Her breezy, confident style hides a secret: This young violinist plays until it hurts
C.J. Patton, short for Catherine Justine, is a wisp of girl. Where older violinists might have sinew, she has green willow branches — wrists and forearms that breeze rather than flex over strings, even as she attacks the notoriously difficult left-hand-pizzicato-right-hand-bowing sections of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen concerto. If it weren’t for the one or two times you catch her looking up at you, nothing would betray the nerves or uncertainty expected from a 15-year-old girl performing a piece that even Itzhak Perlman has missed a few notes on.
“Music makes her feel comfortable,” Bev Patton, her mother, says afterward, glancing up from a magazine to help explain what C.J. can’t: what music means to her. Bev has been through this before. The executive director of the Nevada Youth Orchestra shepherded two older children, Tiffany and Ryan, through the lessons, the auditions, the concerts, the solo performances. Both are in college now, one studying veterinary medicine, the other just starting out. Neither wants to be a professional musician.
C.J. is different — despite her saying she may not pursue music full-time as an adult, either. Her mother describes her as “much more advanced” than her brother and sister. Growing up listening to her siblings play, and playing herself since she was 4, C.J. has accumulated more than her age’s share of exposure. She has no memory of life without the violin.
Then there’s her raw talent. “She’s one of the most gifted violinists I’ve ever heard play,” says Jeremy Woolstenhulme, orchestra teacher at Hyde Park Middle School and a cellist with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. C.J. has soloed with the Philharmonic, and this year she took top honors for string instrument players in her age group at the Bolognini Competition, an annual shoot-out sponsored by the Las Vegas Music Teachers Association.
Despite these and other accomplishments — and true to her artistic sensibilities — C.J. is reluctant to toot her own horn. While acknowledging her technical mastery of the de Sarasate piece, which she’s been performing since the spring (including during a Nevada Youth Orchestra tour of China), she says she needs more work on the phrasing, or emotional interpretation. “It’s supposed to be a gypsy piece, free and wild,” she says. “I’m trying to get out of Mozart mode and get into that.”
Is she ever. C.J. practices a couple hours a day in summer — up to four hours during performance season at Las Vegas Academy, where she’s a sophomore. When she’s bored, she says, she’ll pick up her violin. She plays so much, she’s developed back pain.
“It’s worth all the sacrifices,” C.J. says, still struggling to explain why, exactly. “It’s kind of like work. … I couldn’t live without it."