Interview with Rahel Rilling 

While spending time in Germany, I had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with renowned violinist, Rahel Rilling. Her playing was refreshingly heartfelt. Ms. Rilling doesn’t just have stunning technique and a warm, rich sound; she also possesses an integrity that is hard to find these days. Her purpose in music is much deeper than self-promotion, and I was privileged to discover more about her playing and perspective on music in the following interview transcribed below.


M: What was your very first violin like?


R: I remember that I was 4 years old when I got a violin from my godfather for Christmas. I think it was a 1/16 violin, and I immediately wanted to play!


M: It is interesting to understand that instruments, while technically inanimate objects, have the ability to come alive and influence us as players. Has a particular instrument taught you something?

by M. Sparks

photo courtesy Alfred Steffen

R: I am very lucky to play a fine old Italian instrument from Mantua made in 1767 by Tommaso Balestrieri. This instrument has helped me so much in learning how to create a beautiful, warm, and deep sound.


M: Are there any particular tactics you use to stay focused in performance? Do you have advice for people who get nervous physically as well as psychologically before performing?


R: Violin playing is not the most comfortable body position you can imagine. So I think it is very necessary to do something like Yoga, Pilates or Alexander technique to get to know your body, how to strengthen and relax special parts of your body, and also how to breathe. If one has the time to do as much and as regularly as possible, all of that helps a lot not only for playing but also for being and staying focused throughout your whole life. For performance specifically, It always helps if you lay down comfortably, close your eyes and think through your music and your concert program in every little step.


M: Pablo de Sarasate once said, "For 37 years I've practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius." What is your view on practicing? Do you have a particular method (open string warm up, scales, etudes, and repertoire) or do you simply practice whatever piece is most urgently needing prepared?


R: It depends on what life stage or pressure you are in at a particular time. During my studies I practiced sometimes a lot like 4-6 hours maybe - mostly always starting with scales and etudes (never ever 14 hours though!!!!;))))  but now with two little kids I hardly find time to practice enough, so I have to plan very carefully.


M: Who did you study with? Did these teachers have a particular style or come from a particular teaching school? Is there any one teaching style that motivates you best (teaching with metaphors and descriptive language or more physical and direct language)?


R: I studied first with Wolf-Dieter Streicher who was from the Austrian school and very solid. Then I studied with Yair Kless in Tel Aviv who had quite a Russian style and very good technique. I also studied with Michael Mücke in Berlin who was teaching expectedly in the German style. He helped me to achieve a beautiful sound and basics in rhythm and musicality. Another teacher of mine was Nora Chastain who possessed an American style and taught in Zürich. She had a very logical plan about how to develop great bow technique together with all skills for the left hand, vibrato, shifting etc. and to get out the essence of music making. She also helped me to find a new instrument which is sometimes very necessary to get to the next stage. She really helped a lot!


M: Do you believe it is necessary to play various repertoire or can a musician mainly focus on something that he or she likes the most?


R: I think it is very important to have a big repertoire. It is also inspiring and fulfilling to get to know as many styles of music as possible. There is good music in every style, but this is of course, only my opinion.


M: What is your take on music critics? Do you find their opinion important, and does it affect the approach you take in performance?


R: Well, of course you always want to have good critics, but you have to get used to the fact that opinions and tastes are very different. My advice: don’t take it too seriously.


M: Is there a composer from the group of unjustly forgotten ones that you promote in your performances? Do you enjoy playing relatively unknown repertoire?


R: Yes, of course I want to mention here my great-grandfather Robert Kahn who wrote beautiful piano and chamber music . He was a student of Johannes Brahms. Later he was professor for piano and composing in Berlin at the Hochschule until he was forced to leave the country in 1938 because he was Jewish.


M: What is your opinion about historical violinists vs contemporary: do you notice any differences between playing styles and which do you prefer?


R: I think they all have their specialities and character. I love Perlman!


M: Milstein once said: “There are no difficult pieces. Either you can play it, or you can't.” Do you agree with his statement?


R: Well, I am myself not a master of total virtuosic pieces. So I think if you practice really hard you can learn a lot, but the most important for me is that we are not only artists in terms of hard workers, but we also have to tell a story and to move people with our music directly into their hearts!


M: Thank you so much, Ms. Rilling. It was a pleasure talking to you. Your insights have been wonderful and quite informative!

R: Of course, it was fun!