You don't have to conform to be accepted. The greatest value comes from loving yourself for who you are.
That's one message that Lindsey Stirling, international dancing rock-star violinist, wants to share with young people.
"The message I’ve tried to live my whole life is not feeling like you ever have to fit into any sort of box. The world will try and try to get you to conform," Stirling said during her recent stop in Salt Lake City. "Just remember that your value comes from loving yourself for who you are. First and foremost, we are children of God. Then it’s up to us to define who we are."
Take it from a woman who overcame outright rejection from experts in the music industry, along with an eating disorder. Today, the LDS returned missionary who attended BYU is sharing her unique talents all over the globe, has more than 140,000 Twitter followers, 871,000 likes on Facebook and more than 285 million views on her YouTube channel.
It all started with violin lessons.
As a young girl, Stirling used to attend free orchestra concerts in parks or community centers with her parents in the Los Angeles area. At home, classical music was played on an old record player. By age 6, she started begging for violin lessons.
After a year of pleading, her parents rented a violin from a college music student and paid the young woman to give their daughter a 15-minute lesson each week.
"My parents were like, 'It's a sacrifice for us to give you these lessons.' I mastered it because I knew that if I didn't practice, I'd get no more lessons," Stirling said. "No one else thought a child could learn from 15-minute lessons, but my mom said, 'It’s all I can afford.' So this one gal took me on and I’ve played almost every day since then."
About a decade later, Stirling had grown to love the violin but was burned out on classical music. To energize herself, she joined a rock band and started experimenting with different styles of music. She started to mix the violin with dance elements and found it to be exhilarating. She began performing at talent competitions to earn money for college.
"It was a hit and miss. I thought this could be something new and cool. In the talent competitions I was very well received. People thought it was fun," Stirling said. "But it was also seen as a novelty act, a cute, funny little fluke."
In 2010, Stirling had the opportunity of a lifetime as she reached the quarterfinals of the show "America's Got Talent," where she performed in front of judges Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan, and Howie Mandel and a national audience of millions. The judges were not impressed by her performance.
"There were times when it sounded OK, and there were times when it sounded to me like a bunch of rats were being strangled. Seriously, that bad," Morgan said.
Osbourne liked Stirling's unique talent and acknowledged a solid audition, but suggested she'd do better in a band.
"I don't feel like what you are doing now is enough to fill a theater in (Las) Vegas," Osbourne said.
Stirling listened patiently to their comments and went home. Despite their discouraging words, and despite the denials by record labels and talent agencies, she didn't give up.
"It was a very unacceptable art form. I kept being told it was not marketable at all. 'A dancing, rock-star violinist is something we don't want to touch,' " Stirling recalled them saying. "Eventually I said, 'I love it. I'm just going to do it for fun.' That's when I started making YouTube videos and everything changed."
Stirling was introduced to Devin Graham, a Utah-based filmmaker who has a YouTube channel called "Devin Super Tramp." While Stirling collaborated with various artists like the Piano Guys, Alex Boye and others, it was Graham's assistance in making YouTube videos that really kick-started her career.
"He basically changed my life," Stirling said. "He taught me everything I needed to know about YouTube."
Today, Stirling's YouTube channel has almost 50 videos and more than 2 million subscribers. Her video "Crystalize" was the No. 8 top-viewed video of 2012, with more than 42 million views. It has more than 55 million views today.
But before her music topped the iTunes chart, she had to overcome an eating disorder.
Stirling worked at a treatment center for troubled teenage girls for several years. It was during this time that she realized she was suffering from anorexia.
One day she was on the phone with her mother, who had noticed signs that something wasn't right. She had encouraged Stirling to get help before.
"She’d been saying that for a while, and I said, 'No, Mom, I’m fine.' You don’t realize you have a problem, it’s in your head, that’s the way you think," Stirling said. "But I know it was the Spirit one day. I realized, 'Why am I not happy anymore? Why am I so sad all the time?' Talking to Mom on the phone, the Spirit overcame me and I realized I did have a problem. It was an aha moment, and it became clear to me that there was a problem. That’s when I decided I need to change and find help."
Anorexia is a disease that causes people to isolate themselves. They feel so alone and misunderstood, Stirling said. She prayed for increased faith and that she would feel self-worth again. Her prayer was answered.
"It was amazing for me to know, not just hope or wonder if someone understood how I felt, but to know that someone really understood and that I was never alone in this," Stirling said. "I still believed that I was a daughter of God, but I had to feel that again. That and my family were the biggest things that I think saved me from this downward spiral I had gotten stuck in."
Stirling talks about overcoming her eating disorder in her "I'm a Mormon profile" on Mormon.org.
Stirling served an 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City. She described her experience as amazing, an "inundation of knowledge," she said. Those experiences helped her develop social skills that have served her well in the music business.
"You (learn you) can get along with anybody in life, you can make any relationship work, as long as you both have the right focus. Now that I live on the road in a small tour bus with 10 people, that’s huge," she said. "If we keep our priorities straight, we all have so much fun together, even though we all come from different backgrounds."
Stirling's mission experience has also helped her to maintain her values in the entertainment business. Despite her busy schedule, she is careful to maintain a scripture study routine with two other members of her crew.
"I have a full testimony that when we stay true to obeying the commandments, and keeping those things first in our lives, that we are entitled to blessings," she said. "I feel my mission was preparatory for my mission in life. It prepared me to do what I’m now doing and use it in a small way to try to bring light to people in whatever way they want to accept it. I will be forever grateful that I got to serve a mission."
Stirling recently returned from a long tour, and in May, she'll start again, making stops in New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Russia, England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway. Along the way, she'll continue to share her message.
Everybody has unique talents and gifts, Stirling said, and when we’re not afraid to step outside the box and be ourselves, good things happen.
"I am so much happier when I am doing the things that make me me, and that’s living by my standards and doing the things I love, using my talents, however random they are, to share with other people," Stirling said. "That’s what makes me happy."
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