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Back To Bach: Hilary Hahn Rekindles An Old Love

"Every time I learn something new about the music, I then bring [that] into the next performance," Hilary Hahn says.
Dana van Leeuwen
Courtesy of the artist
"Every time I learn something new about the music, I then bring [that] into the next performance," Hilary Hahn says.

Over two decades ago in 1997, when violinist Hilary Hahn was 17, she made a celebrated recording debut, Hilary Hahn Plays Bach. That year, Hahn told NPR about her enthusiasm for Bach's music.

"There's nothing I really wanted to record more than Bach," Hahn said. "I can work on it for a long time and keep discovering more things that surprise me every time."

That album, of two partitas and one sonata by Bach for solo violin, effectively launched Hahn's career. She's since won three Grammys, routinely performs with the world's finest orchestras, plays with pop and electronic musicians and has appeared on TV.

But there has been some unfinished business. Hahn says audiences have been hounding her to record the rest of the set of Bach's sonatas and partitas. Now, she's done just that on her latest release, Hilary Hahn plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Partita No. 1.

Hahn returned to Weekend Edition to speak with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about her new album, returning to her first musical love and learning to appreciate the tough days. Listen to the conversation at the audio link and read interview highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On what draws her back to the music of Bach

There's something about this music that seems to change the mood of a room, and everywhere that I play it, it works. And I've played it for parents with babies, I've played it in concert halls around the world, I've played it for knitting circles while they were sitting there knitting, I've played it at weddings, and memorial services. Every time I learn something new about the music, I then bring [that] into the next performance.

On collecting fan art

Kids would come up to me after concerts and give me drawings they'd made of violins, or landscapes with a violin floating in it, or some sketch of the concert, or a portrait of me. What I find really interesting is, whenever you see the person who gives you the portrait of yourself, the portrait seems to be a combination of their face and your face. So, whatever variety you see in the portraits that are on my website, or the things that have been made of me, you can just imagine what that person looks like. So in that sense, I feel like they're giving me a part of themselves.

On constantly learning and her Instagram hashtag #100DaysOfPractice

I didn't really start it with a purpose, for making a point or to demonstrate anything in particular. I would practice and I would just run the video ... I just kept doing it, kind of for myself, but then I started getting feedback from people that they felt like it brought practice into a communal space.

When I was in conservatory, people practiced in the next room, but even then you're not supposed to watch. You're not really supposed to look in the window. You're not supposed to stop and listen, and spy on people practicing. It's supposed to be a private thing. But it's when you come face-to-face with yourself, and you look for your flaws and you try to fix them yourself, it's a really intimidating process. It can be very discouraging so I do think it's important that people feel like there is a community of practicers out there. We're all going through the same process.

I've learned that just because you're having a tough day doesn't mean you're not making progress. The tough days are actually when you're making the most progress because you're trying the most things, you're pushing against that wall that you haven't broken through before and eventually you will break through because you're pushing against it.

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Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.