interview with Dylana Jenson

February 15, 2010, 9:57 PM ·

To understand the story of violinist Dylana Jenson, just listen to her new recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. It stopped me in my tracks -- the strength, the spark and mad talent, the deep sadness and longing – it made me listen, made me weep.

Whatever happened to violinist, Dylana Jenson? asked a thread that got 100 responses two years ago on

She is here; she is playing, but it hasn't been easy.

Dylana Jenson. Photo courtesy the artist

Dylana was a child prodigy; she started playing the violin when she was two; by eight she was concertizing; by age 13 she was playing with major orchestras, and at age 17 she won a silver medal in the International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. She studied with Manuel Compinsky, Nathan Milstein and Josef Gingold. At the age of 19, she made a recording of the Sibelius Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra – a recording that people still list as a favorite.

Then at age 21, she married conductor David Lockington. When the wealthy violin collector who was lending her a 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu learned she was to marry, he demanded his instrument back. Losing that violin sent Dylana into a tailspin that lasted longer than anyone could have imagined, until luthier Sam Zygmuntovicz – after a long labor – produced a violin she could consider her voice again.

Her husband of nearly three decades joins her in the new recording, which includes the Barber Violin Concerto as well as the Shostakovich, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra.

When producer Michael Hampton met with her and asked her what she wanted to record, "I thought to myself, this is it. This is my testament, this may very well be the last thing that I say. So what is it I want to say?"

"I've always loved the Shostakovich Concerto, and Oistrakh was the love of my life as a child," Dylana said, speaking by phone last week from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she has lived for more than a decade. "In fact, my parents told me that, when I was 16, I could move to Moscow and study with him. But he died before that time, which was really devastating."

"I feel very close to the piece for many reasons," she said. "My parents were Communists, they met in the Communist Party. My mother had a great love for the struggle of the Russian people. Putting aside for the moment what happened in Communist Russia later – there was an idealism; many people had great hopes that this could change the direction of the world, and this incredible idealism was part of my childhood."

"Of course this is a protest piece, I'm aware of the history of it," Dylana said. "But I didn't feel emotionally that I was using it as a vehicle for protest, it was for me an emotional journey – I think there's tremendous sadness, and there's peace, angst, I think there's suffering, I think there's a huge amount of love and yearning, and for many of these things, I've always been drawn to it. It is exhausting, emotionally, to play it. If you don't feel that, I think you haven't gotten it. It really drains every cell of your body."

But really, why would this be a "last testament"?

"Well, I'm quite middle-aged and I don't have a manager," said Dylana, who is 48. "I don't personally have money myself to make another recording. [This album was published independently, not on a major label. - Laurie] All I want to do in my life is play, to perform, that's what I feel like I'm supposed to be doing, that was the message of my childhood. The confusion that I'm not doing that – I live with all the time. It's not that I feel hope-less, but I try not to live with hope because I feel that desire is very dangerous. I had a desire to have a violin for a long time, and it can be very negative, for me, to desire and to hope to have something different than what I have. So I have done the Shostakovich, I am so grateful that this opportunity was given to me, I'm so lucky, and to expect, to hope or to desire that I will be able to do more is really kind of a treacherous territory, let's put it that way."

When Dylana started playing the violin, the Suzuki movement was still in its infancy in the United States, so the fact she started so young is a testament to her mother's determination.

"What happened was my mother was obsessed with music – she always wanted to be a musician and never had the opportunity," Dylana said. "In high school she actually pretended to play the violin, so she could sit in the orchestra. She never touched the bow to the string for the whole year, just so she could sit there."

"So my mother wanted for all of us to play instruments, but it was very difficult at the time because there weren't any teachers who would teach little kids," Dylana said. "My brother wanted to play cello – he was obsessively playing the cello by himself when he was 18 months old. But they were very frustrated, trying to find him a teacher."

"When I was two and a half, in 1964, Suzuki came with his first tour," Dylana said. "My parents saw a brochure, and they went to the concert. Nobody knew anything about Suzuki, nobody knew what the method was, and everybody was obviously bowled over and awed by this tour. So my mother said, 'Well, this proves that it can be done, and I'm just going to do it!'"

