By Pam Windsor | Photography by Joseph Spence
Memphis native Susan Holloway’s music resonates with thousands of fans, but extreme stage fright almost derailed her career before it even began.
Susan Holloway shares a special bond with the violin.
Whether she’s performing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” her love of the instrument shines through with every note she plays.
Her music has resonated with tens of thousands of fans who follow her on Facebook and YouTube and attend her concerts. It’s humbling for the Memphis native who not long ago wasn’t sure she’d ever play again.
Holloway discovered the violin at the age of six when her parents took her to an Itzhak Perlman concert.
“I fell in love with the violin,” she recalls. “I begged my mom for lessons. She said I was too young.”
Her mother researched Shinichi Suzuki, the Japanese doctor who believed that by starting children at age two or three, they could learn music as easily and naturally as they learn their native language.
Holloway entered the Suzuki program and quickly showed a true gift for music.
“I started at the school I was attending. Then they saw I had promise and transferred me to the program at the University of Memphis.”
When she was in third grade she had an opportunity to go on tour.
“Dr. Suzuki was bringing a group of children from Japan from the Suzuki method to tour with a group of children from the United States. So we auditioned and I got in.”
She met Dr. Suzuki, and performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. She was on her way to a promising future in music.
“I was really good,” she remembers, “but as I got older I started messing up in public and making mistakes. Everybody does, but to me it was really devastating because I was a perfectionist. So, I developed a pretty debilitating case of stage fright.”
She continued playing throughout high school, but refused any solo performances. Vanderbilt University offered her a scholarship for the violin, but she felt she couldn’t handle the anxiety. She attended Vanderbilt, but studied psychology and English instead.
“I ultimately quit violin for years,” she says, looking back.
She got married and had a daughter. She’d occasionally pick up the violin, but couldn’t get over her fear of performing. Conquering that fear seemed impossible until Holloway discovered it might be the only way to help her little girl.
Holloway’s daughter was 2-and-a-half years old when she was diagnosed with Selective Mutism.
“It’s an anxiety disorder where the child operates as a mute person in most social situations,” Holloway explains. “She would talk at home like a normal, outgoing child, but in public she wouldn’t let anybody hear her words.”
The condition went on for years.
“It was really tough. And I didn’t know that she would ever get over it.”
One day, Holloway realized to help her daughter, she’d first have to help herself.
“I realized she was doing with her voice what I did with, basically, what is my voice. And I said, ‘Okay, God, I’ve got to work this out before I can help her.’”
Holloway began visiting a church and found herself inspired by the music.“I saw the musicians on stage and thought what they do has meaning. It’s making a difference.”
She eventually accepted an invitation to join them.
“It was in front of thousands of people. I’d never played that kind of music. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I thought, if this is what I’m supposed to do and it makes a difference to one person, then I can do it.”
Through the church she made a connection that led to a group of Nashville musicians who began working with her. Over the past two years, they’ve helped her record half a dozen CDs.
“I’m making up for lost time,” she says, with a laugh.
Her music spans a variety of genres. While all of her covers are instrumentals, the lyrics are as important as the melody when she chooses a song.
“I love playing songs with lyrics, which is the strangest thing because I don’t play words,” she says. “But I really think the words. I choose songs I connect with emotionally. Then, I take the lyrics and pour my soul into them.”
Her search for meaningful lyrics has led to a new appreciation of Elvis. She always liked his music, but never connected on a deeper level, until now.
“Elvis was a very emotional singer and I think that’s why his stuff connects with me. He sang from his heart.”
She was especially honored to perform at Graceland in late 2016.
Holloway has come a long way in overcoming her fear of performing and in turn, helping her daughter, now a successful college student.
She’s happy to be back playing the violin and remains committed to a future in music wherever it may take her.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like exactly, but I know it’s going to work.
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