Raised in a musical home by a mother who played piano and a father who sang, it’s no surprise that Joshua Bell picked up his first instrument, a violin, when he was just 4 years old. Now, four decades later, the New York-based musician is one of the most celebrated violinists of his era. He’s performed with nearly every major orchestra in the world and serves as conductor and music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in London.
Bell has recorded more than 40 albums that have earned him Grammy, Mercury, Gramophone and Opus Klassik awards. He’s collaborated with artists from a variety of genres, including Chick Corea, Regina Spektor, Sting, Wynton Marsalis, Josh Groban and many others, and has had numerous appearances on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.” In an exclusive interview, Bell discusses being mentored by violin legend Josef Gingold, the story behind his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin, playing music with medical professionals during the pandemic, and why it’s so important to keep music in schools.
What drew you to music and inspired you to play?
When I was 4 years old, my parents gave me and my sisters an instrument because everyone in my family plays music. That’s just part of life. That was their philosophy. They gave me a violin because I used to collect rubber bands from around the house, and I would put them across my dresser drawers. I would open up the doors to create different tensions and different pitches. I was experimenting with sound at a very young age and trying to copy tunes that I had heard my mother playing on the piano. My parents saw me doing this and were very pleased. They love music, and with my father's favorite instrument being the violin, they said, “Let's get him a violin.” So, I got a 1/16 size violin. That's where it all started.
How did you learn to play violin?
Growing up as a violinist in Bloomington, Indiana, I was very lucky to have been born right around the corner from a very famous music school, the Indiana University School of Music, which is now called Jacobs School of Music. It was one of the finest in the world. People came from all over to study music there. As a child, I heard about a legendary figure, Josef Gingold. At age 12, my parents asked him if he would teach me, and he became my mentor. That changed my life. Having a teacher that was inspiring like Josef Gingold really made me want to become not just a violinist for fun, but to make it my life and become a professional violinist.
How did Josef Gingold inspire you to play?
I saw him playing on his 1683 Stradivarius, which was amazing to me. Occasionally, he would let me play a few notes on it, and I just lit up and thought, “Someday, I would like to have a violin like that.” Now, I do have my own Stradivarius made in 1713, but he was the one that made me just love music. Listening to the glorious sound of my teacher, and also the joy that he felt and transmitted to everyone around him when he put the bow to the strings, made it clear to me. As much as I liked sports, science and many other things, music was an amazing way to go. If I could make a living from it and do the thing I am passionate about, that was for me. And sure enough, things followed.
How did your journey as a violinist unfold after you started learning to play?
I won a competition when I was 14 years old, which gave me a chance to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Riccardo Muti conducting. The people who became my managers were there at that concert. They signed me, and then a couple years later, I signed a record contract with Decca Records in London, and I started touring, each year a little bit more. The road life became my life—traveling and performing. Those were things that I just love. It was hard to imagine life without traveling until this year (2020), where I've taken a big break from traveling, and it's posed some interesting challenges. I found some silver linings in that as well.
Can you talk about the virtual performances you’ve organized with health care workers during the pandemic?
I was very much aware of the fact that I'm one of the lucky ones. I can stay home and keep myself busy, never get bored, because I've got the violin. I've got my music. I've got a list of things that I could spend the next five years in a room keeping myself busy. Meanwhile, many people are suffering, and some of the people that have really put their lives on the line have been the medical workers. I've admired them from afar and appreciate what they've done on the front lines. I thought, “Is there something I can do with the medical workers, or for the medical workers, to show my thanks?”
I recall so many experiences on the road where I've met doctors and nurses and other medical professionals who are musicians. There are doctors orchestras and string quartets made entirely of medical professionals. So, I thought, “Maybe I can get us all together and do something.” First, I organized a Bach double violin concerto made entirely of medical professionals. We all recorded separately and put it all together. Then, I organized Vivaldi's iconic Four Seasons, the “Winter” from Four Seasons, with many medical professionals organized by Carnegie Hall. We performed together virtually, and it was incredibly moving to see all these doctors and nurses in their scrubs taking a break from taking care of people to go in a room with their instrument and record virtually. It touched me, and I hope that those who watched it were moved by it and reminded how important medical professionals have been during this war on the virus. Also, hopefully it gave a little distraction to doctors and nurses. Music can offer an incredible diversion, and spiritual healing. I truly believe that music is an incredible healer, and I think all of the doctors and nurses I work with would agree with me on that. My huge thanks go out to all those who have been fighting this pandemic.
Can you tell us the story behind your 1713 Stradivarius violin?
The Stradivarius is a very famous instrument. I knew about it before I even saw it. It was famous for having been stolen from one of the greatest violinists of the early 20th Century, Bronislaw Huberman. The story goes like this: Huberman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, in New York, in 1936. It was a fundraiser to raise money because he was starting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time, it was called the Palestine Symphony, and this became a very important thing. He saved countless Jewish people from Europe to come to Israel to start the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and save their families from what would've been devastation. But he was an important figure in music, and Huberman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, in 1936, and he had two violins: a Guarnerius and a Stradivarius. On the second half, he played the Guarnerius and left the Stradivarius in his dressing room. After the concert, he came back to find an empty dressing room. The violin disappeared, and he never saw the violin again. The violin was missing for 50 years until 1986, when, after a deathbed confession, the thief confessed to his wife that he had stolen the violin as a young man from Huberman, who was his hero. He had played the violin for 50 years without anyone knowing. It's quite a fascinating story.
The violin came back to the world and was sold to a wonderful violinist, Norbert Brainin. Then, 15 years after that, I managed to purchase the violin. When I first played on this violin in London, I played a few notes on it and started shaking. I said, "This is my violin. This has to be my violin." And that very same night, I performed at the Royal Albert Hall for 7 or 8,000 people on a violin that I had only played a couple of hours on. This is sort of unheard of. Usually, you need months to get to know an instrument, but I was so in love that I didn’t want to play on anything else ever again. I eventually purchased the violin, and it's been my companion ever since.