Her mother, a native of Costa Rica, went to the library, got some books and taught herself how to play the violin, so that she could teach her children. "She started three of us at the same time, and was able to get the first Suzuki book," Dylana said. "She would teach herself at night what she would teach us the next day. And she did this all the way until the Bach Double Concerto. It was pretty remarkable for her to be able to accomplish this. It was truly the 'Mother Tongue' way of learning."

Has Dylana done the same kind of thing with her own kids? Her four children range in age from nine to 25.

"Oh my kids – all my kids play many instruments, but..." Dylana said, laughing, "I was very open with the teachers, I would come in and say, 'I'm here for my nap...' I am the worst Suzuki parent of any Suzuki parent you're going to have, but I will just put myself in the chair and I would have the exact nap, 29 minutes."

Dylana did not go to Juilliard or Curtis. She was mostly home-schooled, in a rather lively home of artists and frees spirits, she said. Her sister, Vicky Jenson is a DreamWorks animator who served as a director on both "Shrek" and "Shark Tale," and her brother Ivan is a painter and poet.

Dylana did spend time with some of the great violinists of the 20th century, for example, Nathan Milstein.

"It was like sitting in front of God," she said of the two-week stints she would spend with Milstein in the summer. "It was profoundly life-changing in so many ways. Speaking from a purely technical standpoint, the only thing he encouraged me to change was to bring my fingers back together in my bow hand. I had met Itzhak Perlman when I was 10 or 11, and Perlman suggested I separate my fingers and use my index finger more to help draw out the sound. When I went to see Milstein, he was playing the way I had grown up playing. So I changed that back. It took a little while to be comfortable with that, it was like I was holding a club in my arm, it was not refined in any way."

By fingers together, Milstein meant, "together, touching. If you look at Milstein and Heifetz, their fingers are squished together. I would say mine are not squished, they are just relaxed in that position, and touching," she said. "He was trying to encourage me to use back muscles for bow technique, to support the arm and to have greater control over small movements by using larger muscles, rather than trying to use small finger muscles to control a small movement."

Milstein often used the example of an eye surgeon. "When a surgeon would make an incision in the eye, which was very delicate and very tiny, that the surgeon would use a weighted scalpel, using the bicep muscles to make the cut, not using the fingers with a tiny little knife trying to make an incision." With the little muscles, there would be less precision and more error – when you get nervous, little muscles shake. "You gain a tremendous amount of control, I think, from using larger muscles."

Dylana enjoys teaching, and she addresses these kinds of issues in her own students.

"I'm setting up their body, so that they can practice and play as long as they want, for the rest of their lives without pain," Dylana said. "It has to be an evaluation of the different issues. I see a lot of problems in the left arm, in the left elbow, for instance; or in the neck, or twisting. Where teachers are recommending ice and rest, I'm saying, that's not really the answer. For instance, with the left arm: it would be bringing the violin more around to the front, untwisting the arm, bringing the violin down, getting the shoulder rest off, changing the way the thumb works so the hand can be straighter, facing you straight instead of twisting. In the right arm, in the bow arm: if the fingers are very separated, that creates a lot of tension in the hand.

"So I recommend – Suzuki always set up students this way – you shake the hand out and the hand falls – that should be the maximum you stretch the fingers apart. If you allow the child to stretch their fingers, then you have already set up a tension in the hand that's going to be there for however many hours they're practicing. So my whole approach is to get back to the the basics, to the tradition of what has worked for a long time and with a lot of wonderful great masters of the past."

Not only was Milstein helpful in getting Dylana back to a more natural way of playing, but he also was "so authentic and completely comfortable and strong in being himself and expressing himself directly," Dylana said. "No pretense, whatsoever. He knew who he was, he knew what he had to offer, it wasn't about ego, it was an inner confidence that projected in a very calm, beautiful way."

"We play the person we are," she said. "If you're lucky enough to have the technique and the connections to be able to express yourself through your music, the only person you can express is who you are."

