Her Violin Stolen, A Prodigy's World Became 'Unstrung'

May 7, 2017
Originally published on May 17, 2017 10:41 am

For professional musicians, the instrument on which they play is more than just a tool of the trade. It can also be a muse, a partner and a voice.

Min Kym started playing the violin at age 6 and won her first competition at 11. Now, the former child prodigy is the author of a new book: Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung, in which she shares her story of finding her perfect partner — only to have it stolen away.

"From a very young age, I was aware that the most important thing as a violinist and as a musician is to find your voice through the right instrument," Kym says. For a professional soloist, that means a top-shelf violin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for Kym, that meant a Stradivarius. She had saved all of her competition winnings for this purpose; it was just a matter of finding the right one.

When she was 21, an instrument dealer brought her two violins to choose from. "And everybody was sort of pointing towards one of the violins, which had a incredibly sonorous and powerful sound — everything that, as a soloist, you would be looking for," Kym says.

So she tried that first violin. It sounded "magnificent," but something wasn't right.

"It was like I was wearing an incredibly beautiful gown that didn't suit me," she says. "And so I put it down and I picked up the other one. And it was smaller, it had been repaired — it had gone through the water. I could see that. However, when I played that first note, just, oh my goodness ... I knew this was my voice."

She'd found her voice in the form of a rare 1696 Stradivarius, which she describes with wonder as having "an incredible soprano" and an audible "orbit around the notes."

"The first real, true partnership I felt was with this Strad," Kym says. "I had my violin for 10 years, and I was still getting to know it. Even after 10 years it was still showing me new things, it was teaching me new ways of playing."

Unfortunately, that partnership wasn't meant to last. What happened next made headlines: One November evening, Kym and her boyfriend were sitting in a café in a London train station when three thieves snagged her violin out from under the table. She's been reliving that moment ever since.

"It's one of those things that I still find so horribly painful to talk about," she says. "I didn't know who I was anymore, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt as though I was just a sort of shell of a person. ... You know, when it's a human relationship, it's something that everybody can relate to and understand. But I think as a violinist, as a musician, as an artist, when you know the relationship that you have with your particular art, it's something that lives inside you and has a life of its own. And that's very difficult to explain or describe."

Three years later, detectives were actually able to recover Kym's violin. But her insurance company had paid out the claim after it was stolen, and she had a career to carry on with — so Kym had already used the money to buy a replacement violin. But she couldn't stop thinking about the one she had lost. It was writing her memoir, she says, that helped her move forward.

"One of the most important things that I learned throughout this whole process is that we have such little control over anything," she says. "But one thing that we do control is how you deal with the next steps forward. Writing — actually finding this new voice — it helped unblock my musical life. And, you know, for the first time in seven years or so, I felt hopeful again."

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

For professional musicians, the instrument on which they play is more than just a tool of the trade. It can also be a muse, a partner and a voice. A new book titled "Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung" shares one artist's story of finding her inspiration only to have it stolen away. We'll let the author take it from here.

MIN KYM: My name's Min Kym, and I play the violin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: I started playing at the age of 6 and a half. I won my first competition when I was 11. And, yeah, I'll start it from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: It took me until adulthood to be able to say the word child prodigy. Like, when I was a child and people used to sort of, you know, talk about me in that way, I was so mortified. I mean, it was just, you know, you just don't want to be. I just wanted to have fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: From a very young age, I was aware that the most important thing as a violinist and as a musician is to find your voice through the right instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SINGH: And for a professional soloist, that means a top shelf violin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for Kym, that meant a Stradivarius. She had saved all of her competition winnings for this purpose. Now she just needed to find the right one.

KYM: The dealer who I was talking to came to my parents' house. I was 21. And he had a double case with him and two violins. And everybody was sort of pointing towards one of the violins which had a incredibly sonorous and powerful sound, everything that as a soloist you would be looking for. So I picked it up and I drew my bow across it, and, yeah, of course, it sounded magnificent.

But it was like I was wearing an incredibly beautiful gown that didn't suit me. And so I put it down, and I picked up the other one. And it was smaller. It had been repaired. It got through the walls, and I could see that. However, when I played that first note - just, oh, my goodness - the vibrations of it. I knew this was my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: It had an incredible soprano. It was very bell-like. It had this what I like to call space around the notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: You could almost hear (laughter) - this is really going to make me sound like a fruitcake actually, but you could hear an orbit around the note.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: The real true partnership I felt was with this Strad. And I had my violin for 10 years, and I was still getting to know it. Even after 10 years, it was still showing me new things. It was teaching me new ways of playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: But that was short lived. Unfortunately, it's real life. It isn't a fairytale.

SINGH: What happened next made headlines.

KYM: I remember it like it was just, you know, moments ago. It was a cold November evening. I'd had an asthma attack earlier. So I wasn't feeling very well, and I had a argument with my boyfriend at the time who was going to look after my violin. And there were only two other people in my life that I've ever entrusted my violin. So I was very reluctant not to have it in my possession, but I did agree to let him look after the violin. And one minute it was there, and the next minute it was gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SINGH: While Kym and her boyfriend sat in a train station cafe, three thieves snagged her Stradivarius out from under the table.

KYM: I've relived that moment - I sort of think if this hadn't happened, then that wouldn't have happened. You know, if we hadn't made this decision, if I hadn't made that decision, you know, and I went through it, I went through it with such a fine-toothed comb with the detectives. And he just reminded me that he's a professional. I'm a professional. And they were professional thieves. It's one of those things that I still find so horribly painful to talk about.

I didn't know who I was anymore, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt as though I was just sort of a shell of a person. You know, when it's a human relationship, it's something that everybody can relate to and understand. But I think as a violinist, as a musician, as an artist when, you know, the relationship you have with your particular art, it's something that lives inside you. And it's - it has a life of its own. And that's very difficult to explain or describe. And so, you know, after three years, it was recovered. I was on the train, and I - and the phone rang. And it was Detective Rose (ph), and he said, Min, I have good news for you. So I thought, well, he's never said that before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KYM: For three years, my spirits were just on the floor. And in that nanosecond, they just completely lifted again, and I felt human again. I felt like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SINGH: Kym wishes her story would have ended with her being reunited with her violin, but unfortunately it didn't. By the time the Stradivarius was found, Kym had already spent the money she received from the insurance claim on a new violin, so she could continue with her career.

KYM: Too much time had passed, so for financial reasons, I wasn't able to buy my violin back. One of the most important things that I learned throughout this whole process is that we have such little control over anything, but one thing that we do have control is how you deal with the next steps forward. Writing actually finding this new voice, it helped unblock my musical life. And, you know, for the first time in seven years or so, I felt hopeful again.

SINGH: That was violinist and author Min Kym. Her book "Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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