BY JO ST LEON, SERIES CURATOR
Christian Li, one of Robin Wilson’s many outstanding students, has become the youngest violinist ever to record Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – and the youngest person to be signed to Decca Classics. Aged just 13, he performed and directed these iconic concertos with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The recording was released on Friday 20 August 2021, and Christian was interviewed on ABC News Breakfast that morning.
It was an extraordinary interview. Christian was so thoughtful and reflective; he displayed a maturity beyond his years whilst at the same time retaining his childlike qualities. An irresistible combination.
As the interview concluded, he played a small segment of Kreisler. The camera zoomed in on his face: his very expressive face reflected every changing nuance in the music, and shone with his absolute love of playing the violin.
Lockdowns notwithstanding, I needed to have my next conversation with Australian pedagogue Robin Wilson about the joys and challenges of teaching this remarkable young violinist. I came away from that conversation deeply moved by the depth of understanding and care he brings to his pedagogical relationships, not just with Christian, but with all his students. He is teacher, guide, mentor and friend — what more could any aspiring young violinist ask for?
Editor’s note: This article has been published in consultation with Christian Li’s parents. We hope you enjoy the read!
Robin, first of all many congratulations. For your student Christian Li to have recorded these concertos and directed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, at the age of 13, is an astonishing achievement. You must be a very proud teacher.
Thank you, Jo. Yes, I’m very proud of the result. The recording is a testament to his incredible hard work, imagination, and energy.
How old was Christian when he first came to you for lessons? I gathered from his interview that you weren’t his first teacher…
No, I wasn’t. He was 7-and-a-half years old when his parents sent me a video of him playing [before] we began.
Often when we take on a student from another teacher, we want to make changes. Not because the previous teacher wasn’t good, but because every teacher has their own way. Did you have much to change with Christian?
He was very young, very small, and not at all technically advanced. So I wouldn’t say change, I’d say develop. Everything needed to be developed. He was playing Suzuki repertoire at the time, and he’d done wonderfully well. It was clear that he had a very sensitive ear and an astute sense of pitch and sound, but he needed to develop reading skills, and an understanding of rhythm and foundational technique.
Did you give him ring-binders full of theory?
Hah, I certainly avoided that. We really started from the beginning, with the development of his technical set-up, his understanding of rhythm, notation, sound, phrasing and musical style. Everything that anyone of that age needs to learn.
Does he have music education aside from what he does with you?
Currently, yes. He has a theory lesson a week, and he learns the piano. These are both things I’ve insisted upon because I believe they’re really important for creating a deep musical understanding. Piano playing builds a good foundational knowledge of harmony, and hopefully eventually the ability to play through scores. The theory is great, because it encompasses many things that we don’t necessarily have time for in his lessons. I touch on theoretical things as we go, but his theory lessons are wide-ranging. He does some composition, transposition — all of these things are an important supplement to his violin lessons.
Has he been doing these things all along, since he was 7?
Not all along, no. When he started, a student of mine, Kyla Matsuura-Miller, began assisting me. For two years he would go for lessons with her once or twice a week. There was so much reading and notation for him to learn, and he really needed help, just in those early stages, with the practice. That left us time to focus on other things during his lessons with me.
Is Christian’s practice mostly driven by him, or do you prescribe it?
Christian has an extremely strong volition to play. It’s very much an internal volition — his parents have never had to force him to practise, and I’ve never needed to encourage him to do more.
Practice is a constant process of understanding how to be efficient and effective. Teaching a student how to practise is a part of every lesson, so Christian’s practice is always being honed.
His practice routine is important, and I’m very clear about what he needs to practise and why, and how to do that, but he doesn’t need encouragement to do so.
Have you done that with him right from the start?
Absolutely. I think that’s one of the most important aspects. We have to remember that a student is with us for maybe one or two hours a week, but they’re on their own at home the rest of the time. If we want them to progress quickly, the progress has to happen at home with the help of a parent at an early age. The practice has to be very focused and efficient, and of course that’s difficult. It takes a lifetime to learn how to practise properly.
I used to give kids practice cards, with a task on each card. It encouraged task-based practice, rather than “my mum says I have to do half-an-hour”.
Exactly. I think it’s always got to be quality over quantity. Then you get to a stage in your playing where you need a certain quantity of quality if you’re going to continue developing. But Christian has always had a strong work ethic, so it’s not an issue with him. […] Christian is very particular, and very serious. He wants to do things until he feels they’re good enough, and he has very exacting standards for himself. The drive to continue working at a phrase until it’s beautifully shaped, or well in tune, comes from him.
Do you have a theory about prodigious talent? Where it comes from, how it exists in the world?
That’s an interesting question. I avoid the word ‘prodigy’ very deliberately because it comes loaded with implications of spectacle or novelty. I don’t think it acknowledges the depth of understanding and musicianship that a young person might be capable of. It doesn’t recognise the hard work and application that’s required, on top of natural ability, to reach such an exceptional level. So we hear someone play incredibly, and the comment is: ‘Oh, they’re such a prodigy. What unbelievable natural talent!’ It’s not fair on the child, because it fails to respect the dedication and hard work that has gone into that performance.
So in fact, that sort of comment is almost the opposite of a compliment.
It’s not to negate the extraordinary natural abilities that a child might have. Of course, there is often a degree of innate ability that one is born with. For example, Christian had perfect pitch from a very young age without necessarily being surrounded by music, although there is a history of musical talent on one side of his family.
I believe the ear plays an enormous part in determining musical ability, because it’s the ear that drives the desire to produce a certain sound, and the inner ear that guides the fingers in those early stages. On an instrument like the violin, it’s very hard to progress rapidly without that aural ability.