In the years leading up to her silver-medal win at the Tchaikovsky Competition, Dylana lived in Bloomington, Indiana. "I was too young to be going to the University, and I was traveling a lot, performing, but I was kind of studying with Josef Gingold," she said. "I say 'kind of,' because he was a great mentor at the time that I lived in Bloomington, and so was the school. I would go to everybody's master classes. Gingold would play me old records of all the old artists. But I lived there just a little less than two years. Actually he went to the Tchaikovsky Competition, he accepted being a judge, the year that I was in the competition. He said he was going to make sure that the competition was fair (she laughs). But little did he know that it was very complicated when you got there, it wasn't as easy as he thought."

Just as her career was going full-tilt, she was hit with the loss of her primary instrument. It seems unreal, that a person could lose their violin over getting married, but that's exactly what happened to Dylana.

"I thought, men get married, women get married, what difference does it make?" Dylana said. "So I sent an invitation that I was getting married (to the collector who was lending the violin), and he called me and was very angry. His words were 'Well obviously you're uncommitted to your career if you're getting married, so you have two weeks to return the violin.' I begged him to let me have it for a month because I was playing Brahms Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony – those were the last concerts I played on that del Gesu. It went back into a vault for over a decade. It had been in a vault for about 17 years before I played on it, then it went back in the vault."

"When I lost the violin, I really didn't have anybody that I could turn to that could help -- I didn't have those kind of connections," Dylana said. "Unfortunately I was one of the early women, breaking through in this different kind of solo career. The men that were surrounding me, I tried very much to say 'yes' as much as I could to whatever I was told to say and do, because I didn't want to offend anyone. But I was given very poor advice, and looking back, of course, I should not have given myself over in that way.' "One big piece of advice I had from my management at the time was, 'You can't let anyone know that you don't have a violin, because then I won't be able to book any concerts for you...' That was a really big problem for me, because it was a couple of years before I could even be open about the fact that I didn't have a violin," Dylana said. "At that point everything had fallen apart – the record company was angry with me because I was supposed to be recording every year for 10 years. Everybody just started to be very angry with me because I couldn't solve this problem. They didn't feel it was their problem to solve, it was my personal problem to solve, and I didn't have a way to solve it."

"I had a kind of naïve feeling – I don't know how else to put it – that if what I had to offer as a musician was worthwhile, that someone would come forward and help," she said. "It wasn't about owning it or anything like that, I could care less. I had so many schemes, you have no idea. So many schemes, so many letters, I made so many trips to talk to different people. I always had some way of getting a violin. When my second daughter was born, a week after she was born, I was back in California, talking with somebody else that might be able to help with this and that – it was an insane period of time, where I was trying to go on with my life, just as a person; at the same time it was a constant, constant obsession of how to solve this seemingly unsolvable problem."

Little did she know that there was a luthier – growing in his artistry – who had an award hanging on his wall. An award from 1980, the year he graduated from violin making school and came to New York – an award that happened to be signed by Dylana. That luthier was Sam Zygmuntowicz.

"During the time when I didn't have an instrument, I was invited to be one of the tone judges at the Violin Society of America makers competition that they have every year," Dylana said, "and one of Sam's instruments won a gold medal for tone in that year – my signature is on that certificate. I remember being there, and I remember judging them all, but of course they couldn't have labels, and I didn't know who he was or what the instrument was. But he also was growing as a master violin maker. So our paths had to just continue crossing until such a point when here we are today. "

They wouldn't cross for more than 15 years. Meanwhile, well, you have to play a lot of fiddles before you find The One.

"I had a lot of violins," said Dylana, "one year I had more than 21 instruments. I had a very close friend who had a small shop. I was just trying to get anything to play on. I played on many, many modern instruments. I've probably played on more modern instruments than anybody I know. Sometimes a friend would have a violin; they'd loan it to me for a few months. Once I had to go to a city; I didn't have a violin, I had a concert with a small orchestra, and I just borrowed one from somebody in the orchestra to play on. Then David's father had a violin that he had in his closet, I played on that for a couple years."

"This wasn't even a matter of, did I prefer Strads or del Gesus or Guadagninis – these were complete student instruments, not even of a great quality," Dylana said. "I played Brahms Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the concertmaster went out in the hall to listen during the rehearsal. He came back to me and said, 'Don't try to do any nuances, because you really can't hear you anyway.' That's when I thought, I shouldn't be doing this, this is not right. I was getting hired because these orchestras were expecting something, and I simply couldn't do it."

