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11 important musical insights

I’ve interviewed many wonderful musicians over the year, have learnt much and had my thinking challenged many times. Here are just a few of the highlights, with links to the full articles:

The late Peter Cropper, former leader of the Lindsays

‘I didn’t start practising until I was 18, and I had a lot to make up. I think that’s why the quartet was successful for the four of us – because we were four amateurs, and amateurs love things much more than professionals. Hans Keller said that there isn’t such a thing as a professional quartet, because quartet people love playing quartets. We did it because we loved it, and I think it came across. I don’t say it was always immaculate. Who wants perfection? Perfection is sterile. We’re human beings.’

Pinchas Zukerman, violin and viola

‘How can we bring up the standards? Let’s create global coalitions for music education, not just according to country, but bringing everyone together through technology. We’re forming all sorts of alliances, but music schools still feel isolated. One music college doesn’t talk to another. It’s enough already! In medicine, doctors share information about the same patient, but we can’t do that in music. Why are we so isolated?’

Viktoria Mullova

Viktoria Mullova, violinist

‘The atmosphere in concerts is so stiff. It’s not like when you listen to jazz or pop music. The audience is becoming older and older. People are scared to cough. It’s terrible. What if you want to cough? You don’t do it on purpose. What can you do? I don’t consider myself so important that people can’t even cough. If you can magically provide the kind of sound that fascinates everyone so they start not even breathing then that’s great, but you can’t demand that.’

Alexander Pavlovsky, first violinist of the Jerusalem Quartet

‘We were 22 when we first played Bartók no.6 and we had fewer questions. I’m not saying it was wrong – it was different. At that age you have passion and endless energy and fewer questions for yourself, because life is easy. Today you know life, the profession and your instrument better, but you have a thousand times more questions. Unless you find a good answer for these questions you can’t be peaceful. They are always on your mind. At the same time you also have much less time to answer them, because you are learning so many new pieces to play for a season. We were given some good advice, that the stage between ages 30 and 40 is a very interesting transition, but it’s also very dangerous. Many musicians and ensembles stop playing and disappear.’

Paul Silverthorne, violist

‘There are things you can only learn by catching a feeling from another player. When I left the Medici Quartet, I played with the London Sinfonietta, with Nona Liddell, and I used to marvel at her bow arm. It was totally relaxed and yet she made a massive sound. There was no point asking her how she did it. The only way I could pick anything up was by sitting next to her, imagining what her arm felt like and trying to make my arm feel like that.’

Regina Carter, violinist

Regina Carter

‘The interesting thing about learning this music is that there are no books one, two and three saying, “This is how you bow a swing passage” or “This is how you get the sound.” You just have to listen and copy the sound. For example, as violin players we’re taught to use the whole bow, but with swing or bebop especially, you have to use less bow and be very light on the string. You have to figure out bowings for yourself because some of those lines are not what you expect them to be. You have to figure out how you want to use vibrato, or not use it. I love Ben Webster and the big vibrato he has on his horn so I copy that by slowing it down, or sometimes I’ll use a faster vibrato to get an effect, but the regular vibrato we learnt in class doesn’t work.’

Thomas Demenga, cellist

‘Young people spend too much time with their media. In my time I practised a lot at one point – five or six hours a day. If you don’t do that you don’t develop ability in your hands. It’s like training for sport. Every sportsperson, dancer or circus artist who has to do something difficult has to practise, practise, practise. There’s no way round it. Before auditions my students get scared and then it’s amazing what happens. They play better, even if it’s a week or two where they really go for it. I don’t understand why they don’t do it all the time. I feel stupid saying that it’s because young people waste a lot of time on the Internet and Facebook, but I have children aged between 11 and 25, and I see what happens. They sit in front of their screens for hours every day. You have 50 people who want a tutti job in a second-tier orchestra and these organisations can choose from all these fantastic players. It’s a competition.’

John Woolrich, composer

‘Many performers don’t come across contemporary music of any kind, even straightforward contemporary music, and they don’t know how to put the notes together in a musical way. The assumption is that contemporary music is different from Brahms, but it’s not. It’s the same in respect of considering a way of shaping it, slowing down, speeding up.’

Shmuel Ashkenasi, violinist

‘I tell my students that the world doesn’t need another violinist. We need artists, poets, people who move us. I try to influence at least the people in my sphere to take chances and to find their voice, while being faithful to the score. I believe it is possible. I recommend anyone who doesn’t truly love music to look elsewhere for a career, because if you don’t have that love, you don’t have the rewards. All you have is a commercial profession. But even if you love it, you have to eat, so you have to make compromises and sometimes it’s painful.’

Catherine Manson, violinist

‘It’s wonderful that composers set out these complex riddles for us, and they still want us to look at them and to figure them out, and to keep them company. Maybe there’s no answer, but it’s our duty to try to get as close to it as we possibly can and to pay them the respect of trying to solve their puzzles.’

Gil Shaham, violinist

‘I remember reading an article about the traditional Baroque suite. The author explained that the king and queen, or the couple with the highest rank, would dance first: an allemande, courant, or loure, maybe – a stately dance with movement focused on the arms and legs. Then more of the nobility would join in for a courant, a less-formal running dance. By the time you get to the sarabande, a sensual dance where one would use facial expressions and other parts of their body, or a gallant dance, formality relaxes. Finally, everyone dances a gigue. After reading this article, I found I heard this music differently.’

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