Violinist.com interview with Hilary Hahn

October 22, 2007, 11:42 PM · Hilary Hahn, at age 27, is living the dream – if you dream of being a concert violinist and well-respected performing artist. She's won a Grammy, and she's recorded most of the major repertoire, between her current contract with Deutsche Grammophon and her previous one with Sony. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, she began playing at the age of three and started concertizing at age 15. She has played with major orchestras the world over and recorded nine albums that include many of the major concertos of the violin repertoire.

I spoke with her the night before her LA-area recital, an early stop in her current recital tour. She had just spent the afternoon answering questions and talking with local music students and faculty members at Occidental College.

Laurie Niles and Hilary Hahn

Hahn has been exceptionally busy this year; her summer vacation, normally a time for decompressing, visiting family and studying things other than violin, was broken up by a recital tour with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter. It was a project that she enjoyed, but nonetheless it gave her less down time before a demanding fall season. Though she said she normally limits her time on the road to five weeks, her current tour will keep her hopping across North America for two and a half-months, returning her to home in Baltimore Dec. 21.

Laurie: It sounds like you are going straight from a summer where you did do musical things to a very busy fall.

Hilary: I did have some time off, and I went white water rafting. I went to British Columbia and spent a week on a couple of rivers and just kind of camped. It was really fun! That was my change of pace. And then I came back and started getting back into the season.

Laurie: Did you take your violin white water rafting with you?!

Hilary: No...I was going to take my sort of junky violin, but then I realized I didn't have any junky bows! (laughing). I didn't want to lose the bows I have, going down the river. Even the bows I have that aren't expensive, I really like them. Then, I was going to take one of my mandolins, but it turned out I didn't have my mandolins in the city I was departing from, they were all in my apartment in Baltimore. I needed to do something to keep my callouses up, so I bought a junior-sized Martin guitar. I took the indestructible Martin on river with me and it turned out nothing happened to the instrument.

Laurie: What did you learn to play on it?

Hilary: I learned a few chords, learned a few sequences, and then came back and madly started practicing violin again!

Laurie: Now that you are registered on Violinist.com, will you be participating in our discussions?

Hilary: I don't want people to feel like they have to state something in a certain way because so-and-so might be around on the site. It's nice when people have a forum to discuss things among themselves. If you had a certain special-occasion blog I could probably contribute...I normally post on my site if I'm writing about music, and if you have a specific issue you're addressing or you want me to write about certain topics, then I'd be happy to try.

Laurie: Well, the we on Violinist.com are really happy to welcome you to the site, and our members had a lot of good questions for you. First I have to ask you: do you use a shoulder rest?

Hilary: Yes!

You use the one that's right for you; it really doesn't matter what so-and-so uses. People are so physically different; a shoulder rest is a physical aid for playing the violin. A certain kind of shoulder rest is something you either feel comfortable with, or you don't, and if someone important in your mind uses this particular shoulder rest, it might not work for you! It won't make you play like them, it won't make you have the same posture when you're playing, because you're built differently.

You can become so injured doing the wrong thing with a shoulder rest -- and if you have the wrong posture when you're playing. You really have to look at yourself in the mirror and stop what you're playing, keep the same position, feel the straightness of your spine with your right hand, check that your neck is straight. You fall into these habits when you're younger, when you're not quite fitted to the instrument. You're still growing and the instrument is still all different sizes on you. You're not going to injure yourself when you're young; you're body's more pliable. But you don't realize what you're doing to yourself. What's comfortable is not always doing it right. It has to be comfortable, but it has to work for your body. When you wind up being able to do it right well, then that becomes comfortable, and then that's your frame of reference for what works for you.

Laurie: How do you keep yourself from being injured?

Hilary: I just try to be aware of my body. If something feels strange, I stop, I figure out what's going on. I have no problem icing muscles after a concert and I don't mind doing stuff at the gym to build up my strength. You have to make sure to have a strong core, make sure your lower back is strong and your abs are strong. If you don't do that, there's nothing to support the awkwardness of playing. If you're not strengthening the middle of your body, all the burden comes from either your hips or your upper back, and those aren't necessarily the strongest areas to balance yourself from. I have done some yoga, I have taken ballet, I've worked out at gyms.

I'm not a fiend for exercise, although I really enjoy it. What I like most is going out and rowing on the water -- I have a rowing shell. But I can't really do that on the road. I don't do things I hate to stay in shape, but every now and then I'll be watching T.V. and just start doing some crunches or stretching.

Laurie: Another V.com member asked, what is the technical detail that troubles first if you don't work on it all the time?

