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Laurie Niles Interview with Alexandra Switala, 2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Division Winner

February 22, 2011 at 12:11 AM

Violinist Alexandra Switala, 17, was no stranger to the Sphinx Competition when she won the Junior Division earlier this month. Her brother, Robert Switala, won the Junior Division in 2007, and this was the fourth time Alexandra herself had competed in the competition.

She credits her previous experience with the Sphinx for helping her cultivate the right mind-set and seek out the right kind of help to put her in a position to win this year.


Alexandra Switala
Alexandra Switala, photo by Glenn Triest

The Sphinx Competition is held every year in the Detroit area to encourage minority participation in classical music. Alexandra, who is originally from Grapevine, Texas, near Dallas, spoke to me from Chicago, where she has been living in order to study with Almita and Roland Vamos.

Laurie: When did you start playing violin, and what made you decide to do so?

Alexandra: I started playing violin when I was four years old. My mom had always taken my brother and me to concerts, and she took us to a children's concert, where there were kids, a little older than us, playing the violin. I told my mom that I wanted to play the violin – actually I didn't say "violin," I just pointed and said, 'I want to play that!' So she started us with the Suzuki method. You don't start reading right away with the Suzuki method, you just learn by ear, and I really liked that because I've always been naturally musical.

Laurie: What is your history with the Sphinx?

Alexandra: I wasn't in it last year, but I was in it the three years previous to that. My brother, Robert Switala, competed in 2006. I didn't compete that year, but I saw him do it, and I saw the good friends he made and the opportunities he had. Then I went back with him the next year, 2007, and he won. I went back for the next two years after that, and I won second both years. Last year, I decided to take a break, and then I came back this year.

Laurie: You've really seen the Sphinx from every angle. Tell me, has it changed you? How has it influenced your path?

Alexandra: It has influenced me tremendously. When I was younger, my very first year, it was just really fun. It got me excited about the mission of Sphinx. Later on, the more I competed, I really got to be friends with some amazing musicians like Pamela Frank – she's been a judge for the three out of four years that I've competed. I've gotten to know her, and she's seen my progress and my development. Little things like that have helped me grow as a musician, and so has the feedback and other training that you get at the competition.

This year, I loved all the panel discussions and the lectures that they had. I really loved listening to Pamela Frank, first of all, because I had had a masterclass with her before, and hearing her speak at this session made me connect with her teaching even more.

(The panel discussion) made me realize a lot of things about myself, as a musician, what my values are as a musician. Sphinx just always brings it home for me. I love going back, and hopefully I'll be able to go back again to keep learning.

Laurie: What are your values as a musician, what do you mean by that?

Alexandra: Since I'm young, I guess I'm still trying to find what I want in my music, and why I'm playing music. I used to think, I want to be really good on the violin because I know I can play really well, but now I'm starting to realize, I'm so lucky to be able to play this music, it's so amazing. And that's really what I've been bringing to the stage more and what I've been trying to make an important aspect about my playing, to bring the music to the audience and show them this amazing thing that we can do. I don't really have defined "values" as a musician, but as I grow, maybe I will.

Laurie: Or maybe it's just important to have them, I don't know how many other competitions make you ask those kinds of questions!

Alexandra: Exactly! And that's what I love about Sphinx, first of all, they're about promoting diversity and excellence in music. Sphinx has made that important to me - I'm so proud to be a minority musician. And Sphinx does make you look at what your values are as a musician and helps you define who you are.

Laurie: Tell me about other competitions you've participated in.

Alexandra: I haven't done a lot of international competitions. This past two weeks have been my competition weeks, I had three competitions, including Sphinx. I had one right before the Sphinx, the Blount-Slawson Competition in Alabama. That's actually a great competition in Alabama, they have great prizes for the winners and the level gets higher and higher every year. This year it was amazing, to see the level. I actually won third, so I'm really happy. I was playing Prokofiev. That was right before Sphinx. Then I had a local competition in Chicago, and I won that, so I'll be playing the whole Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 with the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra here in Chicago. It's actually comprised of a lot of Chicago Symphony members, so that will be really exciting.

Laurie: How does a young person find all these competitions, how does one get on that circuit?

Alexandra: It definitely requires a...Mom! to do all the research and spend hours on the Internet. It also helps to know the orchestras in the area, because they usually always have a concerto competition. Those are usually the best competitions to do since you usually have an opportunity to play with the orchestra. I also ask my teacher, because she gets e-mails from competitions, asking for participants.

Laurie: It almost sounds like you like competitions! Do you like competitions?

Alexandra: I used to be nervous, doing competitions. I always told my mom, performances are so much easier for me than competitions, where you can feel the direct competition with other violinists. But now I'm looking at competitions more as performance opportunities. Your aren't just playing for the prize, but you get to play for renowned musicians....So I'm more relaxed about competitions now.

Laurie: I wondered about your mindset, I noticed that you really took control of the situation. What that intentional, is that something you've learned?

Alexandra: It's definitely something I have learned. I guess that's what I'm talking about, when I say that I'm trying to look at it more as a performance opportunity. Instead of going into a competition being humble and trying to be nice to the judges, I look at it as more the opportunity to present myself. When I was preparing for the semi-finals at Sphinx, first of all, I made sure I was very prepared. I felt I was super-prepared in my Mozart, but my Bach, I was a little nervous about because I wasn't expecting them to hear the whole second movement. I was shocked when they did not stop me! But... anything can happen. They could ask for any part of the piece. So this is literally a performance. That's what I was thinking about during the whole semi-final round: Anything could happen. There was seven of us, and they can only choose three. Who knows how they could judge. All I could do was give my best and give a good presentation as well. For me, stage presence is really important because it gets people in the mood; it gets them in the mindset of listening to you and listening to your music. It's almost like reading the program notes before a piece you don't know – you have to prepare people.

