Melissa Lisbão-Underwood graduated magna cum laude from Mason Gross School of the Arts with a Bachelor’s degree in violin performance. She was lucky to study under Francesca dePasquale, a phenomenal violinist who not only taught her how to play at a very high level but also modeled excellent teaching. Melissa believes that music connects people to themselves and to each other, and teaching music means building a more integrated world. Having learned through the Suzuki method at the age of four, she balances her classes by teaching not just technique but also ear-training, improvisation and musicianship. Melissa celebrates diverse learning styles, and always draws on what she observes of her students–their interests, their ways of understanding. As a teacher she aims to inspire her students, help them construct positive habits, embrace challenges, and celebrate their achievements as they develop their own personal voice within music. Melissa teaches both classical violin as well as Irish fiddle and beginner piano.
When did you begin playing Violin, and why?
I started learning violin at the age of four in a group setting along with my best friend. We learned through the Suzuki method, which states that music is a language anyone can learn. I did not choose violin and I barely remember my life before my first lesson. But I remember the exhilarating feeling of drawing the bow across the string, the surprising power of sound coming out of in such a small and fragile instrument, and how it expressed what I couldn’t put into words. The violin chose me. I didn’t always love practicing, but my family pushed me, and I’m glad they did. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t been given that opportunity as a kid. It has taught me the joy that comes out of working hard at something that is difficult. It has taken me many places and connected me with many people. It is an extension of myself.
What other instruments do you play, and what is your experience with them?
Growing up I took lessons on piano but I put it down for many years because violin became central. Over the past year however, I have started practicing piano every day, and studying harmony with the intention of writing my own music. I am in the process of writing music that incorporates violin, piano and voice—I also sing. I sang throughout high school and performed in musical theater and choirs throughout my life.
What are your personal goals as a musician?
I want to learn everything there is to know about music (which is probably impossible!), to be the best violinist and songwriter I can be, and to inspire my students. I’m always preparing and planning for recitals in the Philadelphia area. I am also working on releasing an album, using Ableton—a digital audio workstation—to produce the music.
Do you have a memory of a time when a musical concept or technique really clicked? Something you’ll remember forever?
I don’t remember when I learned it, but one of the most important musical concepts to understand is that the ‘rest’ in music is part of music and not a break from it. In the same way that architecture defines and shapes space, music defines and shapes silence. Music and silence are in an infinite dance together.
What is your favorite piece of advice from one of your past (or current) teachers?
“Nothing is ever too hard. It only takes practice.”
What was your most challenging moment learning an instrument
When I turned thirteen I started to develop some stage anxiety. Ever since then performing wasn’t easy the way it was for me as a kid, when it just felt like enjoying a delicious meal. Now performing takes courage. There are many natural challenges that arise in any art form. Discomfort is something you have to accept and work instead of let control you. This challenge, if accepted, makes you a better musician. I changed from a complacent child to an adult who had to practice humility, trust and openness. Challenges are also an opportunity to get creative. At one point the anxiety was so bad that I didn’t want to perform. So I said to myself “ok, I won’t perform. Constanza Libre (my alter-ego) will perform instead of me.” She did. It was the freest I’ve felt on stage in a while. The more we practice courage and creativity the more alive we are!
What is your biggest musical achievement?
I won a competition and played in Carnegie Hall when I was fifteen. On the outside this seems like the biggest achievement. But to me it’s not. The biggest achievement to me is every time I pick up the violin to practice, especially after a violin lesson with my teacher that shows me how much I have still to learn. The biggest achievements are invisible to everyone but yourself.
Favorite thing about teaching?
When I see a student overcome a challenge that they thought they couldn’t take on—that is what teaching is all about. You see a light switch on inside them and they start to emanate it. I love to see something click in my students. When they understand something in their own way, all of a sudden, or when they come into class and say ‘look what I can do!’ I’ve learned over time that teaching isn’t like handing over knowledge as if it were a bag of possessions, but inviting the student to trust the process and trust themselves—especially, to trust that they’re capable of more than they think they are. Challenges are opportunities for growth.
What is a piece of advice you would like to share with anyone learning music?
Listen to a lot of music. Know what you love. Listen to music without judging it. Expand what you love to listen to. When it comes to playing, there’s a reason it’s called ‘play’. Play with others. When it comes to the practice, consistency is key.
Personal music projects:
I have two shows coming up in the Philadelphia area in May and in September both with my friend who is a wonderful pianist. The first show will include works by Brahms, Reena Esmail, Clara Schumann, Bartok and de Falla. In September we will play Ravel, Beethoven, Mason Bates and others. I play traditional Irish fiddle music with local groups in the area and am currently working on my own compositions and plan to release an album of original works sometime in the near future.