As we enter the next passage of this strange chapter, many have begun to return to work. Performing artists might allow themselves a flicker of hope from this, but I suspect for many, restlessness and frustration will simply change shape. Largely confined to private spaces and the cacophonous digital musical jungle, artists jostle for a glimpse of the sun; the light and warmth of public approval - formerly applause and cries of ‘encore’ - is expressed by a click or, (if time permits!) a comment. So while the streets ring out with clapping, the halls remain quiet. 

Violinist Mayumi Kanagawa is in Berlin; her report of the situation there causes the increasingly common pang of envy suffered when somebody describes their government’s handling of the health crisis - there’s probably a German word for the feeling. Living with the YCAT pianist, Giuseppe Guarrera, and happily surrounded by friends and musicians, Mayumi utters the adjective that’s acquired such allure: ‘things are almost... normal’. She laughs, they have all been living ‘like retired people’ and confesses to be quite enjoying the new pace of life. Performing musicians must usually create their own work routine and I ask whether this has been affected by the lockdown - ‘I usually practise scales and Bach anyway as part of my personal practice whether I’m performing it or not’, but learning new pieces has proven more difficult: ‘I sort of jump around and I don’t feel like things are improving at the rate they would otherwise’. ‘Before concerts, lessons are the things that you have as time benchmarks’. Bereft of such structures, Mayumi has sought to feed off the progress and expectations that she demands of her own students. (A thoughtful product of this impulse was Mayumi’s own scale video.)

At the end of February, Mayumi was preparing to visit Japan for a series of concerts. Two days before flying, her first performance was cancelled, then the domino effect took hold. The tour curtailed, Mayumi’s family were able to spend a few weeks together in Tokyo, thus it became a ‘nice trip in the end in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise’. It was undoubtedly Mayumi’s parents - both musicians, though not professional - who were instrumental in the early days, whether supervising practice (there was, she says, ‘a lot of fighting’), accompanying at the piano, or identifying potential teachers: this final process, renewed with each significant move. Once settled, Mayumi has stuck with violin teachers - each of whom has been ‘super important in [her] life’. In New York, Mayumi received lessons from Masao Kawasaki, (teacher of Gil Shaham and Sarah Chang in their youth). The chain of influence grew as Kawasaki introduced Mayumi to Robert Lipsett, her teacher in Los Angeles, ‘somebody from the same school of playing’. It’s not easy to pin down aspects of playing engrained during these early years, but Mayumi believes that ‘they really have a big, big influence’. Teachers ‘shape you as a person and as a a lot of ways that I don’t realise consciously’. ‘When you’re a kid you never spend that much one-to-one time with an adult other than your parents, so receiving their undivided attention each week can shape attitudes quite profoundly’; in Kawasaki’s case, ‘he just knew in what order and how to present things and to make it all seem very, very normal’. Thus the young Mayumi was encouraged to develop a liberating belief that ‘nothing seems difficult on the violin’.

Mayumi gives me the impression that life in NYC was, in certain notable ways, a rather gruelling experience; she remembers feeling quite shocked by this very academically stressful environment. An ‘incredibly demanding’ schooling experience was matched on Saturdays at Juilliard’s pre-college programme which Mayumi attended for three years: a ‘really competitive atmosphere created by really intense parents and kids’. These years only served to heighten the disparity with life on the West Coast: as Mayumi says, she ‘came from one extreme to the other’. If Mayumi ever had doubts about continuing to play violin, it was right before this move, ‘the toughest time’. ‘The violin part of my life was so controlled… by other people [so] it just felt like a part of me that I didn’t have as much say over… it took up so much of my life so I just wanted to cut it off’. Fortunately, school life in LA was balanced more towards the arts. Recalling life in LA as a teenager Mayumi identifies ‘one aspect of it that is very, very driven and competitive, even superficial’ partly due to ‘the film industry [which] looms over everybody… but on the other hand, I think, because of the weather, it feels very slow and laid back, and people are so friendly’. Even after this marked cultural shift, Mayumi speaks of the ‘breathing room’ she could enjoy upon arrival in Germany as an undergraduate.

Speaking with people who experienced peripatetic childhoods usually leaves the impression that a strong degree of self-sufficiency is developed - even required. I ask Mayumi whether she thinks moving from Japan to the US affected her later decision to move to Germany: fundamentally, it would seem, as ‘the experience of being five and going to kindergarten for the first time in America and not knowing any English… that’s really strong in who I am as a person’. Attending Prussia Cove masterclasses in junior year of high school (aged 16) provided further impetus; the opportunity to mix with so many young talented musicians, most of whom studied in Europe, was ‘super interesting’ as well as being ‘quite a big culture shock’. Most significantly, perhaps, ‘it helped me a lot to get some sort of sense of whether I wanted to be studying with these kinds of musicians’. Mayumi’s desire to study in Germany came too from her perception that ‘classical music is much closer to the people and the culture… and I wanted to learn a new language’. 

