A Conversation with David Russell

June 21, 2006, 9:43 AM · David Russell is a renowned violinist, pedagogue, and Violinist.com contributor. He is the Assistant Director of String Chamber Music at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

CVS: You've been a longtime and valuable contributor to the discussion boards at Violinist.com, and most of us are familiar with your reputation as one of the faculty members at CIM. But we don't know much about how you got where you are today. Tell us about your early life. Where did you grow up? What got you interested in classical music, and in violin in particular?

DR: I grew up in Pensacola, Florida. My father was a well-known jazz trumpeter there. As a child, I at first wanted to play jazz like my father, but being a discerning musician, he wanted his kids to first study classical music. My sister started violin first and she played me the Ricci recording of Paganini caprices. I had never heard anything like it before. I was hooked.

Photo credit: Amnon Weinstein

CVS: Who were your early teachers?

DR: I'm fortunate in that Pensacola is the home of an incredibly wonderful violin teacher, who was one of Ivan Galamian’s first pupils in the U.S. (In fact, he was then still known as Jean Galamian, having recently taught in Paris). That wonderful teacher, Anna Yianitsas Tringas gave me the basic foundation I needed to excel, and imparted a love of music making that is with me today. I am incredibly grateful to this wonderful woman, who at age 90 is still teaching a full studio in Pensacola.

After four years, she sent me to study at Meadowmount. My life was changed there. I was introduced to Linda and David Cerone, Josef Gingold, and Ivan Galamian. Their impact on my life as a violinist is unparalleled. The things I learned there put my playing together. The playing of the other students also taught me tremendously. Those years were full of unforgettable experiences. Later, I began my teaching career at Meadowmount. I will always be grateful for what I learned there.

CVS: You've taught at ENCORE, Meadowmount, ARIA, and Keshet Eilon in Israel. What do you see as the differences between these programs?

DR: In past years, I taught at Meadowmount. In present summers, I teach at ENCORE, ARIA and Keshet Eilon International Violin Mastercourse (in Israel). These are marvelous programs, in that they are at the core of learning the skills needed to thrive in the classical string world. They have some differences:

Meadowmount enjoys an intimate relationship with nature which is an important (and often overlooked) part of the accelerated learning experience which can happen there. It is a complex relationship, which can all too easily be dismissed as the result of "having nothing else to do but practice." I think there is more to it than that. It is something which must be experienced to fully understand, I think. Also, the history of great string playing in the mid 20th century is centered at Meadowmount. One feels the impact it has had on the musical world when there.

ENCORE is incredible. I have been fortunate to be a faculty member there since 1985 (22 years). Linda and David Cerone have created an environment of excellence in string playing and teaching which is hard to match anywhere! The latter decades of the twentieth century produced several great violinists, many of whom were students at ENCORE. Many of the great concertmasters of the major orchestras were also ENCORE students as were members of preeminent chamber ensembles. I believe the tools for great playing are being passed down to the new generation at ENCORE. I also believe the values and standards necessary to a meaningful career may be honed at ENCORE . The dedication of my colleagues at ENCORE is an inspiration in itself. It is an honor to be their colleague.

Keshet Eilon is a different type of experience from the other programs. It is held on a beautiful Kibbutz in the Galilee region of Israel. The format is public violin master classes with professors from around the world. Private lessons also occur several times weekly. The playing level is extremely high, and the program is quite innovative.

One of the interesting qualities of Keshet Eilon is the international flavor. The master classes are interpreted into Russian, Hebrew or English for the various audience members who speak those languages. Also, Shlomo Mintz has an incredible idea in that he teaches his master classes from the conductor’s podium. That is to say, the student is the soloist with the orchestra he is conducting during the class. He imparts very practical and helpful insights to the soloist (having himself frequently been in that position) from the perspectives of both conductor and soloist. He also engages the orchestra musicians and audience in order to maximize the experience. I have rarely seen classes as useful as these.

An interesting part of the educational/recreational activities at Keshet Eilon is a specially designed archery program which seeks to explore how learning archery can strengthen our violinistic skills both physically and mentally/psychologically. (I told you it was innovative.) Violin maker Amnon Weinstein (who took this photo of me) is the mastermind behind this idea.

ARIA is a very fine program which is different from the others because the students study with a different teacher each week. During each week, however, they will have several lessons with a particular teacher before they move on to another. It helps develop flexibility in the students, as well as help them learn to choose the approach which fits them best. Mihai Tetel, the Romanian 'cellist is the Founder/Director of ARIA. He is an inspiration and an excellent leader to his exceptional faculty. His humor is legendary!

CVS: When did you found the Pensacola Chamber Music Festival? Are you still involved with it today?

DR: I founded the Pensacola Chamber Music Festival in 1985 and directed it for four years. What a pleasure it was to bring a great Chamber Music Festival back to my hometown. It gave me special pride. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and the performers were my friends, many of whom were graduating Curtis at the time. Some of them are very well-known performers and conductors today. I like to look back on that festival. It was a thing of beauty.

