October 7, 2008 at 10:43 PMI think all conservatories and music programs ought to do what Midori Goto did week before last at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.
She invited young students -- not just high school seniors -- to come observe the string teaching at the University, to get a taste of a day in the life of a USC student and even to take 20-minute mini-lessons with faculty members. The two-day event, called Sempre Strings, began with a Sunday evening concert with faculty and students, followed by a reception and then by a jam session, in which students could read through pieces like the Mendelssohn Octet with faculty like Midori. At one point, the jam session was spread out over six rooms, and according to USC student Daphne Wang, the playing would have gone all night long if they hadn't had to break it up!
The next day, students could observe various faculty members and take mini-lessons. About 40 students attended, and the youngest was 12 years old. Midori employed a handful of USC strings students to run the event, giving these students some experience in an area Midori holds dear: community engagement and outreach. Those students did publicity for the event, made schedules for people, handed out maps, greeted students, answered questions and generally made people feel at home.
Also invited were local teachers, and so as a teacher, I had the chance to watch a few faculty members at USC -- namely, Midori and Alice Schoenfeld.
First, I slipped into Midori's studio, where USC student Korbi Altenberger, originally of Germany, started by playing the entire first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, without interruption, as Midori sat in her well-worn and flowery desk chair, writing in the music. Ten other people -- students, parents, teachers and supporters -- also observed.
He played very well -- the kind of performance I might have trouble finding much fault with. What would she say? sensitive playing, lots of energy, well-calibrated trills. When he finished, Midori offered, "It's better. What do you think?"
She turned his attention to the score, and talked about what the violas were doing in an espressivo passage, talked about where phrases peak and ebb. She allowed for his decisions on certain bowings and fingerings, though occasionally tested them, "Are you sure you want to do that in one bow?"
To be honest, much of what they were doing remained in their own circle of communication, the kind of high pickiness that comes from a teacher not just holding up a mirror, but holding up one of those magnified mirrors that blows everything up 40 percent and takes account of every pore. When one knows a piece well, this kind of detail work with a mentor sometimes changes the mental picture for the musician more than it changes the physical manifestation for the listener. It is very nuanced work, but the music communicates something subtly different in the end.
Still, Midori had a few lines that we can pin to our practice studio walls:
"Can you focus more on what you want to do? You are so focused on what you are doing,"
"Focus on the melody, not your fingers."
"Don't make a big deal when it's not a big deal,'
"You are singing it a lot, which is good, but it doesn't have the words."
Some teaching is the same with every age and level: when she needed to help him stay on the beat, out came a plastic koala bear castanet: click, click, click...:)
Better than banging the stand with a pencil!
In the afternoon I was delighted to peek in on a few lessons taught by Alice Schoenfeld, who has taught so many of my Southern California colleagues, not to mention a number of soloists such as Anne Akiko Meyers. She wore a red polka-dotted dress, a white flowered scarf, pearl earrings, and she greeted students and observers alike in the most welcoming way, in her German-accented English. Her sister, the late cellist and USC cello professor Eleanore Schoenfeld, was definitely a presence in the studio, with pictures and tour posters on the wall. I don't know who put up this sign, but I grinned when I saw it: "Practice makes perfect, so be careful what you practice."
What a nice mix of technique, musical advice and metaphor she gave her students.
The first student played the Brahms Sonata in d minor, an intense piece from which Schoenfeld wanted her to attend to the color, "A sonata can be very dull if you don't give it colors," she said.
In talking about a barriolage passage (4-0-4-0- all E), she told her that for the string changes, "have the bow very firm in your hand, but very fliexible in your wrist." In one first-movement passage the piano keeps moving while the violin must come in; Schoenfeld said, "Keep the 80 miles-per-hour in your bones!" while the piano played.
For the singing second movement, she recommended the student listen to Brahms lieder, and she also talked about continuous vibrato: "Don't play notes," she said, "my hand stays in the vibrato motion, just exchange fingers."
Getting into some double-stops, she compared the student's hesitancy to two people who meet, "and one person wants to embrace you, and you lean back. Come to the string!"
On the last, wild page of the sonata she said that the violinist must send a message to the piano: "What you can hammer, I can hammer, too!"
Schoenfeld also made some time to give a mini-lesson to one of the younger students who was watching for the day. He decided to play Paganini's 13th Caprice for her, though he didn't make it past the first out-of-tune double stop before she kindly stopped him.
"The first two must be in tune," she said. "With double stops we try to trust one finger," and build on that foundation. "You have to put it in the computer," she said, tapping her head, "where it stays."
"Most people don't realize that violin playing is actually quite easy," she explained. "We only have four fingers -- good thing we don't have thousands. You have to learn hand position. Everything is within this frame.
"So many people shift, and they don't know where it is, but it's very easy when you know the frame," Schoenfeld said. For example, in the octaves at the beginning of the Mendelssohn Concerto, if you know your hand frame and the way it fits in the various positions, you can trust your first finger to shift properly, and then you can trust the fourth finger to be right there for the octave. "Trust your fingers. Go to that with feeling, with courage!"
These types of experiences mean so much to young musicians and I wish more artists would do this!
Jim who? Me? If so, what's for me?
This is so beautiful and informative - it must have been wonderful to sit in on lessons like these...
Midori was in the Chicago area working with the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra this past week end. Her generosity of spirit was amazing, as I heard from those of my students in that orchestra.
She was and is truly inspirational. I have immediately seen wonderful and dramatic changes in my students that were involved and/or went to observe.
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