Friday, November 15, 2013

Lost in the Magic Moment

I was first introduced to the work of Abraham H. Maslow through Elaine Fine's marvelous blog, Musical Assumptions. Maslow's philosophy 'The Creative Attitude' made a deep impact on me, for he reinforced what I intuitively feel about the creative process. I know that when I teach violin students, and when I parent my own children, I feel the responsibility first and foremost of cracking open the door to their imaginative powers. I have come to believe that Maslow is spot on with his hierarchy of needs. I do not pretend to be a psychologist. But I know that every human being has the potential to transcend the mundane and ordinary by way of the imagination; and at every moment, a human is in the process of becoming or self-actualizing, as Maslow writes. I would also admit that when a creative talent is squelched or repressed, the individual becomes frustrated, I imagine in a similar vein to sexual repression. This is why, I believe, that my late mother suffered from the affliction known as stage parenting. She needed a release from the drudgery of domestic chores, the withholding of her potentialities, as she was an exceedingly bright and talented individual on so many levels, but her gifts were suppressed from childhood. I became the vessel from which sprang forth her musical ideas. But in the act of teaching, parenting, and writing, I feel myself in the state of self-actualization, of becoming, of Entelechy, much like Goethe espouses in his Weltanschauung.

The act of creating, whether by way of gardening, sewing, painting, dancing, writing, or playing an instrument, enables a person to get lost in the moment. "Lose yourself," my mother would say to me before I walked on the stage. And after closing my eyes and banishing the audience from sight, I sometimes could. On a few occasions, I'd undergo what Maslow describes as the peak experience. After those instances, I felt wholly empowered, perhaps in the way a marathon runner might feel after running the distance, or a woman giving birth without pain killers. In other words, I attained a nice high. And then, always, began the next step to personal achievement, the act of starting anew.

My daughter Sarah tells me that when she is immersed in her poetry or song writing, it is as if time ceases to be. She, too, is lost in the moment of the creative act. Poetry might be better understood as her religion. On the ninth anniversary of my mother's sudden death, I'd like to share my daughter's recent poem, "To My Little Girl" which, I believe, encapsulates her state of becoming. One senses the self-actualizing motive throughout her work as she recognizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.

 To my little girl -

I want to tell you the story of your life, how you were born

In autumn’s arms, how you softly cried, how you trusted

Your family and let them hold you, resting your entire weight

Against their moon-shaped bodies. I want to tell you how it rained,

How you were born to the sound of rain hitting rooftops 

And windows, windshield wipers steadily swaying and keeping time;

Quiet rain, the kind of rain that peppers pavement with mist.

I want to tell you how you were always gentle, always taking in 

The world with almond, earth-brown eyes, always noticing 

The sunlight or the leaves in the wind or the scent of Comet 

On doll-skin, always noticing the way silence felt in your body - 

Part safety, part aching, part desire to be loud. I want to tell you

How you cared - especially about your father's feelings - how you felt 

Remorse and embraced loved ones’ sadness as your own, how you

Always tried to be good; you’ve always tried to be good, to go 

As lightly as air. And little one, I want to tell you about the well

Of joy that always existed beneath the surface of your skin; I want

To tell you how the wind tousled knots in your hair, how you lit the room

With soft-yellow, how you sang in rounds and rounds until you were

Dizzy with melodic-rich euphoria. I want to tell you that you have felt

Pain, and sorrow, and nostalgia, and bittersweet; I want to tell you that

You have felt happiness, and serenity, and unconditional love that is

At your core. I want to tell you that the meaning of your life is simply

To be - that you have been blessed with an ability to feel, and that this 

Is your calling. I want to tell you that it is alright to soften, and to let

Your skin be bare. I want to tell you that you are made for such beauty - 

For ocean, for falling snow, for hibiscus, for hummingbirds, for love,

For distant lands, for safety and trust; I want to tell you that you were made 

To feel the rain, as only those who let themselves be, are able to do.

