NEW YORK—Sitting in front of a subway station column, his fingers dance across the strings of his umber violin. Nearby, construction workers unreel yellow caution tape, as sounds of rolling suitcases fill the hollow halls of Grand Central Terminal. But Jafari Sampson, a 19-year-old prodigy, hears silence amid the clamor.
“Silence gives me inspiration,” he said.
Sampson has always been good at finding silence. He spent most of his childhood in a quiet room with his violin, hearing different meanings of motifs as they repeat.
He grew up in the South Bronx, a place not renowned for its output of classical musicians. But when someone is born with a gift, it doesn’t matter where he is born.
Sampson not only has perfect pitch, but his ears can recognize which major a knock on a wall falls under.
He is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school whose alumni have won a total of 231 Grammy Awards since it was founded in 1945.
For the past two years, whenever Sampson returns to New York during the holidays, he plays in the corridor between the shuttle and the No. 6 train platforms at Grand Central. He said it helps him with stage fright. But one can’t tell if he has any.
There is a richness in his sound that cannot be acquired from hard work alone.
In the station, he plays melodies that smoothly transition into a series of compelling movements. The piece is not composed by Beethoven, Sarasate, or John Williams. Sampson improvises, making the notes up as he goes along. He said perhaps he will call it the “Subway Song.”
Sampson is a musical genius who dreams of being a composer one day. He began learning the violin at age 12—a somewhat late age for a prodigy. Most have already been accepted into a conservatory by then.
It takes a lot to guide a late-discovered prodigy to a level that Sampson is at today. But he comes from a family with a history of endurance and a vision that sees beyond the veneer of physical realities.
Opportune Futures, Not Dour Pasts
A childhood in South Bronx did not yield many dulcet times.
“In the Bronx, you have to be strong and hold your own ground,” Sampson said. “Otherwise you could end up in the wrong hands.”
Sampson would arrive at school and find his classmates with new wounds, fresh from violent encounters from the night before. The school he attended allowed children to stay overnight if they felt it was too dangerous to walk home.
But during tough times, his grandfather was always a purveyor of wisdom.
His grandfather, Dr. Shellie Sampson Jr., is a reverend with a doctorate in Urban Education and Psychology, and has a number of other doctoral degrees as well.
Sampson said that although memories of segregation and church burnings probably remain in the recesses of his grandfather’s mind, he did not hear much about that part of his grandfather’s personal history. Instead, the focus has always been on the future and on the opportunities that Sampson has access to today.
For high school, Sampson went to the Putney School, an independent boarding high school in Vermont. It was there that he began to take group violin lessons.
Sampson said the first note he ever played sounded like a screaming cat. At the time, he thought he might not play again. But his teacher soon recognized he was developing at an unusual pace; he was a fecund player, a marvel.
“My teacher told me I needed to pursue this now, and follow it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Although his family is not musically inclined, his parents are elementary and middle school teachers in the Bronx who value hard work and the pursuit of one’s passion.
“They’re passionate about their work too, that’s probably where I get it from,” Sampson said. They have pushed him to practice several hours everyday.
“It turned out I enjoyed it, I enjoyed playing for hours and hours,” Sampson recalls.
Sampson remembers the first performance he attended at the New York Philharmonic, not long after learning the violin. They performed Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”; Sampson’s favorite is “Summer.”
After the show he got an autograph from the conductor, Lorin Maazel. He peered up at the ivory-haired conductor with soft eyes. At that moment, he realized that he wanted to be a professional violinist and that he could be one.
And so he goes on practicing and practicing, missing movies, games, and outings with friends. But what he gains is indelible.
His handwork has paid off at the Berklee School of Music where he met Alicia Keys, Victor Wooten, and even had a lengthy Skype call with Don Hahn, the producer of “The Lion King.”
“[Hahn] inspired me so much. … I felt that I could one day be where he was,” Sampson said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of because if it’s what you love, people will help you.” Sampson wants to compose for Disney films one day.
“Had I not worked so hard, I wouldn’t have met these people,” he said.
Life Lessons From Music
What Sampson learns from music lessons, he applies to more than his performance.
“Life makes sense if you think about it,” he said. “You can eat an elephant one bite at a time. Everything is simple if you take it at face value.”
“You’re not going to learn a piece all in one day, you break it up section by section, phrase by phrase, and note by note,” he said. “That’s how it is in life too.”
His teachers often tell him to play louder, which Sampson interprets as a lesson for his demeanor as well.
“I used to be always nervous that my ideas were never enough for people,” he said. “To really get respect from other people is something I had to overcome and learn. I had to learn how to speak up.”
But to speak or play pompously is not the way to be heard either in his view.
“The ego is what takes away the blessing and inspirations,” Sampson said. “Before you played out of love, but when people get worshiped they forget what it’s about.”
He recalls when he was discovered for his talent there were moments he thought it felt good to be better than other people.
“As soon as I had those thoughts, I stopped being able to express myself, to play the way that I did before,” he said. “It happened almost immediately.”
He says when he becomes a famous composer one day, he will make sure not to become egotistical; he will remain the same quiet boy who listens to the beauty of silences.
“My grandfather always told me that anything is possible if there is a purpose behind it,” Sampson said. “I think my purpose is to share what I love, my music, with the world.”
Jafari playing the “Subway Song” in Grand Central.
This Is New York is a weekly column that features profiles of inspiring individuals in New York City, from all walks of life. Read a new profile every Saturday afternoon online, and every Thursday in print.
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