In 2010, dancing violinist Lindsey Stirling made it to the quarter-finals of the NBC reality competition “America’s Got Talent.” Then, agonizingly, she was eliminated after then-judge Piers Morgan said her performance sounded like a “bunch of rats being strangled.”
“You’re not untalented, but you’re not good enough … to get away with flying through the air and trying to play the violin at the same time,” Morgan said. His fellow judges, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, agreed that Stirling’s act wasn’t quite ready for primetime.
“At that moment when I stood on stage, I believed everything they were telling me. ‘Yeah, I suck,’” Stirling, 28, recalled. “I went backstage and just cried and cried. I believed my career was over.”
Her career didn’t end there, of course.
The petite, auburn-haired performer, who plays Thursday with opening act Robert DeLong at Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles, is now a chart-topping recording artist with a powerful presence on social media. In addition to her roughly 434,000 Twitter followers, her Facebook page has 3.3 million likes and her YouTube channel has nearly 7 million subscribers.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been so rewarding to see,” said Stirling, whose crossover act features choreographed musical performances that incorporate elements of classical music, hip-hop, dubstep and dance/electronica. She’s collaborated with the likes of R&B star John Legend, a cappella group Pentatonix and crossover classical group The Piano Guys.
The Santa Ana-born performer, who grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, credits her mother and father with introducing her to the arts.
“My parents would find all the free entertainment across L.A.” and take her and her sisters to orchestral concerts, plays and dance shows, she said. “Art was so important to them.”
Stirling remembers being especially interested in the violinists she saw on stage, noting that they often had solos and led the orchestra in pre-concert tuning sessions.
“In my little kid mind, I was thinking, ‘That’s the rock star,’” recalled the performer, who consequently begged her parents for violin lessons.
Stirling struck upon the idea of combining movement and music as a high school student doing talent contests to earn scholarship money for college. With so many talented competitors out there, she wasn’t sure how to stand out.
“I told my mom, ‘I wish I could make people clap and cheer and smile when I play,’” Stirling recalled. “She was, like, ‘Why don’t you?’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, why don’t I?’” So the young violinist wrote a rock piece that incorporated dance elements. “In the beginning,” she explained, “there was movement.”
Even after finding her niche and appearing on “America’s Got Talent,” Stirling struggled to establish herself.
“I had been trying to share my music in so many ways for quite a while, playing at college campuses and sending my music to record labels” with limited success, Stirling said, when she stumbled on the idea of spreading the word via YouTube. “My mind was blown. I knew it was going to change my life.”
Stirling started working with Salt Lake City filmmaker Devin Graham — better known by his online handle Devin Super Tramp — to revive her Lindseystomp YouTube channel, which she had originally launched in 2007.
The music video for Stirling’s original song “Spontaneous Me” went viral in 2011, eventually earning more than 22 million hits.
“It was night and day,” she said. “It was so exciting to see that people around the world were clicking on my videos.”
In 2012, Stirling released her self-titled debut album. Her sophomore album “Shatter Me,” featuring the hit single “Crystallize,” came out in April 2014, winning top dance/electronic album at the Billboard Music Awards this May.
Stirling’s ordeal also influenced the name of her current tour, the Music Box Tour.
“The ballerina in the music box is a metaphor for me being trapped” by her eating disorder, Stirling explained. “More than being trapped in the box, the ballerina is trapped inside her perfect porcelain shell.”
“As soon as she begins to express herself in dance,” the performer added, “her shell begins to crack. Only in doing so can she liberate herself.”
Like her battle with anorexia, Stirling said that facing criticism and rejection on national television made her stronger and more determined.
“I see them very much as different growing experiences. It’s the same story of overcoming self-doubt and learning to love yourself,” she said.
“(Those experiences) really taught me that failure is part of the process. It’s part of the path,” she continued. “That’s a pretty powerful message to be able to share.”