Take a bow: The Virtual Benedetti Sessions

Hazel Davis
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Rather than cancel its burgeoning string workshop series due to social distancing regulations, the Benedetti Foundation has moved its sessions online. The first instalment attracted 7,159 participants from 66 countries – including long-term home-schooler Hazel Davis, who recounts the experience for MT.

Learning about bluegrass fiddle with Tessa Lark
Learning about bluegrass fiddle with Tessa Lark

Like many parents of budding musicians, when lockdown was announced (the first time around), I wondered how on earth I would maintain the momentum of lessons, concerts, performances and music groups. The prospect of not going to school wasn't a problem for us as we've been home-educating our daughters (aged nine and seven) for the last, well, nine years. However, as our social lives had more or less revolved around orchestra, choirs, big band, ukulele group and music exams, the no-people thing posed something of a problem.

Enter Nicola Benedetti. The Grammy-winning violinist's foundation is dedicated to music education. It had run several ‘real-life’ workshops in Glasgow, London, Birmingham and Dundee before the sessions moved online.

In May, our house was transformed from yet another month of cancelled engagements into several weeks of merry music making. The Virtual Benedetti Sessions took place between 11 and 31 May, offering a daily online timetable of video tutorials, Zoom sectionals, singalongs and performances, aimed at everyone from complete beginners to conservatoire students. All three of us signed up; me, an adult returner of – ahem – Grade 7 standard, my nine-year-old (Grade 4) and youngest (Grade 2). Delivered by the foundation team, which included vocalist Lucy Drever, violinist Rachel Cooper, cellists David Munn and Robin Michael, percussionist Patrick King and more, the sessions (held free of charge with suggested donations) covered everything from bow control and vibrato to setting out a practise routine and performance anxiety.

Careful not to claim to replicate music lessons, the foundation wanted to complement existing teaching. It was, frankly, a home-edder's dream.

Centre: star violinist Nicola Benedetti

During the course we learned Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Paganini's Caprice 24 and Mattachins from Warlock's Capriol Suite, each one arranged for various levels of aptitude (complete beginners could also join in with percussion parts). We went from printing out the music and looking a bit petrified to fully understanding the history, the themes, the musicality and the notes, the rhythms (well, most of them) and the dynamics. All from the comfort of our houses (or in my case, all crammed into my office – which quickly became designated the official Benedetti location).

The final concert – a live playalong with video submissions from all the players (perhaps the most stressful day of my life, though by the end of lockdown I am a consummate recorder-of-video-to-headphone-backing track) – took place on my birthday and, being lucky enough to have an outside space large enough, we took a projector out and made a Big Thing of it. I was delighted to see my youngest stealing the show with her analysis of the whole experience; a wholly impartial: ‘I love the Benedetti Foundation!’

We were among the 7,157 people who signed up for the sessions (across 66 countries I'm told) and most likely the same number of people who couldn't quite contemplate the rest of lockdown without them. For three weeks our days had been gently packaged into morning messages from Nicky Benedetti, warm-up videos, lunchtime Facebook live sessions and Zoom call sectionals. For children desperately missing their strings group activities and lacking any definition to the days it was a lifeline and, lest you think I'm being over-dramatic, scroll back through the videos and see the emotion on the tutors’ faces. On top of the sheer value it added to our endless lockdown days, we got to work on pieces together as a group (we were in three different orchestras playing the same pieces) and be part of what felt like a huge extended musical family.

When the schools reopened, to our delight the foundation launched after-school sessions, Tuesday and Thursday 4pm catchups, the highlight of which had to be Actual Wynton Marsalis condensing the entire history of blues music into a half-hour Facebook Live session. Luckily, for all of us, things started back up again in July, with mini-sessions focusing on things such as bow skills – ‘bow strokes bootcamp’ – and shifting – ‘shifty shifts’ – aimed at specific age-groups and stages, each with Nicky B popping up periodically to offer tips and show her face to the delighted kids. Naturally, we signed up to all that applied to us.

In September, the after-school sessions will resume, along with some as-yet unannounced further plans, and at the time of writing I am poised to sign up for the next adult learner session to finally get to grips with my bow speeds.

In another world: Benedetti leads a workshop held before the pandemic

Catch up with the sessions at benedettifoundation.org