exemplifies this. He shared with Living in Holmdel how the years he devoted to his craft have allowed him to forge a unique and noteworthy path. He also shared his birds eye view of the classical music world through his association as a student at the world renowned Juilliard. His work ethic and talent have enabled him to rise to impressive heights. This young mans openness, talent and strong work ethic will next be applied to his college studies at NYU this fall. No matter the venue, his character traits will no doubt make this young man a great success.
LIH: Let us start with the basics. How old are you?
JL: I am 18.
LIH: Where did you go to High School?
LIH: Where are you headed for College?
LIH: We had become aware of you through your extraordinary accomplishments; particularly in music, but also because you are involved in athletics and yet take your academics so seriously. We will touch on each in the interview. Lets start with, Which is your favorite?
JL: Out of what?
LIH: Music, sports, academics, volunteer work?
JL: Honestly I just did the volunteer work to get into the National Honor Society [Laughs]
LIH: Well, that is honest enough.
JL: Which do I like the most?Well, I would say growing up I hated violin a lot because I was forced to do it, to a great extent. Academics, I always liked and preferred it to violin. That was easy to me. I preferred to do my homework than practice violin. But now I would say that I appreciate that I have violin the most.
LIH: How long have you been playing?
JL: I started playing when I was four. I have been playing almost 14 years. I am happy I have it now, it is great to have. But I didnt like it as much when I was growing up. I didnt get to do the same kind of things kids did.
LIH: In terms of now that you do appreciate having that background, what about it do you appreciate?
JL: I appreciate being able to perform for people and seeing that people like it a lot. That is the biggest thing. Sometimes it is weird how much people like it; they tell me how amazing they think it is.
LIH: Where have you performed?
JL: I play a lot. Before this year I barely played in school at all. This year I played at a lot of National Honor Society events, like the Induction ceremony. I played for friends, I played in a musical, and I played at graduation. I was supposed to give a speech, because I am SAB president.
LIH: Whats SAB?
JL: Its Student Advisory Board, basically student council. Its like student body president. Instead of giving a speech at graduation, I performed.
LIH: Thats very cool. So you did it solo?
JL: I did a mix between my classical pieces and I played pop songs we (my class) all knew growing up.
LIH: What are some other venues where you performed?
JL: I studied at Juilliard for nine years. I performed a lot at different halls there.
LIH: So you would go into NYC?
JL: Yes, every week. I started going with my sister, Michelle, in second grade. Basically we would leave early every Saturday. Then Sunday I would do homework and practice all day.
LIH: Does your sister still play?
JL: She has not played in two years. She is two years older than me. She also goes to NYU.
LIH: Going forward, do you plan to study music in college?
JL: I am planning to major in math.
LIH: Would you continue with the violin? Any professional aspirations?
JL: Definitely not professionally, I was not made for practicing hours every day. Once my dad stopped forcing me to practice three hours every day I pretty much didnt practice at all.
LIH: Is your dad a musician?
JL: Yeah, my dad, he played but not seriously but he loved music and wanted us to play. He mostly pushed us. My mom, not so much.
LIH: What was your initial training? Suzuki?
JL: I dont even remember. I dont remember not knowing how to play. I dont remember anytime not knowing music. Music is such a part of how my brain works. If I hear a noise I hear a pitch not just sounds. I dont remember what it is like not to know music.
LIH: They say math and music are interrelated. Do you think that is why you are now leaning to math?
JL: People say that. My dad and my mom were really good at math growing up. Maybe it is related.Music is really not as abstract as a lot of people think it is. Music itself is extremely organized. Similar to how math is. When someone performs, certain aspects of the performance are abstract. But the music itself is very methodical. It is not artistic. The interpretation is what is so different about it. Music itself is organized and methodical. Especially pop music; it's bare classical music repeated over and over.
LIH: I guess your background allows you to know that when most people wouldnt.
JL: I guess so. It does bother me that people do not appreciate classical music, because a lot of time I perform for people and I will play a classical piece that is extremely difficult that takes a lot of time to learn, and then they ask me if I can play an Eminem song or they ask me to play a Kanye West song and I play it. They say thats amazing. They dont appreciate that the classical music has so much more depth to it, and is so much more difficult. I do like some popular music a lot. I listen to Eminem and Kanye West.
