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Student violinist's accomplishments worthy of a bow

With a slew of awards to her name and a spot playing the violin in the Montclair State University orchestra this fall, Danielle Sinclair said she is happy she ended up attending Lansdowne High School.

When Danielle Sinclair received the notice in the mail four years ago that she had been wait-listed for admission at the Baltimore School for the Arts, she was crushed.

"I think I might have ripped up the letter, to be honest," she said on her reaction to the conditional acceptance by the Baltimore City high school that offers "training in the arts combined with a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum," according to its website.

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But time heals all and, with a slew of awards to her name and a spot playing the violin in the Montclair State University orchestra this fall, Sinclair said she is happy she ended up attending Lansdowne High School.

"If it was meant to be, I would have gotten in," said the talented violinist.

And at Lansdowne, she has managed just fine.

In the past year, Sinclair has received the Semper Fidelis Award for Musical Excellence from the Marine Corps, the award for Outstanding Senior Instrumentalist at Lansdowne High and the LHS Performing Arts Award, in addition to completing an AP course in music theory and qualifying for all-state in violin.

For almost all of her success, she credits attending Lansdowne High School.

"No one really expects someone from Lansdowne, or even Arbutus, to come up and make an all-state orchestra," the Arbutus resident said. "It's a lot less pressure on me, but I put the pressure on myself."

For her mother, Darla Sinclair, watching her daughter grow and succeed as both a musician and a student has been exciting.

From the time she was little, she said, her oldest daughter as been driven by her own internal ambition.

"I don't know where she got it from," said Darla Sinclair, whose youngest daughter is 10. "Because it certainly wasn't me."

As her daughter took on advanced placement courses and added to her extra curricular activities, she found the job of raising a teenager to be more about trying to slow her down than to motivate her.

That, she said, Sinclair does for herself.

"My job as parent is to be the brakes," she said, on her attempts to make sure Danielle doesn't overburden herself with her commitments and goals. "When other kids were out at the mall, she was home practicing."

She remembers the first time she knew there was something about her daughter's playing. It was during a band concert when Danielle was in the fifth grade. The students were all playing a song together, studying their music closely, and Sinclair was looking out at the audience. In middle school, the band teacher approached Darla to tell her daughter had real potential.

Graduation next month will be bittersweet for Lansdowne teacher Christopher Bassett, who has taught Sinclair as director of the school's orchestra for four years.

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"She's a wonderful student," he said. "Which is kind of surprising for a student who is a such a high ability level."

From her freshman year, Bassett said, he could tell Sinclair was special.

In her first couple years at the school, she led many students in the music department by example, he said, quietly setting the bar for other students to imitate. By her senior year though, she had started to really take on a leadership role in the groups she plays with, offering help to other students when needed and leading warm-ups, he said.

Sinclair is by far the most talented musician Bassett said he has taught at Lansdowne, and the music department is better for it. In trying to ensure that Sinclair and some of her other high-level peers have been continuously challenged, the department has added a number of new features and programs, he said.

One of the new additions is student involvement in the pit orchestra that performs as part of the school's musical theater program. The initiative was begun Sinclair's freshman year, Bassett said, and will continue after she graduates to give students the chance to experience that kind of work.

"Her being here has helped to raise the quality of the program," he said. "Her being part of [the music department] has sort of forced the music department to raise the bar."

Coming from a family with no particular formal music background beyond her dad, Colby Millen, occasionally playing the drums, Sinclair's path to the violin was by chance. In third grade, she went to see the middle school band perform and was captivated by the violinist. She decided then and there, she said, that she wanted to be the girl on stage with the violin.

She began playing the violin in fifth grade. It took two years, she said, before she became comfortable with the movements and the sounds, though she says she's never completely comfortable or satisfied with her playing. By middle school, she had been named to the honors band, and in high school, the improvement has continued.

In addition to her work with the school band, she also takes private violin lessons regularly and performs with the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The group's final concert of the season is Sunday, May24, at 3 p.m. at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

That experience with orchestra, where she plays with some of the most talented teens from around the Baltimore area, has been particularly enjoyable, she said. After a short stint with the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra, the BSYO before it became associated with the BSO, she returned to the group after she learned that they would be instructed by, and work with, artists from the BSO.

At first, she said, she was terrified. "We don't all know each other," she said, adding that she is the only Lansdowne student in the band. "Some of us have never spoken."

Today, she is a section leader. "I have no words to describe how much I've learned there," she said. It even helped her find her college. Ken Lam, artistic director of the BSYO, is also the director of the Montclair State University orchestra, where Sinclair will play in the fall.

The work ethic that has garnered Sinclair so much praise on the stage doesn't end there either.

While many teens use senior year as a period to relax and take it easy before heading off to college or into the workforce, Sinclair has spent her senior year enrolled in AP calculus, AP government, AP English and a host of other challenging courses.

After learning in middle school that the school awards students who manage to maintain a 4.0 throughout their three years at Lansdowne Middle, she took it as a challenge. In high school, she has continued her 4.0 streak. Though she won't know for certain until graduation at the end of the month, she is confident she will graduate from Lansdowne with a 4.0 overall grade point average, good enough to earn her salutatorian honors.

"It's just like a personal accomplishment at this point," she said, admitting that calculus and government knowledge probably won't come in too handy in her future career.

In the fall, she will head to Montclair State University in New Jersey. She tried out for, and earned a place with, the school's orchestra in February after performing alongside the group at Carnegie Hall in December. She will study music and after college, she said she hopes to play professionally, in a Broadway pit band or for films or another professional venue.

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No matter what she ends up doing, her teacher, Bassett said, he is sure it will involve a violin.

"I have no doubt she'll be successful in whatever she does," he said.

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