Muse: Playing Paganini

Portland Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera violinist Sarah Atwood began a YouTube musical project during the pandemic lockdown

Violinist Sarah Atwood had a feeling big changes were in store for her. It was spring 2020, and concert halls around the United States were shuttering. She realized she had to find a way to get creative at home.

“I had this premonition that my profession was not going to be the same. To keep that panic at bay, I tried to stay busy and keep practicing, which was all I could do to support my career as everything shut down,” says Atwood (BUTI’08, CFA’14), the principal second violinist for the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera. And so the Pandemic Paganini Project was born. Atwood set up a GoPro camera and began filming herself playing through early 19th-century Italian musician Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, uploading the videos to YouTube.

Paganini’s Caprices—each a short burst of technically complex music—presented a challenge for Atwood, testing how far she could push her skill. “They encompass basically every aspect of violin playing you could imagine. You can play these your whole life and still discover new things in them, no matter what skill level you’re playing at,” says Atwood, also a first violinist for the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra.

Atwood started playing the violin at four years old. “I grew up with two science-minded parents on a research station where they were working, and one of the research assistants played violin just for fun. When I was two, I heard her practicing in the garden, and somehow knew that that was what I wanted to do in my life,” she says.

Watch: Sarah Atwood performs Caprice #24 in her Pandemic Paganini Project series. Video courtesy of Sarah Atwood


Atwood’s peers have given her a lot of encouragement and positive feedback on the Paganini Project. “I think fellow musicians understood that this was the way that I was handling getting through a really tough period in my life. Because my career is as an orchestral musician, even in the principal seats that I hold, I’m not often heard playing solo. With these clips on YouTube, people finally could hear what I sounded like without a section behind me.”

Now, Atwood is looking forward to easing back into live music performances, but that doesn’t mean the end of her at-home projects. Her most recent YouTube series is an exploration of the progression of old to new in Italian solo violin music as she plays 18th-century violinist Pietro Locatelli’s 25 Caprices, which may have influenced Paganini’s work, and modern-day composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s 6 Capricci. “I would never have imagined doing anything like this if the pandemic hadn’t stopped me in my performing tracks. Even as I’m starting to gradually go back to work, I still plan on carving out practice time to keep this project alive.”