Making Music in Lockdown:
The Virtual Benedetti Sessions



Suzanne Doyle is Nicola Benedetti’s General Manager and a Senior Project Manager at Askonas Holt. Here, she reflects on the incredible impact of the Benedetti Foundation during the first months of the coronavirus crisis.


When the UK went into lockdown on Monday 23 March 2020, I don’t think any of us had envisaged the devastation that COVID-19 would have on the entire world. Now, as we approach the end of week 10, working in an office, gathering with friends and family, sporting events, visiting museums and galleries, listening to live concerts… all seem like a lifetime ago.

Many musicians immediately felt the impact of their diaries being wiped clear of work – years of planning, months of preparation, all suddenly gone – just like that. Whilst performers across the arts faced the reality of what closed concert halls, theatres, even airports meant, many redirected their creative output online.

When Nicola Benedetti launched the Benedetti Foundation in January 2020, the ethos of the organisation was simple:

1) To unite those who believe music is integral to a great education;
2) To inspire through uncovering and sharing its best practices whilst demonstrating a reenergised vision for the future;
3) To put on workshops for young people and teachers, that showcase what Music Education at its best can look and feel like.

In the first few months of 2020, the Foundation delivered their first four Benedetti Sessions in Glasgow, London, Birmingham and Dundee. The launch saw them working with children and teachers from 31 out of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, 30 out of London’s 32 boroughs, and in close partnership with many organisations, music services, hubs and private music teachers across the country.

Two weeks into lockdown, it was clear that Nicola wanted and needed to take her education work online, building on the incredible success of the Foundation’s three UK weekends. Fast-forward a few days of intense planning, and the Foundation team created an incredible programme of online events under the umbrella of the “Virtual Benedetti Sessions.”

This is a difficult time for everyone – the pandemic has affected every corner of our lives. I have a desire to make sure we are being as active as possible in the most helpful and serious way.

—Nicola Benedetti

Now in their final week, the online sessions have, since 11 May, provided over 7,000 musicians of all ages and stages, from across the world, with three weeks of daily, jam-packed online tutorials and inspirational workshops. But these haven’t just been violin workshops – Nicky and her brilliant team of Tutors and Ambassadors (including guests such as Alina Ibragimova, Pekka Kuusisto, Elena Urioste, Augustin Hadelich and Ilya Gringolts) devised a wonderful programme. Participants could join daily warm-ups and watch a “message of the day” from Nicky. Sectionals (split into violins 1 & 2, viola, cello and double bass) were designed for participants at all levels, from absolute beginners to music college and university students, schoolchildren to adult amateurs. The team even developed a general musicianship schedule for those of us who want to brush up on our Grade 5 Theory, complete with incredibly well thought-out sessions that include improvisation, creative harmony, percussion and more. There have also been beautifully curated well-being classes, Kodály method teaching and specific separate sessions aimed at teachers and parents. No stone has been left unturned.

Did I mention yet that for those participating, there is absolutely no fee?

Curious to know more, I logged into a couple of the sessions that were being held on Zoom: Adult Learners with Nicky (which seemed apt as an amateur violinist who is desperately missing her fix of live music making) and a panel discussion for Instrumental Teachers led by Lucy Drever and Jo Bradley, two incredible peripatetic musicians, animateurs and educators, talking about how important it is for young children to listen to music of all genres, broaden their horizons and continue searching for a sense of imagination and creativity throughout all types of music-making, in and out of the classroom. The thing that I took away from both sessions was the absolute commitment from all participants – everyone wanted to be there and was fully engaged, and this was mirrored with total dedication and passion from the Tutors. In Nicky’s tutorial for adults, so much that was divulged was about the psyche of playing, preparing yourself physically before even holding an instrument – things that perhaps we (I!) don’t even acknowledge before even attempting to make a sound. It really made me re-think how musicians approach their daily playing lives, practicing or performing on stage. The insights were invaluable.

The impact of the sessions has been huge. Not only have they now “gone global” with over 66 countries represented and sign-up from people in 41 of the 50 US States, but the comments on all of the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube posts speak for themselves. Here are a couple that I especially like:

This has been an amazing experience full of variety and inspiration from you all. Thank you so much for the hard work that has gone in to making it all happen. All those involved will remember it for a long time to come and it has been such a positive experience during such uncertain times.

—Lucy Reid

Nicky, please can I say the biggest thank you to you and your amazing Tutors. It was my mum who heard about the Virtual Sessions that you were putting on and we were able to sign up just in time. Our daughters have been utterly inspired. Our violist daughter was just thrilled to see so many violas on the Zoom meeting. She has often felt other viola players do not exist when there might be her, and one other if she is lucky, in an orchestra. Alex and the viola Tutors have really got to grips with the children! They have taught them so much at such a perfect level, having all the right words…. We live in Dubai and have had a big lockdown so the focus and excitement this has given our daughters over the last few weeks has really helped enormously so not only for their playing but their mental wellbeing too…. A huge, huge, huge THANK YOU TO YOU ALL. It really has been so very special… Our daughters feel so good. Thank you!

—Susanna Detnon

The sessions are now drawing to a close, but not before a final weekend of activity on 30 & 31 May, celebrating the coming together of the global music community. The Final Celebration Concert takes place on Sunday 31 May at 16:00 BST on Nicola’s YouTube and the Foundation’s Facebook pages.

This weekend marks the culmination of three weeks of music, enjoyment and hard work and will feature a mixture of pre-recorded performances, live warm-up and technique sessions from Foundation Tutors, advice from leading musicians and educators, a live sing and play-along, panel discussions including a forum on performance anxiety, and a conversation between Nicky and conductor Karina Canellakis on putting together a virtual recording.

The conclusion of everyone’s efforts go towards learning and preparing to perform four pieces including an abridged version of Vaughan Williams’s haunting Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which has been rehearsed and re-recorded virtually by Tutors and Ambassadors and beautifully conducted by Karina Canellakis.

Here is the recording of the original version of the Vaughan Williams, from a few weeks ago, that Nicky made with Karina and some of the Foundation’s Tutors:

 

What is very clear is that this is just the beginning. With the “new normal” so uncertain for classical music and the arts at large, we don’t know when live performance, as we used to know it, and music lessons in classrooms can restart, but what is certain is that the Benedetti Foundation has proved that you can bring music online inspiring everyone, everywhere.

The Benedetti Foundation is an independent charity which receives no government funding. All their activity is funded through the generous donations of individuals, corporate sponsorship and trusts and foundations. To learn more, please visit: https://www.benedettifoundation.org/support.

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