Castaic musician earns encore at Juilliard

Kenneth Joshua “KJ” McDonald, a student at The Juilliard School of Music, plays his violin. Lorena Mejia/The Signal

Kenneth Joshua “K.J.” McDonald is a proud recipient of a Kovner Fellowship at The Juilliard School — not once, but twice. At 6 years old, the Castaic resident began playing the violin.

“I was too young to remember why, I just knew that I wanted to play violin,” he said. “I think I just liked the sound.”

At 12, he decided he wanted to begin taking it seriously and joined an orchestra at the Colburn School in Downtown Los Angeles. Then at 14, he began studying with world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who is still a mentor to him today.

“The rest is history I guess,” he said.

At 17, he was awarded a Kovner Fellowship, a full-ride scholarship, to attend The Juilliard School.

Not only is Juilliard known as one of the most competitive music schools in the world, but the Kovner Fellowship, which covers the total cost of attendance, including tuition as well as room and board, for the entire duration of the program with an additional stipend for living expenses, is only given to a handful of classical musical students at the school each year.

“The funny thing about the scholarship is, we didn’t know it existed,” he said. “I didn’t expect it at all … I just kind of auditioned and it kind of just happened.”

His first year at Juilliard was scary, as K.J. became a small fish in a big pond, as he describes it.

“I don’t know if it was so much the school as it was the city that was scary for me,” he said. “Just the atmosphere of New York and musicians from everywhere in the world.”

He quickly realized that there were so many subjects he had never thought about in music, a history and psychology behind it.

“You find that all these great composers were big philosophers themselves,” he said. “I had never really thought of that before.”

He spent most of his time studying, as he said he felt there was so much that he didn’t understand.

“Just reading and reading and reading,” he said. “Whenever I wasn’t reading, I would be practicing. Whenever I wasn’t practicing, I would have a lesson or a class, then I would read again.”

Now, at 21, he has graduated with a bachelor’s of music and received a second Kovner full-ride scholarship to attend The Juilliard School Masters of Music program.

“The second time around, it was a lot more stressful,” he said.

While it is rare to receive a second Kovner scholarship, McDonald believed that if he auditioned again and didn’t get it, it would mean he wasn’t as good as he was four years ago.

“I thought: ‘I’m doing this again, if I don’t get it, that’s just depressing — because then what have I been doing for the last four years?’ I’ve been practicing. I’ve been studying.”

McDonald had his sights set on Juilliard since his days attending Trinity Classical Academy as a young violinist and he was asked where he’d like to attend college.

“I would’ve been 12 or 13 at the time,” he said. “I didn’t really think about Juilliard as a goal, I just kept on practicing.”

He continued at Trinity and Advantage Preparatory Schools, while being homeschooled in order to focus on music, practicing violin for four to five hours daily.

He also began playing with his church and performed at services with the Grace Baptist Church’s Praise Orchestra, noting that it was very influential to him to be able to “play for fun” alongside other local musicians.

“It was really great; I kind of miss it once and awhile,” he said. “And I still play with them occasionally.”

Now, his end goal is to become the best musician he possibly can.

“Well, to better specify, to live up to the expectations I have of myself in my head,” he added.

He doesn’t just love music, he’s obsessed with it: “I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said.

McDonald hears music everywhere he goes, in random places, “like elevator dings and weird sounds on the street, everything just sounds like music after awhile.”

“I just feel like I need to express it somehow,” he added.

McDonald enjoys performing as a chamber musician has become a respected quartet leader in two string groups. This month, McDonald will lead a Juilliard ensemble to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and then fly to England to perform at BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Academy.

And though McDonald said he spends a significant amount of time practicing, he still believes it is important to pick up other hobbies in order to excel as a musician.

“There is a tendency in the music world, especially for a lot of younger kids, to practice eight, nine hours a day, every day,” he said.

Instead, McDonald suggests they branch out to other things and have some fun, as well.

“I love to surf, I love to read a lot, I used to love to play ping pong — a lot of hobbies,” he said. “Those really benefit your art, they benefit the way you play.”

David Finckel, former cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, told McDonald to feel more, talk more, laugh more, cry more — “Every emotion you could possibly think of more, do it more. That in the end will benefit you more than just practicing.”

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