2 young violinists study in dream schools abroad, vow to come home to pay it forward

Adelle Chua
2 young violinists study in dream schools abroad, vow to come home to pay it forward
They have performed in various venues here and abroad and have reaped national and international awards – and are both starting this semester as college freshmen

MANILA, Philippines – Jeanne Rafaella Marquez and Emanuel John Villarin are both 18, violinists, members of the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra (MSJO), and bunso – the youngest children – in the family. They have performed in various venues here and abroad and have reaped national and international awards. They are both starting this semester as college freshmen.

But they are going in vastly different destinations. She left last week for The Juilliard School in New York City, and he is leaving next month for the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin in Germany.

‘Passion in a tiny package’

Jeanne was six when she first heard a violin at a concert at her church. She asked her father if he could buy her a violin, and soon started training with the Frenchman Cedric Lachenal. It was a good hobby, she felt – a nice way to spend her free time.

Everything changed at the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA) 2013. It was when Jeanne did not make it to the final stage of the competition that she realized this was what she wanted to do. “I realized that I needed to put in harder work if I want to achieve something in this field,” she said.

REALIZATION. Jeanne Marquez first joined the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA) in 2013 when she was nine years old. It was then she realized music was more than a hobby for her. Photo from Sara Maria Gonzales

That same competition was also the first time teacher Sara Maria Gonzales met Jeanne. “I was blown away by so much energy coming from a nine-year-old. She was amazing!”

Gonzales also recalls that during an MSJO music camp in Puerto Galera, she had an epiphany of what Jeanne could achieve. Inside a kubo, with no aircon, with dimmed lights, and with them barefoot on the bamboo floor while rehearsing a piece, Jeanne was attentive to everything she said and marked every detail on her score. “An explosion of passion in a tiny package – that’s concertmaster material right there!” Gonzales thought.

Jeanne spent the next few years juggling violin practice, orchestra sessions, and her studies. She also joined competitions, finally snagging the first prize at the NAMCYA in 2018. In 2019, she became the MSJO’s concertmaster.

But she had always set her sights on studying in the US. In fact, in 2016, 12-year-old Jeanne auditioned for pre-college studies at Juilliard. But she was not accepted. “I changed my practice methods and attitude for four years before trying to apply again abroad.”

When the pandemic set in, she tried to get into Colburn Music Academy in Los Angeles through online auditions. But even when she was already at Colburn, under Professor Joan Kwuon, she tried to audition at Juilliard again. Still, she did not make it.

In Colburn, Jeanne first got a taste of living independently – and experiencing serious burnout. “I was ecstatic, but at the same time overwhelmed. I had a hard time finding the right balance between practicing, studying music-related subjects, and doing general academic homework.”

By winter break, Jeanne was telling her parents that she would just finish her studies that year and then give up on music altogether. She stopped practicing for weeks. During that time, she slept a lot, played badminton, baked loaves of bread, and did some serious introspection.

And then she realized she really wanted to play the violin, more than anything else in the world. The difference was that this time she also became aware that there is always life waiting for her outside the practice room. “If you work hard, do not forget to also rest hard.”

Of course, Jeanne takes the phrase “working hard” to the next level. In 2019 she was featured soloist of the Manila Symphony Orchestra under Filipino-Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski. During her time in LA, she was featured in Colburn School’s spotlight stories and was chosen to perform at the high-profile donor event at Cartier Beverly Hills and California Club in downtown Los Angeles. She was featured on the National Public Radio show “From the Top,” broadcast on more than 200 radio stations in 47 states. She received the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award. Right before she left for New York City, she had recitals in Iloilo City, Nueva Ecija, and Makati City.

When the time for college applications came around, Jeanne was better prepared. She was accepted, on scholarship, to five music schools, including Juilliard. She finally made it on her third try.

Cool, calm, and collected

Emanuel John Villarin – EJ – started taking violin lessons under Gonzales when he was four years old – usually attending lessons wearing shorts, sando, and tsinelas. One day, EJ was playing a piece when he started sobbing. He never stopped playing – but he never stopped crying, either. Gonzales wondered if she might have been too demanding of the little boy. It turned out that his baby tooth had fallen just as he started playing; it was causing him so much pain.

“Right then and there I saw how professional he can be. He continues to manifest this trait as a young artist. He is calm and collected, which allows him to see the finer details.”

SMALL BUT PROFESSIONAL. Even as a little boy in shorts and sando, EJ Villarin displayed professionalism in his violin lessons with Teacher Sara Gonzales. Photo from Sara Maria Gonzales

In his younger years, EJ looked at violin practice as a chore – all he wanted to do was play with his friends. But over time, and especially after he won second prize at the NAMCYA in 2013, his perspective on playing music changed. “I have been more serious and determined to be at my best since then.”

At his young age, EJ knows the value of balance. He has carefully structured his days so that he could balance practice, school, rest – and these days, German language lessons. “I always tend to have small breaks because I can get distracted quickly. I always believe that it is not how much but how efficiently you practice in a short amount of time.”

“I can handle pressure well and am not easily swayed by my emotions. What I do when I get tired physically is sleep, watch YouTube videos, or even ask for a massage from my mom,” he says.

