Ida Kavafian: Having a plan and purpose in music

January 5, 2017, 11:57 AM · World-renowned violinist and pedagogue Ida Kavafian was on the jury of the 2016 Montreal International Music Competition last May, and I met her for a few minutes before the start of the semi-finals. In recent years an impressive number of her students ended up in the finals of the most prestigious competitions, and I wanted to ask what her advice might be for participants to get in the right state of mind for music competitions. She shared with me her experiences as a student, as a teacher and a jury member.

Kavafian was introduced to the violin in an interesting and rather amusing way. Her sister (Ani Kavafian, also now a performer and Professor of Violin at Yale) won a $15 scholarship. This princely sum was enough to pay for five lessons. The violin teacher came to their house and Kavafian would poke her head into the room, wondering what the teacher and her sister were doing. One day the teacher asked her to come in. He gave her some tests and pretended as though they were playing a game. A week later he brought her a little violin and asked her not to tell her parents. It was going to be a secret just between them. From that moment she was hooked. The whole experience was a bit of a trick and Ida remembered it as being great fun. The teacher, Ara Zerounian, eventually became her stepfather, and they remained very close until his passing four years ago.

My impression is that ever since that first introduction she has retained this simple and playful relationship to the instrument. Every time I've seen her relating with a student, she first attempts to open their mind and heart by way of a funny word or compliment. Simply put, she makes people happy and puts them at ease. "I think this approach is very important. Maybe my understanding comes partly from my experience training dogs (Ida is also a prize winning canine trainer) because I noticed you can get much better results from positive reinforcement than from negative feedback," she said. "I think many cultures and many teachers simply do not appreciate this simple fact."

Ida Kavafian
Ida Kavafian.

Among the greatest influences in Kavafian's life was her teacher Oscar Shumsky. "It was just so amazing how he opened my eyes to music," she said. "Before him, instruction was, 'This is the fingering, make your ritard here.' Then with Shumsky, it was, 'Here are ten reasons why you should do it this way.' Make sure you have a reason to do what you do. Leave nothing to the arbitrary; every note that you play should have a purpose and a plan."

Kavafian remembers her first competition. She went to her chamber music lesson with Felix Galimir and told him she wanted to audition for the Marlboro Music Festival. She thought Galimir would be pleased at her initiative, but he said that rather than doing the audition, she should practice her solo repertoire and go to a competition when she was ready. "I was shocked," she said. "I took his advice, and I tied for first place and won good prize money. I also got some concerts. When I decided to go, I felt, 'Well let's see what happens,' so there was not a lot of pressure. I think the more pressure you put on yourself, the harder it gets."

During last year's Montreal competition, when one of the contestants did not pass on to the semi-finals, a number of contestants wanted to know how to succeed in competitions. For Kavafian, this is the wrong question. "Instead, they should emphasize their own playing, musicianship and how they are developing as a musician, as a violinist," she said. "But the question, 'How can I succeed in a competition?' is very sad to me. They are really focusing on the wrong thing. They are aiming for success rather than excellence."

During competitions performances, "sometimes, when somebody is trying to play everything perfectly, as a judge you suddenly find yourself counting their mistakes. The very thing that they are worried about is what makes us start counting," Kavafian said. "But if someone is truly expressing something musical, then that is what you hear. Strange as it may seem, competitors have the control to tell us judges what to focus on."

Every jury member has something different to say about what they are looking for in a laureate. "But sometimes jury members are just waiting for the goose bumps," Kavafian said. "Suddenly somebody plays, you do not exactly know why, but you get this feeling that they are special. Of course we are looking for technical virtuosity and musical intelligence. As Piatigorsky said: 'The hand, the head and the heart.' -- the three H's. It's not enough to have just one or even two, you have to have all three. That is pretty rare."

Musicians must first look at the score, but it is not enough to do what the composer wrote. It is most important to sense what the composer intended. Everything has to come from the music. "Leon Fleisher says, 'We are not the stars, the music is the star.' Of course, people who impose artificial issues or elements that distort the music are not showing personality," she said. "The real goal is to find the character and intention of the composer and then to convey them convincingly. I think if people convey conviction, have a clear plan, and definitely have something to say, it doesn't matter if it's not to your or the judge's taste."

Everything always comes back to knowing what you are doing, having a plan and being convincing. "For instance if you have a student who does not have a good sound, you can say all the technical things possible, but if they do not have it in their ear they are never going to get it," she said. "First they need to have it in their ear. If they do, then it is not a long or complicated process to produce it. They have to 'ear' it: the sound and the interpretation."

Kavafian's theory is that when one practices, one should make a specific plan about how they are going to do it differently. Differently is the key word here. Why repeat if it is going to stay the same? Therefore you need to know what to change. "During your practice session you should plan what you are going to think about. Sometimes it is very simple: 'My third finger must be lower, this shift is an up-bow.' These are very simple things that will focus your mind. And I find that if you make a plan while playing, then you get less nervous because your mind does not have the chance to go other places."

Even at the point of entering onto the stage, Kavafian thinks everyone needs to have their own routine. "As one gains experience in life, one finds things that work specifically for them. In any case, keep your fingers warm. Warming up is really important, and you do not want to be doing so on stage."

Kavafian says these days musically her focus is on her students. "I just want to be a good influence on them. And more importantly, I want and beg them to pass it on, so that the values of the integrity I inherited from my mentors can be instilled into future generations. I want to help each of them to develop their own voice with a foundation of integrity and technical excellence. And yes, I want them all to sound differently. I would like my influence to be more about expanding their own ideas rather than imitating mine or anyone else's."

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January 6, 2017 at 01:32 AM · Wow! Just fabulous! Thank you!

January 6, 2017 at 07:45 PM · Sage advice. Thanks to chamber series I've subscribed to over the years I've gotten to see the Kavafian sisters up close. They always exude the joy of playing music, even the most challenging music projects joy.

As a manager in my former day-job I had to deal with how to keep people motivated and I discovered that the most difficult person to satisfy is yourself. Hence you need to identify your goals and strive to achieve them. A good coach/teacher keeps you going without beating yourself up too much. At the same time keeping you focused on pleasing yourself. Trying to please somebody else only leads to depression and blaming your failures on others.

Now, in retirement from my day job, I'm teaching a few beginners and using the same process. They have to communicate why they want to play the instrument and what their goals are, then I work to assist them in building the skills necessary to achieve their stated goals. Yes, there are frustrations, plateaus, and moments of pure joy. Always remembering what I was told a very long time ago - "You cannot master the instrument, only move on to the next lesson it has to teach."

January 6, 2017 at 08:22 PM · I like that quote, George, it rings true!

January 8, 2017 at 01:52 PM · We are blessed and honored to spend 3weeks with Ani and Ida every summer at the MUSIC FROM ANGEL FIRE festival in new Mexico. You are all invited to come and enjoy this fabulous event. August 18th thru September 3,2017.

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