This is a story that comes with an assignment.
Stop reading and reach for your closest electronic device. Bring up YouTube and search for "Asha Mevlana."
Through Others’ Eyes
She’s very goal-oriented, very driven — and she’s a risk taker. She doesn’t let things hold her back. I remember her uncle said something about, ‘There’s no such thing as a rock violinist,’ and she said, ‘I’m going to show you there is a rock violinist — I will do this thing, and I will try my best.’” — Carla Clayton
“I think that one thing that people don’t know about her is how incredibly intuitive and kind she is. When she was in second or third grade, we had a colleague staying with us for about a month, and Asha came in and said, ‘Why is Linda always smiling, even when she isn’t happy?’ And we were stunned. We hadn’t noticed it, but she was right.” — Richard Neiderman
“When Asha wants to learn something she doesn’t mess around. The world is her classroom. What I mean by this is when Asha wanted to learn tango/salsa instead of just enrolling in local classes like most people, she hopped on a plane to Argentina to learn it from the source. When she wanted to learn Muay Thai she hopped on a plane by herself and went to Thailand just to learn Muay Thai from where it originated. When she wanted to meditate she went straight to Bali. When she wanted to conquer her fear of heights she decided to bungee and went to the worlds highest bungee in New Zealand. When she decided to direct and film a documentary, she not only did it, but won an award at a film festival on her very first documentary.” — Natasha Cotter
Dave and Jenny Marrs
The first clips that appear are of Mevlana on stage with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the groundbreaking rock symphony formed by Paul O'Neill in 1996. The TSO was one of the top grossing concert performers of the last decade. Mevlana is the lead violinist for the group, and, in these videos, she is in her element. It's obvious she's an accomplished violinist, but the level of showmanship and sheer physical activity she displays on stage is breathtaking, and her dramatic stage makeup transforms her into someone mysterious and dangerous. She moves effortlessly through complicated choreography that's so taxing, she has to start training two months before the tour starts -- and plays her violin through it all.
Now search You Tube for "Asha Mevlana, travel."
Up pops a video of her work with Viator, a travel channel owned by TripAdvisor. Mevlana has been filming trip reports for the company from far-flung locales since she won Viator's "Dream Travel Job" in 2012. In this video, the dark and smoky makeup is gone, and Mevlana looks like the girl next door. She's perfectly natural on camera, friendly and approachable and funny. She laughs frequently, often at herself.
So which is the real Asha?
The answer? Both are. Her incredibly creative, multi-faceted personality means she's capable of handling multiple creative roles. This literal rock star now lives in south Fayetteville, where she moved full time in 2017 to be closer to her brother and sister-in-law and their family, in a charming, 400-square-foot house once featured on the television show "Tiny House Nation." One section was built to look like a giant electric amplifier, and it also has an out-sized deck, which is almost as large as the main living space itself. Mevlana has big plans for that deck.
"The one reason I was moving to Fayetteville is this sense of community," she says. "I thought, 'How do I make this place somewhere people want to kind of stop by?' And for me, that was, 'Oh! Maybe I'll have porch concerts!' Most people suggested I would want the porch in the back, for privacy, but I wanted the porch in the front so it would be a place for people to gather."
Baseball not Bach
Music has been a part of Mevlana's life since she was growing up in Boston. She had seen children her age playing violin on television and was immediately captivated. Her supportive parents signed her and her brother up for Suzuki violin lessons when Mevlana was only 6 years old.
"Suzuki is really intense," says Mevlana's mother, Carla Clayton. "We thought it would be fun -- we didn't realize it would be three afternoons a week." With the Suzuki method, ideally, parents learn the instrument alongside their children. Clayton gamely obliged.
"I look back and think, 'Wow, she was super committed to do that!'" says Mevlana.
Mevlana attended camps, studied with Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians and, ultimately, attended the New England Conservatory Preparatory Division -- by which time it was obvious that she was a gifted musician. But while many of the friends she studied beside had plans to make a career in music, quirky Mevlana was focused on another goal.
"My dream, when I was growing up, was to be the first professional female baseball player," she says.
"She was on all male baseball teams," remembers Clayton. "She went to boys' baseball camps. When she was 10, she went to [Boston's] Mike Andrews Baseball Camp. There were 500 boys and her. And it was rough. They teased her at first and made fun of her, but she hung in there -- and she won the Mr. Camp Award. When she won, she put her hair up underneath her hat, ran up to the stage, whipped her hat off and all that hair came flying out." Clayton says there was an audible gasp from the all-boy audience.
Mevlana's flair for the dramatic was already being cultivated.
"She was determined," says Clayton. "She would come home and cry and go back the next day and plug on, until they finally respected her."
Ultimately, the dream would die because of something Mevlana had no control over.
"I was 5-foot-2, way smaller than the rest of the guys," she says.
Still, music was not at the forefront of her mind when she thought about other careers. A high-achieving student, she attended the prestigious women's college Wellesley, where many of her friends were planning to go into business or banking. After graduation, she moved with them to New York City and got a job working in marketing with the Zagat Survey, a local restaurant review survey; that job soon led to another position at a startup at the peak of the Internet boom.
