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Violinist.com interview with Rachel Barton Pine

Laurie Niles

Written by
Published: July 29, 2008 at 6:51 PM [UTC]

After meeting Rachel Barton Pine and talking with her about her life and her projects, just one word comes to my mind to describe one of our most beloved members of this site:

Tireless.

This is a woman who practiced every single day, from her first violin lesson age age three until she was 13 -- even if it was Christmas or her birthday or she had the flu. As a teenager, she was practicing up to eight hours a day, learning the solo repertoire at a voracious pace and also playing in the Chicago Civic Orchestra.

She also endured a life disruption that few of us can imagine, when at age 20, her right foot was crushed and her left leg severed above the knee by a Metra train accident in Chicago. A recent Chicago Tribune story illustrates this episode vividly and with much detail.

I'd have to dispute one thing about that article, though: reporter Howard Reich's dramatic statement that this accident "shattered" not only her legs but her career. It's just not the truth. Yes, it forced her into a period of physical recovery that has included more than 40 surgeries and undoubtedly put her career on hold. But "shattered"? Hardly!

Rachel has garnered more artistic respect, has come up with more creative projects, and has advocated for our art more than most violinists of her generation. Her musical and personal voice rings loud and clear, and it reaches many. In addition to performing as a soloist with orchestras around the world, playing radio broadcasts, recording CDs and giving the occasional masterclass, she also runs a foundation, serves on the board of four Chicago charities, posts weekly podcasts in which she interviews various musicians, and willingly takes time to answer those seeking her expert advise on the violin. If it's possible to have MORE of a successful career in music than Rachel has, I'd be hard-pressed to imagine it.

Laurie Niles and Rachel Barton Pine

Laurie Niles: I would think this traveling lifestyle would be really difficult. When do you practice? How do you manage that? Do you have a process for when you get to the new hotel room and you find the place?

Rachel Barton Pine: Actually I think the reason that I can get away with being less consistent these days is the fact that I was extraordinarily consistent when I was a kid. It's really the homeschooling that allowed me to be that consistent. Because I was able to do so much practicing so consistently when I was growing – during the "cartilage years" -- my reflexes and my muscles are there. I obviously have to maintain, but I have such a strong foundation that I can get away with more that I might otherwise be able to. I'm very grateful for that.

These days, there are days that I don't get to practice despite my best efforts. The plane might have been late, then there's traffic, then I have to eat dinner because I haven't eaten lunch, then I have to go to rehearsal and then I have an interview –

Niles: That must be a tremendous thing to let go of actually.

Pine: When I don't get to do as much personal practice, I'm usually playing the violin for many, many hours in rehearsals. But when I'm home I make up for lost time. I'm very, very grateful to live in the apartment I live in because it has double walls and triple floors.

I can play fortissimo without my practice mute at any hour of the 24 hour period. This allows me to make up for lost time when I'm not on the road. In between each trip -- when I'm home repacking the suitcase, doing my laundry, sorting through my mail -- then I'll do five hours of practicing from 10:00 pm to 3:00 in the morning.

Niles: How much did you practice when you were little?

Pine: I really built it up. I was doing like five hours a day by the time I was seven. I think my maximum was eight hours a day, from the age of 11 to 17, when I completed my formal training. But that's a little misleading. You can only do so much on a certain piece in a day before you reach that saturation point and you have to get a good night's sleep and attack it again the next day. I used the hours that were available to me to practice a lot of different repertoire. No one piece was really practiced any more than your typical student would practice it, but I was able to do more pieces simultaneously and learn a larger chunk of the repertoire in fewer years with my eight hours a day. I always had a voracious appetite for repertoire.

I was doing period instrument with Baroque violin from the age of 14 onwards. I was learning not only the works of major repertoire but I was learning all kinds of unusual stuff by unjustifiably neglected composers. I was doing a lot of chamber music. The Civic Orchestra of Chicago, of course, is one of the most intense orchestral training programs in the country. I joined just before my 12th birthday and I was in that ensemble until I was 17.