There’s physical coordination as well. Some students, when you teach them at a very young age, take to the instrument very naturally — it feels very easy in their hands. They’re somehow able to make that connection from the ear to the fingers, and very quickly find their way around simple melodies.
For other students, that coordination is slightly more foreign. I have a twin brother, and we grew up side by side. We both learned the piano, and he found coordinating his fingers extraordinarily difficult, while I didn’t. I can’t explain that.
When I watched a bit of Christian’s lesson I noticed a very collaborative interaction, with great respect on both sides. Did that relationship take long to develop?
At first there was less of that collaboration. He was very young, and his communication in English wasn’t as fluent as it became later. There were so many basic things for him to learn when we began. Nevertheless, I was always trying to ask questions and engage him in the learning process, encouraging him to be thoughtful about what he was doing. That increased as we went.
I think a very important part of learning is to develop autonomy and independence in the student through active engagement, interpretation, and exploration. It’s not the conventional notion of the all-knowing professor who dictates everything to the student. I want Christian to understand that he can be his own artist, but I want that artistry to be properly informed by true knowledge and understanding.
Is it hard to find the balance between imparting true knowledge and allowing him the space to be himself?
Christian has very strong ideas. He might have an idea during his practice that he’s become very convinced about during the week. He’ll come into his lesson, and I may comment that it’s not convincing. That’s challenging for anyone, but this is where true learning occurs.
Those moments require discussion and explanation. I want him to understand why something might not be effective, rather than rote learning — or taking my word for it — which feels like a dead-end artistically. Whilst a prescribed phrasing is an example of one convincing possibility, the student is none the wiser as to why, and how that artistic decision has been made. I want him to understand the processes underneath that decision, so that he can interpret music intelligently himself.
I used to have a wonderful teacher when I was about 7, but I don’t think she’d taught many very young children. It used to drive me nuts that she would never explain to me why things mattered.
Absolutely. I think there’s a real balance with kids. You don’t have to explain everything, but as they progress their conscious mind kicks in more and more, and they become curious.
Christian is a very curious character. He wants to know, which is wonderful. I want all my students to be curious.
I so appreciated that, in his recent ABC interview, Christian said he loved finding out about the lives of the composers.
I give my students books from a very early age — they might be picture books to start with. I want them to understand that the composers they play were real human beings that lived in the world. I don’t think a young student can play a little minuet by Mozart, or one of his concertos or sonatas, without understanding something of the era, or something of Mozart’s personality. And Mozart was such a colourful character; he was someone young people can really relate to, and find amusing. Curiosity about composers is something I think is really important to instill in students early on. Who was this person? What else did they write? When did they live, and what was the world like then?
As an educator, do you feel there are there enough books out there?
Not about all the composers, but there is a great variety of books at every level. Picture books, anecdotal books, and more advanced books that help to humanise composers in a way that very dense biographies can’t.
I even give [young students] books about art. Books written for kids are often good for adults as well. They help to relate ideas of light, colour and shade. All these things help to build the context of music in the world of creativity, art and culture. You don’t have to wait until a student is 18 to do that; I think you can do it from the very beginning.
Teaching anyone comes with responsibilities and challenges. Do you think these are different when you’re teaching a child of outstanding talent?
There is a difference to an extent, because of the external pressures. If you have a student who is very advanced, they may be doing high-profile concerts, which are being reviewed or judged in some way. Both student and parents may be more invested in outcomes.
Teaching someone who isn’t as serious at an early age may be different, but a student doesn’t have to be playing professional concerts and recordings for a teacher to feel an enormous sense of responsibility.
So many students develop a love of music later, possibly as a result of the work we do with them early on, when they’re not necessarily considering music as a career.
So yes, I do feel there are responsibilities and pressures for a student such as Christian, but I feel an equal responsibility for all my students — to give them the best opportunity to develop a love of music.
Are you at all wary of pushing Christian too hard?
Absolutely! I don’t feel I push him, but I’m wary of keeping a career that has a trajectory under control. For someone like Christian, these professional opportunities can be a distraction from learning and continuing development. It has to be very carefully managed and kept under control, so it’s not overwhelming. The most important thing with very advanced children who are beginning a career path early is to preserve space for ongoing development.
Can we briefly talk about that recording with the MSO? To direct a professional orchestra from the violin is a huge undertaking for a child of 13. Were you there?
I was. Recording with a professional orchestra is a real skill. There’s not much time for rehearsal, or to get things just right. You can’t go into a situation like that unprepared and hope for a successful outcome — Christian had to be very well prepared to ensure it was a positive experience.
Christian put in a lot of hard work beforehand. He knew the scores inside out. He knew all the harmony, all the bass lines, what everyone was playing. We worked on understanding how he was going to direct the orchestra to get the best result with the minimum of verbal instruction. He had to practise leading, and understand what was necessary and what wasn’t. He was very aware of where he needed to lead and how. He learned how to convey everything — tempo, articulation, character, sound — through movement. Ensemble was made all the more difficult because the orchestra had to be socially distanced.
There was also discussion, of course, and he requested certain things of the orchestra. It was successful because the MSO was so supportive and understanding, and their playing was superlative.
Christian was very lucky indeed to have such a willing and agile ensemble!
Thank you Robin, for sharing these insights. Christian is an extraordinary young man, and I think he has been blessed having you as his teacher. I can’t wait to hear the recording.
Visit us again to read the next instalment of Jo St Leon’s Conversations with Robin Wilson. Catch up on the first interview here.
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