Nicola Benedetti: A Great Scot
Internationally renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti was cast into the spotlight at age 16. Forced to grow up in the public eye, she often struggled. Now in her 30s, she looks back on those years with wry humor.
Nicola Benedetti is an internally renowned violinist. Her accolades include an MBE and CBE, a Grammy, a Queen’s Medal For Music, and eight honorary degrees.
Born in West Kilbride, Scotland, to Italian-Scottish parents, she began to play the violin at age 4. A prodigious talent, at age 10 she moved to England to study at the famed Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians. By age 15 she was playing as a soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra. She’s since performed with the New York Philharmonic, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C., among other major orchestras.
Her 2014 recording of Max Burch’s Scottish Fantasy reached the top 20 of the UK albums chart. She won a Grammy in 2020 for her recording of Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite, which he wrote for her.
Scotland has, for its size, had a disproportionate impact on the world. It was a Scot who invented television, penicillin, and capitalism. But the Scots also take humility, nay, self-deprecation to new heights, or maybe new lows.
Nicola Benedetti: I mean, it’s like with my mum, I’ll tell her something about I don’t know, a class of kids that I taught that was in Scotland, or anything like that, and honestly, she goes through this thing which is like, “You see? We are, you know, we should be proud of ourselves, and I don’t understand why we’re not,” and I’m just like, “But you’re just doing exactly what it’s not necessary for us to do,” which is this shock horror that we’re actually good at something, and it’s that kind of almost disbelief at the level of achievement that is there in plain sight.
The internationally-acclaimed violinist Nicola Benedetti is one of the more recent examples of Scottish excellence. She first came to public attention in 2004 when at age 16 she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Now in her early thirties, Benedetti is in demand and thriving, but she says you’d be wrong to assume that her journey followed a straight course.
Benedetti: Felt like this.
Benedetti: Like this. I mean, just without any exaggeration, that’s what it felt like. I mean, just constantly, constantly being put in a position that I didn’t quite feel ready for, and thinking can I make it, should I try it, failing. I mean, the reviews I got within those first three, four years of performing were amazingly awful.
AJC: Did you ever agree with them?
Benedetti: Oh, many times I agreed with them, yeah.
The low point came in 2008 when a 20-year-old Benedetti saw a review eviscerating her performance of the notoriously difficult Sibelius violin concerto, on night one of a six-date concert tour. It didn’t help her play it any better.
Benedetti: I just couldn’t.
AJC: It’s a beast, anyway.
Benedetti: It is a beast, but now I now can see that there were really clear reasons for why I couldn’t and thought I couldn’t play it. Like, for example, I was continuing to do bowings and fingerings that I would practice for hours on end that just didn’t suit me, and were not right for me. That six months was a real breaking point for me, and it was never that “I can’t do this,” it’s, “I can’t continue doing this like this.” I knew and believed my violin playing and my musicianship is so much better than what everybody is hearing, and that it’s in there somewhere. I’m not making the right decisions to unlock it right now, but that it’s there.
The violin has been Nicola Benedetti’s near-constant companion throughout her life. At age four, she followed her older sister into lessons. Their mother, Francesca, had no musical education of her own and was never aiming to cultivate a prodigy or a pro, let alone two. Older sister Stephanie is a member of the acclaimed electronic group Clean Bandit. Now the ever pragmatic Mrs. Benedetti just wanted to teach her daughters about discipline.
Benedetti: Her whole motto in how she brought us up, me and my sister, was like “You can’t do 50 things. You’re not allowed to do every after-school club. That’s not an option available to you. You have to pick one, maybe two things, and you’re gonna make it through the difficult hurdles and if you don’t like it, you’re sure you don’t like it, then you do something else.” One time I didn’t want to, I really was fighting with my mom to practice, as in she was telling me to, and I was saying I didn’t want to, and she said, “Well you don’t have to play the violin at all like that’s fine.” My life was over in that moment. I mean, the fact that somebody could threaten that to me.
AJC: But was it a threat? Was it like, be great at it or stop?
Benedetti: No, it wasn’t. It just—
AJC: Just achieve your potential?
Benedetti: All she meant was you really don’t have to do this, but if you’re going to do it, practice is a part of playing the violin. I mean, I was maybe eight. And I was so offended by the fact that she could consider that I might not want to play the violin. And I’ve never had a real crisis moment of “Do I want to play or not.” Never, since then.
At age 10, Benedetti moved to England to attend the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians in Surrey. At 15, she found an impressive champion and mentor in Maciej Rakowski, former leader of the English chamber orchestra. Throughout her classical violin studies, Benedetti says there was a constant echo, a warning, not to go messing around with anything folksy, but Benedetti did eventually start fiddling around with traditional music anyway in her 2014 collection “Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy.” In 2019, Nicola Benedetti teamed up with the celebrated American jazz composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who wrote a concerto and a five-piece dance suite for her at the Trace the Fiddles Migration across the Atlantic.
Benedetti: Learning about America through Wynton is in equal measures deeply uplifting and hopeful and deeply painful. And it’s filled to the brim with emotion over the story of America, and I don’t come across that type of consciousness in many other places. I think he has a very unique perspective on the story of this country.
Today, Nicola Benedetti is at once at the top of her game and just getting started. She says that with each day, she gets a little closer to figuring out who she is and what she needs.
Benedetti: Without it being a motion against something, I’m becoming more assured in clarifying what I’m for, and I think I’m not under the pressure and in the rush that I used to be because I’ve seen the development I’ve managed to make as a violinist alone, purely technically, in the last six months. I just played Sibelius’ violin concerto a month ago for the first time in about 10 years. And I can play that piece now. Just like, I can’t wait to tour it next year, and I can’t wait to record it, and I can’t wait, you know, I’m so excited about playing it. I’m 32. Nobody would have told me that I was gonna be making some of my biggest strides when I was 32. I’m more excited and calm and positive about my potential to develop than I’ve ever been.