July 2006

A Letter from ENCORE School for Strings

July 30, 2006 20:48

HUDSON, Ohio -- Where else can I have lengthy discussions about James Ehnes' interpretations of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, or use my friend's iPod speakers to blast Beethoven symphonies with a roomful of other 14-year-olds who are totally into it?


You can always find someone to play a Bach Double when you're taking a study break from Paganini. That's Sarah Eaton, left, and her roommate Shannon Lee.

For the past four weeks I've been sweating it out at ENCORE School for Strings, a six-week program sponsored by the Cleveland Institute of Music in Hudson, Ohio, a small town halfway between Cleveland and Akron. With its quaint Main Street, village green, and landmark clock tower, at first glance Hudson looks like it could be the setting for The Music Man. However, inside this sleepy town, a very exciting thing is happening. About two hundred musicians are working harder than they can any other time of the year, and some of the people I eat lunch with in the dining hall or pass on the sidewalk could be the next Joshua Bell.

Every June, about two hundred musicians—teachers, coaches, collaborative pianists, and students from all over the US and beyond—take over the campus of Western Reserve Academy, a well-manicured boarding school in the center of town. Few buildings here are air-conditioned and the Midwestern summers can get famously hot. But we find ways to cope (a quick trek over to Main Street, to the local ice cream place is always a tempting option.)

Students congregate outside between dinner and the Chapel concert. That's
Ray Chen on his cell phone.

The string faculty at ENCORE is world class—violin teachers include David Cerone (who founded the program in1985), Robert Lipsett, Victor Danchenko, David Updegraff, David Russell (a frequent contributor to violinist.com) and others. I study with Mr. Cerone's wife, Linda, who is also CIM professor, and with her teaching assistant, Rossitza Jekova-Goza.

Mrs. Cerone conducts weekly 8 AM performance classes (not a very natural time for a violinist to be performing, if you ask me.) But, I suppose her theory is that, if you can perform at well at 8 AM, you can perform even better at a decent hour. Besides, the air temperature is always cooler early in the morning.

At performance class, you get to hear what your fellow violinist are working on— frequently a dry run before a public performance. At our first class, 11-year-old Sirena Huang. who was a prizewinner in the 2006 Menuhin Competition, played the a flawless Bach D Minor Chaconne. Next week, she played the entire Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, again from memory. Every week Sirena has another lengthy, polished piece to present at class. She's an inspiration to those of us who struggle to pull a single piece together over two weeks or more.

Though the focus at ENCORE is on solo work, most of the students are also in chamber groups. I'm in an ensemble with my roommate, Harriet Langley and two other girls our age, and we're working on Mozart's 14th string quartet in G major, K. 387, nicknamed the "Spring" quartet. We rehearse almost daily by ourselves, working out bowings and interpretations, and then once our twice a week we meet with our coach, Bruce Uchimura, a cellist and fine chamber musician whose Merling Trio was a finalist in the 1994 Naumburg Competition.

Life at ENCORE is rich and busy. There's a strong sense of community here. The faculty joins us students for meals in the cafeteria, and everyone gathers for evening concerts at the WRA chapel, which is the focal point of ENCORE community life.

The food may not be the greatest, but the company is terrific. Left to right: Sarah Eaton, Mia Laity, and Shannon Lee.

At chapel concerts, we crowd together without the benefit of air-conditioning, or even electric fans, which are switched off to reduce noise during performances. The payoff is that we hear some of the most exciting string players on the map today. At our very first concert of the summer we were dazzled by ENCORE alumni Soovin Kim's program of the 24 Paganini Caprices. It was an such an awe-inspiring performance that the audience barely noticed the heat inside the chapel.

Students at ENCORE are able to experience concerts like these as frequently as four times a week, by famous performers, rising stars, and their fellow students. For example, we've heard Andrew Sord's Sibelius, CIM student Rachel Harding's Mozart D Major, and a delightful performance of the Tchaikovsky Melodie and Nová?ek Moto Perpetuo by twelve-year-old Madi Vest, from Virginia.

Sixteen-year-old Francesca dePasquale, who is the daughter of retired Philadelphia Orchestra Co-Concertmaster, William dePasquale and cousin of Cleveland Orchestra Associate Concertmaster Ellen dePasquale, played Barber Concerto. Elena Urioste, 20, a Curtis student and ENCORE favorite (another native of my hometown, Philadelphia) has performed several times, giving us a glimpse of her program for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, which she and Rachel Harding will compete in this September. It's exciting to hear these young players who are on their way to becoming the next generation's top soloists, following the footsteps of ENCORE alumnae like Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz, who lived in my dorm when they were my age.