She had just started working there when she received a devastating medical diagnosis.
Cancer at 24
Mevlana had breast cancer. And she was only 24 years old.
"I was actually misdiagnosed," says Mevlana. She had noticed a lump in her breast and had asked her doctor about it. A mammogram raised no concerns with the physician. "At that time -- it was 18 years ago -- young women were not really getting diagnosed. It was something older women got. I think doctors would be much more aware of it now, but, then, that was not the case."
It wasn't until Mevlana found a doctor who suggested an ultrasound -- and, then, a biopsy -- that the diagnosis was confirmed. By that point, everyone's focus was on the possibility that the cancer might have spread in the intervening years.
"They inject you with this dye, and you lie there, and what happens is, later on in the day you go in for surgery, and they see if it's actually spread," Mevlana says. "I was lying on the table for a couple of hours, and I thought, 'I actually know that I'm dying right now, because I let it go for so long.' I was literally trying to figure out how I was going to say goodbye to everyone in my life. I have never been a religious person, but, for the first time in my life, I was lying underneath that machine, and I didn't know who I was praying to, but I was praying: 'Please, please, if you give me another chance, I promise that I will change my life around. I will do the thing I want to be doing, not the things I think I should be doing. I'll live my life to the fullest, if you give me another chance.'"
When the results came back, it was a miracle: The cancer had not spread.
Mevlana still had to face a round of chemotherapy treatments, which started after she had a lumpectomy. Understandably, her parents wanted her to move back to Boston to live with them while undergoing chemotherapy, but Mevlana's independent spirit had been undeterred by her diagnosis.
"I didn't want my whole life to revolve around cancer," she says simply. "I needed to keep myself occupied. I wanted to keep working. If I had moved back to Boston, my entire life would have been breast cancer and doctor's appointments. I stayed in New York and found an oncologist and basically told her what I wanted to do. I think what I learned was that I had to take responsibility for my own health -- that was really important. I stayed in New York and kept working -- I needed my health insurance."
All the while, Mevlana kept her focus on the future. She was determined to make good on the promise she made while lying on that cold hospital table, waiting to find out her fate.
"It came down to 'What will make me happy?'" she says. "It was not public relations. It was traveling, doing my music, things like that. The idea was, when I was finished with my treatments, I would quit my job and then pursue music in some way."
For six months after the end of her treatments, Mevlana rested and recovered. She then started teaching group music classes, as well as using her recent health experiences in a very meaningful way -- she took a position as outreach coordinator with the Young Survival Coalition, an organization that focuses on helping women under the age of 40 navigate a breast cancer diagnosis.
"I started doing a lot of outreach to younger women in college, talking about being proactive with your health," she says. "I spoke to a lot of women and their families who were currently going through the process."
Mevlana's advocacy was recognized in September 2004 when she was presented with the Gilda Radner Award by The Wellness Center of Greater Boston for being "proactive on behalf of other women with breast cancer, both through public efforts including advocacy, fundraising and education and through private acts of personal kindness." In the aftermath of her recovery, she would go on to tell her story on nearly a dozen television shows and in more than two dozen newspapers and periodicals to educate other young women about the importance of early detection.
She was also performing and, more critically, learning more about her musical capabilities. Staying true to her promise to herself to live life to the fullest, she did something that really scared her: She took musical improvisation classes. Those classes taught her to play with a sense of fearlessness and would eventually be the catalyst that would take her to Los Angeles about a year-and-a-half after her treatments ended. Though it must have been difficult for her parents to have their just-recovered daughter move all the way across the country, Mevlana says they were never anything less than entirely supportive.
"I just felt like...I didn't know how long she would live," says Clayton. "I just wanted her to do whatever it was that she wanted to do."
Leap of faith
For Mevlana, the move to the West Coast was the first in a long line of radical changes that she had promised herself she would make.
"The one thing that I learned with the whole breast cancer process was that I had played my whole life very safely, and that was one thing that I just didn't want to do anymore," she says emphatically. "I thought, 'I don't know how much longer I have to live, but I don't want to live with regrets.' I think I used to be scared of failure, but when I got to Los Angeles, I wasn't scared of failure. I just thought, 'I'm going to figure this out.'"
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, she met another young woman her age, also a violin player. The pair headed up and down Sunset Boulevard, stopping in every bar to ask if they needed live music. After multiple rejections, they hit pay dirt. The bar owner asked if they could start next Thursday.
"And then he said, 'The only thing is, you have to keep your pasties on. You can't get down to nothing,'" Mevlana says. "And then we looked around, and we were literally in a strip club. We said, 'No, no, we don't take our clothes off, because we need our arms to play.' So he said, 'That's OK, we'll hire a dancer.' So every Thursday, we would go down to the strip club, and there was a dancer on the dance pole, and people would be throwing dollars at us."
