It's been an intense few months for Yevgeny Kutik, whose first album, Sounds of Defiance, came to life this spring at the same time that he found himself playing in front of 12,000 people at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the March of the Living, and only a few weeks before the death of his teacher, Roman Totenberg.
The album both recognizes his Soviet beginnings and pays tribute to his Russian and Jewish heritage. The recording includes the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, by Dmitri Shostakovich; Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 by Alfred Schnittke; "Hebrew Lullaby" and "Hebrew Melody" by Joseph Achron; and "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt. All are in collaboration with pianist Timothy Bozarth. Yevgeny plays a 1916 Stefano Scarampella violin on loan from a private patron, and his collaborator for the album is pianist Timothy Bozarth.
Yevgeny, 27, was born in Minsk, Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. His parents were musical -- his father played the trumpet in the Belarussian State Symphony, as did his grandfather, and his mother is a violinist and violin teacher.
"I was surrounded by music, from before I was born," he said. He started violin at age five.
Times were turbulent in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s, and Yevgeny's family decided to leave in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.
"Mainly, it was to give my brother and me an opportunity to grow up free from the sort of religious pressure my parents had to face," Yevgeny said. "Anti-semitism was a big problem at that time, and they had to face it on a day-to-day basis. I was so young, I don't remember it firsthand. But at some point, both of my parents just said, 'Enough is enough. We grew up with this, but we don't want our kids growing up with it.' So they made a very brave decision to leave. I can't honestly put myself in their shoes, making that decision and going through with it. It was a massive undertaking."
Leaving the Soviet Union most certainly meant never coming back.
"It wasn't come-and-go as you want. If you left, you left. You gave up your citizenship, you left most of your belongings," Yevgeny said. "We sold our house, but we couldn't take that money. We were penniless, belonging-less, and we went into the unknown."
They left with a wave of Soviet Jews who emigrated in the late 80s due to the slightly more lenient policies of Mikhail Gorbechev. During this time, Yevgeny's family was helped greatly by the Jewish Federation System.
"We were brought to Italy for six months, and we essentially waited for somebody to sponsor us, to host us, because we had nothing," Yevgeny said. "The invitation eventually came from a small Jewish federation in western Massachusetts called the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. We were their first Russian family. They brought us in, and they started us from the beginning. That's the only way it would be possible -- if you leave with no money, no language, nothing -- what are you supposed to do?"
When Yevgeny was approached many years later to serve as a speaker for the Jewish Federation System, he was happy to do it.
"People from the organization had heard me play and saw my story. They thought, why don't we combine the two? So they invited me to be a speaker," Yevgeny said. He speaks several times a year, traveling to communities around the United States. He tells them his family's story and gives a short recital, emphasizing that his success is "all thanks to people who wanted to give refugees a second chance." He encourages people to "keep thinking about the other people in the world, Jews and non-Jews, who have to deal with pressure because of religious or racial or political reasons. There are a lot of places in the world where people have to deal with similar pressures that my family had to face, or frankly, a lot worse. Give them a chance to grow up, like I had the chance to grow up, without that sort of pressure."
Those pressures and his family's experiences are part of what made "defiance" a meaningful topic for Yevgeny's first recording.
"I put those pieces together, then I thought, what about the pre-Soviet era?" Yevgeny said. "I knew the Joseph Achron pieces ("Hebrew Lullaby" and "Hebrew Melody"), and they're just really beautiful, and frankly, under-recorded. So I wanted to record these as well, knowing the history of what Jews faced in pre-Soviet Russia, with a lot of pogroms and just -- they just didn't like the Jews."
"So those pieces come from a very special place," Yevgeny said. "These composers wrote this music to express themselves, to say something they really needed to say, even though they might have been killed or punished for writing the pieces they did. They were taking a huge risk, and to me, that's a major act of defiance. I think that what my family did was also defiant -- to say, 'No, we're not going to live like this, with the anti-Semitic pressures and not being able to ultimately be free. We're going to be individuals, we're going to start fresh,' -- and that's defiance. I feel an affinity for the Russian aspect of these composers, an affinity for the defiance, and an affinity for the Jewish aspect of Achron."
Making the album was a journey in itself. After playing concerts and having audience members repeatedly ask him if he had a recording, he became determined to create one, even if he had to produce it himself. He started with the idea that he would produce it on his own.
Of course, "it's expensive," he said. "At the time I didn't have a label knocking on my door, offering me a ton of money to make a CD."
So he did what people do these days, he created a Kickstarter, an Internet-driven fundraising campaign.
"I was very nervous, doing that," Yevgeny said. "I had this nightmare: what if I put up this thing, and the next morning I wake up, and absolutely nobody's interested?"