CVS: Philadelphia? That's my hometown! Although, 1985 is a little before my time (I was born in '92). What were you doing in Philly?

DR: I was continuing private studies with David Cerone after my graduation from CIM. I played in Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia [now the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra] and taught at the New School of Music before it merged with Temple University's Esther Boyer School.

CVS: Wow, I'm sorry I missed you. Although it's probably safe to say that there are quite a few violinists in Ohio who are glad you decided to move back. I understand you've also done some festival-organizing in Cleveland.

DR: Yes, I did develop the CIM Chamber Music, which was a really fun project. We used the Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets, Cleveland Orchestra members and CIM Faculty as coaches. There was some stellar performing! That festival has now passed into the incredibly capable hands of my friend Peter Salaff, former member of the Cleveland Quartet and head of Chamber Music at CIM.

CVS: Tell us a little about your current projects.

DR: In addition to the summer teaching and travel for master classes, I am a juror at the Sion-Valais International Violin Competition in the Alps of Switzerland. After a day of hearing and judging great violinists, I plan to explore the wine, cheese and chocolate famous in the region. Hopefully, I can also find time to climb one of the peaks so I will not come back to the US much heavier than I left it!

I am also involved in some master classes in East Asia later this year. It is part of an exciting ongoing project of cultural and musical development in that area. I am also helping to develop some touring master classes on the Galamian Bow Arm which may come to a city near you in the near future!

CVS: Did you always want to be a pedagogue?

DR: At first, I had the blinders on in regard to my career. I wanted to be a soloist. End of story. As a young person, my ignorance of the difficulties of that life and the continuous standard one must hold oneself to as a performer, allowed me to pursue this goal with abandon! Then, a different idea struck me one evening in the parking lot of the Main House at Meadowmount. (I will never forget it, because it was a moment of great clarity for me.)

At that particular moment in time, Josef Gingold was coaching a Dvorak Quintet in the Library. Warm light (as well as the wonderful sounds of great string playing) was coming from the library window. Mr.Galamian was still teaching in his studio a few feet away, and the sounds emanating from the studio were amazing. Students from all over the world who had come to study with these great teachers were hurrying here and there around the campus, and I realized what a marvelous thing these men were doing. They were insuring the future of this great art through the lives of all the students who came to seek their wisdom and teaching. I became aware of the profoundly positive impact they were having on our world. I decided then and there that I wanted to have that same impact. I was 15 years old at the time. I began teaching two years later. I am still teaching some 30 years later.

CVS: You're one of the distinguished teachers at CIM, one of the most respected conservatories in the world. What is it like to mentor developing talents? Did the student-teacher relationship there make you want to become a mentor yourself?

DR: I have been on the violin faculty at CIM since 1985. It is an amazing place and has developed into a top-tier conservatory. The violin playing there is truly astonishing in terms of quality. The joint violin classes we hold monthly showcase the violinistic talents of the school, and they are most impressive.

Teaching such talents is an awesome responsibility. It comes with as many (or more) challenges as teaching other levels of playing. As a guiding principal, I try to strike a balance between teaching the student what I think they need to know, and knowing when to step out of their way. It is not my goal to create "mini-me's" to send out into the concert world. It is my goal to help the individual talent develop and grow naturally into its utmost potential. I try to introduce or reinforce (depending on the student's level) the knowledge of how to attain the absolute values (such as a very exacting sense of intonation, beautiful sound and articulation, and precise rhythm and coordination). I can then serve as a guide in matters of repertoire selection, musical interpretation and taste, while allowing the student to develop their own personality as an artist.

I have enjoyed working with so many students at CIM over the years! Truly, all of them are important to me and hold special memories for me. Of my former students, I think of Eliesha Nelson, who is now a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. I remember Hayley Wolfe, who was the youngest winner of the CIM Concerto Competition at the time she won it. Her Tchaikovsky Concerto performance will remain in my memory for years to come. Presently, I think of Ji-Won Song, who is growing into such an artist. I am humbled by the response she received at Kennedy Center last year when she performed Sarasate Carmen Fantasy at age 12! But I must say, in all sincerity, I am equally gratified when any of my students show significant growth and maturity in their playing from week to week. That is what makes my efforts as a teacher worthwhile. It may sound hokey, but it's the truth.


June 21, 2006 at 08:07 PM · aww thats so cool ur soo lucky keep up the gd work

June 21, 2006 at 10:03 PM · Great interview, Caeli!

June 21, 2006 at 10:44 PM · Great choice of who to interview! ;-)

June 22, 2006 at 06:40 AM · That's two sexy bald men you know now, ladies.

June 22, 2006 at 11:00 AM · Who's the other?

June 22, 2006 at 07:17 PM · Wow! This is so neat. I grew up in Mobile, AL--I wish I knew of this Ms. Tringas in Pensacola who sounds so wonderful! How did I miss that boat? Great story. :)

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