Hilary Hahn: Connecting All the Pieces
Interview held at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video and text produced and edited by Molly Sheridan
Much is made in the music press of violinist Hilary Hahn’s stunning technique, impeccable poise, and unshakable intonation. In that picture of perfection, however, one of her most striking character traits—her seemingly insatiable curiosity—can get a bit lost. Still, though she doesn’t flaunt her boundary pushing with unusual concert dress or radical interpretive choices, she resolutely pursues her own interests with care and focus.
Though she readily acknowledges that she takes the music she performs very seriously, she certainly hasn’t put herself up on that same pedestal. Her website is filled with friendly posts about life on the road, and her YouTube channel is stocked with insightful commentary recorded in hotel rooms and casual interviews with colleagues. Her violin case even keeps up a sassy Twitter account. All of it, Hahn says, allows her to blow off steam and have fun when she’s out on the road, but it also quietly demystifies the work she does for her audience.
That’s particularly important since Hahn is not one to pull repertoire punches. She presents work ranging from Tchaikovsky to Jennifer Higdon, and then records and releases them on the same CD, trusting her audience to follow her exploratory inclinations as she moves through styles and eras of composition. Whether presenting a warhorse or a premiere, however, Hahn seeks to clear away preconceptions and allow the music room enough to reach ears on neutral ground.
This season, iconic American Charles Ives is standing with her in the spotlight. Deutsche Grammophon has just released Charles Ives: Four Sonatas, the recording she made with long-time collaborator, pianist Valentina Lisitsa. In addition, Hahn also begins touring a portion of the solo pieces she has commissioned as part of her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores project. Hahn speaks with particular excitement about the opportunities for discovery in each new piece—whether new to her or new to the world.
“I didn’t realize that in working on so many new pieces, each by a different composer, I would have to be learning each composer’s musical language,” Hahn explains, specifically in reference to the encore project. “It’s not just learning a bunch of short pieces. It’s actually learning this epic dictionary of music writing today. So that’s been a much bigger, much more enriching process than I expected, but that I’ve really been enjoying.”
Molly Sheridan: As a violinist at the top of your profession, I would imagine that you have a lot of opportunities to do a wide variety of projects and you can’t say yes to all of them. At this point in your career, what is shaping the repertoire choices that you make? Do you have some guiding principles or an internal mission statement of sorts shaping that right now?
Hilary Hahn: There’s always a balancing act with repertoire because there is there is so much that I could choose to learn, or choose to revisit. I don’t like to specialize so much, because I feel that I start to fall into a rut, just in my own interpretation patterns and things like that. But if I’m doing things from all different eras and styles, then it gives me new ideas.
Part of the concert season is determined by things that I have planned. So, maybe I have a recording to make and I need to play some of that repertoire, or there’s a project that is coming to fruition and those things are good to focus on in that season. But I do need to break it up; I like the variety. And if I’m looking for something that I want to learn, I try to think, where do I have gaps? What basic areas have I not learned music from?—whether it’s a time period, or a style, or a country, or anything. Then I listen to a whole bunch of music from that missing section, and I try to find something that really speaks to me and educates me more in that direction.
MS: Have you always followed your curiosity in that way? When looking through the projects you’ve been involved in, it strikes me that you seem to like a degree of experimentation, yet not to an out-of-character extreme.
HH: I think that started in my student days because my teachers were always having me work on a lot of different things at once. So I just oriented that way, and I’m used to that. I remember in my lessons with Jascha Brodsky, he had all these little things he wanted me to do every day. He’s like, “Oh, sweetheart, just do this like ten minutes a day. Oh, just spend an hour doing this.” And if I added it all up, it came to like eight or nine hours of things to do a day. Of course, I didn’t practice eight or nine hours a day, but I was always trying to keep up with everything that I was supposed to be juggling, which was great practice for being on the road. I think that sort of learning in a context of contrasts really geared me towards what I’m doing now.
I see music as one big thing, and to me, within classical music, the range of things that I get to do doesn’t seem so drastic. I really like the new part of things. I like the creativity of interpretation, the creativity of programming, of getting to know these composers that I get to work with who are writing new things. It’s just this great, interconnected world.