Fortunately that was not the case. "It turned out that there was a ton of interest, and we easily met our goal," he said. Of course, after that, he had a new set of worries: "I saw that the money was starting to come in, so I was very happy about that. But we still had this huge thing in front of us. I went from being worried about waking up in the morning and having no interest, to waking up in the morning and thinking, now I have $10,000, what am I supposed to do? I can't fail, because now it's a crime!"
Fortunately, more help came, unexpectedly, when someone at Marquis Classics in Toronto learned of his project. "They said, I love your project, I love your playing, would you be interested in working on this together?"
"I didn't think that would happen, I really thought that I would do it on my own," Yevgeny said. "I was putting everything in motion to do it on my own, and frankly I was freaking out about it, because it was a massive undertaking. Then when Marquis came aboard, the parameters of the project, the direction of the project, changed a little bit. It was a three-month period where every morning I was waking up and learning something every day. It just took shape and I'm very happy."
The act of "Kickstarting" the project helped him find his focus, his support, and his audience. "It's an incredible way for you to sit down, really start to figure out who you are, what do you want, how hard are you willing to work, and what's your idea. It really focuses your thought. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in doing this kind of project."
Another person who saw his Kickstarter video was a rabbi in North Carolina. "He invited me down for a concert, and then introduced me to the leadership of the March of the Living, who are based in Canada." March of the Living brings Jewish teens to Poland every year to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau -- the largest concentration camps from World War II -- on Holocaust Memorial Day in April. They invited Yevgeny to play for the occasion.
"It was so overwhelming, what I saw that week," Yevgeny said. "I was absolutely honored to do it. Some of it was kind of unscripted; at Treblinka, which mainly is a big monument, there is one symbolic reminder of a cremation pit, which possibly might be original. I stood by the cremation pit and I played Bruch's Kol Nidrei in the middle of the field, in 45-degree weather, in my coat.
"Something about this emotional, deep music, ringing out in that quiet space -- it really spoke, and it said a lot more than I could ever have expressed with words. It was the same thing at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the main killing field. It's essentially just a gigantic field where there were tons of barracks, and most of them are destroyed now. The violin was just ringing out and sounding across this massive space where a million people died. It was incredible."
Yevgeny Kutik plays Maurice Ravel's "Kaddish" at March of the Living 2012 in April, in Krakow, Poland. The music starts at :30:
You might know David Garrett as a showman -- someone with a model's good looks who plays rock-n-roll in amphitheaters. After all, his last album was called Rock Symphonies; he's appeared on all kinds of TV shows, and he wound up with the Guinness World Record for playing Flight of the Bumblebee in 60 seconds.
But even if David has found great success and enjoyment covering tunes such as Smooth Criminal and performing the occasional stunt, he has never renounced his classical roots.
His new classical recording, Legacy, was released in the United States this month, and has been climbing the classical charts in Germany. It includes his performance, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ion Marin, of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler, as well as other works by Kreisler.
David writes in the program notes: "My home has always been classical music…I know of no adventure more thrilling than that of discovering the works of great composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and so many more. It is my hope and my wish that this album will help open the hearts of my listeners to the beauty of classical music."
We spoke over the phone several weeks ago, about his early years as a prodigy, about recovering from injury, about his Guadagnini and Strad violins, and about his attitude that performing should be joyful.
Born in Germany, David started playing the violin at age 4, mostly to be like his brother. "I always thought it was a cool thing to do because my older brother was doing it," David said. "It was typical for me to want to have the same things as he did, from clothes, to games, to the violin."
Unlike his brother, who was forced to learn an instrument, "I actually did want to play in the beginning."
Pop music -- which David certainly has embraced today -- did not meet with much approval from David's parents during his childhood. "It's not that they said, 'You're not allowed to listen to it,' but it was pretty clearly stated that it's not really something which is a quality product," David said. "I always felt almost embarrassed, at a certain age, listening to it. Of course, that's the most ridiculous thing, but when you're young, your parents have a big influence on you."
David was on that young classical prodigy track: he started winning local competitions at age five and playing in public at age seven. At age 10, he soloed with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was working with conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado by age 13. At age 14, he was signed to record for Deutsche Grammophon and proceeded to record Mozart Violin Concertos, Paganini 24 Caprices, Beethoven Spring Sonata, Bach solo works, and the Tchaikovsky and Conus Violin Concertos -- all by the time he was 17.
It was a lot of success for someone so young, but it was also rather stressful.
"I started having problems with my left arm, when I was about 15 or 16 years old," David said. "I pretty much had it until age 21, so that's almost 5 years. I would go on stage feeling miserable because I was in pain. I felt I couldn't really emotionally connect with music because physically, I was not free. It was a very difficult time in my life."
