The Sound of a Violin

One Sunday evening in 2010, I was at the dinner table, set up with my phone and earphones, indulging in my end-of-week ritual: listening to the classical music show on Capital FM from 9 to 11 p.m. A piece came on, and the violin immediately grabbed my attention with its soaring melody, filled with longing. The orchestra echoed this statement and a beautiful conversation between the soloist and the orchestra unfolded. It flowed from the first to the third movement with driving energy and changing colours that told an elaborate story of longing and serenity and wrapped up in all this, a perfect balance of playful and deeply serious moments. I was enchanted from the beginning to the end as I was hearing the violin like I had never heard it before. I exhaled and opened my eyes at the end and it felt like I had been dropped back to the dinner table because, for the duration of the piece, my spirit had taken flight to the world of that transcendental music. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. It was the first time I heard it and at that moment I knew for certain that I had to play the violin. I didn’t know exactly how or where I would get it, but hearing that piece that evening was a summon to follow that sound.

I was lucky to have friends already immersed in the world of classical music, and earlier that year, one of them had introduced me to the Kenya Conservatoire of Music. One Saturday evening, I walked into the ballet studio at the Conservatoire for the first time. Orchestra rehearsal was wrapping up. Players were stacking away chairs to the sides of the room. Some were conversing next to the grand piano near the entrance of the ballet studio as others picked up their instrument cases from the wooden floor and made their way out. I was drawn to the sound of a violin and turned to see the violinist who was still playing amid all this movement. I stared at him, awed by how at home he seemed with his instrument. It was as if he was having a private musical conversation with his violin that I was lucky to witness. I remember thinking, “He’s so good, but he’s so young!” That sight shifted something in my mind and made violin playing a closer possibility.

In the months that followed, I found myself in the ballet studio often. I had free time because I’d just completed high school and worked part-time as I waited to join university.  I noticed that in the studio, there were violinists in every corner, playing their instruments, demanding the secrets of music to be revealed to them. Occasionally, two converged and a duet emerged. The hours passed and I marvelled at their dedication. I couldn’t wait to get my own instrument. I saved up and soon enough we were at an instrument shop in Westlands arcade with two friends who had bought other instruments there. The Indian gentleman had a violin going for 10,000 shillings and we bargained down to 8,500 shillings. When I finally had my violin in my hands, it was these very violinists who calmed me down when I thought something was wrong with the bow I had just bought, showing me how to apply rosin to make sound. Soon, I started taking lessons on Saturday mornings and grabbed my spot in the studio. Being in the company of more advanced violinists, they showed me how to play my violin with greater ease. I discovered several violin pieces through our conversations and helpful tips such as how significant it is to develop one’s tone as it serves as the foundation for everything else.

Minuet in G by Bach, a famous classical piece, was also the one I played in my first recital in 2012 at the ballet studio. I still remember the deep sense of accomplishment afterwards and how comfortable I felt on stage. I was a little nervous but mostly I enjoyed telling a story through music. Part of me wishes I could tap more into the fearlessness I felt while performing that afternoon. The next year, I hosted two recitals as a fun challenge for all the musicians I could reach within the Conservatoire as we craved more performance spaces than the orchestral concerts we played a few times in a year. We ended up becoming a community of peers whose musical paths would continue to intertwine over the years.

Sometimes when I try to remember when I met some of my musical peers (and now very good friends), I can’t find the exact moment, but it was likely at a Saturday evening symphony orchestra rehearsal in the ballet studio. Saturday evenings were synonymous with rehearsals for many years. Our lives wound onto the symphonies we played and they have formed the soundtrack for everything else since. I have fond memories of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 (mostly struggling to play the running notes and leaving them out for a more skilled version of myself) and the Overture to Egmont by Beethoven. These were the most challenging pieces I had played at that point, and I remember labelling every note in the Egmont overture as I was still getting used to watching the conductor, watching my section leader and reading the music all at once. I could not understand how to play the note Ab as I didn’t fully understand how to interpret flats on the violin. So I labelled all the Ab’s as G#, which made more sense to my mind. We performed this and other pieces in Nairobi and later that year, played it at the Coast on a small orchestral tour. My friends and I would say later that the memories and fun we had during those annual trips are part of what would keep us coming back to rehearsals and keep us practising, until the next one.


After joining the Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra in early 2012, I learnt about upcoming auditions for the Kenya National Youth Orchestra (KNYO) in June so I auditioned with my trusted Minuet in G and got in. I had heard wonderful things from older members at the Conservatoire about the music and wonderful food at the residential training sessions and as a university student, I was looking forward to a week of no cooking. The intense practice too, of course. However, on the morning of my first-ever residential training as a new member of the orchestra, I was late. I was on the phone, panting, balancing a violin and small bag on my shoulder as I ran half-dragging, half-carrying my suitcase across town, apologising to our administrator and telling her I was really on my way. Nairobi’s uneven streets claimed a wheel from my suitcase as I ran from GPO to the Conservatoire to catch the 9:30 a.m. bus.