I have to say this that I feel that my level of understanding as a performer of concertos was greatly enhanced by the years I spent in the Civic Orchestra. Playing all the Brahms symphonies with guys like Barenboim and Michael Morgan, and working with Boulez, working with Solti back in the day...

I also had the opportunity to play the symphonic works by the composers whose concertos I was learning. I had spent those hours in my practice room with the Brahms Concerto, but I don't think I would have understood the music nearly as well. The hours I devoted to learning the Brahms Symphonies helped me know who Brahms was so much more deeply.

Also, sitting in orchestra when other people were soloing, I got to know exactly what kinds of rubatos simply didn't work. Sometimes when you're learning your concerto, and experiencing it with a piano accompanist, you have a false sense of, "I can really do anything that I feel and it's everybody else's job to follow me," but no. That's totally not right.

It's not just about the practical considerations of being respectful to your colleagues, who simply can't follow you through certain twists and turns because it doesn't work for their parts even if they're fabulous instrumentalists. It's also about the music because if it doesn't work it probably means that it's musically not valid.

The solo part is only one component of the entire musical expression. It was in orchestra that I learned how to listen to all the other instruments, how to adjust my tone colors whether I was playing with a clarinet versus a bassoon versus the double basses.

Niles: Last year you came out with your CD American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell, can you tell me a little bit about this album and this American composer from a century ago?

Pine: Favorite topic. Actually, the music on the CD falls into two distinct categories: Music arranged by Maud Powell and music dedicated to Maud Powell. When I do Maud Powell tribute recitals I also include music from three additional categories: music premiered by Maud Powell even if she was not the dedicatee, music recorded by Maud Powell, and music championed by Maud Powell.

Niles: When you were following so closely in her footsteps and playing the things she played, did you get a sense of her musical personality?

Pine: Not only have I spent a significant amount of time playing Maud Powell's repertoire, but also I've been the primary collaborator with the Maud Powell Society on preparing a sheet music collection for publication. This is a collection of works dedicated to and arranged by Maud Powell. Most of these works were in manuscript only; or they were published during her lifetime, but they've been long out of print. Some of the works actually had to be transcribed from her recording of them because the manuscript had been lost.

That was an intense project. Because I was serving as the primary musical editor for all of the sheet music, I got to know her arranging style on a different level. I really feel a definite spiritual connection to Maud Powell because of so many of her values that I've tried to emulate in my life. There are the fun coincidences: we were both born in Illinois and had our earliest training in Chicago, the fact that she received her finishing training in Berlin with Joachim and I received my finishing training in Berlin with a student of a student of Joachim. The fact that her husband traveled with her 100% of the time, the fact that my husband travels with me 100% of the time.

She didn't have red hair, so it's not an exact parallel, but so many cool coincidences. She was so much a woman ahead of her time: breaking the gender barrier by forming a string quartet with men before the genders ever used to mix in an ensemble. She was the first to do that. She championed the works of living composers, women composers, composers of the African descent and that – before I had ever even heard of Maud Powell -- was something that I had gotten very involved in, playing the music of black composers. I was so excited to learn that Maud Powell was really the first white artist to consciously do this and bring this music before the public, before it was as socially acceptable.

Also, there were her activities that we now call would call "outreach," a century before that term was ever invented. She would play one recital in a big city, then a couple nights later another recital in a big city, and instead of resting, she would find some small town halfway in between and play that town's first ever classical concert. She was one of the most renowned artists of her generation: she was earning a fine living, she had plenty of concerts. She didn't have to go and do this. She could've relaxed on that day off, but she believed that it was her mission in life to bring music to people. It was not to increase her audiences, not to sell more of her records, not to preserve her livelihood in years to come, but this is what she felt like she was put on this earth to do.

That's the sense that I had about the meaning of my life as a musician; then reading Karen Shaffer's biography of Maud Powell just reinforced all of my beliefs and made me realize that none of these ideas that I had come up with are anything new. I'm really just privileged to follow in the footsteps of the great artists of the past who also knew what it meant to have music be your calling.

It's not just that she is a historic figure who happened to be America's first internationally acclaimed violin soloist, the greatest woman violinist during her lifetime, Victor Red Seal's first instrumental recording star...that's interesting, if you're a music history geek like I am, but what relevance does that have for us today?

