Elizabeth Stein, CSO League president

Elizabeth Stein has made a life of music. She's a dealer of fine antique and modern musical instruments. She books musicians for events around the area. She began a two-year term as president of the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in July, bringing music to new audiences through various outreach programs.

Most important, Stein is a musician.

"She will say she's played the violin since forever," says Karen Lewis Alexander, the CSO's vice president of development. "Music is a part of her. It's why she has such a connection with musicians."

Stein was 8 when she was introduced to the violin in the Winnetka public schools. Now 54, she lives in downtown Chicago and works out of an eighth-floor studio in the landmark Fine Arts Building, whose tall windows offer a sweeping view of the lakefront.

The space is often home to recitals and receptions, and if a Champagne cork pops loudly while Stein is performing — something she still does on occasion — she and her fellow musicians will smile and "pop" their strings in return.

Two years ago, Stein entered into a business partnership with Jeff Dixon, of Dixon Strings. Their company, Dixon Stein, sells, repairs and restores antique and modern violins, violas, cellos and bows.

Following is an edited transcript.

Q: Did you have an "aha" moment with the violin?

A: The minute I picked it up.

Q: Did you realize from the beginning what you needed to do to be a violinist?

A: Yes. Practice forever. I was so dedicated. In high school I'd practice for an hour before school. I'd practice during my lunch break. I'd run home and practice first and then do my homework. My friends would call, and I'd be like, "I can't talk, I can't talk, I have to practice." It was a little bit obsessive. At some point, my parents said, "You have got to have a life and go out and play with your friends." I didn't really want to, but in the long run it was good because, as it turns out, later in life I learned that I loved the combination of the music world and the business world. So, it was good to branch out. I went to the University of Michigan instead of a conservatory to be a little bit more well-rounded.

Q: You had a four-year performance scholarship to the University of Michigan. And then you got a master's degree in violin performance from Northwestern University. Were you aiming to be a performing artist?

A: At that point I was thinking to have that degree for teaching in a university. I did get placed right after graduating to teach Suzuki Method in the Winnetka schools. I thought I'd teach and play, but teaching was not my thing. I'm not a natural teacher. I stopped teaching and I started freelancing full time.

Q: Yet you decided to go into business, ultimately opening the Elizabeth Stein Co. in 2006, selling rare and antique instruments. Why?

A: I think it was the lifestyle. My first job was during the day. There were set hours, a set paycheck. With freelance (performing), some months were great, some months were dead. Most of it is in the evening and a real hustle (with) traveling.

Q: Dixon Stein is national? International?

A: International. The world these days has gotten so small. To be doing business in China today would be like doing business in New York years ago. I travel when we have to. Sometimes it's actually necessary. If you have a Stradivari or a high-end instrument, you have to hand-carry it and show it in person. If you have a cello, you have to buy it a ticket. You buy the cello a coach seat, and it has to go by the bulkhead, and you get the window. Back when they served food on the plane, the cello would get its own meal.

Q: How does Dixon Stein differ from what you did before?

A: Dixon Strings brought in their rental program, which Elizabeth Stein Co. didn't have. And they brought in a lot more variety of the modern instruments and a lot younger clientele. Elizabeth Stein Co. dealt only in rare old instruments. The merger brought the studio back to life. Jeff and I are able to deal with the modern, the young and the old instruments and the collectors.

Q: What is the biggest lesson you've learned in your career?

A: To involve myself in music activities that make me happy and make other people happy, and enjoy and appreciate music.

Q: Before you became CSO League president, you were on the board of directors for the River North Dance Chicago company. Why?

A: I love dance, especially contemporary jazz dance. It is my most serious interest outside of music. I think it is the energy, the flow, the expression through the dance and the coordination with the music.

Q: You lived in New York for a while but returned to Chicago 20 years ago. Will Chicago always be your home?

A: I see myself in Chicago forever and ever. I love to travel, and it's an easy city to travel from.

Q: Where do you like to travel?

A: Anywhere in Europe. I still go to New York once a month.

Q: Do you still practice daily?

A: A little bit every day. I do gigs mostly for fun. I like to play more jazz now.

Q: How has your approach to performance changed over the years?

A: As I started playing less, I started getting stage fright. I (became) unsure of myself because I wasn't doing it enough. So now, mind over matter. I started having to just mentally get over it. I'm doing it because I enjoy it. It shouldn't be torture. I go out there and have fun.


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