In Focus: How the violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti is changing the way we teach music

The violinist Nicola Benedetti speaks to Claire Jackson about virtual teaching, playing Elgar and lobbying the government.

A patchwork of string players waves and smiles at the camera. The participants, aged two to 92, are dotted across the world, from Scotland to Siberia. A cat peers over a music stand as one young musician wrestles with a tricky phrase, trying to emulate the posture demonstrated by the violinist on his phone.

His music teacher is international soloist and educator Nicola Benedetti. Students are not using YouTube videos — Miss Benedetti is there, on the screen in real time, talking directly to 7,159 participants from 66 countries as part of the Virtual Benedetti Sessions.

The sessions were not intended to be delivered this way. The series is part of a project launched by the Benedetti Foundation, which has already hosted large-scale, in-person workshops in Glasgow, London and Dundee. The foundation’s strapline is ‘unite, inspire, educate’ and the lessons are open to musicians at every level.

‘We were about to head to Northern Ireland for the next leg. When we realised that wasn’t possible, we launched the virtual sessions,’ explains Miss Benedetti. ‘We’ve been overwhelmed at the response. I’d even claim that the project has prevented a number of people from giving up their instruments. It’s very gratifying.’

The Virtual Benedetti Sessions culminated in a concert like no other. Miss Benedetti presented virtual ensemble performances, which combined pre-recorded videos and a clock to count in viewers playing along at home. Thanks to latent internet speeds, it’s impractical to play live music in a group without some pre-recorded anchor points. One highlight was a special version of Paganini’s Caprice No 24 (re-worked for 12 solo violins) with violin luminaries, including Alina Ibragimova, ‘passing’ the melodies across the screen.

It’s difficult to believe that the foundation is still a fledgling organisation. It was registered as a charity in September 2019, the same year that Miss Benedetti, who turned 33 last month, was appointed a CBE, following her receipt of the Queen’s Medal for Music (2017) and an MBE in 2013.

‘It’s crazy to think how many workshops we’ve done in that time,’ she says. ‘We receive no Government funding — our work is possible through individual donations and the generosity of our chairman. Fundamentally, we try to put an injection of energy into music education, prioritising parts that can often be left behind: the creativity and story-telling in particular.’

As teachers begin the unenviable task of catching up with learning that might have been missed during school closures, there is a real risk that music will be pushed even further down the pecking order. Miss Benedetti’s attempts to reignite interest in music education, especially stringed instruments, recalls that of another great violinist and educator, the late Yehudi Menuhin. The connections are perhaps unsurprising. Ayrshire-born Miss Benedetti studied at Surrey’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School under Baron Menuhin himself.

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I have struggled with varying sorts and degrees of pain and discomfort when playing for a long time. This is no self pitying story, dramatising a personal plight. Instead, it’s a choice to share over the coming months my development and journeying through trying (during this very light concert period) to strengthen and rebalance very awkward to reach, tricky muscle groups, tendons and joints. We finished our vibrato workshop @benedetti_foundation this week and if only you all knew the number of young string players reporting aches and pains. It is a serious obstacle for people wanting to enjoy and progress on an instrument. I wish I had known more, younger, about how to improve my physicality for playing. There will be a lot of testing and experimenting, doing many exercises for the first time, but I do hope some of my discoveries can help some of you. For now, research CARs. I’m working on the wrists. With love, on this beautiful sunny London day

A post shared by Nicola Benedetti (@nickybenedettiofficial) on

As well as her educational work (she’s president of the European String Teachers Association (UK) and supports the National Youth Orchestra Young Ambassadors scheme), the violinist is frequently drafted in to advocate for music more broadly. A few days before our interview, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, summoned Miss Benedetti, the trumpeter Alison Balsom, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and conductor Sir Simon Rattle at short notice to thrash out ways the classical-music community can move forward despite the current social-distancing restrictions.

The quartet released a statement concluding: ‘We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and thousands and thousands of jobs — but also to help lift people out of this awful situation.’ The Prime Minister subsequently pledged a £1.5 billion rescue package for the Arts.

Next month, Miss Benedetti releases a new recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Elgar’s music, having fallen from favour during the late 20th century, is enjoying a renaissance. ‘I would like to think that there is an increased appreciation of that open-hearted Romanticism you can hear in the concerto,’ she considers. ‘Fashions change in music, as elsewhere. We may be seeing a reoccurrence of a need for emotional complexity.’

Earlier this year, Miss Benedetti received her first-ever Grammy for her recording of the Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Cristian Macelaru. Her next album will be ‘more conceptual’, she says. ‘I’m looking into the social history surrounding the violin itself.’

Her own violin was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, one of about 500 Stradivariuses left in the world. ‘It belongs to Jonathan Moulds, who kindly allows me to play it,’ she notes. ‘Having a long-term relationship with an instrument of such prestige is an enormous privilege.’

We will be able to hear that glorious instrument in concert again very soon. Miss Benedetti joins Miss Ibragimova and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a special live-streamed Prom this September (date to be confirmed). As her online videos feature animated red curtains drawing across an imaginary stage, the violinist is counting the days until she can play on a real one. ‘This period has been incredibly disorientating,’ she says, ‘I cannot wait to return to the Royal Albert Hall.’