Benjamin Baker, violinist and Artistic Director and Founder of At the World's Edge Festival in New Zealand, catches up with us to talk about his career and life as a musician combining different creative strands. (Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas)

What does your career currently look like?

In my musical life, right now, I've got two main hats. One is as a violinist, a soloist and chamber musician, and my other hat is as artistic director of a festival I started back home in New Zealand. Those things have lots of overlap, but at the same time they can be two very separate worlds, with two very different sets of challenges. It’s a picture that is coming closer and closer together now though and a position that I feel very privileged to be in.

Where did it all start for you?

I moved from New Zealand to the UK to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School, then after that I went to the Royal college of Music to do an undergraduate degree. Throughout that whole time I was already performing a lot, so after my undergrad I left college to go out and play more. Even though I had left formal study, I continued to have a number of mentors in the US and the UK, who were a really key part of my continuing musical development. Seeking out other performing musicians to play to helped me  find my own voice as a performer and take full ownership of my creative and instrumental development from that point.  It taught me how to challenge myself in a healthy way, and what questions I needed to be asking myself on a daily basis to keep growing as a musician.

How did you come to the decision to set up a festival? 

It was a long-held dream of mine and, in the end, the idea was forming for 10 or 11 years! Growing up and studying in the UK while going back home regularly to perform in New Zealand, made me painfully aware that opportunities for young musicians aren’t as forthcoming in NZ as they are in the UK, the US and Europe. I think one of the main reasons for this is geography. New Zealand’s part of the world is very spread out compared to the Northern Hemisphere which makes touring and movement of musicians much more challenging than in Europe.  There is a concentration of opportunities (and competition for them!) overseas that NZ’s brightest young musicians know they need to be a part of to challenge themselves. However,  that leap from NZ to Europe or the US is a huge one, financially and culturally, and can be overwhelming without a frame of reference which comes with exposure to a diverse range of mentors, artists and ideas.   

At the World’s Edge Festival (AWE) is an international chamber music festival held over two weeks every October. Artists from around New Zealand and the world come together for performances in venues nestled in among the awesome landscapes of the Queenstown Lakes region of New Zealand. 

One of the founding missions of AWE is to connect established and emerging artists in a more meaningful way than the often fleeting encounters with an artist on tour, where an aspiring musician might catch a performance or perhaps have a masterclass if they’re lucky. Over the course of the festival (about 2 and a half weeks) AWE uses this confluence of so many world-class artists in one place to enable established and emerging artists to make connections and coexist by eating and living together, often finding personal and musical common ground. There are of course coaching opportunities as well, but one of the key parts of AWE’s Mentorship Pathway is preparing our emerging artists for side-by-side performances with their mentors. Now the festival has run for three years we’re starting to see pathways for young artists opening up as a result, including performance opportunities and overseas study. 

AWE wouldn’t exist though without the communities of the Queenstown Lakes, where the festival takes place every October. It has been a privilege to be part of a community-wide effort to kick start and improve the cultural life of the area, and without this belief, drive and trust in us, none of this would have been possible. 

The idea of AWE had been brewing in my mind for a few years when in 2018 I met my partner in the festival, Justine Cormack, a fellow violinist. She had just moved to the area and had her own similar vision around the untapped potential in this unique place. Once we started talking and working together, that’s when things really kicked into a whole new gear. 

There came a point soon after that where I had to have the courage to take a leap, which wasn’t easy against the backdrop of an all-consuming career as a solo violinist. I knew that to some extent I would have to compromise some of that, but I was so fortunate to have YCAT in my corner. They helped me figure out the type of musician I wanted to become, and navigate the path towards that, which as it turned out, included having an artistic life outside of being a soloist. Today, I wouldn't change a thing as it’s been the most amazing experience to witness something that started as a tiny seed inside my own head, grow into something meaningful in other people’s lives, and so much bigger than just me!

Photo Credit: Nat Symonds

How does your role as a festival director compare to being a solo violinist?

