Nicola Benedetti: Playing the violin well is the hardest thing on earth

The Scottish violinist shares some summer thoughts:

 

During the last few weeks I’ve met, heard and played alongside approximately 250 young musicians. We encountered repertoire by Bach, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Beethoven, Grieg and Janacek. I also had the pleasure of collaborating with over 70 teachers from all over the UK.

We’ve played in small formations and very very large ones. We’ve tried to be, musically speaking, as free and expressive as possible, but we’ve also demonstrated extreme patience in addressing the driest, most technical aspects of playing very difficult instruments. And most importantly we’ve tried to combine the two things, whilst tackling many many more disciplines that often feel like they require opposing parts of the brain. They pit one sensation against the other, and require immense concentration.

I still maintain that playing the violin well was and is harder than anything else I tried to do in school. Playing difficult instruments collectively is a very challenging activity indeed!

There’s usually a point where it becomes clear that all the imagination and will in the world can’t solve the problem of everyone struggling to shift up to an awkward high position on their instrument, and we have to take a step back in order to address the core of the problem.

We talk slowly and conscientiously about hand positions, about how to navigate the very blank and very unhelpful geography of the fingerboard, and how to do all this and still make it sound like music, not an exercise.

There’s also usually a moment when too much dry information has been imparted and we need to reach deep inside our collective intuition and inner hearing – we need to connect to our most visceral instinct for phrasing or intonation or sound, and hope that somehow from somewhere, magic happens and things sound and feel better.

I’ve found, during these coaching sessions that after the first 10 minutes, the excitement calms and the hard work begins. Then it’s a matter of managing expectations, and staying on problems long enough for everyone to hear an improvement, but not too long for us to lose concentration.

I try to be as committed, serious, detail oriented and driven as humanly possible in these workshops – to show I take these experiences to heart, and give them no less attention and focus than a professional concert. In turn, I expect a lot from all the young musicians I work with.

But, I’m only present with any given group for a condensed amount of time. And that time is usually high intensity, high energy and often infused with high emotions and excitement. That cannot be sustained week in week out, all year long. It is the hundreds of music teachers around the UK who are the constant in these young musician’s lives; they are not only teachers, they repair instruments, they counsel, they provide emotional and personal support, they come up with weird and wonderfully creative ways to sustain the attention of their students, and fight off cynical negative attitudes towards music teaching from all sides. These teachers occupy many roles and functions.
So, as always, let me thank them, pay tribute to them, and once again pledge my ever growing support for and commitment to them.

European String Teachers Association (ESTA UK)
Robin Michael
David Le Page
Catherine Francis
Mathew Lee
Sam Laverick
Corinne Kelly
Stuart Hazelton
Alison Major
Steve Bingham

MiSST
Stephanie Bissell
Bob Pepper
Truda White
Natalie Wild
Jonathan Gibson

NYOS
Holly Mathieson
Roddy Long

National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain
Catherine Arlidge
Sophie Lewis
Jonathan Bloxham

Special thanks to Jenny Jamison, and to Laura Gardiner for all their incredible support and work.

Further thanks to the following. Apologies if I’ve missed off any names. Don’t hesitate to write to us and say so if I have.

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Understanding the concepts of effort, attention to detail, patience, persistence, and having high standards — all this is vitally important no matter what profession one goes into eventually. Teachers whose calling is to impart this view of life to the young are heroes indeed, as AB said.

    Here in the US — not sure how prevalent this is throughout the rest of Western culture — we are in love with the idea of “talent” and “inspiration” carrying you through. Actually having to work hard at something is considered a sign that you lack talent, and if you succeed after working hard, that’s considered a tribute to your talent, not your hard work. This is true even more in sports than music, since people here actually care about sports.

    (“Well sure, he has worked very hard; but all that work would have gotten him nowhere without talent.” Ugh.)

    • You are exactly right about the emphasis on “talent” in this country, and it’s very tiresome. People see an amazing pianist or violinist and their first reaction isn’t “Wow they must have worked really hard” it’s rather “They are so talented!” – as if that’s all it is. I think this comes from our culture of instant gratification, which is really another way of saying culture of laziness. People don’t want to work to achieve anything, and so when they see a very accomplished person, calling them “talented” sort of lets them off the hook. The reason they can’t do what that person does is not because they didn’t work as hard, but because they’re not “talented” like he or she is. My theory anyway…

  • Um, no, we have so many musicians who work really hard and are incredibly skillful, yet have not much talent, or have failed to develop their talent, and therefore lack artistry. Maybe section players don’t need that, but an unmusical orchestra is very boring to listen to.
    Violin is hardly the hardest instrument. There are many more great violinists than there are flutists, and only the organ can somewhat compare to the challenges of the harp.

    • Of course there are many more ‘great violinists than there are flutists’. After all, who are going to play those great repertoire pieces such as the Brahms Flute Concerto or the Mendelssohn Flute Concerto or the Bruch Flute Concerto or the Tchaikovsky Flute Concerto or the Bartok Flute Concertos or the Sibelius Flute Concerto or the Shostakovich Flute Concertos or the Berg Flute Concerto or the Beethoven Flute Concerto or the Walton Flute Concerto or the Korngold Flute Concerto or the…

      Oh, hang on…. It seems these composers DIDN’T write Flute concerti! I wonder why…

    • I disagree somewhat. A person without a huge amount of talent can develop real artistry, although they may have to work harder at it than someone for whom the right artistic choices seem instinctual. Some people seem to have a physical gift and have to work to develop their artistic side (Menuhin talks about this in his memoir — after early success with Paganini et al, he started trying to figure out what was the big deal about the slow movement of the Beethoven concerto, which he found super easy and yet…); some have an artistic gift and struggle with technique (Kreisler comes to mind, whose chops were never on a par with his artistry).

      Part of it is drive. I’ve known people who were happy to be able to play fast notes and never wanted to concern themselves much with what it all “meant,” and I’ve known people who were satisfied with their gift of playing lyrically and never especially wanted to “show off.” And of course we’ve all known people who struggled against their limitations, and triumphed to one degree or another.

      Also: Benedetti doesn’t say that the violin is the hardest instrument. What she does say is:

      “I still maintain that playing the violin well was and is harder than anything else I tried to do in school.”

      Not the same thing as NL’s headline, which was (as his headlines often are) misleading.

      I don’t think there’s a competition going on, here or anywhere, about what instrument is the “hardest,” or what instrument has the most great artists playing it.

  • “Talent” is mostly a combination of the willingness and ability to concentrate and work hard — and work intelligently — combined with a well-developed aural/spatial (for music) or visual/spatial (for sports) understanding, and, of course, effective training.

    As for the “maybe section players don’t need that [artistry]” crack, if you lack artistry, you won’t get the job in the section in the first place.

  • >