MS: I want to dig into your work with living composers, of course, but let’s speak a bit about your Ives recording first. One of the places your score hunting has taken you is to his four sonatas for violin and piano. If you can think back to before you invested all the recording time, and the performance time before that, and recall what initially attracted you to these works, I’m curious to hear your initial impressions. What spoke to you about these scores? What caught your ear and your interest?
HH: Ives was actually one of the big gaps in my repertoire. I’d never played anything by Ives before, and I was not so familiar with his work. I was looking for recital repertoire that I could play, that was new to me but already established repertoire. I wasn’t looking to do something that no one knew, but I was also looking to find something that I was completely unfamiliar with. So I looked through a whole bunch of recital repertoire, listened to a lot of stuff, and I came to Ives. I started with one sonata, and I really got drawn into the music.
It was really complicated at first to figure out how to put all of this together. I thought I knew the piece; I learned the violin part. I got into rehearsal, and the first time we tried we couldn’t even play it through. We had to stop, because we got completely lost. I can’t speak for [pianist] Valentina [Lisitsa], but I thought, “Oh, it’s going to sound this way because this is how the violin part sounds.” And what you imagine, and what you hear when other people have played it, is not how it feels when you get on stage, and it’s certainly not how it feels in the first rehearsal. It was like working on a piece that I’d never heard before. That’s one thing I really like about Ives. There’s room in his work to interpret things in new ways, even new to yourself, and to really build on the things that you’ve learned from the last concert. So it really stays alive quite actively on tour, even over years of performing. Once we got through that first sonata, and actually got past the logistics of the writing and got into the momentum of the performance, then it really started to show its character to me. So, throughout that whole first tour, it just developed, developed, and developed. Then we thought, well, it would be interesting to dive deeper into the Ives sonata repertoire, so let’s do three sonatas in the next program. The Ives Sonatas aren’t all very long, and that’s why you can do three in one program and still have room for some other stuff, too. So it wound up being perfect repertoire to just have, actually. I mean, the sonatas are all different lengths. The shortest you can play in almost any context because of its length, and because the melodies that people recognize in that sonata are very much in the forefront. In the others, they are more classical or romantic at times, and the melodies are hidden deeper. So within Ives’s language, there’s a huge amount of variety in these pieces.
MS: At this stage in your professional life, what’s your process normally for learning new pieces of repertoire?
HH: I practice my part. I listen, if there’s a recording. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of repertoire that doesn’t necessarily have recordings, or it doesn’t have a wide range of recordings to listen to. I look at the score, and if it’s an orchestral piece, I play all of the individual lines, but I’m not a good enough pianist to try to figure out a piano score. If I have a few hours for a few pages, I can kind of do it, but that’s not the same thing. And trying to play a piano score on violin just doesn’t quite work, so I need a little bit more time with the pianist. With orchestra, you hardly have any time together, so I have to patch together preparation elsewhere. When I get together with a pianist, it’s a lot of staring at the score and figuring out where things line up if it’s something rhythmically complex like Ives. For things that aren’t so complex, that seem straightforward, there’s a lot of playing it through to get the feel of the phrasing options. Just to try to see which pacing works, and to really just get it into my system. Sometimes the things that seem really simple are just so easy to get lost in. So that’s an important part of the learning process as well.
MS: At NewMusicBox, we often explore the composer’s experience of the commissioning and creative process. But as a player who has invested a great deal in new work, in your view, what makes for a successful commissioning experience? And on a personal level, where do you like to get involved in the creative process?
