My Story

I am a violist, teacher, nonprofit executive, skier, soccer fan, amateur mountain-biker, chronic introvert, mother of six plants and an adopted oversized pooch named Moochie, and wife to an amazing partner named Oded. I am a member of the Carr-Petrova Duo and the Iris Trio, I teach on faculty at the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and I am the founder and artistic director of the nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us.

Living a Contradiction

Over the past three decades my career path has developed into what many would consider outright “non-traditional.” While I have had the great honor of performing around the globe in such revered venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, etc… I have had the even greater honor and privilege of stepping behind prison walls to witness “hardened criminals” soften and weep at the sound of Beethoven’s string quartets, of standing at the bedside of hospital ICU patients to hold their hands and offer my best in their final minutes of life, of returning to federal correctional institutions to celebrate the miracle of opposing gang members becoming musical bandmates, of visiting refugee camps to offer the creative space for traumatized children to dance, sing, smile and freely express themselves for the first time in years. 

My “happy place” is anywhere I find myself in which I have the opportunity to empathetically connect with another. If you think this is a bit of a strange revelation coming from a self-labelled chronic introvert, I would have to agree! And if you would like to learn how I came to love living this contradiction, it would be my pleasure to share my journey with you through a (crazy long…) essay I wrote whilst pondering this very question below. Feel free to use the picture prompts below to guide you or to fast-forward to particular points in my story…

Molly Carr at Carnegie Hall

A Carnegie Hall Realization

Carnegie Hall, October 2019

“OMG! If you do that silly dance on Carnegie Hall stage – I’ll kill you! I’ll just kill you! Swear to me you won’t! SWEAR to me!”

My duo partner Anna Petrova’s pleading words bounced around chaotically in my head as I took a deep and rather panicked breath, gathered my skirts and charged out behind my fearless friend onto Carnegie Hall stage for our Carnegie Debut. My heart bounced up in my throat and my knees knocked as I came around the stage entrance and turned to bow, surveying the hundreds of faces I was certain had all come to judge and criticize every note I was about to play. The standard devlish voices immediately crept in and started to hiss and whisper… “You’re not worthy of this stage. You’re not ready for this concert. What were you thinking???” Oh my… I tried to remember what it was I had planned to say in my introductory words and took another deep breath, followed by what was probably an audible *gulp* before diving into my speech.

I tried to stay away from the dancing story. I really did. But somehow I found myself face to face with the choice… to dance? Or not to dance? And well…you guessed it. I danced. And as I hopped around Carnegie Hall stage on one leg in a scrunched up ball gown, I was shocked to suddenly witness the wall of judgmental faces begin roaring with laughter and supportive applause. My hopping ground to a halt, I glanced over and threw Anna a grin as she rolled her eyes and shrugged, and then I launched full speed ahead – this time without hesitation – and before I knew what was happening, the words were gushing from me with enthusiasm, emotion, conviction, and excitement.

The air in the room had changed and everyone from Anna smiling on stage next to me to the audience member seated in the last row knew it and felt it… 

As I closed my speech and began to put bow to string, I recognized a familiar warmth glowing in my chest. What had just happened??? My knees were no longer knocking, my breathing had steadied, my focus was clear. My fear of having to prove myself had all but dissolved into the release and relief of that moment of humor and human connection… well of course!! 

This warmth of encountering human connection – or as I like to call it “meeting of hearts” is my hard drive. My core. My home. And looking back on my past three decades, it has become increasingly apparent that this hard drive has been the underlying Northstar that has been ever presently shaping my life, my career, and who I am and choose to be in our world. Whether performing my viola in Carnegie Hall or a soup kitchen, teaching violists in several of the top conservatories around the world or in a refugee camp in Gaza, founding and growing a nonprofit to bring music into prisons and hospitals or designing a “Thanksgiving Triturkey Tournament” for family fun, soaking up intensely honest heart-to-heart conversation with a close friend or holding a speechless coma patient’s hand on her deathbed… all of these activities resonate that same place inside of me. That place where compassionate human connection breaks through isolation, where affirmation soothes fear, where honesty of expression can breathe free from the suffocation of judgement. Indeed, my Carnegie Hall “lightbulb moment” reaffirmed once again that apparently Molly Carr the violist, teacher, performer, wife, sister, daughter, dreamer, nonprofit executive, and chronic introvert… has a “power on switch.” And that switch is flipped the moment she honestly connects with another human – when empathetic hearts meet. And when that switch is flipped on, all of the pieces fall into place with clarity and purpose. But when it is off, the world becomes grey, scary, hollow, chaotic, and confused…

So how did the chronic introvert grow to thrive on human connection, you may ask?