He couldn't convince his parents that he should see a doctor about the pain. "My father and my mother did not believe in seeing doctors," he said. "I was complaining, 'It doesn't feel right, I can't really move my hands properly.' But being a classical ballet dancer, my mom is kind of a tough cookie. She always said, 'Mind over matter.'"
Things did not get better, so after three years of pain, he went to the doctor on his own, at age 17. "It was just a combination of really bad stuff: the wrong positioning of the violin; practicing a lot; shoulder and neck problems and that went into the arms; a little bit of tendonitis here and there."
How did he get rid of it? First of all, he changed his daily practice routine to several 20- to 30-minute practice sessions, with breaks in between. "It's actually much smarter than practicing for two or three hours in a row," David said. "I find my brain does not function as well after a half an hour. For me, you have to be 100 percent there, physically and mentally. After 30 to 40 minutes, you kind of start practicing wrong. And there's only one thing which is worse than not practicing: it's practicing wrong!"
He also learned to re-position the violin, and he hit the gym.
"Violin playing is not necessarily the most comfortable and the most natural position, so you have to train your back, your whole body," David said. "You've got to be in shape, to be able to play two-and-a-half-hour shows. There's no way you can do this without physically being quite athletic."
What kind of physical activity has helped?
"I do a little bit of cardio, and mostly weight training, just really to get the right muscle groups," David said. "Of course I'm careful, in the sense that every motion is controlled. I'm not stupidly just pushing pushing pushing, I'm very aware what I do. But I do do the weights, and I push myself hard. I think its very important that you build up muscle groups; it really helps in the playing. Of course, I'm not going to go extreme and bulk up a lot; that would be counter-productive for playing."
"In the beginning, it feels uncomfortable and you think it's going to ruin your playing," David said. "But that's just because you've never worked those muscles. People give up too quickly. If you do this for three months, you will see a big difference -- you're going to be more relaxed. I even work out on the day of a show. Three hours before, I hit the gym hard; no problems."
And how does David mentally prepare for a show? He doesn't feel that it's so much mentally preparing as it is being fully ready. "You're either ready or you're not ready. Confidence is, in that sense, worked. You prepare yourself -- you practice, you make yourself comfortable with the piece, and then there's nothing you can do on the day of the show."
"All practicing is practicing your concentration, practicing performing," he said. "It's very important, not just to practice the piece, but to practice playing music. Then when you're on stage, try to make yourself as comfortable as possible. See the stage as your home, as your friend. Don't see it as something you feel uncomfortable with. And invite people to listen to music. It's a blessing to be playing for people, and you should enjoy it. Anything to do with nerves or not being secure with what you have to do is always going to lead to not performing as well. You have to know that you just play better if you're relaxed. You can't stop mistakes from happening. Of course when you practice and you're well with your concentration, they won't happen. But nerves only get in the way, they will not make it better. Once you realize that, you're not nervous."
In terms of teachers, David has worked with some of the strongest personalities and best players of the last century: Ida Haendel, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Itzhak Perlman. He started taking trips to London to see Ida when he was still very young.
"Ida is such a character," David said. She always insisted that she was not a teacher. "We would just listen to each other -- she played a lot for me, I played a lot for her. She always insisted that it's not about doing it her way. She wanted me to realize that she had really worked on her own interpretation. Then she would say, 'I put my thoughts into it, now show me what you want to say with it.' She would never say 'Do it like this,' or 'Do this fingering,' or 'Do this bowing,' or 'Phrase it that way.' It didn't matter if she liked it or didn't like it, but it was very important for her that I think about it for myself."
At age 18, David made a unilateral decision to move to New York to study with Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard. "I was readjusting my violin-playing, because I had been without a teacher for quite some time," David said. "Of course I saw Ida, but it was not very regular. So when I went to Juilliard, for me it was more about adjusting certain things that had gotten a little loose: bow arm technique, being aware of sound."
"You can play beautifully, but if you are not being heard properly through the orchestra, nobody will hear it," David said. "It's all about projecting and really being a serious soloist, and having the right physical position in order to get this sound. So that was what I learned mostly from Perlman."
It was at Juilliard that he won a composition competition in 2003 for a Bach-style fugue, and composition remains an important facet of his playing career, both in crossover and in classical music.
In his new album, "All the Kreisler pieces have been newly arranged by me and my good friend, Franck van der Heijden," Garrett said. Those pieces, which they have set to rich orchestration, include Praeludium and Allegro; Kreisler's version of 'Variations on a Theme by Paganini' by Rachmaninov; Caprice Viennois; Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Romance: Larghetto On A Theme By Carl Maria von Weber; Tambourin Chinois; and Liebesleid.