How would you describe your relationship with your instrument?
The relationship to one's instrument is something that's very hard to describe. It's more than just an object. It's part of you. It's a marriage. Of course, that also means that you don't always get along. There are days where I feel like it's just not doing what I want it to do, and it has a mind of its own, and you might say we quarrel. It's my faithful companion, and I love it. It's hard to describe how close I feel to an instrument like this, and that relationship is something only one who owns an instrument and plays on it for hours every day can understand.
What have you learned from crossing over into other genres?
Any artist needs to feel that they're always discovering and exploring. I could get along doing what I've been doing for the past few decades, playing concertos with orchestras as the violin soloist, and I could make a decent living from that, playing the same repertoire that I've been doing. But for me, and I think for all artists, you always have to feel like you're pushing the boundaries and exploring. I think that's why artists tend to stay young, because they're forever students. They're childlike in their sense of discovery and wanting to learn new things. I think that affects the brain and keeps us mentally feeling very young. For me, that exploration has taken me to many places. I've done a lot of crossover music projects that have been incredible for me, working with Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and other bluegrass musicians. We went on tour as a group and made an album called Short Trip Home, which was a meld of bluegrass and classical music that Edgar Meyer wrote for me. I learned so much from these musicians. Also, jazz musicians I've worked with like Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis. This was all out of my comfort zone, but that's how you learn.
How has your role as a music director contributed to your skills as a violinist?
In the classical world, I've always wanted to go further from just playing the violin or playing as a soloist. I've always wanted to do chamber music. And now, music directing, conducting and leading an orchestra where I have a different role as a leader—I have an official position with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the incredible orchestra in London where I lead from the first violin chair—things like Beethoven's symphonies, directing them, conducting and playing the violin at the same time. This has been an incredible experience for me, and makes me think about music in new ways, and makes me a better violinist. So that sense of exploration I hope will carry through until the day I die, which hopefully will be many, many years from now. Luckily, there's a great track record of musicians living into their hundreds and still performing even past the age of 100.
Photo by Chris Lee
How did growing up with music impact you, and why do you feel music education is important?
Music was always an important thing in my family. During holidays, we would all gather and have what we call "music house," and everyone would get out their instruments. Sometimes, I have some not-so-nice memories of wanting to do something else and my parents saying, "Come on, bring out your violin and play for everybody. It's time for the music house." But for the most part, it's all joyous memories that I have of everyone playing their instruments, playing together. My mother and her sister, my aunt, sitting at the piano playing Schubert four hands. For me, music was an important part of life, like learning English, learning mathematics. Music was part of it. And I believe that music should be a part of every child's life in some way. That's why I'm a huge advocate for music in the schools. I've worked with organizations like the Harmony Program and Education Through Music. I've traveled to many schools to help with their programs and make sure that that schools have music programs for kids because I think it helps them in so many ways. It helps them with their attendance. Because of their sense of pride of owning an instrument, they want to come to school. They want to make music together. They learn teamwork. They learn language through music. They learn mathematics through music because music incorporates all of these things, language and math. The left side of the brain and the right side of the brain work together to make music, and that's why I think education should start from music and go from there. I'm a huge believer in that, and I've carried that over to my own children. I have three boys, and they all play music. I practice with them as much as I can and make sure they practice every day. I know that they're gonna be better human beings because of it.
Why do you think music is more important now than ever?
During perilous times, I think music has always served as an outlet for emotions. The great works of the classical repertoire—like Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert—will never go out of fashion. They will always be relevant because they all speak to our common humanity, and the emotions we have always experienced, of love, of suffering, of triumph, of humor. All these things are expressed in music, and when we listen to music and play music, we feel them even deeper. It's an important part of who we are as people, making music together. Every corner of the world, every tribe in every village, there is music. And it’s there for a reason. During these difficult times, I think even more important. My teacher, Josef Gingold, told me stories of his family, living in Russia in prison camps. One story he told me is that he was 9 years old, or even younger, and they got a knock at the door of their tent, in the middle of a prison camp by the German soldiers. He thought they were taking young Josef away. It turns out that the enemy, the German soldiers, had heard him practicing, and they wanted him to play for their troops. His family saw them take the little 8- or 9-year-old away from them. He came back two hours later, after performing for the German troops, with bags full of food, which was very scarce, that they had given his family as a thank you for making music. So, even between enemies and in terrible times, music had a way of bringing people together.
How do you think others can become uniquely inspired in this moment to embrace music?
I think during this pandemic, a lot of people, since they've been alone in their homes, have taken to music who may not have even played an instrument before. What a perfect opportunity to spend time at home and learn a new instrument. Even my wife, Larisa Martínez, wonderful opera singer, decided to take up the guitar. She's been practicing for hours on her guitar, which she bought from Guitar Center, and she now feels like she's a better singer because of it. That's the beauty of doing an instrument. It serves so many purposes. It has the emotional impact. It has the humanitarian impact where you work with other people and feel connected to your community. It has a simple, wonderful quality of just being a great challenge—figuring out the notes, figuring out how it works—and then incredible satisfaction when it all comes together. I remember that as a child learning a new piece, the excitement of plucking the string at the same time while playing the bow and thinking, "Whoa, this is incredible." I think everyone should have an instrument, even if they do other things professionally. It's the best hobby one could have.
I make music because it connects me to my humanity, my emotions. It helps me express myself in ways that words can't. Most importantly, it just simply makes me feel alive, makes me glad to be in this world. And that's an incredible gift that music has given me.