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Jacqueline Vanasse

Dora Schwarzberg’s Masterclass: Don’t Play 'Right,' Play to Make Good Music

September 30, 2013 at 4:49 PM

“Did you see the movie Finding Nemo?” Dora Schwarzberg asks the Texan violinist who stopped playing after only one chaotic line of Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise. The face of the young girl suddenly relaxes, she smiles: "Yes.” “Do you remember what Doris says? Keep swimming keep swimming keep swimming," continues Ms. Schwarzberg. The squeaky voice she takes to imitate the friendly blue fish and the naivety of the comparison creates a general laugh. The tension falls for good in the auditorium. “Once more now," she orders.

This is how Ms. Schwarzberg’s colorful masterclass started. The masterclasses took place at the Schlern International Music Festival last summer, with the magnificent dolomites as a backdrop. For nearly 6 hours it was all about hard work, honesty, trust and…good laughs. With a funny word she relaxed the atmosphere and started molding the student piecemeal, one tip at a time. She has a profound interest in students. When playing for her, you forget about everything and everyone around you. There is only you, her and the music. She is very direct and says what has to be said. But from what I saw, one comes out of her lessons hardened maybe, but never broken. Ms. Schwarzberg is both the trapeze that takes you up to the sky and the safety net under you. She breaks down some barriers in you, to give you a glimpse of the extent of what you are capable of.

Schwarzberg’Ms. Schwarzberg does not try to change the student; she rather touches something that already exists in the student. Whatever the level is, she always has plenty to say. For her, everybody is different and there is no unique position that applies to everybody. There is no such thing as beautiful, or not beautiful. The important thing is to be able to play as you want to play. As long as you can express what is in your mind with the position you have, it is fine according to her. It’s a matter of finding yourself and doing whatever you can to make it sound good. You have eyes to see and a heart to respond, and you have the brain to decide how to do so. “My motto," she says, “is: don’t fix what is good. It is very easy to say this is right, this is wrong, but teaching the violin is not something mathematical.”

Ms. Schwarzberg mentions a conference she just gave in Salzburg. The subject was: freedom and responsibilities. “Freedom in music is a serious issue” starts the great pedagogue. “There are so many people now who exaggerate the way a piece is played and the public is pleased. If someone has a big triumph, someone else comes along and thinks that if he does even more, he will be even more successful.” The goal for Ms. Schwarzberg is to find the right balance between the freedoms you need and the responsibilities you have, with respect to what is written in the score. It would be wrong to ignore the composer and play the music according to what is comfortable to you. “I am not fighting with the student for my ideas,” she justifies herself after being particularly picky on a Beethoven sonata movement, “we are playing the music as it is written there, we don’t invent anything.” To be free in music is a matter of freeing your mind from unnecessary ideas in order to serve the composer. Musicians are free to do what the composer wants! Don’t we most understand freedom when we have boundaries?

Throughout the master class, the students’ performance improved tremendously before our eyes – and ears. Music was moving forward at last. Everything Ms. Schwarzberg said in her two days of teaching made even more sense the evening she played at her recital. With a bow arm and a musicality to kill for, fearless and passionate, the stellar violinist played Bach and Debussy pushed to their extreme. She made her violin growl, meow, cry, die and live again. Some of her colleagues were wriggling in their chairs, shaking their heads here and there. Certainly, not all was politically correct. There were perhaps a few memory slips and wrong notes but her interpretation – for the good or the bad apparently – was of a kind that we had never heard before. And I believe that it’s precisely what makes a great artist stand out: the capability of creating authentic interpretations, surprising, exciting. One thing is sure: Ms. Schwarzberg doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. As for me, her teaching and her recital will stay in my mind as a rare example of genuine music making.

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From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 1, 2013 at 8:33 AM
Thanks for this, J.

The one thing I will always struggle with classical music as a genre, is, you can play "wrong"? Music is sound art. How can art be "wrong" just because you forgot a note or cracked or varied one? It is not as if you were generally out of tune, is it? My late dad was a serious amateur artist and my late uncle played in a band for a living and for people like them, there is no such thing as making or playing right/wrong art or music.

It is a matter of conviction (not perfection). Do you create "beauty" with conviction (or not)? My feeling is, you cannot create beauty without conviction although you can create ugliness with conviction, too.

Edit: For example, Cortot (albeit a pianist and not a violinist) is remembered more often than not, as the pianist who missed his notes and hit the "wrong" ones more than for his tonal beauty.

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