Chinese violinist Ning Feng, 33, has spent the last 15 years winning international competitions and scooping up awards and praise for his playing, but his violin career nearly ended before it began.
At age four, he was rejected outright by a violin teacher before he could learn to play a note, due to the length of his pinkie, which is much shorter than his other fingers.
"They told my dad, 'His finger's too short, there's no good outcome from him learning the instrument,'" Feng said, speaking with me over the phone from Berlin last month. "That would have been quite a pity, if that had been my only chance, that first teacher."
It certainly would have, for a violinist who grew to play with such virtuosity and sensitivity.
The list of awards Ning Feng has won is long: recently named a Fellow at London's Royal Academy of Music, Ning Feng also was a First Prize winner of Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2005 and in the International Paganini Competition in 2006, having also won prizes in the Hanover, Queen Elisabeth and Menuhin competitions. Next week he will play his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint Saens as well as a new work by Tan Dun in a Chinese New Year concert. His first concerto CD, featuring Bruch Scottish Fantasy and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, was released in February 2014.
Feng was born in Chengdu, China in the province of Sichuan -- famous for its spicy food and for being the only region where the wild panda lives. Feng started playing the violin because of his father. "He is a big music lover, and he really loves the violin sound," Feng said. "However, when he was younger, for either financial or political reasons, he was not allowed to study the instrument. In a way, I studied the violin to fulfill his dream."
Though that first teacher nearly derailed Feng's start on the violin, the second teacher proved to Feng that things happen for a reason.
"I couldn't learn violin for a half a year, until my dad found another teacher," Feng said. Because of the first experience, they approached the second teacher with some trepidation. "My dad thought, 'What if this teacher says again, my son cannot learn this instrument at all?'" Fortunately, the second teacher did not see his shorter pinkie as a problem -- "which I think is actually the right attitude," Feng said. "What defines whether or not you can play the violin? It starts out with the fact that you enjoy music. I've known a lot of people who are very successful in their own business; they're not necessarily professional musicians, but they love playing the instrument! And they go to concerts, they love listening to CD recordings. They play a little piano, a little violin on their own, when they have spare time. What's wrong with that? As long as someone has the good will to learn an instrument, people should encourage that."
Even though his father wanted him to play, "I was very lucky, because my parents only wanted me to play the violin as a hobby, so I never had any kind of extreme pressure," Feng said. "My dad never had that kind of ambition, nor did I." His father did, however, wish for him to use his time wisely and not to waste his chance to learn to play well. "He said that time is something you cannot buy, and you cannot get back. Once it's passed, it's passed. Even though he was not aiming for me to become a professional violinist, he told me to make sure that I did not waste any of my time. So I did it seriously and properly."
As it turned out, "the teacher whom I studied with in London, (Hu Kun), is actually the son of my teacher in Sichuan," Feng said. "When I was in senior high school, one year before I was going to graduate, he was offered the position as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He asked his father, 'Do you have anybody you might convince to come over to England to study?' So everything is meant to be. It was as if I was meant to be rejected from the first teacher, then I was meant to be accepted by my real first teacher. Then everything just happened. I was never hoping to become a professional musician, but somehow it just happened, step-by-step, little-by-little."
After studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he studied in Berlin, at the Hanns Eisler School of Music, with Antje Weithaas. "I've always been fascinated with the German-Austrian tradition: Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, etc. etc. (Germany) was always a place I've wanted to come," he said. Berlin is where Feng currently resides with his wife and young son.
