String Presence Makes Music in Hampton

Megan Jenifer-Harris of String Presence Academy in Hampton creates a musical tapestry of collaboration and teaching
Megan Jenifer-Harris. Photo Courtesy of String Presence Academy

Megan Jenifer-Harris has made a life’s work of the violin. The Hampton-based musician started her music business String Presence in 2002, and for two decades has worked as a teacher and performer throughout Hampton Roads.

“String Presence is all the violin work that I do—all the performance, all the collaborations, all the teaching, anything related to being a string presence in the community,” says Harris.

Over the years, she has taught hundreds of students, from a two year old to a woman in her seventies. She’s also taught her now eight-year-old son startinmg at age one, creating teaching videos of the journey that she plans to edit into a series to teach other parents how to instruct their children. Harris is certified in the Suzuki method, and particularly loves laying musical foundations. She isn’t accepting new students this year because she wants to teach her current students and focus on other aspects of String Presence.

“My life has been full of a lot of rich experiences,” she says.

Those experiences have brought Harris and her violin to performance spaces in Hampton Roads and to cities from New York to Nashville. In the recent Colour of Music festival, a Black classical musicians festival based in South Carolina, Harris played in programs that featured the works of Joseph Bologne, an 18th century composer from Guadeloupe. She had a recent rock star moment playing at Sandler Center with a hip-hop orchestra called Thee Phantom and the Ilharmonic Orchestra. The audience members all held up their cell phones as the musicians played so that the house looked like a sea of candles.

Harris’ road to String Presence was winding. She came from a musical family, but her father wanted her to play the flute.

“My parents had my life planned out for me before I came,” she says.

Photo Courtesy of String Presence Academy
Photo Courtesy of String Presence Academy

But Harris persisted in her desire to play the violin. Later, she planned to please her father and go to school for medicine, but found herself at Hampton University in the rigorous musical engineering program. When her focus on vocal music was derailed after she lost her voice, that loss led her back to the violin.

“My violin became my voice,” she remembers.

During her years at Hampton University, Harris was part of the creation of a chamber orchestra that made history. At the time—in the late ’90s—Hampton was the first HBCU to have a student based orchestra. She also studied at Hampton for a master’s in business and worked in financial services for a time, a career path that was set reeling by the tumult in the financial industry following the September 11 bombing. Harris spent two years unemployed, looking for work and unable to find a calling.

“One day I just thought out loud, and I said, ‘God, what can I do so that no matter what happens, nobody can take it away from me,’” Harris says. “And something about the violin just dropped into my spirit. And my roommate at the time, she was a violinist, she said, ‘Oh, there’s a violin teaching position at Mars Music in Virginia Beach.’”

Those early days of teaching evolved into Harris’ life in music. An aspect of that evolution that’s especially important is her work creating collaborations in the community. Radiance String Ensembles is an offshoot of String Presence that started out as a group of musicians who first connected at Hampton University. The ensemble has had many iterations throughout the years, and its mission is to feature women of color.

Harris says ensembles like Radiance can teach communities that there are musicians who look like them, who play the music they want to hear.

“The old guard is still around, and that network is really strong,” she says. “People of color are able to maneuver in those spaces, but it’s more difficult. They need spaces that cater to them, where their talent and their skills can shine.”

With Radiance, Harris and her network of musicians play venues from Sandler Center to galas and weddings.

“My authentic self at six years old knew I wanted to play the violin,” she says. “And now that’s become a career, with a bunch of bumps and bruises along the way. But there was still this true north that brought forth the violin in my life.”

Beth Blachman
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