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Nicola Benedetti

Scroll through Nicola Benedetti’s current concert diary and it looks pretty similar to that of any solo violinist. There are Mozart concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Copenhagen; Szymanowski’s second concerto in Seattle; Elgar in Oxford with the Oxford Philharmonic and the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; Mendelssohn in Parma, Italy; Bruch No 1 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall and Bruch No 2 with the Aurora Ensemble in Weisbaden, Germany; Tchaikovsky with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Hanley and Saffron Walden.

But alongside her performing schedule, Benedetti fits in an extraordinary amount of outreach, educational and ambassadorial work. Over the 12 months to the end of February she reached more than 2,000 young people through masterclasses, partnership projects and school visits; connected with more than 500 music teachers, providing support in the fact of mounting pressures, and encouraging best practice; and contributed to numerous campaigns to save and preserve music services across the UK. She took over as president of the European String Teachers Association in July last year, and holds named positions in several youth music organisations including the National Children’s Orchestras, National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, Music in Secondary Schools Trust, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Sistema Scotland, where she is known as a ‘Big Sister’ to the participating children and led Super String Sessions with 500 young people from diverse musical backgrounds last autumn to celebrate the organisation’s tenth anniversary.

No wonder, then, that she was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2017, by far the youngest recipient, and this year, still aged only 31, she was appointed Commander of the British Empire for her services to music.

For most performers, that would be more than enough education work to make them feel they were giving something back to the community that nurtured them. Benedetti, however, recently announced plans to intensify and expand her commitment to supporting music education. She intends to set up her own charity, the Benedetti Foundation, which will provide enrichment, inspiration and variation to the UK’s education system and communities. Her ambition is to run a series of orchestra-based weekend workshops, designed to address the needs of both young musicians and music teachers.

Nicola Benedetti Music in Secondary Schools Trust (c)Benjamin Ealovega

Plans for that side of the foundation’s activities and the formal aspects of setting up the charitable trust and appealing for funding to supplement Benedetti’s own investment are still embryonic. But she has already launched another essential strand in her project: a series of online videos providing information, guidance and support for young musicians throughout their musical development. The content of these videos will become an integral part of the work of the Benedetti Foundation, and will also provide useful information for teachers looking to support their work with new ideas. ‘With Nicky’ will eventually cover a broad range of questions and themes, but naturally these first videos focus on Nicola’s own instrument – the violin. Nicola delivers workshops, masterclasses and educational activities throughout the year, but time is always limited and the desire for follow-up materials when the classes come to a close is ever growing. These videos mark the beginning of a long term project that hopes to be a useful resource and friendly support to young musicians, amateur musicians, educationalists and anyone interested in instrumental music from all over the world. They will enable young people and teachers to connect with her on a more regular basis.

Series one is underway and a new video is released every Tuesday at midday GMT on Nicola’s YouTube channel, where they can all be viewed.

The main focus of the first few films is addressing issues to do with the discomfort often experienced by violin students when they practise or perform for long periods of time. This can be because they aren’t holding their instrument or bow correctly, or because their posture is poor. Asked if good teaching in the early stages of her carer helped her to escape this sort of problem, Benedetti says that on the contrary, even though she had marvellous teachers, she herself has experienced all types of discomfort and has had to continue to manage it throughout her career.

‘That means I’m well placed to help other people,’ she says. ‘Every violinist is different and everyone has to find their own solution to physical problems. Some people find relaxation exercises or massage helpful, others don’t, but the one thing I’m convinced of is that if you are not addressing how you are with your instrument, no amount of external strategies will help you.

‘The biggest problem I see is students being extremely diligent and working very hard but through the wrong prism. That can do long term physical damage, and their playing never improves, because you can’t play well and make the violin sound as it should if you are not poised and balanced or you are not holding it properly.

‘This is all very connected to nerves,’ she adds, ‘because if you are physically uncomfortable you’ll be more aware of your surroundings and that makes it hard to focus on the music and forget the audience.’

For two weeks in February and March this year Benedetti immersed herself completely in education work, visiting an extraordinary number of institutions and projects in and around London. Activity ranged from leading workshops with primary school children who are learning with London Music Masters, the London Music Fund, the Nucleo Project in North Kensington and Newham’s Every Child a Musician scheme to taking part in a Wigmore Hall Schools Concert, giving masterclasses with string students from Lady Eleanor Holles School, the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music. She also gave a keynote speech at the Music and Drama Education Expo at Olympia and took part in a ‘fireside chat’ at the expo with Cameron Bray, editor of Music Teacher magazine.

Nicola Benedetti taking part in a GrassRoots workshop with Every Child (Achieving Their Potential) in March 2019

At the Menuhin School, where she herself was a pupil, studying with Natasha Boyarskaya, Benedetti found herself giving a masterclass to the whole school. ‘I told them to make the most of their time at school, where so much help is available to them – these are their golden years, and they should enjoy them because real life is very different!’

Reflecting on all the projects and establishments she visited and how her observations will inform her future work with her foundation, she says it has left her with an overwhelming sense that there is an enormous amount of great work going on. However it has also reinforced her concerns about how the many different music education projects are run, how that affects the quality of their work and numbers of children who can be reached – issues to do with whether they are privately funded or state funded, whether they are the vision of one individual, and the contexts in which they operate.

‘Some of the most effective projects are not doing enough to promote themselves – they work they are doing needs greater exposure. Some of them fear over-expansion, and they are wise to do so, but somehow there has to be a better way to show more teachers what is actually possible. One thing that does shout loudly is that difficulties to do with society, family, infrastructure or culture are not actually appropriate excuses for children not progressing in music. Given the right encouragement, any child will thrive.’

Clare Stevens

Main picture photo credit: Simon Fowler

This feature first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of ISM Music Journal.