"We even put an organ in the background!" David said. "It kind of works, it really is that period, with that Bach kind of sound. I just felt the chords were so very choral-like, like in a Johann Sebastian Bach choral, so it fits," David said. "It was really nice, especially with the Corelli, to add some harpsichord. I was trying to go with the same basic idea which Kreisler intended, and just update it a little bit more."
The result, to me, is rather epic, check out the Praeludium and Allegro, a piece that I've never heard accompanied by anything other than a piano:
"Some of the pieces, they work beautifully that way," David said. "Of course, you can't just rewrite everything 'epic,' some pieces you have to just leave in that chamber music mode, there's no way to change that. But if it's possible, I'm of course a fan of making it substantial.
Even when David plays his big-ticket crossover concerts that feature popular music, he believes in hiring a substantial orchestra as well. "If I go on the road on a tour and it's basically me lining up the people, it's normally like 50 to 60 people on stage, which is a good solid symphony orchestra."
Why not just use a synthesizer for the pops concert?
"Because it sounds better with an orchestra, it sounds alive!" David said. "There's nothing more important than music being alive. You can't manufacture music, it needs to come out of the moment. It's like when you talk: you think in that moment, and you say something which means something to you. That's very important in music. Although we repeat the things, it always has to have conviction. With a synthesizer, it would just be repetitive, and I don't like that.
Also, "I never use anything but a classical violin, and I'll tell you why: I think the sound sucks from an electric violin -- for me, personally," David said. "If you know how to play the classical violin properly, the electric violin is not even five percent in comparison. Everything you need is in that instrument, to do any music you desire. "
What makes a violin great is its subtlety and range. "The colors, the different dimensions, the phrasing, going from little to everything -- these kinds of things, you cannot do with an electric violin. It's just a synthesizer sound, even if you play it live."
For acoustic, classical performances, Garrett uses his Stradivarius, the 1716 ex-Adolf Busch. For his crossover concerts he uses his Guadagnini -- the instrument that was strapped to his back when he fell down a flight of stairs after a 2008 performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the London Philharmonic, at the Barbican Arts Centre. He described the incident last year in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It had been a rainy day and the steps leading to the car park were wetter than I realized. Still wearing my flat-soled concert shoes, I lost my footing and took the entire flight on my back in classic slapstick fashion, riding the violin case like a sledge."
It was a devastating loss at the time, but he told me that now, "to be quite honest, it sounds the same because I went to a really, really good restorer and he did such a good job. It looks the same, too; but of course, value-wise, it kind of lost the special value." (He declined to name the New York luthier who restored his Guad to playing condition.)
David said that he sees his crossover shows as an opportunity to connect with young people and give his audiences new ways to think about music.
"I don't need to do educational concerts for the young people because I have so many young people coming to my shows," he said. "Basically, my educational concerts are my real concerts. I always talk about music, always explain what I'm doing, what my influences are, why I arranged something like this. For me, it is part of the show, to educate a little bit. People might see it only as entertainment, but my underlying goal of course is always to say something which has substance, which will kind of change the way that they listen to a piece."
What does a fine violin mean to a violinist? And what does a violinist mean to a fine maker?
This was the question at hand on Tuesday, when violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn brought her 1720 'Red Mendelssohn' Stradivarius to join several other fine instruments for an afternoon of violin-testing at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. The event was sponsored by violin maker Jim Brown and the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop, taught by Chicago luthier Michael Darnton (who also happens to be a longtime V.com member).
Besides Elizabeth's Strad, other instruments at this event included Dr. William Sloan's 1714 "Jackson" Stradivarius and 1742 Guarneri Del Gesu; as well as my colleague Laura Rosky-Santoni's Mantegazza; a Vuillaume, and more.
"The advantage of having a student work with a fine violin is that they can take that concept of that sound, and transfer it to another violin," Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth has worked with a very fine violin for much of her life -- she has played (and owned) the "Mendelssohn" Strad since she was 16 years old. Elizabeth has quite a gift for transferring that sound to other instruments, and her ability to do so made for an enlightening afternoon.
First came a performance: a small ensemble (which included me) played the Bach Double to demonstrate the instruments. In addition to being part of the back-up quartet, I performed the first-movement solo second-violin part with Elizabeth. I arrived a few hours early for the rehearsal and had to ponder the following question:
"Would you like to play on one of these instruments?"
Event host Jim Brown, of J. Brown, Violin Maker shop in Claremont, gestured to Dr. Sloan's Strad and Del Gesu. It's not exactly advisable to perform in public on a violin with whom you're only slightly acquainted, but throwing some caution to the wind, I yanked up Dr. Sloan's Strad as my partner for this experiment. I mean, you only live once!
