Violinist cheats death, fulfills destiny

The healing powers of music
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Story highlights

  • Rachel Barton Pine started playing violin at 3 years old
  • A near-fatal train accident put a temporary halt to Barton Pine's promising career
  • But the violinist released her 30th CD this month

Santa Rosa, CA. (CNN)Chills.

That's what I got while listening to violinist Rachel Barton Pine perform with the Santa Rosa Symphony in California.
    There's no doubt my reaction was largely based on her incredible talent and the way in which she commanded the stage with her passion, but I was also touched by the interview I had with her earlier.
    Barton Pine's positive outlook and her bubbly personality make it hard to believe she ever encountered anything negative in her life. But she certainly has.

    The obsession begins

    Barton Pine's love affair with the violin began on a Sunday at church. She was 3 years old.
    "I was absolutely fascinated by the sound of the instrument," she remembers. "I begged my parents for lessons and luckily there was a teacher in the neighborhood."
    By the time she was 5, Barton Pine knew playing music was her destiny and says with a laugh, "I started signing my kindergarten papers 'Rachel, violinist.' "
    The older she got, the more she practiced.
    "By the time I was 8, I had built my practice hours up to four or five a day of just my own personal practice, not even including my evening rehearsals and performances," Barton Pine says. "So my school principal, when I was in the third grade, took my parents aside and suggested that I start home-schooling."
    That became her mother's full-time job, along with raising two younger daughters and shuttling Barton Pine to anything violin-related. Her dad was unemployed for most of her childhood, which caused immense stress.
    Rachel Barton Pine commanded an audience as early as 10 years old.
    "It was a very tenuous existence for many years," Barton Pine says. "Our phone and electricity would be shut off, or we would be one missed payment away from losing the roof over our heads. There were weeks where we didn't know how we were going to pay for groceries."
    She found joy and comfort in music. At 10, she debuted as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
    "I was very grateful that my playing progressed to the point that by the time I was a teenager, starting at age 14, I was able to help the family out financially," she recalls. "My income was able to supplement that of other friends and family who were helping my family stay on its feet."
    At 17, she became the first American to win gold in violin at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition.
    Barton Pine's star continued to rise. At 17, she became the first American and youngest person to win gold in violin at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition held in Leipzig, Germany. Two years later, she released her first CD: "Homage to Pablo de Sarasate."

    Career stalled by injury

    In January 1995, the 20-year-old was riding a Chicago commuter train on her way to teach at the Music Center of the North Shore when her life took a tragic turn.
    "As I was exiting, the door slammed shut on one of the bags that I was carrying." Barton Pine hesitates and continues. "But I was stuck and the train started moving before I could even figure out how I could get the strap off of my puffy winter coat."
    "I had to decide, well do I let myself be dragged all the way to the next station, you know by which point maybe I would die before I got there, or do I try to free myself, which may flip me under the wheels."
    Barton Pine decided to wiggle free. The train severed her left leg and mangled her right foot.
    Two men who were riding the train used their belts to make tourniquets and save her life. Barton Pine smiles. "They were really my guardian angels that day."
    The red-haired musician had to use a wheelchair at first, but eventually learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. She has endured more than 45 surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.
    "I'm just so grateful to be here and that they were able to pretty much put me back together," she says cheerfully.

    Onward and upward

    The year after her train accident, the violinist played at the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
    Six months after the accident, Barton Pine was able to return to the stage on a limited basis. In 1996 she played the national anthem at the Democratic convention in her hometown of Chicago. That year she was also one of the Olympic torchbearers and participated in the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta.
    "I suffered from PTSD for many years," says Barton Pine. "I think one doesn't ever really get past it. I would say it's now in remission thanks to many years of wonderful therapy."
    The violinist chooses to be a "glass half-full" type of person. In 2001 she started her own foundation, which provides funding for classical music education, research and performances.
    "We've supported more than 70 young artists to this point, through instrument loans and financial assistance," she says. "Basically helping kids who are in very similar circumstances to the economic struggles that I grew up with."
    Barton Pine's 30th CD was released this month.
    Twenty-one years after she was injured, Barton Pine just released her 30th CD, performs across the country and has added mom to her repertoire. Husband Greg Pine and 4-year-old daughter Sylvia, who is a budding violinist, accompany Barton Pine on tour.
    Four-year-old Sylvia Pine practices in front of her parents in her mother's dressing room.
    "Any child that doesn't have music as a creative outlet is really missing something important, something intrinsic to our humanity," she passionately says. "It's about learning to express ourselves. It's about becoming better thinkers, better human beings through learning music."
    At the end of the interview, I ask Barton Pine what she learned throughout her journey and what kind of advice she could pass on to others facing adversities. She pauses for a moment to gather her thoughts and reflects, "While my physical injuries were definitely life changing, it was really lessons that I learned when I was a child that gave me the tools to deal with those challenges when they came my way."
    Even though she had an aptitude for the violin, she continues, "It's definitely not an easy instrument. There were some things that came quite quickly. There were other techniques that I really struggled with for years to be able to master."
    "Learning that patience, learning to be happy about incremental progress, and to just look at the long view. That's definitely something that I took with me when I then embarked upon rehab years later."
    Faith also played a part. "Believing that something's going to turn out OK, even if you have no idea how it possibly could," adds Barton Pine. "That was really what I learned growing up in the financial situation that my family was in."

    The finale

    As Barton Pine gets a standing ovation and graciously accepts a bouquet of flowers at the end of her passionate performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony, I realized I'm not just applauding her talent but also her courage, tenacity and faith.
    Then I thought about calling my mom to thank her for insisting I take piano lessons, which gave me the discipline to pursue my dreams and become a creative writer.