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Getting to Yes: Skype Lessons with Kelly Hall-Tompkins

Samuel Thompson

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Published: April 20, 2015 at 4:34 PM [UTC]

Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins is a person who possesses a deep understanding of the power of music, and her work is a beautiful example of how one can use that to connect with the world. Currently riding a beautiful wave that is highlighted by the tremendous response to her “Imagination” DVD, a spectacular performance of the Barber Concerto at the Brevard Music Center and the expansion of the Music Kitchen series to include performances in Los Angeles, Ms. Hall-Tompkins remains committed both to music making at the highest levels possible while truly engaging with communities and taking classical music into larger public spaces.

Keenly aware of the power of the internet and social media platforms, Kelly first reflected on “Imagination” a DVD that was released in early 2014 from which the videos were made available online via YouTube. “The YouTube format allows music to be shared immediately, and it also allows us windows into the numerous creative things people are doing across the world. That format also allows access much more quickly in the field of music. The demographics of those who watched my video are definitely international, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Kelly has also embraced technology to reach the world as a teacher and coach via Skype. “I remember Pinchas Zuckerman teaching lessons via videoconferencing while I was a student at the Manhattan School of Music,” she said. Launched in 1996 the Manhattan School of Music's Distance Learning program was the first of its kind at a major conservatory. The school’s use of videoconference technology has since expanded exponentially, and organizations including the New World Symphony have adopted the technology to connect young musicians with internationally-recognized teachers and coaches.

“For several summers I performed and taught at a festival in South Dakota, and it was during that time that I proposed that the students continue lessons via Skype. These were students that I had seen in person and who wanted to continue the work that we were doing. One of those students has since graduated and enrolled in college. Through our work she became concertmaster of All-State Orchestra and soloist with orchestra in her hometown and was also accepted into both Tanglewood and the Brevard Music Center.”

“Personally, the benefit of Skype is that I can reach students anywhere in the world and connect from wherever I find myself through my travels - depending on my schedule,” Ms. Hall-Tompkins said. As our society increasingly able to connect via technological means, however, Kelly is a firm believer in the value and necessity of maintaining true personal relationships. “It is most ideal that students and teachers who interact via Skype for lessons have first had an in-person rapport, but more so that the students have achieved a significant level of advancement and personal maturity. Skype lessons do give the mature player access beyond his circumstances; however, with children, I feel that for their sense of creating the first neuropathways of music and interactions with both music and a teacher, all of those things are best done live and in person.”

Ms. Hall’s early life was filled with great musical examples and teachers, yet a summer at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute fired her curiosity. “I was very curious as to what my ‘big city’ friends had access too. There is undoubtedly great value in being rooted to a musical community - Gene Berger of Horizon Records in Greenville, South Carolina, is still going strong with his store and I’m so grateful to him for still carrying my CDs - but there is also something wonderful as a student about having access to someone outside of your own locale.”

This philosophy of global access is balanced with an understanding both of time and of being involved in one’s local community. “All of us need to be involved in our respective locales, and young people especially need to be in the pipeline of their local musical activities including recitals and performance in youth orchestras. The students that I have taught had teachers in their local communities, and I worked with them based on what their needs were at the time.”

“Combining this use of Skype with my on location teaching as a guest artist is a wonderful tool, but I do acknowledge that technology does help us, it is not a short cut. We have to remember that mastery takes time and focus.”

Fortunately, life presents opportunities, and this interview with Ms. Hall-Tompkins included the opportunity to experience a Skype lesson during which we worked on the coda of the first movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. During the course of ninety minutes, not only did Kelly listen, speak, and demonstrate with the clarity one usually finds in face-to-face interactions; that ninety minute session was probably the most productive lessons that I have had in quite some time. As she possesses over twenty years of experience playing in top-tier orchestras across the globe, the quality of Kelly’s observations was outstanding as the advice she shared could be applied to many things, thereby raising the level of one's playing overall.

“Let’s start that again," she said, "and this time pay attention to the chordal intonation of those first two bars,” she said. “In addition, it is important to make sure that the strokes are even and with good bow distribution during that passage (measures 392-393)– even more so with the presence of a crescendo – so I recommend that you practice open strings, putting more attention on the up bows to even out your stroke, while allowing the down bows to ‘play themselves’. ” As we continued, Kelly emphasized the rhythmic aspects of measures 407-417. “This excerpt is one in which all of the strokes and the nuances must be heard clearly.”

Upon discussing the option of staying on the A string during measures 400-402 or staying in third position, which would result in a huge leap in measure 403, Kelly said “It’s good that you tried a new fingering – it’s always important to question your assumptions.” As we experimented with fingerings I did find myself stumbling (as we do) and found myself saying "No" – to which Kelly responded with an encouraging smile, “Let’s get to yes.”

* * *

Kelly Hall-Tompkins Plays the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto with Keith Lockhart at the Brevard Music Festival, July 2014.

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