Most students live in WRA dormitories, although some of the youngest and oldest students live nearby off-campus, joining the rest of frequently for meals in the air-conditioned cafeteria, or musical feasts in the sweltering chapel. The faculty lives either in WRA faculty housing, or close to campus in rented houses. This sense of geographical closeness – living in the cocooned center of a small town – enhances the feeling that ENCORE is a community.

I live on the fourth floor of North Hall, the youngest girls' dorm, with twenty other girls ages 13-15. I share a three-room suite with my roommate, Harriet, an extremely gifted Australian violinist from the precollege program at Manhattan School of Music. I first met Harriet four years ago, when we were ten-year-old bunkmates at the junior session of Kinhaven Music School in Vermont, where we played in a quartet together. Since then, Harriet has been busy winning competitions and making her professional debut with the Reno Philharmonic, and winning a prize at this year's Menuhin Competition. When we met up last February at her From The Top appearance on the all-Corigliano show, we decided to be roommates at ENCORE.

On a bench on Hudson's Main Street. Left to right: top, Mia Laity. Bottom: Ji-Won (Judy) Song, Shannon Lee, Harriet Langley, Sarah Eaton, Maia Cabeza, Tara Mueller

It is quite an experience, standing in the hallways during practice time listening to the sounds drifting from each room. Down the hall lives 2006 Sphinx laureate Maia Cabeza, who at 13 has just been admitted to the incoming violin class at the Curtis Institute. Maia is going to leave ENCORE a little early this year, for her August 4th debut with the Detroit Symphony. There's also Stulberg International Competition winner, Shannon Lee, and Kingsville International Competition winner, Ji-Won Song—just to drop a few illustrious names. All of the girls in my dorm, whether or not they are international prizewinners, play at a high level, both technically and musically. We are all focused, competitive people. And yet, there is a strong sense of camaraderie among us. We appreciate and support one another, buying flowers to bring to chapel concerts when a girl from our dorm performs.

Our days are packed with practice, lessons, and rehearsals: all of us practice every morning from 8 until noon (and most of us squeeze in a few more hours of practice throughout the day, whenever we can.) We have two or three lessons a week with our teacher, countless chamber and piano rehearsals, as well as scale class, theory class, and lectures. Although there is a lot going on here musically, there is also time to relax and do things other than music. Every weekend we go to the movies, and we often rent DVD's from the local library and spend rainy days watching them. We often go to the gym and the pool, and spend time perfecting our ping-pong and foosball skills. There's so much to do that I sometimes feel exhausted, and end up skipping the occasional field trip to the movies or theater, just to catch up on my writing, or some much-needed sleep.

A couple of weekends ago the entire student body of ENCORE had the good fortune to visit the Cleveland Orchestra in their summer home at the Blossom Music Festival. We piled into four different school buses and rode to Cuyahoga Falls, where there is a beautiful stage, with rows of covered seats, and a large grass lawn where people bring folding beach chairs and blankets and food.

It was an all-Tchaikovsky program, beginning with his Festival Coronation March and followed by the Tchaikovsky concerto performed by James Ehnes, the 30-year-old Canadian violinist who has played with major orchestras in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. (And who, I just learned, is moving to Philadelphia because his wife is a dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet!)

Ehnes' sound was silvery and smooth but at the same time rich and buttery. I had never heard the Tchaikovsky performed live with a major orchestra before, and that concert totally renewed my love for the piece. I was so thrilled that I took pictures with my camera cell phone and texted them to my friends and family back home!

When my parents are in the mood to shock people, they say that they've sent their daughter to summer camp in Cleveland. Of course, ENCORE's cheerful small-town setting is nothing like big city life. And the program is more similar to boarding school or college than a rustic summer "camp". Cell phones are a must here (it's how you communicate with your quartet) and we have internet hookups in our dorm rooms. We're not here to have fun (although we do); we're here to work. and to enjoy the freedom of six weeks devoted completely to our music, and to bask in the privilege of living among some of the most talented and accomplished string players from around the world.


Seven Encore violnists. Clockwise from top: Tara Mueller, Maia Cabeza, Harriet Langley, Sarah Eaton, Ji-Won (Judy) Song, Caeli Smith, Shannon Lee. While we were taking this photo near Main Street in town, someone said, "Wouldn't it be embarrassing if the Cerones walked by at this moment." A few seconds later several of us screamed-- there they were, suddenly standing over us. Mr. Cerone said, "Be sure to send us a copy of the photo!"

