Cultivating Love of the Craft

Cultivating Love of the Craft

Born in the United States, to parents of South Korean and German/Ukrainian descent, taught the violin by a Russian… Stefan Jackiw is a citizen of the world in every sense. 

As one of America’s leading violinists, he’s kept this legacy intact with a pedal-to-the-metal concert schedule, traveling the globe over 180 days a year and performing with many of the world’s leading orchestras. When we spoke, Jackiw had been everywhere from Spain to Sweden to Sarasota, all in the last few weeks.

But behind the bulletproof exterior and the backstory of a flawless child prodigy (began playing at the age of four, studied under the best in the world, graduated from Harvard, etc.) Jackiw is a surprisingly poignant player, someone with a fathomless passion for music.

When talking about his craft, he evinces not the box-checking of a Type-A workaholic, but the emotional depth of a philosopher. It’s something that carries over into his performances, and it’s probably a large factor in his remarkable success as a violinist. 

Jackiw credits this passion to his earliest years, and in particular, the example of his parents.

Credit: Stefan Jackiw

The Power of a One-Track Mind

Neither of Jackiw’s parents were musicians, but both appreciated classical music. The family regularly listened to music at home and attended concerts. “That’s certainly why I started playing the violin as a child,” he said. But on a deeper level, it was their love for their own careers that inspired him. 

Both Jackiw’s father and mother were physicists, the former at MIT and the latter at Boston University. For each, physics was an immensely fulfilling career, something they lived and breathed. 

“You don’t become a theoretical physicist unless you really love it,” Jackiw said, chuckling. “It’s not a job you just fall into. As an only child, I was very influenced by my parents … I saw how into their work they were. Especially my father, he worked all the time, but it wasn’t a bad thing for him. He loved going into the office, doing research, and being around other physicists. He used to say Sunday night was his favorite night of the week because it meant Monday was coming soon.”

His parents encouraged him to pursue music as a young person. But for young Stefan, the expectation wasn’t a specific career. His parents simply tried to instill a deep-seated drive to chase whatever it was in life that fulfilled him. “They weren’t hung up on my being a violinist,” he said, “they just wanted me to find something I loved doing and then throw myself into it.”

Both of his parents loved what they did, and were interested in little else. “Neither [was] into dilettantism,” he said. “They don’t have hobbies, never did. My dad… physics was his entire life. He never told me I had to be that intense, but it’s what I grew up seeing and admiring.”

That’s probably why, outside of music, Jackiw isn’t someone with many other hobbies. (“I don’t think you can count wasting time on the Internet as a hobby,” he joked.) He enjoys good food and good friends, and occasionally runs for fitness, but music truly is his life. He has a one-track mind. 

“I’m not saying that’s the best way to live life, it’s just my way of living life.”

Credit: Stefan Jackiw

Saving Time for Inner Life

But as a professional musician in the digital age, Jackiw can’t just focus on his music. He has to have some relationship with the Internet and social media, in order to maintain a following and connect with his audience. This has some drawbacks. 

For one, many trends on social media, particularly in the music world, are very depressing. “For example, the faster the music, the better it does in terms of engagement numbers,” Jackiw said. “But being a good musician isn’t about playing fast. It takes patience to play, and it takes patience to sit down and listen to a five or ten-minute clip of truly talented playing.” 

“But instead of this, if you post a 15-second video of crazy technique, it will do exponentially better than the longer clip. They say that’s just the algorithm, but maybe it’s really who we are…”

Jackiw admitted he isn’t exempt, either. Lately, he’s been watching Steph Curry highlight reels, even though he doesn’t know the first thing about basketball. He watched a few of these clips one time, and now Instagram feeds them to him. “I’ve never watched a complete basketball game, I don’t even know how long a basketball game is, and I probably wouldn’t have the patience for it,” he said. “I just watched these short clips of the best shot Steph made… Unfortunately, I don’t think this predisposition we have is conditioned by the algorithm. It’s our human nature revealed by the algorithm.” 

More than that, sharing on social media just isn’t something he enjoys. Some people get a serotonin boost from broadcasting their successes to fans and followers. Not Jackiw. 

“I’m not someone who intrinsically loves sharing my life,” he said. “I’m a pretty private person. I constantly have to be nudged by my publicist, even my wife, to post. I recognize the importance of it,” he added, “but it’s not something I look forward to.”

This is because the more mental bandwidth he spends on social media, “the less I have for my real life, and more importantly, my inner life,” he says.

As he goes through his days, Jackiw does his best to delineate between what he calls “virtual life, real life, and inner life.” The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but his idea of inner life is a bit more complex. 

“It means being alone with your thoughts and emotions. It’s extremely important to me because as a musician, your medium is what’s going on in your brain and heart. You have to be in touch with that to realize what you want to say.”

For Jackiw, having a positive inner life isn’t about solitude. It’s not about going out into the wilderness alone and meditating under a sacred fig tree. 

