The 25-year-old Scottish violin sensation adds another distinguished string to her bow.
Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has been appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours. It’s been an annus mirabilis for the 25-year-old, who reached out to an audience of millions as the soloist in the televised Last Night of the Proms, and whose latest album The Silver Violin has become the UK’s best-selling classical album of 2012.
A tireless supporter of music education through school visits and the El Sistema initiative in Scotland, and a natural idol for young musicians, Benedetti was awarded the royal title in recognition of her Services to Music and Charity. “I am deeply honoured to receive an MBE,” she said. “This has come as a real surprise to me and I am humbled. I hope this honour can help me continue to draw attention to the importance of classical music and the arts in British society.”
Limelight interviewed Nicola Benedetti in 2012 after she visited schools and ran masterclasses with young musicians in Sydney and Adelaide. Read on.
LL: You recently visited Sydney not to give a concert, but to work with budding musicians at West Concord Public School. How was that?
NB: They played so unbelievably well. They were so focused; they had great attitude and real enthusiasm. I played for them, they played for me, and at the end I presented them with a violin. They were all excited, wonderfully behaved children and it was a great atmosphere all round. I was also with Sydney Youth Orchestra the day before, for an afternoon of rehearsing and masterclasses.
Why is music education so important to you?
I teach masterclasses and go to schools wherever I’m touring. That’s just part of what I’ve always done and what I will continue to do. I enjoy it immensely. Music teachers and music establishments in any part of the world need to know that performers value their work and want to lend a helping hand.
What do the kids get out of it?
It’s a momentary inspiration for children to have someone who is a young performer come and play with them. That experience can stay with them for an awfully long time and can get them through many hours of practice. For me, it is always worth the time. And there is time to do it; anybody that says there isn’t – that’s just not true. You can fit in school visits and meeting children that come to concerts if you believe it’s important enough to do.
Do you relate to teenage musicians because you got your big break so young, signing a £2 million record deal at 16?
Most instrumentalists that establish a good standard by my age  started at the age of four or five. Because I did come from a musical family I always had a heightened sensitivity to people who have not grown up in that intense cultural environment and who are listening to classical music for the first time – and perhaps don’t get it right away. I have all the more eagerness
to present the music in a way that allows those young people to understand it.
Is that why you gave a concert at Scotland’s T in the Park rock festival this year?
It was a huge curiosity for me to see how a whole lot of 20-year-olds who have had a few pints of beer by midday and are there to listen to pop music would react to classical music. It was an overwhelmingly positive reaction that was quite extraordinary!
Your father is a self-made millionaire. Did growing up in luxury make you more determined to help underprivileged kids, for example, through your work with El Sistema Scotland?
I don’t think that my desire to bring music to children who are less fortunate has anything to do with the fact that I grew up without financial difficulties. My biggest privilege has been that I was taught how to be disciplined. And from the age of ten onwards I was getting scholarships anywhere I studied through my ability to play, not my financial situation. It’s a natural instinct and need for me to take music to places it would otherwise not reach at all. Performers ought to make that extra effort to allow less privileged areas of the world to experience classical music.
You talk about the importance of discipline. With Facebook, Foxtel and Guitar Hero these days, do you think kids are slacking off and not doing their scales?
There’s a larger issue here. I was asked today about practice being fun for people and how you make it appealing. I was thinking, “Well, everything is just focused on fun for young people”. That’s exactly what we have to get away from. Feeling confident, fulfilled and proud of something you have managed to overcome is much more important than constantly having fun. That’s not what life is about. There are emotions and experiences that go deeper than a momentary fun experience. As many people as possible should be questioning that concept.
But on the other end of the spectrum, there are child prodigies who burn out very quickly. Coming from an intense, competitive environment like the Yehudi Menuhin School, how did you strike a balance?
I always had a lot to work on, right through to today. I wasn’t a fully-formed, perfect violinist at age 13, and therefore not capable of burning out at age 20. I’ve always had so much to develop and improve, and been really serious and determined to improve that. But I’ve seen it happen to other musicians: they get to 25 and start to play worse. It’s probably over-performing and over-working, and a lack of true, deep, deep loyalty and love for the music.
How much practice do you still have to do each day?
I aim for five hours a day. Some days it’s more; some days it’s a little less because of performance schedules and travel.
Your new album of film music The Silver Violin is the highest-reaching classical album on the UK pop charts since Nigel Kennedy in 1991.
I’m thrilled. I think it’s great that a disc with 40 minutes of Korngold, 12 minutes of Mahler and 50 minutes of Shostakovich has got to number 30 in the pop charts. It’s a great thing for classical music and I’m proud of people for jumping on it and taking the chance and trying something else.
Yes, usually only classical crossover groups like Bond get that high on the charts. Are they a good role model for kids?
Not dressed like that! And that’s not classical music at all: Bond play pop music on electric instruments. Personally, I don’t really like Vivaldi with a pop beat. It’s not a genre I think is up to very much.