The Universal Language of Music: An Interview with with Sam Vaillancourt
Written by Elizabeth Kiene
Pictures Courtesy of Sam Vaillancourt
Sam Vaillancourt is an accomplished musician from Columbus, Georgia and is a freshman violin performance major at the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University. He is currently traveling almost every week for various performances and competitions, so getting to sit down with him was very exciting. As someone who grew up around musicians, I always enjoy talking to those who are passionate about the art form and Sam is definitely one such person. His love of music comes through in every piece he plays. I was fortunate enough to travel to Oxford, England with Sam where there was a piano in our house and almost every night he would play and myself and another theater major would sing various show tunes. Sam would listen to these songs a couple times and be able to play them nearly perfectly. From then on I knew that Sam was no ordinary musician even before I knew about his impressive resume. I've had the privilege of speaking with him about his work and can say with absolute certainty that he is a musician to watch with so much love for his art and and so much joy in what he does.
Q: What is your background? (ie. training, past projects, etc.)
A: I’ve always been a musically inclined child. Oddly enough, I found out I had perfect pitch before I had any musical training. I was observing a percussion ensemble rehearsal run by my father sitting with my mother in the audience. She claims today that I had said that a note played by one of the percussionists sounded like our vacuum cleaner. When we went back that day, she tested me by using the vacuum cleaner, and it was indeed the same note.
I started playing the violin when I was three years old. I spent my first seven years with the instrument treating it as a passionate hobby; I was only between 3 and 10 years old so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career yet. I started playing piano and violin around the same time, and I still play piano to this day but not on the level of intensity that I put into violin. I had transferred teachers at age eleven, and my new teacher, Prof. Boris Abramov, assigned me Bach’s 2nd Violin Concerto in E Major. Up until then, I hadn’t felt deeply connected to any singular piece of music. When I first listened to this piece, it struck me differently. It would make me want to go home and practice for hours on end without feeling like any time had passed. As time went on, I started to improve dramatically and began building my skillset; that piece really kickstarted an everlasting love for the violin. Something in me sparked and that’s when I knew that I wanted to become a musician. Ever since then, that spark has only grown with my studies and as I discover new pieces, play in new environments, play with new people, study under certain people, my curiosity only builds and my love for the instrument blossoms.
Music has taken me to heights that I never would’ve imagined six years ago when that piece finally struck. The majority of my quite intense high school musical background mainly revolves around orchestral playing. When Covid hit, all of our ensembles were canceled, so we didn’t have the chance to play for or with others. Quarantine was a hard time for a lot of musicians, especially traveling ones; they were limited to staying at home and couldn’t tour or play with groups. This presented an opportunity for either a disaster, or a big period of growth, and it was up to everyone what they chose to do. I had not been in the best place before quarantine, so it gave me an opportunity to take a few steps back, reset, and say “Okay, I know what I’m not satisfied with. I know what I need to fix. I haven’t had the chance to do it, nor have I put in the actual effort to let myself change.” I had just been sitting there, hoping that everything would work out. That mindset change transformed my life. I realized that all this precious time that I didn’t have before gave me the opportunity to settle into who I was and who I wanted to be as a musician and person. That’s when I took it upon myself to go above and beyond; I was learning new repertoire week on week and practicing 6 or more hours a day. My playing changed entirely and everything around me just seemed to get better. I learned through my own hard work that the more work I put into it, the more it would benefit other things in my life. That’s when I knew that music is what I wanted to do; nothing else had made me as satisfied with my own self before, nothing else had motivated me beyond comprehension.
