VC INTERVIEW | Violinist Ning Feng — "My Violin Journey"

Chinese violinist Ning Feng discusses studying abroad, his experience in competitions, and the future of competitions as a whole

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Tell us about how you first started playing the violin. Who influenced you to learn the instrument?

I started playing the violin at a young age as a pastime. My father always wished for me to learn the violin, an instrument he liked very much. He never expected that I would become a professional violinist. When I was about 4 years old, my parents took me to the Children’s Palace in Chengdu, China — a public center that offered extracurricular activity classes for children in music, sports, crafts, and languages, among others.

Unfortunately, I was deemed “not physically suitable” and not accepted as a violin student due to my shorter pinky. However, I was very lucky to meet Mr. Wen Youxin shortly after, and he took me in as his student, assuring that a shorter pinky would not prohibit me from learning the violin. 

 

Tell us about your early violin training and what made you decide to pursue a professional career in music?

I started violin with the Suzuki method and all classes were taught in groups of 13-14 students. I studied with Mr. Wen Youxin for around seven years, and it wasn’t until I was in Primary 5 that I got more serious with violin. At that same time, my parents and I had a conversation about chosing to further pursue music or academic studies. My academic grades were average, and after seeing my older cousins having to do so much academic work in high school, I knew that violin would be my choice. My parents supported my decision as I continued my studies in violin at the High School affiliated with the Sichuan Conservatory of Music studying with the famous Chinese violin pedagogue, Mr. Hu Weimin, father of well-known Chinese violinist, Mr. Hu Kun. 

It was an eye-opening experience to study at the conservatory under Mr. Hu Weimin, as I was surrounded by an environment with peers and teachers who value music at the highest level. I was so determined to learn and improve on the violin that it came to a point where my teacher had to tell me to slow down on my progress. One year before graduating high school at the Sichuan Conservatory, I was recommended to continue studies with my teacher’s son, Mr. Hu Kun, who was then offered the position as violin professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Thankfully, I was given a full scholarship to study in London, if not for that, my parents would not have been able to afford to send me abroad.

 

How was life like studying abroad?

Oh dear, the first 1.5 years in London were probably the most difficult time of my life! I had not set foot outside of China before that, so everything was new and foreign to me. I moved to London alone at the age of 17 and experienced a completely new environment, culture, food, and language. Even the schooling system is different from what I experienced in China!

My teacher at RAM, Mr. Hu Kun, was a very inspiring figure to me. He was the first Chinese violinist to win a prize in a major violin competition — the 1980 Sibelius International Violin Competition. His teaching style was meticulous. I vividly remember a lesson where we spent 1.5 hours on intonation in the exposition of the Schubert Sonatina! It was definitely a learning curve living and studying in London. Torturing at first, but I treasure the experience deeply!

 

What were your parents’ expectations after you chose to pursue music seriously?

I am not an ambitious person, but my philosophy is to try and do my best with no regrets. I was very lucky to be playing the violin without any kind of extreme family pressure. My father always said, “I don’t expect you to be the best, but I only ask for you to not learn badly.” Thankfully for my parents’ support, I am able to do what I do today as a violinist and teacher.

 

During your conservatory days, you participated in a number of major international competitions, including the 2005 Michael Hill and 2006 Paganini Competitions. Can you talk us through some of your experiences?

When I was studying in London, my teacher encouraged me to enter competitions mainly to challenge myself and gain experience performing. Competitions gave me exposure as a young violinist. As my schoolwork was not too demanding, competitions kept me busy. Another important reason for my active participation in competitions was because the prize money supported my living expenses abroad. At that time, my parents’ monthly salary was equal to a month’s rent for me in London.

Competitions serve as a training platform for musicians. It allowed me to study large amounts of the violin repertoire, from solo pieces to concertos. I also got to perform for jury members who are industry experts and compete side-by-side with the top violinists in my age group. I have been really fortunate to compete at major violin competitions and regardless of the results, I always learn from every experience.

Competitions, in general, are an interesting subject for performing musicians. Unlike examinations where teachers grade your performance and growth, you are now faced with a panel of esteemed jury members foreign to you whose job is to find the flaws in your playing. I was very lucky to achieve good results at some competitions I participated in, among many others that I participated in and did not achieve any prize. For every competition round, my main priority is to first play well and treat it as a new performance opportunity. I like to echo the phrase said by the character “Oogway” from the movie “Kung Fu Panda”: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift! That is why it is called the present.”

 

In recent years, you have served as a jury member for several prominent competitions. What have you learned as a jury member and what advice do you have for candidates in competitions?

Having once been on the stage as a competitor, being a jury member now is like being on the other end of the story. There are usually at least 6-7 jury members in a competition, and everyone has their own musical taste. It is interesting, as competition jury members nowadays not only include professional musicians, but also industry experts in music business and arts administration.

If I were to give any advice to candidates in competitions, it would be to never try to impress or imitate a certain jury in your playing. Just like how we each have personal preferences to taste and cuisine, the music that you play needs to feel natural and the interpretation convinces you. There is no way of controlling other people’s tastes, so the most important thing is to believe in yourself and play from your heart!

 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, in your opinion, what is the future of music competitions?

The pandemic has taught us many important lessons. One thing for sure is that concerts and competitions will always be there, even though many have adopted online models. I think online competitions during the pandemic opened doors to a greater international candidate pool. With no need to travel, students and parents may feel more inclined to participate in these competitions. However, in my opinion, this method does lack the live electricity we feel when someone plays onstage with an audience. It is inevitable that some competitions may continue to opt for the online method even after the pandemic, and technology just keeps improving as we speak!

It is difficult to say when musical activities will return to normalcy, but I think this period of waiting will inspire many of us to return to the stage and perform again! I do miss the concert hall and performing in front of a live audience, bringing the joy of music to others as music brings me joy!