Workhorse Scholar Q & A: Byron Laing

Erickson Merkel Foundation: Tell us a little bit about your family and friends growing up, and any positive effect that they had on your formative years.

Byron Laing: Neither of my parents are musicians themselves, but my mother has always been a classical music enthusiast. I was exposed to music from the time I was born, when my mother would sing to me, and smuggle me into San Diego Symphony concerts as a baby. My parents did not shove a violin into my hands at age 3 and make me start practicing. My mother noticed my love and interest in music, but didn’t want to push anything on me. She just let things naturally develop. When I eventually did pick up the violin at age 9, my mother was supportive and nurturing, but never pushy. She never squelched my passion and love for music by making me practice, but rather gave me the space to creatively explore, and develop my passion. Sometimes
you’ll hear stories of parents taping their children’s arms to the wall to make them practice. My parents would never do that. Instead, if I went several days without practicing, my mother would
say, “You know, I really miss hearing that violin!” and I would run and start practicing.


EMF: When you were going through elementary, middle or high school, did you have a clear idea on what you wanted to do when you ‘grew up’?

BL: Music was already establishing itself as a dominant interest in my life long before I even picked up the violin. By the time I was 6 and 7 years old, I wanted to become a conductor (of a Symphony). I would conduct “orchestras” I had arranged with stuffed animals on the floor, to music on the stereo. When I was 12, I had my first chamber music exposure, preparing and preforming Vivaldi’s Concerto for 4 violins in B minor with my friends at the Portland Summer Ensembles. It was such an exhilarating experience, I decided I wanted to become a professional violinist, and that hasn’t changed since.


EMF: When was it that you realized that only you could be responsible for your future, and in what ways did you take control of your life after?

BL: Before attending the Portland Summer Ensembles (PSE) that first summer, I was very “dreamy.” I loved the violin, but I didn’t have any clear goals. I didn’t understand the importance of rigorous practice, or even how to practice in the first place. After attending PSE, several things happened quickly, which greatly changed my attitude about music and my relationship with the violin. First, PSE inspired me tremendously, and I began practicing 5 hours per day. I began to address problems in my playing by myself, and began to channel my passion into critical thinking and problem solving. Second, I consciously decided that I wanted to become a great violinist and devote my life to music, and began to set goals to strive for. Third, I switched to one of the best violin teachers in Portland, Kathryn Gray, who gave me a major reality check on where I was and how much work I had to do in order to meet my goals. Under her guidance, I began the long climb up the ladder.


EMF: Were there any people you looked up to when you were younger, and why?

BL: When I was younger, there were 2 types of people I looked up to. The first was great violinists and conductors. I really admired Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, as well as violinist Joshua Bell. I also looked up to young student musicians in the Portland Youth Philharmonic (of which I would eventually wind up as co-concertmaster), who were much older and better than me, and winning the local competitions and performing in the big concerts.


EMF: Do you have any mentors now? If so, can you tell me about them and what they mean to you?

BL: I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity study with some of the finest violin teachers in the country, including Almita Vamos, Paul Kantor, Amy Barlowe, and Kathryn Gray. I am  very blessed to count all of these amazing individuals among my mentors, on both a musical and personal level. David Kerr, owner of the Kerr Violin Shop in Portland, has been a special mentor to me as well, ever since I began studying baroque music with him when I was 12. I have also learned a tremendous amount from Niel DePonte, principal percussionist of the Oregon Symphony, through the Metro Arts Young Artist Debut experience. And of course, I will be studying with Professor Mauricio Fuks at Indiana this Fall. The most consistent and important message voiced by all of my mentors is importance of striving to become a great human being, not just a great violinist.


EMF: Are there any people living or dead who you draw inspiration from?

BL: There are so many people from whom I draw inspiration. First and foremost are the great composers whose music I am privileged to study – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, to name a few. These musical geniuses speak to me on a very deep and personal level. I am also inspired by great violinists. One of my favorite violinists of all time is Fritz Kreisler, because of his sweet tone and charming musical personality. And I draw inspiration from the many people in my life today who set examples of kindness and generosity.


EMF: Are there any causes that you feel strongly about, that you would like to give back to someday, or that you’ve been able to help out so far?