In fact, it’s often about connection. It’s about growing relationships with the people and art he loves. “When I’m with people who are important to me, my interactions with them feed and enrich my inner life.”

Credit: Stefan Jackiw

Disappearing into the Music

More than anything else, as an artist Jackiw aims to disappear into the music he performs. “As a performer, we’re quite like actors,” Jackiw said. “Someone else wrote the script, the music. We’re bringing it to life on stage. For example, I love Jack Nicholson, but he always seems like Jack Nicholson. There are other actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis, where you have no idea it’s him because he disappears so completely into the role… I aim to be that type of performer.”

To that end, Jackiw doesn’t even think about having his own personal style. He wants to be a chameleon. “If I were to have an identifiable trait as a musician,” he said, “I’d just want it to be versatility.” 

His main tool as a musician, of course, is his instrument (a 1704 Vincenzo Ruggieri he’s played since he was 16 years old—with a bow that famously snapped in half during a recent performance). But he also considers his apparel—Coregami—to be an invaluable tool, one key to his versatility as a performer.

In addition to his violin, his Coregami apparel helps him maintain his versatility, by keeping him comfortable on stage. “Growing up, performing in high school, you were supposed to wear a tuxedo with a white shirt and black bow tie, even way back then I remember just hating it,” he said. “It was so uncomfortable. I didn’t practice in that getup, so putting it on right before I walked on stage was awful. The whole geometry of holding the violin felt different…” 

To mitigate this, in his early years Jackiw used a lot of custom-made, makeshift clothing, “stuff that was hard to wash, that always reeked of panic sweat,” he said, laughing. “I had a lot of haphazard apparel that kind of worked but never quite felt right.”

Since he’s worn Coregami, he’s never looked back. “For one, it’s so easy to travel with,” he said. “You can throw it in the washing machine, dry it normally … and then there’s the comfort of it. I’m going on stage to do something that I feel is incredibly difficult, and I want to be as comfortable as possible. But I also want to present myself in a way that acknowledges the specialness of the occasion.”

“I look for something that’s festive, looks good, marks the importance of the event, and makes you comfortable. Coregami ticks all those boxes, and I really do dream of the other things Coregami will make one day.”

Credit: Stefan Jackiw

Stefan’s Tips

In addition to performing, Jackiw is also a passionate teacher. He teaches at the Mannes School of Music, and during the pandemic began a subsection of his website, Stefan’s Tips, “a collection of tips, tricks, techniques, and wisdom that [he’s] picked up during [his] years playing the violin.”

This page has 10 video tutorials, on topics ranging from the importance of the right-hand pinky in bow control to managing backstage jitters before a concert. 

What is today a fixed series of video tutorials, though, actually began as “Stefan’s Sessions,” an online Zoom masterclass that he held a dozen times during the pandemic, focusing on one masterpiece of the violin repertoire in each session. 

Jackiw held YouTube applications to select three violin students for each session—from graduate Juilliard students to middle schoolers—and during the session these three musicians would perform excerpts of the given piece, live on Zoom. 

“I’d listen to them perform,” Jackiw said, “then give them feedback and share my thoughts on the work, how to prepare it, how to navigate the difficult sections, what I think the music is about, how to interpret it, and so on.” 

In the first session, Jackiw had about 50 people sign up to watch his three participants play. By the end of Stefan’s Sessions, he was regularly having over 1,000 people sign up to watch these live performances and lessons.  

One of the biggest lessons he tried to instill has nothing to do with the technical nature of playing. “Performing is so much of a mental game,” he said. “Getting nervous, handling those nerves, turning the nerves into positive energy, I tried to help people with that. Because a big part of overcoming that is normalizing it. Realizing it’s not just you. Everyone feels this to some extent.”

And after all his years of performing, if Jackiw could give one piece of advice to a young student, it’s to hone in on whatever it is they enjoy about the craft. 

“Find what you specifically love about music, what inspires you… and cultivate that,” he said. “One way to do this is to incorporate violin playing with friendships, whether you’re joining a youth orchestra, going to summer camps, or playing in a chamber group. That sociality makes it way more enjoyable than practicing alone at home, and it’s also what keep you learning and growing when you get sick of practicing by yourself.” 

Of course, even for students who manage to climb above the ranks and find the extreme success Jackiw has, the path of a musician is never easy. There are many things about his lifestyle today that are difficult. “Traveling is hard, time away from home is hard, eating healthy on the road is hard, it’s a hassle when flights get canceled or hotels are no good… Yes, all of that is hard,” he said. “But it’s not that hard.” 

None of that is one iota as difficult as playing a given piece the way he hears it inside of his head. That, for Jackiw, is an almost Sisyphean task. “Playing the violin, playing music you deeply love, and trying to get the sound you produce out of the violin to sound as close as possible to what you hear in your mind…”

“Well, that’s the hardest thing of all. And also the most enjoyable.”