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Brian Hong

The Music Academy of the West: Week One

June 29, 2009 at 4:24 AM

    I just experienced an incredible week.  I came here, to the gorgeous area of Santa Barbara, California, to attend and study at the prestigious Music Academy of the West.  I had no idea what to expect, other than the fact that I am the youngest here.  Many months ago, I met my teacher here, Zvi Zeitlin, at a seminar and he called in and got me past the minimum age (16) requirement for this camp so I could audition.  I was actually quite intimidated because from what I had heard, this festival was made up mainly of college and graduate school students.  However, after this first week, I can say that this is one of the most incredible and amazing experiences in my life.
    Even though I got past the age requirement, there were still a few hitches.  The place that all the students were staying, a beautiful boarding school on top of a mountain called the Cate School, could not let me stay because of my age, what with all the insurance regulations.  Because of that, my mom had to accompany me (her “forced vacation”, she says with a laugh) and we had to find our own housing.  Luckily, we found a nice little cottage right next to the Music Academy, right behind a nice home where our host family lives.  We also lucked out with the host family; they are a very musical and supportive group of people and they try to do everything for our comfort, so we have them to thank for a lot of things.
    The festival officially started last Sunday, (June 21) with a placement audition for our orchestra seating and chamber group placements.  We had an excerpt from the first page of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 to play, plus a piece of our choice (in my case, the first movement of the Dvorak Violin Concerto).  When my turn went up, I felt like I was prepared, but nevertheless I was nervous.  The judging panel was (I believe) made up of the violin faculty, as this was the violin audition: Zvi Zeitlin (my teacher), Kathleen Winkler, Peter Salaaf, and Jeff Thayer (the concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony and our guest concertmaster for the Festival).  I saw others, but I did not recognize them.  As this was my first playing at the Academy, I felt like I had to represent myself well.  I had a few bow jitters, but everything went altogether smoothly, and I knew that wherever I got placed, I deserved.
    I ran to check my orchestra seating the next morning before our first rehearsal.  I was in the first violins, fifth stand, inside, out of seven stands.  Considering how nervous I was, I was very very happy with the result.
    Upon entering our rehearsal space, an auditorium called Hahn Hall inside the Music Academy, I was awed.  It is a small but beautiful space with a very live sound.  Everyone was already onstage warming up, so I tuned my violin and went onstage.  I felt very uncomfortable because I didn’t know anyone and I felt like I didn’t belong.  All awkwardness was forgotten, however, when the rehearsal started.  We were playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite 2.  Our conductor for this first week, Larry Rachleff, was magnificent.  He is an incredibly consummate musician, and has a very amusing dry sense of humor.  Our rehearsals were very intense, because we had to learn and phrase both of these incredibly difficult pieces in about five days, with a dress rehearsal and concert on the sixth (Saturday).  The players in the orchestra were very well prepared-most are over 20 years old, and have been in conservatories for many years.  They were also very sensitive, following every slight tempo change and rubato from the conductor with perfect timing and precision (me excluded).  I could tell that this would be an amazing orchestra.
    We also had a masterclass that first day to attend, with Professor Zeitlin teaching.  I sat and watched the whole thing and was very impressed.  There was a very well controlled first and second movement of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy played by Brendan Speltz, a passionate performance of the first movement of the Sibelius concerto by Aaron Yarmel, an incredibly soulful and fiery Fantasie Brilliante on Themes from Gounod’s Faust by Wieniawski played by the incredibly talented Shachar Pooyae attending from Israel, and quite possibly one of the best performances I’ve ever heard of the first and second movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 by 18 year old Curtis student and violin genius Zenas Hsu.  Mr. Zeitlin was very clear in his teaching, giving the bare bones of the technique to the students, making it much easier for them to execute their notes and musical ideas.  I enjoyed it very much, but I was also intimidated because of the incredibly high level of the students.
