If the strings on Sterling Jenkins' violin were flammable, you'd better believe that this young man would be burnt to a crisp by now. The bow flies back and forth so fast that the blur actually looks like smoke. And as for the sound he makes, well, that's pretty hot stuff, too.
Jenkins, at age 23, is unquestionably one of the best young violinists this city has produced, having made his debut at the age of 6 at St. Albans' Trapier Theater playing the Bach Double Concerto.
He has won numerous awards, including the National Orchestral Association Concerto Competition in 1985, and was a finalist in the National Symphony Orchestra Young Soloist Competition in 1982.
Last summer, he played first violin for the Teatro Petruzzeli Orchestra in the opera, "Aida," which was performed at the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Upon his return to Washington, he headed off to Philadelphia for further study with world-renowned violin teacher Raphael Druian.
On the surface, it seems quite amazing that a black kid from Washington would emerge as a rising star on the classical music scene, but when you listen to his mother and father talk about the ingredients that went into the making of his success, there is no mystery to the formula at all.
"The first thing is to be able to recognize a child's talent and take an interest in it," said his father, Timothy Jenkins.
"When he was 7 months old, I took him backstage at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rally," recalled his mother, Lauretta Jenkins. "He pulled himself up on the knees of a guitar player and began tapping on the guitar to the beat of the music."
Today, Sterling can still remember the first time he held a violin, which belonged to a girl who lived next door to him. He was 4 years old.
"I grabbed the bow with my fist and made a scrapping noise," he said. "I really liked the sound." Three weeks after taking music lessons, he was playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
But while having talent helped, it was by no means enough.
"What made all the difference in the world was encouragement and recognition," his father said. "For the black artist, that means support from the black community."
It takes money, to be sure, for the purchase of instruments and instruction as well as exposure to other musicians. But parents willing to take the time will find all of the ingredients right here in Washington.
Looking back over his outstanding life, Sterling cites the Washington D.C. Youth Talent Search and the D.C. Youth Orchestra as places where he received critical support.
This solid background came in quite handy as he matured and discovered that the going only got tougher. As a student at Oberlin College, for example, he was the only black playing in the orchestra. All others chose to play jazz -- or nothing at all.
"For so long, the classical music establishment had rejected blacks and now it seemed that blacks were rejecting classical music," Lauretta Jenkins said. "The result is that there are still far too few blacks in major orchestras."
With this in mind, Sterling knew what he had to do to change things. While in high school, he'd take a Trailways bus to Baltimore to study at the Peabody Preparatory School.
His parents never had to push him to practice. When other parents asked them how they got him to spend so much time working with his music, they were often surprised to hear the answer: They did nothing.
Part of the secret, no doubt, was Sterling's violin music repertoire. How could one not want to play Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington written for violin?
On Sunday, Sterling performed in a Young Virtuosi concert at the Evans Tibbs Gallery in Northwest Washington. The event had been sponsored by the Urban Philharmonic Society, founded by Darrold Hunt, which specializes in promoting the involvement of blacks in classical music.
Now, with guidance from respected composers such as Gunther Schuller and teachers like Druian, young Sterling is well on his way to reaching his goal of being an influential black concert violinist and orchestral composer.
Until that day arrives, of course, he'll continue setting the ears of his international audiences on fire.