Hilary: It's the same as anyone else! It's intonation, bow control, cleanliness of playing...those are the technical aspects. What people don't think about is the technique of expression. Being technically accurate in itself isn't the goal, because that excludes the thought of phrasing. You have to practice playing the technical sections so that the technique is not important in what the audience is hearing. And you have to practice the bow technique of phrasing. You can't practice technique just to practice it, you have to actually apply it for it to work.

Hilary Hahn
Kasskara courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

The more you learn to do, the more you have to maintain. You don't just have to never work on the basics again. You have to work on the basics plus all the refinements you've built up over the years, plus the expression, plus the concept of the piece. You have to practice the concept, too, and see if it's going to work. There's a lot to work on. People might think that it gets easier as you do more, but in fact, what you're working with is much more specific and much more conceptual, even within technique. And sometimes that's even harder to pinpoint. It's harder to know when you're doing it right.

You can do all that from when you start, too. You don't have to wait a number of years. The earlier your start thinking about how to apply that do your playing, the easier it will be to apply it later on.

Laurie: One of our members was wondering if you would ever see yourself on the faculty of a music school or conservatory. Is teaching something that you enjoy, or would consider doing in the future?

Hilary: I would think about it, but I don't think my schedule would allow me to be a very responsible teacher right now and I'm not really looking at a big schedule change at the moment. The time that I take off is important for me to keep off so I have a bit of a break, so I can prepare my season's repertoire, or visit my family.

Laurie: Another member wanted to hear your favorite Jascha Brodsky story...

Hilary: I actually have some good stories from when I wasn't studying with him. He apparently was much more feisty when he was younger; by the time I started studying with him he'd mellowed out. He used to teach a lot of chamber music at Curtis, and he was giving a chamber coaching. The quartet he was coaching was not doing at all what he wanted. They hadn't prepared, and they'd just thrown things together at the last minute. He knew that they'd done this, so he was really peeved at them. He started yelling at them, swearing, and giving them a real piece of his mind. They knew he was bound to do this, so they taped it for everyone's amusement. After the coaching, they gathered outside the studio and started playing back the tape they'd made of their coaching. All these students started to gather around and were listening ...He walked out of his studio and right into the middle of this gathering! They all kind of turned and looked at him, and he just laughed and walked away.

I like that story because it's hard for me to imagine him doing that; this is a part of him I never saw. As far as I knew, he called everyone sweetheart and darling and sweetiepie. He was very meek in a sense, but I always knew he had this strong personality and very strong preferences.

I think he respected when people were really trying, and he got really frustrated when he felt that his time was not being used to its best advantage.

Laurie: Another member asked what has caused you to keep your Vuillaume for all these years?

Hilary: I've had it for about 13 years, and I don't see any reason to change, I find that the violin just keeps responding really well. It changes itself every year; it ages, it goes through all these different environmental changes, and of course, the travelling...It develops on its own, just as any performer does. It's a very stable instrument, so I can rely on it, but at the same time it always shows me a different side of things than I expect.

Laurie: Do you feel that the player shapes the instrument a little bit?

Hilary: Yes, I'm sure they do. They say that after someone stops playing on an instrument for a certain number of years, you can still hear them in the instrument. I don't know if that has anything to do with the karma of an instrument; I think it has more to do with the fact that, when you physically play an instrument, you encourage certain sounds out of it. That sound is produced in a very physical way from the instrument. So certain elements of the instruments get used to being vibrated in a certain way, and those elements are extremely developed when that instrument passes on to the next player. I think there probably is a very scientific reason for it. It's nice to think, though, that there's a personal connection there.

This instrument is really good for everything that I do. I've played it in blind tests, because people tell me that I should. They say, hey, let's do a blind test of your Vuillaume and this Strad and this Guarneri and this Amati. I dutifully go into the hall and give them all a fair try, and people who hear the test say, "I really liked that one, what was that one?" -- and it was the Vuillaume. They inevitably like me playing this instrument better than me playing any of these other instruments.

You get to a point where it's not productive to keep trying other things, and it's not helping you to switch. In order to develop as a player, I think you need to spend a certain amount of time with an instrument that really works for you. When you keep switching it, you're having to start over from scratch. You get only to the same point, over and over again with the new violin. You don't push yourself further. You don't really necessarily find out what the instrument has to offer you that is really unique to that instrument because you don't necessarily give yourself the reason to explore it further.

Laurie: Do you think you'll ever switch instruments?