HH: For me, it’s really important with a new piece to play it and tour it in as many places as possible. That is kind of a given for me. Of course, there aren’t opportunities equally for each piece. With a concerto, for example, the orchestra has to program you. You can’t just think, “Okay, you know, I want to do this piece on this program. There it is.” Can’t do that. You have to talk with them, find the right match, find the conductor who wants to do it, and the place in the season for the orchestra to program it. So I think it’s trickier with an orchestral piece. There’s also a little bit of planning with the orchestra, sort of the long-term trajectory of what repertoire I’m going to play with them, what kind of focus it’s going to have. I’ve been really lucky with the concertos that I’ve commissioned that people have been very interested in presenting them. I try to play them long term. I don’t try to play them every season for an extremely long time, but I play them for two or three seasons in as many different kinds of places as possible before I put it down. Then I can focus on the next project and come back to it later. So for example, Edgar Meyer’s Violin Concerto, which he wrote for me over ten years ago—I played that for a few seasons, and then put it down. Now the piano reduction and violin part have been published in their final form, so it’s a good occasion to start playing it again. I’m playing it in Paris this season, and I’m playing it in Alabama, and you know, it’s kind of a big difference between those two places. So it just keeps the pieces alive for me. Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto I played a whole bunch. People keep asking me to play it. So it just naturally stays in my active repertoire.
With the Encores project, I’m actually programming the premieres for the first few seasons I’m playing the pieces. They’re going to be in the program so that people can focus on them, but they’re meant also as encores, of course. So I can play them into the future, randomly, whenever I feel like it.
So I really look at longevity when I’m working on a commissioning project. I try to schedule enough time with it, but it’s never the only thing I’m doing that season. So it stays fresh for me.
MS: It strikes me that you start your answer from when the piece is more or less “finished” from the composer’s perspective. There’s a whole stage of development for you that happens after the composer’s work is done. Do you involve yourself at all before that point, or is it more like a relay and you take off only once the finished score is handed over to you? I remember Edgar Meyer telling me about faxing you pages of his score as he finished them.
HH: It really depends on the composer. I’m seeing that very clearly with the Encores project. Right now I’m working on 13 pieces to premiere this season, and some composers really want input before they consider their writing done. Other composers know every note they’re writing, and they want it exactly that way. If there’s a problem they’ll work on it, but if there’s not really a problem, they need to have that continuity in their own minds to get to the point where they turn the piece over to me.
With some composers, what they write sits really naturally. Some I can tell where they’re going with it, but they’re trying something more experimental and there may be different ways to make it happen with the same impression. In those cases, I try to be in touch with the composers and talk about some ideas I might have, or just some impressions I have to see where the flexibility is for them, and what their goal actually was in writing it. I try not to say that anything is impossible because I want the composer to be able to write exactly what they have in mind. I think a lot of techniques need to be developed in order to play things that are considered impossible. There’s usually some way to make it work, so I try not to rule anything out. I just mention to the composer, well, this is maybe going to be a big challenge in this piece in general, so is that an intention, or is that just something that happened. It depends on the situation.
With Edgar [Meyer], I had had a couple of meetings with him, and I just didn’t have the score yet, but I needed to start learning it. The concert was coming up, and I asked him to just send me what he had. As I would learn what he sent, then I would ask him to send me more. That was actually a good process. But it was before e-mail, so I got everything on these curling, fading fax pages that if I erased on them, the ink would erase. So it was really hard to mark it up, and I was glad to finally get an actual piece of real paper with real ink on it. But it was a very memorable experience.
MS: The last lines were always all crunched up and creased at the bottom?
HH: Yeah. And it would be slid under my door at the hotel, and I could always tell when a new bit had arrived—schweeee-schweeee [mimics paper feeding]—and there it was.
MS: As you are probably aware, there’s a stereotype that the traditional subscriber audience is not interested in anything new—they don’t even want new old music, let alone new new music. From your position on the stage, however, I’ve got to believe that you get a strong impression of how the audience is really reacting to new work, and also maybe that’s something that you take into account as you’re deciding what to play. So how would you characterize what’s happening out there?
HH: It’s really hard for me to make a general statement, because I think each audience is different, and the presenters know their audiences. On the one hand, it’s easy to say, “Oh this is how it is.” But on the other hand, it’s usually much more complicated than that. Often what an audience will go for has to do with how they’re introduced to that repertoire. It’s very easy when trying to prepare an audience to actually make them feel like we’re all bracing for an impact. I think it’s just really important to allow listeners to have a blank slate. So what I’ve spent a lot of time doing with some of the repertoire that’s maybe not got the best reputation, but that is really fantastic repertoire, is I just try to erase the preconceptions so that people can hear the piece fresh. Then I find people are really open to it. So it’s not so much the repertoire, I think it’s the approach to introducing the repertoire. Some people really like pre-concert lectures, and some people really don’t get them. They don’t enjoy them. They don’t know why they have to listen to this. In that case, I think it’s good that people have a choice how they want to be introduced to the music.