The "Jackson" Strad is a bit larger than your average fiddle, though that didn't bother me. The challenge lay in producing the sound. I'm not completely unfamiliar with the old-Italian genre of instrument, as I play on a mid-19th century Gagliano brothers, but a Strad is older and deeper -- a whole different animal. Those 16th notes (and the first movement of the Bach double is all 16th notes and martelé eighth notes) were sounding mighty scrubby to me, using my decent but not stratospherically amazing German bow.
Backstage, I shared my concerns with Elizabeth: that the instrument really couldn't take a lot of force, and yet backing off didn't really seem to help, either. I was having trouble finding the sound.
She knew exactly what to do, and I loved the way she switched immediately to teacher-mode. She suggested giving every single note, yes, all those 16ths, an almost consonant-like, martele-ish beginning. I had to try a few times, but it really did work. Now, I can't say I was able to immediately adjust and perform the whole first movement that way -- one does slip into familiar habits when playing in front of an audience! But I tried to stay aware of these ideas, and certainly I found it to be an informative experience.
Elizabeth Pitcairn and Laurie; photo by Harold M. Barnes
Playing the second movement with Elizabeth was 11-year-old Lydia Brown, playing on a fractional instrument her father, Jim Brown, made; and for the last movement, Laura-Rosky Santoni, Lydia's teacher, on her Mantegazza. The quartet consisted of those of us not playing solos, plus violinist Danielle Cummins, violist Kira Blumberg and cellist Eric Lindholm.
Afterwards, Elizabeth demonstrated the violins and spoke, from a player's perspective, about their qualities. The 15-some participants at the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop had been studying the creation and design of violins all week: nitty gritty things such as the makers' tools, instrument templates, purfling, f-holes, scrolls, arching, graduation and setup. Here was a way to see how it all comes together -- and in a lovely setting, Pomona College's Little Bridges Hall (the same stage where Jascha Heifetz was shown performing in the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music!):
When Elizabeth went to demonstrate on Doc Sloan's Strad (the one I had tried) she talked about the unusual way a player has to approach a Strad: "It's like going to punch a wall, but then you don't," she said. You can't apply too much pressure, yet you have to nudge it out. "If you want to hear great Strad-playing, listen to David Oistrakh," she said.
"There's a certain quality to a Strad that you can hear right away," she said, after demonstrating an excerpt on Sloan's Strad. "There's a liquid quality that combines in your ear, but there's also a far-away sense, a sense that the sound is there, but it's traveling. It's going away from you."
She said that once she was comparing a Strad with a Vuillaume, and though the quality was very close, she could still tell the difference because the Strad simply had that "old-world sound."
A del Gesu will take more muscle than a Strad will; "With a del Gesu, you can give it as much as you to give it," she said. She complimented Sloan's del Gesu as having more range of color than others, "I'm hearing the bouquet of that great Bordeaux."
Brown observed for the violin-making students: "It seems that the best instruments, to a player, produce a myriad of sounds -- they give you a palette."
As for Elizabeth's own "Mendelssohn" Strad, it does quite a lot of traveling with her. Just this year it traveled with her to Sao Paolo, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Dublin, London, Los Angeles and more, all in the course of a few months. "It's slightly confused," she said. "It is happiest in the type of climate that is Cremona (Italy):" not too dry, not too humid.
She has learned, over the years, that it is important to make her instrument work for her. "I've been on a journey to personalize my instrument," Elizabeth said.
With the right luthier helping, this is possible. For Elizabeth, the right luthier has been New York-based violin maker Christophe Landon, who fashioned her a higher bridge (about 1/2 mm higher) of softer wood, and also made a sound post. The higher bridge has helped her to play better on the G string and the post has helped with the consistency of sound.
She said that, for a while, she and her violin were kind of "sick" at the same time -- she was having shoulder and arm problems, and the violin wouldn't speak. But she and the violin have come out of it together as well, as she has transformed her playing approach to avoid injury and pain at the same time as she has physically made changes to the violin to serve her better.
Violin Making Workshop participant Richard Barnes of Claremont, Calif. talks with luthier Christophe Landon
"Some Strads can be very temperamental," she said, and at one time, hers was, too. But since her efforts to personalize the instrument, "this has been very stable." She has a hypo-allergenic shoulder rest that is just the right height, and she even had Wittner Fine-Tune Pegs installed. (She described them on her website)
"It takes the strength of a butterfly to turn these pegs!" she said, describing how tuning the fiddle used to cause her physical stress. Somehow I missed that Elizabeth has been a spokesperson for these pegs -- and that she had outfitted her Strad with them! Ironically, I had just asked a few of my students to outfit their Kono violins with the Wittner Pegs, and one of them texted me, during Tuesday's performance, "What was the name of those pegs, again?" Indeed they make tuning very easy; and if students can tune easily, their instruments will more likely be in tune.
