Interview with Laura van der Heijden
Interview with Laura van der Heijden – recent winner of the BBC Young Musician competition
By Helen Neilson, August 2012
Laura van der Heijden recently won the prestigious BBC Young Musician Competition, aged 15. She performed the Walton Cello Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia in the final round, shown on national television.
How did it feel to be awarded first prize in such a major competition?
Overwhelming! Amazing! Exciting! I am very fortunate to have been given so many wonderful opportunities as a result.
How did it feel to go onstage in front of the cameras and such a huge audience?
Everything else just fell away and I really enjoyed myself! In the final, when I looked at the conductor to get an A, he misunderstood and started, so I had a brief moment of panic! After that it was wonderful – it felt like flying.
How did you prepare? Was it like being an Olympic athlete?
Of course the cello practice is fundamental! I had a lot of input from my teacher and more recently have also worked closely with pianists and conductors. I like to find out about the background of the music I am playing. I enjoy researching the music and perhaps watching films about the composers. My mum says that musicians need more sleep than other people so I go to bed early!
Did you grow up in a musical environment? What were your earliest musical experiences?
I always enjoyed dancing to music when I was little. My parents were interested in music but neither are professional musicians. My dad played the cello, having started only at the age of 16 and my mum took piano lessons when she was young. When my mum was pregnant with me, she had to stay in hospital for many weeks. She listened to Handel’s Messiah all the time, but it had to be with headphones. She felt sorry for me only getting to hear the odd screaming baby, so she put a set of earphones around her belly so I could enjoy the music too – in the womb!
When did you start playing the cello? Do you have any particular memories from your early stages of playing?
I started playing the cello age 6, after having started recorder age 4 and piano age 5. I have an early recording of me playing a little piece called “Hey Ho!” I had an excellent teacher in my early stages called Marina Logie who had lots of fun games, including “The Spider” where I used my bow hand fingers to crawl up the stick of the bow!
How do you balance your cello practice and concerts with school work?
I have been fortunate to have a great deal of flexibility in my school hours and have had very good understanding of my need for time to practice from both my junior and senior schools. Before the competition, I would get up at 5.30am to practise and then go to school, but I rarely had to do a full school day. I am starting year 12 this September and will be taking three A levels in Music, German and Russian. This will give a better balance than spreading my energies across a wider range of subjects for GCSEs. My mum is very good at planning out my time so that leaves me free to just get on with my work. YCAT are also very helpful and supportive and assist with longer term planning too.
Do you balance your repertoire preparation with scales and studies and other things in practice sessions?
After doing my grade exams, I stopped practising scales for a while. I didn’t really understand why they were important. Then I watched a film by Heifetz about scales and I began to understand the point of them. Now I practise scales every day!
How do you approach learning new repertoire?
I like to learn a piece, leave it for a while and then pick it back up again later. I find a piece develops over time with this “slow cooking” approach! I am now realising the real value of in depth study of aural and harmony. This is something I would strongly encourage every young musician to consider more seriously. Many young musicians do not like studying music theory, but I feel it is vital to learn how to analyse the structure of a piece and to develop the inner ear with understanding. I really believe in this!
How do you feel about having such an active concert life?
I really enjoy performing so am relishing the challenge of preparing for my forthcoming concerts. The challenges will include keeping calm, dealing with the expectations and getting into the rhythm of it. Keeping balance will be important!
What do you like doing when you have time off? Do you ever take holidays away from the cello or do you keep practising daily?
I like doing very normal things really! Watching movies, tv, using the computer, going outside and spending time chatting with friends. I rarely take a day off from practice as I don’t like the feeling of the body getting behind after coming back, so I generally choose to keep practising daily to keep my fingers in shape.
Have you had a lot of support in your development as a cellist?
Yes! We call ourselves “Team van der Heijden”! My parents, teachers and all the people close to me have been incredibly supportive. I felt that I had the support of the whole UK during the competition! If you want to really achieve something, it takes a team!