"It was more than the fact that I was not being heard – I mean I had plenty of reviews that said, 'Concerto without Violin,' and that was devastating. But it was more that," Dylana said. "If you took Pavarotti and you replaced his voicebox with Adam Lambert... you know, they're both great voice boxes, but could Pavarotti be who he was if you did this surgical replacement? The violin is just your wooden voice box. I wasn't even at the point where I was looking for my personality in a violin, I was just trying to get a violin that didn't sound completely nasal, didn't sound completely closed-off, washed, didn't have a lot of wolfs, something I could practice on... that's all I was looking for."

Was she really just taking off time from her career, to have a family?

"No, I didn't have a violin," Dylana said. "It never occurred to me at any point in my life that having children, which is just part of living one's life, would ever interfere with my career part of playing the violin. It never occurred to me. And even when I had children and they were young, if I was lucky enough to have a concert, I just took them with me. Sometimes I traveled with all three of them because I never had babysitters. But children were never an obstacle, and if my career had been otherwise, either I would have had the money to have a nanny or I would have taken them more often. Either way, children were never an issue, that was just part of life's journey."

"I've had a lot of people make a big deal out of it because I'm a woman, and I think it's dangerous territory to make assumptions. One woman," she said, laughing, "she was the artistic administrator of a major orchestra, and I remember her saying to my manager at the time, 'I just can't believe that Dylana would leave her children to go off and play a concert.' Then soon after that, she said, 'I can't believe that Dylana left her career to have children.' No matter what I did, it wasn't going to be right, and the reality was that neither of those were the truth, anyway!"

Finally, in 1996, her path crossed with Sam Zygmuntowicz again, when she commissioned a violin from him. But that wasn't the end of the search. It took a while for him to create a violin she could consider her "voicebox."

"I actually have two Zygmuntowicz now: the one that he made for me, which I didn't use for a long time," Dylana said. "I was gifted another Zygmuntowicz that was a fabulous-sounding instrument. In fact, that was the one that inspired me to commission the other one. I started playing on that one quite a lot, and actually listened to a lot of recordings on it, of live performances, and didn't feel that it was my voice for recordings, but I was happy to have it.

"After I got my commissioned instrument and just couldn't make it work, Sam kept saying, 'Dylana, I know that the one that I made for you, I know that you're going to love it better, I know that it's the one for you,' and he kept reassuring me. And years would pass and years would pass."

She did finally send back the violin Sam had made for her, and he spent many, many months working on it. In 2005, he presented the violin to her again.

"When I got it back, I didn't even take it out of the case for two weeks, I was so petrified," Dylana said. "I thought, it's been so many years, I've repeatedly been disappointed, I don't know that I can handle another disappointment... Then finally, I had the guts to open it up."

When she played, and liked what she heard, the emotions were overwhelming. Could this be it?

"I immediately went downtown to the hall here in Grand Rapids with both of the instruments, to see if what I was hearing was really what I was hearing," she said. And apparently, it was. "I love it. I absolutely love it. Sam is one of the most genuine, beautiful people I know. From the first time I met him, he really put everything aside to help me. He said he listened to my Sibelius recording while he was making the violin for me, over and over, and I think that he was so incredibly thoughtful in wanting to solve this problem."

"So I'm really really so lucky to have it, and the journey has been one of tremendous confusion," Dylana said. "Life, I guess, is not what you expect it to be, and only when you get as old as I am do you realized that what people said all along becomes the truth: You're not in control of your life. Life is very unexpected, and if you think that you're on a particular path, then think again. The years that I didn't have a violin to play on, when I had to really walk away from my career, I was so, so terribly sad and in pain. It got to a point where the sadness was so overwhelming that I had to find some kind of peace. And it wasn't that I was letting go of my love of giving whatever it is that I have that is worthwhile for someone else to listen to, it wasn't that, it was letting go of this dream that maybe some day I would have a violin again...Really, until (the violin from Sam) was re-made, I didn't feel like I had a violin to play on."


