Lindsey Stirling always gets back up

Lindsey Stirling is the world’s most prominent violinist. She’s also its most unstoppable

She’s always reminding herself. Whether before a concert or on a hike with friends, after a concert or in Arizona with family, even alone at her Los Angeles home, Lindsey Stirling gives herself regular mental nudges, little reminders to buoy her through the low moments. 

You’d be forgiven if you doubted that she needs such affirmations, that there could even be low points in the life of Lindsey Stirling.

At 34, she’s a star of and for the modern era: an experimental violinist who dances while she performs and who rose to global prominence on the strength of her YouTube channel, now 12 million subscribers strong. She’s toured the world. She’s collaborated with artists ranging from neo-soul standout John Legend to country duo Dan + Shay to a cappella legends Pentatonix. And she’s brought the timeless tones of the violin to an otherwise uninterested audience. She’s not an elite violin player; she’s not an elite dancer; she’s not even an elite video editor or director; but she’s very good at all three. And by putting them together, she’s become arguably the world’s most well-known violinist, who on July 10, coronavirus outbreaks pending, will fill the 20,000-seat USANA Amphitheatre near Salt Lake City. 

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Here, in the waning days of a global pandemic, everyone’s trying to rediscover their footing. For Stirling, the uncertainty predates the lockdown, but with more time alone with her thoughts, more time to dissect each interaction, each conversation, some old issues have resurfaced. 

Those feelings of doubt were blessedly absent as a child, when she got her first “violin” (a cereal box with a paper towel roll for a neck), or as a teen, when she competed in a pageant and, on a whim, decided mixing violin and dance would offer her best chance to stand out, thus setting in motion her niche career. The feelings started to simmer during her college years at BYU and during her 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York. They manifested first as an eating disorder that destroyed friendships and threatened her health. They progressed into anxiety and depression, into a catch-all question that informed her impressions of family and fortune and friends and fame: Am I enough?

Seeing her perform, you’d never know it. What Stirling does best is captivate. Wearing outlandish suspenders, colorful tutus, skeleton-print leotards or some combination thereof, she twists and swivels and jolts across the stage, all the while sawing away on her electric fiddle. The dancing limits the music, and the music limits the dancing. Again, the trick is doing them together and packaging them with a tremendous production value, whether in person or online. 

The world first took notice of Stirling’s unique skill set when she competed on “America’s Got Talent” on Aug. 3, 2010. A loud buzz interrupted her national television debut. The buzzer signifies failure, signifies that at least one judge felt the performance was beyond redemption and should stop then and there. To this day, when she hears that song — “Tik Tok,” by Ke$ha — she hears that buzz. One judge told her she wasn’t good enough to fill a theater in Las Vegas, while another told her she “sounded like a bunch of rats being strangled.” She cried in a backstage bathroom until a custodian kicked her out. “I don’t know that I would’ve gotten off that stage and ever wanted to perform again,” Jennifer Stirling, Lindsey’s older sister, says. “She’s brave.” She did take some time off from playing her violin, but by year’s end, she was performing small concerts at universities across the country, sometimes at noon in the cafeteria. But she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Everyone, it seemed, thought she was just too unusual to be marketable. Until she got a message through YouTube from a video producer named Devin Graham. 

Graham had also attended BYU, and he came across Stirling’s “America’s Got Talent” audition. “I’m always looking for talent that’s unique, and I’d never seen someone play the violin and dance at the same time,” he says. “There was something special about that.” The two partnered, and Graham ended up filming about 25 videos for Stirling’s channel. One, filmed in front of ice castles in Colorado and featuring an original song called “Crystallize,” racked up over a million views in a single day. “It continued to accelerate after that,” Jennifer Stirling says, “which shocked me a little bit. I shouldn’t say shocked, but I guess I’ve just never thought as big as Lindsey has.” Using what was then the novel technique of building a fanbase through social media, Lindsey Stirling was able to launch her performance career. She soon toured the world, from Prague to Perth. 

But her large following did little to impress the musical mainstream.