One of the projects that I embarked on was auditioning for the top youth orchestra in the southeast. Arguably as good as some professional orchestras, the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra was a collection of some of the finest young musicians from all around the region. I had auditioned for this ensemble the year before, and was not given acceptance. This year though, I took it upon myself to make it a priority to take the audition excerpts that they assigned to absolute perfection. I was beyond picky about every little detail. Even when my teacher would say that my work was good, I wanted more and I wanted to know what I could do better. I was not going to let anything stop me from achieving this goal I had set for myself. I received a notice two weeks after I sent in my audition video informing me about my acceptance to the orchestra. Not only was I given acceptance, I had received a leadership role in my first year (principal second violin in one of the two orchestras). This was a huge accomplishment for me; rehearsing with this orchestra changed my life. It was the first time that I’d been surrounded by people who were as passionate about music as myself. Since being accepted to this youth orchestra, I have been presented with so many opportunities such as auditioning for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (a professional group) and auditioning for some of the top conservatories in the country.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Regarding inspiration, I have a bit of an odd take. I think inspiration comes from how much you put in. Deep down, if you really want something, you will go out and find any possible way to get it. That’s why I think that inspiration never just comes to you. Every blue moon you might come across something that moves you without having to look. You see things that are impressive, but impressive isn’t inspirational. You have to put in your mind and your heart in order to see inspiration. Someone who is inspirational is inspirational for a reason. It’s because they put in the heart and you can see that hard work and you want to replicate it. You hear something that moves you and decide that you want to replicate it, so you find some way to do it and repeat. There's constantly these levels of inspiration and that just shows that you're evolving as a person.
Q: What is your favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
A: I’ll give a brief explanation of a few. Regarding orchestral playing, the most meaningful and memorable experience I’ve ever had was my first concert with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra after the Covid hiatus had resumed. In 2021, our junior year of high school, we had a concert on November 12th. We were playing two contemporary pieces by composers from Atlanta, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet Suite No. 2 and Respighi’s Pines of Rome. You know when you listen to a piece of music and there’s a short, maybe 3 day span where that music gives you goosebumps. That short period of time happened to connect with the grand finale of the Respighi, during the concert. I was sitting there playing and I remember time slowing down. I was so into the music that I had no idea what was really going on around me. Once the orchestra rose for the applause, I found that I was crying from the emotion of the music. Another experience that really changed my life was the summer festival that I applied to and attended this past summer (Encore Chamber Music Institute). I was there for three weeks, and I got to study with some of the world’s leading teachers and pedagogues such as Paul Kantor and Jinjoo Cho. My personal goal throughout this festival was to perform the entirety of Vieuxtemps’s 5th violin concerto, having only learned the 1st movement in the spring. During a certain rehearsal with the pianist, I was playing a beautiful section in the second movement, and something clicked. I found a higher level of passion and connected with my playing in a way I never had. This had a serious effect on me, and my playing has never been the same since.
Q: Where would you like to be in the future?
A: I’m a little unsure at the moment. As for now, my goal is to live in the moment and capitalize on every opportunity that is presented to me. I want to work as hard as I possibly can to keep opening myself up to these opportunities. I know if I keep working hard and portraying myself through the music, great things are gonna happen. So we will see where life takes me from there.
Q: What do you want people to know about making music?
A: I think that among the general public, there’s a big misconception surrounding music making. Some people come up with ideas because they think other people will love it, but I think that's contradicting the point of what music is meant to do. The goal of making music is not to please others but to show who you are. You can’t make everyone happy as an artist in any field; there will always be some who’s tastes don’t align with yours no matter what. The mindset that needs to be prioritized is to show who you are and show the world your weirdest, happiest, saddest moments, and not be afraid to put yourself out there. That’s when I think music making is at its best, when the artist has a complete connection with themselves. If you show the world who you are, it has to make space for you. And through your own music, you’re connecting with others in the process.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
A: Right now, my priority is capitalizing on my solo playing and continuing to study with renowned teachers. My wonderful Professor Sergiu Schwartz has allowed me to view my playing in a different way. I have started regarding music as what I can give to the world rather than how the music is making me feel, or what it’s doing for me. I would like to continue to travel for competitions, festivals, concerts, recitals, and other different types of events to present the best version of myself. ◾️