Interview with Daniel Heifetz, Part 3: Starting the Heifetz Institute and Teaching Charisma

April 26, 2016, 10:12 PM · This is PART 3 of a three-part interview with Daniel Heifetz. Click here to read:

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Charisma. Can you teach it?

When Daniel Heifetz learned the devastating news that nerve damage in his arm would permanently affect his ability to play the violin, he built a new series of performances around something that always had been a strength of his: Charisma and stage presence. Heifetz formed the "Classical Band," with performances that emphasized communication over sheer virtuosity. He reached out to other artists to play along.

But eventually, "touring was becoming more difficult for me, with my fingers." It was time to retire, and to reinvent.

In 1996, Heifetz created the Heifetz International Music Institute, which by now has grown into a six-week summer program for young artists that takes place at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. At the heart of it is something he calls Communication Training, along with conventional technical study. Basically, Heifetz aims to teach technically accomplished young musicians how to draw on their own charisma.

Daniel Heifetz
Daniel Heifetz.

Before creating the Institute, Heifetz had been a professor of violin at the Peabody Conservatory, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Maryland College Park. Upon his retirement from the stage, he started thinking about what he most wanted to give, as a teacher. "I realized that in my one-to-one teaching, besides the technique, I used all aspects of my personality to bring the charisma out of my students," he said. "We would be playing and dancing around the room together. I would get in their face, asking, 'What are the emotions?' It was very exhausting for me, but I really would change the way they approached who they were."

He wondered: Could this be done on a broader basis? Was it possible to teach young musicians how to communicate the emotion of music, beyond mere technical agility and beautiful playing? Colleagues did not give him much encouragement.

Isaac Stern told him, "You can't teach that kind of thing. You're either born with it or not." Heifetz disagreed. "Everybody has more charisma than they use," Heifetz said. "We start as an open-minded young child, but as we grow up, the walls go up. Our religious stuff, our dysfunctional families, the peer pressure, the societal pressure -- it gets in the way. If you break down those walls, who knows what might come out?"

He tried to analyze it like a scientist. What do certain performers do, when they perform? How do they project the emotion, how do they create that magic that makes it over the footlights, to an audience? What do the famous performers like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman do?

He broke it down into five components: voice, speaking in public, movement, freedom of expression, and drama. He built a program around those five components. He called it Communication Training.

Heifetz speaks the program with passion. He feels it is the crucial element that is missing in the education of elite musicians. "The head of the NEA's Music and Theatre program came to one of our board meetings," he relates, "and he told our board members that he felt that the Institute, because of the communication training, was the most important thing happening in the classical music world today. He went on to say that everybody is teaching excellence, but nobody is totally focusing on how you communicate the excellence."

How do you communicate excellence? How do you teach it? Here's how Heifetz broke it down:


"If you can't sing the piece, you can't play the piece," Heifetz says. Not only that, but "everything that we do in life is a song. Right now, I'm singing an aria to you. In a phone conversation, it's a duet, it's a musical phrase. You start with 'Hello.' The conversation eventually reaches a high point. You know where the high point is, and you can tell when you start to cadence the conversation, and you say goodbye and you hang up. That was a musical phrase, and it has a rhythm to it. You also know when you have a bad phone conversation: you talk at the same time, you're not in tune to the silences, you're not in tune to the tonality, the musicality of the phrase, the rhythm. You're kind of talking at each other. You say goodbye at the same time, you hang up. You know it just didn't feel right, because you weren't in tune. So everything we do in life is a song, whether it's with a group, an aria, one-on-one, it's all song."


"Another component is being able to verbalize what you are doing -- something my father taught me," Heifetz said. Can you talk about what you love, in a way that's not boring? Can you illuminate the music? Can you reveal who you are when you speak with someone? When you talk with somebody, do you connect in the eyes, or do you kind of look around? "It's very difficult," Heifetz says. "When you walk out onstage, do you see a blurry mass of audience? Or do you catch some people's eyes and feel that you're playing to every individual there?"

"You need to be able to talk about what you love about the piece," Heifetz said. "Why should you buy a ticket to hear me play? Let us know what's going on, why you love it. So speaking in public is another crucial component."


Another aspect is movement -- how can you become comfortable in your own skin? "How do you make your instrument a breathing part of your own body, rather than a piece of wood?" Heifetz said. "How does the big black piano become an extension of your arms instead of a big box that you're sitting at? Do you know how your body responds, when you're feeling an emotion? If you're about to play a big, dramatic note, what is the feeling? The magic is the breath before the first note. If you're a stiff vessel, no emotion is going to come out. It's certainly not going to go through the breathing instrument and it's certainly not going to go over the footlights and reach the last person in the balcony."


The fourth component is something Heifetz calls "freedom of expression."

"It's having a feeling of comfort in yourself and having confidence, so that you're willing to experiment, to think out of the box," Heifetz says. "How free can you go, to expose your creative potential? That's a hugely difficult thing, considering all the different demands. The teachers says this, the composer said that, the violin demands this, the cello demands that, and all of that works against the freedom to experiment and explore. Throw tradition out the window, act as if the piece was just composed yesterday and the composer just gave it to you last night. Start fresh."

Students in drama class at the 2015 Heifetz Institute. Photo by


"Then the last thing, the most difficult, is drama," Heifetz said. "Can you identify an emotion and bring it to the surface? Are you willing to reveal that emotion? Husbands and wives, spouses and partners behind closed doors many times don't reveal their deepest emotions; but we have to, in front of 1,000 strangers! Can you project that through a breathing piece of wood, your body comfortable, with what the composer is asking you to do? Then, can you project that revealed emotion with energy and shoot it to the last person in the balcony? That's when the magic happens, and most people don't do it. The ones who do are the ones everyone knows by name -- because they make that magic."

