A musical "big sister"
Nicola Benedetti, classical superstar, wants all children to make music
Nicola Benedetti is young, beautiful, talented, hard working and rich. She helps children, is unfailingly polite, and has a musical laugh that she uses freely and often.
But will it be enough to save her from criticism after she launched an attack on laziness and the emptiness of many young people's lives – the celebrity culture that encourages an obsession with being famous above all else?
I met Benedetti in Glasgow last week, in the dressing room at the Royal Concert Hall, where she was playing with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland on a tour that ends tonight at the Proms. She's back again, soon, with a chamber piece, and at the Last Night she'll give the Albert Hall something by Shostakovich, from her new album.
A professional musician for a decade, Benedetti seemed older than the youthful Scots milling nervously in the corridor outside, among upright cases of large stringed instruments. Indeed, at one point she referred to them as children, then corrected herself. “Children! They’re my age, basically!”
To play three Proms at the age of 25 is an extraordinary achievement, but Benedetti has always been precocious, and her good fortune only underlines the message she has for young people: that success, and happiness, come from hard work.
She grew up in Scotland, the second daughter of Italian parents. Her father came to Scotland aged 10 and struggled to speak English, let alone do well at school. But he worked hard and prospered. Nicola followed his example, taking up violin at the age of four, and joining the National Children's Orchestra, aged eight, as lead violin. (“I was actually too young, but auditioned anyway.”) She studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England as a soloist and soon after leaving, aged 15, she was signed by IMG management, won BBC Young Musician of the Year, and landed a million-pound recording contract. She's since released seven CDs and made countless appearances around the world. At the Last Night of the Proms she will play a piece from Shostakovich that just happens to feature on her new album, The Silver Violin, featuring music from the movies.
How can she, of all people, criticise others for wishing to be famous?
“It's not celebrity I object to,” she told me. “It's wonderful to celebrate people. That's a good thing. People should have someone they look up to and are inspired by and influenced by. But when the people who are celebrated have nothing to say, it's a celebration of nothing.”
Such as? Who does she have in mind?
“Well, I cannot believe that reality shows like The Only Way is Essex has been allowed! I'm not saying there is anything wrong with entertainment. Escapism is fine. And I'm not blaming the people in that show, I want to make that very clear. Please don't make this all about TOWIE. But I'm disappointed that people in positions of authority go for the easiest, cheapest option for the most financial gain. It's symptomatic of so much in our society – capitalising on what you can get away with and not acting responsibly.”
“People say to me that I was in a privileged situation growing up, and financially I was. But I have thought about this a great deal and come to the same conclusion again and again. The biggest privilege I had was the strict and thorough guidance I had from my parents. I was told to practice every day. I'm sure there were plenty of times I kicked up a fuss. I do remember one time, very clearly. My mum said, ‘You don't have to play the violin. If you don't want to practice, you don't want to play the violin.'
“Honestly, I was so distraught by her even suggesting that. I thought, if that's the option, I will practice. And I genuinely think I was a much happier child – and am a happier adult – because of it.”
Through her work with Sistema Scotland, Benedetti has seen others benefit from the same idea. Modelled on the transformative El Sistema orchestra in Venezuela, Sistema Scotland was set up on a tough estate in Stirling. Today, 450 children in the area are learning to play instruments in an orchestra. (A new centre is opening in Govan, to work with children in Glasgow.)
As a board member and the programme's official musical “big sister”, Benedetti has been been confronted with the gritty reality of the children's lives, visiting many of them at home. “Children are children, they will say what is on their mind. And sometimes what is on their mind can be quite shocking, and horrific.”
Can she give any examples? “I'm a little fearful of giving specific examples because I wouldn't want it to get back to them. But Raploch has been known for a long time to be a place of unemployment and crime and alcohol and drug abuse.
“There are experiences that fall under the general idea of artistic or creative activity, and some of them do take a bit of repetition and effort, but that gives you something enriching. And it's not only about discipline. You shouldn't overlook the whole idea of collective achievement. That's the ethos of El Sistema: you can only sound good if you all play well together. The best result comes if you do what is best for you and also for your group. To play well in an orchestra, you are learning the most fundamental life skill.”
Last year, she was invited to Venezuela to work with the original El Sistema. One of the first things she did was watch their end of term performance. “This was not like any old end of term concert: 160 children walked on stage, all under the age of 12, to play Beethoven's Egmont Overture, and I burst into tears the moment they started playing. It was just phenomenal. You don't see things like that every day.”
For the rest of the day, she gave masterclasses. At the end, she did a question and answer session. “It's nice to let them ask questions – and for me to ask them questions, too.”
What did she ask? “I told them I'm fed up of being asked what sacrifices I made to work hard at my instrument, because I don't feel I made any sacrifices. The biggest privilege I have been given in my life is the daily routine and the dedication I learned through my instrument. So I asked, ‘Do any of you feel that you have made any sacrifice?' And their dedication in terms of hours, could even surpass mine. But they all looked at me as if I was crazy. ‘This is the biggest gift we could have been given,' they said. ‘I'm 18 and I could have been in a gang, and dead, if it wasn't for El Sistema.'” Now some of those young people are studying law, or medicine. “They just said, ‘What are you talking about?' And I was with them, but I just wanted to hear them say it.”