Dr. Immanuel Abraham questioned everything throughout his troubled childhood. However, when he obtained his first violin from the Salvation Army, his life had purpose.
The instrument was broken, like him. It only had three strings and was stored in a pillowcase. There wasn’t even a sound post.
“The violin wasn’t in a condition that made it possible to play,” Abraham says.
He took advantage of an offer for free lessons at the Chicago nonprofit Merit School of Music, which eventually loaned him a violin in much better condition.
The teacher said she liked his attitude. Abraham recalls him being “musically illiterate. I couldn’t read music.” Still, he studied five to six hours a day. His life was devoted to the instrument.
“In that time, the teacher said if I kept up that attitude and progress, she would be happy to keep teaching me for free. It was the first time I felt safe and not afraid,” says the Tucson resident.
Recently, Abraham earned his doctorate in violin performance at the UA. He’s been twice featured on PBS Arizona, and he was concertmaster of the Arizona Symphony Orchestra, the Arizona Contemporary Ensemble and the Arizona Theater Company. He’s the resident composer and music director for Miraval Resort and Scoundrel & Scamp Theater company.
Abraham came from a near-homeless family in inner-city Chicago, where he was subject to violence and injury. He began playing music in 2005 and started touring the world—even though he picked up the violin at age 14.
“Quickly, the violin became my best friend,” he says. “Within a year of picking it up, I went to arts camp in (Blue Lake) Michigan and I played my first symphony with a full symphony. That was a life-changing experience for me.”
He began music studies under former Chicago Civic Orchestra concertmaster Professor Guillaume Combet through the Merit School of Music Conservatory.
In three years, he became concertmaster of several youth ensembles, including the Merit Symphony Orchestra, and assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra during the Chicago Festival of Youth in Music. The festival was conducted by the world-renowned Gustavo Dudamel.
Abraham became the first high schooler to serve as youth symphony concertmaster at Blue Lake, with whom he spent two months touring Europe.
“I wanted that more than anything I ever wanted before,” he says. “When I got the music for the audition at the camp, I not only learned the music but I committed two hours of repertoire completely to memory.
“To this day, I don’t think I ever learned anything as thoroughly as those audition excerpts. Impossibly good things seemed to happen. I got out of the projects. I slept in a bed. This was a chance for me to have a totally different life. Music opened those doors. I used to think I hated classical music.”
Abraham says he used to make fun of classical music because he believed it didn’t have a beat.
“I thought I knew what a beat was,” he says. “But I didn’t. It wasn’t groovy. It was only for elevators. I had no idea. Now, every performance lights my body up with goosebumps in ways I never experienced before.”
After graduating high school in Chicago, he headed to the University of Michigan, a decision that made him a bit self-conscious.
“I didn’t have a computer or a cellphone that I could rely on,” he says. “At the UM that year (2009), they were ranked on par with Juilliard. I didn’t know that when I went there.
“At that point, I had gotten to a bit of a cocky point in my musical development. The first day of school, I saw the level of the students who were there. They were child prodigies. It was immediately stressful and dampened my ego.”
He recalls he thought to himself, “I worked as hard as humanly possible, only to be the worst. The discipline that was required, I didn’t go to a single party. I knew I couldn’t screw this up.”
Graduating with highest honors, Abraham continued violin studies at the University of Michigan under Naumberg award winner Andrew Jennings. That’s when he explored the electric violin. He returned to Blue Lake to teach violin and took a job with the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.
“They’re a really, really remarkable organization,” he says.
Abraham then accepted an offer from UA to teach music, jazz history, pop music history, counterpoint music theory and the history of American pop music in exchange for tuition.
“In the words of ‘The Godfather,’ it was an offer I could not refuse,” he says with a laugh.
His first year in Arizona, he won the UA 2015 Concerto Competition with the Brahms Violin Concerto premiering his own cadenzas. He graduated from UA summa cum laude with a doctorate in violin performance. To this day, he’s still enthralled with the violin.
“Everyone thinks the violin is something that stayed the same for a half a millennium,” he says. “It has not. It’s 2,000 years old. It originated in Mongolia. The Stradivari family was inspired by a Middle Eastern instrument that later became a violin.
“A Baroque violin is as different from a modern violin as a harpsicord is from a modern concert grand. My thesis was based upon an object analysis of Bach’s violin work and hypothesizing what he would have written had he had access to the modern violin. To this day, I’m obsessed.”
Dr. Immanuel Abraham, immanuelabraham.com.