Yakima-based violinist Kimberlee Dray started studying violin as a child in a farming community in Idaho.
She felt a passion for music and showed promise, but decided to put aside her studies when she married and had children. She directed her energies, instead, to a handbag business she started and to running marathons. During one particular race, she fell. When she got back up, something was off.
After suffering months of sudden bouts of dizziness and vertigo, Dray learned from doctors that she had Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear where symptoms can range from severe dizziness and ringing in the ears to permanent hearing loss.
The disorder affects about 615,000 people in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders. There’s no cure, but scientists estimate that about 60% of people impacted can get better on their own or control the symptoms with a combination of diet, medication, devices or surgery.
Dray consulted physicians, naturopaths, Reiki practitioners and kinesiologists, but did not improve. When she learned she might completely and permanently lose her hearing, she returned to her violin, which had provided solace throughout her life.
Dray found the more she practiced, the more she regained her hearing. With at least four hours of practice each day, she tamed her symptoms into remission.
And opportunities that seemed out of reach started opening for her.
Dray has since studied with famed violinist Aaron Rosand at the Summit Music Festival, with Sherry Kloss and the Heifetz Symposium, and with violin virtuoso Nina Beilina at the Mannes School of Music in New York. She’s performed her own composition at The Salon in Philadelphia and most recently performed a series by composers with Russian roots at the Seasons Performance Hall in Yakima with New York-based pianist Peter Fancovic.
Dray hopes her performances will do more than showcase sonatas. She shared her story with the newspaper in the hopes of inspiring other musicians to take heart, to come forward, and to share their passions with the world, no matter their ages or backgrounds.
“There are so many who believe the myth in the violin world that if you haven’t done it by age 13, you shouldn’t bother,” she said. “There are too many who believe you have to be chosen, that it’s not about your choices. My journey happened because I threw all of that out the window. I realized this is my life, and I want to enjoy it.”
A farming town and a red violin
Dray’s journey started in Twin Falls, Idaho, a city of about 50,000 people where the major industries are agriculture, retail and manufacturing. She was the oldest of 12 children.
Dray said the plan was for her to grow up and become a mother. Dray’s parents insisted, however, that their children be well-rounded. Dray was 10 years old when she heard a recording of Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak’s Romance for violin and piano, and was so moved she cried. Then one day, Dray’s father took her to see a violin recital and asked, “How would you like to play that?”
Dray was hooked.
She did not have the traditionally intense support system that many budding classical violinists, who play in a world of cutthroat competition, require. But her parents loved her and did as much as they could, she said. When a teacher told her parents that Dray needed to own a higher-quality violin than the one the family was renting, Dray said her parents sold the family’s wood-burning stove, her brother’s drum set and her sister’s piccolo.
They gave her the gift of a red violin. They also encouraged her to have discipline.
“I loved looking at it, but I didn’t always want to practice,” she said. “If I wouldn’t practice, my parents would take it away from me and hide it under their bed, and it would eat at me until I agreed to practice. I had to have it.”
Practicing violin gave Dray solace when she was in high school, where she was “nerdy enough” not to have many friends.
“When I didn’t get invited to a party, I would be at home, wailing on my violin,” she said. “It was therapy for me.”
A nontraditional path
Dray’s father encouraged her to pursue a music scholarship when she was accepted into Brigham Young University. Dray remembered protesting: The audition period for scholarships had passed, and she didn’t know how to perform a number of the audition requirements.
“I told him I just played the violin for fun, but my dad wouldn’t accept that,” she said. “He asked me, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I told him that I could stink. He said, ‘Well, you already believe you do, so what do you have to lose?’”
Dray decided to try.
At the audition, violin professor Nell Gotkovsky asked Dray to play scales. Dray did. Then Gotkovsky asked her to play an unaccompanied Bach piece. Dray said she couldn’t. Gotkovsky then asked her to play in thirds. Again, Dray said she couldn’t.
About two weeks later, the university awarded her a scholarship that covered half her tuition for a semester.
“I was sure that I had failed,” Dray said. “But at the end of my audition, she took my face in her hands and said, ‘You have a gift from God, and I will do everything I can to help you develop it.’ That was the shock of my life.”
Dray entered the university still snagged by self-defeating thoughts. Partway through her studies, she switched her major to English.
“I wasn’t prepared. I kept thinking, ‘When are they all going to find out I don’t belong here?’ So I gave up,” she said.
