Rachel Podger – a mini Q&A

Rachel Podger – a name to reckoned with. This lady is not only an international name in Classical music but has single-handedly repopularised baroque violin through an unwavering passion for music. Wanting to get to know Rachel a little better before she returns to our great city, we asked her a few questions….

Q. Given your very musical childhood, what advice would you give to parents wanting to keep music at the centre of family life and keep the opportunities open for their children?
A. Play music, live or recorded, radio, CD, DVD, online, as much as possible when at home. It doesn’t have to be a ‘let’s sit down and listen to this’ activity; even in the background ‘serious’ classical music (as supposed to pop) can make a big difference and be present in the children’s lives and their consciousness while growing up, and not feel like a ‘big deal’, but a natural part of life. I heard all sorts of music whilst growing up, from medieval to contemporary, mostly because my mother had the classical music station on German radio on most of the time, especially whilst cooking. I learned to determine styles that way (and players too), and it was sometimes made into a guessing game. I do that with my own children, and it’s fun to try and work it out…
These days my clock radio wakes me up with the ‘Breakfast show’ on radio 3 and I sometimes and aware of myself wondering who’s playing whilst half asleep…!
Playing music together at home is of course the ideal situation, and with the busy lives youngsters lead today (not just the adults!), it’s difficult to make that into a regular thing. I certainly learned lots by making music at home, for instance how to count; suddenly I couldn’t just rely on my ear when I wasn’t playing the tune (when playing the second violin part for instance), and this was very helpful when I began to play in an orchestra at school. Active listening can start as young as a baby – my parents sang a lot with us and we developed a good ear by singing rounds and making up harmonies together, it was all part of life. I sang lots with my daughters too, and am convinced that not just their listening, but also their development of speech and social interaction was encouraged and refined by our singing together.
Q. Singing seems to have been a guide in your early career for feeling your way into the Baroque violin. Do you still sing to maintain the connection with music and your physical being?
A. Yes, I love singing! I sang lots in choirs as a girl growing up in Germany, but I don’t do it formally much these days as am busy playing and teaching the violin… Mind you, I sing lots while coaching an ensemble, as it helps clarify the phrasing. I also get my students to sing quite a bit in their lessons, and with ensembles too; the other day at the RAM we sang the the top and bottom parts of the Sarabande of Bach’s Suite no 2 in B minor, in order to understand the canon – it was lots of fun and I think liberating too! Singing encourages breathing of course, as without breathing it’s impossible to sing, and it happens naturally without any planning. When playing a string instrument it’s easy to get into a habit of not breathing properly, especially in tricky bits! Focusing on singing helps this and also alleviates any anxiety. That’s why singing is so very healthy too…I tend to sing in the car when I’m not sure where I’m going, or if I’m stuck in traffic. Writing about this now reminds me of singing whilst walking through the woods near the Banff Centre in Canada (when I spent 3 months there nearly 20 years ago) in order to not surprise the local bears and to calm my nerves…!
Q. Having been at the forefront of the Baroque violin revival must have made concert solos even more tense… do you have a routine or things that you do to prepare before a concert?
A. I play long slow bow strokes and breathe slowly. Also ‘messa di voce’ shapes which is a gentle swelling of the sound whilst playing long notes is instructive and helps focus. It calms you down and relaxes the muscles too. There are also a few Alexander exercises I do, like swinging my arms around myself and some Yoga stretching. I also always need a cuppa! (Best in the UK of course!)
Q. Looking to the future, what excites you most?
A. There’s so much music to explore! Even music of the 16 and 17 hundreds… so much is still locked or hidden away in libraries. A lot of this is available online as we know, (which I still find absolutely magical!), which makes it so much easier to discover ‘new’ old gems and bring them alive again to a new audience. But the thing that excites me most is the actual act of music making, whether behind closed doors or with an audience: it’s such a magical way of communicating, especially with musicians of a like mind; it’s uplifting at all times and makes the world a better place!