Playing a Happy Scale: My Return to Heifetz International Music Festival

July 14, 2018, 8:58 PM ·

One summer afternoon in 2009 I was practicing in my dorm at the Heifetz International Music Institute, in a sprawling basement room where I lived with three other girls my age. I was studying Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy—a piece I found difficult, but loved very much. Something from the communication class that afternoon reverberated in my mind, and I was feeling newly free. I paced around my room while I played, exploring different sounds, colors, and possibilities of phrase structure. As I walked around, my eyes landed on a bug on the wall. I stopped for a moment to consider the bug and its existence. Suddenly, I felt a rush of emotion, a tenderness. I began to play again, this time for the bug (which probably had no idea it was the recipient of such attention). I felt the power and delight of channeling my musical energy somewhere specific, connecting to someone (well, something). Daniel Heifetz often talks about sending your energy over the footlights, all the way to the back row of the hall, so that you reach each person in the audience. Now I strive to reach each insect in the concert hall, as well.

Flash forward nine years. This summer, I am on the violin faculty for the Institute’s PEG (Program for the Exceptionally Gifted), designed for students ages 9–14. My three-week session with seven violin students is coming to a close, and I’ve been reflecting on my own studies at the Heifetz Institute. It’s a joy to take what I’ve learned and pass it on to young musicians. The students of HeifetzPEG are at a pivotal point in their musical lives, as they go through middle school. Yes—scales, etudes, and understanding of the fingerboard are important. But at Heifetz, students are working on more than that.

Back when I was a student, the Heifetz Institute was located in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on the shore of the gorgeous Lake Winnipesaukee. In 2012, the program made a new home on the campus of Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, VA. Staunton is a lovely historic town, with a vibrant cultural community, thanks in large part to the Institute. When I was a student at Heifetz, I thrived in an environment of talented and hardworking young musicians, whose heartfelt and evocative playing left me in awe. Since then, the program has exploded in size and scope, thanks to the continuing vision and industry of founder and Artistic Director Daniel Heifetz, and Ben and Jennifer Roe (President & CEO, and General Manager, respectively). There is so much happening here that I had to go over the faculty handbook four or five times to digest the different concerts and their functions.

One of my students, Pauline Lee, thrilled the crowd with her hula-hooping “Orange Blossom Special”. We later worked on infusing the third movement of her Mendelssohn concerto with that same verve, mischief, and sparkle.

During my three weeks at Heifetz this summer, I grabbed the chance to sit in on a few of the Institute’s famous communication classes, designed to help young musicians grow holistically, exploring possible modes of expression with and without their instruments. As a young, goofy kid, dancing and singing in these classes was fun, but I also remember that we all seemed self-conscious. Growing up in the highly disciplined and rigorous world of classical music can render young musicians stiff and afraid to make mistakes. Last week, communication faculty Marika Hughes, a singer, cellist, and composer based in NYC, led a class on inspiration. She asked students to consider where inspiration could be found, and whether it was even important for an artist. We were told to choose a mundane object in the room, and draw inspiration from it, performing and creating a short non-verbal, vocally lyrical and percussive piece. During the performances, Marika assigned each group a level of intensity at which to perform—level 2, level 7, level 10. Most of the students seemed shy and had a hard time fully letting go.

I created a piece with fellow PEG violin faculty Evelyn Petcher (we met 9 years ago, as fellow Heifetz students, and have arrived back, full-circle, as professional musicians and Heifetz faculty). One of the biggest musical lessons I’ve learned during the transition to an adult artist is the importance of a singular dedication to the feeling and world of the music you’re playing. It feels wonderful to become fully convinced of an idea and put it into existence all costs—even at the expense of worrying about your technique. Evelyn and I fully committed to our piece, which was inspired by a box of Kleenex. We may have made fools of ourselves, but I’d like to imagine that we were so committed to our ideas that our twenty-second-long piece was effective. Students in the room were even able to correctly guess the object of our inspiration, without any hints.

A question arose about the “level of intensity”. What exactly did it mean? The class agreed that it meant how intensely true you are—to whatever you are. Later, in a faculty meeting, Chic Street Man defined intensity as your level of “willingness to connect with your audience”. The class decided that “intensity” shouldn’t translate into a false physicality: an intensity level 10 isn’t about shouting or waving your arms. It’s about communicating even a soft idea as vividly as you can - like an ember still burning in the fireplace.

At the open and close of the summer session at Heifetz, students complete assessments of their ability to communicate emotion through music. Sitting as a faculty member on the other side of the room was both fun and bizarre. Students enter, introduce themselves, perform, and are then asked to play a happy scale— “so as to make everyone in the room feel joy”, instructs Mr. Heifetz. Most students play a loud scale with wide, intense vibrato. Afterward, Mr. Heifetz would often ask the student, “Did you feel happy when playing that?” Usually, the student would respond with a bashful smile and a shake of the head. It’s easy to confuse enthusiasm with aggression, and during their time at Heifetz, students have the chance to explore what “happy” (and other emotions) can truly mean, feel, and sound like.

One child apparently hadn’t been warned about the assessment, and as such came without a preconceived notion of what a “happy scale” could be. After looking up thoughtfully for a moment, she presented us with a light, graceful scale, using dotted rhythms and a creative bowing pattern. Her sincerity and creativity made me smile. As she walked off stage, I began to wonder, how many kinds of happy are there?

Three weeks felt short with these wonderful students, but PEG is a potent environment for growth, with twice-weekly lessons, daily help from practice buddies, chamber music coachings, master classes, studio classes, and the invaluable opportunity for them attend concerts of the students and world-class faculty of the regular Heifetz program.

At PEG’s opening orientation on June 24, each faculty member was asked to give a few words of advice. I had two main points for them: “Grab every opportunity that presents itself’—because, at a place like Heifetz, opportunities are available at every turn. I also told them that I believe life’s greatest joy is making music with other people. My fondest memories are of my first summers away at music camp, when I was 11 and 12, the same age as most of my PEG students. This sentiment doesn’t need underscoring, because each young musician will experience this magic in his or her own way. But this age, of discovery and newness, is unlike others, and at Heifetz, these students have a chance to grow in all parts of themselves.

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July 15, 2018 at 06:28 PM · That sounded like so much fun and your student, Pauline Lee was great! *Sigh* I wish I was learning violin as a kid! Thank you for sharing this wonderful event!

July 16, 2018 at 09:40 AM · Great to see you back at Caeli! Given that you were so much a part of this family a number of years ago, many of us must have been wondering how your career was unfolding. Best wishes.

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