Mormon Artist

Jenny Oaks Baker

GRAMMY-nominated artist Jenny Oaks Baker is one of America’s most accomplished violinists. She has released eleven albums since 1998 which have sold over a quarter of a million copies and consistently charted on Billboard, including the number one spot on the Top Classical Albums chart. Her album Wish Upon a Star earned a nomination for the 54th GRAMMY Awards for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Jenny began playing the violin at age four and made her solo orchestral debut in 1983 when she was only eight years old. She received her Master of Music degree from the renowned Juilliard School in New York City and her bachelor’s degree in violin performance from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She has performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Strathmore Hall, the Library of Congress, and as a guest soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the Utah Symphony, the Orchestra at Temple Square, and the internationally acclaimed Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Jenny has also soloed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center under the direction of Marvin Hamlisch. Jenny, her husband Matthew, and their four children reside outside of Washington, D. C. Website
Photo courtesy Deseret Book

You started playing the violin at a very young age. Did you always envision yourself as a concert violinist?

I always hated practicing but I loved performing, and I always knew I wanted to be on stage, so I did always aspire to be a concert violinist.

At what point did you realize that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

Early on, my parents recognized that I had a musical gift, and they taught me that I had a responsibility to the Lord to develop that gift. So growing up, I worked hard to try to reach my potential so I would be ready to use my musical talents to build the kingdom. At age fifteen, when I received my patriarchal blessing, I received further understanding that the Lord did have a plan for me and my music, and I became more determined to practice hard so I would be prepared for the things that the Lord had in store for me. When at age seventeen I auditioned and was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the world’s best music schools, I could see that my dream was in reach.

Who has been one of your most influential teachers, and why?

I have had some amazing violin teachers. I am so grateful to have been able to study with Jaime Laredo, Victor Danchenko, Pamela Frank and Robert Mann at Curtis and Juilliard, but my most influential teacher was Utah Symphony Associate Concertmaster, Leonard Braus. Mr. Braus started teaching me when I was fourteen and he really believed in me. He whipped my playing into shape and encouraged me to audition for Curtis. My parents were only paying him for sixty-minute lessons, but my lessons often lasted three hours. He gave me the skills and confidence I needed to get into Curtis and then survive the experience. I am eternally grateful to him!

You have had the opportunity to perform with many talented groups and people, as well as at several prestigious venues. What has been your most memorable performance?

My musical highlights have been performing with the National Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and at Carnegie Hall. Spiritual highlights have been performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, performing “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, and being a Time Out for Women presenter. My favorite performances are those when I am able to feel the Spirit really strongly as I play, and know that those in the audience are feeling it too. It is a great privilege to be a vessel through which God’s love and Spirit can be felt by others.

Photo courtesy Deseret Book

What are some challenges that you’ve overcome?

It was incredibly difficult for me to leave my parents at age eighteen and move to Philadelphia to go to the Curtis Institute of Music. I lived by myself in an apartment in Philadelphia and was the only Mormon at the school. My parents didn’t have the money to visit me more than one time in all four years, and I could only go home at Christmastime and in the summer. I was incredibly homesick and lonely all four years, but I worked incredibly hard and felt that I was on the Lord’s errand, so I stuck it out. I am so grateful I survived it! It was an incredibly valuable musical experience.

Who inspires you in your work?

I try to be inspired more by the Spirit than by any particular person. I aspire to do what the Lord would have me do, not follow the path of any other artist.

Your album Then Sings My Soul (2010) was number one on the Top Classical Albums chart. What went into arranging the songs for this album, and how did you choose which songs to include?

Sam Cardon wrote all the arrangements on that album. When choosing the songs for the album, Sam and I tried to pick really inspirational classical and sacred songs that would touch hearts and be truly soul-filling. I am very grateful to Sam for writing such gorgeous arrangements. He is an amazing composer and a very inspired man.

Photo courtesy Deseret Book

How does being a disciple of Christ influence your music?

I always try to record and perform music that is uplifting and will bring people closer to the Lord. I know I have been given a gift to perform sacred music with the Spirit, and I always try to program music that enables me to use my gifts. I also pray before and rely on the Lord during every performance. I do not know how anyone can have the guts to get up on stage without knowing they can call upon the Lord for help!