The Homeschooled
Introvert

When I was 3 years old, my parents decided that my older sister would be homeschooled rather than attend the local public schools which did not seem to offer an education advanced and supportive enough for her precocious mind. And as the younger sibling tag-along, my reality from that point onward was comprised mostly of interactions with my mother (teacher), sister (my only classmate), and father (the school principal); afterschool playdates with my best friend Josh who lived down the block; and schoolwork – with the occasional trips to soccer practice, church, or homeschool group. Looking back now, my life was perfectly simple, quiet, focused, extremely protected, and very pure and honest. My daily interactions were with my best friend and family – and they were free, strong-willed, and naturally expressive. But any outside interactions were almost too much for me to handle. I became known in church groups as the girl who turned crimson red to the point her head might pop off if someone so much as asked her her name, and more than once my sister was asked if I was mute, because talking to strangers was too much of an effort or terror for me. Indeed, words seemed to get stuck in my throat and I tripped or choked whenever I tried to verbally share.

Molly Carr

The Short Straw: My Viola Debut

When I was six years old, my mother signed me up for a “homeschool orchestra” and asked me what instrument I would like to learn. My immediate answer was an enthusiastic, “THE DRUMS!!!” and I promptly began envisioning my life as a rockstar – touring the world with fog machines and strobe lights in tow. But alas, it was not to be. My international rockstar drumming career was cut short with a resounding “No way!” from the parents, and in the ensuing devastation and lamentation of a brilliant career cut short all too soon, my mother offered a consolation prize: “What about the violin?” I begrudgingly obliged and quickly discovered that I had an affinity for the instrument – although I knew with utmost clarity that climbing trees, catching lizards, and kicking soccer balls with Josh was definitely more fun. I practiced every day like my mother told me, but always with a bee in my bum waiting for the timer to go off so I could run outside to play again – until one fateful day, when I drew the short straw and my life unexpectedly changed forever.

When I was eleven years old, I stood in my violin teacher’s studio with two other violinists sentenced to drawing straws in order to determine who would serve as the violist in our first chamber music group; it was I who drew the short straw, and was thus handed a viola. Within the first few notes I played on the instrument, I recognized that there was something mysterious and even heart-rending in the melancholy timbre, deep tone, and even the new feel of this strange new instrument. It gripped my insides and somehow managed to uncover and coax out all those years of piled-up, choked-on words and deepest tucked away emotions that I had been too desperately shy to share for so many years. Immediately, my practice sessions changed from 30-minute “cause Mom said so” sessions to hours upon hours of exploration and enjoyment, pushing the limits and testing out the possibilities, conversing with utmost honesty in this new language with my new friend. In my own private world, my heart collided with that of Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Walton… as I discovered that they, too, had hidden emotions to share.

The Perlman Music Program: A Discovery of
Chamber Music

Within three years, I was invited to join the Perlman Music Program and here discovered the magic of this type of deep “mining of emotions” and honest conversations in chamber music. I was completely fascinated and fell in love with this mode of musical conversing among friends, and then and there decided with absolute clarity that this would be my life. Whatever this was – I wanted it. And I wanted it forever.

As a result, I devoted myself to hour after hour a day practicing my viola, aiming with relentless focus toward honing any and all tools needed to better access that space of deep conversation and connection with not only my own insides, but with those of the people, musicians, and new friends around me. My daily practicing became like an exciting treasure hunt, with the reward of personal fulfillment and purer expression as my coveted prize!

Molly Carr Perlman Music Programme

Early Successes: Meeting My Ego

Much to my surprise, this new level of commitment and dedicated focus began to garner local, national, then international attention – bringing home prizes, scholarships, and awards. And it was shocking and exciting! I started to hear unbelievable words like… “a potential on the level of ____” “…could be the next _____” “…she’s my favorite violist in the world…” and let me tell you – I ate it up!!!! I could not get enough of that delicious praise! But… with each new prize and each new delightful supportive comment, I started to realize that I was taking something else in for the first time: an ego. And with that ego, came a new and very uncomfortable feeling: fear. Fear of not living up to the expectations and generous, beautiful words of those who had chosen to support my chosen path, fear of proving all those competition judges wrong, and – worst of all – fear of not living up to my own new expectations and falling short of my new hopes and dreams. With each new award and each new honor, that uncomfortable feeling grew like a cancer inside of my chest to the point where it almost felt like a relentless chokehold on the expression. While the glory of a win would feed my ever-growing and ever-hungry ego beast for a brief, glowing moment, the ensuing terror of not being able to maintain that level of recognition set in ten-fold. It was brutal. And inevitably, the space, time, and focus on the precious and inspired “heart mining” I so loved began to diminish, replaced instead by the need to “prove myself” in order to maintain that place of recognition and praise.

