Lauren Wesley-Smith reviews the autobiography of 16-year-old violin wunderkind Leia Zhu 


Bows, Strings and Dreams

Leia Zhu

302PP ISBN 9798863268682



While it may seem over-eager to pen an autobiography at the age of 16, few adults have managed to achieve what Leia Zhu has in her career to date. Bows, Strings and Dreams, written to be accessible to musicians and non-musicians alike, follows her journey with the violin so far.

Zhu’s infectious personality shines through. The language is flowery, with an abundance of adverbs that require some wading through, and she’s definitely a foodie – no description of her visit to a city is complete without a delve into the local cuisine. The text is supplemented by excerpts from her diary growing up, and a collection of photographs at the end.

It’s a pity that the most crucial era of Zhu’s metamorphosis is touched on only briefly. Her violin story begins with Twinkle at the age of three and a half, and the experience of an ABRSM Grade 1 exam; the next mention of any repertoire is Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at the age of five. One can’t help but wonder at this sensational progression, especially in light of the fact that neither of Zhu’s parents is a musician, and she had only a few months of formal weekly lessons before spending two years without a consistent violin teacher. Zhu does not share insights into her practice methods or routine, but instead focuses on her personal journey and the thought process behind her musical interpretations.

The chapters are grouped according to themes rather than chronologically, with vague titles such as ‘Magic and Memories’, which lead to a sameness of structure. However, where this book comes into its own is in dispelling the mystique of life as an elite performer. Zhu’s grand adventures of meeting royalty and musical legends are offset by very human stories of mishaps with exploding cans of Sprite and losing teeth. And who wouldn’t be charmed by tales of getting pranked by Simon Rattle and introducing Ivry Gitlis to Snapchat filters?

From living in a motorhome for the sake of violin lessons to adapting throughout the pandemic, Zhu is to be commended for her perseverance, as is that of her extremely supportive family. Her motivation is contagious, as is her love for the music she plays.

This is a short, feel-good read. Young musicians in particular can take inspiration from the extraordinary things that can be achieved even before adulthood, when fuelled by genuine passion and dedication.