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Q&A: Njioma Grevious performs at White House


by Rose Bostwick
Already an accomplished violinist, senior Njioma Grevious is showing signs of a promising future in music. Among her many musical accomplishments, Grevious recently performed at a White House State Dinner as the youngest member of a string quartet. In an event honoring the United States’s 50-year relationship with Singapore, the quartet played for an audience of President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his wife Ho Ching, and over 200 other guests. Grevious and the other students who performed were selected for their experience as members of Project STEP (String Training and Education Program), a rigorous string music training program for minority students, who are underrepresented in the classical music world. Grevious is also a member of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a Chamber Ensemble through Winsor Music, and the New England Conservatory Preparatory School Chamber Music Program.
Q: What is your background in classical music?
A: I originally became involved in classical music because my mom had gotten my brother and sister involved. My mom is a big supporter and lover of classical music. My brother and sister were both home-schooled and taught music theory, so music has always been a huge part of my life, even since before I was born. I listened to classical music as a baby and heard my siblings practicing, so I was always drawn to classical music. As a child, I picked up the violin because I thought it was most beautiful instrument. My mom has been the biggest supporter of mine and a very big part of my journey.  
Q: How did you get involved with Project STEP?
A: I auditioned for Project STEP when I was five. Project STEP provides rigorous string training for black, Latino, and hispanic students, also known as underrepresented minorities, who might not get the same opportunities as others. Rehearsals are held in the basement of Symphony Hall in Boston. I used to go in for music theory and chamber music lessons, and I am now involved in master classes every other week, which are workshops where famous violinists come in who teach us something new every class.
Q: You recently performed at the White House State Dinner honoring the Prime Minister of Singapore. Have you ever done similar performances? What is other background you have in music?
A: I’ve never done anything quite on the same caliber, but I’ve been a member of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra since its conception in 2012, and a few weeks before [the performance] we went on tour in Spain where we performed six concerts in seven different cities.  We travel every year, and I’ve been to the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland. Europe is the birthplace of classical music, and it’s been great to visit places like the tomb of Mozart and to be immersed in the culture there and spread our love of music to other cultures. Later, we are heading to Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay to perform another tour. Being able to travel and perform for other audiences is an experience that can’t be forgotten. I also once played at a concert in Brooklyn with my sister, a professional pianist, and a dancer where we performed three pieces total. It was really nice to play with a dancer because it was a new, different experience. Coming up, the orchestra will be performing at Symphony Hall, and I’m going to be featured as a young artist in Winsor Music’s second Chamber Music Series on Dec. 3 at the St. Paul’s Church in Brookline.  It has been a privilege to play with the program every year.
Q: How did you find out you had been chosen to play at the White House State Dinner?
A: I received an email exactly a week before the performance. When I saw the subject line, I began guessing in my head what I could be doing in Washington D.C, and the White House came to mind, but I tried to calm down and not get my hopes up too high. When I found out about the performance, I was ecstatic and jumping out of my clothes. I ran to my mom and we were both jumping up and down with excitement.
Q: What was it like having only a week before the concert to prepare?
A: It all happened so quickly! We had to get everyone’s schedules to line up, and Saturday, August 2 was the only time everyone could meet with the coaches. We had rehearsal for an hour and a half, all sight reading. The first thing we did was choose which pieces we wanted to play, then we got music from president’s own Chamber Orchestra to prepare for, and I pretty much practiced for the next three days. I have done very similar things in the past; in fact, I recently had to learn a piece in the day before a concert. In these cases, the excitement overrides the stress. It was such a privilege to perform for the president, the First Lady, and the prime minister of Singapore, so even though I may have made some mistakes and preparing could have been stressful, I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Q: What were your thoughts on being given this opportunity?
A: I felt honored beyond words. I was very privileged to play with the President’s Chamber Orchestra [the United States Marine Band], which is something I have always wanted to do. I really look up to those musicians because they work hard and love their jobs. Being able to play at the White House in and of itself was amazing, and words can’t describe how honored and privileged I felt. The performance and the time that I had there were unforgettable.
Q: Overall, what was the experience like? What was it like to meet [everyone]?
A: Before it started, the excitement was electrifying. We practiced with the Chamber Orchestra for the first time at 3:30, just two hours before event started, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what was about to happen. We set up just outside the doors so when the politicians and celebrities walked past we would see them. After, we scheduled time to take pictures with the president and Michelle. I was first in receiving line. The receiving line was brief, and we only had about 30 seconds with each person. When I was standing in line, I looked over into the next room and saw Obama. His face was glowing. You always hear about him being the warmest and kindest person, and it’s so true. After, I went over to Michelle Obama, who is also a huge role model of mine, and she held my hand the whole time and thanked me for coming. I told her I was happy to be here, told her that she was a role model of mine, told her I had enjoyed her speech at the Democratic National Convention, and thanked her for inviting us. After, I went to meet the Prime Minister, who is also a very sweet person. Overall, it was literally breathtaking: I couldn’t breathe afterwards. Words can’t describe how amazing the experience was. It was definitely one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Q: In the future, what do you want to do with music?
A: I have very big dreams. I want to go to a great conservatory to expand my knowledge and better my playing and musicianship to become exactly like members of President’s Chamber Orchestra. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun work, and that’s my goal.

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