Arts Desk

Joshua Bell’s Lessons on Being a Successful Soloist

What does it take to be a superstar musician? Talent? Sure, but past a certain level, everyone’s got that. If they’re honest, the pros admit it takes a certain amount of showmanship, even in the staid world of classical music. Like any other performer, they have to cultivate a persona. And among classical musicians, the best know how to play against type—to be casual, humble and congenial when their genre has a reputation for being uptight, imperious and cold.

Joshua Bell knows this. He’s perfected his nice-guy image for years now. He dresses down, smiles a lot, goes by Josh. He plays pranks: In D.C., he will always be known as The Guy Who Played the Violin in the Metro. He probably even is a nice guy. And it works. He’s been on several movie soundtracks, including The Red Violin, Angels and Demons, and most recently the Chinese epic Flowers of War. He’s been called the best violinist in the world, but what does that really mean? There are probably hundreds of people who are technically as good as Bell at the violin. Some may be better. But they don’t hang out in Hollywood with Sting. Bell spoke with Arts Desk ahead of his performance tonight at the Kennedy Center.

“There are so many factors that go into being a successful soloist,” says Bell. “You have to be good at playing your instrument, of course. It takes hard work and discipline. But there are so many ‘X’ factors that go into what makes an audience want to come back.”

Like what?

“You have to hone a certain temperament and personality. You have to put your heart on your sleeve and put yourself out there.” For Bell at least, this comes naturally: “I was a shy kid growing up, but as a performer, I was never shy.”

What about the work?

“You have to endure a grueling schedule, and thrive on that kind of pressure to want to have a long career as a musician. I just happen to love it.”

Washington Performing Arts Society presents Joshua Bell with pianist Sam Haywood at 8 p.m. tonight at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, performing sonatas for violin and piano by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Ravel, and Ysaye and preludes by Gershwin. $45-$115. (800) 444-1324.

Photo courtesy Washington Performing Arts Society

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