Actually it's all of these things that Maud Powell did, the values that she exemplified, that are lessons we can draw upon for as long as music exists in this world -- for generations to come and for violinists today of all ages and genders.

As far as Maud Powell's actual playing is concerned, this was such an interesting journey for me. In a way, it was like period instrument performance, playing music from the Victorian era. The playing, in some ways, was so different. Just take the use of shifting and expressive slides. I think it's great that we've gotten 1940's style soundtrack slides out of Mozart. It used to be when you listened to some of the recordings they kind of played Mozart like they played Strauss. That's a little questionable, now that we know better. But yet, now orchestras play Barber the way that they play Mozart. In other words, there's a certain sterility. They're trying to so hard not to sound schmaltzy. I always have to really urge orchestras in the Barber violin concerto and the Korngold violin concerto, "Hey, wait a sec. This is music from the 1940's. Please, guys, I want to hear some shifts. That's the historically authentic performance practice of the time. "

Niles: Throw on the Cheez Whiz here.

Pine: It's not cheesy. It's just what those artists were. These were their expressive tools. If you don't have those, then you're not playing the music that the guys wrote. It's funny. String players in orchestras almost seem to feel guilty about having too juicy of a slide. I'm like, "No, that's not enough." That's the 1940's, 1950's sound. But when you go back half a century farther – if you listen to the earliest examples of violin playing from the beginning of the recorded era, the sound of those kind of shifts was something quite different.

The question for me was how do I approach playing this repertoire? Do I actually try to make it as authentic as possible and play those kind of shifts that would sound just bizarre to 21st century ears? When I say they would sound bizarre, certainly some people do listen to early recordings. It's not what you'll normally hear on a classical radio station, though, because even with the remastered versions, there's still so much extraneous sounds that they tend not to be broadcast.

(For example) there's a wonderful CD set, the history of The Recorded Violin with a little bit of everybody -- it's brilliant stuff. You can hear (Grigoras) Dinicu's own version of the Hora Staccato and it makes Heifetz's sound so bland. There are so many more spicy harmonies. He goes like half again as fast (one and half times as fast!). It's like, "Wait a sec. Heifetz doesn't sound very gypsy or very technically impressive after you hear Dinicu doing the real thing," and that's on the History of the Recorded Violin. There's a violinist (Vasa Prihoda ) who does part of "Nel cor più non mi sento" and of course you know it's one live take, no splices. It's like, "Whoa, how did he do that?" It's an amazing series. So certainly some members of the public have heard that stuff, but we have never heard that style divorced from the recorded sound quality of that time.

The really clean, pure audiophile sound that we can get with today's technology, combined with slides from a century ago, is not something people have heard. They've only heard it with the cracks and pops and sort of white noise you get with the old recordings.

Niles: So you are saying there is a kind of "period performance" to explore for Romantic violin music, just as people have explored authentic performace for Baroque music.

Pine: I'm convinced that that within our lifetimes we're going to start to see a big change in performance of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and those composers. Maybe not to the degree that we don't like hearing it on the modern instruments, but definitely more, so that hearing the historic version will become something that we're completely familiar with and used to and embrace.

Moving that up to the Victorian era, to the post-romantic I know that guys like (the conductor Nikolaus) Harnoncourt have started to do period instrument Schoenberg, with more historic uses of vibrato. Apparently with Schoenberg, continuous vibrato was not yet quite the norm. To me, hearing it, there were some pure moments that worked. There were some other moments that I wasn't convinced. Probably it's like when people were first starting to figure out how to play Baroque-style unaccompanied Bach; they were swelling every note and it sounded kind of (sea)sick.

People said, "Oh Baroque style is ugly." That's because people hadn't quite figured it out. So probably this (kind of period performance) will continue to be refined and explored, and it'll come to be something very natural to our performing and listening experience.

Still, I didn't want to be the first, and to have everybody think that my album sounded bizarre. Until a number of us start going back to Victorian era slides, and having that be the way that we play Dvorak and so forth, until we start doing that as a conscious, historically important performance practice approach, I didn't want to do something that was just going to sound strange.