Another place that shaped Feng's development was actually in Canada -- at Mount Royal Conservatory's Morningside Music Bridge program in Calgary. Established in 1997 with the Hong Kong-based Morningside Foundation, the program aimed to provide a cultural and musical bridge between talented students of Chinese and Canadian origin. It now also has a partnership with the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
The college and the foundation "came up with the idea of introducing this program to 20 Canadian students and 20 Chinese music students, to put them together for four weeks during the summer in Calgary," Feng said. "We would have private classes, masterclasses, chamber music, and two to three concerts a week, as well as faculty concerts." Feng attended the program three times as a student, and now he goes back every year to teach and perform. "Everybody knows everybody so well now; it's always like a family reunion," Feng said. For him this is literally true; not only has he met many friends and colleagues there, but it's also where he met his wife, Ying Guo, of Beijing. A few of the other successful graduates of the program include violinists Nikki Chooi, Shanshan Yao, Chen Xi and Agata Szymczewska; violists Li Teng and Kalan Porter; pianists Yuja Wang and Jan Lisiecki; and cellists Wei Yu, Ni Tao, Arnold Choi and Tian Bonian.
Exactly how popular is violin-playing in China these days?
"It's actually very popular," Feng said. "Of course, piano has always been the most popular instrument for people to study. However, classical music now has become very common for kids around age five to study -- any instrument." Because a piano is a lot more expensive than a quarter-size violin, "violin can be more affordable and reasonable choice," he said. Violin has increased in popularity in China over Feng's lifetime. "When I was younger, the number teachers that we had was relatively smaller. If you talk about how many people were playing the instrument 20 years ago, and how many people are playing the instrument now, it's definitely much more now than before."
For more than two years Ning Feng has been playing the 1721 "MacMillan" Strad, on loan to him through Premiere Performances of Hong Kong. What is that instrument like?
"Well, to begin with, it's a Strad, which pretty much tells 80 percent of the story!" Feng said. "The violin itself is from a private collector in Hong Kong. It's a very typical, 1721 Stradivarius. It's still the Golden Period, but it's a little late in the Golden Period, about ten years after what we call the peak time. So he made this one when he was 70 years of age. It has a silvery, clean and noble sound, and big power."
Was it hard to get used to?
"In a way," he said. "I think there's a personality in an instrument which actually should match the player. It's like working with a colleague; you have to get used to each style. And of course, there times when both people are good professionals, but they just don't work well together. It's actually the same thing with the player and the instrument; there may be a great instrument, but you just don't like it, you don't get along with it."
As a veteran of the competition circuit, how does Feng feel about competitions?
"For me, a competition is definitely not natural," he said. It's a little like comparing Italian food to Spanish food, or maybe Western cuisine to Chinese cuisine -- you just can't say which is better because they are so different. "However, competitions have existed for 100 years, so there has to be a reason why."
At a certain point, "it's really difficult to say who is technically better than the other -- it's just about personal taste," he said. "However, I did quite a lot of competitions, and there are a few reasons why -- none of them involving winning a prize."
One reason was that it provided something towards which to practice. For some very talented and driven students, school does not require a big enough challenge. "So the first thing is that you will get from entering a competition is a chance to learn how to prepare such a huge repertoire, because in two weeks' time you have to perform three or four times -- different programs. The second thing is that you will get the stage experience."
During their development, "music students face three different kinds of stages: one is an audition or exam in school; another one is the competition stage; and another is the concert stage. In the concert stage, people are spending their time and their money to come listen to you. That already gives the performer a positive: people are here to enjoy what I do, so I'm presenting something nice to them. For school exams or auditions, you are playing for trained professional musicians who are trying to figure out what is not good enough. However, their main purpose is to help the students to improve. So you're okay. But competitions.... I've been a jurist; we are paid, not much, but we are paid to figure out who has done what wrong and take points off. And this, really, is frightening. It's scary!"
"If, mentally, a student or a younger musician can get through this, then everything else will be easy," Feng said. "So this competition stage experience is something I found to be most helpful." It's important for a young person doing competition to recognize that, though you may win at some point, you'll usually lose, just based on the statistics. "This has been good mental training: how you get over the depression and make sure that your soul is not smashed by this kind of unsuccessful experience. You move forward. I think that this is also very important."
"I'm actually encouraging a lot of my students to do competitions," he said, "but I told them, winning the prize is not the reason why you are doing this; you are doing it because there are other good things you can learn."
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Ning Feng plays and talks about his Bruch Scottish Fantasy/Tchaikovsky Concerto Album:
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