When I’m programming, I think people expect me to do a range of things. They know me by now, so I don’t think anyone is terribly surprised when I show up with some piece of repertoire that’s older but not so well known, or I show up with something new, or I show up with some big standard piece that everyone loves to hear. I think if you program for your personality, and you allow the audience to hear things fresh, then I think that’s the best circumstance, and that’s all you can really aim for.
MS: Is that how you go about clearing that blank slate for listeners? I’m curious how you help generate that for an audience, as opposed to the “Hold onto your hats, folks!” style that you mentioned.
HH: I have to do a lot of legwork in advance. I try to make sure when I’m talking about what I’m going to be playing that I present it in a way that is contrary to peoples’ negative expectations. Like with the Schoenberg Violin Concerto: people were expecting a certain thing, so I really had to kind of go way off in the other direction in order to neutralize the impression that people had. I believe everything that I said—it’s not like I made things up in order to persuade people—but I did have to do a lot of work to neutralize the expectations. I think when you set someone up to absolutely love something, then that’s also maybe a misleading expectation, because on first hearing, they may not be completely taken with it. It might intrigue them, and that would be a positive step if they had a neutral approach in the first place. It would be a negative impression if they expected to be amazed and they weren’t. So, that’s why I think the neutrality is really important.
I think things just become popular to think, and it’s just how people perceive composers, pieces, and genres within music. I really think that there are these trends, and once a trend starts, you have to kind of allow it to live and acknowledge it, but then try to smooth it out a little bit. Because all music changes over the years for listeners—the context changes, the impression changes. It’s relevant in different ways, so the relevance changes. Nothing is the same for any really long period of time. And every person in the hall hears something differently.
There’s a real tendency when trying to introduce people to classical music to say, “This is what you should listen to,” and “Here’s what you’re going to really like,” and “This is where you go from there.” When really, I often hear my friends who are not musicians saying things that really surprise me. Like, they don’t really like Appalachian Spring, but they really liked Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto. I had a friend a long time ago who sang in choirs and stuff, and she really couldn’t stand any Bach but she loved Schoenberg. So even the assumptions of what people should like don’t really apply all the time. But when people feel like what they’re saying they like goes counter to what they’re being told they should like, they feel maybe they’re not hearing it right. We have to get rid of this idea that this is how you should listen. This is how you should hear this. This is what you should like. This is what people don’t like because everyone has their own experience.
MS: Taking all of these experiences that you have had with composers and presenting and interpreting new work, I’m curious how that then influenced the 27 Encores project. How did that shape the list of composers you asked to be involved and the kind of statement you’re making with the collection?
HH: The 27 Encores project actually came from many different directions. For years, record companies were doing a lot of encore albums, themed albums and composer-oriented albums, all the Kreislers, all the Heifetz encores. Those are great pieces, but I started thinking, “Why is the focus on these older encores?” I knew that people were writing contemporary encore pieces, but they just were not getting the recognition that they should. So at first I just thought I’d do a commissioned encores thing as a counter to all of these traditional encore collections. But then, when I actually started listening to composers’ music with the purpose of putting this project together, I realized that it was a lot bigger than that for me. It was really that I wanted to be able to work with a lot of different composers on this one project. Because usually when I work with a composer, it is a few years on one piece and I really dedicate myself to getting that piece out. I also wanted a chance to get to know more composers, get to work with them, get to see what they wanted to write, and do a project that maybe was a little different from what they were doing. In the course of that, I started thinking that if these are short pieces, then they could actually be played in a lot of different contexts, so that gives this commissioning project a really big reach, and a lot of different people could play them. Whereas with a concerto, when someone takes on a concerto that has been premiered and played, but not premiered and played by them, they have to go and schedule it with an orchestra. But if someone hears one of these pieces and they like it, they can just play it whenever they want—in a recital, or if they’re a student, they can work on it and get to know some contemporary music. So there were all these different facets that appealed to me.
