Al, Director of MusicMaps, writes…
Some 14 years ago, Hilary invited me to meet her at St Paul’s Girls’ School. We spoke at length about teaching and string playing. In my naivety, it was only later that I realised this was actually an interview. I have been teaching there ever since and without question, Hilary has been one of the most influential people in my music life – not as a teacher of music but as a guide in my career in music. I am very grateful not just for the wonderful support, but also the belief that Hilary has always had in my teaching and passion for music.
Hilary is head of strings at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Professor at the Royal College of Music.
Tell us about who you are and what you do
My name is Hilary, I love playing the violin and viola with my friends, and performing and sharing music that I have previously known, or is new to me, with my pupils and colleagues on the concert platform. Via a path of hard work and serendipity in equal parts, I have been able to do just that over the past 30 years.
How did music get you to where you are now?
Music is so integral to my life, my expression of life, my delight in life, and my marriage(!) that it is hard to say where I am. Yet it all started by chance in the music wing of my American school, as an elderly man, about the same height as an 8 year old me, smiled at me so pleasantly whilst asking that I would like to play the violin, that I instinctively smiled back, and took home a violin that day. I would add that the one drawback was that the violin was easy for me, and an easy path can be littered with errors and assumptions!
Why did you choose to work in music?
I was so fortunate to learn with a fabulous teacher, Shiela Nelson. It was not just the individual lessons, but group lessons, making friends, playing in orchestras together, and the norm of playing quartets all the time. In sharing and making music, these connections and friendships led to NYO, a Specialist Music School, Music College and much of my initial professional work.
What advice would you give to the parent of someone learning music for the first time?
Learning the violin is HARD. It is simply not to be compared with the flute or voice. The peculiarities of the instrument, holding it on the shoulder, finding a way of producing a pleasant tone, learning how to pitch notes and intervals and finding them on a blank fingerboard, are all extremely complicated. Please be patient, supportive and positive about your child’s first efforts, and admire those that can. Try the violin yourself!
Name a piece of music that inspires you
One of the reasons that music is such a special place, is because it is beyond words, so to describe special pieces is a contradiction in terms. I have as many favourite pieces as I have moods. That said, this year is choc a bloc full of pieces that are very meaningful to me, and connected with people, events, places, and circumstances – Schubert Symphony no 5, the great Schubert C string quintet, Carmina Burana, Grieg Piano Concerto, Mozart A major Symphony and so very many other pieces.
Where is the most exciting place music has taken you?
I worked for nearly 25 years with Ensemble Modern in Frankurt. Apart from being a spectacularly virtuosic contemporary chamber group, they were also self – governing, appointing players and a manager to work together, choosing repertoire, conductors and concert venues. Every three years, Frankfurt would have feature a living composer, and one year approached Frank Zappa. Zappa had tried to work with classically trained musicians several times before, but due to a variety of circumstance, personality and culture, these had not been a success. Our project ended up being the last piece of work that Zappa did before his untimely death. The CD is called The Yellow Shark, named after the shark above his living room fireplace. It was a lengthy process of meetings, a three week project in LA based in Joes Garage, individual sampling, and nearly a year of composition/arranging, before the premiere. That said, three days before the live broadcast premiere, Zappa created a new piece, a poem to read whilst the brass section slithered around my feet, improvising to the words. He delighted in the contrast between an English accent and grubby, dirty (not rude) words. Zappa was a great musician, with a comprehensive knowledge of all twentieth century music, a creative ear and an unequalled sense of humour. He truly deserved the adulation given to him.
What is the best piece of advice you were given by a music teacher?
After a lengthy rehearsal of a string sextet that Zappa had written for us, he came to listen. In good Germanic tradition, we did everything on the printed page excellently. After a lengthy silence, Zappa stood up to leave, and just as he reached the door, turned around and said: “it sounds like ****, style it!” I often think of Beethoven in the same fashion, and how we interpret pieces of music by composers long since dead, but with no opportunity to communicate with us.
The second piece of advice I always bear in mind came from my teacher at the RCM, Felix Andrievsky. When unsure of a phrase, it is not going well, or not sure about anything – just ‘play it again’. This correlates to the French for practice – ‘repetition’ – not mindless repeating, but mindful repetition.