The Antipodean violinist on how chamber music and seizing opportunities made for a varied career in the New Zealand String Quartet and as concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra 


Wilma Smith ©  Agatha Yim

Every child in my primary school learnt a musical instrument. I was taught in a group by Helen Hopkins, the leader of the Auckland Symphonia. I have no idea how our music teacher did it. Not only did he provide tuition to all students, but he also got the very best teachers. I would love for all children to have instrumental tuition. It’s a life-changer that has all sorts of impacts. My first private teacher, Violet Lewis, was a tennis fanatic, and I have vivid memories of her talking about how the tennis swing and follow-through relate to violin playing. I still teach this today. I was very lucky to have such great teachers in little old New Zealand! 

The 1975 New Zealand Youth Orchestra world tour when I was 19 was game-changing for me. At the BBC Proms, in a combined international orchestra we performed Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. It was conducted by Claudio Abbado, one of the finest conductors I ever experienced. At the end of the performance he had tears running down his face – it was moving for him and for us. I felt the power of what we were doing and realised that I had to be in this world. 

My introduction to serious string quartet study came when I was coached by Louis Krasner at the New England Conservatory. I remember working with him on Beethoven op.59 no.1. I was playing second violin, which starts the slow movement alone on a middle C. We worked on that single note for about 20 minutes – he wanted it to contain everything that was about to come. The kind of listening he demanded of me was unlike anything I had experienced before and is something I still teach. Don’t assume that because you have ears, you’re listening – you have to be actively using them! This also helped me to be a concertmaster, a role where you need to be listening to everyone every split second while simultaneously checking the balance, intonation and harmony. The lessons you learn in a quartet about personal relationships, negotiation and psychology also prepared me for the concertmaster years like nothing else could. 

Being open to opportunity has been a guiding principle of my life, whether by good luck or good management. When I had the chance to return to New Zealand in 1987 to form the New Zealand Quartet, I knew I had to take it. I am grateful for my wonderful mentors and all the experiences that have moulded me as a musician. I feel very lucky still to be learning and growing, often with inspiration from my brilliant young collaborators. If I could go back and advise my younger self, the only thing I would recommend is to practise more. Practise, practise and practise! There’s no short cut, so the sooner you get on to it the better.