Niles: You didn't lay it on real thick.

Pine: I didn't want the strangeness of the approach to distract from the beauty of the music. So I chose a half-way approach, where I wanted to retain something of the flavor of the time, but also have it be understandable to my current listeners.

Niles: To make it palatable for modern ears.

Pine: There really hasn't been a lot of musicological research into this particular period of performance practice, so I kind of did what you would consider to be primary research, taking Maud Powell's recordings and marking my music with my own system of little symbols for exactly where she slides. Patterns started to emerge.

I could have done a whole treatise, but I don't have time for that. I I hope somebody will -- it's waiting to happen. Somebody needs to write a dissertation about not just Maud Powell, but take 10 different violinists and analyze this, and see what's Maud Powell specifically, and what is the style of the times that everybody does. Where is the individuality and where is the consensus.

I started to get a sense of the kinds of places where she would insert slides and how many times she tended to slide per phrase. Drawing upon the knowledge that I had gained from my analysis, I then would made my own choices within that framework.

Then the kinds of slides that I did wouldn't be exactly 1900's style. They would be what I would call a visible slide, expressive slide, but more of a 21st century visible expressive slide; and appearing more frequently as in the 1900's. That's how I kind of balanced the past with the present.

Niles: How do you differentiate between a 1900s-style visible expressive slide and a 21st century visible expressive slide?

Pine: The slides from the 1900s, to my ears, sound so slow and deliberate. It would take me awhile to get used to even playing that way and used to feeling like I could express myself with that tool. I'm so used to playing Baroque music and expressing myself with no vibrato.

I'm sure that if I worked on it long enough I could express myself with the slow deliberate slide, but that isn't yet one of my artistic personas or incarnations. What I did take away from my study of her slides was where to put them, and how often to insert them. Then I did my style of slides.

Niles: It's sort of like, if you're not a native of Great Britain you really can't wear that accent effectively.

Pine: But you can make sure that you use the right slang with your American accent.

Niles: Right. Exactly.

Pine: That's a very good analogy.

Niles: I was wondering what is the next thing here for Rachel Barton Pine?

Pine: The rebec.

Niles: The what?

Pine: The rebec, my new friend. You can buy a rebec with a bow and a case . The rebec is one of the medieval ancestors of the violin. It was tuned in fifths.

Niles: Four strings?

Pine: Three strings. It's thought to have developed from the Middle Eastern rabab, which was literally a hollowed out gourd with a piece of goat skin stretched across the top. When it came over to Europe, they made it out of wood, but with the same half-pear shaped body, flat top, and tuned in fifths with a curved bridge. Those are the elements that were once influences on the eventual violins. One of the other ancestors of the violins, of course, is the vielle, or the medieval fiddle, and that's an instrument with a flat bridge that was usually tuned to the arpeggio of whatever key you were playing that song in. You could only really play the melody line on the upper string and the rest were kind of drones, but that instrument had a body that was shaped much more like the violin.

Niles: Right.

Pine: This is just a superficial version but: To take the body of the lira da braccio, the tuning in fifths and curved bridge of the rebec, and suddenly, magic. You have the violin. Just like when a new species mutates, and all the other lesser good species ....

Niles: They die out.

Pine: But does that mean that we shouldn't play the rebec? Not at all! Even though it died out, it was popular in the 900s to the 1500s. Actually the rebec was the most popular of the string instruments for about 500 years. The violin has yet to match that. There's some incredible, intricate art music written for rebec. It's played on the arm. One of the foremost medieval string instrumentalists in the world just happens to live in Chicago, David Douglass. He's artistic director of the King's Noyse which is the only renaissance string band in all of North America. They have a little set of violins, violas and cellos made out of the same tree just like they would have for a household in the 1500s, when violins were first invented.

Niles: Oh my gosh.

Pine: In the middle 1500s, when (the violin family instruments) were a brand new kind of instrument, they would make them all out of them same tree: a whole set with big violins and little violins, small and large violas and cellos. Everybody had to stand to play in the presence of their employer. They would play tunes in the first position. It was very improvisatory. This little string band has re-created that. It's amazing. David Douglass also plays all those medieval instruments, and he's artistic director of the world renowned Newberry Consort. So I'm going to make my rebec debut as a guest artist with the Newberry Consort in the spring of 2009.