 Sarah Lilian Talvi

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Alice: The Lady in Number 6

The childhood memory of what may have been my intro to the Holocaust returned to me after watching the inspiring documentary about the world's oldest living pianist and Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, during Academy Award winner Malcolm Clarke's film "Alice: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved my Life". I remembered lying awake in my bed at about age six or seven while overhearing a disturbing conversation between my parents one evening. My father, a heavy man with a booming voice, thundered in the hallway after having watched a TV special about the Holocaust. "Can you believe they (the Nazis) melted the skin of innocent Jewish people and made from them soap and lampshades?  Do you realize what those Germans did to our people? We're not talking terribly long ago either, Frances—"
My mother, in her barely audible whisper merely replied. "Shhh John, you'll wake Margie. It was tragic. Tragic. But we didn't know—"
"We knew, Frances, but we didn't want to know. The German doctors performed experiments on Jewish victims without drugs even. Why waste a drop of medicine on a Jew? And what about the children—what they did to twins—all in the name of scientific progress. Bastards!"

I thought I heard my mother whimper. I trembled till the bed itself seemed to quake. What my father had described was incomprehensible to me, but being the innocent child that I was, I imagined what I might have done to survive such an evil horror. I could only think of one thing. I would have taken out my violin, a quarter size, swept it under my chin, and played my heart out. I would have searched my soul for  the sweetest, most soothing piece that I could think of. By playing such music, I imagined, I would have saved my loved ones, tamed the tormentors, and rescued all our people.

At age 109, Alice Herz-Sommer retains an unshakeable faith in the beauty of life and humanity, not unlike an awestruck child. She maintains that even the bad is beautiful, for it is part of life. To this day, Alice lives alone in her North London home, and practices the piano each day for about two hours. People from everywhere come to listen outside of her building. She is the lady in number six. To claim that music is and has always been her salvation would be an understatement, for music is Alice's religion. "You should thank Bach, Beethoven to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. They've given us indescribable beauty. They made us happy."

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in 1903 in Prague. The Prague of her youth was a melting pot shared by Czechs, Germans, and a large Jewish population. Alice's family was secular and embraced the German culture. Her home was a cultural salon that attracted writers, musicians, scientists, and philosophers, including Franz Kafka. Alice began her piano studies at the age of three, and attended the premiere of Mahler's Second Symphony, as Mahler was also a family friend. By age 16, Summer Herz went to play for Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel and became his youngest pupil. By the 1930s Alice Herz became one of Prague's most celebrated pianists and was known throughout Europe. She married Leopold Sommer, a violinist, and in 1937 their son Rafael was born.

But her life was to change forever when Alice's 72-year-old mother was arrested and murdered by the Nazis. Devastated and grief stricken, Alice couldn't imagine surviving the loss of her dear mother. But a little voice inside of her told her to turn her attention to the piano to work on the Chopin Etudes. The inherent difficulties in the etudes absorbed her focus and little by little, renewed her strength. In 1943, Summer was sent to Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp along with her husband and young son. She was ordered to perform hundreds of concerts at Theresienstadt, for the camp was used for propaganda to show that the Germans were humane in their treatment to prisoners. Her son, Rafael, was allowed to take part in the Czech children's opera "Brundibar." Alice felt that as long as she had music, the camp would not be so terrible for her. Music was her food and her moral support. She gave every drop that she had in concerts, and witnessed the benefit music had for the sick and starved prisoners. 

"The Lady in Number 6" is a testament to Alice Herz-Sommer's life affirming philosophy and belief in the power of music. The film includes historical footage of the cultural life of Theresienstadt and brings the viewer right into Alice's world at present. "Hatred brings only hatred," she says. At 109, Alice feels that she is the luckiest person alive. "Sometimes it happens that I'm grateful to have been there because I'm richer in life." By viewing "The Lady in Number 6" there's hope that we can all be enriched.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Strings Attached

The memoir 'Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations' by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky has been preoccupying my mind lately. The other night I dropped off to sleep after relishing the story to the final page, and conjured up Jerry Kupchynsky in a dream. For the last few days, Kupchynsky has become as present in my life as if he were a member of my own flesh and blood family. "Mr. K." as his students affectionately called him, might have been cut out of the same cloth as my late mother, Frances Kransberg, for his discipline and love for the violin are eerily similar. Perhaps I feel a kinship, too, because my paternal Kransberg roots are from the same neck of the woods as Kupchynsky's: Western Ukraine which borders along Poland. In that vicinity stands my ancestral village of Kranzberg, which after searching and searching, I find has been renamed, Mala Ozymyna. I have wanderlust; my own children know this. I want to return to my roots. But given the region's volatility, the closest my husband will allow me to travel to the Ukraine is via Google Earth.