The New York Times, for one, echoed the comments of the judges on “America’s Got Talent.” A review co-written by the paper’s pop critic and classical musical critic in 2014 begins by calling Stirling “one of the most unlikely music phenomena in recent years.” The pop critic, however, goes on to call her violin playing “grating and naive,” says her dancing leaves him “uneasy and unimpressed” and, with verbiage that can only be read in a voice droned with condescension, calls her music generally “cold, vague and almost mistlike in its inconsequentiality.” His classical counterpart agreed, calling Lindsey “a competent though hardly dazzling player” and wondered if her songs are only popular as “study music for nerdy teenage girls.” They’re hardly alone. In an article posted by the Murphy Music Academy — whose blunt slogan is “There is no pleasure in mediocrity” — the author openly acknowledges that Lindsey is the most talked-about violinist in classical music circles only because of “her pubescent fan-club and their mothers who immediately assume, upon discovering you are a violinist, that you must revere Ms. Stirling as being at the top of your art form.” There’s even an (admittedly very small) subreddit called “Lindsey Stirling Sucks.” 

The worst criticism of them all, though, came when Stirling was 28 and was invited to perform with singer Andrea Bocelli and London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She felt honored and accepted. But, “within minutes of arriving at my first rehearsal,” she writes in her memoir, “all the excitement drained from my body, instantly replaced by insecurity and fear.” Bocelli openly ignored her, and the other violinists openly snickered. On her first night, Bocelli snubbed her when taking post-show bows. On the second, he cut her first song. After the third night of the “slaughter,” she left. But that performance stayed with her, along with the self-doubt inflicted from all the negative reviews. When asked whether she still doubts herself even now, after all her undeniable success, she says, “Absolutely.”

In spite of her critics, she’s won a pair of Billboard Music Awards, as well as YouTube’s Artist of the Year Award. Her fans are legion and worldwide, drawn to her brightness and flare that punctuate her art.

But it’s not only music or performance where she’s found herself wondering whether she’s enough. About three years ago, after finishing a tour, she took a vacation with a group of friends. Touring can become repetitive, and fame can make a person question their relationships. “I found myself wondering, ‘What do I bring to the table if I’m not a performer?’ I just didn’t know who I was in that space of just being.” One longtime friend, McKay Stevens, has seen these fears bubble up many times. He’s known Stirling since her days in Provo, when he met her at Velour Live Music Gallery and was so impressed by her uniqueness and gumption that he asked her to perform with his band. He’s seen Stirling’s questions of self-worth serve her well, as fuel for her unceasing ambition. He’s also seen the weight of their burden.

“It’s probably helped her find that huge success in her career, and to outshine everyone else that was doing stuff on YouTube,” he says. “But it’s also the curse of not really being able to rest in the peace or confidence of knowing what you’ve done is enough.”

Stirling has spent a lot of time in Arizona over the past year, with her family and her faith. “No matter what,” she says, “I can kneel down and pray, and I can call my family.” She’s needed to as the pandemic has shuttered much of the music industry. Even though her fan base is more internet-centric than most, she still makes most of her money from touring and merchandise. She had just landed in Colombia to start a South American tour on the day in March 2020 when the world changed and coronavirus lockdowns took hold. She hasn’t performed since. 

The fact that she’s an established talent hasn’t made the downtime any easier. It never has. “I almost feel like the pressure gets greater (as my career progresses),” she says. “Because there’s more at stake.” Indeed, she’s at the center of a microeconomy, with managers and marketers and musicians and crew members relying on her to make their living. She also still pushes herself creatively, which is why she’s experimented with podcasting and TikTok during the pandemic. In some ways, that disruption to her usual routine has been rejuvenating. But it’s also allotted more time for questions of inadequacy, along with the accompanying depression and anxiety, to flare up. 

Those bouts of depression and anxiety, of hopelessness, of feeling like she’s not good enough as a performer or daughter or friend, she’s realized, never really go away. But she’s learning to accept them and deal with them. She knows, to borrow her own phrasing, that when times get tough, she can kneel before God, and she can call her family, always. So when critics write bitter reviews, or when she longs for motherhood — her next major goal in life — or when she takes the USANA stage this summer, she’ll turn to them for wisdom and guidance and reassurance, and yes, she’ll remind herself once more. “I’m always wondering, just being me, am I enough?” she says. “And I’m trying to learn, over and over again, that yes I am.”

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.