Sterling Jenkins and his wife, Heather Storeng.
Sterling Jenkins - Violin
My earliest memory is of crawling over to a stereo speaker, putting my ear against it and trying to understand the world inside a box that could create such beauty. It has been both Grace and relentless curiosity that has guided my path to music and my 23 year position with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
When I was three years old my mother took me to an outdoor summer concert at the Watergate Steps in Washington D. C. where we lived. It was at that concert that I saw a violin for the first time and said to my mother, “That is the most ‘beautifullest’ thing I have ever heard.” After a year of begging, my mother finally enrolled us in Suzuki violin classes. At my first year-end recital with the Suzuki program I heard Ann Kiernan perform the Bach Double violin concerto with my teacher. I was so inspired by her playing that I practiced all the time, and two years later at the age of six, I was the one performing that same piece with Ann at the recital. It was that early experience with her that made me want to become a professional musician.
It was only a year later that my desire came true when I was hired to sing with the Saint Albans Boys Choir at the National Cathedral, a position I held until I chose to leave at the age of ten. The meeting of music and spirituality that had always been part of my life came alive for me during those glorious years, where the resonance of the space met with Spirit. It was hard to leave the choir with its beauty, harmony and structure but I made a decision then to focus solely on violin.
Besides music and spirituality, social activism was a huge part of my childhood. Civil Rights songs, chants and rallies surrounded me, since my father was one of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and social gatherings of the group often happened at our home. It was crucial to him to dedicate every moment of his day to improving the lives of those that are marginalized, down-trodden, and segregated because of race. He was highly influenced by his mentor at Howard University, the poet Sterling Augustus Brown, whose own parents had been slaves. It is an honor to be his name sake and to have had him as my God father.
When I was fourteen, I began weekly trips up to Baltimore to study with Charles Libove at the Peabody Preparatory, where I learned music theory in addition to violin. My summers were filled with music at Merrywood and Aspen Music Festivals, where I was privileged to hear some of the greatest musicians in the world. The summer before attending Oberlin to study Music Performance with Gregory Fulkerson was dedicated to chamber music in Fontainebleau, France. To this day, that remains one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.
After Oberlin, I worked all along the East Coast, from Boston to North Carolina. In 1993 I met my best friend and wife Heather Storeng during the Spoleto Festival. We fell in love in the mountains of Spoleto to the songs of Puccini’s Trittico. When Heather won a position as violist in the Grand Rapids Symphony, we moved here in 1997. I gigged for three years before I became full time with the Symphony.
Due to my early ear-training in the Suzuki program and my endless fascination with music, I have learned how to play and transcribe a wide range of styles, including bluegrass, jazz, traditional Chinese and gospel. Music supplies the common link between my spiritual beliefs and my roots in community activism. I serve as part of the music ministry at Lighthouse Full Life Center Church, founded by Bishop Marvin L. Sapp, and as music performer/transcriber/director for the Zhong Tao Temple in Michigan and San Francisco. In 2019 Bishop Sapp honored me with “A Rising Star” award in appreciation of my service and devotion to the church. Every Sunday I perform gospel music with my church, you can see me in the Light House Band here Marvin Sapp - Coronavirus (Praise Break) 2020 https://youtu.be/VoaZG_k5qzA?t=160.
As part of the Tao Temple, I was honored to transcribe and perform traditional Tao music for a delegation of Chinese scholars who came to San Francisco in 2018. Currently all spiritual practice is banned in China, and they came to study whether the practice of Tao should be allowed in the country. The performance included a cross cultural mix of strings, winds and traditional Chinese instruments, all played by amateur Tao practitioners. The scholars were touched tremendously by the music and by talking to me (through a translator) about my own spiritual life. It is one of my greatest life joys that they said they would take a favorable recommendation back to the government in large part because of meeting me, Heather and witnessing the collaboration of Western and Chinese musicians brought together by a greater cause.
Every day I sit in meditation for twenty minutes in the morning and evening, a practice that I learned from Thich Nhat Hahn’s monks and nuns while attending a silent retreat. I was drawn to Thich because of his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., who recommended him in 1967 for the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice a week I am at the Lighthouse church contributing to the worship service. Once a month we open our home to anyone that wishes to join our Tao group as we study spiritual writings. And always, I am delighted to share my life with my wife, our cat and our two dogs.