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Shana Douglas Shana Douglas

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Shana Douglas and the Special Relationship

The Anglo-American violinist discusses moving to the UK, performing across the world and what the Special Relationship means to her

Published on April 9, 2020
First published in the May-June 2020 free online edition of The American magazine

Thank you so much for your time Shana. Out traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I spent my formative years in Connecticut. From the age of 15, I lived and studied in Philadelphia, where my mom's entire side of the family happens to be from. My family home remains in Philadelphia.

How did you first become interested in music, and particularly the violin?

I don't come from a musical family, which is somewhat unusual. When I was a small child, my parents thought it would be wise if they signed me and my sister up for some sort of music lessons. The piano seemed the obvious choice, so I was told by my parents that I would soon be learning the piano. However, one day, my family found ourselves in a shopping mall, and in its atrium was a group of young violin students performing with their teacher. I announced to my parents, "I don't want to play the piano - I want to play THAT!" Apparently I was adamant. My mother approached the group's instructor right there and then, and, a few weeks later, she became my first violin teacher! I was just shy of four years old. The rest, as they say, is history.

How did you find yourself moving to the UK?

I studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for half a decade, earning my Bachelors Degree at the culmination of those five years. Curtis is a very special place and I relished every minute of my time there, but I was itching to get to Europe. There are some differences about the way music is interpreted in Europe as compared to America, and I was eager to discover exactly what they were. I had also met a lot of European musicians at summer music festivals during my teenage years, and I was intrigued by the way they approached music. I started investigating graduate programs across the pond, most notably in Berlin, Munich, and London. Slightly daunted by the fact that my German was pretty basic, I opted to move to London. I met a Professor of Violin from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama about six months before I was due to graduate from Curtis, and I instantly knew he was the teacher for me. His name is David Takeno, and he's absolutely incredible, not only as a musician and a teacher, but also as a human being. In some ways, David was the reason I moved to the UK!

What was life like for you as an American during your first few years in London?

I immediately loved it! I had never lived outside of the United States, and it was so exciting and somewhat surreal to actually be residing in another country. And what's not to like about London? It's such a wonderful city full of culture and all sorts of other magnificent things. I lived in the student halls during my Guildhall years, which are right in the Barbican area. It was incredible to be positioned so centrally! Also, I must now mention something else that makes living in the UK so special for me, personally: my late father was actually British. So, when I first arrived in the UK, I looked at it as if I was just investigating life in my "other" country!

You've played concert halls around the world and with all sorts of interesting orchestras - is there something about music's global qualities that appeals to you?

Absolutely. It sounds cliche, but music really is a universal language. It has such a strong ability to bring people together and it can really speak to anyone and everyone. It's such a privilege to perform all over the world - I've been to such wide-ranging places as Azerbaijan, Jamaica, and Kuwait, as well as many of the more usual destinations, of course. Audiences around the world are usually incredibly warm and appreciative. It's also really meaningful to occasionally see, for example, people attend their first classical-music concert and to witness their reaction. Additionally, it's thrilling and humbling to perform in some of the best concert halls around the globe. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that this is really what I do - I definitely feel lucky!

What are some of your favorite pieces to play?

There is so much unbelievably beautiful music out there; it almost feels unfair to list specific works. Plus, my idea of my favorite pieces to play (and to listen to - it can be different!) is always changing. Having said that, I will go ahead and mention a few compositions that hold a special place in my heart: Brahms' Symphony No 2, Mozart's Symphony No 36, Sibelius' Symphony No 2, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 4. Those are all from the orchestral repertoire, but I won't go on to chamber music and solo violin pieces - the list would simply be too long! However, I will mention Bach, Beethoven, and Stravinsky, whose music, somewhat unfairly, didn't make it onto my quickly brainstormed list; nonetheless, they (along with Brahms and Mozart, in my opinion) are some of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived, and I always cherish the opportunity to perform their works.

I've read that you play quite a special violin built in 1743 - can you tell us more about that, and what it's like to play an instrument with such history behind it?

Yes, that's right. I'm lucky enough to have a gorgeous violin on loan to me from the Amsterdam-based Jumpstart Jr Foundation. It was made in 1743 in Milan by Carlo Antonio Testore, who was a member of one of the great luthier families during the golden age of Italian string-instrument making (namely the 17th and 18th centuries). I've played old Italian violins for the past 15 years or so, always on loan to me for a period of a few years at a time, and in my opinion there's really nothing quite like these violins. There was something special in the atmosphere in Italy back then, apparently! I have the Testore until the summer of 2023 and then, heartbreakingly, I will have to give it back. I'm not sure yet what I'll play next. I'd love to buy a violin of my own, but the best ones in the world sell for values in the six (or sometimes seven!) digit range.

Shana performing with Ken Ichinose during a recent online concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

You recently performed a live duet from your living room in the UK with Ken Ichinose in New Zealand during the Coronavirus lockdown - how was that for an experience?

That was definitely a new type of experience for me! Musicians are coming up with all sorts of creative new ways to share music during the current pandemic. All of our performances are cancelled for the foreseeable future, which leaves our lives feeling very different than normal. I realized that I'm not sure I've ever gone more than about two weeks without playing a concert in my entire adult life - and that goes for many of my colleagues around the world, too! So, we're turning to technology to continue "performing." We can collaborate with one another by playing chamber music (duos, trios, quartets, etc) using certain software and/or apps on our devices. My closest friend, Ken Ichinose, is a cellist who lives in New Zealand, so we decided to play a duo together - one that we've performed before. We used a split screen and listened to each other in headphones as we played. We were both in our respective living rooms, about 12,000 miles apart! His orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, broadcast this performance on their social media channels. It was strange to be standing in my own living room, wearing my slippers, but to experience that slight feeling of adrenaline as if I was in a concert hall!

What do you most love about the UK and most miss about the US?

That's a tough one. It's definitely difficult to put into words. Sometimes I miss the open, outgoing, say-what-you-think nature of American people, though that's obviously a big generalization. I miss certain foods from home that you can't get here, too - silly things like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. I sometimes also miss the overall American quality of life, which, in my experience, is higher than here. I think that's partly because the Brits are so proud of their "keep calm and carry on" mentality - sometimes so much so that they don't complain if things simply don't work properly! As for what I love about the UK, I find that there's something about the British people that I really appreciate and admire. It's hard to describe, but it's a kind of practical and well-rounded approach to life that I think is very healthy. I also love that there's so much history and culture in the UK that you don't quite get in the US, at least not in the same way. 

What does the UK/US 'Special Relationship' mean to you?

I just love that the US and the UK have had such a special relationship at least for the better part of the last 100 years or so. The two nations are the closest of allies and they have a lot in common, not least the language, for starters! As I mentioned above, I am half British by blood and I've even had dual citizenship since birth, so the UK/US Special Relationship is all the more important to me, as it applies directly to my family.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Shana Douglas?

Interesting question! I suppose that, without sounding too cheesy, I'm just so thankful to be a musician. Whilst the world travelling and the all the other priceless experiences that come along with being a musician are a nice bonus, most of all it is that I have an incredibly deep love for the music itself that overrides all of that. If I weren't a musician, or perhaps at least an avid music-lover, I can only imagine that there would be an extremely large void in my life. I'm sure said void would be meaningfully filled by something else, but I'm eternally grateful that it's music that plays the most important of roles in my life. There is truly nothing I love more.

You can listen to Shana's music and find out more about her work by going to www.shanadouglasviolin.com


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