I listened to a whole bunch of music and gathered a bunch of composers’ names whose music really appealed to me for this project. And I thought, I’ll be lucky if two-thirds of them say yes. I started calling them, cold calling, and they almost all said yes. I was surprised because I thought the short form wouldn’t be something that a composer would necessarily want to sink their teeth into. But it turned out that it was something that was kind of a challenge for a lot of them and that they could fit in between other commissions. So far they seem to have enjoyed working on it.
I didn’t realize that in working on so many new pieces, each by a different composer, I would have to be learning each composer’s musical language. It’s not just learning a bunch of short pieces. It’s actually learning this epic dictionary of music writing today. So that’s been a much bigger, much more enriching process than I expected, but that I’ve really been enjoying.
MS: Hearing you talk about the distribution aspect of this project and the goal of allowing other musicians to pick these encores up quickly and easily reminds me of how adamant you are about recording the work you commission. That’s historically a big issue for composers, who often struggle to get concert recordings even for their own private use to study or promote their own work. But why is that piece of the process so important to you?
HH: It’s important to record the pieces because there are only so many people who can come to a concert. Especially when something is new, it’s good to have a chance to hear it again and again. It allows the music to get out to a different audience. In the case of concertos in particular, it gives an orchestra conductor, maybe another soloist, a chance to hear how it all sounds put together. And since in concerti you have so little preparation time with the orchestra—the week of the concert—I think it’s really helpful to have a resource that people can refer to. So I see the recordings as sort of study resources for future performers of the music, but mainly as a way to get the music out to as broad an audience as possible and create literally a record of this work.
MS: What do you prefer? Do you like the control of a recording situation, or do you like the sort of chance aspect of live performance as far as giving a piece to your audience. It can be two very different experiences.
HH: I don’t really feel like a recording session is controlled. [laughs] I feel like it’s very scary which doesn’t feel very controlled. Whatever session you’re in, you only have that session to do what you’re trying to do. Even if you have several sessions for a piece, by the next session, you’re on to some other part of it, some other goal within the recording. So there’s a lot of pressure. It’s very intense; no matter how prepared you are, there’s always an element of sort of flying by the seat of your pants and hoping that everything comes together, because it’s rarely just you in the recording session. So you’re hoping everything comes together, and that there isn’t someone deciding to do a massive carpet cleaning downstairs with an industrial machine parked on the street—which happened in my first recording—or hoping that someone doesn’t drop a pencil during a great take.
What I like about recording is the amount that you get into the piece with the multiple takes, every take really mattering, and the intensity of the outcome on top of you. It’s like a super concentrated practice session and you hear what it sounds like for almost the first time. There’s a lot you hear on a recording made with really good mics that are right next to you that you never hear, even if you self-record, even if you get concert recordings back and you listen to them after the fact. So I find recordings actually really helpful for getting into the piece.
With concerts, often you don’t have that kind of depth of intensity and exploration because you’re playing it one time through. With an orchestra, you have maybe two rehearsals and then the concert, so you really can’t get into the interpretive details of the whole set of instruments very often, but you have the excitement of a concert and you have the flow of the concert. It just takes on its own character with an audience there. The audience adds something that you just can’t get otherwise. So I don’t know. I appreciate both together. If I had to pick one, I would pick performing because that’s why I became a musician. My first performance, I really loved it—it was so scary, but I loved it. So that’s what really keeps me going, and recording is just kind of a treat. It’s like an offshoot of performing.
MS: You’ve mentioned how it’s not until the performance that you fully understand a piece of music. So I’m curious, and especially when we’re talking about a new work that no one’s ever heard before, how that then further impacts that post-premiere growing process.
