Blind violinist sees notes through determination

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Josie Nielson's passion is playing the violin. She is currently working on a solo album that includes originals and classical music. Photo courtesy of Josie Winter.
Josie Nielson’s passion is playing the violin. She is currently working on a solo album that includes originals and classical music. (Photo courtesy of Josie Nielson)

She could see writing in pencil yesterday. But today, she can’t.

Josie Nielson was diagnosed with macular degeneration when she was 13, a progressive eye disease that causes her eyesight to get gradually worse. Even still, Nielson is on her way to becoming a violin performer and teacher.

Nielson is now performing under the name Josie Winter. She has performed with many groups, including We Are The Strike, a band that emerged from the Provo music scene on its way to making it big. Nielson published her first music video to YouTube in early February, a cover of the song “Demons” by Imagine Dragons.

“It’s a beautiful song, and I was excited to see what I could do with it,” Nielson said. “I’m happy with the way it turned out.”

The video has about 2,000 views. Nielson plans on releasing another music video soon to build up a fan base before she releases her album. Collaborating with Nielson on her album is Jake Justice, the keyboardist for the band We Are The Strike.

“Working with Josie has been a great experience because we both bring different talents to the table, and (it) makes for a really cool collaboration,” Justice said.

Nielson and Justice have been friends for about four years. They have had the chance to work and perform together many times.

“Josie is driven in part by her love and passion for music and also in part by her profound desire to share her talents with the world to uplift those around her,” Justice said. “Her passion and spirit shines through her performance. For Josie, the violin is a conduit for her to connect to other people.”

Nielson has been playing the violin since she was five years old. She always wore glasses, but during the years of puberty, her prescription would change almost weekly. It was then doctors diagnosed her with macular degeneration. But Nielson continued working at her goal. She attended summer music conservatories, performed in community symphonies and founded a professional violin duo in high school.

Diana VanWagenen, a lifelong friend and fellow musician who lives in Eagle, Idaho, said Nielson has always been very service oriented. She started a string quartet in high school that would go around and play at hospitals and volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House.

“Sometimes you think that everything is going perfect. But everybody is going to be tested to their core,” VanWagenen said. “Josie has been tested with her vision issues, and it has been very hard. She has had her moments of being angry at the world, but she doesn’t show it.”

Upon graduating from high school she was awarded a scholarship to attend BYU’s School of Music.

A screenshot from Nielson's music video for "Demons." The song's lyrics talk about overcoming challenges. Something Nielson knows all about. Photo courtesy of Josie Winter.
A screenshot from Nielson’s music video, “Demons.” The song’s lyrics talk about overcoming challenges, something Nielson knows all about. (Photo courtesy Josie Nielson)

At this point Nielson can no longer see sheet music. She relied heavily on recordings of music to learn her pieces. She would listen to these recordings and developed the ability to hear what string of the violin was being played and which finger was playing it.

Nielson once had to learn a symphony that was close to 40 pages long. The symphony was so complex that she couldn’t pick out the violin part on the recording.

A BYU associate professor of String Performance, Monte Belknap, was a mentor and inspiration to Josie at this time. Belknap recorded just the violin part for Nielson so she could effectively learn and memorize the piece.

“She never complained or tried to use an excuse. It’s not in her character. She worked hard and expected to be treated the same as others,” Belknap said.

Nielson reached a point where she could not finish her education. She had three classes left as a senior at BYU, all of which involved analysis of music scores she could not see.

Nielson was left with no option but to quit school. But she never quit her dreams.

Nielson said she plans on moving to California or Arizona to pursue her music career. She is currently working on a solo album that will include originals and her own take on her favorite classics.

“Music is my passion in life. It brings me great joy,” Nielson said. “Doors will inevitably close in our lives, but new ones will open. I am grateful to be where I am in life. I hope to share this with others and inspire them to keep moving forward, despite their stumbling blocks in life.”

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