THERE was hardly a dry eye in the house. On the stage, a curly-haired five-year-old dressed as an angel was a model of concentration as she picked out ‘Away In A Manger’ on a tiny violin.
It was the Wellington School nursery nativity play and Nicola Benedetti was giving her first star performance.
Her violin teacher, Brenda Smith, was among those wiping away stray tears. "That nursery nativity play is one of my strongest memories of her and she played the song so movingly," Smith said. "Even at that age she was doing so well. It’s difficult to know when they are so young whether they are going to be really good but even then she had a lot about her."
Smith is the Ayrshire music teacher who is now credited with steering Benedetti on the route to fame and fortune. Earlier this month the 17-year-old violin prodigy from West Kilbride, who came to national prominence after winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition last year, signed a 1m record deal with a major recording company.
But in her first full interview, Smith tells how she helped nurture Benedetti through the five years in which her prodigious talent blossomed by using the Suzuki method of music teaching. She recalls how her young pupil outshone all her contemporaries with her astonishing work rate and left musicians twice her age trailing in competitions.
Smith also recounts how she felt Benedetti was ready for the highly-prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music when she excelled in her Grade 8 examination - the top grade - at the age of just nine. "The examiner gave her full marks for one of the pieces, which is just amazing. It might happen with a much older child but I have never known it with anyone so young," Smith said.
Smith was a talented violinist herself and joined what is now the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as a professional musician. In 1974, she decided to return to her native Ayrshire and a job with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
A decade later, she decided to go into teaching the Suzuki method and gained a place on the staff at the private Wellington School in Ayr.
One eight-year-old pupil there was Stephanie Benedetti, and because under the Suzuki method parents have to be involved as well, her younger sister, four-year-old Nicola, had to go to lessons too.
Nicola Benedetti has recalled how she cried all the way through her first lesson. Smith agrees. "She was very tentative and almost tearful," she said. "But she came back and really took to it. After that she progressed very quickly. She had a very good ear and she used to bounce into the house for her lesson full of what she had been practising at the weekend. Her enthusiasm was tremendous."
By the age of seven, Benedetti was beginning to master the techniques that would give full flow to her talent. "She learned to put a lot more expression in her playing and that’s when she took a great leap forward," Smith explained.
"But what was impressive was the attitude of her parents. Although they were helping her as much as they could there was no talk of her being a soloist or of planning for the big time. They were just taking it step by step. I think that coming from that kind of secure background is what has made her so self-assured now."
Benedetti was determined to master the technical skills required of first-class musicians, spending many hours each day practising her technique. It is this, Smith believes, which singled her out. "People say it is 90% technique and 10% talent. Even with the talent, which Nicola had in abundance, you won’t get there without working very, very hard. The thing about her, though, was that she seemed to enjoy it."
Another remarkable aspect of Benedetti’s progress at this point was that neither of her parents, Francesca or Giovanni, a businessman with his own companies, had a musical background. "Normally someone of this talent has someone in their background who is musical but that wasn’t the case with Nicola," Smith said. "People think she was born into the violin but that just isn’t true."
At the age of eight she took part in the Ayrshire Music Festival and was pitted against other girls in their late teens in open competition.
She was helped, Smith is convinced, by her Suzuki training, which teaches stage presence as well as technical mastery. "It means that when you go on stage you aren’t shellshocked. You are taught to perform from a very early age and Nicola always had the very natural commanding presence that she has today. As well as natural talent she has an ability to communicate with her audience as ‘Away In A Manger’ showed."
At the festival, Smith said, Benedetti excelled. "She gave a marvellously professional performance and the adjudicators were bowled over."
For Smith, lessons had become a joy. "It was lovely helping her to discover new things. Her eyes would light up and one-and-a-half hour lessons would go in a flash."
After her barnstorming performance in the normally terrifying environment of a Grade 8 exam, the moment came when both parents and teacher realised that Benedetti’s talent needed a bigger arena to truly flourish. A video was made and dispatched to the Menuhin School and an audition soon followed. At the age of 10, she left West Kilbride for a new life in London away from her family.
"Menuhin believed that she should be in a music school environment and her mother said that she should try it. If she didn’t like it then she could always come back. I felt it was the right thing for her to do at that time. I missed her, of course, but she needed to be getting teaching at a higher level. It was fantastic that she had a lesson from Menuhin himself."
Benedetti stayed at the Menuhin School for five years before leaving to become a professional musician. Since then she has performed as a soloist with some of the country’s leading orchestras, a concert at Glastonbury in front of 10,000 people and numerous TV appearances both in the UK and abroad. That she signed up with classical label Deutsche Grammophon is some indication of her intent as a serious musician.
Smith last spoke to Benedetti shortly after she had won the keenly contested Young Musician of the Year title. "She was very, very tired but she found the time to call me. She was the same lovely, intelligent girl who was never boastful no matter how well she did."
Benedetti, speaking from her home in the London area, agreed it was Smith who instilled her love of the violin.
"She was my first teacher and was always very inspiring," the teenager said. "Because I was with her for a long time she was very influential. It was her who got me interested very quickly and the best thing about her was her enthusiasm for everything. Best of all, she made it fun."
FACING THE MUSIC
SUZUKI Music is a non-profit organisation that aims to develop character and sensitivity through learning musical skills.
The organisation was set up by Dr Shinichi Suzuki, a self-taught musician whose father owned a violin factory in Nagoya, Japan, before the Second World War. His philosophy was that children could learn music in the same way they learned language - by listening, imitating and repeating.
His method involves starting children at a very young age when they are most receptive to learning and surrounding them with music in the home. A key part of his philosophy is that all children have the talent to learn if they are taught well by loving parents and teachers.
In the beginning, the parent is given the first lessons on the instrument, while the child watches. In this way, the child's interest is aroused by its natural desire to copy the parent. This also gives the parent an understanding of the technical difficulties that playing a musical instrument involves and so more ability to help the child practise at home. Learning music by ear is preferred to learning by reading music. Although most commonly taught to violin players, the method can also be used with instruments such as viola, cello, flute, bass and guitar.
In the 1950s and 1960s, teaching children from the age of around four was unusual. If children did play an instrument, they started learning when they were around 11.
For many years, Japanese children sent graduation tapes to Suzuki so he could hear their playing. He would return them with the message that he wanted them to "develop beautiful hearts. You are going to play the music of great composers, and you must try to catch their hearts in the music".
As Suzuki’s methods attracted its adherents, teachers from many countries went to Japan to learn his techniques.
There are now more than 8,000 Suzuki teachers worldwide and more than 250,000 children around the world who have learned to play instruments through the Suzuki Method.
Suzuki died in 1998 aged 99.