Laurie: And how do you do that? How do things shift for you to be able to get into that stage-presence state of mind?

Alexandra: I think about the piece, definitely. For the (William Grant) Still piece ("Here's One,") which was so soulful. I was thinking of the lyrics. That piece is actually a transcription from a song that Still wrote. So I was thinking of the lyrics -- he was talking about finding God and being closer to God. Then having to switch to Bach – Bach can be similar – just from an earlier period. It's kind of easy to do that transition from Still to Bach. But going to Mozart, which is so much brighter, I didn't want to appear coming out sleepy from Bach. I was trying to get myself excited without getting too nervous. So it's imagery, and feeling the emotion before you play..

Laurie: It seems like you were really intentional with the order you played them in.

Alexandra: Yes, definitely. At first I was going to play my Mozart concerto first, but I consulted with my teacher, and she said she thought it would be best to end on a high note, ending on the cadenza and the flashy concerto...And I always like doing Bach in the middle. I don't like to start with anything unaccompanied and I don't like to end with anything unaccompanied.

Laurie: What violin you were playing?

Alexandra: I was actually playing my teacher's violin, Almita Vamos' violin, and she plays on a Guadagnini. I was so lucky to be able to have the opportunity to do that. I don't know how to describe it, but it taught me a lot I'm back with my old violin and my old bow, and I'm playing it differently. I'm playing it like it's an amazing Guadagnini!

Laurie: How much time did you get together with that Guad?

Alexandra: I got to play on it from about November until the competition. I live right across the street from (Almita). I go over every day and practice there, because she's usually gone, teaching at Northwestern. So I had a lot of time on it, it was really nice.

Laurie: How long have you been taking from Almita Vamos?

Alexandra: ...and Roland, I study with both of them.

Laurie: The Vami.

Alexandra: (She laughs) I actually moved (to Chicago) this fall, I started this semester. I studied with her over the summer at Chautauqua, and then I became a student of the Music Institute of Chicago and I moved in in September.

Laurie: How has that changed things for you? What are the Vamoses like?

Alexandra: They're so amazing. Mrs. Vamos works on mainly your pieces with you, and Mr. Vamos takes care of the Paganini Caprices, scales and the exercises. At first, that seemed a little separated to me, separating the nitty-gritty and the pieces. But actually I am glad that I have somebody to listen to my scales and to keep me accountable every single week....I used to do scales, but since I didn't have to play them for anybody, I didn't really do them. With my previous teacher I would do Caprices, and pieces, and Bach, and all of this...sometimes we wouldn't even get to the Caprices. And now I'm literally covering a Caprice every week. It's so great for the technique, and it's so necessary.

Laurie: Do you have two lessons a week, then?

Alexandra: Yes, one with Mr. and one with Mrs. It's truly amazing.

Laurie: How did you decide to play Rachel Barton Pine's Mozart cadenza at the competition? It was a very cool cadenza. (Rachel has talked with in the past about writing those cadenzas.)

Alexandra: I didn't even know about it! Rachel was coming over for dinner one night (at the Vamoses).... so Mrs. Vamos said, 'Oh, you can play your Sphinx repertoire, your Bach, your Mozart'... then two nights before Rachel came over, Mrs. Vamos called me over and she said, 'Rachel wrote a cadenza, you need to play it!'

Laurie: No pressure there....

Alexandra: No pressure at all! (She laughs) So she made me learn the cadenza and play it for her, and then she realized, it's a great cadenza! It's cute, it's original, it's flashy. So I got coaching with Rachel on it, and I decided to use it for the competition, because I thought it would be a cool twist.

Laurie: It really was. It was a showstopper.

Alexandra: It helped make the Mozart my own. Even though I didn't compose the cadenza – it made it feel unique, original. It was really fun. She had composed it in 2006, and Rachel said she had never heard anyone else play it. So this was a premiere, of sorts!

Laurie: It's neat for her, too, because a lot of people got to hear it. I hope people pick it up. She wrote a lot of other cadenzas, too, there's a whole treasure trove to open, there. I think she needs to keep writing, too. Clearly!

Do you have any new perspectives after winning the Sphinx?

Alexandra: The night of the finals competition, my family stopped at a Starbucks, and the lady who worked at the cash register saw my violin and said, 'Oh! Is that a violin?' It was a funny violin case, so I didn't expect people to recognize it, and so I said, 'Oh yes, it is.' She said, 'My daughter is 10 years old, and she just started. She really likes it!' So I started talking with her. I felt so inspired by Sphinx, and hearing all those lectures on how we really need to educate in the school. I told her, 'Tell her to just keep it up, even if she's getting bored with it...tell her to learn as much as she can. Because she'll always love music, for the rest of her life.' I guess that's what I'm really hoping to do, what I'm hoping to inspire in kids. Because of Sphinx, I'm pumped to go out and help educate and help inspire. I hope to do that more, through Sphinx and all of these opportunities.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on February 22, 2011 at 1:21 AM

Thanks for this interview!!!  Good luck to her... I'm especially impressed by her training system.  Seems so fun and serious at the same time! 


Posted on February 22, 2011 at 4:36 AM

Congratulations to Alexandra, and all the winners of the Sphinx Competition from Paolo Alberghini Fine Violins in New York



From Eloise Garland
Posted on February 22, 2011 at 2:11 PM

 What an inspirational person! It's people like this who I really look up to, and with her being only a year older than me, that makes me even more determined! 

Congratulations to her! :) 

From elise stanley
Posted on February 26, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Just love that photo - truly expresses the sheer enjoyment of playing the violin!

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