Nicola Benedetti at Cheltenham Music Festival

Nicola Benedetti (Universal/Simon Fowler)

Nicola Benedetti (Universal/Simon Fowler) - Credit: Archant

World-renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is artist-in-residence at the 70th Cheltenham Music Festival, which runs until July 13. Nicola, who is both performing and holding master-classes, answered questions at a special music-festival lunch at Ellenborough Park last week.

Nicola, you were 16 years old when you won BBC Young Musician of the Year 2004, performing Karol Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. In May, you were back at the finals again, this time in an ambassadorial role. How did that feel?

I was more nervous than the three finalists! When you’re next to someone whom you’ve got to know a little bit, and when you feel a part of their team – but, at the same time, you’re not in control - it can be very nerve-wracking being on the side-lines. It was interesting for me to see from another perspective all the difficulties and hurdles that finalists experience. I think I was able to help somewhat with the dynamics between the orchestra, the conductor and their teachers – all of them had their teachers and their parents there. It is a complicated dynamic, where everybody wants to do the best for that young musician but, quite often, they can be crossing one another.

The experience brought back a huge amount of memories for me. And, strangely, [during the young musician finals], I received an invitation to début with the New York Philharmonic orchestra. It was a cancellation, in fact, so I had 48 hours to prepare the very same violin concerto that I had performed 10 years earlier. In other words, I was in the same hall [Usher Hall, Edinburgh]; I was in the same hotel; it was BBC Young Musician of the Year; and I was going to be playing the same piece of music as I played in 2004 but across the Pond!

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Did that affect even more your sense of apprehension, knowing you were about to get on a plane and make this massive début in New York? Being so busy with the finals when you were probably longing to practise the violin yourself?

Definitely. I was there for every minute of every rehearsal [of the BBC young musician finals], listening to them, telling them about the balance, trying to help out. But I think any musician would agree, there’s nothing more nerve-wracking in preparation for a big concert than not being able to play your instrument! Quite often, our practice hours do lengthen in those days before a big engagement, not because we need to practise but just because it’s the most comfortable thing to do, to be with your instrument.

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By winning that competition at the age of 16, do you feel you had to grow up very fast? That you missed out on something in your teenage years and your early 20s?

I never feel on any level that I missed out on anything. There’s no question that there was an amount of childhood activity that I think I probably did less of because I had to fit in hours of practice every day: we had a strict household but a very loving and a very fun one. In actual fact, the only thing I wish I had done is study more and play the violin even more. The amount of music that I now know is only an eye-opener to the amount of music that there is to know. You could study any concerto every day of your life and still have something to learn. And then, if you look at the amount of pieces written for violin - and the amount of symphonies and operas – it is overwhelming. I didn’t come from a musical family; it was me and my sister who introduced classical music to my parents and to the whole extended family, so the discovery came a little bit later for me.

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Was there one particular mentor at school who triggered your interest?

The path to becoming good at an instrument is so varied and so complex, and relies on so many different facets coming together to allow you to be the best you can be. I think that’s the case with any child trying to be good at anything. I was fortunate on so many different levels, from my mother being extremely strict with me, to my violin teachers who have all been hugely inspirational figures. I started playing because my sister fell in love with the look and the sound of a violin. That was obviously just by chance, but I was happy to follow in her footsteps. I’m just lucky to have happened across something I really, genuinely loved. It was a gift that allowed me to see through many hours of practice.

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As part of your residency at Cheltenham Music Festival, you’re working with nearly 150 young string players, aged eight to 18, from all around Gloucestershire. You spend a lot of time encouraging youngsters. What got you started on that path?

When I first started getting my own performance opportunities, I agreed to help found a practice scheme in Scotland, which allowed young people to get sponsored for the practice they do and [get] money for the music departments of their schools. It’s something I’ve been committed to from the beginning. It’s very time-consuming and, at some point, I decided I needed to ally myself to one organisation simply to preserve my time – which I obviously have to dedicate fully to practising and studying music and performing. So I started working a lot with Sistema Scotland, a small but growing programme that began in Raploch just outside Stirling. It’s inspired by El Sistema, a free music-education system in Venezuela that has [educated] two million young people in the last 40 years.

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You have then gone on to run Benedetti Session workshops for young players.

The first one we did was in Glasgow. We sent out a sort of If-you-think-you-can-learn-this-piece-of-music-by-this-date, fill out an application form and you can come along and play. We ended up getting an overwhelming response so we had to cap the number. We had 150-200 kids on stage each time: I played a piece of music with them all; worked on it with them; and then I did some master-classes with some of the older students. So it was a weekend workshop both aimed at celebrating excellence and real inclusivity with as many young people as possible.

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Your latest release, Homecoming, A Scottish Fantasy, is just out…

I recorded Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which is a great concerto – four movements, all based on Scottish folk songs. Bruch never went to Scotland but loved it from a distance and captured so well the whole spirit of Scotland. The rest of the disc is a tribute to Burns. I grew up in Ayrshire, where he’s from: his songs and poetry were very much part of my consciousness growing up. When I actually tried my hand at some Scottish folk properly for the first time, I found it really hard and got really tired doing all that fast bowing! It’s something very different: a classical/folk mix.

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What do you think of tiger mothers, ‘forcing’ children into vast amounts of practice? Was your mother a tiger mother?

I never read her [Amy Chua’s] book so I can’t really say. I’m sure the labelling and simplification of her approach has led to all kinds of misconstrued ideas. My mother made sure we practised, but she also asked me, ‘Would you like to play the violin? Would you like to play the violin well?’ If my answer was ‘Yes’ to both, then the only option was to put in the work. And I never have a day that goes by when I’m not grateful for the amount of time and effort that I did put into the violin. Of course, it worked out well for me: I love the violin; I had a talent for it. Had that not been the case and I was forced to put in the same amount of hours, I still think I would have learned something because I would have been able to apply that learned discipline to whatever I chose to do. But the most important thing I’ve learned from all the hundreds and hundreds of young people I’ve seen play is that, if that intense discipline isn’t matched with love, you get problems.

That was definitely the key to my upbringing – how much we understood the place from which all of that direction was coming.

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• You can find out more about Nicola and her work at www.nicolabenedetti.co.uk

• For Cheltenham Music Festival news and bookings, visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music

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