Jerry (Jarema) Kupchynsky was a survivor, and by dint of his teaching method, so were his students. Born in 1928, Kupchynsky grew up "right into the teeth of Ukraine's Holodomor, a great famine when millions of Ukrainians starved to death." 'Strings Attached' begins in a breezy fashion, alternating mostly humorous glimpses between Melanie Kupchynsky, Mr. K's daughter, now a violinist with Chicago Symphony, and former student, Joanna Lipman, a prominent journalist and founding Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast.  They fill the pages with reminiscences about their childhood and adolescence in the midst of Kupchynsky's eccentricities. Mr. K's parenting tactics are all too familiar, including one of his favorite expressions: "When I say jump, on the way up ask how high!" But there are also dead give-a ways that he is haunted by a tormented past, a past which includes having been a forced laborer in World War II. One morning at breakfast, little Melanie reaches to her father's bowl of Life cereal, and he slaps her hand away. A mouse has gotten into their cupboard, left droppings in the cereal. Melanie's father won't allow perfectly good food to be wasted. "I'll eat around eet," he shrugs.

In his capacity as music teacher for East Brunswick school district during the late 60s and early 70s, Mr. K would yell at his orchestra, "Orchestra eez not democracy. Eez benign dictatorship." By today's classroom standards, one might be horrified by Mr. K's old school tirades, the singling out of students, the name-calling ("Who eez idiot who play wrong note?!). Lipman observes that middle schools everywhere tend to be the "killing field of musical ambition." She writes that there's even a technical term for it by researchers who have studied the phenomenon: the 'I want to quit' phase. Indeed, I've had several students abandon their music studies simply because they were dissuaded or ridiculed by their peers. But while many teachers would coddle their students, or try to ease up on their expectations, Mr. K. drove his kids harder. As one former student of his said: "Taking lessons with Mr. K. felt like playing for the Yankees. You put up with the shit because it got you to the championships." And indeed, not only did Mr. K's students fill the prominent ranks of national youth orchestras, but many went on to lead highly successful careers in each corner of the world, only to thank their tough-as-nails teacher later.

But the meat of the memoir is Jerry Kupchynsky's heart-rending personal plight. Not only had he survived the war and brutality from his homeland and Nazi Germany,  and served with American forces in the Korean War, but his wife was afflicted by multiple sclerosis. Finally, he was left with the most difficult task of all: to raise the youngest of his two violinist daughters, Stephanie, by himself. Stephanie Kupchynsky, a much sought after and admired violin educator in her own right, mysteriously vanished one day; her disappearance lasted as an unsolved crime for many years until her corpse was finally discovered.

'Strings Attached' offers ample opportunity for readers to search deep in their hearts, to recognize and feel a debt of gratitude towards all those special teachers and parents out there who believed in them,  who pushed them beyond limits. Mr. K boiled his philosophy down to self-discipline. Whether you agree with his approach or not, through sheer force of will, it was said that he made all of his students better than they had any right to be.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Itzhak Says

If any parents out there are wondering what artist/teachers are looking and listening for in young students, there's an illuminating interview of Itzhak Perlman on Charlie Rose from a couple of years back. I've often boasted that I can spot musical talent within seconds. Age is irrelevant for me. Even with, say, a five-year-old barely able to squeak out a song, I can tell if there's a gift; that certain something; a spark, a passion, an ear, of course. Perlman claims in this interview that the spark resonates in the eyes; I wholeheartedly agree. How do you define talent? asks Rose. Perlman goes on to explain that one can not only hear how the notes are magically turned into vehicles to express, but see the 'look' in the performer's eyes; how the young player responds to harmony as an indicator.

