FAIRFAX, Va. — For a woman who worried that her music career might be finished after she quit a sweet gig with the National Symphony Orchestra, Jenny Oaks Baker has remained remarkably busy.
A Grammy-nominated, Juilliard-trained violinist, she performs 60 to 75 concerts a year. This year she will perform everywhere from Alexandria, Virginia, to Snowflake, Arizona, not to mention, Dallas, Baltimore, Phoenix, Birmingham, Madison, Utah and Seattle.
Musicians don’t quit the NSO at 31 any more than football players leave the New England Patriots at the height of their game. She had been with the NSO seven years when she left to be a full-time mother to her four children, all under the age of 5. She still wanted to perform on her terms, but she didn’t have a single concert scheduled. “It was scary,” she says. On the very day she quit, the calls began with offers of work.
“It was a miracle,” she says. “No one even knew I had quit, and I was getting calls to perform.”
They are still calling. Between carpooling to soccer practice and overseeing her children’s own music practices, she has managed to build a solo career, one that has become increasingly busier as her kids have gotten older. Besides the live concerts, she recently cut her 12th CD, completed a music video with Condoleezza Rice and — in the biggest surprise of all — landed an acting role.
In January she received a call from Mitch Davis, the director of “The Other Side of Heaven.” He asked her to play the soundtrack for his next movie, “Stuck.” Then he had another question: “Do you act?”
Her only acting experience, she told him, was playing Dorothy in a sixth-grade production of “The Wizard of Oz.” “I’m not an actress,” she explained, “but I like to be in front of people and I’m not afraid of the camera.” She auditioned and won a major role alongside veteran actors Patrick Stewart and Jon Heder. She spent five days in Bulgaria shooting the movie, which is scheduled to be released in November.
As always, she hurried home to her family after the job was completed. That’s her M.O. She flies out the same day as her shows and catches the first flight back. Her husband, Matt, vice president of sales for a software company, works from home to cover for her during concert performances. For local gigs, she takes the children with her and sometimes puts them on stage to perform with her.
“I need to be careful how much I do and be home as much as I can,” she says.
Baker, now 38, has quietly built an impressive resume — solos in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress, guest solos with the Jerusalem Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, San Diego Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, collaborations with Gladys Knight, Kurt Bestor, Marvin Hamlisch and Condoleezza Rice, the sale of 250,000 CDs, charting on Billboard, a Grammy nomination.
Looking back on her nearly unprecedented decision to leave the National Symphony Orchestra, she says, “I loved performing the greatest music in the world, with the greatest soloists and conductors and in the greatest concert halls, ... but I was missing so many of the greatest good-night kisses by performing three evening concerts a week.”
From her home near Washington, D.C., she plays a role that is markedly different than the one she has on stage. She stays up until midnight most nights to get everything done. She spends 2½ hours a day coaching the practices of her two youngest children while the other two children practice on their own (“I’m still yelling at them,” says Baker with a laugh). Laura 12, plays the violn; Hannah 11, piano; Sara, 9, cello; and Matthew, 7, classical guitar. When the family goes on vacation, the kids take their instruments and their mother arranges to have a piano on site so they can continue their routine. She also does the usual mundane chores of meal preparation and cleaning and driving kids to soccer games and dance lessons.
Baker, a Utah native, began violin lessons at 4, performed her first solo on stage four years later with the Utah Valley Symphony and at 12 won first place in the music competition at the Utah State Fair. By the time she was a teenager she was practicing four hours a day while also holding down AP and honors classes in high school, singing in the school choir and playing for the tennis team. She was so sleep deprived that she slept through dates.
“One time a blind date picked me up, and we watched two different movies and I slept through both of them, and then he took me home and never asked me out again,” she says. “Go figure.”
Her mother, June Oaks, used a few tricks to guide Baker’s development as a violinist. Knowing that her daughter detested practice but loved to perform, she bribed the neighbor kids with homemade cookies to lure them to the house for an audience.
