Nicola Benedetti: Playing the violin well is the hardest thing on earthmain
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)
David Le Page
National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain
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.