BL: The reality of homelessness has disturbed me ever since I was a little boy. I have never been able to understand why homelessness is tolerated. Homelessness is an absolute fail of basic human ethics. I gained a completely new perspective on homelessness through an interaction several years ago. I was busking at the Portland Saturday Market, and there were two homeless men who watched me for a couple of songs. When I finished, they compiled all of their change together and dumped it in my jar. This profoundly affected me, and made me realize the importance of action.
I began to think about how I could use my passion for music to help the issue of homelessness, as Portland was (and still is) experiencing a homelessness crisis. I organized and coordinated a Homeless Benefit Chamber Music Concert, featuring musicians of the Oregon Symphony, Portland Youth Philharmonic, and others. As of this year, my sister and I have organized 4 concerts, raising a total of almost $7,000 for local agencies serving the homeless and those in poverty. I hope to continue to expand the scale and impact of these concerts in the coming years.


EMF: When did you get your first job, where was it, and what prompted you to get it?

BL: As supportive as my family is, they do not have the financial resources to support an advanced music education. The task of raising my own funds for advanced studies was not an option, it was a requirement if I wanted to study music at a high level. At age 12, I began busking (street performing), which I continued throughout my entire teenage years. You would see me most weekends at the Portland Saturday Market with my sign and jar. Busking, combined with fundraising and small scholarships, is how I paid for my advanced studies. I have personally raised over $60,000 through these combined endeavors. My need to raise large sums of money from a very early age has been very taxing, but has also given me the dedication, perseverance, and entrepreneurial skills that are necessary for professional musical success.


EMF: What keeps you motivated through long weeks of work and study?

BL: A major lesson I’ve learned is that there is a difference between “drive” towards a specific goal, and true discipline, which is long-term. Drive is being pushed to work toward something external because you have a desire for it, whereas discipline means doing what you know is right, even when you don’t feel like doing it. The tricky thing is that these two are easily confused. Drive will burn out, but discipline will take you through the long haul. The important thing is to not lose sight of the big picture and your long-term vision. With violin, you also have to develop a certain trust. It’s really hard to notice progress from day-to day, or even month-to-month. You can usually only see it when you look back over an entire year. It’s very easy to get distracted by personal failures, and by the success of others. You have to put blinders on and ignore these happenings around you. Ultimately, if you want something badly enough, you will find the perseverance and determination to get it done. A lesson I’ve learned the hard way, though, is that you’ve got to find a balance. If you never unwind, you’ll end up burning out. As a musician, I am very fortunate. I get to spend my life doing what I love – spreading peace through music – and that’s a great privilege. My work is truly my passion. At the end of the day, coming back to that place of gratitude keeps me grounded and motivates me to work to fulfill my potential.


EMF: What are your personal and professional goals?
BF: I have always aspired to be an international concert soloist. In reality, however, a lot of stars have to line up in order to have that kind of career, and it rarely happens. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve realized that a higher goal is simply to become an artist, and worry less about what direction that takes me. I do love chamber music though, and an ideal future would combine soloist and chamber music performance. As far as personal goals, there are many musicians who get caught up in the unhealthy cycle of pursuing perfection, while sacrificing themselves and trampling on others in the process. I have resolved that my pursuit of music is conditional upon maintaining kindness, compassion, and humility towards myself and others. If I can’t reach out to and help others along the way, then it’s not worth it.


EMF: Why do you think it’s important for today’s undergraduates to have a clear understanding of debt and finances?

BL: It is vitally important for undergraduates to have a clear understanding of debt and finances, because the reality is that almost every student will be taking out loans, like it or not. If you don’t understand how loans work, and you don’t have any basic money management skills, you’ll probably end up loosing a lot of money. You’ve got to understand, for example, the fact that loans generate interest and the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Unfortunately many students are not taught these skills and don’t understand the long-term consequences of debt. The bottom line is that the earlier you develop a financial command, the better you’ll position yourself for your future. It is especially crippling for classical music students to take on college debt because of the extremely low pay provided by most jobs in the field, such as orchestra positions. Most students come out of school trying to get by on freelancing, while auditioning for extremely competitive orchestra seats. It is much easier for medical students or engineers, for example, to pay back loans, because of more secure, high-paying jobs.


EMF: Are you planning on any further academic pursuits after completing your current degree?

BL: Yes, I definitely plan to pursue a Masters Degree in violin performance, and likely an Artist Diploma after that. I also have a great interest in theoretical physics, and might consider pursuing a scientific degree at some point if I ever had the opportunity. The idea of a double major does not appeal to me, however, as I want to devote myself entirely to one subject at a time, to give myself the greatest chance for success.


EMF: After dedicating yourself to work and study, what do you do to wind down?

BL: I love exercise and the outdoors – running, soccer, hiking, and just being in nature. The Pacific Northwest is beautiful and has so many wonderful hiking areas, including the Columbia River Gorge and Forest Park (one of the largest urban forests in the country). I also like reading, philosophizing about the Universe, and an occasional game of chess.