You see, I had to learn the viola d'amore so that playing the Baroque violin seemed less weird by comparison. I had to learn the rebec so that playing the viola d'amore seemed a lot more normal. I eventually want to own one of every possible bowed string instrument played this way on the arm or on the shoulder. People say, "Oh you play viola d'amore. Do you want to play guitar?" I'm like, "No way. I only play things with a bow this way, but I want to play all of them."

Niles: So how many do you have so far?

Pine: Well just the four. Regular violin, Baroque violin, viola d'amore and rebec. I want to own a Norwegian Hardangar fiddle – It's really a folk instrument. I want to own a crywth. I have a long wish list of funky fiddles that I want one of each of them.

But the great thing about the violin is you can really play almost anything on the violin.

Niles: What would you encourage a young violinist or a young musician to learn about, besides their instrument? If you're going to live a life as a musician. what are some of the things that would be good to look into?

Pine: Well, it all comes down to communication. As artists, we're expressing the music that we play. We're communicating those feelings and emotions, the story that we're telling. The whole purpose of it isn't to recreate what the composer wrote in some kind of a glass bubble. Ultimately, it's to bring it to the concert stage and communicate that to the listeners. "Sharing" is another word that really captures what an artist's life is about.

That goes beyond your instrument. In order to fully draw people into this art, you have to break down those perceived barriers between the artist who's creating the music, and the listener who's absorbing the music, by doing some non-musical things. Michael Morgan, one my mentors from my teen years, always told me that any musician that wants to really make an impact in the world has to learn how to write and how to communicate. I didn't know what he was talking about at the time.

I thought, "Well you're the conductor. I just go out on stage now and play my concerto. What do you mean I have to know how to write? " As it turns out he was absolutely on the money.

The interesting thing that I've found is that communicating with the public -- whether it's speaking to them from the stage, participating in pre-concert talks, posting podcasts and YouTube videos, writing blogs and e-zines and my liner notes for CDs -- all of those things actually have helped me to grow as an artist. It's made me clarify a lot of things that I might never have bothered to or thought needed clarification.

If I go out a half hour before I'm about to perform a Tchaikovsky concerto, and an audience member asks me, "What's your favorite spot," or, "Why do you do this phrase the way you do it," suddenly I have to think, "Well wait a sec. What is my favorite spot? and why?" Then I'm that much more inspired when I actually perform the piece. So I've found that all these things I do benefit myself. It's a never ending circle: the more I grow as an artist the more I can give to the public.

Niles: It's a positive cycle.

Pine: Absolutely.

Niles: What would you say to somebody who's in a negative cycle, who's thinking, "Hey, that's not my job. Come on, I didn't go to music school for this." How does a person break out of that?"

Pine: Midori expresses it so well: we talk about "outreach" and now the new term is community engagement. It's the new PC term, but it's not just about our self-interest in wanting to perpetuate audiences so that there can continue to be work so that we can continue to be paid. How many of us started out in our lives as musicians from the sole perspective of a paycheck?

Niles: Nobody hopefully.

Pine: We need to be able to buy our groceries and pay our rent but that's not why we're in this particular profession. Outreach is not about filling the halls. It's about our mission as musicians: to share our music with as many people as possible. Even if we're earning as much money as we could possibly want and all our concerts are sold out, we still need to do that. It brings us back to that pure place of why we make music. If you can think of it in that way, it becomes a very organic part of your life; it's all part of the same life mission.

Each of us is where we are in life because we have reaped the benefit of having been taught by various mentors along the way. The only way to return that favor is to pass along the knowledge to people who don't yet have that information.

Niles: Do you teach these days?

