Tasmin Little Will Stop at (Almost) Nothing to Engage Her Audience
How the English violinist keeps herself in the spotlight
What keeps the name of a famous soloist in the public’s mind? It used to be the release of CDs, but these shiny discs in reality were but occasional “events” in careers characterized by the routine slog of concertizing and touring. So if you’ve wondered what English violinist Tasmin Little is doing these days, the answer is: what most musicians concentrate on—performing live. “Recordings are still important,” she says, “and I’m very excited to be making one of the Elgar Concerto [for release by Chandos this fall]. But I’ve always felt that they’re the least of the more important aspects of the career. Playing live to people is where it’s at. And in one way, not being able to make so many recordings is good, because it makes us think how we’re going to reach audiences.”
Has any soloist of her caliber dared to go further in finding a solution?
Two years ago, she launched the Naked Violin project in order to challenge prejudices against solo-violin music, and offered from her website free downloads of recorded works by Bach, Paul Patterson, and Ysäye, each with a spoken introduction.
Offering an opportunity “for anyone . . . to experience the huge range of styles and expressions that a single, unadorned violin can produce,” she presents visitors to the website with her three-step challenge: “First, listen to my free recording and download the CD. Second, take some time to listen and get to know these pieces. Then write to me and tell me what you like (or don’t like) about each piece. And, third, go to a concert, buy a CD, or write and tell me what barriers still remain to prevent you from wanting to do either!”
Within days her website had received 250,000 hits, prompting the Independent newspaper to comment, “No musician has ventured down this path before—not even the rock band Radiohead.” But she’s gone even further: she now presents 30-minute No Strings Attached workshops in venues other than traditional concert or recital halls—such community centers as schools, prisons, and homes for the disabled.
A few other high-profile classical soloists do similar work, but the vast majority don’t. I ask her why. “Going out to communicate with people who might at best have no idea about classical music, and at worst feel positively resentful at being lectured about its benefits, involves an element of risk,” she replies. “When you walk onstage into a hall full of people who’ve paid money because they want to be there, you’re in a relatively safe situation. Unless you play really badly, you’re guaranteed some applause at the end of it. But when you go into the areas of the community I want to explore with the Naked Violin, you’re not guaranteed anything. People might even be aggressive or violent towards you.
“That’s the only risk I face. Anything else—people being left unmoved—I can cope with. And at the other end of the spectrum, where I’ve positively changed somebody’s life, the benefit is so much greater than anything I could have lost in the process. Every time I’ve gone into the community there’s been somebody whose day or week or year has been made by experiencing something that they perhaps didn’t even think they were going to enjoy.
“That’s why I’m doing it.”
However, Little is keen to emphasize that she finds traditional concerts and recitals as fulfilling as ever. “That aspect of my life is still crucially important to me,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to do full-time community work even if it were practical financially, which it isn’t, because I still love walking out onstage to a public who have experience of concert-going. But when I can schedule a community visit or workshop alongside a concert, I can have the best of both worlds.
“I’m still very much a concert violinist, but one with a more varied musical lifestyle than I’ve had in the past.”
She recently took the project abroad for the first time and, while in Seattle, gave a Sunday morning family concert—essentially a two-hour version of the Naked Violin. When she asked if anybody present was attending a classical concert for the first time, between 60 and 70 per cent of the audience raised a hand.
I ask about the public’s response to her Three-Step Challenge, and she replies, “I know for sure that it’s had a very direct impact. A lot of people have written to say that because of the download they’d realized they could appreciate classical music and were going to begin buying CDs and going to concerts. Others tell me similar things personally—only three days ago a man came up to me to say, ‘This is the first concert I’ve ever been to, and I’ll be going to more now.’
“I’m very happy that there are new audiences out there, and that I’m right to think you can reach them. For that, the Internet is the most amazing tool. But I want to take people to the next stage, because for me it’s all about encouraging people to experience live music. A CD’s fantastic, but anybody who can get to a live event will appreciate the fact that, like sport and theatre, it’s happening right in front of their eyes.”
But, she stresses, it’s not enough to merely bring in new audiences: the musician must then engage with them. ‘‘We need to remember that they’re a crucial part of the performance,” she says of the audience. “They must be made to feel first that you’re happy they’re there, and second that they’re included in the experience, either by the way you introduce the music or simply by the manner in which you walk onstage. I’ve seen performers who barely look at their audience, and I think this sends a rather difficult message, particularly to people who aren’t sure whether they’re going to enjoy what’s being played.”
What Tasmin Little Plays
“My own instrument is a Guadagnini made in 1757, which I’ve had for 21 years. I also have, on kind loan from the Royal Academy of Music in London, the ‘Regent’ Stradivari of 1708. I have two bows: a Sartory, and one made about 15 years ago by Charles Espey [of Port Townsend, Washington]. From a practical point of view, it’s a good idea to have a spare bow—particularly when you’re traveling. For example, when I was in Seattle recently, I began to tighten up my Sartory before a rehearsal, only to find that the screw had gone and it wouldn’t tighten. So I picked up my Espey! They’re both great bows, both really enjoyable. The Espey is for when you really want to project into a huge hall, but I also love the Sartory because it has a slightly mellower sound.”—T.L.