If we have such technical things available to make our violin playing easier, why not?
Elizabeth stayed around while the violin-making students snapped pictures of the instruments and spoke to each other about them. She tested a few people's instruments for them, and in a very gracious way. I could tell that it was very meaningful to a violin maker, to put his or her violin into the hands of a musician who can really find the core of its sound and appreciate its qualities.
Perhaps as meaningful as it is to a violinist, who can find the luthier who can set her up to play in good health!
* * *
Elizabeth was performing to benefit the Luzerne Music Center Youth Summer Camp, a camp in the Adirondacks for kids ages 11 through 18 which Elizabeth attended as a child and which she now directs.
Here's some nice news, about a young violinist who is familiar to the V.com community:
Stefani Collins, a violin student of Sylvia Rosenberg at The Juilliard School, received 1st place in the violin division of the 2012 Washington International String Competition, as well as the audience prize. Other winners were Matthew Lipman, viola and Matthew Zalkind, cello. The final round was held on Sunday, June 10th at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center.
The Friday Morning Music Club was founded in Washington D.C. in 1886 with the purpose of enhancing musical culture in the community. With an orchestra, chorale, and education program, the FMMC has over 800 members and gives weekly performances in a variety of venues, ranging from concert halls to nursing homes and schools. In addition to providing the community with frequent concerts, the FMMC also sponsors the Washington International Competition, in support of gifted young musicians.
The competition consists of a three-year rotation between strings, piano, and voice. The 59th WIC was held this year for strings, and began with 203 recorded applications. Twenty six semi-finalists were selected to compete in a live audition for an international panel of judges, which included Joseph Silverstein, Martha Strongin Katz and Marc Johnson.
Brian Lewis is one of those few people who can say that he studied with both Shinichi Suzuki in Japan and Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. The son of longtime Suzuki teacher Alice Joy Lewis, Brian is now professor of violin at the University of Texas.
He taught four young students from all over the United States.
Brian Lewis with Finian, Maya, Serena and Benjamin
First up was Benjamin, from Minneapolis, who played the last movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. The piece begins with a flourish, a wild race up the fingerboard.
"Wieniawski was a wild man," Brian explained. "He had a girlfriend in every city, he drank a lot of er, milk…he even gambled away his Guarneri del Gesu violin once!"
At the beginning of the movement, he wanted Benjamin to "react to the piano, GO!" Then after the wild race up the fingerboard comes the crest and the descent.
"Have you ever fallen down the steps? Tripped on the carpet?" Brian asked. When you do, it goes something like this, "Ow……Ow……Ow…Ow…OwOwowowowowowow…" Until you get to the landing, which in this case, is that low "A" on the G string.
"Let the bottom 'A' be your goal," Brian said. "The 'A' needs to be the completion of all this virtuosity."
And speaking of virtuosity, Brian has a saying on his wall: "Virtuosity is not about speed; virtuosity is about control." So true!
One of the big techniques to bring under control for this movement is spiccato, which is done at the balance point, plus about two inches. The right hand must be flexible, but "too much flexibility will give us ON the string. Let's have a little more strength in the bow hand," Brian said. Spiccato is simply legato that is off the string.
Brian had him do an exercise, using Perpetual Motion doubles: first play it scrubby and ugly, on the string; then let it go off, and keep alternating between the two.
Next, Maya, 12, from Rapid City, South Dakota, played Paganini Caprice No. 20. Brian's first piece of advise for everyone was to be sure to study an urtext edition (an edition with the composer's original markings) such as Henle, as major competitions are requiring the use of these editions.
A bit of history about the infamous Niccolò Paganini: "He didn't actually sell his soul to the devil, but the story did help him earn some money," Brian said. Paganini's best friend was the great opera composer Rossini, and "they were so famous, they couldn't go out, so they would dress up as beggar women."
He advised that students study all the Paganini Caprices, but "find which of the Paganini Caprices are yours, the ones that you will own your whole life," he said. You only really need two of them for competitions; pick two that suit you, and learn them very, very well.
He said he once played Paganini Caprice No. 5 for the Juilliard teacher Dorothy DeLay, and when he was finished, she said, "Honey, you got 95 percent of the notes." He thought she was complimenting him -- not so! They spent the next two and a half hours combing through the entire caprice, from the last note to the beginning.
Finion of Ithaca, N.Y., played de Beriot's "Scene de Ballet," Op. 100. Brian pointed out the appoggiaturas -- that is, the notes that don't belong. "The notes that don't belong are the fun notes," Brian said. Sometimes they are upper-neighbor notes, coming from above, or lower-neighbor notes, coming from below. In either case, lean on those notes to bring them out.