HH: You do not know a piece until you get it on stage. Even if you’ve heard it a lot, you don’t know what it is for you. But if you’ve never heard it before, you think you’ve got it, and then you get on stage and it takes on a whole different shape. Things jump out at you that you never even noticed before—the pacing of the interpretation either falls flat on its face or surprises you with something, and it then picks up this life that you never saw in it. So I need generally one or two performances to really get a feel for what I want to do with the piece, because there’s no way to replicate a concert in a practice setting, or a rehearsal setting. You just don’t have the energy of the audience. I think when you’re performing, you subconsciously pick up on what the audience is reacting to and that’s why it changes. Even if you have a couple of people in the room listening to you playing something through, it makes a difference. But if you get in front of hundreds of people, or thousands of people, it magnifies. Things pass much quicker than you expect, or certain things drag out. So, that really is illuminating. I try having a finished interpretation at every concert, but if I just stick to that, I’m going to miss out. So it’s really important to me to stay open to these things that come up in the moment, reveal themselves. That shows me where I really want to go with the next performance.
MS: You’ve put a lot of time into your online persona—everything from your website journal entries to your YouTube videos to your violin case’s sassy Twitter feed. What do you get out of that audience connection? That’s not something that every superstar violinist decides to engage in, but you have this really rich life with your audience in this off-stage context.
HH: I always feel like I’m not doing enough—like people are saying, “When is the next this?” and “When is the next that?” and “Oh, it’s been so long since you posted something.” So I don’t feel like I’m all that active compared to what people expect. I’m not blogging every day or anything. I really like traveling, but there’s this limbo, and I like to fill the limbo by writing. Whether I write personal letters or postcards, or whether I write for my website, or come up with ideas for things I want to do creatively within my career umbrella, I always use that time to do something creative. I think that’s where a lot of this comes from.
Then I have a lot of time when I’m really super focused. I’m working like crazy and planning things and working on future projects, all the different elements behind the scenes. It’s really like I’m working three jobs because I’m doing the performing, I’m doing communication with the audience, and I’m doing the administrative stuff behind the scenes. There’s also the social, not networking, but maintaining connections with people because you find them interesting, because you’re working on something together and you want to make sure that you’re on the same page. That takes a lot of care. There’s a lot that goes on that’s not actually playing, and it’s sometimes just so intense I just want to do something to blow off steam. So that’s where the YouTube videos come in. When I interview people, I find it takes my mind off what’s in my own head. I learn these interesting things about people that I’m working with that I would never find out otherwise because people say different things in an interview than they do in a conversation. Especially if it’s for a general audience. They don’t assume that you know what they’re talking about. It’s really nice to have the connection with musicians because there is this level of shared knowledge that doesn’t need explaining, but at the same time, you think you’re talking about the same thing, but often you’re not talking about the same thing. So interviews are really fascinating for me that way. I really enjoy doing them.
So it’s a whole bunch of things that I do for different reasons, but it’s mostly an outlet. I really try to provide a resource with the stuff that I do online—with my website in particular, but also the YouTube interviews—because there are a lot of people who don’t get to meet musicians and want to become musicians themselves, or they really love classical music and they want to feel more involved behind the scenes. They’re just curious, so I think it’s good to allow people to see what it is actually like.
MS: You mentioned your creative project planning and your career umbrella. You have defined yourself with some interesting calling cards, like how you juxtapose concerti on recordings, with your commissioning, these sorts of projects. Do you have broader goals when it comes to outlining the things that you want to accomplish? Is there an overarching vision that bridges all your activities?
HH: I’m sure I do, but I’m not sure what it is. I guess my overarching bridge between all these things is just what I’m interested in. There’s a time when you build a career, and you build your repertoire, and now I feel like I’ve built the foundation. So if something pops up that interests me, I can go in that direction a little bit. If there’s a colleague I’ve really been wanting to work with, but I haven’t found a good project to work with them on, then we can look for something together. This commissioning project with the encores, that’s something I started thinking about probably eight or nine years ago, but the timing wasn’t quite right until recently. And then it was like, this has to happen now because I’m tired of it looming but not actually materializing. So I just made up my mind—I’m going to make it happen whatever it takes. So it’s a combination of things I’m interested in, things that have been brewing for a while, stuff I’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to, and then things that I find really grounding. I like the consistency of recital tours and orchestral appearances every season, and I am always sort of in the loop of a recording. I’m always working on repertoire for orchestral performances. I’m always thinking about the recital program I’m going to do a couple years from now. So there are a lot of irons in the fire, but I like that. And a lot of that is familiar so when I do something that’s unusual for me, it’s not completely overwhelming, and I can relate it to the stuff that I do that’s consistent and familiar.