LIH: And why is that do you think?
JL: It is not because of the music; it is the value of the lyrics. Eminem is extremely offensive and he is homophobic and misogynistic and I dont like that but you have to appreciate that he is lyrically gifted. A lot of people listen to him and immediately put him off because what he says is insensitive and extremely offensive and they dont recognize that the man is truly gifted, that he has an amazing talent. Some of the stuff he says is ridiculous but that is what he is trying to do. He makes the point that he doesnt care especially about his old music. Now people complain he is so soft. But he has a teenage daughter; what do you expect him to do? I am a big fan. People think that is weird as I am a good kid, do well in school, play the violin, but his songs are incredible.
LIH: So, how does a kid who plays the violin and is an honor student wind up being on the football team? That is not typical.
JL: Growing up I never played sports. I was always horrible at sports. Even in my gym class I was pretty bad. I hated being bad. I never played tag or pickup basketball with friends. I was always practicing the violin. I got interested in football when someone bought me the Madden video game for my Xbox.
LIH: Thats funny! Interesting segue.
JL: I started playing. I liked football a lot because, contrary to what some people believe, it wasn't a bunch of idiots running around. It is very strategic, and it is complex. I started watching a lot of football, I wanted to play. First my dad didn't want me to play. Didnt think I would have time for it because of the violin. As a matter of fact, when I was younger my dad arranged his schedule to come home from work at 3 oclock every day and he would practice with me and my sister for three hours. So it was a big commitment for him. Then in middle school our routine lightened up a bit. Then in my sophomore year I played football. So I played for three years in high school. I am happy I did it.
LIH: Did you get playing time?
JL: Well, my first year, when I was sophomore I was probably the worst player on the team.
LIH: But you made the team
JL: Everyone makes it. It is a walk-on team. I played on the JV. I was really bad. I got dominated. I was really skinny; 150 pounds playing right tackle. After my sophomore season I worked really hard. I gained 35 pounds in the off season. In my junior year I was better, I was still bad, I was on the JV. Then I started to get a little better. Then my senior year I got a bit better still. I went from being a terrible player to being a decent player. I didnt start on varsity but I got time.
LIH: Good for you!
JL: I am happy I did it because it definitely taught me a lot of things that violin could not teach me.
LIH: Such as?
JL: Being on a team is different than being in your room for hours practicing the violin and I was exposed to different kinds of people. I was always in all the honors classes and the kids are very different. (Not as different as everyone thinks but different.) It was good to be exposed to that. It was definitely humbling cause I was always good at everything I did. I was good at violin. I did well in school; it was humbling to be horrible at something. Playing football changed my outlook on a lot of things.
LIH: From the outside looking in, violin although solitary in practice, isnt it sort of a team sport in terms of playing in an ensemble or orchestra?
JL: I guess an ensemble has a similar team aspect, but with football it was different because the kids were different. The kids in the orchestra had different mind sets. Also, what is different is the coach in football is different than a conductor to an orchestra. The conductor is generally very respectful, whereas a coach to his player is different. You are obligated to do what he says without any question regardless how ridiculous it seems (usually it is not ridiculous). It is not a democracy. The balance of power is different. Also, between a player that is really good and a player that is not. In orchestra, it is not like that.
LIH: Less testosterone? [Laughs]
JL: Exactly like that. It is a different environment. Even though they are both like a team they are completely different environments.
LIH: How did you prepare for each? Getting on the field vs. getting on the stage... is the process similar?
JL: When I play violin I generally dont get nervous at all. For football, its like, sometimes, it is stressful to feel like you have to play. But when you get on the field it is a lot of fun. The preparation is something I never really thought about for either.
LIH: I suppose you take for granted that you had to practice to perform for the violin or work out to be in shape for football. They are the prerequisites of your activities.
JL: I see what you are saying. I was more nervous to play football because I was not confident in my ability. Violin I was never worried. Performing is my favorite part of the violin. The same with football, playing games was a lot of fun.
LIH: How many hours did you practice?
