‘Profound kindness’ seldom comes to mind when you meet someone, but violinist Gabi Holzwarth is a rare exception. Combined with a fierce drive, Gabi is an incredibly talented violinist who has made a name for herself in Silicon Valley, performing for tech companies after being discovered busking in the Bay Area. Along the way she has used her profile for the greater good, even bravely discussing her battle with an eating disorder through a TED Talk. We chatted to Gabi about her musical world, from Burning Man to Tchaikovsky.
Tell us a little about yourself, where did you grow up, and at what age did you begin playing the violin?
I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley and began playing the violin at the age of 2. I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t playing the violin. My sister, a year and a half older and currently an incredible musician and composer, began playing at the age of 4, and I wanted to copy her. It is funny that we both ended up on this route since our parents are both engineers. At first they were anxious when we both headed in this direction, but now they feel comfortable with it because they think that with the advancement of robots at least musicians will have job-security while other professions are in danger. I am not sure if they are joking.
Did you formally train? Is music what you have always wanted to pursue professionally?
I have been taking private lessons all my life, and was part of a youth symphony for over 10 years, but I never actually had the idea that I could pursue music professionally. It did not seem practical, especially growing up in an area with high standards of achievement where doctors, lawyers and engineers were “real” professions, while music was simply an extracurricular activity to perhaps get one closer to those other goals.
When did you get your ‘break’ into music, that allowed you to solely work as a musician?
That’s a tough question because I would say that even today I don’t know if I have had a big break, or if there ever will be one. I think it’s easy for a musician to get disheartened searching for that big break. There is an idea of a successful path of an artist - maybe writing songs first, getting big on YouTube or Spotify, then opening for a major artist, then signing with a label and being the major artist, but those things, while they may be a reality for some artists, can make one very disheartened when they don’t come to fruition. Even more, it sucks the joy out of the music. I am still not at that point where I say, “yes, this is it. I feel sure of my career.” And often times it’s not because I question my abilities as a musician, but instead because I have so many other interests that I want to pursue. This actually makes music much more enjoyable, knowing it doesn’t have to be my sole profession and identity and that I can do many things! Perhaps this makes me less focused and strategic than most artists, and perhaps it means that I won’t ever be as successful, but I know for sure that it will allow me to love my violin forever. I never want to reach the point of burnout or disenchantment that I have seen in many fellow musicians.
Can you share one of your most memorable performances?
I would definitely say that my performance at Burning Man this year with the incredible DJ Lemurian was the top of my list - everything about the night was right - the tribal music, the energy, the audience, the spectacular setup of the camp I was in called Cirque Gitane. I honestly felt like I was dreaming for the 3+ hours that I was playing, and I was high on music, nothing else! I didn’t want to stop playing. The next day I realized that I actually had played a bit too much and my violin’s sound post was broken along with half of the bow hair ripped off, proof that my violin was put to good use!
What goes through you mind when you are performing on stage?
Don’t think. That’s my first rule. I close my eyes, listen to the music - the key, the rhythm, the melody, and then I just play. I never have a deliberate set of notes but instead find that my best performances always occurs the first time I play with a song when it is raw and new, sometimes even the first time I ever hear a song. These performances are like an exciting relationship - the chemistry between the atmosphere and the violin are in sync, then it’s exciting and passionate. There doesn’t need to be a plan or an explanation. On the other hand, I have also had performances where the chemistry was very off, and then I get inside my head and began to ruminate. “Are the sound levels off? Is my outfit or makeup bad?” Etc, etc... When this happens, I close my eyes and pretend I am in a different place. It gets easier every time to recover from these moments.
What does music mean to you, both when performing and as a listener?
Music is a potent drug that enhances an individual’s imagination and emotions. It is a time machine that can transport me to a past life where I was Princess Turandot in Puccini’s opera or to the future where I am dreaming of falling in love and getting married. I have playlists for every period of my life. I find it crazy how a song can evoke so many memories, which is why as a performer I try to make those memories for others. I want people to always remember the sound of my violin and be reminded of a special moment in time, whether it was walking down the aisle on a wedding day or hearing me play on a street corner while on vacation.
Music, especially purely instrumental music, resists being described through words, but can you describe your love for the violin?
When I perform along to instrumental music, my violin is actually the words and the melody. It gives me a chance to be the soloist with a digital orchestra backing me, which is why I close my eyes and pretend I have the entire ensemble around me. My violin gives me confidence. It allows me to stand out when I otherwise feel like a little fish in a big sea. I am an incredibly insecure person, and I find that the best way to combat this is to focus on my abilities and kick ass at the violin. It is not superficial - my body, my face, my clothes. It is my hard work, and nobody can take that away from me. That being said, I am trying to also not let the violin completely define me and instead find confidence in myself without my music. What if one day I couldn’t play? My love for my music cannot transform into dependence on it.