It wasn't long before she was making the circuit on various television shows, including "The Jay Leno Show," "Ellen" and "American Idol." She toured with Gnarls Barkley, and the list of musicians she's played with is as long as her arm. It includes performers as diverse as Alanis Morrisette, the Black Eyed Peas, Roger Daltrey, Cheap Trick, Jason Mraz and Steve Martin.
She signed on to play with an Australian band called Porcelain. (Third assignment: Google Porcelain's video for "The Last Song" and watch Mevlana, gorgeous and fierce, rock out on her violin in a grungy warehouse.) The band had a deal with Universal, and Mevlana moved halfway around the world to work on an album. Things did not happen quickly on the project, however, and Universal missed the deadline to renew her visa waiver. When she tried to go back to Australia after a quick trip home, she couldn't. The process to renew her visa was laborious, and she decided it was time to cut her losses and stay in the United States. She even thought that it might be a sign that her music career was over: She went to film school, exploring that as a potential next step. It was just when she was finishing up that eight month program that she got the call from the TSO.
"I thought, 'Oh man, if I could have that job, that would be my dream job,'" she says. "There aren't that many bands out there that have electric violinists, where you have solos and you're part of the band, playing on a big stage in arenas." She flew to Florida for an audition, where she was told that the most important thing her auditors were looking for was a sense of confidence.
"The night before the audition, I thought, 'How do I channel that diva person that I am so not?' So I practiced in my head what that person would be like -- what would their posture be like, what would they say. I went into the audition the next morning, and I had such attitude. I don't usually walk in like that. They said, 'Why don't you set up there in the corner,' and I said, 'That is not enough room for me! I need this entire room,' which was 40 feet wide. In my head, I thought, 'Oh, God, what did I just do? I'm crazy.' But I kept going with the act. I was literally running around the room like a crazy person."
She got the job. She's been with the group eight years now, performing in huge venues in front of tens of thousands of screaming and cheering fans.
What does it feel like to watch your daughter do that for the first time?
"I saw her on these massive lifts, 30 feet above the stage," says Clayton. "All I could think was that I hoped the person who built that knew what they were doing."
"She started to perform, and she owned the place," says her father, Richard Neiderman. "She is fearless. When I see her on stage, I can't take my eyes off of her."
Neiderman says that the first time he saw Mevlana play, he brought his video camera; in addition to filming his daughter, he also filmed other performers on other parts of the stage. When Mevlana exited stage left, he suddenly got a text. His daughter wanted him to know she was watching him watch her and was jokingly outraged.
"She said, 'No, no, Dad, only take pictures of me,'" he says, amusement in his voice.
Friends watched her with awe as well.
"It was one of the greatest experiences ever," says Marilyn Rose, who has been friends with Mevlana since 2015, when they both took the same life coaching program. "Asha, in her superstar way, was on this platform. It was the first moment of the show, and she's on a plank high in the air. When she comes down, she comes out into the audience and plays right in front of me. It was awesome. She really is a rock star."
Life at its fullest
Mevlana tours with the TSO for only two months out of the year, but she finds plenty to keep herself busy the rest of the time. In addition to the travel reports she does for Viator, she's also a certified life coach, something that she finds appealing because of the twists and turns she's taken in her own life.
"The people I really love working with are the people who feel like they're sort of stuck, waiting to break out and take risks," she says. "I love helping people transition into doing something they actually love. I love working with people who are right in the middle of that transition, but are still scared."
"She understands people," says Neiderman. "It's almost like she has a Ph.D. in psychology. She is incredibly intuitive and, it's kind of amazing, you can't lie to her. She sees right through it. And she knows when you're off track, and she calls you on other stuff. I think, for me, that's the most amazing part is how loving and humane she is, and considerate, and how she can intuit what people want and need and meet their needs, and be there for them. As much as I love her music, I think it's her humanity that's so incredible for me as her dad."
And she travels for pleasure. But for Mevlana, that pleasure must always involve something that challenges her -- or even strikes fear in her heart.
"If I get scared, that's actually when I realize, 'OK, there's something to learn in this,'" she says.
Whenever she returns from her travels to her home in Fayetteville, she says, her goal is to foster that sense of community that appealed to her when she first visited Northwest Arkansas. She was drawn here to live closer to family -- "She loves her brother and sister-in-law but she's absolutely star struck by their children," says her father -- but the down-home feel is what clinched the deal.
"I love New York, but I was living in an apartment building with 500 people, and I kind of knew one person down the hall," she says. "People don't really say 'Hi.' You keep to yourself. And the times that I had visited in Fayetteville, I thought, 'Wow, there's such a sense of community. People actually wave at each other, and they know each other's names. It was so comfortable."
Moving from New York to the small-town South, living in a 400-square-foot house and taking a chance on a new beginning -- all of those moves are daring and out-of-the-box. Eighteen years ago, limp with relief that her cancer had not spread, Mevlana made a promise to herself that her life would forever hold those kinds of moments, the moments that scare and challenge her.
In everything she's done since, it's clear she's kept that promise.
NAN Profiles on 09/02/2018
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