I'm reminded of the time a youngster arrived here to play the first movement of a Vivaldi Concerto. The pulse was somewhat erratic, the bow hold somewhat clenched, the vibrato somewhat excessive, but the violin sang nevertheless. I heard a poet and I wasn't wrong. "You have to have something to say to make great music," says Perlman. "The truly gifted have an instinct—and an ear."

But then what happens when you discover the talent in the child, asks Charlie Rose. What happens when there's potential for greatness? And here, Perlman laughs softly. "So many things can happen— parents and managers; parents, record companies and managers. Everything. It can happen in the positive. It can happen in the negative."

Refreshingly candid, if you ask me. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fiction of Relationship

Truth be told, I had little idea what I was signing up for when I joined Arnold Weinstein's online "Fiction of Relationship" course through Brown University and Coursera. Matter of fact, it was my dear friend and fellow book lover, Olga, who tipped me off. I wasn't sure if I could keep pace with the requirements of the class, given my often chaotic and fragmented schedule of teaching violin and  film recording gigs, though I knew the price was right—(it's free). But when I heard the words from my husband, "You won't have time for that—" in defiance, I signed up. (Nothing beats reverse psychology in our house.) Within moments, I found myself taking a survey. Had I joined the class because I knew of the professor, in this case, Arnold Weinstein? My answer was, shamefully, no. I admit my ignorance in having not known beforehand of Professor Weinstein's fame as Brown University's Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and esteemed writer and critic of numerous books, including one I now hold dear, "A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life."

What I have discovered during this journey is a whole new way of attempting to uncover the layers of selves in oneself and others. It is almost as if, on a few occasions, I've felt myself stepping out of my body to witness my words and actions while at the same time wondering: what is it you think I'm thinking? Yes, the professor has really gotten to me, entered my pores and seemingly crawled inside my head. He has infected me with his ideas. At a time when the information age and technology might be blamed for producing a senseless, soulless society, Weinstein's "Fiction of Relationship" works as a humanizing and vivifying force; an antidote to bland, boring, narcissistic, paper-pushing, solipsistic manners of existence. And lucky for us, we can attend his lectures and peer right into his classroom at Brown University with the click of a key. 

Weinstein has a way of penetrating, of inoculating, as do the literary masterpieces of Brontë, Prévost, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison, Coetzee, Melville that are on our reading list. The dead and forgotten are no longer dead and forgotten. They can, and shall be, resurrected. Weinstein, quite rightly, likens the absorption of literature and art to intercourse. The written word and creative act, when potent, has the capacity to enter our bloodstream and become part of who we are. In "Fiction of Relationship" as we "try on" the various literary characters we meet during our journey, Weinstein suggests that we imagine ourselves as psychotherapists being told these narratives from characters/patients lying on the couch. How to make sense of the character/patient? Oh, Professor Weinstein, if only you knew how much I love to diagnose! Just ask my daughters and violin students!

I recommend Arnold Weinstein's "Fiction of Relationship"  to every person in the world.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Magic Flute

Sir Kenneth Branagh's retelling of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" with English libretto by Stephen Fry has finally been released and distributed to 150 Emerging Pictures network theaters across the United States and is available as a DVD. The film was first presented in 2006 as part of The Toronto International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, and has played in many European countries. It is the first motion picture version specifically intended for movie theaters. Opera purists might get prickly at the idea of Mozart's well-known fairy-tale piece or Masonic opera (depending on which point of view) as a cinematic adaptation transplanted to the eve of the First World War. Branagh's "Magic Flute" retains Mozart's score in its entirety, with the soundtrack provided by the sensitive artistry of conductor James Conlon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and features first rate, mostly young singers. The original libretto by Mozart's Masonic Lodge brother, Emanuel Schikaneder, remains for most an enigma. Goethe said of the drama, "More knowledge is required to understand the value of the libretto than to mock it."

Mozart most likely could taste death during the creation of "Die Zauberflöte". The singspiel was premiered in 1791 by Schikaneder's local theater troupe just a few months prior to the composer's death. Mozart, as most of us know (at least from the Peter Schaffer's popular movie "Amadeus") was convinced that he had been poisoned. During that fateful year, an unknown messenger brought a letter without a signature inquiring whether Mozart would undertake to write a Requiem Mass. Mozart had a presentiment of his impending death; the Mass, he assumed, was for himself. Mozart was unafraid of death. In April 1787 he wrote to his father: "As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness."

