Career Path

1. What was your first musical experience in childhood?
Recordings and radio were always playing in the house, and my father sang in choirs when I was little, so I was around music before I thought anything of it. My first documented encounter was when I was 2 or 3, sitting side by side on a piano bench with my grandfather as he showed me where to put my fingers and how to get sound out of the instrument. I have a photograph of that. It looks idyllic. I guess that means that my grandfather gave me my first music lesson! But violin was what I took the greatest random interest in, and that was what stuck.

2. What was your first contact with the violin?
It was pretty early, so I’m fuzzy on the details. There was a music school in our neighborhood when I was 3. We discovered it just before I turned 4; my dad and I walked past it one day and saw a sign out front reading, “Music Lessons for 4-Year-Olds”. My father and I went in out of curiosity, I watched a little boy play violin in his lesson, and figured there was no harm in giving violin a shot. I started the next week and didn’t stop.

3. Would you tell us something about your earliest memories of the sound of the violin in your own hands?
I don’t remember the sound of the violin when I began studying. I’m sure it was scratchy and terrible. I’m also sure I didn’t mind. I do recall, in my first few months of violin practice, being asked to play through the entire “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” piece and feeling that it was unbearably long. But it was only about two minutes long!

4. From age five to ten, you studied in Baltimore with Klara Berkovich, a native of Odessa who taught for 25 years at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted. From ten to seventeen you studied at Curtis with the legendary Jascha Brodsky – the last surviving student of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye – working closely with him until his death at the age of 89. I’m wondering what kind of inspiration you received from the teachers above.
Mrs. Berkovich formed me as a violinist and musician, and Mr. Brodsky refined me towards the musical path I’m on now. Both were equally important to me. They were quiet teachers, authoritative, picky, demanding but affectionate, never saying something was wonderful or fawning over me – that wouldn’t have worked for me anyway and they knew it. When something was good, they said so and moved on to the next thing that needed improvement. That way, they challenged me every week. I loved that. They were also both attuned to what each of their students needed individually. Neither subscribed to any particular method, although they both believed firmly in steady development, in a step-by-step customized program for each student.
In both cases, I was encouraged to think of music and technique as interdependent. I wasn’t done with an etude until it sounded like a concert piece. By the same token, I couldn’t put a performance piece to rest until it was both musically communicative and technically precise.

5. You have been taught in your earliest age by some of the most famous pedagogues with extraordinary creative pedigree – what did those lessons as a little girl look like, and how did they change as you grew into a more and more famous teenager?
I don’t think of things in terms of “famous”. I had wonderful teachers, and they taught me so much about musical (and personal) character, about the violinists who went before me, about the repertoire, and about defining oneself as a musician. It was a smooth development; my concerts were the result of new repertoire that I was learning and needed to perform in order to better understand; my colleagues took me under their wings and taught me by example as well. When I was little, my lessons were very specific and detail-oriented in both musical and technical matters. As I got older, there was still a good balance of those elements, but the focus shifted, almost imperceptibly. The first time Mr. Brodsky, my teacher until I was 17, told me to come up with my own fingerings and bowings for a piece I was learning, I was shocked. I had always assumed that that was something the teacher would do, and I suddenly realized that, no, that would be my responsibility as a professional musician. My teachers were very good about teaching me in the way that would be best for me.

6. What were your formative musical encounters?
Probably every concert I’ve attended, every recording I’ve listened to, and every musician I’ve met. In music, one learns from teachers and colleagues and everyone who has gone before. Whether or not one agrees with them is an opinion-forming process that is extremely educational.

7. When did you make your mind to be a violinist?
I never consciously made up my mind to be a musician at all, in fact. I’ve always been interested in lots of different things. I’ve had the impression from childhood that I was free to pursue any discipline that attracted me, but that if I were to work at something, I should try to do my best. I put in a lot of time on music – violin was the first instrument I took lessons for, and it stuck. Maybe because of that, music was what worked out first for me. I got to know musicians and heard great recordings, and I got caught up in the current of my violin studies. I’ve continued to pursue other interests in my downtime, but I’m glad I’m a musician. It’s the perfect career for me.

8. I read somewhere that you were advised going the “prodigy route”, but you made your recital debut at age ten  and had finished Curtis’ university requirements at age 16. Clearly you were a prodigy; in what way did you avoid the “prodigy lifestyle?”
Many kids have accomplished something at a young age, whether it’s competing in sports, getting good grades in school, reaching the highest level of a game, or being socially advanced. However, simply being precocious or achieving something unusual does not a prodigy make. My age was never exploited by people close to me; I didn’t approach a full performance schedule till I was seventeen and had finished my college requirements; I was always free to make my own decisions about my career; and I was encouraged to broaden my horizons by reading, taking lots of extra classes, pursuing other interests, and becoming familiar with other art forms. I was not freakishly gifted and never felt like a display in a circus act. I just worked really hard on something I was interested in. If anything, everyone who was watching out for me wanted to make sure I was taking my time, developing as a musician in a natural way and on a normal path. For all of these reasons, I don’t agree with the prodigy label as it would apply to me – and if you’re not a prodigy, it’s easy to avoid the lifestyle.

9. It’s been a lot of years since you first walked on stage to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in your first major orchestra appearance at 12. What was it like to perform at that level at that young age?
It was thrilling. I’d grown up going to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concerts, sitting in the back row of one of the highest balconies, and through my teacher and some other friends, I knew so many of the musicians already. I couldn’t believe how vibrant the orchestra sounded, and I couldn’t believe I was actually on that stage. There were so many people in the audience!

10. What’s it like when you walk on stage now? Has the experience changed for you?
At this point, I’m used to the big halls and orchestras and large groups of people looking at the stage. But it’s still exciting. I never know how each concert is going to turn out, so I always feel free to try new things and explore the music. I’m constantly learning.

11. As a touring artist, what advice do you have for young performers as they grow in their own careers?
What I’ve always been told by people who would know is, “Don’t do anything before you’re ready.” This doesn’t mean to avoid risks or not push yourself; it means to always be as prepared as possible for the next step. I agree with that advice and have taken it to heart.
As a young performer, what one needs to be doing is building technique and musicality, not promoting one’s abilities – unless you’re ready to take on all that will result from such an approach. Once you start the ball rolling, it’s very hard to stop it. The two points that I always say are most important to a musician of any age are consistency and preparation. That doesn’t sound like fun, I know. But doing a consistent amount of work every day and being prepared will let you experience the most enjoyable elements of music making. So, no matter how small the performance, always practice in advance as thoroughly as you can, and take the time to warm up and concentrate during the hours before you go onstage. If you’ve done all that and you’re still unhappy with your performance, then there’s nothing to feel bad about: you did the best you knew how, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Be proud of yourself. With continued work, you’ll figure out how to do better next time.

12. Looking into the future:  how do you see Hilary five years from now and ten years from now? Can you tell me how you plan to prepare for the future, do you already have ideas, if so what are they?
My professional calendar is planned two to four years in advance; that’s enough planning for me! I enjoy the variety currently in my life, with all of the different activities my career provides, and I hope to continue to pursue all of those things and more into the future. My biggest aim as a violinist is simply to become a better musician every day, in little ways that will add up over time.

13. What’s your dream now?
I like to see what comes my way and follow that. Dreams can be inspiring, but they can also be limiting. If you’re so focused on one path you already know, you’ll miss all the other interesting roads that can lead in directions you’d never think existed.