Kaikoura kid shares her musical gift

GIFT TO SHARE:  London-based violinist/viola player Elizabeth Turnbull loves taking music to audiences.
GIFT TO SHARE: London-based violinist/viola player Elizabeth Turnbull loves taking music to audiences.

People can pay someone to teach them how to play a musical instrument but those who become musicians are born with a gift.

The comment is from viola player Elizabeth Turnbull, a London-based professor of violin, viola and chamber music who was clearly born with such a gift.

She has performed at some of the greatest music halls in Britain, Europe and the United States and identifies favourite venues as Wigmore Hall in London, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulali in Barcelona, and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.

All are worlds away from where her life began: the Dillondale Farmstead, inland from Kaikoura.

Turnbull's education started at a nine-pupil school, Charwellforks, near Dillondale, and it wasn't until she enrolled at Burnside High School in Christchurch that she had a chance to play music.

At 13 or 14, she was definitely a "late starter", Turnbull says, but once discovered, it soon dominated her life.

Turnbull shares her story over coffee at a Blenheim cafe. For the past five years she has returned to Marlborough during the northern hemisphere winter to spend time with her mother, Iris Allan. This year her stay was extended so she could be here for her mother's 100th birthday.

That is being celebrated today and next week Turnbull will fly away out for another six months in London. She has lived there since 1973 after receiving a Queen Elizabeth II scholarship.

The transition was huge for a 23-year-old, she recalls.

"I couldn't believe how many people there were," she says with a laugh, comparing the mass of commuters swarming out of Liverpool railway station with the huge flocks of sheep she had seen at mustering time in New Zealand on a high country station.

London is a "fabulous, exciting city", though, and she still counts it a privilege to have gone there.

"All of the great musicians in the world go to London. [On] any given night there will be eight to 10 big concerts on. It's another world and to be part of it is really buzzy."

In Christchurch, young Liz had complemented her music lessons at Burnside High School with Saturday morning music classes and worked her way through the grades to become principal viola player for the National Youth Orchestra.

After leaving school an initial career choice to be a nurse was soon abandoned and the teenager followed her true calling and moved to Wellington to start an orchestral training programme.

Soon she was playing for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the following year received the QEII scholarship. One year's study in London turned into five and she looks back on that time as a "period of great enlightenment".

London was the logical place to start a musical career, a choice simplified for Turnbull by having grandparents with British passports.

She became principal viola player for the London Mozart Players, formed a string quartet and started teaching violin and viola.

As a member of the Archaens Quartet since 1990, she has performed the length and breadth of Britain, throughout Europe and has recorded music on several CDs.

For six years until to 2002 she was head of strings at Trinity College of Music in London and it was there she met her husband and fellow teacher, pianist Peter Fowke.

He has come to Blenheim with her, performed at St Andrew's Church last month and ran a keyboard master class there on Saturday.

Now in her mid-60s, Turnbull says the students she teaches these days are adult "late starters" or musical "born-agains" who were introduced to music as children then went off to do other things for a large part of their lives.

Some will rediscover they have a gift for music.

"You can learn to play an instrument but you can't learn to be a musician," Turnbull says. "That part of it I call a ‘gift'."

And gifts, by their nature, are to be shared.

"It's no use sitting in your own little world, having [the music] in your head. Music has to be given to the audience."