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A Visit With Bow Maker Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak

July 14, 2006 20:29

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania -- Bow making has led Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak all over the world, from the studios of famous bowmakers in Paris to the fields of Brazil, where rare pernambuco wood is grown.

But Shaak (pronounced "shock") hones her craft in Philadelphia, where her small, brightly-painted Mount Airy Bows and Violins is located on an unlikely block of Germantown Avenue lined with store-front churches, boarded-up stores, and Chinese take-outs. Here in Philadelphia, most of the violin shops are clustered within a few-block radius eight miles away, near elegant Rittenhouse Square and the world-renown Curtis Institute. Shaak's store sprang up like an enchanted mushroom on this block.


Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak in her workshop.

"In February 2002, a few months after the 9/11 disaster, I realized that I wanted to invest in my own community," Shaak said when I interviewed her in her shop on a recent sunny summer afternoon. "So I bought a broken-down building in a broken-down neighborhood, not far from my home and my children's school. Since then, it's been like the movie Field of Dreams. People come to my shop in this seemingly remote neighborhood where there were few shops, and certainly no violin-and-bow shops before."

The instruments hanging in the front window invite one to enter the homey and pleasant shop, which has touches like an espresso machine and a display of CDs by local string players. A friendly black dog, Luna, greets visitors, then settles contentedly as Shaak talks to customers.

I asked Shaak whether she also makes violins. "I am a bow maker," she answered, smiling. She gets asked this question often. "Bow making is completely different from violin making. It's an entirely separate set of tools, skills, and investments." Shaak does sell violins and violin accessories in her shop, and she sends instruments out to a luthier colleague for repairs as a convenience for her customers.

Becoming a Bow Maker

Shaak didn't always want to be a bow maker. She discovered what was to be her life's passion by accident. She studied audiology at Ithaca and Bryn Mawr colleges, where she earned her undergraduate and master's degrees.. An amateur musician who plays all kinds of instruments—guitar, piano, gadulka (a Bulgarian folk instrument), as well as bluegrass guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, she was good with her hands and enjoyed making things. While she was still in graduate school, Shaak decided to look into guitar making as a hobby.

"Then I thought, oh, I'll just learn how to rehair bows to pick up some extra money," she said with a chuckle. But as soon as she began working with bows, she was hooked. She started as an assistant at House of Primavera, a well-known Philadelphia violin shop, which was not far from the suburban campus of Bryn Mawr College, where Shaak was pursuing her master's degree in Psychology, helping to develop a hearing test. At Primavera's shop, she learned to rehair, and began to fall in love with the process.

Later, Shaak left Philadelphia went to William Salchow's shop in New York to study bow making. "I made my first bow under Bill's supervision, and it took four months," she said.

After that, she went to France and Belgium to study with famous makers there.

When she arrived in France to learn from the greats, she went to visit a venerable bow maker (who shall remain nameless) and told him she wanted to learn from him. He said, "Ah, but women should not be bow makers. They should be restorers because they have an eye to detail." Shaak replied, "Wouldn't I be a better restorer if I knew how to make a bow?" Unfazed, Shaak went on to study with Jean Gruneberger and Stephane Thomachot in Paris and with Pierre Guillaume in Brussels.

When she returned to the states, she worked under Benjamin Ruth in his former Philadelphia shop and at Vintage Instruments in downtown Philadelphia, where she still does restorations and rehairs one day a week.

Rare and Endangered

The art of making a bow dates back to the eighteenth century, and the materials used by bowmakers are only getting more difficult to obtain.

"All of the materials I use are rare or endangered," Shaak said. "The abalone and oyster pearl come from New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. The silver is mined in New Mexico. My bow tips are made from prehistoric mastodon tusks unearthed by glacier movement in Alaska. And the wood, pernambuco, which comes from Brazil, is illegal to sell or trade. People do trade it on the black market. Right now, people are hoarding logs of pernambuco, which makes the resource even rarer, drives up the price, and encourages poaching."


Elizabeth Shaak planting a pernambuco sapling in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Shaak archives.

Shaak has a personal stockpile of pernambuco wood which she bought in the 1980's, when imports were still legal. She has enough wood for two generations of bow making.

But she is also deeply involved in efforts to ensure that pernambuco wood will be available for many more generations to come.

"I belong to the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI). We're trying to show the Brazilian government that we can grow pernambuco as a sustainable crop, so that the black market can be stopped.