Serena of Glen Ellen, Ill., played the first movement of Wieniawski's Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, and they talked about the importance of deciding what to emphasize most.
"You keep slowing down on every mountain," he said to her. "You have to decide which mountain you want to have the picnic on."
Also, this movement requires up-bow staccato, and up-bow staccato requires a lot of work. You can still perform the piece while working on this technique, after all, "The audience doesn't know you are working on it." But making up-bow staccato a strong part of your technical tool box is a long-term project. Dorothy DeLay recommended Kreutzer Etude No. 4, "Every day, for one year!"
But it's worth it. "It's through acquiring technique that we become free to make music," Brian said.
Suzuki pioneer John Kendall was not just a teacher, he was a teacher of teachers.
A number of those teachers who benefitted from Kendall's wisdom gathered at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference last weekend to present some of those ideas from their mutual mentor, who died a little more than a year ago.
Suzuki teachers Christie Felsing, Carol Smith, Susan Kemptor, Kimberly Meier-Sims, Allen Lieb, Margaret Shimizu and Vera McCoy-Sulentic
When it comes to the Suzuki movement in the United States, John Kendall was a major player. Kendall pioneered the teacher training program, he organized the first Suzuki Institute, he started the Suzuki newsletter, and he was crucial in getting the Suzuki books published in English. He was literally a farmer, and "he was more of a planter than a harvester," said Carol Smith.
So many of ideas are now widely used in string teaching, they don't even seem new or unusual any more, she said.
One of his ideas was to use the pieces that students know to build technique, she said. "Be your own Sevcik," Kendall would say. In other words, you can make up your own technical exercises, building on pieces already learned, which fits with Suzuki's idea of review and repetition.
Kemptor spoke about Kendall's saying, "Teach by principles, not by rules." While rules are precise and process-oriented, principles are more slippery and result-oriented, allowing for more experimentation. Discussing and experimenting helps us to become better teachers and learners. "We don't do something because someone else tells us to do it, we do it because it works," Kemptor said. "Value the process, experiment with the process, and all of us will benefit."
Teacher Kimberly Meier Sims spoke about Kendall's saying, "Finger, Bow, Go!" A violinist prepares finger and bow before moving with the bow. Inserting these preparation breaks in practicing can help a student get their act in order; if the fingers go after the bow, we know that the result is a mess!
Allen Lieb spoke of Kendall's fondness for "unit practice"; in fact, Kendall sometimes joked that unit practice was one of the three great discoveries of man, besides the wheel and fire. It's important to stop and set things up for correct repetition, to isolate patterns and not to practice mistakes.
Another favorite of Kendall's was to "reduce it to open strings," said teacher Margaret Shimizu.
It's almost always possible to isolate a bow stroke and to play it on one note. Margaret held up a piece of paper on which Kendall had written, "Life and violin playing is a series of alternatives."
Vera McCoy-Sulentic spoke about the idea of teaching the big muscles first. "Playing the violin happens with the back," Kendall used to say. The more one can use those larger muscles, the less the strain on the smaller ones.
I was chatting with a group of teachers at a reception when I realized that the school group playing in the background was actually playing the Corelli Christmas Concerto. More specifically, they were all playing the more-difficult solo part, by memory, playing it WELL, and they were all younger than fifth grade!
We were witnessing the results of a Suzuki strings program at Parker Elementary School in Houston, Texas, a music magnet public school since 1975. A group of about 50 violin and cello students and their teachers and parents had traveled to Minneapolis for the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference, to play for us and tell us about their program.
Certainly, here is an example a success story, applying and adapting the Suzuki method to a public school setting. Their performance also included an arrangement of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," Brahms' "Hungarian Dance," and a tango piece -- as well as a half-dozen pieces from the Suzuki Books one through five.
Impressed with their performance, I sought to learn more at a presentation the next morning given by Parker Elementary teachers, administrators and parents. Here are some features of their strings program: it consists of about 150 violin students and 50 cello students, who are accepted into the program as kindergarteners or first graders and go there through fifth grade.
Each student receives a 15-20-minute private lesson during the school day and a 40-minute group class every day. A parents is required to attend the private lesson, take notes and help the child practice at home, just like in private Suzuki lessons. The school provides instruments to those who need them, and the students remain with the same private teacher through fifth grade. Group classes are divided according to level, with about 30 to 40 kids per class. They all learn to read music, and they have a lot of public performing opportunities.
Teachers spoke about some of the things that have helped keep this program alive and thriving for nearly 40 years.
"Integrating our current culture into the Suzuki method helps make it sustainable," said violin teacher Elizabeth Benne. Cello teacher Lisa Vosdoganes creates many of the arrangements, which give violins and cellos equal opportunity to play melody and harmony. They incorporate the learning of many songs outside of the official Suzuki literature.
