Q. Here’s a tough question: How do great violinists differ from good violinists?
Bell: Well…there’s something called the X factor. A great musician has a quality that’s sometimes hard to define — not just a very good student who can play all the notes. I think someone who’s a great artist has a way of drawing you into their musical story in a way that transcends their instrument – and you stop thinking about the instrument itself, being drawn into the world of the composer. And not that many people really do that. It’s the difference between a great actor like Meryl Streep, and a good actor. There are only a few of them. With Meryl Streep, you completely forget that she’s acting. You just totally believe her…. It is a hard question.
Q. Aren’t great musicians also distinctive? Sometimes I hear a soprano who sounds like so many other sopranos. But a great soprano…
Bell: Singers are almost another breed of their own. There’s only one Pavarotti. They have this incredible instrument that’s so distinctive.
A great violinist, I think -- he or she also owns the piece. It’s having the confidence to believe completely in every note you’re playing.
When I listen to a great pianist or violinist, every single note is going somewhere or is coming from somewhere and has meaning. With a good violinist, it alternates between technical things and musical things. With a great violinist, technique and the music are combined. There’s no separation between the two, and every note has some sort of intent. And I think that’s also quite rare. I’m not talking about myself here. I’m not putting myself in one camp or another.
Q. I just read a biography of the violinist Michael Rabin –
Bell: Oh, yeah,
Q. -- who was clearly a one-dimensional person. And I was interested to learn that your violin teacher, Josef Gingold, wanted your parents’ assurance that they intended you to be a well-rounded person….
Bell: Where did you read that?
Q. In a biography of you – in Wikipedia. [“…Bell's parents assured Gingold that they were not interested in pushing their son in the study of the violin but simply wanted him to have the best teacher for his abilities. Satisfied that the boy was living a normal life, Gingold took Bell on as his student.”—Wikipedia.]
Bell: Really? My parents assured my teacher that? My teacher may have heard stories of parents pushing their kids. It’s a very difficult role for parents of a prodigy. You need pushy parents in a way, but it can cause a lot of stress in a child. My parents were not musicians. My father was a psychologist. So they probably told him they wanted me to be a normal kid. Which I think for the most part they tried to do. There were sports and school and a lot of other things outside of music. And I’m grateful for that.
Q. I understand that you were a very good tennis player.