"A blank [a stick for a single bow] costs $200-$300 dollars, which is a phenomenal amount of money in Brazil. As you can see, a single tree could provide a lifetime's income for a Brazilian farmer. And pernambuco trees, which take about 30 years to mature, can grow in am mixed substrate. That means they can be mixed with other profitable crops, such as bananas, coffee, cocoa, and orchids. Potentially, farmed pernambuco could be a great asset to the economy of Brazil."

A Bow Maker's Business

Every summer, Shaak and twenty-five other makers from around the world attend the Violin Society of America's Oberlin Workshop for two weeks. She also attends American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers convention. This year it was in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. The other meeting she attends is the Violin Society of America annual convention. There is a competition every year, but no woman has ever won first prize in bow making. Hopefully, that will change soon. At bow conventions, Shaak observes the work of master bow makers and merging makers, and enjoys seeing their work develop over the years.

"Bow making as a career turns out to be three-part job," she said. "It's challenging to balance the time-consuming aspects of the business, such as research, paperwork, and reselling, with the time I need to make bows. I also spend time on maintenance and restoration, not to mention the work I do selling bows by other modern makers, as well as lower-priced bows for beginning and intermediate players."

I asked Shaak if she had any advice for violinists shopping for bows.

"Usually, if people have a $1,000 budget, they'll spend most of it on the violin and use whatever's left over for the bow. But really, the split should be closer 50-50," she said. "The bow lends much of the sound to your instrument. It's much more important than people often make it out to be.

"For lower-end instruments, I recommend spending up to 50% of the price of the violin on the bow," she said. "For more expensive instruments, a quick rule of thumb is 25 percent (about $5,000 for a $20,000 violin.)"

For beginners, Shaak has found an excellent carbon fiber bow—Coda's electric bow, which sells for $325. For intermediate students, she often recommends a nickel-mounted Brazilian-made bow for about $500. An excellent Chinese bow, imported from Beijing sells for around $1000.

Her own bows, and those of the other modern makers she features in her shop, sell for $2000-$5000. She sells fine bows by established and emerging modern makers from about $2000. Her own bows begin at $3200.

Business is good enough that Shaak sometimes wishes she had a clone. But she is not looking for a partner, or even an assistant. "I know the traditional business model glorifies expansion, but I prefer a small business where I can connect with all of my customers, " she said.

"That word, connect, is the main point," she said. "My goal is to help a player connect more with their instrument. I enjoy the process of listening to them, and finding out what it is that they want to improve, what they are trying to accomplish in their playing. Helping them go through that process is the essence of being a bow maker."

"Bow making is an intuitive process. Sure, there are precise details to consider, particularly in the construction of the frog, where a 1/100th of a millimeter can make a huge difference," she said. "But there is also magic."

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PROFILE: Violinist and Arts Administrator Lisa Utzinger

July 6, 2006 06:43

BOSTON, Massachusetts -- "I work late and on weekends—sometimes, when we're on the road, it's seven days a week. My job is exhausting, but it's also exhilarating, and I love it."

25-year old Liza Utzinger is a classically trained violinist with a great job in the music industry. She gets to use her music skills every day. But she doesn't play her violin for a living. Instead, she chose a career in arts administration.

Lisa is the Scholarship Programming Manager at From The Top, "the radio showcase for the best young classical musicians in the country." I first met her in the summer of 2005, just before I began my stint as Roving Reporter on the show. She's only been there for a year, but already she's accomplished a lot. As the manager of the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artists Award, she meets and works extensively with many up-and-coming musicians from all over the country. The Cooke Young Artist program recognizes approximately twenty-five pre-college classical musicians each year. Recipients receive a $10,000 grant to be used to support their artistic development, a chance to perform during a live From The Top taping, and the opportunity to participate in a cultural leadership project in their community.

Lisa (left) with violinist Stephanie Song, a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Winner

In her job, Lisa draws constantly upon her musical training. She started playing violin at age 5. She also studied organ, saxophone, piano and voice in her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. When she was younger, she thought about being a professional violinist. "When you grow up near Boston, you know about the Boston Symphony. I thought, maybe I'll be in that orchestra someday," Lisa said in a recent phone interview. But instead of going to a conservatory, she chose to pursue a liberal arts education, majoring in music and psychology.

As a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, Lisa played violin in a baroque chamber orchestra, but she missed being in a big youth orchestra, as she had been in high school. The next year, she joined the full orchestra at nearby Amherst College, which she enjoyed more.

But Lisa still wanted a full orchestra for her own school. So she and a friend founded the Mount Holyoke College Orchestra. They raised money, recruited students, got the college's music faculty involved, and hired a conductor, George Mathew, who commuted to Mount Holyoke from Boston. Lisa herself used to picked him up and drive him to the bus station for every rehearsal.