Hilary: No...it's probably like a marriage. You could always imagine yourself married to maybe someone else, maybe there is someone where it looks like the grass is greener, but really, in the end, you're quite happy where you are. So why go and look? It just makes you more unhappy with where you are, in a sense. I imagine it's very much like that because it's a match that you commit to, long-term, and if you're always looking somewhere else for what you want out of an instrument, even if you've committed to this particular instrument or you really like it, then you're not giving that instrument a chance to really work for you.

Laurie: Unless it's really not that great.

Hilary: If it's not working, then you move on. I'm mean there's no point in staying with an instrument that's not working for you. That's just weird. Even if it's a famous instrument, even if it's made by a great maker, it may not be right for you. So why keep clubbing yourself over the head...it's kind of demoralizing, when you have a certain sound in your mind and you can't get it. But at the same time, if have a lot yet to learn about an instrument or if you have a lot yet to learn about playing, it's not going to do it for you. You have to give each instrument a fair shot, you have to really get the most out of it. You need to play it in, give it a chance to live, too, and then really see how it turns out. And if it's not working, you move on.

Laurie: Here's another question from a Violinist.com member: besides classical music, what types of music and artists do you listen to?

Hilary: I like a lot of kinds of music. For me, it's more a matter of how much work I can tell the person has put into it and how much they are expressing themselves, rather than a certain genre. There's nothing I like absolutely across the board. I like a variety of things. I don't tend to do well just picking a favorite of anything, because I'll listen to it nonstop, and then I'll want to hear something else. It's not a short attention span, it's more that I really like hearing the place of things in a broader context. I appreciate it more if it's part of something rather than if it's just completely on its own all the time for me.

Laurie: In your blog, you wrote that one thing you can do when you are bored in a hotel is to act out your own video. I was wondering, what would be the tune these days that you would want to act out?

Hilary: Oh, I did the total violin geek thing and I choreographed Paganini Concerto No. 1, third movement!

Laurie: Did you get it on video?

Hilary: I wanted to, but I didn't quite, no. I didn't manage to find anyone to capture that...

Laurie: We would put it up in a minute on Violinist.com! How did this come about?

Hilary: I was doing all this editing of that Paganini concerto, listening to edit after edit after edit in the process of producing the album. You're listening for balance, or extra noises. So there are a lot of times when you are listening to the music, but it's not really about the music. So what are you going to do during that time? Are you going to just sit there, bored? It's fun music! So I would just get up and sort of start dancing around to the Paganini, and then I'd sit down quickly at my desk in front of the score when the moment came up to listen for, and take notes, and then stand up and dance some more. Otherwise you get so caught up in all the details, you don't think about how the movement is flowing and all. You don't really enjoy it. So it's nice to be able to kind of get into the groove you're still getting some work done, too.

Laurie: Tell me about this new CD that you just recorded for Deutsche Grammophon . I understand you recorded the Schoenberg and the Sibelius concertos, can you tell me a little about the thinking behind this pairing?

Hilary: The idea behind the pairing was that I really wanted to record Schoenberg, and I was looking for something that was a major stabilizing work. I like to show any unusual piece that people aren't used to listening to with a piece that they're more familiar with. I thought, what haven't I recorded that could be more familiar for this album?

I think both concertos have this innate lyrical element that's completely glossed over most of the time, not necessarily in the performance, but in the perception, in the definition of the work. The Sibelius is defined as this cold, Nordic music, with dark undertones, and Schoenberg is thought of as academic. I don't think that either one is done justice by those definitions. So I wanted to try to bring out the lyrical element of both and also stick as much as possible to what was written in the scores. I think that both of those factors are sometimes a little bit thrown to the wayside.

As the content of the music itself, I think both composers' connection to the visual art world is really unusual, at least by today's standards. Schoenberg was a visual artist, and he was part of this huge scene in Vienna. He had connections to all these different artists and different genres of expression. Sibelius lived in an artists colony, so he was surrounded by this as well. I feel like the visual plays into their music, as composers, and I don't think there's anything is academic about either one of them. I think they're both romantics. Granted there's a dark side to both works, but there's this overarching sort of idealism I hear in both pieces, too.

Laurie: I don't really know of that many recordings of the Schoenberg ...

Hilary: No, there aren't that many. There aren't many major label releases that are current. The recordings I heard weren't quite what I wanted to do with the piece. So that gave me a starting point.

Laurie: What was your approach to the Schoenberg?