MS: From your course work at Curtis, it seems like your curiosity reaches beyond music, too—you explored subjects that you could have just not bothered with, literature and languages in particular. Does this all then come together on some level?
HH: It’s important to me to dabble in other things besides music, even though my career is very music focused, just because it gives me perspective. I don’t want to get so completely caught up in the whirlwind of the music stuff that I forget why I enjoy the music. So it’s really important to me to step back sometimes. And that way I know if something happens, like if I get injured or if the music world changes a lot—you can never predict what the next 20, 30 years are going to bring—then I know I have other things that I’m interested in doing. It’s not this or nothing—that’s an incredible amount of pressure. I am very invested in the music stuff already, so I don’t need that extra pressure on top of it.
I’ve always been interested in creative things, and I’ve always loved to read. With the stuff that I do online, the stuff that I do behind the scenes, and the repertoire and performances I do, the people that I am fortunate to get to know, all that really enriches me as a musician. I know that I have a long way to go within music, and I know I’m nowhere near that with anything else, but it just keeps things fun for me. There are a lot of hours every day that go into the career and the preparation for concerts and I enjoy all these different aspects of it. But I find it helpful to have other things that I do that help me do those things better.
MS: Is there music that you play just for yourself, when you’re alone in the off hours?
HH: When I’m alone, I watch a movie. I just get my brain somewhere else completely. Or I read a book or I write something. Sometimes I’ll play something non-classical just because it doesn’t matter how I play it because that’s not what I do. It’s just a very low stakes warm up; I just improvise something. I’m not really great at improvising because I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of it live, but I find that every time I do it, I get a little bit better. If I just try to do a little improvising, it freshens me up for thinking about the interpretation that I’m working on. It kind of gets me out of one mindset and I can apply that creativity to what I’m working on. I find it really helpful if I’ve been working on the same stuff over and over again, day after day, and I’m getting a little like, “OK, here we go again.” It can never be, “Here I go again.” It has to be, “OK, what am I going to find in here? What do I want to bring out? What do I want to show?” But you know, for the most part, it’s really hard for me to be casual about music. If I’m practicing or playing, I just click into that really focused mode.
MS: You have Grammys on the shelf and Tonight Show appearances under your belt, but I’m always curious what signifies success internally for an artist and what mile markers they are using. What matters the most?
HH: I do a lot of my work alone, and I don’t always see what the impact might be, or what people’s reactions might be. When it really hits is when someone tells me the significance that something I did played in their life. One person told me that they were playing a CD I made for their baby in the womb, and then I met the baby a couple of years later, and then the baby wound up taking violin lessons a few years later, and that’s when you really see how you interact in people’s lives through the work that you do.
I’m really glad that this career is one I can feel positive about, even on the bad days. Even when I don’t feel like I did my best but I tried, I know I haven’t really done any harm. The worst thing that can happen is someone doesn’t enjoy the performance, but maybe that spurs them to check out another performer and then they find someone they really like. So it’s never a total loss, even if you’d don’t enjoy a performance. If I mess up, the worst that happens is I stop and try again—nothing really awful comes of it.
I’ve been compiling sort of a program book insert for this season’s recitals about the encores. Each composer wrote a little bit, and then I have pictures of them and stuff like that. I’ve almost finished it, and I was just looking at it and seeing the names of the composers, the names of the pieces, and what they wrote about the pieces. This has been developing in little ways over time, but suddenly it was actually really concrete. So that, the little moments like that where you realize, wow, there’s actually something that’s happening that I had something to do with, and it’s really important to me, and maybe it’s going to be important to someone else. Those are really satisfying moments.