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Interview with Augustin Hadelich

The world’s busiest violinist offers his thoughts on a life in music, including how to play naturally, getting on with conductors, dealing with nerves and social media, and avoiding caffeine and sugar


Augustin Hadelich is one of today’s supreme violinists, perfectly balancing intellect, emotion and soul, all with a vast palette of sound and superb taste. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he’s also the busiest, according to Bachtrack, or that he references Norbert Brainin and David Oistrakh among his influences. I interviewed him for the front cover of the March issue of The Strad, and even in an hour over Zoom, he had so many interesting and thought-provoking ideas that I had far too much material for the print article, so here are the quotes I couldn’t fit in.



Augustin Hadelich. Photo: Luca Valenta


Norbert Brainin

‘Norbert Brainin always suggested the most natural way to play and the most natural phrasing. For the greatest pieces of music that’s enough, and it’s better not to do too much. It was something I’d never heard before because there were a lot of artists at the time whose playing was all about interpreting, and the music became more and more over-interpreted. Working with Brainin, I started to become aware that a lot of that didn’t make sense. Why are they doing this? Sometimes there’s no reason. They might do it because it sounds pretty good and it’s nice to listen to, but it can take away from the impact of a piece to add extraneous ideas that aren’t necessary.’


If you find the most natural way, the most natural interpretation, arising from how the piece was written, it can feel almost like the piece is being created at that moment, in the performance. At the time I didn’t understand what he was saying, at least not in these terms, but now, 25 years later, I do.’


David Oistrakh

‘A family friend gave us all his old records and there was a huge Oistrakh collection, and I kept listening to it. I was really taken by his sound, which is so warm. He didn’t interpret too much. There is an interpretation, but it’s never, “I’m going to do something different here, and I am going to do something crazy here.” It’s never about him. Even at that age, I was struck by the fact that when I heard Oistrakh play, I heard Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius – I didn’t hear Oistrakh. It was modest but also beautiful and naturally musical. That resonated with me.’


Finding an individual sound

‘A lot of young players these days make very fast progress because they can watch all the great violinists and how they play online - there are so many performances. Back then, I tried to sound like the recordings I liked, but I couldn’t see how they held the violin and the bow. I was trying to do similar things with the sound, and musically, but since I couldn’t see what they did, my approach to bow technique is totally different. That’s how it used to be. That’s why violinists played more differently from each other in the past and we see a little less of that now. Little children can already see all the violinists play, and so there is less of a search for your own solution.’


Learning music

‘When I learn a new piece, it’s a combination of working on the violin part right away, because I want to know what it feels like to play, but also looking at the score. I play the violin part and then in the breaks look at the score. I also listen to recordings at the start, just to get an idea, but then I stop listening as I work on it myself and want to develop my own ideas.’


‘You get better at looking at scores the more you do it. Eventually, you can imagine what it sounds like and even though you’re seeing so many systems, your eyes jump to the important bits.’


‘Most teachers don’t teach score analysis. I have learnt a lot from the conductors I have played with over the years. I would look at their scores to see how they mark them up. Some people mark a lot and some people less. With some conductors you can see on their score how they go about it. Experienced conductors are able to see the most important information in the score much more quickly – what matters structurally and harmonically.’


Sound production

‘Power comes from the weight of the bow. You’re just guiding it, using the weight of the bow and arm rather than pressure and force. It’s much harder to control the bow when you press, especially as you get older, so a bow technique based on pressure tends to have a more bright, even aggressive quality, whereas if you use weight, even at its loudest, it is easier to keep the sound full and beautiful. It’s important to develop a technique that can last, not one that’s only good for young people. When you’re young, you don’t get injured and you have incredible control over all your muscles.’


Performing with orchestra

‘Concertos sound better when it’s not a one-way street, with the conductor just following the soloist. It goes both ways. When I’m rehearsing with an orchestra, I say what I want but I’m also reacting to the conductor and musicians. At this point, I probably have strong opinions about most pieces, which I don’t want to change radically, but it ends up sounding different with every conductor because once you open yourself to being influenced by what you hear, you can’t help but play differently. The tempo might flow differently or you might end up playing with a different kind of intensity or character, as you respond to the sound around you.