Branagh's "Flute" catapults the viewer right into combat and death's grip but manages to artfully intersperse magic moments of comic relief, just as singspiel or light opera is meant to do, most notably in the character of Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis). The overture begins with a dance of war and brutality. Rhythmic outbursts are precisely timed with rapid machine gunfire and explosions. Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) is being pursued by poison gas in the form of a serpent. He cries: "Angel of death has been sent here to kill me, can nobody hear me? I feel it's hot breath. The sharp stink of death." Tamino falls unconscious: "Am I still alive or did a higher power save me?"

Near death experience? Shock? Hallucination? Twilight sleep? Instead of three veiled women coming to the aid of Tamino, as the original libretto calls for, we find three buxom nurses. Masonic references are all but stripped from Branagh's adaptation. Instead we are taken on a harrowing journey through the flames of wartime death and destruction. Along the fantastical trip (could this be Tamino's neurons firing wishful dreams and a jumble of repressed memories of distant love?) we come face to face with the evil Queen of the Night (Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova) singing her famous aria on top of a tank. What unfolds is a gripping battle between the forces of the irrational evil queen and the enlightened values of Sarastro (German bass Rene Papé) as he calls upon Tamino and the object of Tamino's heart, Princess Pamina (Amy Carson) to undergo a set of trials, each one paving the way for the next, which, through their undying love and courage, will bring the war to its end and usher in peace. The flute meanwhile, with its magic properties, protects the couple through each of their ordeals.

In "Die Zauberflöte" Sarastro's character is based on Zoroaster, the king who was said to have invented magic. The eighteenth century went so far as to identify Sarastro with the prophet Ezekiel, others with Nimrod, Moses, and Ham, son of Noah. By contrast, Branagh's Sarastro is down to earth; he dwells in a field hospital rather than a temple, while caring for mutilated bodies and souls of  soldiers; ultimately, he prevails as a conjurer of a better world and proves to be a prophet of peace. As Kenneth Branagh makes clear, the universal message and music of "The Magic Flute" need not be for Illuminati only, nor opera elitists, nor a classical music know-it-all, but for every person. 

Mozart equated music with magic, for as a child, to play a concerto and work a miracle was one and the same for him. Franz Schubert found in Mozart "comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life." Is it any wonder then that "The Magic Flute" is as vibrant and relevant while being transplanted to the Great War on screen, as it certainly was while set in an eighteenth century European theater?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Questions for Violinist Joseph Silverstein

As a foremost American concert violinist, pedagogue, conductor and octogenarian, do you feel optimistic for the future of classical music in our country?
Yes, absolutely! I wouldn't continue to practice the violin and teach at Curtis Institute, Boston Conservatory, and Meadowmount School of Music if I felt otherwise.

What do you make of the current trend of leaving vacancies unfilled in professional orchestras but hiring temporary players instead?
The audition committees are as much the cause of unfilled vacancies as managements of the orchestras. Many highly qualified players who are subs with major orchestras have been rejected by the audition committees that sit right beside them on stage!

As a young violinist growing up in the Boston area during the 60s, I attended many of your solo recitals and concerts while you were concertmaster of Boston Symphony Orchestra. You became my role model early in life. Who was yours?
I have had many role models in life, starting with my father who was a superb teacher and a most sensitive and intellectual person; Joseph Gingold, Mischa Mischakoff and Richard Burgin, my predecessor at Boston Symphony, were all equally influential as violinists and musicians of great dedication. My idols? Heifetz and Kreisler are still important to me and a couple of singers influence my concept of sound: Jussi Björling and John McCormack are two that I listen to frequently.

There were very few women in professional symphony orchestras during my youth. That certainly has changed with women filling the ranks of first chair positions. Which begs the question: In our visually focused and youth oriented culture, do you feel that a person's appearance counts more today?
Since all auditions these days are held behind a screen appearance cannot be too much of a factor in orchestral hiring.

