Katie Derham: 'I feel I have got a part of myself back'

A career in television led to Katie Derham neglecting her childhood passion for the violin. Rediscovering it changed her life and even saw her playing to a live audience
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The Independent Culture

When I first learned to play the violin, family legend has it that the cat would leave the room. Apparently the tune that really offended her was "G-String George". I have some sympathy. Second time around, 30 years later – of which the last 17 had been almost completely fiddle free – I remembered the cat ... and practised in an otherwise sleeping house, with Newsnight switched on at high volume. I'm not sure it is what any teacher would recommend, but, believe me, it was better that my rusty scrapings were muted and blurred by the cut-and-thrust of a Paxman interview.

I'd been approached last autumn by a persuasive TV producer (is there any other kind?) from SkyArts. He'd read somewhere that I used to play the violin, and thought I might be interested to take up a challenge. His programme wanted to investigate what would happen if one were to follow through with that commonly heard cry of "I wish I'd never given it up". He was tracking down volunteers who'd use the spur of a TV camera crew and a public performance to dust off an abandoned instrument and see if they still had what it took.

I wasn't completely naïve: I knew that getting back up to any kind of decent standard was going to be tough. I also had to manage some expectations here. I'd never been particularly brilliant in the first place. But I also knew that I'd really missed playing, and, without the incentive of this kind of show, my old violin would in all likelihood stay reproachfully in its case for many years to come. There's nothing like the prospect of public humiliation to focus the mind when you're pondering whether or not to do your scales or have a long bath and re-read a Jilly Cooper.

And so it began. It was November. I was told that by the beginning of March I would be joining an extremely tolerant chamber group called the Fidelio Trio who were due to give a recital at Kings Place, a relatively new concert hall near Kings Cross station. This was serious stuff. The Fidelio are properly good – and as such have a reputation to defend. There were going to be members of the public in the audience who would have paid real money for tickets, and not for the comedy value of seeing some muppet off the telly make a hash of playing the violin. Suddenly, what had started as a handy way to kick-start a hobby had turned into something terrifying.

Darragh Morgan, the violinist in the Fidelio Trio, was to be my mentor; he's married to the pianist, Mary Dullea, and the third member of the trio is the cellist Robin Michael. Darragh is blessed with an unbelievably cheery nature. Which was a relief. Because I think even he was a little daunted by quite how much I'd forgotten when I tuned up my fiddle again for the first time.

The violin is a cruel mistress. Played well, it can be brilliant and exciting, yet warm, mellifluous, and truly expressive. Sadly, for that kind of sound to emerge requires years of practice, and mastery of an awkward, frankly unnatural, physical technique. A good sound is dependent on an ease and fluidity of bowing ... and yet there's nothing particularly easy about co-ordinating two completely different movements in each hand and arm – the precision and pressure of the left which finds the notes on the strings, and the graceful but controlled flow of the right hand holding the bow. All the while holding the instrument itself under your chin. It really is all a bit of a nightmare. Particularly when I seem to have remembered only bad habits.

Darragh had found a piece by Mozart that he thought would be suitable for us: one of the church sonatas that Mozart had written as a teenager, and which was scored for two violins, cello and piano. A lovely work – not a particularly famous one, but something quite short, and which he felt was within my reach. I'd be taking the first violin part, which seemed a brave (even foolhardy) decision on Darragh's part, but I felt I wasn't in any position to argue. Over the course of a couple of intensive sessions, he took me through the piece, bar by bar.

Mozart, I knew, was deceptive. Melodies that flowed so effortlessly from his pen can look quite easy, but can be technically tricky to pull off – partly because they need to be absolutely spot on. You don't want to hit a bum note with Mozart. There were some challenging ornaments, and rather more chords than I'd seen since taking my Grade 8 back at school. But it didn't seem too bad. The trouble was – I sounded terrible. Those first few weeks I simply couldn't get a decent noise out of my violin. I had lost the ability to play smoothly and evenly, and to control the sound. My bowing arm was apparently stiff as a board, and there was a tacit decision to not even discuss my vibrato.

A session with an Alexander Technique practitioner (who also happened to be a professional violinist) was a revelation. I'd never before realised how much the way you held your instrument and your body could affect the way your playing sounded. But in the end, the only thing that was going to work was ... practice.

Yes, those dull exercises of scales and arpeggios that every kid tries to avoid when learning an instrument – I had to accept there was no alternative. Even 15 or 20 minutes a day was going to make a huge difference, I was told. And who can't find 20 minutes a day? Well I've spent 40 years finding reasons to avoid 20 minutes of exercise a day, but I knew Darragh was right. Of course a professional player would be practising an awful lot more than that, but we all knew we had to set realistic targets. Gradually, ever so slowly, I started to feel more comfortable with my violin again.

Darragh and Mary were fantastic, and extremely encouraging. Whenever we met they were hugely positive about my progress. What I was secretly hoping to achieve, though, was utterly unrealistic. I thought that, if I tried hard enough, I'd be able to join their trio and play, if not as an equal, at least at a level where I'd be able to forget about the notes and listen to the ensemble – to experience the joy of playing in a group that has a sixth sense about phrasing, tone, and what the music is trying to say.

I was living in cloud cuckoo land. The first rehearsal with the Trio was appalling. Everyone was extremely polite, but the thought that I could play with these guys on anything like the same level was a joke. They'd be discussing nuances of bowing and emphasis, and I'd be desperately praying I'd be able to get my fingers round an awkward bit of double stopping.

But then I remembered why I'd started this project. It wasn't to to amaze and impress, and end up a born-again professional violinist. It was simply to learn to play again, so that I could enjoy making music. I grew up in a musical family, and spent most of my teenage years playing in school and university orchestras, loving it for the social life and the musical camaraderie. That was what I wanted to find again.

As the performance got closer, though, the nerves were growing. Hallelujah then for Tasmin Little who was drafted in to give me a masterclass not just in the piece, but in playing in the particular acoustic of Kings Place. She is the real deal, a bona fide international virtuoso, who plays with enormous charm and expression. But she is also a talented communicator and empathetic teacher.

She immediately identified some easy shortcuts to improve my performance; by this stage I could play the piece, but there were many ways it could be better. She gave me extremely helpful tips on managing the terror, and, most of all, boosted my confidence with her encouragement. After my lesson I realised I wasn't going to embarrass myself or the Trio, and, while a recording contract was unlikely, I might stand a fighting chance of enjoying the experience.

And I did. I'm not sure what the audience thought of the surprise addition to the programme at Kings Place that night, but I loved it. I've now joined a local orchestra, and can aspire to be a reasonably useful player – though I'll never be asked to do any solos. Most satisfyingly, I feel I've got an important bit of myself back.

Katie Derham appears on 'First Love' on SkyArts 1 HD on 25 August at 8pm. Sky.com/arts