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In Studio A with Julia LaGrand

Julia LaGrand headshot

The inaugural Baroque on Beaver Young Soloist competition winner discussed Braille music, Bach fugues and why her service dog Otto doesn't go on stage with her.

Julia LaGrand is the first-ever winner of Baroque on Beaver's Young Soloist competition.

The 18-year-old violinist will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto no. 5 with the Baroque on Beaver Festival Orchestra this weekend.

A native of Grand Rapids, Julia stopped by IPR's Studio A on her way to catch the ferry from Charlevoix to Beaver Island.

Julia performed the fugue from the G minor violin sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach.

She said fugues are both thrilling and difficult to play.

"There are multiple beautiful melodic lines to play on a single-line instrument," she explained. "It's really challenging to bring all those different lines out in different ways."

Julia LaGrand and Otto 2022
Violinist Julia LaGrand records in IPR's Studio A and her service dog Otto lies at her feet

She brought along her service dog, Otto, who stayed by her side during the recording session.

Otto has mixed opinions about Julia's violin playing, although she says his favorite part is when she puts her instrument away because it means she can give him her full attention.

Otto won't be joining Julia on stage for this weekend's Beaver Island performance, though.

"He's kind of a visual distraction," she explained. "Sometimes he has to scratch himself or turn around in a circle to get more comfortable, so I usually just leave him backstage."

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Otto yawns during Julia's recording session. She says his favorite part of her practicing is when she finishes.

Julia appeared on From the Top last year and did an at-home recording session for the show.

"They sent me a giant box full of tons of recording equipment, and they coached my mom through setting it all up for over an hour," she recalled. "It was pretty intense."

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Julia LaGrand records for From the Top in her Grand Rapids home in January 2021

Julia talked with IPR about her experiences with Braille music, a medium that is very uncommon for blind musicians to use.

In fact, less than ten percent of blind people read Braille at all, and the number of blind musicians who read Braille is much smaller than that.

Although Julia is an avid Braille reader and has won national competitions for her Braille reading, she doesn't use Braille for music very often.

"Braille music is more descriptive, whereas print music is more spatial," she explained. She likened Braille music to directions on Google maps and print music to looking at the map itself.

When she does read Braille music notation, she reads with one hand and plays the music on the piano with another. After she's memorized the music at the piano, she plays it on her violin.

Julia is also an advocate for blind musicians and serves on the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division.

She said one of their goals is to raise organizations' expectations for what blind musicians can accomplish.

"Highlighting those things that blind performers are doing is really great to raise awareness for what we can do," Julia explained. "We need to think about the examples that are out there for the next generation."

She said it's also important for her to connect with other blind string players since it's such a specific niche.

Violinist Julia LaGrand will be featured with the Baroque on Beaver Festival Orchestra Saturday, Aug. 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Click here for more information about the performance, which takes place at Beaver Island Community School.

Stefan Wiebe engineered this edition of Studio A.

Matt Thomas provided additional support.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.