Hilary: I listened to recordings when I was deciding what to do next, and when I heard the Schoenberg recording, I thought, hmmm, that's interesting, it's not at all how I would play it, though. I wonder if anyone else has a more similar take on it? So I start listening to a bunch of recordings of the Schoenberg. I probably didn't hear everything, but a lot of the ones that I heard where sort of a different approach than what I imagined myself hearing it. Then I looked at the music and I started to take it apart in that sense.

Laurie: So this was a new piece for you?

Hilary: Yes, I learned it with the purpose of recording it at some point, which is unusal for me.

Laurie: Did that change your approach at all?

Hilary: It made it so that I wanted to define to myself immediately how I wanted to play it. Knowing that I eventually record it, I had to have certain ideas in mind by the time that I got to the sessions – of how exactly I did want to get this down on..

Laurie: It sort of sets it in stone, to record it.

Hilary: Yes, but it's also fluid. I mean, people don't expect you to play it like the recording for the rest of your life. But when you're in the sessions, you have to know what you want to do with it. You have to play differently in sessions. You have to get everything exactly right, you have to be able to do it the same, technically, time after time, but also experiment with the musicality throughout the course of the sessions and keep that fresh. Knowing that I would eventually have to go through that process was a good incentive for me to actually do it all right from the start, so I wouldn't have to un-do anything later.

Laurie: With whom did you record the new album?

Hilary: I recorded it with conductor Esa Pekka Salonen, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the same orchestra I recorded the Paganini and Spohr with.

Laurie: When will it be released?

Hilary: In the spring. There's no current release date, we're trying to find out what it will be. I finished the session for the Schoenberg Sept. 30, and I haven't even heard the first edit of the Schoenberg, I've just heard the first edit of the Sibelius. The Sibelius I recorded in the spring, but due to producer schedules it just wasn't addressed until recently.

Laurie: Well, I think people are going to like it. One of our members said he heard you play it live, and he loved it.

Hilary: It's been a surprise audience favorite! I thought that it had potential, that it would have great affect, and people are constantly surprised, they're like wow, they really liked the Schoenberg! And I'm standing there, thinking, well, yeah! Of course they do!

The Schoenberg has been new for every orchestra and almost every conductor I've worked with. You have to give them enough time in rehearsal...I usually specify there has to be six hours of rehearsal time before the first concert. It's the only way to even start to get the Schoenberg together, not to mention start working on the music. It's so unfamiliar to people, just because it's not played live much.

I think when you spend time on anything, then people have this attitude of, okay, we're going to get this. We're going to bring this across and we're going to do our best. And when you have that attitude, people really appreciate it, no matter what it is. But I think that piece particularly benefits from that.

Laurie: With such an unfamiliar piece, the orchestra would need extra time. You can't be doing it in your sleep...

Hilary: You can't do anything in your sleep, you just think you can.

Laurie: People try to do it in their sleep, unfortunately!

Hilary: Once I was booking the Tchaikovsky concerto and they asked for a certain amount of rehearsal time and I said, 'I don't know if that's quite enough rehearsal time..." I think it was time enough for one play-through in the regular working rehearsal and then just enough time to play it through again in the dress rehearsal. And I said, "Is there any chance I could have a little more time in the working rehearsal ?" and I got a note back from the administrators saying, "but, aren't you afraid that, since everyone knows this piece already, if we rehearse it any more than that everyone will go on automatic pilot?"

So, I thought, are you proposing that we do less rehearsals for it to be better? A lot of people don't even play it the same. Even if people know the piece, you have to start over like you don't know it, because someone might have a different approach to it or you might actually want to turn the piece on its head for once and try to do a whole different approach. How are you going to be able to do that if you don't have the time? No, I don't think automatic pilot is a problem. Everything is hard, no matter how easy you think it is.

In Schoenberg I find the first step is just getting people familiar with the notes, and that takes time and it's a lot of work. It's tricky for everyone. And then it's really important to take the academic out of it. You're supposed to do that from the start, but it's kind of scary to try to do all of that at once. A lot of people prefer in the rehearsal process to tackle one thing at a time. Then you really try to sort of make it be almost Brahmsian in some ways, like Stravinsky or Shostakovich in others. Not that it is that music, every composer stands on his or her own. But it's not acceptable to play any composers in an academic way, including Schoenberg.

Laurie: Is it a piece that's built on tone rows?

Hilary: I don't care. I really don't look at things from that perspective. It doesn't matter how a melody is constructed, it's still a melody. It doesn't matter whether a structural element is there because a composer woke up with it from a dream, or they sat down and mapped it out. It doesn't really matter. That's all in the music, and it's all there to be interpreted. People draw their inspiration from different areas, and whatever helps them express what they want to express musically should not be the determining factor for how it's interpreted.