    On Wednesday, I had my first lesson with Mr. Zeitlin on the Dvorak Violin Concerto, first movement.  He seemed to be in a very good mood, and I went through the first page without much blockage.  However, once he got into it in the middle of the second page, he tore apart my bowings, fingerings, phrasing, and intonation.  He also started to do immense work on my bow arm.  I was only using the side of my bow hair, and above the lower middle of the bow, he was adamant about using all of the hair to get all the sound I could possible get.  He was also very persistent about not using the terms, “up” and “down” bow, but rather using the French terms, “push” and “pull”, respectively, to help with my mental image of tone.  I was getting very overwhelmed in that lesson; when I did not understand and play something Mr. Zeitlin told me perfectly the first time, he got a bit impatient and annoyed.  However, it’s not his fault; I just don’t think I’m an intelligent a violin player and I really don’t take instructions well.  After the lesson, he told me to come back the next evening after dinner.  Was I to take that as a compliment because he wanted to work with me more, or rather as a death wish because he wanted to bring me as far from the “hopelessness” realm as possible?
    Our second lesson was far more intense.  I could not play more than one measure before he would stop and tear me apart.  In general, Mr. Zeitlin wanted me to play much louder; I had way too much fluff in my sound and he wanted much more core.  He was getting very worked up because I was having lots of trouble putting together everything on the spot: completely new fingerings and bowings, playing with all the bow hair, pulling and pushing the stick instead of pressing to open up the sound, playing in tune, and also incorporating his own musical ideas.  He has a very objective viewpoint in fingerings and bowings, mainly sticking religiously to whatever the composer had in mind, which in my opinion is why his students all play with incredible intelligence and nobleness.  Apparently I was not doing anything Dvorak wanted, which is a very bad thing indeed.  Many of his choices in fingerings and bowings were and still are very uncomfortable for me, but he would not let me do anything different.  Through practice, though, the musical side of the piece benefited tremendously from his teaching.  He does yell very much though.  By the middle of the lesson he was fuming and screaming so loudly the room literally shook.  However, I just smiled, agreed with everything that he said, and asked many questions.  I also made myself believe that the reason he yelled was because he saw potential in me and wanted me to get better, which helped a lot.  By having a good attitude, I learned so much from those first lessons and I improved a lot over the next few days.  While Mr. Zeitlin may be very intimidating, he is also one of the most phenomenal teachers I have ever had and I am very fond of him and hope to learn much more.
    Throughout the week, we had chamber rehearsals (my quartet is playing Mendelssohn’s second quartet in A minor, op. 13), chamber coachings (our coach is the famous and wonderful Peter Salaaf from the Cleveland Quartet), orchestra rehearsals, and of course lots of practice. Everything in week one culminated last night, Saturday, June 27, with our orchestra concert.  We had rehearsed long and hard for this night, and we knew it was going to be great.  We were performing in a venue called the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, which is larger than Hahn Hall and much more acoustically refined.  The performance was spectacular; everyone in the orchestra is a fantastic musician and they all responded to Maestro Rachleff’s thoughtful, passionate, and fiery conducting with vigour, but still managed to keep the play-throughs of the Shostakovich and Ravel refined and heartfelt.  This orchestra is the best I have ever played in and is far better than even some professional orchestras I have heard.  After the grandiose ending of the Shostakovich, which ended the program, the crowd leapt to their feet and erupted into some of the biggest applause I had ever heard.  A fitting end to the week.
    I am looking forward very much to the next seven weeks here at the Academy.  So far it has been very rewarding, and I can already feel my overall violin playing responding to the spectacular teaching I have received.  My bow arm already feels much smoother and efficient and I am very happy with the results; I tell my mother every day about what a better musician I will be when I leave this festival.  I will be so much better as a player, which is what I need because my level for my age is still too low to be successful when I grow up, but I also feel like I will be a much more mature person.  I extend a profound thank you to the people behind the scenes and to Mr. Zeitlin for giving me the opportunity to come to this camp as an underage attendee.
    Look for a new blog every week about this camp, if not, I will blog as much as I can.  I may be too tired!




