Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Is Living Her Dream

Sandra Kowalski • Features • February 3, 2018

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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is an internationally acclaimed violin soloist, record label creator, music director, conductor, actress, writer, teacher, mentor, survivor and inspiration.

Born in Italy, her mother moved her to New Jersey when she was eight. There, she attended both public and music schools, including Juilliard, enjoyed sports and practiced the violin.

In her 30’s, Nadja failed an attempt at suicide when the gun she was holding to her head jammed. She climbed out of that dark place and went on to thrive. Today, Nadja lives in Louisiana as resident artist at Loyola University’s College of Music and Fine Arts, where she imparts five decades of wisdom, knowledge and experience upon her students. They learn to hone their skills and take on greater responsibility as she teaches them to perform in a conductor-less string orchestra. She was kind enough to allow me to interview her about her path in life and overcoming adversity.

You’ve been playing violin since you were five? Why the violin?

It was an instrument my mother chose for me. Her dearest friend at the time was moonlighting as a beginning violin teacher. I think it was an excuse to see her friend.

In previous interviews you’ve made it clear that you didn’t like to practice, even going so far as to say that you didn’t get serious about it until you were 19. And yet at 20, you were the youngest person to win the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition. Can you speak on that a little bit?

This is all mental. I mean, I had been practicing the violin and playing the violin, and learning how to play the violin since I was five years old, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like practicing. I still don’t really like practicing. I like rehearsals because they involve other people. I love the rehearsal process of putting something together, but it’s a very isolating life and practicing was something I just never liked. But at 19 I made the mental decision to really find a commitment for this. For me it was a matter of, “are you ready for this? Are you ready for this life and everything that it entails?” It was a pretty natural evolution.

But it’s sort of like a wave that is too powerful to fight. Once I won Naumburg, it overtook my life, and that’s where I went. I went with the solo life because as a student you learn to want that, and that’s the goal, studying the concertos and wanting to be soloists, before even knowing what that meant. And then I became a soloist, and that’s it. That became my life.

What other interests did you have as a child?

I always loved the sports. I had always a great, great interest in space, and I was always attracted to logic of the law. I also wanted to be a jewel thief. So, there were lots of things running around in my head. But like I said, it didn’t matter. My life went this way, beyond my control. And when you’re young you don’t even know for sure. You’re like, “Yeah, this is great. Let’s go.”

What kept you practicing when you didn’t want to?

When I was young, my mother. She instilled the discipline. I have to say, I learned a very, very major lesson, valuable lesson, which parents just don’t seem to know anymore. And that is, that you can’t go out and play, you can’t do what you want to do, until you do what you have to do. Then there’s a feeling of accomplishment: I did the right thing, now I can go and enjoy. You can’t go out and play until you practice and do your homework. It was a phenomenal lesson to learn because [now] I have a very good work ethic. Young people today just don’t even realize what real life is. And it’s not their fault. So I am very, very grateful for that. It couldn’t have been simpler.

How many hours did you have to practice?

It changed. It varied as I grew older. When I first started it was like, half hour a day when I was five years old. I remember practicing two hours a day when I was 10. And then a little bit older, four hours a day. Once the career took off and I started performing, it became a situation where you practiced whenever you had time, because my life became so busy.

Do you have any tips for students on practice techniques or regiments?

Well, some very basic, logical things. Don’t repeat a bad habit. One of the great things that I learned from teacher, Dorothy DeLay, was how to teach yourself. And I do that now as well, because it’s valuable. It’s very, very important. You give them the information and then they either hear that, and really hear it, and apply it, or they don’t. And if they don’t, they’ll come to you and say, “Look, I can’t play this.” And I say, “Okay, play the passage.” And then they play it and it doesn’t sound good, and say, “See? It doesn’t sound good.” I say, “Okay, do you have any idea why it doesn’t sound good?” “No, you’re my teacher. Tell me.” I say, “But I told you five months ago. So listen, become a detective. What is the problem with the passage?” Very often it’s one shift, or it’s a bow change that isn’t clean. There’s very often just one spot in the entire passage that is the problem. And you have to be the detective, then fix it. But that constant reliance, that’s not good. [If ] you’re playing something that doesn’t sound good or you’re frustrated with it, calm down and use your head.

Do you have any advice for music instructors on how to keep their students motivated?

Well, I feel strongly that everybody just wants to be inspired, no matter what you do for a living. Inspiration is a good thing. And if the instructor – if the teacher – is not excited about the piece or even liking the piece, if it doesn’t come from the source, then it’s not going to be conveyed to the students. I teach here at Loyola and I have a string orchestra, a conductor-less string orchestra. And I, of course, choose the repertoire that we’re gonna play. We come in the first couple of rehearsals, they don’t like it. Of course, not because kids are like, “Oh, I don’t like this piece.” “Why don’t you like it?” “It’s boring.” So, the responsibility is on you to inspire them. You tell them something about the work, or you teach them something about how to play this, so it doesn’t sound boring. That kind of inspiration has to come from the instructor, from the teacher, sometimes from the parents. You have to inspire them, tell them why this is a great piece. And there’s lots of variety you can use. I mean, the music itself, or the story of the composer during the time that the piece was written. Or your feelings about it. Whatever technique you can find, that has to be relayed to the students.

Did you have any favorite teachers or mentors and how did they influence you?

Well, my teacher, Dorothy DeLay, was phenomenal for me because in the first place she was full of information. So, this is a requirement. I think the holy trinity of a teacher, and you don’t find it very often is, [one] to have the experience/knowledge. So, if you haven’t really played that piece, I don’t know how well you’re going to be able to teach it.