As I entered music conservatory and moved to New York City in pursuit of my dreams, first at the Manhattan School of Music and then at the Juilliard School, this battle for my insides raged with full force and fury. It was my daily struggle and my clandestine terror – a terror that had grown into a monster that now was not only afraid of failure, but also had become afraid of people knowing I was afraid of the failure – compounding the fear in layer upon layer of suffocating secrecy. I began to question whether the “heart mining” had actually ever been there, and regular phone calls of “…I think I need to quit,” with my family and my closest friends became the norm. While I fought to fake arrogance, nonchalance, and the strength I thought those around me expected – hoping that if I faked it long enough maybe even I would begin to believe in the facade – I was incredibly fortunate to have a mentor who saw through this front and recognized the dichotomy inside of me: the incredible Heidi Castleman. In her generous, wise, and unassuming manner, she persistently encouraged me to fight for the time, space, and quiet needed for rediscovering and nourishing that honest, creative place – to re-encounter my core and protect the spark that was my first love. Many of our conversations I still think about daily and wonder at her superwoman wisdom, and a few of her words I even have written down to carry with me everywhere… “Creativity needs time, quiet, and space to flourish…” and “When you find what you love, fear will be an afterthought.”

A New Mode of Connection: A Discovery of Teaching

It was Heidi Castleman, in her great wisdom and foresight, who urged me toward teaching, bringing me into the Juilliard School’s Precollege Division in 2009. Precollege Saturdays became a place of respite and rediscovery for me; here I was surprised to find a new version of a “meeting of hearts.” Being able to be the one who could hold the space for another human to find their own voice and encourage and guide them toward that place of deep honest expression, I quickly realized was a miraculously fulfilling endeavor. That familiar warmth in my chest burned bright and I jumped in with both feet! I began teaching as much as I possibly could, always coming away with that same feeling, knowing my “on switch” had been relocated and flipped. 

But outside of teaching – even as I launched what from the outside looked like a fairly successful international chamber music career, performing across the US, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Asia and attending/teaching at many of the top chamber music festivals in the world – the secret battle for my insides between honest expression and the need to prove myself continued relentlessly. On the outside, I was living my dream. On the inside, the joy and excitement of “heart-mining” had all but disappeared and the phone calls of, “Mom, I feel trapped. I think I need to quit,” continued – until… whether by accident or by divine intervention, I was forced to quit.

Molly Carr "Music Heals Us"

A Shard of Glass:
A Severed Career & The Founding of  Project: Music Heals Us

On December 5th, 2013, the night before a chamber music concert tour across Israel, I shattered a glass bowl into a million little pieces into my left hand and my career as a performing violist came to a screeching halt. The ensuing months consisted of doctor’s appointments and painful surgeries, attempts to remove the seemingly invisible but impossibly painful glass shards – to little avail. I moved away from New York City to live with my family while my performing was on hold, and began to allow myself to consider possible alternate career paths, ultimately signing up for a nursing aide course with the American Red Cross as a first step.

Part of this course included a week-long residency in which I was given the opportunity to work one-on-one with a number of patients in a nursing home, and it was here that I met the woman who “180’d” my life and career: Ruth. Ruth was a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient who I was warned “hadn’t spoken in years,” could only “scream to communicate,” and “was very stubborn and difficult to work with.” I was advised by my mentor to “just get in and get out, get your job done, and harden yourself to the screams,” but when it was my turn to work with her, I could not do it. Her screams were too much for me and instead of pushing her to get on to the next patient, I chose instead to sit and simply hold her hand in silence. And in this silence, a miraculous thing happened… our hearts met and “the woman who had not spoken in years” turned to me and began speaking in complete sentences. I was amazed. I was elated. And my chest burned hot.

Each day as I continued my training, I saved a little extra time for those quiet moments with Ruth – and each day, the “speechless, difficult patient who only screamed,” would calmly converse with me. Upon the last day of the residency, as we shared another quiet moment, I promised Ruth that even though the residency was over, I would be coming back – but next time I hoped to converse with the voice with which I knew best how to speak my heart: through my viola.

As I left that day, I felt a heat in my chest unlike anything I had felt in years. My chest burned, radiated, and resonated with the truth, purity, and honesty of my connection with Ruth, and I felt a purpose, calling, drive, and forward motion that put everything else into its place. I needed those moments of connection. Ruth needed those moments of connection. Booyaaaah!! The suppressed 12-year-old who had first fallen in love with music woke up with a vengeance and I knew I had found my home again. I called my family and told them with urgency, “I’m starting a concert series that will exist to reach the forgotten in our society. I’m starting it now, and it’s going to be called Project: Music Heals Us.

“When you find what you love, fear will become an afterthought…”

Not playing my viola was not an option anymore; I picked my instrument up again and buckled down on readjusting my technique to simply maneuver around the glass if it could not be removed. I drew up a plan of launching Project: Music Heals Us within a timeline of six months and set upon it with a ferocious energy. I set up meetings with complete strangers – with CEO’s, with prison wardens, with church leaders, with politicians. I called food pantries, prisons, homeless shelters, hospices, hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes… searching for any and every space I could find that might house others like Ruth. I found myself asking fearlessly for support and discovered I no longer cared whether I choked or stumbled upon words, or my face was crimson red, or my knees knocked… I simply had to find a way to meet those in isolation and offer what Ruth had given me and healed me with – that compassionate human connection, that “meeting of hearts.”

