Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2009

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Memory, focus, discipline – all qualities that serve the legal practitioner well. While growing up in her native Minnesota, the Honorable Krystal Quinn Alves, Associate Judge of the District Court for Prince George’s County, found them in music.

“I took piano lessons all the way through middle school,” recalls Alves. “It helps develop a different part of your brain.” Not surprisingly, as a mother, Alves today looks to music to foster these traits in her daughters (ages 7 and 9).


"You play the music the way the music moves you," says the Honorable Krystal Quinn Alves, Associate Judge of the District Court for Prince George's County.

“It’s a rule that my children have to play an instrument through high school,” she notes. “After high school, they can do whatever they want.” To this end, Alves had the family piano shipped east; however, her eldest daughter – then 5-years-old – would have none of it. Instead, to Alves’ surprise, the child insisted on taking up the violin.

"I PRACTICE
every morning. If you don't practice, you're not going to get any better."

THE HONORABLE
KRYSTAL QUINN ALVES

“I kept asking her over a period of time,” says Alves, “and she would always give me the same answer: ‘I want to play the violin.’” Though unsure of what prompted her daughter’s fascination, Alves nevertheless sought to nurture the child’s interest – and, in so doing, developed one of her own.

“I just loved the sound of it,” says Alves, who “started listening to more violin music,” developing a particular affinity for classical and baroque pieces. She tried her own hand at playing, but the child’s quarter-scale instrument proved too frustratingly small for adult fingers. Still, irresistibly drawn to “the challenge of playing it,” Alves acquired a proportionate violin for herself.

“It’s not an easy instrument to play, and it’s really not an easy instrument to pick up as an adult,” she admits. “They start kids young playing the violin because their bones are still developing, and they can stretch and move their hands and wrists and arms into the [required] positions.” Regardless of age, however, the key to learning, Alves explains, is practice.

“If you don’t practice, you’re not going to get any better,” she notes. Consequently, Alves devotes 90 minutes a day for five, sometimes six days a week to improving her skill. By comparison, her daughters (the younger having subsequently taken up the instrument as well) practice for approximately one half-hour daily.

“That may not sound like a lot to us,” Alves laughs, “but it is to a squirmy 7-year-old.” Alves and her children also take lessons following the “Suzuki method”, an educational style developed in the mid-20th century by internationally renowned violinist Shinichi Suzuki. Noting that all children (rather than a gifted few) have the ability to learn their “mother tongue”, Suzuki maintained that the ability to learn a musical instrument is likewise within all children’s grasp.

“Suzuki-trained teachers don’t necessarily have the kids start reading notes right away – it’s more by ear that they play,” Alves explains. “And the Suzuki method is a stickler for proper playing position, physically: how they stand, where their arm is, their bow, the grip – all of that. If you’re not positioned well, you’re not going to hit the notes in tune, so it’s harder to play.

“They have 10 books; I’m almost at the end of Book Three. There’s a student that my teacher teaches now – he’s 7, and he’s already in Book Two or Three, but he practices a lot and he’s very good. You’ve got these little kids [who] are playing Vivaldi, so it’s very humbling.”

Organizations like the Suzuki Association of the Greater Washington Area (www.sagwa.org), or SAGWA, offer forums (such as the Annual SAGWA String Festival, held in the spring) in which younger students of the Suzuki school can show off their musical chops. For relative “latecomers” like Alves, however, such options are much fewer and farther between, as most “beginner” programs are more youth-oriented, while many of Alves’ contemporaries tend to be much more experienced.

“It’s hard for [me] to find a group of adults [I] can play with who haven’t been playing at my level,” admits Alves. “So, I have to go back to elementary school” – quite literally; she has asked to play in her daughter’s school orchestra – “and some of those kids are better than me! A lot of those kids are better than me.”

Still, Alves has set her sights high. “Eventually, when I get to a certain point, I want to play with an orchestra,” she says, entertaining the likes of the Prince George’s Philharmonic (www.pgphilharmonic.org/) or the NIH Philharmonia (www.nihphil.org/). But her “perfect-world” scenario lies not in the great symphony halls but rather in the courtroom.

“Eventually, I’d like to get a little chamber group together, made up of lawyers and judges who play violin, and call them the Chambers,” Alves laughs. “Get it?  Judge – chambers?

“There are a lot of people [in the law] who play violin,” she muses. “District Court Judge Brian Kim, in Montgomery County – he’s excellent. Here, in Prince George’s County, the Honorable Wendy Cartwright – she’s an Orphans’ Court judge; she plays violin – excellently, of course. And [Assistant State’s Attorney] Renee Battle-Brooks – she’s actually the one who put me in touch with my teacher. Renee plays with orchestras by herself.” The only foreseeable problem, Alves notes with a chuckle, is that “we can’t all be violinists. Somebody has to play the viola, [and] we need a cellist.”

A far cry from middle-school piano lessons, to be sure – but with each lesson and practice session, Alves further narrows the gap.

“I didn’t really like [the piano] like I like the violin,” she admits. “I always wonder what would have happened if I had taken the violin instead of the piano [as a child]. I wouldn’t have all these little kids in diapers playing rings around me!”




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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2009

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