When Stefan Jackiw first picked up a baby-size violin at the age of 3-1/2, no one assumed it might be the sign of a young prodigy in the making.
His parents were visiting a family friend, a violinist who also had young children. Stefan didn't want to put the instrument down, so the violinist gave it to him at the end of the evening.
"So my parents thought I might as well start taking lessons," says the lanky teen.
Eight years later, a day after he turned 12, Stefan performed a virtuoso debut with the Boston Pops, dazzling audiences and critics with a sensitive and intelligent interpretation of the Wienaiwski Violin Concerto No. 2.
Since then, he's garnered critics' acclaim playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in London's Royal Festival Hall to standing ovations, as well as making numerous other appearances. He has been praised for his "real musical integrity."
Now 17, Stefan recently received a prestigious $15,000 Avery Fisher Career Grant. With a select number of concert bookings and a team of top teachers grooming him, the young artist's career is now taking off, albeit with sensible restraints.
He is, after all, still a teenager, enrolled in Boston's Roxbury Latin High School and juggling a rigorous academic agenda with his music.
Stefan, who has been compared to the legendary Yehudi Menuhin, already exudes the calm confidence and self-assurance of a seasoned performing artist.
He has just returned from Britain, where he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony, and he plans to perform in October with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Roberto Abbado.
"I'm playing the same piece with the same conductor in Florence, [Italy], later this year, which I'm really excited about, and again with Mr. Abbado in Chicago in April," says Stefan, who practices on his 1720 Rugieri violin three hours a day.
The mere anticipation of all this makes him smile.
This summer he plans to attend the six-week Steans Institute at Ravinia in Highland Park, Ill., a music program for 35 young chamber players from around the world. They study with renowned faculty, including Stefan's teacher, Donald Weilerstein, from the New England Conservatory.
Stefan is enthusiastic about his career, but unassuming about his success.
"The important thing in music is simplicity," he says. "It's important not to overdo or exaggerate it. Each performance is different in different circumstances. You never know how it's going to come out. I think that's part of the excitement of performing because of the inspiration of the moment."
He also is inspired by violinist Jascha Heifetz for his elegance and eloquence, qualities that appear in Stefan's own performances.
Despite the heady recognition and rave reviews, homework still takes precedence over stardom, and Stefan is frequently asked how he manages it all.
"Balance," he says simply. "I'm trying to do music and homework. I don't have a TV" an unlikely statement from an active 17-year-old who enjoys movies, running, basketball, and hanging out with friends.
Stefan's parents are physicists, faculty members at Boston University and MIT, respectively, who emphasize academics and reading. "Neither of my parents grew up with TV, so it wasn't in the house," he says.
His first formal teacher was Zenaida Gilels, niece of the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels.
"She taught me to play the violin," Stefan says. "I went to her when I was 5, and by the time I stopped working with her, I had performed with the Boston Pops the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto which is a very hard piece. For all I learned from her, I'm very grateful to her. She gave me an excellent foundation.
"It wasn't like a revelation that this is what I wanted to do," Stefan says thoughtfully during an interval between classes at Roxbury Latin and a violin lesson at the Conservatory. "I started [playing] as a hobby and began practicing a little bit more. It was very gradual. My parents never pushed me."
With his teacher, Mr. Weilerstein, "I work a lot on music ... interpretation, more than on the technical aspects."
His other teachers include Marylou Speaker Churchill, formerly principal second violinist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "I really enjoy working with all of them," he says.
Stefan is pondering whether to attend college in Boston instead of a music conservatory, a course of action taken by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who graduated from Harvard University in Cambridge.
"Both my parents are physicists.... I think I'm lucky to have that in my background, so I don't get tunnel vision just only focusing on my music," he says. "I think that will help me whatever I choose to do and make me a more interesting person in the long run."
Despite his remarkable accomplishments, "I lead a very normal life," Stefan says. "I don't think I'm missing out on that much.
"I'd like to think the best is still to come."