“It was never my mom’s dream to have a violinist, but she was determined to have me reach my potential,” says Baker. “She would always remind me, ‘Jenny, get up there and practice!’ ”
Baker had a love-hate relationship with her music, but she embraced it anyway. She once complained to her mother about the dearth of dates and friends, to which her mom replied: “You don’t have time for friends. Just practice really hard in high school and then date to your heart’s content [in college].”
But then she wound up winning a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and her social life grew worse, not better. She threw herself into her art. She was the first one to arrive at school to practice each morning and the last one to leave, and then only because she was kicked out of the building at the 11 p.m. closing time. She practiced six to 10 hours a day, six days a week.
“It was miserable,” she says. “I was so lonely. It’s all I did for four years... I was busy. I was not looking to hang out. My mom was my best friend. I called her every night at 11.”
When she began a master’s program at Juilliard, she learned that her mother had cancer. She died in July 1998, just three months after Baker got married.
“That was the hardest thing I have ever gone through,” says Baker. “It has been 16 years and it is still painful.” She titled her second CD, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”
She believes marriage and the feelings it engendered and freed helped free her artistically at Juilliard, along with some motherly advice. Until then, she was learning to play the instrument and bending her will to the many, sometimes conflicting, demands of her many mentors. For 20 years, her teachers had been telling her what she was doing wrong, as they are wont to do, leaving her sometimes stilted and confused and more focused on technical aspects of playing the instrument rather than letting her feelings and the music move her. Shortly before performing a small show in New York, she remembered once complaining about all of this to her mother and what her mother had said in response — “Tell them all to jump in a lake."
“That popped into my head right before I started to play,” she says. “From that moment on, I became an artist. I played it my way. If this had happened 10 years earlier, it would have been detrimental, because you need to listen to your teacher, but by then I knew how to play the violin. I just had to have confidence in my own voice.”
She revels in performance and art. It is what sustains her musically. Baker’s dirty dark secret, as she calls it, is that she still loathes practice as much as she did as a teen and practices only when a concert is looming. “I like to feel panic and stress because it motivates me, so I practice at the last minute when I have to get it done,” she says. “I’m an adrenaline junkie. I put it off and put it off. When I start having dreams that I don’t know how to play or what to play for the show or what to wear, I know it’s time to practice. They are my panic dreams. I’ve just never enjoyed practicing. It’s hard work. I don’t dink around. It’s super focused. I work hard to perfect those songs and then I have to memorize them.”
She can go days without picking up a violin, and she never plays the instrument simply for the pleasure of making music. But give her a stage and accompaniment and lighting and a gown and she is transformed. She actually began looking for performances in high school simply as a way to motivate herself to practice.
The reason she can go days without practice is because, as she puts it, “I worked my tail off.” She put in so many long hours in her formative years, including all those lonely nights at Curtis, that she doesn’t require regular practice. Perhaps it’s the 10,000-hour rule.
“I don’t need to practice daily,” she says. “It’s there. It doesn’t go away. Maybe that’s a gift God has given me. I have four kids I have to take care of.”
As she talks, Baker makes frequent references to God and faith. It was part of her decision to leave the National Symphony Orchestra; it guides her choice of music, although she did recently record and release an album of rock music (she had never heard of Led Zeppelin when she decided to record “Stairway to Heaven”); it’s part of the reason she puts family ahead of career.
“God has given me a gift to play sacred music,” she says. “I can feel God’s love as I play, and I know it gets portrayed through my music. That’s why I’m a successful performer. I feel like the Lord is my manager and sends me the concerts he wants me to have. My biggest performances happen to be religious. When I soloed with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, I was playing ‘Ave Maria.’ When I soloed with the Pittsburgh Symphony, it was ‘O, Come, Emmanuel.’ I feel like the Lord uses me for sacred music, and I am grateful.”