Niki Vasilakis was at the peak of her classical career as a concert violinist when she first conceived a dream of recording an album of hymns and sacred music to be used as background music for prayer time or Bible study.
At that time the young virtuoso had won the string section of Symphony Australia’s Young Performer of the Year Awards, had been named young South Australian of the Year, and had bookings with major orchestras around the world.
Niki spent her 20s travelling the globe as a concert violinist, giving recitals and performances with major orchestras as well as private recitals for royalty and politicians. At the height of her fame she played to an audience of 100,000 with the Sydney Symphony at the Symphony in the Domain and presented a poplar SBS television series, Classical Destinations, which aired in more than 30 countries.
But somehow she never found time in her schedule to record that crossover album with a sacred theme.
“Each year the need and desire to do the CD became a little bit more heightened,” she tells Eternity.
“Five years ago I felt a bit down on myself that I hadn’t made time to make it happen – there was just so much else going on with my life and my work,” says the pastor’s wife and mother of three small children.
“Also each year I didn’t feel I had from God the green light to go for it and so I just listened to that and I thought ‘maybe it’s never going to happen.’”
Then Niki had an extraordinary spiritual encounter that persuaded her of the urgent need to record the album she had had on her heart for so many years.
“It was the most beautiful thing seeing how the violin and that music was able to bring people into a sense of God’s presence.”
It was linked to a personal breakthrough in her spiritual life, which helped her overcome her fear of death.
As a pastor’s kid, Niki had often played the violin to comfort people while they were in hospital so she took her violin with her when she went to visit an elderly man from her church, the Christian Family Centre in Adelaide.
“So I went to the hospice and I played some hymns for Bruce. He was surrounded by family and it was just an amazing encounter – as I played I really felt like the room went still and I felt such a tangible sense of God’s presence in the room,” Niki says.
“I thought ‘wow, what’s happening here?’ Because going into a room where someone is dying is a bit frightening and it’s not beautiful when someone is suffering and in pain – that’s really sad.
“As I was playing I just felt the atmosphere of the room shifted and this man was almost half-speaking with us in the room and he was half-speaking to God as if God was in the room with us. It was the most extraordinary thing to encounter.”
Niki remembers thinking it was as if Bruce had one foot in heaven and one foot on earth and was in the process of crossing over.
“It was the most beautiful thing, seeing how the violin and that music was able to bring people into a sense of God’s presence … seeing this man at peace was amazing.
“I remember feeling so sad that death and suffering are such a fearful thing for most people. And here is a man who is at peace because he knows where he’s going. It really impacted me,” she says.
“After that experience, my fear of death was completely broken. In fact, I realised how blessed we are to know where we’re going and it was a real moment of breakthrough in my own personal life.”
With a strong sense of God’s reality from early childhood, Niki made a commitment to follow him while still a child. But when she left her home in Adelaide and moved to Sydney as a 15-year-old to pursue her music studies, she went through a period when she didn’t want to give her whole life to God but wanted to do things in her own strength.
“When I was a youngish teenager I had a really strong relationship with God and a very rich prayer life but … I suddenly had a lot of freedom and when I started a relationship with a guy that wasn’t a believer, it caused me to question myself and question almost everything that my whole life had been based upon.
“At the time I thought questioning was a good thing, it was a sign of me growing up and being able to make adult decisions, which in some ways it is, but what had happened was I had got into a cycle of questioning things to the point that it was unhealthy.”
It was only when she visited her concerned family back in Adelaide that she woke up to what was happening.
“I realised that my self-esteem had really gone and I was a bit lost in myself, not just in my faith but in my whole sense of what I was going to do with my future. I was even considering giving up the violin, which has been a passion of mine since I was a little girl.
“It’s been an adventure of a different kind.”
“I realised I wasn’t the person that I wanted to become and in a very short period of time I’d lost my compass, I’d lost what drove me, I’d lost what brought me joy. I realised that was because in my life I wasn’t fully committed to God, I was trying to do everything in my own strength.”
So at the age of 18, Niki decided to break off the relationship with her non-Christian boyfriend, with whom she was very much in love.
“I knew that I wouldn’t have the strength to do it in person … so I broke with him over the phone and refused to see him because I knew I wasn’t strong enough.”
Over the next six months in Sydney, Niki felt very alone as she attempted to walk with God. She spent several Saturday nights reading her Bible rather than going out and putting herself in a situation of temptation. But she found a good church, focused on her violin practice and left the old life behind.
Since then Niki has trusted God in all her major life decisions, including declining to do a second season of Classical Destinations because it would take her away from her new husband for four months, and refusing opportunities for further work and study in Europe, so that she could raise a family in Adelaide.
“I had to make a decision about the kind of life I wanted. I’m a Greek girl; families are a really big deal for me. I wanted to be married and have children and I didn’t want to be a mum that’s travelling all the time.
“It was a really good decision. I’m so glad I made it. I have had some amazing opportunities come up to work with musicians who I admired; if I’d been overseas I may not have had those opportunities. Also it taught me to think a little bit more out of the box as far as work and led me to curate lots of different concert series and employ other musicians to come and play in these concerts, so it’s been an adventure of a different kind.”
“It’s been the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to get into the studio and do another one!”
Realising that God could use her violin playing to make his presence known to people, Niki felt compelled to go into the studio “because there are people out there – sitting in hospital rooms or who have got a terrible diagnosis – and they don’t know God.”
“I think often with people who are dying or sick, it’s really hard to broach conversations about God because you’re worried that you might offend them or upset them and, in some cases, it’s too late – they’re too unwell to have those conversations.
“That’s where I think music is God’s language, the language of the soul; it has an ability to cut through and help people have a breakthrough.”
At the end of September, Niki released Sacred, a collection of songs, hymns and prayerful improvisation performed by Niki on violin in collaboration with acclaimed jazz pianist Deanna Djuric.
The tracks include Amazing Grace, Cornerstone, It Is Well With My Soul, O Lord You’re Beautiful, Psalm 23 and Great Is Thy Faithfulness. There are also three beautiful classical works: Bach’s Ave Maria, the music from The Mission and Spiegel im Spiegel by Avo Part.
“It’s been out for just over three months and I’ve had so many people writing to me telling me about a person they’ve bought the CD for. I know of many people who have now passed away but were listening to my album in their final days.
“Numerous people have come to me saying it’s really helped children with special needs or disabled people they care for, helping to keep them calm. That’s been an out-of-the-blue thing, so there are some great testimonies coming out of it.
“So I’m extremely delighted and honoured that God would use my music in such an amazing way. Out of everything I’ve ever done in my career it’s been the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to get into the studio and do another one!”