Celebrated American violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn has earned a stunning reputation as one of America’s most beloved soloists. The signature artist performs in partnership with one of the world’s most legendary instruments, the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius of 1720, said to have inspired the Academy award-winning film The Red Violin. In 2000 Pitcairn made her New York debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with the New York String Orchestra, and she has been touring ever since. Her March 26 concert with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra will be her third with that ensemble. She will perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto. "Saginaw audiences are great," she told me during our recent telephone interview. "I'm looking forward to working with Brett Mitchell and the orchestra."
Jeanne Lesinski: Your mother is a Julliard School trained cellist and performs in a trio. What inspired you to play the violin rather than the cello or piano?
When I very young, I was watching mother play cello in a trio [violin, cello, piano]. I was glued to the violinist; then I announced that I wanted to play the violin. My brother ended up playing the cello, but he was always most interested in airplanes and is now an aeronautical engineer and plays the cello for fun.
My mother knew the best teachers to take me to. I wasn't a very cooperative child and I wanted to go out to play, but she made me practice. The tradeoff was that I liked to get up on stage. That's why I tolerated the practicing; otherwise, I would have found a way to not do that. I loved the performing part and got rewarded with ice cream cones after concerts. I still like ice cream after concerts. [laughs]
JL: People see a musical instrument as an extension of the musician. How did getting such a celebrated instrument as the Red Stradivarius violin change you and your music, or didn't it?
EP: At age 16 I got the violin on Thanksgiving Day in 1990, so now it's already the 20th anniversary of my having the violin; Stradivarius was 36 years old when he got to open his own shop. I just feel like everything I've done has culminated with this launching point at age 36 [Stradivarius' and Pitcairn's]. I've always been a bit of a late bloomer. My maturity and musical experience melded together. It was a magical experience. Being handed a great instrument is like being given the voice of Pavarotti or Mario Andretti's Formula I race car. The better you get, the more you realize there is more to learn. I spent the first 10 years of having the violin learning. At age 17 I went to Los Angeles to study at The Colburn School, where I met Patrick Flynn, who persuaded me to perform in Saginaw the first time. This will be my third time.
JL: You live in Los Angeles and are on the faculty of The Colburn School of Performing Arts. How does teaching mesh with your other activities?
EP: In between tours, I go and work with the students at The Colburn School who study with my former teacher [Robert Lipsett]. I did very serious teaching for 10 years before traveling so much. But I was trained to perform, so this is good for me. I come and work with students and then go off again. Because I'm actually out there performing, I can impart what I've learned about that. I'm able to listen to them and critique them, and tell them what works in the real world, on stage, and how to behave in a professional world, how to form personal alliances in the professional world. My own upbringing makes me a sympathetic person. My upbringing was difficult—I didn't like practicing—but now I get the rewards. This was what I wanted, so the hard work is worth it. Just believe and work and it'll come to you.
JL: I understand that you enjoy several hobbies.
EP: Yes, ballet, horseback riding, skiing, tennis. The reason why I'm still a sane human being from the pressure I've been under my whole life is because I found balance. My mother is a tiger mom, but not completely. She gave me the discipline, made sure I put in the hours. You can't turn back the hands of time. It has to be done when you're young. But she also allowed me to ride horses after school. I even broke my wrist, but she let me continue riding. In fact, I was afraid to get back on the horse, but my mother sent me to camp, horseback riding camp, so I overcame my fear.
I'm still adventurous. You have to have other things in life to balance out the things you love. Balance is something incredibly important to me. I spent my 20s trying to find balance. It would swing one way to another way. Finally, I figured out I'd be under pressure no matter what because nothing is more difficult than performing, so I realized that to not suffer incredible burnout and trauma to my soul, I have to do things that I enjoy. Sometimes I try to do something that's fun—have a meal with a friend or get my nails done, so that I don't become a crazy workaholic.
I even took my violin on a ski strip and and practiced in the morning for 2 hours before skiing; then I came home and practiced another hour and a half afterwards. Then I went to dinner and still had time to relax. The quality of the practicing was at a higher level than sometimes at home because I didn't have distractions.
I thrive under pressure—I don't know what I'd do. You spend all this time in the practice room by yourself. It's very lonely being asked to practice 4 hours a day in that room. The sheer loneliness is incredible. It's all so physical, you're often in pain—and the chin hurts and thumb mashes into the bow.
JL: There is a physical aspect to playing the violin?
I used to work out a lot, then I got off track and it caught up with me. Playing the violin is very onesided. You're doing one thing with the body. When I was younger, I thought I was invincible. I was faced with the life challenge a couple years ago where I had to do a lot of physical therapy to get over it. When I get done from tours, I'd work out with a trainer 2 hrs per day, 3-4 days per week. It has nothing to do with vanity, but so I can withstand practicing 4-6 hours a day. I had to build up my triceps on my left arm from having my arm bent in that position.