It's also important to tie lesson plans to core subjects: English, math, science, etc. Unfortunately, no school board in the U.S. will buy into the idea of teaching instrumental music for the sake of music's inherent worth as an academic subject. They need to know that the instrumental music program will help the school meet the English standards, math standards and other things considered a priority to the district and state.
"Write out lesson plans that integrate those standards," advised the Parker teachers. They showed an example of a lesson plan for teaching the song "Lightly Row" which included a list of more than a dozen ways in which the plan aligned with "Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills" standards in the areas of English, math and science. (These included listing the specific numbers and sections of the standards, with explanations such as: students use relationships between letters and sounds, students understand elements of poetry; student distinguished between declarative and interrogative sentences; students use concrete models to represent fractions; students understand force motion and energy….)
In other words, you have to constantly justify your music program, and in concrete ways, even if your program has been running for nearly 40 years and is wildly successful.
Also, Frequent public performances not only motivate students and help them become more confident players, but they also help raise the profile of the program within the community, making community members more likely to support it.
"When your program is given opportunities for exposure, take them!" said one of the teachers.
Parent Melanie Rosen said that "the Suzuki method has been a huge connector at the school. In a program like this, you are committed, whether you work or not. It's a unit, a team." Parents come to school for the lessons and wind up meeting other parents and becoming involved in other ways with the school. "The Suzuki method has been very strong in our family, and in building our school community," she said.
Parker Elementary principal Drew Houlihan said that having this kind of program involves an aligned commitment of time, teachers, finances, students, administrators and parents. The school has 900 students, 50 percent of which are on the free or reduced lunch program.
"In a time where every state is facing budget cuts, what is the first to go? Music and fine arts," Houlihan said. "At Parker, we give the gift of music to students every day. I think Suzuki in the schools is well on its way to a bright future."
Here is a recent performance of the Parker Suzuki strings students, playing Brahms' "Hungarian Dance":
"The most important thing a teacher can have is EMPATHY: how does it feel, when you don't know how to do it?"
Perhaps if we can present some solid, scientific proof, we can take our argument farther. Dr. Laurel Trainor, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behavior at McMaster University in Ontario, is assembling just that kind of body of work. She is Director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, which recently received a $6 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation for the scientific study of music. She spoke to us at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference about her studies so far, and what discoveries they have made about how music affects the brain.
"From a very early age, infants have certain musical preferences," Laurel said. "One of those is for consonance over dissonance." She showed a video in which six-month-olds listened to Mozart, then to dissonant patterns. The infants clearly lingered over the Mozart, whereas they turned away quickly from the dissonant sounds.
Another interesting discovery her team has made was that a short amount of listening to a certain timbre enhances the encoding of tones in that timbre. For example, a child who has listened frequently to guitar music is better able to process guitar music than he is able to process the same tune, played on a marimba. The brain changes neurally to process those tones.
Also, musical enculturation happens very early.
"What infants are hearing, really matters," she said. "Your brain, from listening to Western music, will become specialized for Western music. Already by one year, this enculturation process is happening."
Musical training actually accelerated infants' acculturation to Western tonality.
"The environment in which they are raised has a big effect on their musical learning." With one year of Suzuki training (yes they studied Suzuki students specifically), a child's musical discernment was significantly greater than their peers with no musical training.
"So music lessons accelerate the acquisition of musical skills," she said. That may be obvious, but it's good news that science bears it out. But not only that, musical training had an effect on children's burgeoning reading skills.
"Even controlling for age and socioeconomics, there is a correlation between how long they have been taking music lessons and their reading ability," Laurel said.
This plays out in the adult brain as well; "it's clear that non-musical and musical brains differ," Laurel said. Check it out:
I'll be very honest with you, I'm not sure about the specifics regarding the above chart. But clearly it shows that violinists have enhanced FFR, ML, N1, N1c and P2 (whatever those things are). It makes me feel quite brainy! But I'll try to explain it as Laurel did: the brain has more feed-back than feed-forward capacity. In other words, it has the ability to take in things, but it has even more ability to process those things. What this means for music is that "if you know what to listen for, you can hear it better." This power of the brain to review, analyze and anticipate based on past experience is called "executive function."
Musical training effects "executive function" development, and those functions were found by this scientific team to be "two to three years advanced in kids who are taking Suzuki."
I look forward to hearing about the results of their experiments in the future, and I hope that having some scientific proof will help us in our endeavors to create a more musically-educated society.
More entries: May 2012
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles went to Austin, Texas to cover the Menuhin Competition 2014, watching some of the world's top young violinists. Read her ongoing coverage.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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