Our idea of melody is really quite random. Just because we've been trained from birth to think of some things as melodies doesn't mean that they have any more right to be called a melody than anything else we're less familiar with. If you played tone rows for little kids, they would start humming them. The first things they hum are very structural elements that go into the traditional melodies.

If you take all emotional bias out, everything has equal musical importance.

Replies

October 23, 2007 at 08:16 AM · What a great interview. I've never been a fan of Schoenberg, but I'd be really interested to hear this recording when it comes out. The idea of turning it into "music" when so many people think of his works as academic, should shed quite a new light on the work, and quite possibly on many of his other works as well.

October 23, 2007 at 12:37 PM · Hilary,

Thanks for your candid comments and welcome to Violinist.com! I will be sure to check your new recording of the Schoenberg and hope to see you with the NSO in the spring.

October 23, 2007 at 12:58 PM · Laurie,

you skipped the question on Pope Ratzinger!!

I can't forgive you

Antonello

October 23, 2007 at 02:01 PM · Love the interview. The reason I was wondering about Mr. Brodsky's fav stories is that my old teacher, Herbert Greenberg, studied with JB back in 60's when he was VERY fiesty. My old teacher, who does not use a rest, had problems keeping his violin up and it really irritated Mr. Brodsky. So, he decided to put a small knife (no too sharp) between his tricep and his ribcage to keep his violin up! Not THAT is old school!

VIOLIN UP!

October 23, 2007 at 02:17 PM · Excellent interview! Great questions and marvelous answers!

And thankfully not one proposal! lol

October 23, 2007 at 04:19 PM · Welcome to violinist dot com Hilary!

October 23, 2007 at 04:51 PM · I love the interview, and I love Hilary! :) Thanks, Laurie!

October 23, 2007 at 05:36 PM · listening to her bach and brahms totally blew me away

October 23, 2007 at 09:26 PM · If Hilary ever goes white water rafting again I would be very honored if she took along one of my violins I built. It has a carefully optimized paddle shape.

October 23, 2007 at 11:59 PM · Thanks, Laurie and Hilary. Ever since Laurie told us that there would be an interview, I've been checking v.com several times a day, hoping to find it. It was a great interview. It may even have changed my feelings about Schoenberg's music.

October 24, 2007 at 08:01 AM · "Thanks for your candid comments"

Candid comments?

October 24, 2007 at 08:53 AM · Laurie,

Great interview!!!

Just wanted to quote a section for everyone to read again –– so simple and so profound.

Hilary Hahn: “What people don't think about is the technique of expression. Being technically accurate in itself isn't the goal, because that excludes the thought of phrasing. You have to practice playing the technical sections so that the technique is not important in what the audience is hearing. And you have to practice the bow technique of phrasing. You can't practice technique just to practice it, you have to actually apply it for it to work. ………

You can do all that from when you start, too. You don't have to wait a number of years. The earlier your start thinking about how to apply that do your playing, the easier it will be to apply it later.”

A brilliant young lady and a most brilliant musician.

Drew

October 24, 2007 at 12:25 PM · Good on you Hilary !

I remember having a very brief chat with you when you were signing CDs after a performance at the Sydney Opera House, and thinking what a nice, natural, unspoilt character you are (as well as a really fantastic and musical violinist - you played one of the Mozart concertos).

By the way, some months back "The Strad" had a feature article about you and the lady who wrote the article said you are not "a classical beauty". When I read it I nearly choked. What a load of complete, absolute rubbish !!!

All the best.....

October 24, 2007 at 03:57 PM · Hilary,

Just as true character is revealed in who we are or become in the absence of others, when alone, true musicianship is revealed in how we spend ourself as we work toward our goals. From the interview, it would seem to me that you understand both quite well.

Take care,

Chris

October 24, 2007 at 06:23 PM · Hilary is one wise 27-year-old, and I do love what she is saying about serialism through both her actions and words; that she would commit so fully to interpreting, recording and performing the Schoenberg while also rejecting the mad, suffocating academia that has always surrounded serialism.

It is interesting to see what a younger generation is doing with tone rows and serialism; composer Michael McLean had a similar attitude, of approaching serialism as serving music, and not the other way around. His approach also involved humor: "The joke was composing a 12-tone row in the most lush, beautiful way," McLean said of the Air movement in his new violin concerto.

The musician makes the music. The tone row certainly does not, nor does any other academic formula.

October 24, 2007 at 08:24 PM · Loved the interview! Very interesting and informative. Keep up the great work!

Patty

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