Lowdown
What: Michael Hill International Violin Competition
Where & when: Quarter-final, Queenstown, May 31-June 3; Semifinal and final, Auckland Town Hall, June 5-8

Hilary Hahn is one of the world's best violinists but who knew how adept she would be with a hula hoop?

If you did know, you're probably one of more than 743,000 people who've watched a YouTube clip of Hahn performing Paganini's 24th Caprice while simultaneously swirling a hoop. Also playing and hula-ing are Brett Yang and Eddie Chen, whose comedic musical video posts as TwoSet Violin have racked up more than 300 million views on social media.

Hahn is by far the better musician but Yang and Chen, through the power of social media, are in many ways a bigger deal.

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"They're huge," says Ashley Park, a Juilliard music student in New Zealand as a quarterfinalist at the Michael Hill International Violin Competition. "TwoSet have made a huge name for themselves using social media. They wouldn't exist without it, and they've done phenomenally… All my music-playing friends know them."

Like most people in the entertainment industry, classical musicians are turning to social media to promote their careers. German violinist Matthias Well, another Michael Hill quarterfinalist, is happy with the development.

NZ for the Michael Hill International Violin Competition. Photo/Dominik Odenkirchen
NZ for the Michael Hill International Violin Competition. Photo/Dominik Odenkirchen

"Instagram is an international platform; I chat with musicians from all over the world to exchange repertoire and even organise concerts," Well says.

He posts photos and videos, many of them with his sister, who is a professional cellist. As well as promoting their own work, Well hopes to shine a light on others, particularly young composers.

"When we play a concert we post it on Instagram so composers get attention from it," he says, with a breezy, 21st century disregard for copyright. "People have asked what the piece is and who wrote it, so it's really nice for young composers."

Mairéad Hickey is further along in her career than Park and Well. She has a European agent and is the co-founder and artistic director of the Ortús Chamber Music Festival. Hickey's a reluctant social media user; she has so far posted only still photos on her Instagram page and uses Facebook to promote her festival.

"I really have to force myself," she says. "I don't really like self-promotion; it's not one of my fortés. I do a little because people tell me I should but it doesn't come naturally."

Her posts feature a mix of professional and amateur still photos, mostly of herself in performance.

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"At the beginning I posted things that were kind of related, like landscapes from where I was on tour, but people don't really seem to care about beautiful places, they only seem to want pictures of my violin."

As well as being gifted musicians, Well, Park and Hickey are all attractive young people who, for professional purposes, have online photos of themselves looking young and attractive, and Well admits he has had one uncomfortable online interaction with a fan ("A woman wrote to me and it got a bit strange").

While the toxic nature of internet trolling means Park and Hickey are significantly more likely to draw attention from people who have nothing better to do than provide unwanted comments about a woman's physical appearance, both have so far escaped unscathed.

When a competition violinist Ashley Park played in was livestreamed, she received unneeded advice.
When a competition violinist Ashley Park played in was livestreamed, she received unneeded advice.

Although neither has experienced overt sexism online – "I've experienced a lot of it in everyday life," notes Hickey – Park has not been immune to criticism. A recent competition in which she participated was streamed live on Facebook and saw her receive some unneeded advice.

"I looked [at Facebook] after I played and it had almost 100 comments from strangers, and for the first time in my life I had some very critical comments. I wasn't satisfied with my performance so I was already in a negative place, so my reaction was, 'Okay, I didn't play that great but who are you? Who is this stranger?'"

To a certain extent, of course, everyone online is a stranger. All three violinists acknowledge that social media is a curated version of life. Well's okay with that.

"You try to get the best image of yourself – who wouldn't?" he says. "But at the same time you can show a human side of the classical world. Many people from the outside think classical music is really serious but this shows it can be fun and creative."

Hickey has a different view.

"Social media is very fake and that's one of the things I don't like about it; what you see is not people's real lives."

Do the glamorous publicity photos on Instagram feel like Mairéad Hickey, then, or do they feel like someone else?

"It feels like me with some make-up on and my hair done nicely," she laughs. "They're not Photoshopped or airbrushed, they're just flattering pictures. It's not me when I wake up in the morning."