Interview with
Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir

Photo by Emil Monty Freddie

“If you want to succeed at playing your instrument, you must do the work right now. You can do anything else you want, later”. This is a message that many classical musicians might have heard at some point in their adolescence. Being a professional at playing an instrument is one of those rare fields where some serious decisions and commitments need to be made at a young age, while body and mind are still susceptible to the heavy training. But what if life brings with it an urge to grow beyond that instrument and fulfil a life as a classical musician doing something slightly different? 

Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir studied viola performance at a professional level, then musicology and at last, sound engineering. Her career as a specialised, classical music producer is an interesting example of the fact that it is possible to make space for growth through alternative paths from the initial one, and without passing up a devoted, fulfilling career in your field.

How did you first get involved in music?

I actually can’t remember not being involved in music. I was a very sensitive and nervous child, so my parents sent me to music school when I was five, because music seemed to have a calming effect on me. So I learned to play the recorder at five years, switched to the violin at seven, and taught myself to play the piano when I was around ten. Then at fifteen I heard the Kronos Quartet and got completely obsessed with the viola, and since then there is no turning back.

There has also been a lot of singing in my life. I remember my mum singing to me all the time when I was a child, and I have literally always sung in some choir or other. The latest is Staka; an Icelandic chamber choir based in Copenhagen. My first major musical experience also involved a choir. I was six years old and overheard a choir practice at my school where some older girls were singing Morning has Broken in three voices. I was completely awestruck and I will probably never forget it. They were like angels to me.

What is your educational background?

I studied viola at The Icelandic Academy of the Arts and at Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Then I went to Copenhagen and studied musicology at the University of Copenhagen, and last but not least I studied to become a Tonmeister at The Royal Danish Academy of Music where I will be graduating next summer (2019) with a masters degree.

Did you ever anticipate that you would end up in sound engineering? How did that interest come about?

No I don’t think I ever really anticipated it, the realisation that this might be something for me kind of came gradually to my mind. Sound has always fascinated me, and I remember when I was studying the viola, the quality of the sound that I produced was always the most important thing for me.

I had also long been intrigued by the role of the conductor, and had this dream of conducting an orchestra at some point in my life. Producing music is in many ways similar to conducting – you get to work with all the instruments of the orchestra, and it’s all about recognising potential in the musicians and trying your best to make them shine.

When I was studying musicology, I really missed the “hands on” work with the music, so when I heard about the Tonmeister degree at the music academy (The Royal Danish Academy of Music), it just made so much sense for me to apply. This was where I could use all my different musical experiences and combine them into one job.

Do you ever reflect back on your time as a violist? Was it a difficult decision to no longer pursue the viola or was it more like a natural process to you?

I quit the viola ten years ago, after four years of conservatory studies. It was an immensely difficult decision, and it actually took me years to “recover”. At the time I thought I would never touch the viola again, but then a few months ago I suddenly got the urge to play, and now I’m playing in this amateur symphony orchestra, and I’m loving it. I was definitely not cut out to be a professional violist. My nerves, at least, did not handle the pressure and the perfectionism of the classical tradition. But I am a musician, and I need to work with music, so I am incredibly grateful that I found classical music production and that it can be the outlet for my musical energies and needs.

Recording music is, or, at least it has been, a very male-dominated field of work. Have you experienced prejudice for being a woman in this profession?

Yes, I experience this kind of prejudice very often. As a woman, I feel that I have to prove that I know what I am doing before people really believe in me. This is the opposite for men, as they usually don’t have to prove anything beforehand, the reason probably being that they fit into the box, and we don’t.

Another problem is that a lot of women in the industry are being sexually objectified and treated as sex objects and not as professionals. I know for example a vocal producer in New York City that has to wear a false wedding ring every day in order to not to be hit on by male colleges or musicians. This is definitely a problem, and it can be extremely tiresome and difficult when you are just trying to do your job. I have for example had a pianist in the studio who insisted on calling me “wife” for an entire recording session.

Anyway, I do believe that things are going in the right direction. At the moment, women are only around 5% in the sound industry, but this is slowly changing. There are some amazing women sound engineers and producers in all genres of music, but we need to see more of them in order to show people that sound and music production is not only for guys.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about my work. I love the process of making something tangible out of a fleeting moment. To capture something special; a beautiful phrase, a feeling, an atmosphere.

I also love the focus and intensity of recording sessions, sitting there listening to take after take after take. When you are producing music, there is no room for anything else, you have to direct all your focus onto the musicians, you have to almost become them. Feel when they are tired, feel when they are stressed out, feel when there is potential for a better take, or when it’s time to stop. Afterwards you go home completely drained, but you know that you have something precious on your hard drive, and then in the editing and mixing process you bring the music back to life. Recording classical music is a really difficult job, but it’s also completely addictive.

Would you like to share any advice for classical musicians when it comes to the recording studio?

The most important thing is to recognise the difference between performing in a recording session, and performing for a live audience. Firstly, the microphones are usually much closer than any audience member would ever be at a concert – so it’s really important to imagine that you are performing for somebody that is very close to you. Don’t think about directing your sound to the other end of the hall (as you probably would do in a concert situation), as this will result in a sound that is too direct and harsh for the microphones. For recording, it’s all about intimacy – you really have to be present in another way than at concerts, more present actually, to compensate for the fact that people can’t see you. Music has such emotional power, so as a recording musician you have to give all you’ve got. Anything less would be a waste.

Music does something to people, so as a recording engineer and producer, it’s always my goal to capture the sound and the musical intention in a way that conveys this emotional power as clearly and directly as possible.