By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
For the first six years of her life, 14-year-old violist Josephine Stockwell lived in a home largely silent, at least by modern standards: no television, no radio, no CD recordings. This everyday quiet, punctuated only by human voices in song or storytelling or conversation, was intentional, explained mother Alexandra Stockwell:
“We took that approach because, in Boston, before our lives in Liberal, there was so much overstimulation visually and aurally,” she said. “I wanted home to provide a respite from all that.”
That domestic approach did not deter Josephine from the pursuit of music, though.
“The first time I took (my children) to a concert, they were totally rapt. People said to me, ‘Oh, they’re so well-behaved. You must have taken them to so many concerts,’” Alexandra said, adding with a laugh, “Of course, it was completely the opposite.”
For Josephine, the concert ignited a desire not only to hear more music, but to participate in its creation.
“After the concert ended, I met the teacher (who’d organized the event) and I told her, ‘I’m going to be on that stage playing next year in the next concert,’” she said. “That’s really how I got interested in playing the viola.”
Eight years later, Josephine’s childhood interest has blossomed into skilled, sensitive playing. After she began viola studies, she progressed so rapidly that her first teacher passed her along to a more advanced instructor. Most recently, she took lessons from the principal violist for the Boston Ballet Orchestra.
Over the summer, Josephine studied at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory music camp in Ohio, where, as one of the youngest students, she won high praise. The admiration was reciprocal.
“It was really wonderful,” Josephine said. “I learned so much about practicing effectively, and working with other musicians in a quartet,” for as long as seven hours a day.
Yet the lesson that has affected her most deeply can’t be counted in minutes or measures of music.
“My instructor had me experiment with listening and playing, and directing the music to different parts of the room. Then he asked me to play for an imaginary audience. He asked me who I was playing for, and I didn’t really know the answer. I said, ‘Well, I’m playing for myself.’ Then he shared that it’s important to play for God. It makes the music more beautiful. It feels like an offering, a gift.”
She hopes to continue studies at Oberlin again next summer.
In the meantime, Josephine has found outlets for her playing despite Kansas’ markedly different music culture. Long-distance driving is now a part of her landscape in terms of geography and musical instruction. Eventually, she might participate in a youth orchestra in Wichita, as she did in the Boston-area North Shore Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Rather than hindering her development, though, life in a more sparsely populated location has illuminated what Josephine’s mother terms “the equality of music.”
When Josephine plays her viola, Alexandra notes, “it’s for the musician, for the people listening, for younger children who may be inspired … Music can be played with people who don’t even speak the same language. That doesn’t matter; you can have an immediate connection.”
Such was the case when Alexandra and children Josephine, Christopher and Gabriel arrived in Liberal in late September, two months after Rodd Stockwell had relocated to practice family medicine with Southwest Medical Center.
“That the children and I could show up in Liberal and play in a concert two weeks later is remarkable,” Alexandra said. “You can’t really do that with other kinds of endeavors,” or in less welcoming places.
Southwest Symphony Orchestra embraced Josephine and her mother, who also plays viola. At the group’s October concert, Josephine performed a solo piece to enthusiastic applause, punctuated by director Grant Mathews’ postscript, “and she’s only 14!”
Josephine followed up with participation in the Fort Hays State University-sponsored string music festival for middle- and high-school-aged musicians in Dodge City. Next up was a performance of pieces from Handel’s Messiah with other area string players at Satanta Arts Council’s “Spirit of Christmas” concert. Then she squeezed in an afternoon set of Christmas carols at Spencer Browne’s Coffee House in Liberal.
“She played duets with Annette Lemert-Larrabee on cello, and solos,” said owner Shannon Francis. “We love having young people perform folk, jazz, classical, Christmas carols, and Josephine was great. The viola is such a beautiful instrument. It’s great to hear someone who has a ton of talent. The afternoon was delightful. “
Josephine performed special music at two churches during the holiday season, and can be employed to play at various events.
Viola-playing is not all parties and performance, though. Josephine practices nearly every day, often for two hours or more. The Stockwell family’s choice to home school allows Josephine to fit those long practice sessions into her day.
“Once I get going, I keep going,” she said. “There is some willpower involved, but I enjoy playing so much that once I start, I feel excited about the music.”
And she hopes to inspire that same passion for music in younger children interested in learning to play viola or violin, the instrument’s higher-range counterpart.
“I’m opening my own music studio to teach younger students, starting in January,” she said. “I’ll teach with the Suzuki method, which is how I learned, so they get a solid start like my first teacher gave me.”
Josephine is confident about her future students’ progress.
“I love teaching children, and I think anyone can learn to play music,” she said. “What people call talent is really just being drawn to an instrument. Then you continue because you enjoy it, and that makes your want to practice and play.”
In time, that might result in more string music — and less background noise from the television and radio — in households around Liberal.
To book a performance or to set up lessons with Josephine, call 626-5646.