A world of possibilities

Winning violin competition dream come true for local teen from musical family

Not many 17-year-old girls can say they are going on a tour that includes Carnegie Hall in New York City.

But Maria Sanderson is not like every 17-year-old girl.

Sanderson recently won first place and $10,000 in the national Sphinx Competition in Detroit, Michigan, a nationwide contest for black and Latino young adult classical musicians.

She spends six hours a day practicing violin — with a day off on Sundays. In her free time, she is making clothes or crafts, or painting.

This was her third year to make the semifinals of the junior division; last year, she placed third.

Her older brother, John, participated in the same competition eight to 10 years ago. After watching him perform, Maria decided she, too, would pick up the violin and that she would win.

“When I found out I won, I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It was really like a dream come true for me,” she said.


Maria is in Argentina this week, completing a three-week tour with Indiana University’s Violin Virtuosi — violinists 12 to 18 who perform as an ensemble and as soloists. They study in the String Academy at the IU Jacobs School of Music.

Maria’s teacher, Mimi Zweig, is a violin professor and the director of the IU String Academy, and she has played a big part in Maria’s success, her mother, Anna, said.

“I don’t know if we could have done without her,” Anna said.

On May 14, Maria played the first movement of Dvorak’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor” at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington as soloist for the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra. She also won the BSO Youth Concerto Competition in January.

This fall, she is going on a six-week tour with the Sphinx Competition, visiting about 20 different U.S. cities, including New York City and a stop at Carnegie Hall.

For college, Maria is considering studying at Indiana University, but is also looking at conservatories, like The Juilliard School in New York.

Once she decides where she wants to study, the Sphinx Competition will help her get scholarships, she said.

The group also helps her get into summer programs.

Two years ago, Maria attended a program in England, where she was able to stay at Cambridge University. Last year, she studied in Canada. This summer, she will participate in a program at the Heifetz International Music Institute in Virginia.

The Sphinx Competition has also set up solo gigs for Maria in three orchestras throughout the country.

Next February and March, she will perform in the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, Florida.

In December, she will perform as a soloist in the Youth Orchestra in Fresno, California, followed by a performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in New York.

Anna is grateful for the doors the Sphinx Competition has opened for her youngest daughter.

“I know they started as just wanting to help people, and they’ve really given their all to it. It’s just amazing, the level of support,” she said.

“Because that’s what it takes in the classical world: It takes someone that goes the extra hundred miles, and that’s really what they’ve been doing for these kids.”

The family band

Maria is the youngest of Anna and Jerome Sanderson’s four children. She joins her older siblings in their love of the violin.

Her oldest brother, John, started it all. When he was younger, he would play the violin with his dad, who played the fiddle in local folk music groups, Anna said.

“John was the oldest and the star of the family, so they all wanted to do it, too,” she said. “We tried to turn them on to other things, actually.”

John, 27, now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is pursuing a country music career.

The second-oldest son, Misha, 25, lives in Chicago, where he makes violins. He just made his first commission from one of those instruments, his proud mother added.

“We were all waiting with bated breath to see how it sounds,” she said with a laugh.

Molly, 21, teaches violin full-time while attending the University of Wyoming, where she just finished her sophomore year.

Even though three of the birds have flown the nest, music still fills the home today thanks to Maria, who is homeschooled.

The family lives on top of a large hill which the family has to walk up during the winter — which also had some influence on the instruments the children could play.

“My husband said … ‘No cellos,’” Anna said.

The Sanderson family band used to perform around Brown County. When the children were growing up, the cooler months also meant their household was filled with music eight hours a day.

“We have a wood-burning stove, and it’s cold in the rest of the house. I can remember there was a point where everybody had two-hour slots right by the fire, so all day there would be, ‘OK, now it’s your turn by the fire.’ We’d all be kind of wanting to be close to the fire, so we’d all be kind of in the face of the person playing,” Anna said.

Violin is Maria’s main instrument, but she also sings and has played piano some, she said.

Despite her award-winning talent, she said she still gets nervous on stage.

“When I get nervous, it’s usually because I want to look good in front of people. If I think more about trying to express the composer and what he wants, and giving the music to people and not myself to people, then that really helps me,” she said.

“There’s something about music that just expresses you so fully, and you can really speak through it and it expresses all of your feelings,” she said.

“It just makes me really, really happy whenever I am playing it.”