From Marianne Hansen
Posted on June 29, 2009 at 6:28 PM


We need to be absolutely clear about this.  Mr. Zeitlin is not fuming and screaming because you do not understand him well, nor because you cannot coordinate a lot of new ideas at once, nor even because he sees your potential.  He is fuming and screaming because he has formed the habit of fuming and screaming while teaching.  He may be frustrated; he may hope for closer adherence to his instructions, he may be moody  - I don't know.  I do know that there are many possible responses to working with a student who does not instantly achieve everything one suggests - which is, incidentally, the normal course of affairs. Many of those possible responses do not involve screaming.  The decision to scream is intrinsic to the instructor, not the student.  In simple terms, the screaming is about Mr. Zeitlin.  It is not about you.

I commend your ability to be calm when your instructor is not.  It is a very valuable quality to be able to focus on the content of a message which is delivered in an unpleasant way.  I hope you learn a lot from this opportunity.  But please remember that although you may be the focus of Mr. Zeitlin's unpleasant method of communicating, you are not the cause of it.

From P. Trouvé
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 1:19 PM


You are very mature for your young age.  Some teachers are just like that, they do not know how to communicate better, or they have been taught like that and know only that way.  Plse continue beeing calm, do not get nervous because of is attitude, just learn as much as you can, and enjoy as much as you can.

P.S. Russian and French ballet teachers are the same, a lot of screaming, but they are great ballet dancers, you just have to be able to bare the screaming.....

From Brian Hong
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 4:02 PM

Please don't take the blog the wrong way.  Mr. Zeitlin may yell. but in reality he is the nicest man on the planet.  Some are intimidated by him, but we all agree that as a teacher, we are learning so much and we are very grateful to him.

What I wanted to write about in the blog was about how much I learned from him, not about how intimidated I was by him, which , quite frankly, wasn't much; one just needs to have a good attitude.  When my mom helps me with math, she also yells, but it is because she cares and she wants me to get better.  She is not a bad person at all-she is the best mom on the planet. (Well, we all say that :) ).  Please don't make Mr. Zeitlin's yelling the focus of your comments-that was the last thing I wanted people to remember after reading this.

From Royce Faina
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 5:08 PM

Maestro Hong!  I just want to say first, and I really mean it, how proud of you I truly am!!!!  What a privlege!  Teachers and coaches and even parents (I use to be a parent by the way) know that the material they are building with when teaching is either stuble or gold.  Only fire will proof the materials.  It'll eat away the stubble but always does fire refine precious metals like gold.  Fire also is what tempers steel to hold a keen edge!  Sounds like you are both fine gold and good steel and the elder ones know it!  I pray for your further success and keep up the great work dude!

Your Friend,


From Elinor Estepa
Posted on July 1, 2009 at 2:25 PM

this is what I  Iike in this site, that you can follow the ups and down of someone, at least you kids, has a chance to say whatever you feel.

Like everyone stated above, I am so proud of you, remember those times, that your parent have to drive you just to see a teacher?, and look where you are now? rubbing elbows with those college level students, master classes.. etc..dude, that is way too  cool!


Just hang in there, you have more to learn, you will benefits with this things, and try to enjoy the sunny side of CA.

Have fun with it!

From E. Smith
Posted on July 1, 2009 at 6:04 PM

He is fuming and screaming because he has formed the habit of fuming and screaming while teaching.

Very wise and true, Marianne!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 2, 2009 at 12:01 AM

You are very humble and have a very positive attitude.  Good for you!  I'm glad you can keep your cool through criticisms and improve your playing.  I think you're very brave to attend as the youngest person at the camp.  I look forward to hearing more from you.

From Royce Faina
Posted on July 2, 2009 at 2:13 AM

Fire can make the impurities float to the surface to be skimmed off.

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 2, 2009 at 3:25 AM

You have the right attitude. Like Marine Corps boot camp which is 16 weeks of screaming, it is a big game. The screaming is not personal, it is his technique, right or wrong, to get a point across. You have to learn to play the game. Once you do things will get easier. What seems intimidating now will be absolutely nothing down the road when you are making a fine living with your violin. Trust me, you will look back on this with fondness.

From P. Trouvé
Posted on July 2, 2009 at 1:17 PM

Mr. Hong, I did not mean that your teacher was not good, like I said the best ballet teachers are sometimes a bit different, we just have to learn to learn as much as we can from them.

We are all different, we all have different experiences, but the best teachers, always wants the best for us.

Enjoy and learn as much as you can! And keep that open mind you will go very far young mastro!

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