Being the artistic director of AWE has been a great opportunity to be involved in the complete picture of a project from beginning to end, which is something I really thrive on and isn’t always possible as a soloist. Before the festival became a significant part of my creative life, from the outside it probably looked like I was living the dream as a soloist: I was continent hopping on a weekly basis, playing with fantastic people, and loving so much of it. However, I was also struggling with handling the unique web of people behind every project, each with their own individual perspectives, passions and opinions. On the one hand it is a very privileged position to be in, but it was also preying on my mind that I sometimes felt like I could lose sight of my own creative identity if I wasn’t careful. I was craving the opportunity to experiment more widely and push boundaries that might be considered ‘risky’ by some - whether that be certain repertoire, programming or collaborations. In the few years since that moment I feel so lucky to have found and been offered that opportunity to experiment at many festivals, now including my own. 

As a soloist, it’s a very special privilege to deliver the cherry on top of the cake; connecting listeners through performing some of the most incredible music on stage - the culmination of an enormous amount of energy and work by many people to make that moment possible. However, sometimes being the one performing the concerto or recital programme on stage felt like just a small part of a bigger picture that there often wasn’t time to appreciate in a normal touring schedule.  Since AWE became a part of my life, there is now one part of my musical life every year where I can be a part of and take responsibility for some of the bigger picture, which has been the most amazing creative breath of fresh air.

Practically, how do you juggle those commitments?

Good question! I don’t have a lot of spare time, and the truth is I have been burning the candle at both ends a lot. It is a continuing challenge to find a sustainable rhythm for it all, but I’m not sure I know many musicians who aren’t also striving to find that perfect balance where they can do everything they want without burning themselves out! I spent a lot of my 20s learning how to manage bottlenecks when it comes to commitments, which meant learning how to use momentum (adrenaline is useful too) to power through, but also being able to effectively recover when things calm down again. This self-management has been really useful, but perhaps the most crucial element is that my wife and family are incredibly supportive! It wouldn’t be possible without them. 

I don’t have commercial management at the moment either, and at a certain point one of the biggest challenges to overcome as a violinist, and as a soloist, was realising that that doesn’t mean I am not successful! Sometimes, as musicians, we can start to believe that having management is the only way that a performing career can work, but through friends and colleagues I’ve learnt that most often artist managers are working with what artists already have going on. It’s incredibly exciting to see when an artist’s career hits a critical mass, and then through a strong relationship with a great manager they can build extraordinary things together.  However, I believe the foundations of any career can only be laid by us as individuals, and it’s really important those foundations are representative of the artist and person we are, and want to become. One of the most exhausting things I find about self-management is keeping in touch with people, but the flip side is that being in control of this can ensure that the way you build relationships feels authentic to you. 

Over the last 8 years it took a delicate balance and a lot of support to keep my performing schedule, while also developing AWE and figuring out if I could make a viable career out of it all. This wouldn't have been possible without YCAT’s guidance and platform in the early stages of my career, and their ongoing support over many years. Through listening, suggesting and advising they helped me identify the right collaborators, presenters and other musicians treading similar paths. This was an invaluable source of inspiration and comfort as I was figuring out the next step in my own path.

What is the best advice you received?

To persevere! There are always going to be more Noes than Yeses. But it’s about picking yourself up, coming back and not letting the things that don't go your way distract you from why you're doing what you're doing. If you can persevere and hold on to the why, then your horizons and sense of perspective will keep growing. The wider your perspective is, I don't want to say the easier it becomes, but the more manageable it becomes, I think. Because it's never going to be easy.

What is the worst advice you received?

I think I've probably forgotten all of it! But I have been offered opportunities that wouldn’t have been right for me. As an artist, there’s often going to be lots of people who have an idea of what they think you should be doing. And the truth is only you really know. If you do end up just following everyone else's advice, I think it can be quite a dangerous road because the only one who's going to still be around once you've done the things that someone told you to do, is you. There have been times in my life that I’ve been given good advice for someone, but it just was not the right advice for me at the time.

What advice would you give someone else hoping to do something similar to you in the future?

For anyone who is interested in getting big projects off the ground, always remember that it's a million tiny, little steps. From the outside it it might look amazing, glamourous and exciting, but often from the inside, the challenge is to keep plugging away, making the most of what you have in front of you at every point towards that bigger goal. That’s where patience and perseverance comes in: on the days when you least feel like it, just do one thing that contributes towards that bigger goal. Often it’s helpful to write long-term goals down on paper, because if you try and grapple with the big picture in your head all the time, it's overwhelming. But as long as you know what it is and you have it crystallised somewhere, the day to day can become a bit easier as you just have those little steps to tackle, building towards your bigger picture.


Instagram & Facebook: @benjaminbaker_vln 

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