Violinist Amalia Hall – My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Violinist Amalia Hall – My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Since making her debut aged 9 with the Auckland Philharmonia, multi-award-winning musician Amalia Hall has been a regular soloist with orchestras in New Zealand and abroad and is now a permanent member of the NZTrio and Concertmaster of Orchestra Wellington.

“My parents still live in the same house they built on the North Shore in 1981. As the youngest of four, and because mum was driving my three older siblings all over town to their various classes, it felt like a good idea logistically to home-school me for primary and intermediate. This meant I had time for things like art, pottery, sewing, ballet, aikido, speech and drama, and I also spent a lot of time with mum which was amazing.

“For high school I went to Rangitoto College and my first day was pretty overwhelming. I was a little naive and, with around 3000 students, it was vastly different from home school, but I quickly settled in. I loved being surrounded by lots of people, and it felt like every student could have their voice heard when they wanted or needed.

“Because my older siblings all played violin, I started lessons just after my third birthday. I was 4 when I started piano and joined my first orchestra when I was 5. For as long as I can remember, I always knew I would be a violinist. I couldn’t imagine being anything else.

“Although none of us ever did hours and hours of practice, our parents did encourage us to be consistent. We started a string quartet when I was 8 and we’d do little concerts at places like The Pumphouse or play background at weddings. That was our first professional work. It was fun and also a privilege to play with my siblings in those different situations.

“I first auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra – an annual 10-day course run by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – when I was 10. That first year, I was completely overwhelmed to be accepted and, for the first few years, I was so excited I’d practice the music to the point I’d have it memorised before the first rehearsal. But age was never an obstacle, partly because my sister was also in it, although that first year I did stay close to Lara’s elbow. I did that for 10 years, and it was such a formative, magical experience, working with incredible conductors from all over the world who’d help us create something really special in performance.

“When I was 15 my teacher Dimitri Atanassov encouraged me to enter the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. It was in Japan that year, and I practised my pieces for the first and second rounds, but I didn’t practise my third-round concerto because I thought I wouldn’t get that far. When I made the final, I didn’t have the music for that concerto, so dad faxed it over. Pages and pages of music and three days to learn it. I managed to memorise and perform it but I could’ve done better. That was a big challenge and the lesson I learnt was, always be prepared.

“The following year I went to Germany for another competition. I went by myself that time but in the final I got properly nervous for the first time ever. My bow shook and seemed to make screechy sounds. That was a shock because I’d always been completely relaxed on stage. Sometimes, after a performance finishes, I can feel really disappointed. In a way that’s positive, as we’re constantly striving to improve but it can also be frustrating. Musicians are in a constant battle between being able to critique ourselves in rehearsal, then having to bolster our confidence and believe in ourselves on stage.

“Hard work and talent are equally important for musicians, you can’t have one without the other. It doesn’t matter how much natural talent you have, to make it work, efficient practice is hugely important. Mental process is also vital, learning how to channel your thoughts to create something better. Learning how to focus on the right things, and to overcome distracting thoughts when mistakes are made.

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“I didn’t feel nerves again until I was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I was 19 and all of a sudden I was in a really challenging environment, surrounded by incredible musicians, because everyone at Curtis is phenomenal, and that’s confronting. I loved it there but I would ask myself: ‘Am I good enough to be here?’ Only after graduation have I had conversations with fellow students and found out they were feeling the same thing.

“Learning to stay calm on stage is an ongoing process. One of my teachers in Philadelphia said they couldn’t wait to make their first mistake, to get it out of the way, because then it was done. There’s always going to be a mistake, or 20, but the thought of making them can be really inhibiting.

“Music isn’t just about playing your instrument, it’s about dealing with all those thoughts while trying to stay relaxed, grounded and focused, for creativity to blossom on stage. Sometimes it feels easier to take the safe option, but it’s much more exciting for an audience to hear something raw and real, which is what you get when a musician takes risks.

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“I often feel I should do more online. It’s not something I’m naturally inclined to do, but it is a crucial part of today’s world. I always plan to post more videos of me playing, but my standards are very high. If a video isn’t 100 per cent perfect, it’s hard to deal with the conflict between wanting to share my music with the world and it not being up to my personal standard. Things have a long life online, which is quite different from something shared on stage in a fleeting moment.

“I’ve been very fortunate to borrow various violins for particular projects. When I met Florian Leonard after the final round of a competition in Germany, he gave me his card and invited me to try some violins the next time I was in London. When I tried a violin made in Italy by Vincenzo Rugeri in the late 1600s, I loved it immediately and because the owners were looking for someone to loan it to long-term, I was very fortunate to be considered the right fit.

“Sometimes I have to declare this violin when I enter certain countries. We’ve been all around the world together, including a couple of visits to Uzbekistan. One time, one of the officials there wanted to look at the violin, and I ended up with 10 officials peering into the case. I had to state its value, and I think they couldn’t believe a piece of wood was worth so much.

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“Music is so fulfilling, whether I’m playing for myself in the practice room or for fun, whether I’m on stage playing for a crowd or playing for one person. To share the music various composers have written, to bring it to life, off the page and for it to be a fresh experience each time, to be able to help people experience the magic of music is a wonderful feeling.

“Music and art are more relevant now than they’ve ever been. During these challenging times, music and artists have helped with people’s mental and emotional health in lockdowns. Maybe that’s a silver lining, the creation of supportive online communities of musicians, and the sharing videos they’ve created separately then stitched together to create ensemble works. And even though music is not essential in the way food, healthcare and housing are, I believe music can have a profoundly important effect on people’s lives and wellbeing.”

The NZTrio’s Dramatic Skies programme opens in April with Stratus, at the Nathan Homestead on April 10, and Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber on April 18. Visit https://nztrio.com/event-directory/ for details and booking info.

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