I know you've remarked that the level of orchestra playing has risen exponentially due to higher technical standards of present day instrumentalists. But, do you think that a homogeneity of sound and style have been lost as string sections are comprised of soloist hopefuls with bloated egos?
Yes, the players are better and no, a homogeneous sound is possible when requested by a conductor who has a concept of sound. In the past there were very few conductors who even spoke about homogeneous blend. In my extensive experience, I remember only Stokowski, Barbirolli and Ormandy making requests regarding a blending of sound from the various sections of the orchestra.

A performing artist needs to be at ease with an eclectic variety of music due to shifting tastes, attitudes, and box-office trends. Should traditional teaching be more receptive to crossover repertoire? When I was a kid, anything other than standard literature was frowned upon. Now I'm thinking....should I be teaching "Zelda"?
There is nothing in country or folk fiddling that can't be executed by a violinist who can play a Paganini Caprice with good rhythm, good intonation, dynamic variety and an attractive tone. So much for "Zelda"!

As far back as I remember, even when I watched you on television as a youngster in live performances with B.S.O, you've been blessed with wonderful nerves. What are your thoughts about the prevalent use of beta-blockers for performing artists?
I tell my students to avoid them as they can become dependent on them very easily. Performance anxiety is a real problem that must be dealt with by musicians, athletes, and anyone who must appear in public. I have always been nervous for concerts and I learned how to harness the adrenaline to create more energy in the performance. I work very hard with my students to help them to understand performance anxiety and cope with it effectively.

You mentioned that you practice the violin daily. What is your regimen?
I practice every day and scales are always an element of my routine. A sample rule: a scale that is played without dynamic and rhythmic goals is a waste of time.

You're working on a method book. Tell us about it.
When my little "Fiddlers Handbook" is finished (hopefully in September) I will certainly send you a copy. It won't be more than twenty-five pages in length as everything worthwhile that I have to say can be easily contained in a pamphlet including a few photos for position and some musical examples. Good riddance to thick method books!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Far From the Tree

Andrew Solomon's most recent book, "Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity" caught my eye on several occasions at my eldest daughter's house. The Yiddish expression
"dos epele falt nit vayt fun beymele" means the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, or rather, that children follow the example of their parents. But what happens when that is hardly the case? Solomon's book offers a thorough and sensitive examination of how families learn to accept and embrace children who are vastly different from themselves. Chapters follow the lives of families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down's syndrome, disability, autism, schizophrenia, transgender issues, children born of rape, criminality, and musical child prodigies. In all cases, the families' lives are made richer and more rewarding through their unusual journeys. There are more similarities than differences these families collectively share, in terms of societal biases and conflicting emotions. "Far From The Tree" grew out of Solomon's determination to forgive his parents for having been openly disappointed with his being gay and for having tried to "fix" him.

Although it's difficult for me accept comparison of a musical prodigy offspring to the plight of families coping with one of the above challenges, my main argument being that prodigiousness is usually a trait that one gloats about, Solomon emphasizes that "being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying. Like a disability, prodigiousness compels parents to redesign their lives around the special needs of their child."

While recounting the story of pianist Evgeny Kissin's childhood, one can't help but acknowledge the blending forces of nature and nurture. When asked how Evgeny, called Zhenya by those who know him, had managed to avoid burnout typical to many wunderkinder, he said, "Simply this; I was brought up well...When I would return from school, I would, without taking my coat off, go to the piano and play. I made my mother understand that this was just what I needed." And when Zhenya would make lists for his teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor from the famed Gnessin School in Moscow, of the things he wanted to learn: "If I was asking for a difficult piece, I would put in brackets, 'Lenin said that difficult doesn't mean impossible.'"

In many cases, parents have burdened their offspring with unrealistic goals or have projected their own unfulfilled dreams onto their offspring. Violinist Jascha Heifetz described prodigiousness as being " a disease which is generally fatal," and one that he "was among the few to have the good fortune to survive." I seem to recall, during my studies with Heifetz, that the word prodigy was never spoken. Solomon asserts that the perfectionist, highly critical parent creates a lasting imprint of perceived failure for the child. I feel that anguish at times.