Number two is the desire to really want to get the information across. Sometimes you have to go beyond what it says in the contract. You really have to have that commitment to teach. You need the experience and the information, and you need the commitment, because it can be difficult. And the third part is you have to inspire. That’s the hard one to fill. So, if you are somebody who’s a phenomenal musician, that has a lot of experience, but you’re introverted, you cannot convey the inspiration to the student. So, to have, I call it the holy trinity, if you have those three elements, you’re gonna be a great teacher. You will influence.

Miss DeLay was a great teacher for a lot of reasons. There was not a technical problem, or even a musical problem that any of her students had that she could not solve. The secret that I think she had was that she taught every student individually as far as what they could absorb and their personalities. She had a degree in psychology and I think it really served her well because she had a technique. There was no doubt about it, she had a method, a methodology, that she used and a routine that we all had to do. However, it was presented to us in a language that we could understand. She was very, very smart that way, and taught each and every one of us in a language that we got. And I would say she was the biggest influence. As far as playing the violin, she was without a doubt the biggest influence in my life.

What tips do you have for kids wanting to do what you do?

There’s no formula. In my career things presented themselves and I tested the waters and then if I liked something, or if I felt that I reacted well to it, then I would go and create it. I would create a situation for myself where I was doing something that I wanted to do. What’s gratifying for you? Where do you find your niche?

At one point, you were the subject of a lot of really petty criticism by professional critics. Despite your indisputable talent they tended to mock your clothes and your facial expressions you made when you played. Why do you think they felt the need to do that, and how did you deal with it?

I can’t help the way I play. And I can’t help the way I look when I play, and I never could. And that turned out to be opposite of the mold of a classical musician, a female classical soloist. The classical musical world was one way for a long time. And then the pendulum was swinging the other way, and it was sort of changing. And I came in the cusp of that time. I was breaking molds of what a female classical musician should look like and should play. And that was just the way I played. This was not some elaborate plan. The way I play now, with exactly the same look and intensity of playing that I did back then. But back then, it was unheard of.

There are many classical artists now that are outrageous. If they feel like writing me a thank you card, I’ll accept it. I totally opened up doors, especially for the female soloists.

So, you would say, don’t let these people beat you down; be who you are and the world will love you for it?

Well, while I was living through it of course it was difficult for me, but I had some good support from my publicist. The people that supported me in the industry said, “Nadja, nobody plays like you, so just continue to do…” But meanwhile, you’re young.

I’m in my 20’s, and to look at a review that says, “Classical music’s joke.” It was really difficult. But, you develop that thick skin and continue, just keep playing. Just keep playing because on the other side of that coin, were rabid fans, in the industry too, that just knew. There was a conductor that was like, ‘Ugh, no.” Then another conductor that was like, “Please, can you be my soloist for every concert I play?” It’s the yin and the yang. I had a polar career. People just adored me or hated me. I’m sort of grateful for that. It makes you tougher, for sure. Yet, you aren’t invincible.

You suffered a serious bout of depression, and it’s only by what many would call “divine intervention” that you’re still here today. Can you tell me about that and your recovery? Well, first, did you suffer at all from depression in your youth?

No. Not at all.

This was just a built-up of stress and the pressure?

Yeah. You know, it was a build-up of a lifestyle that kind of got away from me. And I went with it because I had no choice. There was just too much of this, not enough of that, and it just culminated. It’s like you open a closet door and you’re just buried in challenges and problems and stress, it just comes falling on you. Everybody’s got a limit, and I think my limit was quite high, but it just affected me in that way and I shut down. So that, coming back from that, was the toughest, biggest battle of my life. But again, you want to talk about that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I almost wish I could say, I wish everybody could experience what I went through, because what you learn is so invaluable, and yet you would never…you wouldn’t want to wish that on anybody. It happened, and I got through it. At first, one minute to the next minute. Seriously. Then one hour to the next hour. Then from the morning to the afternoon, and then, can I get to the evening? And then you wake up the next morning and it’s like, “oh my God, I have to do this again?” And you fight through it, the climb up the abyss. What you learn from that, the fortitude that you have, that now lives in my blood. Nobody can take that away from me. And the wisdom that I have now because I went through that is…I almost feel like I’m an emotional avenger. I’m so strong. I’m so strong now. You can’t get to this place without going through that.

We’re all certainly glad that you did!

I’m glad too because I’m living a dream now.

Now you’re at Loyola University and implemented a conductor-less string orchestra. Can you explain what that is?

What it is, is it develops the musician more totally. If you don’t have a conductor there, if you don’t have that crutch there, you have to take more responsibility for what you’re doing. It’s that simple. And not just if you’re sitting in the principal chair, but in the back of the section, you have to take far more responsibility for what you’re doing.

Let me put it to you this way. If you’re in a car and you come to a four-way stop, and the stop happens to have traffic lights, you can just be thinking about your laundry list until the light turns green and then you go. However, if that’s not a stop light, and it’s a stop sign, then you can’t think about your laundry list because you have to look. You have to take responsibility for when you’re gonna go. That’s pretty much the best analogy I can give. So, these kids cannot just sit there, or any…even professional musicians cannot sit there and rely on the conductor or wait for that light to turn green. Everybody has to be focused, everybody has to take more responsibility. This is what I will do in Nashville [with her symphony performance].

What it does is train their ears to listen to each other. Again, no conductor, so if the cellos are playing a section with the violas, and it’s not together, they don’t have the conductor there to help them out. So how are they going to fix that problem? They have to listen to each other, and perhaps even visually communicate with each other. The responsibility becomes huge, and they become a far greater musician. Their ears are far better trained and it’s a very, very gratifying experience for everybody.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I don’t think about that. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to me to dictate my legacy. We’ll see what happens.

Sandra Kowalski is a freelance writer specializing in travel, lifestyle, research, general commentary, andmarketing. In addition, she is currently working on a book about how to travel on a budget. For more information she can be contacted at

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