SXS sits down with 2020 Next Gen artist Helena to discuss how playing chamber music is like watching a game of tennis, and why she needs Bach on her music stand, always.
At a young age, Helena desperately wanted to play the saxophone because of her love of The Simpsons, especially Lisa. However, her parents thought a brass instrument would be too loud so they encouraged her to play violin instead. Born in China, Helena grew up in Melbourne and later moved to Brisbane to begin her undergraduate studies. She has played as a young artist at the annual Bangalow Music Festival four times, has played solo at the Melbourne Recital Centre, travel led to New York to participate in the Winter Strings Summer School and to China with the University of Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
She has Helena entered the Next Gen Artists Program in 2019 and is currently enrolled in a Masters of Philosophy majoring in Performance at the University of Queensland, studying violin with Natsuko Yoshimoto. Most recently she became the newest Artistic Associate with the Queensland Camerata which she undertakes in tandem with her Next Gen Artist position.
If you can find quiet in your head whilst being surrounded by noise, then you’ve really achieved something.
Describe for us a typical day’s practise session. What inspires your study?
I always warm up with scales. When I’m anxious I get very tense, so scales not only warm my fingers up but they also help me calm down – it’s sort of a meditation. I love scales so much because I can respond to how I’m feeling physically and how my instrument sounds. I take breaks whenever I’ve accomplished a goal. Sometimes that means after ten minutes, sometimes fifty. Breaks aren’t long, but they let my brain rest. Listening to recordings of pieces I love, and lectures by artists of all kinds motivates me hugely. As a treat, sometimes I tackle pieces that are too difficult for me but are pieces that I love, and it’s encouraging to see improvement! I don’t need to perform them so it’s just a way to enjoy myself on the violin and then let it go.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your study and musical life?
Being stuck at home has made me realise how much I love playing with people, and how integral it is to my life as a musician. When I play with people I forget to worry about things I need to work on. Studying alone can seem like you’re forever not good enough, and playing with people affords me moments of real enjoyment and present-ness. I quickly realised that I hadn’t been mentally conditioned to practice at home, and so I watched Marty Lobdell’s lecture Study Less, Study Smart on YouTube and decided I’d make my spare bedroom into my study. From him, I learned exactly how studying is a mental game and that certain things make playing that game easier. For example, I make sure that if YouTube is on then I move into the living room. If I’m writing my thesis then I move to the study. It’s the same with practice and that sort of mental conditioning has helped me a lot because I’m not very disciplined in general!
How are you keeping your playing up at this time?
I try to regulate my mood and practice accordingly. I find that if my day revolves around practice then I eventually get upset when I break a “streak”. I’ve stopped guilt-tripping myself over small things like missing a day, and started focusing more on the quality of the moment. I remind myself that if all I can do today is some beautiful, focused, clean scales, then it’s a win. When I do that, I usually feel better about playing, and then play some more.
What's on your music stand today and why?
J.S. Bach’s D minor Partita for Solo Violin, and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. I’m studying the Prokofiev for my Masters degree, and Bach because I love, and need everything Bach, always. I’ve played bits and pieces of it before but never the whole Partita, so I’m excited to be able to have all the movements under my belt.
Helena's home studio; her edition of Bach Sonatas and partitas,
signed by members of the Tokyo String Quartet
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Self-doubt is a huge hurdle for me, and I find that it’s always most intense before a performance. The difficult thing about finding quiet before performing is that it’s usually quite loud in a green room, so it might be difficult to find quiet. But if anything I think if you can find quiet in your head whilst being surrounded by noise, then you’ve really achieved something. That goes for post-concert too – I need peace and quiet. I’m such a bore! I do love to go out to celebrate with friends afterwards, but getting home to stillness is the best way for me to wind down.
Best and worst thing about your instrument?
The best thing about the violin is our repertoire. We are enormously lucky to have such a huge range of music to draw on. As for the instrument itself, I love how tactile it is. Our hands and fingers are essential to our everyday lives, and to employ them in modes other than grabbing and touching things is, biologically, a marvel. I only wish our instrument was less susceptible to damage. The worst thing about the instrument is its fragility and for this reason travelling with it is always nerve-wracking!
Best thing about playing chamber music?
The immediacy of the feedback. You are never more in demand to be flexible and open to change than when you play with others. If someone comes up with an idea and throws it to you, you have to find a way to understand it, make it your own, and then throw it back. It’s like watching a game of tennis. You learn so much about both your teammate and yourself.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of playing on stage and in front of an audience?
The feeling of sharing something that you’ve worked hard on and is close to your heart. No matter the crowd size, it’s a really vulnerable place to be in. So, when you feel like through your interpretation you’ve done the piece justice, the feeling is incomparable.
What do you hope to gain from your year as a Next Gen artist?
The great thing about this program is that we get to choose our own repertoire. It’s not very often as a student that you get to present a concert with works of your own choosing. I feel that somehow it makes the entire experience more personal. I’m really hoping that the audience gets to see us develop across the concert series.
What is your next major career goal and looking to the future, what would be your dream job?
I’d love to study overseas. I want to live in countries where my favourite composers also lived, to understand their way of life. My ultimate dream is to be in a string quartet or maybe a chamber orchestra, but I’m open to whatever comes along the way. I do love large orchestral works, but for me the combination of two violins, viola and cello will never cease to be exciting.