February 16, 2010 at 08:24 AM ·

I had some lessons with Dylana growing up and I must say she is all about comfort while playing!  She is a huge advocate for no shoulder rests!  She and her husband (whom I have played under in orchestras) are the sweetest, most gentle people.  A delight to talk to!

February 16, 2010 at 10:14 AM ·

Dylana, your snippets of input here at and other places changed my whole foundation for the way I play and the way I teach.  You are on my list of people I would like to meet one day.  Thank you.

February 16, 2010 at 11:35 AM ·

From Karis Crawford;

"She and her husband (whom I have played under in orchestras) are the sweetest, most gentle people.  A delight to talk to!"


Yes, and she is a very, very hot player. I was blown away when I heard her recently!

February 16, 2010 at 12:24 PM ·

She's simply an inspiration

February 16, 2010 at 04:27 PM ·

I grew up 45 minutes from Grand Rapids/Grand Valley State, in fact went to many Lockington concerts growing up, but just never realized there was someone of her caliber RIGHT THERE...wish I had, and had taken advantge of the opportunity!

February 16, 2010 at 04:28 PM ·

Bravo to this wonderful soloist to never have listen to all those who wanted to intimidate her!!!  So happy that she found her dream violin! Good luck and all the best!!!

Really an inspiration of perspicacy and will!


February 16, 2010 at 11:14 PM ·

 I'm glad to hear that she has finally found (violins !) that will serve her well.  I was honestly upset when I read of her tribulations.  I hope that this album hopes to shed light on her talent and maybe she'll start getting bigger gigs with orchestras again!   



February 17, 2010 at 01:32 AM ·

One runs into child prodigy types who later lose their edge, or don't stay in shape.

Not the case here! I guess I'm not done being gushy. LOL

February 17, 2010 at 05:06 PM ·

Wish there was a small sample from the new recording here. We're happy that she is back playing again. Best of luck to you.

February 17, 2010 at 11:12 PM ·

I heard her a long time ago at Aspen and was so entranced with her music - she an Nigel Kennedy (who was only 15) both blew me away at the time although they were quite different.  I am so gratified that she has found a violin worthy of her and that such an amazing and inspirational person has recorded again.  I hope only the best for her personally and professionally.

February 17, 2010 at 11:24 PM ·

Anne-Marie   If that was you I hope you would have grabbed the Del Gesu and gone on the run.And good on you if you had.His private vault could stay empty.But what a lovely personality this player has to endure this insult to her talent.All credit to Laurie for bringing Dylana into the limelight again.Life is too short to miss somebody so special.  And Laurie----did you see?----get rid of the shoulder rest? (Strike while the iron is hot).  Maybe  we could chip in and buy shares --that way we could provide her a really expensive agent.  Surely a tv company could make a very nice real life story and some live concerts to whet our appetites.It would be a winner.

February 17, 2010 at 11:46 PM ·

No shoulder rest works great for her. BUT that doesn't mean that everyone should ditch their shoulder rests!

February 18, 2010 at 02:47 AM ·

 I agree.  Her story sounds like 60 Minutes material or something like that.  

February 19, 2010 at 12:08 AM ·

lol John.  Do you know what would happen if you steel such a violin?  I'm not sure I would take the risk!  I don't want to have legs break by a few mafio guys!   But I'm better to not change the wonderful topic here!


February 19, 2010 at 02:08 AM ·

Is she teaching anywhere now? It doesn't seem like she teaches at Grand Valley State any more, at least the website does not list her as faculty.

February 19, 2010 at 07:23 PM ·

She said she is just teaching privately at the moment, though she loves to teach.

February 20, 2010 at 08:48 PM ·

a difficult and inspiring story, and well told too, Laurie.  if she wishes to record more, I think this will help her attract support for that, and wherever else she wishes her career to go.

February 21, 2010 at 07:07 PM ·

It was wonderful to hear Dylana here in Omaha recently. My life was incomplete before that. Of course Milstein is also my God, and it's much more than technique that captures me. Thanks for sharing.


February 22, 2010 at 07:30 PM ·

What did she play, Stephen?

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