Jenny Oaks Baker and a career built for the goodnight kisses

Published: Tuesday, June 17 2014 4:45 p.m. MDT

From her home near Washington, D.C., she plays a role that is markedly different than the one she has on stage. She stays up until midnight most nights to get everything done. She spends 2½ hours a day coaching the practices of her two youngest children while the other two children practice on their own (“I’m still yelling at them,” says Baker with a laugh). Laura 12, plays the violn; Hannah 11, piano; Sara, 9, cello; and Matthew, 7, classical guitar. When the family goes on vacation, the kids take their instruments and their mother arranges to have a piano on site so they can continue their routine. She also does the usual mundane chores of meal preparation and cleaning and driving kids to soccer games and dance lessons.

“It’s so hard,” she says. “So hard! I’m just grateful for the Sabbath day. It helps you regroup.”

In many ways, her children are living the life she lived. She grew up in Salt Lake City, the daughter of Dallin H. and June Oaks. Her father is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, and before that he was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, president of BYU and a Utah Supreme Court justice.

June stayed home and reared the six children. She was the central figure in Jenny’s life and musical development. Jenny was born 13 years behind the other children, when June was 42, and raised as a virtual only child. “My mother completely devoted her life to me and the development of my talents,” Jenny says. The most difficult challenge she faced while attending school in the East was leaving June behind.

Jenny began violin lessons at 4, performed her first solo on stage four years later with the Utah Valley Symphony and at 12 won first place in the music competition at the Utah State Fair. By the time she was a teenager she was practicing four hours a day while also holding down AP and honors classes at East High, singing for the madrigals and playing for the tennis team. She was so sleep deprived that she slept through dates.

“One time a blind date picked me up, and we watched two different movies and I slept through both of them, and then he took me home and never asked me out again,” she says. “Go figure.”

June used a few tricks to guide Jenny’s development as a violinist. Knowing that her daughter detested practice but loved to perform, she bribed the neighbor kids with homemade cookies to lure them to the house for an audience.

“It was never my mom’s dream to have a violinist, but she was determined to have me reach my potential,” says Baker. “She would always remind me, ‘Jenny, get up there and practice!’ ”

Jenny had a love-hate relationship with her music, but she embraced it anyway. She once complained to her mother about the dearth of dates and friends, to which June replied: “You don’t have time for friends. Just practice really hard in high school and then date to your heart’s content at BYU.”

But then she wound up winning a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and her social life grew worse, not better. She threw herself into her art. She was the first one to arrive at school to practice each morning and the last one to leave, and then only because she was kicked out of the building at the 11 p.m. closing time. She practiced six to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

“It was miserable,” she says. “I was so lonely. It’s all I did for four years. If I were a man, I’d say those four years were my mission. I dedicated myself wholeheartedly. I was the only Mormon in the school. I was good friends with (classmates and renowned violinists) Leila Josefowicz and Hilary Hahn, but I didn’t find a best friend certainly. I was busy. I was not looking to hang out. My mom was my best friend. I called her every night at 11.”

When she began a master’s program at Juilliard, she learned that her mother had cancer. It had been June’s ardent wish that Jenny get married. On the day the family fasted for June, Jenny met Matt Baker at a singles ward in Manhattan under what she calls “miraculous circumstances.” They married in March 1998; June died in July.

“That was the hardest thing I have ever gone through,” says Baker. “It has been 16 years and it is still painful.” She titled her second CD, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

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