PMHU’s first concert was for Ruth. I brought my friends, colleagues and mentors from Juilliard and Marlboro back to play for her and watched in awe as the decades of love, struggle, and care I had poured into my musical voice washed over her and her tensed body and harrowed brow released and transformed into a wide-eyed and wondrous smile within minutes. I was elated, I was humbled, and I was home – and once again, my path forward was clear. I committed to working day and night to expand PMHU’s reach to be able to offer that same smile to as many others as possible, and as a result, witnessed “hardened criminals” in maximum security prisons soften and weep, opposing gang members become musical bandmates, unresponsive coma patients smile moments from the end, refugee children dancing, singing, smiling and freely expressing themselves for the first time in years…

Interestingly, as my focus aimed more and more in the direction of building and growing PMHU, I began to receive comments from my mentors and colleagues about my viola playing such as, “Wow, you’re improving so much, Molly!” It was my little secret that I was actually practicing much less than I had ever practiced before in my life – but I knew something was dramatically different, too: my switch had been flipped, my core hard drive had been accessed and my heart was once again steering the ship. Whether performing for a gymnasium filled with inmates or a hall filled with Lincoln Center audience members – my role and purpose was clear and my heart was full.

“But creativity needs time, quiet, and space to flourish…”

Molly Carr - Project: Music Heals Us

The Carr-Petrova Duo: Rediscovering My Voice

Within a few years, though, something strange began to happen inside of me. Those inspiring spaces for “meeting of hearts,” began slowly to lose some of their vibrancy and began to feel instead like exhausting emotional strains. At times it felt as if my heart and life force were being relentlessly stretched out over too much terrain, and I started to frequently come away from what should have been beautiful, connective moments with something all too close to that hollowness and grey I had come to know too well. Was I losing my passion?? How could this be???  

It wasn’t until I was forced to “up my game” in my own personal viola-playing through a new collaboration with my friend and colleague Anna Petrova as we formed the Carr-Petrova Duo that I realized what had begun to take place inside of me. Since that day at Ruth’s bedside, so much of my life force had been poured into creating and holding those spaces for others’ “hearts to meet,” that in so doing, I had essentially put my own needs for the time, space, and quiet needed for my own personal heart-mining aside in the interest of “service to others.” And as a result, I had once again begun to lose touch with the very thing that fueled me to serve others and the very thing I was dedicating myself to offering. Yikes. How arrogant of me! Did I think I was superhuman or a machine? How could I believe I was any different from those PMHU served? Connection can’t be one-sided.

Luckily, my fearless friend Anna pushed me toward this realization and our work together demanded that I hold that quiet place for myself where I, too, could be allowed the space to listen and reconnect with my OWN insides, re-encountering and encouraging that voice that had grabbed and inspired me from the day I drew the short straw back at eleven years old. Indeed, with a friend like this at my side, my “rehabilitation” was swift – and the feeling that it was OK to fill that creative space in harmony with another was like drinking a gold elixir. A big deep fresh drink of the purest water on the planet. A true meeting of the hearts. A deep, honest, and inspiring conversation between close friends.

What Fuels It All

Carnegie Hall, October 2019 (Recap)

As I considered the journey that led me to this point, my attention returned to the full house of people who had somehow become our friends in the span of 20 minutes, cheering wildly for us in front of Carnegie Hall stage and I beamed over at Anna, feeling with a clarity that resonated down to my bones: “Yup. THIS. We found it.” My shoulders came down, my heart opened, we settled in and let it rip… in a performance the critics later labeled “…indescribable. Carr and Petrova brought their astonishing musicianship and power to the forefront, and never let go” – Translation?? “Hearts met, and their switches turned… ON.” ​

Anna Petrova, Molly Carr

My Conclusion

Yup. It is this deep, honest meeting of hearts that I now recognize fuels, drives, and fulfills every element of my life – both musical and otherwise. From snuggle sessions with my silly pooch Moochie, to deeply emotional and often philosophical discussions with my husband, to hilarious game nights with friends, to building and running a nonprofit, to teaching at three conservatories, to rehearsing chamber music, to skiing or sitting around a campfire with my best friend, to backpacking with family, to playing for a room full of inmates, to singing folk songs with refugee children, to practicing open strings on my viola, to empathizing with and guiding a student’s dreams and struggles… Indeed, the act of creating, holding, and encouraging that precious space for myself and others where “hearts can meet” is my core, my joy, my calling, and is what I hope to spend every day discovering and rediscovering.