I’m thrilled to introduce you to Laurie Niles, violinist, journalist, and the founder of Violinist.com. She’s here today to chat with us about her new book, Violinist.com Interviews, Volume 1, a fascinating anthology about some of today’s most renown violinists.
It’s a pleasure having you on Blogcritics, Laurie. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you became a violinist?
I can thank my public school music program in Aurora, Colorado, for bringing me to the violin. The energetic instrumental music teacher at my elementary school was looking to recruit string players, and she brought a little girl named Sara around to the various classes to play an “Irish Jig” on the violin for us. I immediately knew I had to play that instrument! After convincing my mother, I began several weeks later, a few days before my ninth birthday. Later, I was lucky enough to have lessons with the professor down the street, Jim Maurer of the University of Denver, and I began playing in area youth orchestras at the first opportunity, playing in as many as three at a time. I earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Northwestern University, then continued to take violin lessons at Indiana University while getting my Masters Degree in Journalism.
Once out of school, I played in many professional regional orchestras while also working as a newspaper reporter. In the early days, I did not write about music; I wrote about fires, crime, weather, obituaries — the typical “cub reporter” fare! I took a break when my two children were young, during which I studied Suzuki pedagogy — that is, how to teach the violin to young children. In edition to being the editor of Violinist.com, I continue to free-lance as a violinist in Los Angeles and to teach about a dozen students.
What compelled you to start Violinist.com?
Violinist.com grew from a gift from my husband, Robert, who bought the domain name for me for Christmas in 1996. This was before I knew what the word “blog” meant — maybe before it was really a word! Having met in journalism school and worked together at a number of newspapers, Robert and I shared the philosophy that journalism could be used for education and community betterment. We always looked at Violinist.com as a journalistic endeavor, albeit one with a whole new world of creativity possible because of its then-new medium, the Internet. My first idea for the site was to allow people to post their resumes on Violinist.com (like Facebook for violinists, only before Facebook!). So from the beginning, people who registered as members of Violinist.com had their own “profile pages” and the ability to email each other. We soon started a discussion page so that people could geek out about various details of violin-playing, their favorite violinists and much more. When I started writing a blog on the site, we also opened it up so anyone who was a registered member could also blog, and that remains the case today.
I love having the opportunity to help people to inspire one another to explore live music and violin-playing. I love that it provides quality teaching tools and advice to people who otherwise might not find that kind of information locally. I love being able to bring people’s attention to the astounding level of virtuosity that today’s best violinists possess. Occasionally I receive e-mails that say, for example, “I’ve learned so much about my playing from your website,” or, “I had never heard of that violinist you interviewed, but her playing is astonishing and now I want to hear her live,” or, “I decided to start a violin program at my children’s school, with help from your website.” These kinds of outcomes are my biggest joys and triumphs!
And now you’ve published a collection of interviews with 27 of the most well-known violinists in the world. When did you first have the idea for this book?
The 30 interviews with 27 artists in Violinist.com Interviews, Volume 1 represent only about a quarter of the interviews that I’ve written for Violinist.com, and I continue to write them at a rate of several per month. (They can be found here: http://www.violinist.com/interviews/. I must credit Robert for having the idea to compile a group of these interviews into a book.
How long did it take you to put it together and what was the most challenging aspect of publishing it?
The interviews for this took place over the last six years, and one big challenge was that I felt that everyone I had ever interviewed was a worthy artist and should be in the book! However, it was not feasible to create a book with thousands of pages. So over several months, I went about compiling a group of interviews that represented violinists of various generations, perspectives and experiences, from the very traditional classical artist to someone who went on tour with Lady Gaga.
At first I worried that all these interviews might seem disconnected and unrelated, a bumpy ride for the reader. However, once we chose the interviews, I stood back and could see an overarching story line that ran through them all: the common devotion to the violin; each artist’s journey in finding his or her own voice; and the very human trials that each had faced — which made their great artistic achievements all the more admirable. I wrote short introductions for each interview, to bring context and help the reader see each as the part of a whole. I’m very grateful to the amazing violinist Hilary Hahn, who wrote the foreword for the book.
In the end, the challenge was to bring my vision into a larger place and try to set that stage for the reader.
When you look at all these successful soloists, what is one vital quality they all share, besides an obvious love for the instrument, that plays a key role in their success?
Artistic integrity, and absolute devotion to it. For every one of them, having a high-level career in music has meant a great deal of personal sacrifice.
Can one become a successful soloist without being gifted, a result of hard work only, or does one need both in the present competitive world of music?
Shinichi Suzuki embraced the philosophy that all children, and all people, are talented and capable of cultivating a high degree of ability on the violin. I agree. In fact, I think the key to becoming a successful soloist is mostly hard work. Certainly, the best performing artists make it look easy, but that ease has come with thousands of hours of practice as well as subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of high-level teachers, competitions, critics and audiences. The real ingredient is not talent; it’s devotion. Of course, when so many hours of work are required, it does help to start very young!
When you look back at your conversations with all these violinists, what is one thing that has struck you the most interesting or peculiar?
Some of the highlights for me were when rock-star level violinist David Garrett said that only an acoustic — not an electric — violin would ever do for him. I loved it when the elegant Sarah Chang talked about which gowns go with what repertoire. For me, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s wonderful humor just jumped off the page; and my jaw dropped when Ruggiero Ricci, at age 89, told me that he felt like his career was over at age 13, when he was no longer a child prodigy. James Ehnes told me about his search for a the right violin — he felt so passionately about a certain violin that when it was sold to someone else, it was like being jilted at the altar. These pages are full of stories like these; each with its own drama and shaped by individual personality.
What advice would you give to violin students?
Will there be a volume II coming out soon?
Volume II will come out when I feel like I have another group of interviews that would make an interesting journey for the reader, probably in a few years. I definitely have a few in mind already, though! Those include interviews I’ve done with Midori, Leonidas Kavakos, Deborah Borda (CEO of the LA Phil who is a violinist), and…. well, stay tuned![amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=0983813078]