Ning-Ning Li is one of the sweetest ladies that we’ve ever had the pleasure to come across and interview.
If you have never heard of her or her band, Threaded, then you certainly will as they are going nowhere but up!
We spoke to this talented violinist and illustrator about how she got her start in the music industry, what she does in her day and tips that she has for those interested in become violinists.
KNEWYU: HOW DID YOU GET INTO MUSIC? DO YOU COME FROM A MUSICAL FAMILY?
NING-NING: I first started playing the violin when I was 6, but I don’t remember how I came to start learning it. My family have always been avid music lovers but not many of them serious musicians themselves. But they have always supported and been enthusiastic about my passion to do it, driving me to orchestra every week for 12 years and taking me to concerts.
My uncle plays jazz trumpet and like me went on to study it at music college. My mother plays the flute and I used to play duets with her when I was young. My brother plays clarinet and my Grandmother is learning the cello. As a family we’d sometimes bash through some chamber music at Christmas which was always a laugh! I think going to see lots of concerts and taking part in them since I was young really shaped my ambition to pursue music.
K: WHY THE VIOLIN?
N: I don’t know what actually made me choose it all those years ago, but I was surrounded by music and listened to lots of classical music when I was young so perhaps that’s why. But I know why I choose the violin! It is versatile, you can do almost anything on it any style and that’s what makes it so fun. I play a lot of folk and world influenced music which in itself is lots of fun but it’s enjoyable to experiment with the sounds and techniques on a violin. Also in orchestra and classical music, the violin parts can be exhilarating. It’s a really satisfying instrument to play and has so much great music written for it!
K: IF YOU DIDN’T CHOOSE MUSIC, WHAT WOULD YOU DO? WHAT ARE YOUR HOBBIES OUTSIDE OF MUSIC?
N: I love to draw. I have drawn ever since I can remember, and it has grown over the years into a skill I can now use professionally as well as for leisure. I am freelancing at the moment, but if I didn’t do music I think I would try to pursue a full time professional career as an illustrator.
I used to dance when I was younger, and I miss that a lot! I’d definitely like to imagine myself as a dancer if I hadn’t followed through with music!
K: GOING ON FROM THE LAST QUESTION, WHAT IS A NORMAL DAY LIKE IN THE LIFE OF NING-NING?
N: I’ve just finished university, so I’m enjoying a little bit of freedom at the moment! I like to plan my days out, and usually they will include as much admin work as I can for the ensembles I’m in, this is mostly social media and promotion. I try to be active as I can as it helps me de-stress and focus, so I like going to the gym, yoga classes, swimming or running. Whatever I can fit in on the day. Nowadays I am busy with frequent gigs, which is lucky and I love doing them, so a lot of days I’ll be off somewhere with my band mates. It can take up days of your time with rehearsals and travel, but that’s the fun of the experience!
K: WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE VIOLINISTS AND WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SONG/CONCERTO TO PLAY?
N: My favourite violinists have to be Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti and Itzhak Perlman. I grew up listening to these violinists the most. They are 3 incredible virtuosoes that completely blow me away everytime I listen to them. I’ve finally got to see them all perform live which has been amazing – they make me laugh, cry, and forget about anything bad and feel at ease. I highly recommend them to anyone who hasn’t listened to them before!
I don’t think I’ve found my favourite piece of classical music to play yet but I loved playing Sarasate – Malaguena a couple of years ago. It’s very romantic, cheeky, and I love the melodies. Would love to one day play Sarasate – Navarrra duo for two violins as well, that’s such a cool piece….. Other than that, I would love to play folk/world influenced tunes!
K: YOU DON’T JUST DO SOLO STUFF, YOU’RE IN A FEW GROUPS TOO. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THEM? HOW DID IT START?
N: In my first of uni, I joined Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble which rehearses every Tuesday evening. I didn’t know what I had got myself into, or that it would change my life! The ensemble tours annually around the country and has around 50 members, so it’s a really exciting project to be a part of.
I am a member of the trio Threaded and we met in the Folk Ensemble in 2013. We decided to get together and jam and we came up with our first tune in the session and thought, ‘we really like this, let’s do it again!’ It’s turned into our main career focus now and we try and gig as much as possible. We released an EP in 2013 and our first album in November 2015. We are no planning festival tours, hopefully a European one too! And our second album……
K: WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR MUSICAL CAREER SO FAR?
N: Touring with the Folk Ensemble and Threaded has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life! Since we started touring round Festivals such as Shambala, Cropredy, Green Man, Towersey, Kendal Calling (this July) and others it has given us all the experience of what it takes to work as a touring band and how to be a professional gigging musician. It is so fun and really rewarding to make music with your friends and to see the audience enjoying themselves, if they like it!
One particular highlight for me was performing to 30,000 people on the stage at Cropredy Festival. It was the most nervous/exciting experience ever. It felt like a dream! You get a real buzz from the audience it’s amazing.
K: WHAT TIPS CAN YOU GIVE TO AN ASPIRING VIOLINIST?
N: There will always be peaks and troughs learning the violin, or any instrument, it’s an emotional rollercoaster! But it’s normal and part of the process. Not every day will be perfect practice and that’s ok, but practice consistently despite this. Working in short bursts and very slowly is really effective in the long run, so patience is key.
Find balance in your practice, do the dirty work like grounding your technique first and keeping the practice of it up, as this will make learning and playing more enjoyable and easier in the future. Also it’s important to sometimes take a break and just relax with the instrument, maybe playing something just for fun or listening to music.
Throw yourself in the deep end! The violin is so versatile, explore and play with other people, whatever instruments. Ensemble playing I think is a vital part of learning the violin, or any instrument, as you have to adapt your skills to play in different groups which improves your listening, your communication skills, it can open your eyes to many new paths and you never know where it will take you!