Pine: I did have a studio in the mid-90's. I completed my formal training when I was 17. My music education had been expedited because of the fact that I homeschooled from 3rd grade to the end of high school. I did all of my college/conservatory level work, orchestra, chamber music, music history and all of that during my teen years and finished my formal training at the age of 17. Of course one never stops learning. If I'm doing a piece by a particular composer, I'll go to a specialist in that composer or in that particular style of playing. When I was doing my Scottish Fantasies album, I consulted with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser to make sure that I had all the right inflections in the original fiddle tunes that appeared in the Bruch and other concertos. But as far as the formal weekly lessons where my teacher assigned me an etude and all of that, I did finish that when I was 17.

That same year I joined the faculty of the Music Institute of Chicago. I had already been teaching for a few years prior to that, had built up a studio so it was a very natural thing at that point to join the faculty even though on paper it looked kind of unusual –

I loved having a studio. I loved the excitement of seeing my students' progress, of forming lifelong relationships with the students and their parents. But ultimately, I won my international competitions, had my recording debut in '95, and my touring schedule just simply got to be too intense to maintain a studio.

I know that a number of my colleagues do combine the traveling lifestyle with a professorship. That can work for students, especially at the graduate level, for their teacher to kind of drop in and out. But having taught so intensely for those years – seeing my students every seven days, going with them to their competitions, having weekly studio performance classes and extra lessons if an audition was coming up -- I just feel like I personally wouldn't want to teach in any other way. I wouldn't want to drop by every three weeks and then disappear. If I'm going to teach I want to do it in what I consider to be the ideal circumstances. Therefore I don't have a studio.

I certainly teach a lot. I give master classes in almost every city I visit, and I give a lot of supplemental lessons on the road and at home. People who might be working on a particular piece or preparing for a particular competition or performance will come for some extra advice, but I don't have my own permanent students who see me on a regular basis as their primary teacher. I miss that. I also miss sitting in the back of the section and playing a Mozart symphony. You can't do everything simultaneously. I miss being a concert master. You can't be a permanent member of the string quartet and be a soloist. Just can't do it.

I thought about all these different things I did and loved, and I thought, "Which one, if I didn't do it, would I miss the most?" and it was soloing.

Niles: Really?

Pine: For me, that's how I feel I can best express my personal voice as a musician and give the most to my audiences. That's the genre in which I feel most personally creative.

But anyway, back to the teaching question. My life plan is -- if I have a hopefully long life -- that I will retire gracefully from the stage when I start to lose my edge rather than lingering on embarrassingly. My husband’s going to be t


From David Allen
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 9:07 PM
Laurie, Thank you so much! It's a real joy to get these glimpses into the mind of one of my heros! My admiration for her continues to grow with each new insight.

You are doing a fabulous job with this site!

From Joe Pasillas
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 10:02 PM
I have just joined this site and, boy am I glad! What a great interview with a such great violinist and person. Diversity in anything is the spice of life. To me this interview with Rachel Barton Pine gave me an insight into how rich the current violin landscape truly is. Brava and Brava!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 10:07 PM
How do we know that violinists in Mozart's day didn't play with audible shifts? His affetuoso slow movements scream for slow shifts. They din't have chin rests and shoulder rests. I'll bet they had to have audible shifts.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 11:22 PM
This is great! Thanks! It is so nice to read, and learn from, an in-depth interview that is not truncated due to page count restrictions.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 11:41 PM
I kept thinking I was going to make it shorter, but how does one cut short the ideas of an independent thinker? Rachel had so many interesting and original things to say, I certainly enjoyed talking with her.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 2:04 AM
Rachel, I <3 U!
Laurie, nice photoshopping on the t-shirt!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 2:38 AM
I would never photoshop Rachel! She just has very good taste in clothing!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 2:43 AM
Actually I was very touched that she put it on for that picture, right after I gave it to her. It was a really supportive gesture.
From Patricia Baser
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 12:11 PM
Excellent interview. My very first concert in college included accompanying a seven year old Rachel playing the first movement of the Haydn G Major Concerto.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 1:28 PM
What a great interview. Thanks, Laurie! Thanks, Rachel!
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 2:49 PM
I loved reading this, it was so interesting! Thanks for a great interview.
From Anthony Barletta
Posted on July 30, 2008 at 7:22 PM
Thanks for a great interview and wonderful links!
From Penny B
Posted on July 31, 2008 at 12:35 PM
Great interview, both insightful and fun.

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