Scarsdale High School senior Abigail Nishiwaki spends Friday afternoons with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Edward Williams Elementary School in Mount Vernon, violin in hand. She is participating in the SHS Music Education initiative, through which Scarsdale volunteers teach students the basics of violin, piano or ukulele.
“It’s really interesting to go back to the very beginning when I was learning the parts of the violin, how to read notes, what the numbers and letters mean,” Nishiwaki said.
It’s been a long time since Nishiwaki, 17, was a novice. Her stunning list of credits includes concertmaster of the Philharmonic Orchestra in the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College, first violinist in the New York All-State Symphony Orchestra and first prize at the Elite International Music Competition. In November, she received an honorable mention in the 2019 National Young Arts competition for classical music/violin.
Winners are cherry picked from thousands of applicants, ages 15 to 18, in the visual, literary, design and performing arts, this year representing students from 44 states. Prizes include up to $10,000 in cash and various professional development opportunities in the arts.
Nishiwaki’s category required video submissions of five compositions ranging from contemporary to romantic. She entered the competition with no pretense she would be selected. In fact, she braced herself for the possibility that “nothing happens,” but reasoned, “might as well try.”
When a friend told Nishiwaki she had placed in her category (the friend somehow found out before Nishiwaki did), the young violinist said she was “very shocked. I was not expecting anything at all.”
Loved ones were also taken aback by Nishiwaki’s prestigious victory. “My parents were shocked, and my violin teacher claims she wasn’t shocked, but I’m pretty sure she was surprised,” she said.
The young prodigy is humble about her formidable résumé. Her goal is “always trying to improve and expose myself to more repertoire,” she said. “I never try to be too confident because I know there are always so many amazing musicians out there.”
A self-proclaimed introvert, Nishiwaki said her violin is a “great way for me to express myself [since] ... public speaking is not one of my fortes.”
She started playing the violin at age 5 at Hoff-Barthelson Music School. Within a few weeks, she quit but then started up again, gleaning inspiration from her older sister, now 20, who played the piano. “Honestly, I think it was just being a difficult 5-year-old,” Nishiwaki said.
Since then, she’s remained loyal to the instrument, studying in orchestras, chamber music ensembles and private lessons. She most appreciates connecting with others through music, whether bringing joy to a nursing home or making lifelong friends at music camp.
For 12 years, Nishiwaki also swam competitively, even qualifying for the Junior Olympics and MIT Invitational. But last year, she made the difficult choice to give up swimming.
“At first I was pretty resistant to the idea of dropping swimming because it was something I really loved,” she said, “but now I see that it’s definitely a good idea because still I find myself very, very busy. But ... it is manageable if I am good about my time.”
Between violin practice and homework, Nishiwaki faces many late nights. On Saturdays, she attends a series of classes in the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College program. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., she moves from orchestra to music theory to chamber music classes. Her favorite is the latter, when she can play alongside friends, and her theory classes are the driest and “most academic” of the suite.
Next year, she hopes to study music recreationally at college, while focusing academically on public policy or a field in the social sciences. Still, she considers the violin her vehicle of expression and relishes contemporary players like Itzhak Perlman, Julia Fischer and Janine Jansen.
“[Music] is definitely part of my life all the time,” she said.