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For Janice Martin, it was a short march from the parade ground to the concert hall.
Like every classically trained professional musician, solo violinist Janice Martin has the requisite story about performing at Carnegie Hall—complete with all the usual elements of the nerves and the excitement and the audience filled with Mom, Dad, and critics prepared to shred her to pieces. “I was really scared before I started playing,” she says. “But I relaxed really quickly, and I found myself very fearless, which was weird.”
Many violinists who reach such heights move on to a fairly predictable career: They get a spot in a prominent orchestra and steadily work their way toward that prime real estate just to the left of the conductor.
Martin has chosen a less conventional progression. She has become a globe-trotting soloist who slips into snazzy dresses, whips out her 1708 Stradivarius, wins competitions (such as the Washington International Competition and Young Artist International Competition), records CDs, and plays for the cultured ears of audiences in New York, Tokyo, and Sydney. It all sounds so glamorous, until you consider that in between performances, Martin is actually schlepping those dresses, that Strad, and those boxes of CDs through airports, lining up new gigs, and getting busted for squeezing in practice sessions in the lavatories of Amtrak trains en route to her performances. “Unless you’re Eminem,” she says, “you really have to be in control of every aspect of your career.”
Martin just finished a tour playing her violin in five U.S. cities and the Czech Republic, and she’ll soon be off to Japan for a series of performances. If all goes according to plan for Martin, 34, orchestras will one day be clamoring to play her compositions and she’ll have 25 or 30 CDs to her name. “I want to make a lot of CDs because it keeps you in shape like nothing else,” she says.
Either way, Martin, like most top-flight musicians, has a host of people and organizations to thank for her good fortune. Her parents, of course. Her mentor, former Boston Symphony violinist Joseph Burstein, who gave her the Strad.
And also the U.S. Army.
“At one period in time, I wanted to play all the instruments I could,” says Martin, the youngest of three girls, all of whom became pro violinists. (Her mom played piano, and her nonmusical dad was a minister.) The Racine, Wis., native began playing the piano at 4 and the violin at 5, and she kept up with both while dabbling in the trumpet, the clarinet, the oboe, and, very briefly, the flute. (“I passed out when I tried to play,” she says.) She got a performance degree from Indiana University and then headed to Juilliard.
During those financially tight years at school, she worked two waitress jobs simultaneously, rode her bike everywhere in lieu of driving, and went to all the competitions she could. Even with the scrimping, her finances wouldn’t sustain her passions. Her student loans crept up to $55,000, and just when Martin was starting to wonder how to justify continuing to pursue a soloist’s career—as opposed to settling for a stable orchestra job—Uncle Sam stepped in.
In the spring of 1994, she spotted a flier at Juilliard about the Army’s loan-repayment program and stopped by the recruiting office on a whim. “I thought, I’m the last person in the world who would ever join the Army, but this could be funny,” she says. “I went in and said, ‘You don’t happen to have an opening in the Army for a violinist, do you?’”
They did. She auditioned and, that fall, shipped out to Fort Myer in Arlington for basic training. “I couldn’t do a push-up, so I had no idea how I was going to get through this,” she says. “I thought I was going to be surrounded by these Amazon women who were going to beat me up.” In preparation, she started running; she lifted weights; she rented Apocalypse Now.
When she got to basic training, she was the fastest woman in her company. The other women, as it turned out, weren’t so Amazonian, and she came away with useful skills such as how to throw a grenade, shoot those big guns, and develop some discipline. (Before the Army, she admits, she was known to occasionally forget to bring her violin to a performance.)
When she began playing in the band, there were some nice perks, but, after three years, the gigs wore her down. “It was very exciting the first few times to go to the White House and be playing while Michael Douglas walked by. But I think you can lose your heart after a while. It makes you feel kind of insignificant to be playing ‘Tea for Two’ after White House meals as what you do. Somehow, that’s just not for me,” she says. “I guess it’s my ego. I like to be in on the action. I’m not a sidelines kind of person.” She left the Army in 1997 and decided she would make her solo career happen. “I didn’t decide I could make a living at this,” she says. “I decided I would.”
Martin met Burstein through a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra when she began performing with the Army band. He had once played violin with the Boston Symphony, but an irreversible eye problem forced him to leave when he was young; he ended up pursuing a career in government instead. Martin began giving Burstein violin lessons, and, in turn, Burstein became a source of guidance.
When Martin decided she needed to leave the Army to focus on her solo career, Burstein was prepared to do everything he could for her: He sponsored her Carnegie debut in 1998 and that same year purchased the rare Strad, one of 600 in the world. In 1999, he helped fund her self-titled CD. “He became my life mentor, and I became his musical mentor at the same time,” Martin says. “He’s hinted to me that he’s been able to live a little bit vicariously through what I’m doing musically.”
The Carnegie debut proved to be Martin’s entree into the big leagues, allowing her new exposure and offering the chance to make important contacts, which she parlayed into overseas performances. “Going to other countries and seeing how other people live—it changes you,” she says. “I think I’m becoming more aware of what we have here and what we don’t have and how our priorities have shaped us. And that feeds your creativity.”
Accolades followed. Composer Charlie Barnett wrote a concerto specifically to show off Martin’s abilities; she took home 1998’s Amadeus Career Grant and 1999’s Career Award Grant from the NEA; and she’s consistently won several national competitions each year since 1998.
Critics repeatedly use the word “stunning” to describe her performances, a pattern that she attributes to her spunky, youthful stage presence. “How do I say this politely?” she asks. “I think part of that is because audiences of this music are used to their musicians being fat or old.”
Whatever the explanation, Martin’s distinctions have made Burstein proud, and the violinist makes sure to visit her mentor each time she’s in town. Burstein is 86 and lives in an assisted-care residence in Bethesda; he’s just been released from the hospital after a battery of tests for recent ailments caused by low blood sugar. In a post-hospital visit, Martin bursts into Burstein’s room and greets him with a hug. “I’ve got some books on tape for you,” says Martin.
Burstein shows a paternal pride in Martin’s abilities. “She’s really a great violinist, and she’s getting greater all the time. She’s going to go places for sure,” he says. He remains modest about the advice he’s given her, saying simply: “It mostly has to do with playing with her soul. And she’s doing that—have you heard her play?”
Though it’s clear Burstein believes his investment in the young violinist has already paid off, Martin is always courting new projects: She’s at work on a jazz album with composer Larry Willis and on a CD of “miniatures,” short pieces that show off her range. She wants to do some composing and someday play with the Berlin Philharmonic. She says she just doesn’t like to sit still—literally. “One of my frustrations being a violinist is sitting and doing this thing confined. I do martial arts, and I love it, and I want to find a way to combine that with violin,” she says. “I love physicality onstage, so maybe some kind of performance art. The solo career I’m developing is only one part of it. I’m trying to develop me as an artist.” CP