Spotlight On: Kimberlee Dray

Kimberlee Dray, violinist. In the Spotlight with Taylor Catarina New York.

Like all great and meaningful relationships these days I ‘met’ violinist Kimberlee Dray online. All joking aside though, I happened upon her post and was immediately drawn in to her story. Today on International Women’s Day, I wanted to spotlight the determination and impact her journey has had around her music and the disease that almost took it away. Taylor Catarina New York features artists who are ‘Living Their Moment’, in an effort to share the story of the person alongside the talent. So without further ado I introduce Kimberlee in her owns words.

I remember being shocked I was being given a chance I never dreamed. I had just won a music scholarship to major in violin performance and study with a famous pedagogue, Nell Gotkovsky. In my mind, however, I was a nobody violinist from a small town with eleven younger brothers and sisters who was going to grow up to be a mom. A piece of music called "The Lark Ascending" I had fallen in love with and hoped to learn spurred me into accepting the opportunity. A mindset is monumentally revelatory and mine was on a collision course with music. My academic musical life ended as I stood in front of my peers to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with my mind blank, save for "you aren't one of them" in it. I got married, had children and didn't practice again for ten years.

[Then,] My ears began to die. The attacks made me dizzy and deaf. At the time, hearing the words "menieres disease" to describe what was going on made me dizzier than the attacks themselves. I had three young children and I wondered how I would raise them if I kept falling over dizzy and unhearing, crawling around my house, to say nothing of my worries about it getting worse. Underneath the fear was an aching sense of loss for my violin. Menieres disease was speaking in deafening volume about the necessity of listening to my inner voice. I slowly returned to heavy practice hours and sought alternative healing. As my practice hours increased, my symptoms decreased until, seven years later, I was in full remission. I have no medical explanation, but if I had to guess, I would say I went deaf because I wasn't listening to myself.

Returning required sacrifice, work and determination. I still find myself at war with a mindset at odds with my inner self who is screaming in deafening volume to please, please, please, before you die, learn The Lark Ascending! It turns out, I finally did and will never forget the night I played it with an orchestra. Other demons needed to be faced, including an invitation to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with an orchestra. Ironically, that concerto begins with the violin and orchestra playing together. Clasping my violin and launching into the opening bar, I understood music the way Mendelssohn was showing me--I wasn't just one of them, I was part of them.

Fifteen years ago, you would never have seen me in a gown with my hair curled falling down my back. I was firmly entrenched in the t-shirt and leggings mommy crowd. I would be that mom you see standing in line with a tower of toilet paper in her cart. I'm still that mom and I wear t-shirts and leggings most of the time, but now you'll also see me on a stage in a gown or under a vintage fur coat, feeling fabulous and grateful my soul knew how to communicate through my body to let me know it was time to claim my voice. That voice wants a gorgeous dress and knows it's the best representation of the love in her heart for the music she is creating.”

We wanted to ask Kimberlee more about her experience as an artist.

Taylor: When do you feel confident artistically and how does a dress/outfit, lend itself to that confidence?

Kimberlee: Confidence is such a fluid feeling. One moment you can feel absolutely sure of yourself, but waiting in the wings of the hall just about to go onstage will test your resolve! In the immortal words of Maria from "The Sound of Music," you may find yourself saying "Oh help" after singing a Rodgers and Hammerstein showstopper about having confidence. I will say, however, in those moments, if I can look down and see a dress I'm comfortable in that looks fantastic, it helps me gain control of my mindset. It's the evidence I use to convince myself I'm the one in the uniform to do the job I'm there to do.

Taylor: Do the pieces you perform/character/charity/event resonate with you? Why?

Kimberlee: The music itself has always been the engine driving the car for me. If it weren't for The Lark Ascending singing so insistently from the depths of my human, I would have been happy to live a quieter life worrying about algebra tests and piano lessons. Once you complete one bucket list piece, ten more take its place. At the moment, the piece I'm learning because it won't leave me alone is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I learned his C Minor Sonata years ago, because it was the thing he was working on when he found out he was going deaf. I've been to that place, so there's definitely a connection I feel when I play Beethoven. He's so strict though, and that's something I'm having to discipline myself to earn. Music is so intensely meaningful, it's difficult for me to imagine picking up something I couldn't derive a connection to, although I will say I started to read through an obscure unaccompanied sonata Albert Spalding wrote after returning from serving in WW2 and I could not bear to make it through even a few lines. The heaviness, the weight of war is all there in those notes. I couldn't handle it.

Taylor: What did it take for you to be where you are today?

Kimberlee: The answer to this question deserves a novel, but let me say I definitely did not do this the traditional way and there have been big prices to pay as a result. Rather than relating the sacrifices, I'd rather affirm the old saying "where there's a will, there's a way." If you haven't found your way yet, it's because you need to keep working until you're ready. I live by the statement "when the student is ready, the teacher shall appear" and that includes more than actual teachers. All of life is a learning adventure. We can't force ourselves to know everything immediately. Most things are a very gradual process won by persistence. It takes guts to keep going, believing within yourself you are exactly where you need to be at this precise moment, learning what you need to prepare for what's up ahead. It's also been important to keep an open mind, realizing my view of what is right for me may not be the best course, and to understand joy comes in many forms and usually in completely unexpected ways.

Taylor:Have you achieved success and if so what is the next goal?

Kimberlee: For me the idea of "success" is this moving target--a never ending climb. Honestly, having to face the possibility of losing my hearing reminds me every moment I have to play and hear music is a gift. If you have a daily conversation with your instrument and enjoy it, you're a successful musician. 

Taylor: What’s a travel or style tip you can sure with our audience?

Kimberlee: I like to travel light. I'm better off packing neutral pieces I can mix and match and adding a couple colorful accessories. Shoes rule the day. I start packing shoes because they are the biggest space hogs in my suitcase. I choose outfits I can wear with the one pair of heels and one pair of booties I allow myself plus the casual shoes on my feet. Okay okay okay ... so yes, I never end up following this rule, because SHOES! An extra pair of heels will typically find its way into my suitcase anyway.

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