Even before her fourth birthday, Anna Okada Burgess practiced on a Cracker Jack box with a ruler taped onto it for 10 or 15 minutes a day. She graduated then to a 1/10-size violin that sounded like a mosquito, her father said. Now 15 years old, she plays on her grandfather's violin, an instrument made by Johann Albrecht in Markneukirchen, Germany, in 1926 that fits as naturally under her chin as if she has played her entire life, which she nearly has.
Standing in the middle of her living room, Burgess tucked the violin under her chin and, with alacrity, began playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major. Soon after, she filled the house with the Celtic song "O'a' the Airts," a soulful piece that hummed and warbled with slow trills and an elegant vibrato as Burgess pulled the bow across her instrument.
This month, Burgess will release her first album, "Spring in Brassica," a compilation of Celtic songs on violin. Her father, Jesse Burgess, accompanies her on the guitar.
Proceeds from the album will help fund another musical achievement. Anna Burgess was recently selected to join an elite honors orchestra, the 2011 American High School Honors Performance Series, at Carnegie Hall in February 2011. Burgess, one of 120 high school musicians chosen from North America, will spend five days in New York City rehearsing with other finalists, attending workshops at Juilliard and playing in a final performance at Carnegie Hall that will be aired on the CBS Early Show.
Burgess was given an application for the Honors Performance Series after receiving high marks in last spring's Washington State Solo & Ensemble Contest. She submitted an audition tape of one of her favorite songs, Joseph Haydn's Concerto No. 2 in G Major, which she played for the Walla Walla Youth Symphony in June as a soloist.
"I recorded (my audition tape) here in our studio," said Anna Burgess, referring to her family's studio, a room that houses a set of drums, piano, keyboard, an organ, ukulele, cello, harp, bass and 12-string guitars, eight more guitars and recording equipment.
"No one really plays the harp," the Walla Walla High sophomore said with a laugh.
Jesse and Anna Burgess decided to record "Spring in Brassica" at a family friend's recording studio in Portland this summer.
"It was my dad's idea to make a CD," Anna said. "I'm really fortunate to have this opportunity. It's pretty cool. I don't know a lot of people who've done this."
Jesse Burgess said, "It just came about because every time we would play, we would get requests for a CD."
Anna has studied violin for the past 11 years with her teacher, Maya Takemoto, in the Suzuki method.
"There's a series of 10 books that vary in level. I'm in book nine now. I'm pretty slow," she said humbly.
The Suzuki method emphasizes playing by ear for the first few years, which has given her the enviable ability to learn music by hearing it.
Celtic fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas had performed at Whitman College's Cordiner Hall and inspired Anna to buy their CD and learn their pieces by ear. The Burgess father and daughter duo then attended a Celtic music camp taught by Fraser in Grass Valley, Calif., in 2006 and 2007. There, they learned the songs that would become Burgess' first album.
She said that she plays an hour or more a day and more on the weekends when she has her violin lesson and quartet practice. She plays in Whitman College's Divertimento Orchestra and in the High Strung Quartet with three other Walla Walla High School students and takes piano and voice lessons.
"Recently, I've been more interested in (playing music). I've been to a few concerts that have inspired me," Burgess said. "I'm thinking about pursuing music as a career, and the goal of being a musician drives me to practice."
Homework, though, does make it harder to practice as much as she did in middle school, she confessed.
In addition to music, Burgess studies Spanish and American Sign Language at Walla Walla High School and Japanese at Whitman College.
"Spring in Brassica" will be available for purchase at Hot Poop, Blazing Guitars and Earthlight Books.