She married. She had children. Her handbag business kept her busy. Marathons gave her an outlet for her energy. Her life was back “on track,” except that it wasn’t, she said. Falling during the marathon and the diagnosis of Meniere’s were the wake-up call she needed, as was a friendship with a kindred spirit.
Dray became friends with a pre-graduate student at The Juilliard School in New York City through an online correspondence about violins. He agreed to mentor her by offering suggestions after he listened over the phone to her practicing. Her friend was convinced that she needed to continue her violin studies, Dray said.
“His feeling when he heard me play was that this was my destiny, and why I was having all these hearing problems was because I was fighting myself and I was running away from myself,” she said. “He was a light in a dark room, and I chose to follow the light.”
Dray credits the Meniere’s diagnosis with making her strong enough to pursue her music.
“When I learned that what healed me was my violin, I demanded the time for it,” she said.
Dray said half the balance and a third of the hearing in her left ear is gone. But for the past 10 years, she’s mostly lived without serious symptoms from Meniere’s. She’s had only two major relapses, both of which happened when she went without playing her violin for a prolonged period of time.
Dray said the success she’s seen as a violinist wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifices and support of her husband and children. Especially since her path has defied so many traditional expectations.
“I remember at one point someone telling my husband that what I was doing was selfish, because I did all this after I had become a mom and that was not a normal path,” she said. “It really showed me how far he had come when he said, ‘My wife believes in the pursuit of excellence. That’s what she’s doing. And I support her 100%.’ ”
From Russia with love
About 80 people in Seasons Performance Hall on Nov. 9 quieted as Dray, striking in a black long-sleeved shirt and red ballroom skirt, stepped onto the spotlighted stage. Accompanied by pianist Fancovic, she kept the audience spellbound for the next hour and a half.
Her set included songs from four composers — Alfred Schnittke, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin — with Russian ties. Notes that Dray included in the performance’s program indicated the composers had also sacrificed or suffered for their music during their lives, which reflected in their songs: at times nostalgic, at other times hauntingly discordant, but always intense.
Jackie Pryor, who lives in Montana but was in town for the concert due to a visit with her two grandsons, who both study violin in Yakima, said she never knew a violin could make so many sounds.
“She was a virtuoso,” Pryor said. “It was also interesting to learn about the sacrifices the Russian composers had to make for their music.”
Dray said the concert was to honor her mentor Nina Beilina, a Russian concert violinist and violin professor at the Mannes School of Music in New York, who immigrated to the United States in 1977. For three years prior to Beilina’s death this past November, Dray flew to New York City once a month to study advanced violin technique.
Dray described Beilina as a “superstar” who was indomitable, fierce, and stubborn. Beilina wasn’t daunted by Dray’s technical imperfections or nontraditional path but rather embraced her as a student, Dray said.
“She told me I had soul in my playing,” Dray said. “She was a fierce fighter for music, and she believed that music was about the sharing of souls.”
Beilina also had the highest standards for her musicians, and was unflinching. Dray remembered one trip to New York City for a lesson when Beilina’s husband met her at the door and asked her to leave because Beilina was ill. Dray recalled Beilina was close behind him, in her dressing gown, with no makeup and her walker, arguing with both her husband and Dray before ordering Dray inside for her lesson.
“She said, ‘You get in here, I am giving you this lesson,’” Dray said. “I figured I would play some scales and leave, but she insisted on a 2½-hour lesson.”
Sabra Coalman, a Yakima resident and pianist of 15 years’ study who attended the “From Russia with Love” concert, acknowledged with respect Dray’s dedication and discipline.
“Our choices determine our destiny, and her determination and her choices made her what she is,” Coalman said. “She conquered her illness and became this great violinist.”
Dray and her family moved to Yakima in 2014, and she’s eager to see Yakima’s local talent shine.
“What I’d like to see this community do is embrace The Seasons, and why can’t we start with the people already here?” she said. “I’d also like to encourage anyone who has felt the particular calling to music to try. You can watch TV in your free time, but it will lead to emptiness. Music gives you something to work toward, that you can accomplish.”
Dray said she’s brainstorming ideas about a regular open mic night for Yakima’s musicians, where they could come to air their music and learn from each other in a supportive environment. She also hopes that people of all ages who pick up music today will be sharing the spotlight 10 years from now.
“All the best growth comes from where you are, and you are where you are for a reason,” she said. “Music is healing, and for the musicians who are here, the thing I most want to tell them is that ‘We still need you. Your music is needed.’”