I would stress maintaining consistent healthy exercise as part of a musician's, anyone's job. Consistency over quantity. When I was young, I was told I had to practice 6 hours a day. The most difficult part is getting the violin out of the case. Getting started is the hard part. Then people would have to grab me to say come to dinner. Consistency over quantity.
I tell kids to practice smaller amounts each day. It was an amazing life lesson to go through to reach the level I had at the violin and then think that I might not be able to do it anymore. I had to find a way to do that. It made me stronger; it changed my whole life.
JL: You are involved in volunteer work?
EP: I try to go and talk at schools every time I go to a different city to play with an orchestra. I remember what it's like being that age and how specific people talked at my schools. I've been given so much in my life that I want to give back. You can't just take and not give back.
What I'm doing on the instrument is a thread that goes back 300 years of training. It's a tradition of one violin teacher passing down wisdom. My teachers gave me endless lessons. It meant nothing to Robert Lipsett to see me everyday if needed if I had a competition coming up. He'd drive over to my rehearsals after 8 hours of teaching because he was so dedicated. It's a passion, a love. He'd even coach me backstage. He'd coach me how to get myself psyched up mentally.
JL: Are you aware of the audience when you perform?
EP: More and more I go into a zone when I'm performing. As a kid I'd get nervous before I got on stage. Now I get nervous more in advance, so I work the nerves out of my system a week in advance of a performance. I tell kids to embrace their nerves. I've had a few experiences where I was so nervous I was almost sick backstage, but then when I went on the stage I went into a state of incredible calm. Sometimes if I feel extreme nerves, I'll go into that state on stage.
When I was younger I often wasn't prepared enough on the stage and needed more practice with the pianist and more experience on stage. I was often thrown out on stage not having that background. That's what my college teacher did. We had weekly master classes and played our pieces for each other. We'd do that week after week until we were ready to perform. He understood what a person needs to be confident and professional and flawless in the performance. That's why he has a performance. That's why it's so much work to bring up each student. That's why I chose him.
I was exposed during a summer camp to all these great teachers in California, and I was struck by their solidity; they played from beginning to end with such confidence. I felt it in my bones. I was craving it. I told my mother deep down, 'I want to go to The Colburn School and study with Robert Lipsett.'
At first I couldn't draw a down bow in public without jittering, so I had to do long, slow bows for 10 minutes each day for 10 years. Within weeks it solved my problems, but you can't stop. It becomes as much mental exercise as a physical one. In your mind, you know you can do it. You have to know that you've done it and you can do it.
I still do that bow exercise. I also have a grand piano at my home. Before I go on tour, I invite friends over and play before my friends You need those nerves because you need them to perform in the moment. You need that adrenaline.
JL: Swedish composer Tommie Haglund wrote a concerto especially for you?
Yes. Hymnen an die Nacht.
I have a very strong connection to that piece because I was the first one to interpret it; no one had played it before. It was written with me in mind, for my playing style, so I set the standard. I have an emotional connection to it too.
JL: But with the SBSO you'll play the Sibelius concerto.
That is the piece that made me want to become a violinist. My mother played a recording when I was 8. I listened to it a thousand times. I 'd listen to it in the car because we had to drive so far to lessons because we were so far out. I was picturing that was me playing that piece. I asked my mother when I could play it. She said 14, but I was 24 when I first performed it with an orchestra after spending a very long time learning it [10 years]. It's the hardest concerto in the repertoire.
All my teachers were important and gave me a foundation, but Robert Lipsett took me and made me into an artist. I worked with him for 7 years. I still play for him occasionally. You always need someone to listen to you and someone who is going to tell you the truth. You need someone to listen to you in the hall. Going to play for my former teacher is still a form of pressure.
JL: You are involved with the Luzerne Music Center.
EP: I was appointed the artistic director last year, as the dying wish of the former director. The Luzerne Music Center was founded by a cellist from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He started it for ages 9-18 in two sessions. Luzerne Music Festival is in Upstate New York. I attended that camp when I was 14. They learn solo playing, and chamber and symphony playing. They have two hours every afternoon to play and they get taken to see performances. Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra come to teach and perform and give master classes. I'm very excited to have this position and carry on this wonderful tradition, and to make the camp even greater.
JL: You call yourself a late bloomer.
EP: My teacher said there is no one career path. No people develop their career in the same way. I was a late bloomer, and I try to improve with every opportunity given. Say a conductor I worked with as a young girl sees me and then recommends me later. They'll open a door for you. Or you give a great concert, and you don't know who's listening. My career has come over a lifetime of trying to do my best. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I can see in my life that a few times luck happened, but I wasn't prepared.
Now things are coming to me when I'm mentally prepared to do them. I'm at the age Stradivarius was when he started his shop and went on to become the best violin maker in the world. My time is now.
© Jeanne Lesinski, 2011