Your 2011 album Wish Upon a Star was nominated for a GRAMMY. What inspired this album?

I have four children, and when I recorded Wish Upon a Star, I had been living and breathing Disney for ten years straight. Plus Disney has so many wonderful musical themes to pull from. It was really a no-brainer to record a Disney album!

Can you tell us more about the album?

Kurt Bestor produced and arranged Wish Upon a Star. Kurt has arranged music on nearly all my albums, and he is brilliant! Kurt really knows how to write music that enables me to play from my soul. Kurt took classic Disney themes and recreated them in a way that makes them new yet still familiar. It is an album that adults love because the music is sophisticated, yet children love because it is Disney. It is not a kiddie album, but kids love it.

As a musician, what are you trying to convey to listeners through your music? What do you want them to take away from one of your concerts?

I really just want my audience to feel the Spirit through my playing and to come closer to the Savior through my music. I want them to feel the love of the Lord. My favorite comments are no longer those that praise my playing, but those that tell me that my music touched them. I am just as thrilled to hear sniffles in the crowd as applause.

In what ways do you work to achieve these goals?

When I was younger, I practiced hours and hours a day to try to perfect my craft. Now I make sure that I am prepared musically for every recording and performance, but I also try to make sure that I keep the commandments so I am worthy to play with the Spirit. I also pray before every performance that I will play my best and feel good about my performance. I also try and feel the emotion of the music 200% so my audiences can feel it 100%.

We understand that you will be releasing another album this year, featuring classic rock songs. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Yes! The title of the album is Classic: The Rock Album. I am very excited about it. Kurt Bestor is arranging and producing the album and he has done another amazing job! He has arranged these classic rock themes for solo violin and orchestra in a really classical way, so those who appreciate classical music and those who like popular music will all like the album. Some of the rock ballads have absolutely gorgeous melodies that lend themselves really well to the violin. And Kurt has been really inventive in taking some great rock anthems and converting them to fabulously flashy violin showpieces. For instance, he did a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There is also a Beatles medley called the “Liverpool Suite” that is phenomenal! I know that young and old will love this album because the melodies we have chosen are beloved and the writing is spectacular. We also have been really careful to only choose songs that have appropriate lyrics so that the music can still be uplifting. It’s going to be a great album!

How do you balance motherhood and your successful career as a violinist?

I have a really supportive husband! Matt is willing to work from home and manage our four children while I am away performing, and is happy to do so. He never complains when I have to practice or when I have to leave to perform. He cheers me on and joys in my successes. I could not have been successful without him. I also don’t have to practice as much as I did when I was younger, so I can get it all done while my kids are in school during the day. It is much easier to balance motherhood now that my children are a bit older.

What is tricky now is managing my career along with their musical pursuits. They are each very talented musicians, and I spend most of my days practicing with them and taking them to their lessons. Laura is twelve and plays the violin and the percussion, Hannah is ten and plays the piano, Sarah is nine and plays the cello, and Matthew is seven and plays classical guitar. I spend much more time developing their talents than sharing or working on mine. But what is incredibly rewarding is that I am now able to program them into many of my shows, so they come along with me to some of my performances and we perform together. And my husband used to be a DJ in college and so he is able to help with the sound. My concerts are becoming family events and we all enjoy this!

Photo courtesy Deseret Book

How does your role as a mother influence your music?

I am very careful to not leave my family more than absolutely necessary. I fly in on the day of the show and fly out on the first flight out the next morning. I also say no to some performances in order to have more family time. Because I do have to leave once in a while for performances, I also am careful not to spend time away from my family for other pursuits.

What do you teach your kids about music and following their dreams?

As I said, each of our kids are musical and practice long and hard. I have tried to teach them to work (practice) first and play later, as my parents taught me. I have tried to help them see that their gifts have come from Heavenly Father and they have the responsibility to develop them and use them to build the kingdom. My parents never pushed me to become a musician, and I will not push my children to be professional musicians, but I will require them to work hard to develop their talents so that if they choose to go into music, they will be good enough to do so. And if they decide to go into something else, they will still be able to enjoy music and bring joy to others throughout their lives. ❧

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