By Pilar Winter Hill | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Violinist Pilar Winter Hill, a classically trained Juilliard Pre-College student with more than 54 million views of her Instagram videos, is a published author, model, and wildlife partner, who, at age 13, became one of the first African American major prizewinners in an international violin competition.
NAME Pilar Winter Hill
HOMETOWN Brooklyn, NY
SCHOOL Home school
Why I Chose the Violin
From the time I was a small child, one of my earliest and most vivid memories of being introduced to classical music was when I was sitting with my family, watching an amazing orchestra playing on a PBS television special. I distinctly recall wishing to sit there forever, experiencing the majesty of all of those instrumentalists harmonizing and synchronizing, creating musical magic—that truly had a profound impact on me.
Playing my instrument has shaped and transformed my life.
Fast forward to a year or so later when I was about three or four years old and walking by Lincoln Center during some pretty bad weather. I saw posters of classical musicians, and there was one of a violinist. It just stirred something deep inside of me. I somehow knew that the violin was my calling and I could just feel the energy of the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center, even though I had no idea what that place was at the time. I just knew I was meant to be there. I had to be dragged away to go home.
Why I Love Being a String Player
Playing the violin is an integral part of my life; I have often described it as kind of like breathing: you don’t really think about breathing, you just do it. It’s automatic and indispensable simultaneously. Setting aside ample time for practice while juggling academics and extracurriculars is sometimes challenging, but like many who are working hard and dedicating their lives to the pursuit of excellence in any field, it is simply a reflection of love and commitment to the craft. I am inspired by a standard of excellence and a work ethic exemplified by a long line of greats who have made their mark on this instrument. And I also love being able to share my emotions through my playing, connecting with the audience in a way that is heartfelt and meaningful. That truly means a lot to me.
I hope to be able to continue advancing in my skills and, just as importantly, my understanding of the various nuances required, in order that I may become not the best player in the world, but rather the best player that I can be.
Playing my instrument has shaped and transformed my life. From the moment I picked up the violin and drew it close, it became such a treasured part of me and has made a lasting and indelible mark. My journey into the world of playing classical violin was not a casual one. My hunger and desire to learn was and will continue to be voracious. I can’t imagine willingly going one day without playing my instrument. Although I do not come from a family of classical musicians, they have been supportive of my love and passion for the violin from the very start of my musical journey. I think that has been a true hallmark of my musicianship.
Playing my stringed instrument has not only brought an immeasurable joy and happiness to my life but it has also given me a resolute purpose that I might not have discovered otherwise. Since I started playing, I end each day with either a sense of satisfaction in knowing that I have met goals set for myself, or I’ve created a plan in my mind to reverse engineer the steps needed in order to do so.
From early on, playing the violin has equipped me with a great sense of responsibility and discipline that benefits practically every aspect of my life. Hard work and sacrifice go hand in hand. The day-to-day is often not glamorous but it’s not supposed to be. And that grit results in the appreciation and smiles brought to the faces of those we inspire.
I was so inspired by playing my instrument that I wrote a children’s book loosely based on my introduction to the world of music, A Neighborhood Walk, A Musical Journey, published by Albert Whitman & Company. It will be available in April 2021. I am enjoying every moment of this beautiful experience and hope to be able to continue my course of learning and discovery for many, many years to come.
My Most Valuable String Lesson
I would have to say that aside from learning, many years ago, how to carefully and meticulously change the strings on my instrument, one of the most significant lessons I remember learning from my teacher of nearly seven years, I-Hao Lee, and from my parents alike, was to not waste time in my practice. To go through the motions of practice without putting your heart into it is just a waste of precious time. Sure, there have been moments when my mind would drift during practice, but I own that feeling, put my instrument down, and step away to do something else. And as soon as I feel that longing to play, that is when I know it is time to get back to work. I feel that is normal and healthy, at least for me.
My Musical Life
As a student in the Juilliard Pre-College Program (on leave this year due to COVID-19 concerns), I have enjoyed many opportunities to play with other young players in various groups, such as the Juilliard Pre-College Symphony, String Ensemble, and chamber music, which have all been quite exciting.
I feel so fortunate to have been born at a time where the entire world is connected by the internet and social media. This allows so many people, including string players, to not only connect with one another but also to draw inspiration, gain new insights, and see different perspectives that can enhance and inform one’s own playing through this global network. I set up my Instagram page and my website, which have both been well received and have garnered a lot of traffic, allowing my performances to be seen and experienced by a far-reaching audience from every corner of the globe. And this in turn also enables me to connect with my supporters almost instantaneously.
I find that a lot of my contemporaries appreciate the level of dedication I have toward playing my instrument. Some may not share my particular passion for playing a stringed instrument or classical music, but they can still relate to having a passion of their own. I feel so happy to know that there are young adults around the world who are interested in my journey, and that my love and passion for my instrument has in some cases fueled them to pursue their own dreams. Some have followed my career for a few years and I am really excited to have such wonderful supporters in young people as well as others from other age demographics, too.
My Most Memorable Playing Experience
I would have to say that sharing my music with the children and families of a children’s hospital in London has been the most humbling and memorable experience for me. I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a family with someone with a special health concern and how this can affect the whole family. I am so very happy to have been able to share my music at this children’s hospital, especially during the holiday season that year. It meant so much to me to be able to see the smiles and happiness radiate from this beautiful community when I played for them. I felt so honored. This has been the biggest career highlight for me to date.
In general, the experience of playing onstage is electric. It’s almost indescribable. I go into a space where I allow myself to become one with my instrument, seeking to coax from it all its beauty and magic. I don’t overthink the material; I just allow myself to get into a zone.
Living in Brooklyn is awesome but also sometimes quite noisy. When I was younger, I wouldn’t want to perform for my family when a loud vehicle passed by outside or construction was going on. My mother quickly impressed upon me that when I play, no matter where or for whom, it’s just me, my violin, and my bow. Nothing else matters at that time. To this day, I firmly believe that is what enables me to “let go” in my playing.
My Career Goals
I am certainly considering conservatory training either in the United States or Europe, and I would love to continue writing books and lending my support to global wildlife conservation initiatives. I’d like to pursue a career as a classical recording artist and an actor, traveling the world while sharing my music.
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