During the pandemic, EJ expanded his interest in photography and videography, learning to mix using a digital audio workstation, recording himself for online performances, and slowly building his recording studio equipment.

It was also during the pandemic that EJ completed his high school education at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA), while also joining – and winning – international competitions held online, and looking for music schools abroad to apply to.

True enough, he won the Ani ng Dangal Award (2022) from the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, was named Laureate at the Chicago Violin Competition (2021), won Silver at the Singapore Raffles International Music Festival (2021), first prize at the New York Young Performers Prize (2021), and second prize at the Sugree Charoensook International Music Competition (2021). In 2020, he won first prize at the NAMCYA. He passed five college applications, too – two in the US and three in Europe.

It takes a village

Jeanne’s and EJ’s parents’ unconditional support and encouragement play a crucial role in the children’s journey.

Jeanne says her parents have been preparing her for every stage in her life, instilling in her the discipline to make it on her own wherever she was. She was taught to sleep and wake up early, finish the food on her plate, and help with household chores like cooking and ironing. Early on, the Marquezes impressed upon their children that as average income earners, they need to tighten their belts – even bringing baon to rehearsals or performances – so the children could study music. Jeanne’s oldest brother is a clarinetist on scholarship in Michigan; another brother plays the flute even as he chose to study psychology.

“I learned to accept failure because my parents did not treat me as a baby when I was hurt. When I stumbled, they helped me stand and said ‘okay lang yan’ instead of pitying me. I learned to be independent and resourceful,” Jeanne says.

EJ’s parents are of course happy about his education but also sad. “We have many worries because Berlin is very far. But through prayers and trust in God, all our worries go away – that everything will be in order and he will be able to fight homesickness.”

The Villarins also say they hope their son would become an international concert artist and return his knowledge to the country.

Diomedes Saraza Jr., Jeanne’s and EJ’s teacher in recent years, says the two students always show up ready for their lessons and this is what sets them apart from the rest. “Talent without hard work never grows,” he says. “I wish them well and if they keep their focus, I know they will accomplish great things.”

ALL SMILES. EJ and Jeanne held a joint send-off recital at the MSO Recital Hall in Makati City on August 14. Photo by Joseph Nebrida from Margie Villarin’s FB page

Teacher Sara Gonzales believes grit is what spells success. “The competition is tough and the standards are really high. It also takes humility. Humility to accept that talent is not enough…diligence, perseverance, patience, determination still pay off.”

In recent years, EJ and Jeanne have been scholars of Standard Insurance’s “In Pursuit of Excellence” program under its chairman, Mr. Ernesto “Judes” Echauz. Mr. Echauz’s support for the training and even travel of young musicians of the MSJO has been unique and invaluable.

Music and the human potential

Maestro Jeffrey Solares, executive director of the Manila Symphony Orchestra and founder and conductor of the MSJO, says he hopes EJ’s and Jeanne’s training in these prestigious institutions would complement the training they received in the orchestra. The MSJO won second and first prize at the Summa Cum Laude Youth Music Festival in Vienna, Austria in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and has performed in various cities in Europe and Asia before the pandemic.

Solares established the MSJO in 2014 as a way to spread awareness and appreciation for classical music. Both EJ and Jeanne are pioneer members.

In recent years, however, Solares has been trying to see how we can use the practice and art of pursuing music excellence into a vehicle to develop better Filipinos, not only better musicians but also better citizens who will be assets rather that liabilities to our community.

“I don’t want simply to be an agent for spreading a Western art form – but use these art forms into a means to develop the human potential. I want these scholars to realize that excellence is empty if it lacks the sense of mission; we pursue excellence in order to be of service, to elevate not just artistic tastes and sensibilities but to create habits and cultures that leads to a vibrant, productive and happy community,” he says.

Wings and roots

Jeanne says she will miss her family, their four dogs, the MSJO, rice, and mangoes. EJ will miss his mom’s cooking, family, friends, and his teachers, not to mention Pinoy energy and culture.

Both are thankful for technology so they could keep up with their loved ones even from far away.

Jeanne is excited about meeting new people and learning about their culture, and is working on her mental perspective, fully aware of how difficult it is to live without her parents.

EJ, who has had the opportunity to live away from home as a PHSA scholar before the pandemic, is also excited to meet new people, experience snow, taste new dishes, and be surrounded by high-level musicians. He looks forward to facing new challenges by himself.

Both musicians are also considering getting master’s degrees after graduation, but ultimately, they dream of coming back home and sharing their talent and teaching younger musicians.

Jeanne says: “After I finish my studies abroad, I plan to return home and teach kids who don’t have access to music lessons. Some children really want to study music but don’t have the means to. It is my dream to have a music school here in the Philippines that has a curriculum similar to the ones I experienced/will experience in the States.”

EJ plans to join an orchestra in Europe or here in the Philippines, and still join competitions to keep him on his toes. “I will teach and give back to our home country and produce more high-level violinists in the Philippines.”

Indeed, in the pursuit of excellence in music and other things, going places is always a good thing. Coming home is almost always better. –

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