‘That is what should happen. If it doesn’t work well, and it’s still not working at all in the concert, you might have to compromise. You can’t just do your own thing and leave them in the dust somewhere. It still needs to work as a piece, as well as you can make it. Sometimes that means you don’t end up playing the way you had planned, but just making sure that certain things are together and make sense musically. The worst thing you can see as an audience member a conductor and violinist having a musical fight on stage.’


Chamber music

‘In chamber music you start off with strong ideas and lots of hope for what you want the piece to be, but then you face other personalities who have other ideas. You have to learn how to give in sometimes, and how to compromise and work with someone who might have a very different idea of the piece. Sometimes, later on, you realise they were right! But even if they were wrong, you have to make the best of it. In this way, having significant chamber music experience makes it far easier to navigate the collaborations with different conductors and orchestras.’


Being on stage

‘At some point, I became really self aware, listening to myself very closely, and I had to learn how not to be that way on stage. I try to focus on living the piece emotionally. If it’s a lyrical passage, I might imagine myself singing it while I’m playing. It’s a way to get into the flow, to get carried away by the music. I try not to have thoughts like “This note was a little out of tune,” which is a very harmful mind-space to be in during a performance.’


‘I also try not to look back after something went wrong. I think, “Okay, well, that happened,” but I try not to dwell on things, but to keep going. There are certain very complex pieces where you can’t switch your mind off and you have to remain incredibly aware of every little thing, but usually for most repertoire, a strong performance is one that’s played with at least a certain amount of abandon. When I manage to do that it’s by experiencing the piece emotionally myself. Then the audience can feel what I feel, too.’


‘I imagine myself singing the line, and I start getting carried away by the music. I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed this except some sound engineers, but during long orchestral tuttis, like the Beethoven Concerto, I sing along with the bassline. First of all, it’s relaxing in terms of nerves, but it also feels that when I finally come in, I have already been part of the piece - I’ve already started and I’m just continuing. It’s a totally different feeling mentally.’


Dealing with nerves

‘I used to get very nervous. I still get a bit nervous before performances, but I’m much better at handling it. One of the things that has helped me is paying attention to my breath while I practise, breathing a certain way with a phrase if I’m worried that I’m going to feel nervous doing it. If I feel unsettled or nervous or stuck, focusing on the breath, which is connected to the phrasing, can somehow help me get moving with the music. The worst thing that can happen to performers is to get into a restricted mindspace where you feel very nervous, your bow starts to shake, you think about it and you panic. That hasn’t happened to me in many years, and being conscious of my breathing is something that has helped.’


‘I think the Adrenaline helps me play better, and these days I look forward to that feeling. Walking on stage feels like home. It didn’t always feel this way. It used to be more of a scary place and people sometimes had to push me out to go out. Over time it’s become easier and now it’s a happy place for me. When I’m there it’s so intense and I feel alive. My heart is still pounding, but I’m enjoying it!’


Strads

‘For many years I played violins that didn’t have great projection, which helped me develop my sound, but was very challenging. You learn to be very efficient and optimal with what the violin can produce, to get the most out of it and not leave anything on the table.’


‘After I won the Indianapolis Competition, I played the 1683 Strad that used to be Josef Gingold’s. It is beautiful and warm, but not loud, especially the middle strings, so when I played with orchestra, it was tricky to make the balance work. It helped me develop my bow technique, because I had to play with a lot of bow, but the bow had to be really straight when I was moving it fast. Also, with a violin that doesn’t speak easily, you have to be very precise with the bow.


‘I loved the sound of that Strad and liked playing it for the right reasons. The wrong reason would be to say, “I need to play on this because it’s a Strad and I need to be playing a Strad.” People think of it as a sign of pedigree to be playing a Strad. That’s the wrong way to think about it. There are Strads that don’t work as well as others, for various reasons. Maybe they never did, or the condition of the violin is not so great. You might think, “Oh, it’s just me. I’m not playing well, but the violin must be great,” but sometimes it is the violin.


