A Conversation with Joshua Bell

Thursday Sep 4th, 2014

News > A Conversation with Joshua Bell

Being recognized for your talent as young as you were… did you ever want to break away and do something else?

I’m trying to figure out why I never did have that feeling. I think it’s because I had a pretty balanced childhood and was into so many other things. I was into competitive sports – I was a competitive tennis player when I was 10-12 years old – and my parents did not force me to play music, or even expect me to do that professionally. And I know it sounds so boring to say but I always felt lucky to have music in my life. I was even able to start making money doing what I really enjoyed doing at an early age. At the age of 15, or 16, I was able to buy my own sports car a week before I got my driver’s license. That was something I was really proud of because I earned it playing in concerts and being in competitions. And then it snowballed into an actual career. So there was never a moment when I wanted to leave the music world and do something else, because I happened to find the thing I did the best and enjoyed the most. And I don’t think I would have made it as a professional tennis player. I feel incredibly lucky.

Follow-up question! Do you still remember your first paycheck?

Yes. I remember when I was 10 years old, I played a gig at some little variety concert and they gave me a $100 check. Which at the age of 10, seemed like an astronomical lot of money. And this was in the 70’s as well, so you have to allow for inflation. I remember that paycheck and thinking how amazing that was. And I immediately spent it on coins. Because I was into coin collecting at that time. My parents took me to the coin shop, and I figured out which coins I wanted.

Funny side-story about coin collecting, if you’re interested:

I owned a Roman coin once in my life and I only owned it for 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe you could buy a coin that was so old. I was so excited about it. And my father said “Let me hold onto it for safe-keeping.” So, I did. We were in Copenhagen and right after I bought the coin we went to an amusement park. A few minutes into the park, he lost it. So much for safe-keeping. He spent the rest of the day looking in the amusement park trashcans trying to find it.  

Besides talent, why else do you think you’re so successful?

I think to be successful in music you need a lot of things to line up. And I think for sure there was a lot of luck, as far as being in the right place at the right time. For instance being born in Bloomington, Indiana – where there was one of the largest music schools in the world a mile down the street. And one of the great professors Josef Gingold was there, and people came from around the world to study with him. But because I lived there I was able to get to him at the age of 12 instead of as a college student. Out of sheer coincidence. Just because my father, before I was born, moved there to work for the University – not in music; he didn’t even know there was a huge music school there. I was lucky. So I think finding people at the right times in my life has really pushed me to the next level. I think that’s a major thing. Plus I think certain aspects of my own character, such as my obsessive nature – whether it was coin collecting, sports or video games – and applying that to music; I think that helped as well.

What is it that you think separated those musicians of similar skill levels who succeeded from those who didn’t succeed as much?

First you have to define what success is. There are many definitions. And there are very different music careers – like teaching, or being a soloist, or being in a string quartet - and some people want one career over another. So it’s hard to say a blanket statement about success. But I do think there are a lot of aspects to being successful. There are people who have some ingredients, but not others – like those who play their instrument supremely well, but when they get in front of an audience they don’t do as well. And then there are others that get better when they get in front of an audience. Getting along with others and the diplomatic skills in this business are very important – especially how you relate to the orchestra. I’ve know some incredibly talented people, who, when they get in front of an orchestra they don’t know how to relate to them, and they alienate people. They sabotage their own careers because of not building the social skills they need to succeed. So there are a lot of other factors outside of playing your instrument well that go into having a successful career. I mean look at Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma is very successful because he has all of the ingredients – great musician, great cello player, he gets along with people so well – people love him; he has a magnetic personality when he gets on stage. Those things are hard to quantify exactly – but it’s that x factor. But he’s got all of those things.

Why did you leave university? And what advice do you have for others figuring out the choice between going to school or touring/performing?

I didn’t leave. When I was in university, I was already touring, so I couldn’t have a normal, full college life. I decided not to take time away from performing, in order to dedicate to four years to college. I wanted to do both. So I did both, and ended up getting an artist diploma instead of a bachelor’s degree.

