The woman who became the most respected female violinist of her time was born in Fort Calgary, Alberta in 1890. She was the only child of Charlie Parlow, a Hudson's Bay Company employee, and his wife, Minnie Parlow. Her mother took Kathleen to live in San Francisco when Kathleen was four, and they did not return to live in the nation of her birth until 1940. Mother and daughter nevertheless retained strong ties to Canada; in fact, as Kathleen's international career developed, she was often billed as "the Canadian violinist".
Minnie Parlow herself played the violin, so while in California she gave her daughter a half-size violin. Kathleen received lessons at first from a cousin, Conrad Coward, who was a professional violin teacher; it was he who first called her a prodigy. As her immense talent declared itself, she was sent to the violin professor, Henry Holmes. Parlow's rapid ascension was partly due to being home-schooled, where she could devote more time to her instrument than she could have through normal schooling. Parlow herself believed that nature was responsible for the ease with which she mastered even the most difficult violin technique: "I have a very good hand for a fiddle. It has a big stretch.… There really is such a thing as a physical aptitude for the violin, and I had it" (Hambleton, 1978).
North American musicians normally went to Europe to obtain the best teaching and launch their concert careers. Holmes recognized that his student would need this type of finishing for her talent to blossom into a career, and he arranged for her to perform in England. Accordingly, with $300 from their church in their pockets, the fourteen-year-old Kathleen and her mother embarked for England, arriving January 1, 1905.
There, the young violinist performed Beethoven's violin concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. After attending a concert by another fourteen-year-old violin sensation, Mischa Elman, the Parlows sought out Elman's professor, Leopold Auer. To cover their travelling expenses to Russia, where he taught, they enlisted a loan from Lord Strathcona, the Canadian High Commissioner (who provided similar assistance to the celebrated Canadian singer, Éva Gauthier, around the same period). Thus, Kathleen Parlow became the first foreigner accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, in October 1906.
Parlow recounted these times in an article entitled "Student Days in Russia" in 1961. She found herself the only girl in a class of 45, among whom were other violin prodigies such as Efrem Zimbalist and Elman. At first, intimidated by their talent, Parlow coped by working "like a navvy". She admitted, "… all that wonderful playing never discouraged me but only goaded me on to work and try to play as well as they did". Much of the violin literature that she learned from Auer, such as the then-new violin concerto by Alexander Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, remained staples in her repertoire. Auer taught the young violinist to play with an artistic goal in mind; as he put it, to "Sing, sing on your violin".
The experience she received at the St. Petersburg Conservatory set Parlow on the path to her greatest successes. She simply loved the life there: "The joy I had in my lessons is hard to describe.… I sat in that room twice a week from two until six and drank it all in, coming away utterly exhausted but happy." (Parlow, 1961)