Berlin has, for seven years, been home, but Mayumi explains ‘I don’t really have a sense of this is truly where I come from or this is where I belong or this is where I’ll return to: I feel much more floating in that sense’. I ask whether this has ever led to feelings of anxiety or yearning to be tethered to a place - she shrugs, reasoning, ‘I don’t have a comparison… there was never a point in my life when I had a strong or true sense of home’. Maybe unconsciously I pull a sympathetic face, as she quickly clarifies - ‘I don’t ever have this urge to escape’ but, rather, feel ‘a sense of familiarity with a lot of places’. I ask Mayumi if her experiences being ‘the newcomer’ during childhood shaped a sense of belonging: ‘when you’re really little I think you don’t ever think about these things consciously’ but ‘there are so many unspoken rules about how each society functions’; often the only way to learn is through ‘trial and error’ or simply ‘to let yourself go… sort of give up in a way and just let things be’. Interestingly, Mayumi views ‘a lot of art [as being] based on this strong feeling of home...but there are fewer stories about non-belonging’. It thus seems fitting that Mayumi’s artistic explorations of place are based upon transience. She explains ‘if you are of one very, very strong culture and you grow up in a different one the conflict that arises there would be different to somebody who is constantly wandering’. Mayumi’s experiences illustrate that ‘constantly adjusting to new situations and finding yourself within them’ can become closely entwined with her own conceptions of identity and, by extension, musical identity. This is manifest in the programme that Mayumi devised for her (now, sadly, almost certainly postponed) Wigmore Hall recital: a trip through the countries of her life: Takemitsu - Beethoven - Bernstein. 

As a musician who has clearly benefited from several violin teaching traditions, I’m interested to hear Mayumi’s thoughts about playing styles promoted by the different violin pedagogical traditions. In my experience such conversations can often appear tactless, but Mayumi suggests ‘if you say it superficially, it sounds that way’. I manage to coax a tentative distinction from her that ‘at the very very highest level I think the American school values sound quality a lot: a healthy full rich sound’; whereas ‘Germans value the intention behind the sound, more than the sound itself’. ‘If the sound conveys a meaning then even if it’s ugly, if it serves a purpose, it's good’. The language Mayumi uses here is immediately deeper, more philosophical, oblique. I suggest from this that the Americans elevate violin playing with a rich strong core: bold; the European school, conversely, favours a more sensitive approach: the chiaroscuro. Mayumi, diplomatically, highlights that there are ‘great things about both’ and ‘just having one [quality] doesn’t excuse the lack of the other’. It might be possible to place the debate in a wider context of Euro-American artistic and cultural priorities, and Mayumi points out that many distinguished professors in Central Europe come from a chamber music performance background (e.g. Alban Berg quartet). Traditionally, therefore, there is perhaps more of an emphasis on the collaborative, and ‘an encouragement to create great chamber musicians’. Further, there are straightforwardly practical considerations that mean ‘if you’re going to play a concerto, you cannot play below a certain dynamic, you need to find a way to express piano at a mezzo-forte, for example’. ‘In a quartet there’s a whole range of dynamics and colours below that concerto minimum that you have to spend time exploring’. Mayumi’s stance emerges as ‘probably, anyway, there are people who have certain inclinations towards one [school] or the other but I think that you should at least spend time learning… there’s so much value in trying to discover both as much as you can’.

Since 2017 Mayumi has led the Lazarus String Quartet and reflects on this time as greatly rewarding musically. When I ask whether this could gain ascendance Mayumi demurs: full-time quartet is ‘a tough life that I’m not cut out for’. Would she find fulfilment in life performing exclusively as a soloist? Probably not - indeed Mayumi questions whether it’s possible to ‘immerse yourself in the world [of a piece] if you’re constantly preparing two or three programmes ahead… it’s just not what we’re meant to do as performers, I think’. Instead, she hopes in her playing to ‘find a combination where the focus shifts on to different parts at different times’. One of the various strands that represent Mayumi’s musical life is teaching (currently, Mayumi assists her own teacher, Kolja Blacher, at Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler). From teaching group violin lessons in neighbouring schools inspired by El Sistema, to more recent involvement with the TONALi organisation and Verbier Festival’s ‘Reaching Out’ programme, music education has long been an enriching aspect of Mayumi’s own artistic development. Outreach projects such as these reveal, I think, something about the way in which she perceives the role of performing artists in society. Aptly, then, as we end our conversation, Mayumi is preparing her offering to one of the more idyllic results of lockdown: the formation of a ‘sort of internal music school’. For over a month, Mayumi, Giuseppe, and friends have been meeting to analyse pieces, and teach each other about music history. In this way - sharing new perspectives to grow as musicians - Mayumi confirms that teaching can, at its best, ‘act as a sort of mirror’.

Sean Dunn