The thing is that it’s hard to make a recommendation. It depends on the person and what they want out of life. The most important thing to know is that there is not one path. And I think sometimes we get told that there is this one way you have to do it. In the music world it’s “you have to go to Juilliard, and then get to this point and this point and if you don’t do it by the time you’re twenty, you’re not going to make it.” Look, there is just not one formula for success. People should carve their own path; because there are so many ways to do it. So my advice would be to not feel locked into something because someone else did it.

What advice do you want to give to the next generation of musicians?

Again, you can’t make a blanket statement. Some parents say “what’s your advice to my son who is playing the violin?” And for one parent, depending on the kid, I would say let the kid go out and play football and do other things because perhaps it’s almost too intense for them; for others I would say make him practice an hour a day, and build some discipline and he’ll thank you for it later. So it really depends on the situation. But I think for college age kids, you should find your own way and carve your own path in music. Do not follow a particular formula, but follow your passion. Really find whatever it is in life that you feel passionate about – that excites you – and try to make that your life. And don’t go the safe route; because you only live once.

What do you feel is your role at this time in your career?

There are many things. I have to say I’m still at the point where I’m indulging my own artistic whims. And artists, by nature are selfish in that way. By definition you have to be doing it for yourself and your dream as an artist and whatever is going to fulfill those dreams. And I think it’s important not to feel ashamed of that. But there is also an element of giving back as well. And you can do both. I don’t see my mission in life as doing one or the other, but it’s really finding the right balance. I feel I’m at a point where I can start giving back, because I’ve been given a lot by a lot of people, so I try to give back to what I believe in, like the next generation and young people in music. I really believe that trying to spread music to as many people as possible is important. And also I really believe that I should affect many people, but I also enjoy affecting a few key people. There are moments where I meet a young kid after a concert, and I try to connect with them and encourage them to stay in music and do music. Sometimes that is even more meaningful than thinking of those big numbers.

Why is it important for America to keep producing musicians?

The important thing is for our society to value music and art. So it’s not so much about producing in the sense of the old Soviet Union; it’s about fostering music and art in young kids and seeing it as being important in general, but also being a very important part of what it means to be a human being. And that starts early on. In my family I was lucky. My parents both played music and they valued music. Life without music was unthinkable in my family. But not all kids have that. And I really believe it makes you a better person. It makes you more human to have art and music in your life.

Why should more people appreciate classical music?

I think that Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky – there are only a few people like that in the history of mankind, and they go along with Shakespeare and Einstein and the people who have really shaped the world. And to be able to appreciate a Beethoven symphony – well, it enhances your life tremendously. Unfortunately many people discover that later in life. And it’s not early enough. Like why do we read Tolstoy? And the great literature? You can live your life just reading detective novels and listening to electronic house music, which are both fine, it’s just that there should be room in your life for deeper listening and deeper thinking. Again, it makes you a better person.

What’s the most fun you’ve had collaborating with other artists (not necessarily musicians)?

Music is generally a collaborative art. And certainly as a violinist, there is very little that I do by myself on a stage. It’s like acting. There are very few one-man shows or one-man movies. It’s the same with music – you’re always collaborating and you learn and play off of other people. It’s very gratifying. I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences collaborating with people in my field – obviously I’ve worked with many of the great conductors, and played chamber music with many many great people, and I’ve also played with great pop and jazz musicians. Actually, some of my most challenging experiences have been playing with other genres. In my last album I collaborated with Chick Chorea, Branford Marsalis, Sting and Regina Spektor, and just a lot of interesting people who have indirectly taught me and helped me with my classical music.

Joshua Bell’s new Bach CD will be released by Sony Classical on September 29. To learn more about Joshua Bell and his upcoming CD, click here.

And be sure to tune-in to HBO on October 14 for the premiere of Joshua Bell: YoungArts MasterClass. And much thanks to the Knight Foundation for their support of our September 8 Salon with Joshua Bell on the YoungArts Campus.

by Megan Ann Harmon, Director of Alumni Relations and Digital Communications