Maggie Gould leaves for London in a few days. Still, on a recent Monday morning, she’s delighted to stop for an hour and take a look back at her violin career. Let’s see . . . she has performed with Stevie Wonder before a sold-out crowd of 18,200 at Madison Square Garden; appeared on America’s Got Talent; backed up Elvis Costello and The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, OK Go on Letterman, and David Guetta on Good Morning America; appeared at Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall; and helped establish a youth orchestra in a small Central American country. That’s just to name a few feats, so far.
“Everything feels like everything just happened yesterday,” she says on Skype from her spare Brooklyn apartment. “It all seems so close together. It’s not like I canlookback10yearsandgo,‘Oh,I …’”
That’s because everything pretty much did happen yesterday. Maggie’s only 25 years old. Her bill-paying career began in 2012, after she graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago. Then she moved to New York, and then to Belize (the former British Honduras), and then back to New York.
“She uses music as a vehicle for discovering the world,” says Katie Dey, a faculty member at the Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, where Maggie just last month shared the President’s Young Alumni Award with Nicole Beharie, co-star of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow series.
Yes, Maggie has discovered a pretty big world since she began toying with music in her Greenville hometown. “I was playing on a box when I was 5 years old. Seriously, it was a box that had a paint stirrer attached to simulate a violin,” she says.
But the time she reached middle school, she almost gave up the instrument. Her parents suggested she give the violin one last shot before high school. “‘And if you hate it,’” she was told, “‘then you can officially quit for good.’ So, I went to the camp and totally fell in love with it all over again . . . and from that point on, it became heavy-duty-this-is-what-I-want-to-do, and I just kept pushing and haven’t stopped.”
Another of Maggie’s instructors, Lucie Fink, retired now from teaching but still performing, got a hold of the young talent at the Fine Arts Center’s Arts Reaching Middle & Elementary Schools (A.R.M.E.S.) program.
“They say every artist—and Maggie is an Artist—has three teachers: the first one is the teacher who teaches a student to love their art, the second one is the disciplinarian . . . and the third one puts it all together. I hope that I was her first teacher who taught her to love what she is doing.”
Fink has nothing to worry about. Maggie clearly loves the path she’s carving, using tools she’s picked up along the way that allow her to play a Stevie Wonder song or an Elvis Costello tune with barely a day’s notice and usually little or no rehearsal.
“If I was stuck inside my music, stuck on my music stand, on my own fingers and my own bowings, then there’s no way you can look up and see what’s going on and jam out and put it together, not if you’re totally in your own zone,” Maggie says. “I definitely credit Katie Dey for that, getting out of your own instrument and playing with other people and working as a team.”
Maggie frequently mentions her family’s unending support and her network of friends, even while she downplays the hard dues she’s paid. When she first moved to New York, she worked at the Grey Dog, a four-store chain of coffee shops in lower Manhattan. She clocked in from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., taught a couple of paying lessons and then played a gig, if she had one.
“It was a bizarre four months that I spent here. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m working in a restaurant for hours, I’m practicing my instrument, but what am I heading toward? What am I doing?’” she says.
After one particularly disappointing lesson, she says, “I just had a realization: this is not the path for me—to keep taking lessons, to keep taking these huge orchestra auditions. This is just not it. And I walked out of the school bawling, flat- out sobbing, like, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m walking around in this concrete jungle, and I’m stuck, and it was a claustrophobic feeling.”
That day, she returned to her Upper West Side apartment, opened her laptop and saw an email about a teaching position available . . . in Belize.
The government’s Institute of Culture and History soon hired her, through a “super-casual” hiring process. She spent five months on the Caribbean coast, where she most fondly remembers a certain 12-year-old boy. He didn’t have the money to enroll in the program, she says, but he still showed up every day. He’d ride his bike, but “half the time, his bicycle chain would break, so he would walk three miles. He didn’t have shoes.”
She’d give him a free 15- or 30-minute lesson.“That really did it for me,” says Maggie. “It really showed me that I love to teach just as much as I love to perform. It just made me super-passionate about music for social change, because it’s unreal that these kids can be taken out of their kind-of-scary home environments, and they feel safe just holding an instrument.”
Dey says Maggie even created a guest-artist residency as part of the program there, and invited her to come and help out for a week. In nominating Maggie for the Governor’s School alumni award, Dey wrote: “During those seven days, I heard countless times from students and their families how much information and inspiration ‘Miss Maggie’ was sharing with them. . . . Margaret Gould is indeed using music as a tool for change.”
Miss Maggie doesn’t have to work at a coffee shop anymore. Her calendar’s sprinkled with mega-gigs, including a couple more “Songs in the Key of Life” shows with Mr. Wonder. And she just returned from the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh, a coastal town 87 miles northeast of London.
Maria Dobing, who recruited Maggie for the prestigious professional-development program, met the young South Carolinian in Mexico City in 2011 and was immediately taken with her humility, good sense of humor, and even her Southern upbringing.
“She’s quite grounded, she’s a down-to-earth girl,” Dobing says in a phone interview from Suffolk, UK. “I only find her to be friendly and kind, really grateful for opportunities that come her way, and she takes them with both hands.”