Teaching charisma through "communication training" is the unique selling point of the Heifetz Institute. The first day the students arrive, they have to re-audition, and Heifetz routinely stops them and asks them to sing their piece. "They look at me like a deer in headlights; no one in an audition has ever asked them to sing the piece."

"Mr. Heifetz, I can't sing!" is the typical response. He then asks, "What are you expressing? Why should I buy a ticket to hear you play it? What do you want me to feel, what emotion are you feeling?"

"Most of them have barely even thought about it," Heifetz said. Then he asks them to play a two-octave scale, with a certain kind of feeling, such as "joyous emotion." Very often, the student freezes up. During the six weeks of the program, all performances are recorded and videotaped, and no performer -- be they student or celebrity -- can perform without first speaking to the public. In addition to taking private lessons (two per week) on their instruments, the students have required classes in all aspects of communication training. "On the last day, I will re-do the same opening audition, and I'll video-tape it," Heifetz says. By then, most are willing and able to sing their piece, most have ideas to share about the piece they are playing, and most can play that scale, "with feeling." If they succeed, he asks them to play it multiple ways: "Angry scale!" "Love scale!" "Mysterious scale!" even, "Sad scale, in a major key!"

"Then the next step is: You can do it in a scale, but when you get up to play Beethoven, do the walls go back up again? What did Beethoven want? Am I doing it correctly? Is it out of tune? Is it what the teacher wanted me to do? All that stuff! When you play Mozart, are you playing that with a vibrant joy? Are you feeling joy? Or are you playing it 'well'?" Heifetz asks. "What's being generated? Because when that stuff doesn't happen, that's what kills the classical music stage. That's why orchestras are folding: we've made it boring."

"Music needs to be inspiring. Something that's really saying something," Heifetz said. "I'm not interested in the comfort of the artist. I'm interested in what's going on between the artist and the audience, and my dedication is to the audience. To the music and to the audience."

"To me, music is about what is being expressed, not what is being played 'well.' To play it safe is boring," Heifetz said. "It's a whole attitude of what it means to be an artist, what it means to make music."

The problem is that all of those years of accomplishing that technique, learning to be careful and musically correct, can hold back the open, emotional connection to the music.

"You've got to learn your craft," Heifetz said. "You've got to have command of the instrument, your intonation. You have to practice correctly." Then once you have that high level of technique, "then you need to forget about it, to a certain degree," Heifetz said. "Then you are feeling the music and you are expressing."


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April 28, 2016 at 03:11 PM · I can't recall a more powerful interview in, and there have been many! Thank you, Laurie.

Yet more than 24 hours later, the Replies silence is deafening.

April 28, 2016 at 05:52 PM · Sometimes there is more to think about, less to say or react to!

April 29, 2016 at 03:44 PM · Daniel Heifetz seems like a very nice and amazing human being, and I don't see any need for him to be known to be related to Jasche Heifetz.

All of the "old masters" and many violinists even today admire and even worship Jacsha Heifetz, but from what I heard from 2nd and 3rd person accounts, Jascha Heifetz was so full of himself and treated people harshly and disrespectfully, and looked down to even fellow violinisist in orchestras that played with him, as well as luthiers that he needed. And from all the Youtube videos and records I have heard, I found neither his technique God like nor any of his performances musical, his performsnces seemed to serve himself than music itself. That's how I receive it, other people may hear it different.

I also believe that both J Heifetz and Isaac Stern were big shots in the Violinists' Guild, and having made it big as Jewish talents in the US, as most of the prodigies in those days were, they were on thr effort to protect violinists in the US and prevent young Jewish violinists from Europe and any other from outside US to come into US by stopping all the member violinists to bring them in and by denying them thr opportunities in the US. Stern/K Heifetz told Menuhin to stop bringing talents in the US, but Menuhin told him/them point blank that he would have nothing to do with their scheme! J Heifetz and Stern being Jewish immigrants or immigrant descent discriminating others the same is not ethical, if that is true, according to Menuhin. From what I know of Menuhin's spiritual compass and from the stories of J Heifetz and Stern, I can believe it.

To diverge, Stern however, was a truly potent violinist esp in his younger days, he approach violin playing and music with the seriousness and focus of a jet fighter pilot and he also have much to young violinists all around the World later in life. He was amazing in what he was amazing at!

Daniel Heifetz and Jascha Heifetz seems completely different individuals just as Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee were. In both pairs, they do look like each other though, so I guess one really does not have to spell it out. It also seems Daniel Heifetz and his stories have a lot of redeeming aspect for all of us lesser characters, so cheers!!!!

April 30, 2016 at 06:55 PM · Also the lesson is no such thing as handicap or disability, if You love and/or passionate about something (that at least does not hurt other people), such as playing music with the violin, one should stop at nothing to do it! Conversely speaking, I believe something as challenging as the violin, if you would not stop at nothing to learn it, it's probably not for you?

Daniel Stern. Itzhak Perlman, Nicola Benedetti are some of the finest examples, also famous folk/Jezz guitarist Janco Reinhard (spl?), and recently in "China" there is an armless pianist and another one with only two fingers!

May 1, 2016 at 07:50 PM · Excellent articles Laurie! We know Daniel Heifetz and actually live across the street from where most of the Institute concerts are performed. We have been blessed by being able to watch the transformation of the students over the six week period over the last couple of years. It is truly amazing! We had an idea of what Daniel and his faculty were trying to accomplish with the talented students that visit Staunton each year but your articles clarified his vision even more. Thank you!

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