Interview with Nicolas Koeckert: Music as a Lifelong Journey

April 27, 2018, 5:38 AM · I first heard Nicolas Koeckert in 2003 at the Montreal International Musical Competition. I remember him for his elegance, his flamboyant presence on stage and his great sense of musical style. Many years later I was pleased to meet the same elegant and flamboyant musician, who also happens to be profoundly human and greatly enthusiastic.

Nicolas Koeckert
Nicolas Koeckert. Photo by Nico Hinrichs.

Nicolas Koeckert, who was born in Germany, comes from a family of musicians. His grandfather, the violinist Rudolf Koeckert was the legendary founder of the Koeckert Quartet and his father Johanne Koeckert, also violinist, played in the orchestra. Koeckert assured me that he never felt any pressure to play the violin. "I played tennis in my very youth; I was not a wonder-child musician like some, who at a very young age already play with orchestras. I played the violin, but not enthusiastically until the age of 10 or 11 when I heard the Russian violinist Viktor Tretiakov playing the Sibelius Concerto in Munich. I was so amazed -- I was suddenly wowed. At the time, I usually felt asleep when going to concerts. But Tretiakov made me want to play the violin; he made me want to be able one day to play like him."

At the time, Koeckert began studying with a Yuri Yankelevitch student, Olga Voitova, who opened him up to an enthusiasm for the violin repertoire. "I love suddenly the violin. I stopped tennis, and ever since, my life has been all about violin."

At first, Koeckert's father was not so keen to the idea of his son wanting to become a violinist. "He would have liked better to see me practice sports, he thought that sports are fair. With tennis if you make the last point you win, or with boxing if you knock someone out, you win. With sports, there are no questions of taste and style."

However, Koeckert stood for his passion and became the brilliant violinist we know today. He believes all the hard work is worth it. "My love of the music is so strong," he said. "I love so much to perform. To perform is the best meditation; it is a connection to God. I am very happy with my profession. It is a difficult profession, but if you manage, it is the best one. It can really make you proud and happy about yourself."

Koeckert says he always strives to develop and improve. Again, he believes the secret is to love what you do, "then even if you are feeling lonely or uncertain, you won't give up. You will always go on," he said. "You can get such great energy from music. When I do extra-musical activities I get quickly bored, but with music, I can rehearse for hours without even getting tired."

Being a performer is interesting and challenging. Every trip, every person you meet, enriches your experience. "Each composer, each colleague, each conductor brings a different tempo, different ideas; every time the picture is painted new. It can be faster, it can be slower, it can always be good and expressive, and there is never only one way."

A lot of what is essential in music cannot be put in writing, he said. Sometimes the musical knowledge can only be acquired by performing on stage. Knowing how to interpret what is between the lines comes with experience. "Most of the students' mistakes come from looking only at what is written in the score," he said. "If the composer writes 'piano,' he only gives an idea of the feeling that is 'piano.' It is a matter of loudness, of course, but it is also a character. For example, if you look at Shostakovich's 'piano' dynamic in his violin concerto, he writes 'piano,' but if 80 people play mezzo forte, you cannot play 'piano' from the loudness point of view. You always have to be heard, forget the piano!"

When he was young, Koeckert often felt very nervous; despite his talent he lacked a certain degree of control. In order to be able to perform, a musician needs to organize his musical thoughts. Being spontaneous can be good sometimes, but it can also be terrible. With professionalism and organization come more constancy and quality.

It is Zakhar Bron that really helped Koeckert to structure his playing. "Bron spoke of theoretical things: bow division, bow speed, how to put fingers on the strings, how to choose fingerings, etc. He taught me what to do and why. Then I got the general idea of violin playing."

"It's important to understand the mathematics of violin playing so that when you leave your teacher, you can find your own way, your own style," he said "It is not important, where you are in Europe or American. What is important is the teacher. You need to find the right person who has the knowledge, but also who is a really good player and who can give you the idea of sound."

According to Koeckert, playing music well goes beyond the quality of your playing and your knowledge of styles; it is also greatly a matter of sound. "Playing music requires imagination," he said. "You need the sensibility to create something that comes from yourself. It is not enough to listen to what the teacher says; it has to be convincing. You need to know how you feel about music and use your sound to transmit it. You need to have an idea of which sound you want to hear and why, and you have to like it. Being a musician is a very individual profession, in a way."

Koeckert encourages aspiring musicians to find their own way. "You can be given instructions, but after that it is a lifelong search. And that is what makes this profession so amazing and interesting. You meet a new person, you get a completely different idea about a piece, no matter how obvious you thought your idea toward the piece was at the beginning."

"A good thing about music is that it is so human, and it is always in development," he said. "It is like the sea, always changing and evolving. I love to search. There is always a new doubt or a new idea that will come to my mind."

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