Modern instruments

‘It’s the wrong mindset to think that you have to play a Strad, ‘del Gesù’ or Guadagnini. There are soloists who don’t and still make a good sound. It’s so much about the player. If you find a modern instrument, commit to it and adapt to the same extent that you would with a Strad, because if you have the same belief in a modern instrument, sometimes that can work very well too.’


‘I’ve seen a lot of modern violins that are special, but I have noticed that some luthiers focus on making violins that are extremely loud and easy to play, because buyers are sometimes impressed by that when they first try an instrument. They think, “Oh, wow, this violin plays itself.” But that is not always the best criterion to select a modern violin. Modern violins tend to be playable anyway, in a less complicated way than an old instrument that has been through a lot already, but if your only criterion when you select it is volume, then once you’ve played on one for a few months, you might find that you are missing color and complexity in the sound.’


Guarneri ‘del Gesù’

‘I’m incredibly happy with the violin I have been playing for the last few years, which is Henryk Szeryng’s ‘del Gesù’, which he played for many years. It’s the last violin that ‘del Gesù’ made before he died in 1744. There are many myths, because there’s not much known about him, so people sometimes even make things up. The label says 1745, but he died in 1744, so some say that his wife finished it, because she was also a violin maker. It’s a gorgeous violin that has a wonderfully interesting, rich and satisfying sound. I get as much back as I put into it. It has power when you need it, for the big concertos, but also the warmth and sweetness that you need for more intimate pieces and chamber music, and it has a very big range.’


Staying healthy

‘Some people would probably say I’m not living a healthy lifestyle – I eat an enormous amount of pasta and bread and pizza! You learn the things you have to do on concert days to be in good shape: to rest enough, get enough sleep, eat well and eat enough to give you the energy for the concert. I cut out things that might interfere with my playing. I don’t drink alcohol and I often don’t eat desserts because of the sugar high followed by the sugar low, which can have an effect. I don’t eat or drink anything with caffeine. This helps me handle jet lag as well.’


Violin is one of the more unforgiving instruments. It reveals what state your body is in. I might think that I’m feeling okay, but then I play the violin and I realise I’m actually really tired – my reactions are slow and I’m missing things I don’t normally miss. I can always feel if I’ve not slept enough the night before. I have friends who drink coffee before they perform, but for me, when I walk on stage, my heart is beating fast and the last thing I need is coffee in my system. It takes a long time for the body to get rid of caffeine –12 hours later you still have small amounts in your system.’


Careers

‘Everyone’s career is different and it’s more true now than it was in the past that people find their own unusual paths. Some people’s careers move very fast, some have a more steady progression. My career has a certain trajectory, and it’s not necessarily helpful to compare your career with mine. When you look at my career now, it might look like a normal solo career, but it wasn’t at the start. It is necessary to think creatively about the programmes you play and how to grow in all kinds of directions that interest you, and basically figure out who you are as a musician. A career can happen around that, or as a result of that, rather than thinking, “I want to do it like this” and thinking there is some sort of path.’


Social media

‘Social media is a tool that we can use to keep connected with supporters, fans and other musicians, so it’s useful in that way, but it can also have a mentally harmful side. I was talking about this with my students, and they were surprised that it was the same for me. They thought it was just them. They were saying, “I’m always depressed when I look at my Instagram feed and see what all the other musicians are doing. But surely, someone who’s playing a lot of concerts wouldn’t be?” But when I open my Instagram feed, I also instantly feel like I’m missing something. Even if I’m playing somewhere I really want to be, I look at what other people are doing and feel like I am missing out.’


‘People talk a lot about how harmful it can be mentally for teenagers always to have the impression that everyone’s life is so perfect. We need to remember that what we see is always a very idealised version of everyone’s life. So one has to have a realistic view of what things are really like and focus on your situation and not look too much at others. Look at what you can do yourself and how you can grow.’




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