Lizzie Ball (1999) is a classically trained violinist, vocalist and concert producer working freelance and globally within a wide variety of musical areas and genres. In the below interview, we discover what led her to music, her ‘maverick’ approach to genre and some of the highs and lows of the profession.
My interest in music began with an early obsession with Fred Astaire films, which I used to happily watch for hours on end undisturbed. I would listen to music from some of those films during car journeys and I remember asking my mother to leave me in the car whenever we stopped (for example, at a supermarket) so that I could continue to listen while she shopped! My late father was a talented jazz pianist and he would often make mix-tapes for me, spanning everything from Bach to Herbie Hancock, and my family always enjoyed listening to a wide variety of music.
I had already begun to learn the violin aged 7, which was something I have always enjoyed. Apparently, I heard a violin on the radio and insisted I would like to learn it. Singing came later in my career, after a great number of my colleagues and friends told me that I should consider singing within my own performances.
Did you perform a lot during your degree?
My time at John’s widely reflected my already deep-rooted love of performing (and listening to) many styles of music. I enjoyed playing violin concertos with Leo Hussain as conductor, performing with the College orchestra and being a principal of the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra (CUCO). I was also asked by fellow Johnians Ivan Guevara and Graham Walker to join Classico Latino as their very first violinist. Their music is fantastic — a kind of classical twist on Latin American folk music — and we enjoyed some memorable tours to Switzerland and Colombia and recorded two albums together.
How did your career take off after St John’s?
Beyond Cambridge (and the Royal College of Music, where I went subsequently to complete my postgraduate degree in violin performance under Professor Yossi Zivoni), I quickly had to learn how to turn the passion and intense practicing into actually making a living. I worked hard to diversify my musical interests at the same time as fulfilling a busy freelance career with orchestras such as the Britten Sinfonia and Philharmonia. Eventually, I set up Classical Kicks, the first classical night at Ronnie Scott’s, which ran four years of sold-out shows, mixing everything from performances by string quartets to beat-boxing flute players and female rappers. We went on to perform with DJ Rob da Bank at Bestival, a classical-meets-DJ collaboration, and also created children’s shows.
Alongside this, I was asked to perform with some industry legends, which did a lot to boost my profile on an international level, including a US-wide tour with Jeff Beck and Brian Wilson as both violinist and vocalist and performing as concertmaster for Nigel Kennedy.
On the Classical Kicks website, you are described as ‘maverick violinist Lizzie Ball’. Why use this adjective?
I trained classically to the highest level in order to give me stronger choices about the music I enjoy playing and the people I really want to perform with. However, I don’t believe in musical borders and I have continued to persevere with this attitude, despite sometimes being made to feel as though my head is too far above the ‘expectation’. I have tried to follow my own path rather than a pre-made one.
You have recently created a musical story about the life and times of Frida Kahlo. Tell us more about this.
Friday 2 November 2018 saw the premiere of my brand new show Corrido A Ballad for the Brave at the V&A museum, alongside their own Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition of Frida’s own personal clothes and items. Corrido is a musical and visual journey through the life and times of Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. The show took two years to create and receiving a standing ovation for the premiere was a relief and a joy. I worked with the most exceptional team of talented artists and musicians as well as my co-creator, Emily Blacksell, who is a remarkable writer, producer and director. The collaboration with Emily was life-changing for me, as I had always been the sole creative producer on previous shows, which is often a lonely process.
Describe a few career highlights.
I was delighted to be awarded an Honorary Master’s Degree from the University of Derby in recognition of my services to music in November 2018. More highlights include being appointed by Nigel Kennedy in 2010 to lead his Orchestra of Life (a position I still hold) and playing double concertos with him in all the major UK venues as well as touring most of Europe, where we enjoyed venues such as the Berlin Philharmonie and the Royal Festival Hall on numerous occasions.
One of the most memorable moments of my career occurred when I directed the Palestine Prom in 2013 for Nigel as part of the BBC Proms. Our orchestra and the Palestine Strings (a very talented group of musicians from the Edward Said Conservatory, aged between 12 and 21) performed in the Royal Albert Hall, where 12-year-old Ghandi Saad stood up and, over a plaintive string drone held by us, sang his heart out in Palestinian voice in between movements of Vivaldi’s Summer from the Four Seasons.
Outreach work has formed a constant part of my career and I have performed in, participated in and led hundreds of workshops for children all over the world. I recently gave a workshop in Mumbai for an incredible NGO called Muktangan in one of their schools in the slum areas of Mumbai, where the children blew me away with their skill, talent and attitude. Their teachers are also incredible.
Are there any downsides to your job?
I tour a lot for work, which can be exhausting — especially mentally. I have found that yoga and meditation help a lot with managing this and I make sure to connect with loved ones frequently when I’m away for long stretches of time. Laughing a lot every day is also incredibly important!
Managing to successfully balance my time and to make space for my personal life is a challenge. I am continuing to learn the art of saying ‘no’ and am ensuring that I have more plan-less gaps in my diary for 2019.
One piece of career advice for current students?
My advice to others wanting to pursue a creative career is to use your brain in all its capacity — not only to create good and unique ideas to attract attention and engagement with others, but also to think creatively about how your skills could be best utilised to make a living. The obvious path might not always be the right one for you.