I never caught my breath that week. Days were full of back-to-back playing sessions either in our different sections or in tutti punctuated by tasty meals eaten in a hurry because if any of us was late for a session, our tutors would ask us to play a 3-octave scale and that was a show more suited for the practice room walls than our peers. It was an immersive time and I loved having whole days dedicated to playing music. Until that point in time, unless it was the holiday and I could play as long as I liked, I had to carve out practice time between biology lectures and lab sessions in uni. It was a little fantasy of mine to be able to do this full-time. While at the one-week residential, I was enthralled by the process of how we built up the music that was new to us at the start of the week. First by rehearsing the piece thoroughly in my individual practice time, then polishing it further with guidance from our tutors in our different sections, and then putting it all together in tutti. We learnt the magic of unifying our sound like synchronised swimmers so that by the final tutti, it felt like different sections of a jigsaw puzzle interlocking perfectly together. We lived, breathed and became those notes so much so that on the way to the concert at Strathmore University at the end of that week, we broke into song, each of us belting out their part in Holst’s Jupiter, singing as if we had known the piece all our lives. 

We would encounter a lot more symphonies at Nairobi Orchestra—another ensemble we found our way to—and would meet at the Conservatoire whenever we could to make sense of our parts. I remember one such enthusiastic rehearsal of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with two friends weeks before the next Nairobi Orchestra season had begun. We were enamoured with the piece. It is not by accident that Beethoven and his music remain so well known to this day. The 2nd movement of this symphony remains a spiritual moment for me because of how it opens and is developed. It feels to me like a miniature portrait of life with all of its hope and joy, and the underlying existential angst of making meaning of it all. I get goosebumps even now when I listen to how he layers the strings, never letting up on the pulsing rhythm he introduces at the beginning of the movement. Then comes a haunting melody in the violas and cellos as the pulsing rhythm moves from the lower to the upper strings before the timpani and the winds join in, lending new energy to this melody that carries on throughout the movement. Being surrounded by all this sound felt magical. Beethoven continues to build up the movement deftly, introducing a second hopeful theme in the winds, but not letting up on the pulsing rhythm now brought out by the timpani, and plucked basses, a continuous heartbeat underlying all the moving parts. The movement ends with the first theme reprised but in a fragmented form, as if one were walking away from deeply studying a portrait of their life. Beethoven now shares the melody between plucked strings and winds playing quietly. The movement ends as it began, with the same sustained wind chord that doesn’t resolve. That moment, to me, feels like a temporary exhale after going on a deeply inspired journey, with the lingering question of what it all could mean. When the piece had its first run, audiences could not get enough of this 2nd movement and requested an encore at each performance. To date, some orchestras play it as a standalone work, paying homage to a composer who expanded the bounds of classical music beyond what his predecessors had done. 


The world of classical music continued to open up to us through opportunities to play with other ensembles and orchestras in East Africa. We got an invite to play Tchaikovsky’s iconic 5th Symphony in 2015 with the Dar Choral Society. We were a small group of strings from Kenya joining an ensemble of musicians from Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Naturally, we met at the ballet studio to figure out our parts together and went on to perform well in the ensemble. 

Then came another invite in 2017, from the musical director of KNYO then, to audition for an intercultural orchestra in the UK. The required audition material was familiar to us as we had, by then, encountered these pieces in our lessons, or individual exploration of classical music. We saw so much of each other that it made perfect sense to record our audition videos together one evening after Saturday rehearsal. It helped to be in a collective for morale. Four of us managed to go for the UK training, another milestone that the walls of the ballet studio bore witness to.

We have been lucky to have the world come to us, as well, through visits by top musicians giving masterclasses and workshops in Nairobi. Through their stopping here, we’ve travelled across cultures and tapped into many years of experience of rich music-making, stepping into centuries-old traditions, and adding our interpretation to the canon. A good number of us now tutor our individual instruments across the country. The number of instrumentalists and full-time musicians has grown, as well as Kenyan musicians arranging and composing pieces for orchestra and varied ensembles. There is also a growing classical music audience that, like the performers on stage, is full of young people.

Music remains an oasis that gives shape to feelings and emotions I cannot always find the words for. At any moment, there exists music I could play or listen to that matches the day’s changing light, and in the same breath, life’s changing seasons. Over time, I have gotten deeply fascinated by chamber music, a chance to have a closer conversation through the music in a more intimate setting, such as the string quartet I currently play in with my dear friends. To contribute fully in chamber music and for my solo performances, I’ve learnt to dedicate hours to individual practice and the beauty of this process is that I am never truly alone when making music. I’m in the company of all the musicians who came before me and the living musicians whose work inspires me. I find endless inspiration in the music of Bach, especially his sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and when I’m not teaching the violin or on stage, this is likely what I’m exploring. I completely agree with Hilary Hahn, one of the greatest violinists of our time, when she says, “Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest.” His music endures, because on one hand, it represents the beginnings of classical music and the forms that would come to define it and is, at the same time, future-facing for the limitless material it inspires in every genre to this day, be it pop or jazz.

When I play the violin, it is this dance with time that I am taking part in, with my present and past selves, plus all who came before me in this musical tradition, meeting myself where I am and inventing whatever self the music requires, blending the two to the moment and continuing this endless musical exploration, following the sound that summoned me.


*Photo by the author

Bernadette Muthoni

Bernadette Muthoni is a violinist and writer based in Nairobi. She explores life’s questions in words and sound. Her work has appeared on Debunk Media and she occasionally shares her poetry online and on stage.