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Life in the LSO: First Violin Maxine Kwok-Adams on Her Orchestral Career

With her dynamic style and vibrant Twitter feed Maxine Kwok-Adams defies expectations of what an orchestral musician should be. Here she discusses her dream job with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO).

Published: 28 November 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

“I was not confident when I was young.” You might be surprised to hear this statement from Maxine Kwok-Adams, the blue-haired, tap-dancing, outgoing London Symphony Orchestra first violinist with one of the most fun Twitter feeds in classical music and more than 5,000 followers. She’s surprised herself: “I was quite shy, which seems strange when people see me now. This job and music mean so much to me and I want to express that.”

Kwok-Adams is blessed with a natural generosity and warmth of character. Her online presence is full of this passion, with photos from rehearsals, backstage and touring life. She joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and explains, “I started to research what it meant and what people do on it and it went from there. It all started in a personal way. Now I focus more on what we’re doing in a rehearsal. People seem to enjoy being a fly on the wall for that. I post a picture of a rehearsal and they say things like, ‘it’s so interesting to see classical musicians in jeans and casual clothes’.”

Driven to succeed with symphonic repertoire

The lighthearted view of orchestral life Kwok-Adams presents doesn’t detract from the hard work involved in getting into one of the world’s leading orchestras – and staying there. As a child, growing up in Bromley, she already had her sights set: “I’d wanted to be in a symphony orchestra since I was in the National Children’s Orchestra and then the National Youth Orchestra. I would always choose to put on symphonic repertoire rather than violin repertoire. I was driven and knew what I wanted.”

Joining the London Symphony Orchestra

As a student at the Royal Academy of Music, she took part in the LSO’s String Experience training scheme, and after graduating she spent a couple of years freelancing in London orchestras until winning the LSO appointment. The London Symphony Orchestra had always been a dream job for her: “My dad was a huge fan and was always going on about the LSO soundtrack, so the orchestra was always in the back of my mind.” Unsurprisingly, she says her career highlights include working on new //Star Wars// music with John Williams (as she explains in her MU Musician Behind the Moment video). “I thought he looked very forbidding, but he was absolutely charming.”

She joined the Musicians’ Union as soon as she graduated and, as a member since then, is a strong advocate of the organisation. “I’m very lucky – I’ve never had any issues but as an orchestral musician you know that for any problems or injuries, the MU is there to give you a helping hand or advice. It’s one of those silent things in the background that you know will catch you if you fall. Nobody wants to feel they’re being taken advantage of, and that’s what the Union is for.”

The value of the LSO’s self-governing status

Kwok-Adams also values the orchestra’s self-governing status: “We all own shares in the orchestra and are led from within rather than by an outside management. We don’t have some faceless board that tells us what to do.” Indeed, she must be one of the only orchestral players in the world with blue and purple hair, which might push buttons with some orchestral boards. She says: “People ask how I am allowed to be in an orchestra with hair like this. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be – it’s my hair. We’re supposed to look similar on stage, but we don’t anyway. We’re all different – blonde hair, black hair, brown hair. We’re in a creative profession and I won’t hide away my own creativity.”

This is the paradox of being in an orchestra, as she explains. “The idea is that 80 people are like one body. As a young musician you grow up thinking that you’re special –  you come from a small hometown, you win local competitions, you’re creative, but people think if you’re in an orchestra you’ve got to toe the line, that the baton is like a whip and that you must quash your own musicality. I like to show that while we work under this umbrella, we’re all individuals. An orchestra can include diverse personalities.”

Driven to dance in orchestral downtime

Kwok-Adams has also found another way to express herself. Realising she needed to do some exercise, but hating gyms and the running that many of her LSO colleagues do, she took to tap dance. “I always wanted to do it as a kid, before I got into the violin. I love it. It’s such a good workout – for the brain and physically. My colleagues and friends laugh about it and ask when they can see it, but it’s just for me.”

There is an added advantage for musicians. “You pick it up fast, because it’s all about the rhythms. When you’re a musician you’re used to repetition as that’s how you learn.” Her love of tap dance and the old Fred Astaire movies she used to watch as a child might also explain her fondness for glamour. She admits, “I like anything shiny, and bright colours. As a child, watching Hollywood films with glamorous ladies tap dancing downstairs in sequins and feathers must have had some kind of influence. My only chance to dress up in a glamorous fashion is on stage.”

The importance of practice

Kwok-Adams finds ways to keep her playing in shape, too – something that isn’t always easy with a full-time role and a busy touring schedule, but remains vital for professionals. As she says, “It’s not like you get the job and then you sit and do it and it’s fine until the moment you retire. You have to retain an extremely high level of skill, because you’re being assessed on it every day, in a pressured situation on stage or in the recording studio.”

How does she cope with this level of pressure? “It is difficult because the last thing you want to do when you’ve had a full day or you’ve been recording is to get your instrument out at home, but it is important. However much you’re working the same muscles, playing the violin in an orchestra is not the same as listening to yourself clearly and working on intonation and sound. I try to look ahead to see what’s coming up. I might nip into work a little early or practise in the break. I’m quite lucky, though: the most I ever stopped playing my instrument was going on a holiday for about two and a half weeks and when I came back it was okay. Some people don’t play for a few days and, when they come back to it, they feel like their hands have turned into bananas and jelly.”

Diversity in the orchestra across the decades

Kwok-Adams is coming up for 20 years in the orchestra, and she says that the changes over that time are noticeable. “When I first joined there were only a few women or young people – just a handful of us in our 20s. Now it’s much more diverse. It’s an ever-evolving organism – old people retire, young people come in. People come and go all the time with the circle of life of an orchestra. It has changed in some ways, but the essence of the orchestra remains the same.”

The music world has also changed, with the cult of the conductor on the wane, though not entirely banished. She says, “The great conductors of the past had an otherworldly aura about them. It was like you had a god on the podium, who was untouchable and whom you would only ever call Maestro. That seems to have changed. With young people, it’s more of a collaboration.”

Why making music still inspires Maxine

The musical benefits to this are clear: “The orchestra works better if we’re comfortable and respect whoever’s on the podium. It’s not easy if someone is aggressive or negative. It doesn’t make for good music making if you’re scared because you know the conductor will tell you off.”

What hasn’t changed is her excitement about the job. “I find the idea of making music, creating something with so many people, very special. It’s never lonely – there are always people around and that is a huge aspect for me. Each week can be so different, playing with Bernard Haitink and then recording with Jamie Cullum or Emily SandĂ© or putting a soundtrack on to a film. That’s what keeps the job extremely interesting.”

This love of her work shines through in both her performance and her online persona. She says the best way for a musician to use Twitter is to be “honest” and true to themselves. “People can see if you Tweet things that are you pretending to have a life. It doesn’t ring true.” It’s very clear that Maxine is not pretending.

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