"The great thing about a small liberal arts college is that students really can create change," Lisa said. "The music department at Mount Holyoke started to take notice and support what we were doing with the orchestra. It was a big success. It was my college claim to fame."

Starting the orchestra at Mount Holyoke also changed Lisa's life.

"I was giving George a ride after rehearsal one day, and he asked me what I was planning to do after college. I told him I hadn't thought about it. He said, 'What you're doing here is pretty impressive,' and that's when he suggested I go into arts administration."

George Mathew helped Lisa get a summer internship with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston after her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke. This internship cemented both her desire to pursue and arts management career and her love for the city of Boston.

After she graduated from college, Lisa found an administrative job at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she was the Assistant for Board Relations. She also took time to study orchestra management at the American Symphony Orchestra League's "Essentials of Orchestra Management Seminar." Lisa worked at NEC for three years before accepting the job at From The Top, whose offices are on the campus of the conservatory.

When Lisa arrived at From The Top, her tasks were to create the scholarship application; design the selection and review process; market the award; conduct live auditions; and work with the production team to make sure the performers' needs are met.

"My music training is a tremendous asset my job as manager of the scholarship program," she said. "I listen to and evaluate the kids, to see if their applications are strong enough to pass on to the producers, who make the final selections. I'm familiar with the field of music, and can speak about it intelligently. I came in knowing a lot about the genres and repertoire. But I've learned quite a lot this year, and I feel my ear is a lot more developed."

“I've really enjoyed getting to know the Cooke Young Artists," Lisa said. The Cooke Young Artists, selected for their outstanding musical talent, strong academic achievement, and unmet financial need, come from a variety of backgrounds. "For example, Ania Filochowska. She's twelve, a recent emigrant from Poland, and she plays the violin. Ania is a terrific musician, and she's also a lot of fun. Everybody loves her. She now emails me regularly. We're developing quite a friendship."

Ania, who lives in New Jersey, studies with Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho at Juilliard. She is buying a violin with her scholarship money, and Lisa is helping her through the process of finding the instrument. With Jack Kent Cooke's help, Lisa is also recommending Ania for professional management by IMG's Charlotte Lee, who represents young artists such as Nicola Benedetti and Ji-Yong. (You can hear my radio interview with Charlotte Lee about managing very young musicians here.)

"Another young violinist I really enjoy working with is 17-year-old Stephanie Song, an amazing young violinist from New York,” Lisa said. “She's so highly cerebral. Her mind is always working; she's a critical thinker in the best way, and that comes across in her playing. But she also has a great joie de vivre. She loves to go shopping and have fun."

"One of my favorite aspects of the Cooke Young Artist program is that we ask each kid to do a Cultural Leadership Project. A lot kids have really embraced it," Lisa said. She told me about violinist Miran Kim, another New Jersey Juilliard Pre-College student, who received a Cooke Award this year. Miran is committed to working with homeless people.

On a youth group trip to help homeless people in San Francisco, Miran took out her violin and starting playing during a barbeque in a public park. Some of the bystanders in the park had been doing drugs at the time, but when Miran began playing "Amazing Grace," they put their needles and drugs away. "It show what kind of potential music and musicians have for doing good in the world," Lisa said.

Lisa works with the Cooke Young Artists throughout their scholarship year to support their Cultural Leadership activities. She gives them advice and helps them facilitate their projects.

"Two kids who did a really spectacular job with their project were bassoonist Megan Schlie, and clarinetist Ashlee Miller, both from North Carolina, "They are both are at North Carolina School for the Arts. Together, they worked to get music programs back into schools by introducing music to kids and trying to get them excited about it. They formed a woodwind quintet with their friends, ordered transcripts of Peter and the Wolf and did performances at elementary schools in North Carolina. They got dancers, costumes, and a narrator. It was a huge success, and I was so thrilled to be able to help them facilitate their project."

A naturally a social person, Lisa loves bouncing ideas off intelligent people such as the Young Artists themselves and the From The Top staff. "Music taught me a lot of different skills, in terms of being disciplined, knowing how to work hard towards long term goals and not expecting instant gratification," she said. "I took a lot from all my years of studying violin, but as you know, playing music can be a very solitary activity, practicing all those hours, every day by yourself.

"I've learned that a musician's lifestyle doesn't suit me as well as the kind of collaborative work that we do at From The Top," she said. "My first year here has been a whirlwind experience. The job requires a lot out of you; we devote our lives to this organization, but I feel lucky to be here; the atmosphere suits me and my personality very well."

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