JL: For what?
JL: Two to three hours a day during season, three days a week and in the summer five days a week.
LIH: When did you practice violin?
JL: I didnt practice much during football. Just not enough time. It was rough going to Juilliard as most of those kids practice four, five, even six hours every day.
LIH: What is the program like? Did you have to audition for it?
JL: Yes. Juilliard is a traditional four year conservatory program but they also have a pre-college program on Saturday and it is competitive to audition. It is especially competitive for piano, violin and cello. Some of the wind and percussion, not as competitive. Generally kids in the pre-college can get into the college.
LIH: Why didnt you follow that track?
JL: I cant practice for the hours required.
LIH: Because you dont have the passion?
JL: Its not even that. It is so competitive and such a difficult industry. I have friends in the college, it is one of the top conservatories in the world and they are all so negative. I asked them once how many people do you think will graduate from here and be happy and make a good living... they said 5% maybe.
LIH: And that comes from the crme de la crme.
JL: It is sad because people dont appreciate classical music the same way. It is a rich persons art. Its the same way that watching TV is different than reading a book; you get more out of reading a book, TV is easier. Listening to pop music is easier than listening and understanding classical music, it is just how it is.
LIH: Off topic, but you would be a wonderful teacher in the way you explain things, a good life skill if nothing else.
JL: I actually tutor a lot of kids. I get a lot of students from football.
LIH: Are there any other instruments that you play?
JL: Actually I played piano a little. My dad felt it would help with my concept of harmony which was true. I would practice thirty minutes a day. But it was to enhance my playing of the violin. I am happy to play piano; I can use the chords and play easily. But it was all for the violin.
LIH: Are there videos on line of your performances so our readers can see/hear you?
JL: Yes. There is one that is classical and the one for graduation has pop songs you might recognize and enjoy. The thing with violin is you have to play for years to make a note sound good. You can walk up to a piano and it makes a sound and it doesnt hurt your ears. People dont realize it is so difficult to make one sound on a violin. You never realize how difficult something is until you do it.
LIH: But when you do it right the tone and sound is so soulful.You should be very proud of your accomplishments.
JL: Thank you.
LIH: You mentioned you do still enjoy performing? Any plans for that in the future?
JL: I know people like when I do pop songs. People love when they play me a song on their iPhone and I play it back on the violin. They think its the craziest thing.
LIH: Like a parlor trick?
JL: I have perfect pitch so when I hear a sound I know what note it is.
LIH: Is that a born or learned talent?
JL: I dont know. Certain people cant learn it. Then there are people that I think would have it if they learned it. There is a definite component that even if you are born with it you need to develop it, if you cant identify what an Ais how do you know? I would say at Juilliard 1/3 of the students have perfect pitch. Not all, but quite a few.
LIH: I am always impressed when someone can match the tuning pipe or cringe when someone goes flat to hear the subtle differences.
JL: Thats relative pitch. You can hear the difference between notes. You can actually hear the sound waves. If the two sound waves come in and they are not the same frequency it creates a dissonance that you can actually hear.
LIH: That sounded scientific. Do you have an interest in science as well, or pretty much leaning to math?
JL: I also want to get rich [Laughs]
LIH: Thats honest. Whats the program like at NYU?
JL: They have very good applied math program. Their graduate math program is very highly rated. I was also interested in chemistry or chemical engineering but those programs were not as highly regarded. Also, NYU is also very connected to Wall Street. I hope to major in math and either economics or computer science.
LIH: Any community service or other activities?
JL: I worked at Deep Cut Gardens, I was a camp counselor for 3 5 year olds; I like kids a lot. I also helped at the fair. I was part of the program at my school, Heroes and Cool Kids.We go to the middle school and discuss issues of concern like bullying or drugs and alcohol. I also taught violin for free. I played violin at a retirement home. I was also a member of the National Honor Society and some of the volunteer work I did made me eligible for it.
LIH: Anything that we havent covered?
JL: The most special moment I ever had performing violin was at my high school graduation and my class gave me a standing ovation. It was more special to me than any performance in Lincoln Center. I don't know if my classmates realize just how much it meant to me, but it's something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.
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