In recent times arts funding is often at risk. How do you see the importance of music in society, especially in times of turmoil?
I see music as a connecting agent across various social classes and ethnicities. Music is a universal language with no barrier, which is why I like to combine genres from different classes - for example classical and rap, one the music of the elite, and the other stemming from an oppressed class. I remember performing on the street of downtown Palo Alto where the border between poverty and wealth is just a few miles separated by a freeway, and bringing together these two, as I played to Dr. Dre, Kanye and Jay-Z. There were students from East Palo Alto hanging out after school, one who told me he had never heard a violin live, and techies who were on a work break. It felt great to know that I brought together very different groups of people in one setting and see them smiling and bonding over music. It makes me very sad to see that our government does not see the importance of music - we have budget cuts for the arts and increased military spending. I liken the military to a bandaid and music to a permanent cure. People don’t seem to understand the power of music because it is not surface level like a bomb destroying the “bad guys”. It is a deep change in people’s souls which creates a profound change over time and is passed down from generation to generation, and that is very hard to prove. Without proof it is hard to acquire funding.
How do you prepare for a performance?
When I prepare for a performance I first create a playlist and then listen to the songs on repeat to become familiar with them. I do not practice very much with the songs, but instead rehearse etudes and scales, bowing, trills, slides, or any technique that I incorporate into the performance. Overall, I just need my fingers to be loose and completely warmed-up.
Do you have a daily uniform, and an on-stage uniform - pieces from your wardrobe that are comfortable or meaningful?
Yes, I actually do! I have a beautiful gown that is a one of a kind piece by Diane von Furstenberg which I wore to the Met Gala 3 years ago, and I joke that it is my uniform because I wear it to nearly every event.
What does personal style mean to you?
Personal style to me means wearing something that gives me confidence. It doesn’t have to mean that I have a certain “look”. One doesn’t have to be known as “bohemian” or “punk” or “minimalist”. I dislike labels and am all over the place with my outfits, just as I am with my musical genres. For example, I love one night wearing dark lipstick and a leather jacket and then the next day putting on a romantic floral dress. For me, personal style can mimic moods or even create the mood. With music, I love to dress for the part when I know my audience and event.
Who are some of your most favourite composers?
In the classical genre, my top picks are Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Beethoven. In the modern category, I am currently obsessed with anything by Kendrick Lamar and Khalid. Both are able to create songs that are not just billboard hits, but also have thoughtful melodies and lyrics.
Can you share some of your most loved pieces of music to perform?
My favorite piece to perform is called Estrellita, in the style of Heifetz. Every time I perform or listen to it, I am overwhelmed with emotions of a past love. No other piece of music can do this.
You've been a vocal advocate for awareness and greater understanding on mental health, so much so you've given a TED talk on your own experiences on your battle with an eating disorder. What drives you to be so fearless, and publicly bring light to these issues?
I feel that the eating disorder began because of shame and secrecy, and the only way to recover is to shed light on the issue and be open and vulnerable about it. I believe it is the same with any disease or personal challenge one is dealing with. You simply cannot do it alone because the voices are so powerful in your head. My hope is that I can not only speak openly about these issues but also show both women and men who are suffering that they can recover fully and lead a fulfilling life. When I was in the midst of my struggles I saw hospital room after hospital room and recovery seemed hopeless, so I nearly gave up. I wish that I had more role models who would have showed a light at the end of the tunnel.
What is next for you professionally and personally?
Professionally, I plan to continue to perform at cool events around the world, as I have been doing; however, I also want to add in more collaborations with other artists - DJ’s, jazz musicians, rappers - the more diverse the better. I realise that it is so much more fun and fulfilling for two or more musicians to feed off one another, which is why I am beginning to listen to more jazz, a genre I previously did not like. When you begin to listen deeply to jazz you can hear the voices speaking to each other - calling then answering. It’s amazing! Personally, I hope to continue to work on my health and continue to be a positive role model for men and women struggling with anorexia, a disease that I suffered with for half of my life. I cannot be a musician without my health, so this is a priority above all. In fact, my next big event is performing at a gala for Project Heal, which provides treatment grants for those struggling with the powerful disease. This will be a very meaningful performance for me.
Gabi wears the Ladybird Silk Long Sleeve Godet Dress in Cherry & the Marina Silk Crepe Frill Dress in Black.