Since I attended Juilliard Pre-College in my youth, I well remember pianist Ken Noda, whose own account of his difficult childhood spent with an over-bearing mother and violent father in "Far From The Tree" offers a candid view of the dark side of stage parents. Noda, whose prodigious musical ability was likened to Mozart, garnered much attention from Juilliard faculty and was the envy of other parents. I recall wondering as a child whether or not Noda really might have been a reincarnation of Mozart; back then I never would have guessed that his childhood was tormented.
Ken Noda says of his mother: "I kept working so she'd love me, at least sometimes. You see, I was born with two umbilical cords; the physical one that everyone is born with, and another that was made of music."

Finding the right balance is crucial. Andrew Solomon writes, "While some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child's passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. The pushing error is more obvious and more present in our culture, but the other can be equally dire."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

O'Connor Hits the Mark

OK, I'm hooked. I'm a Mark O'Connor blog addict. Fiddler/Violinist/Composer extraordinaire Mark O'Connor blows the lid off Shinichi Suzuki. On his blog, and on a public facebook page, O'Connor reveals what many educators and professional musicians have been secretly surmising all along, but dared not admit: The Suzuki Method is a "death sentence" to creativity, self-discovery, diversity, inventiveness and originality. I really believe this film clip speaks for itself, Suzuki offering a demonstration of "Jingle Bells" to teachers. 

Through my own decades of experience as an educator, I find myself largely in agreement with O'Connor's conclusion that the loss of musical individuality is due to a regimented, militaristic method of rote learning. I was dismayed in our teaching studio when a young adult violinist received, but appeared unable to comprehend, a stylistic and logical fingering suggested by my husband.  You mean Ringman or Middleman? was her reply, after being encouraged to shift up with the third finger. She was on her way to completion for Suzuki Certification. For a while, I had a pair of siblings that had studied violin under a Suzuki brand teacher which resulted in considerable frustration for myself and for them. Why? Note names were foreign to these students; notes had been identified as "low two", "high one," etc.  And, sadly, I had a father in my studio who berated his four-year-old daughter for not performing "Lightly Row" on command, threatening to take away a beloved toy if she remained uncooperative. Let's face it, once the seed has been planted, the seed to turn off the brain and merely conform and mimic, the pupil's musical journey is compromised. I, myself, had been initiated with Suzuki Method as a five-year-old, even having been one of the first children to play for Suzuki in Boston's Jordan Hall during the mid 60's. But my mother, an amateur violinist, realized within months that the approach of playing by imitation was crippling. She had me reading duets with her in no time, as well as piano studies and eurythmics class. To this day, however, my blood runs cold if I'm asked to improvise.

With interest I read about Mark O'Connor's own method and philosophy, though I employ various approaches tailored to fit the needs of my students in my teaching studio:

"American musical culture includes many other and wiser principles of self-discovery, individualism, creativity, free spirit, journey, diversity, and a whole host of other philosophies born out of a multicultural experience. It is with these ideals and philosophies - the "American System," that I created the "O'Connor Method" for learning strings."

Back in 2004, with the venerable violinist Joseph Silverstein conducting Seattle's Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Mark O'Connor performed his "The American Seasons" to two sold-out shows. As concertmaster of that ensemble, I shared memorable moments with illustrious performers. It occurred to me that although the ensemble had difficulty grasping the complexity of O'Connor's syncopated rhythmic patterns, his devil-may-care attitude gave us just the boost we needed. Before the concert began, Silverstein explained to the audience that O'Connor's music wasn't "crossover" but mainstream American music full of folk-based themes in the way that Dvořák and Smetana wove in their own ethnic heritage. Certainly, the time is long overdue for present day violinists to stake their claim in the creative process, to regain the abilities lost over the past fifty years, such as the art of improvisation, transcription and composition, as O'Connor points out on his fabulous blog. Maybe we all need to breathe easier and let our hair down. But remember, we need not replace the great composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms in order to do so.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Wisdom Seekers

I've mentioned in a previous blog post that the verb for studying and teaching is the same in Yiddish: lernen. I'm reminded of this concept over and over again while in our studio. One of the greatest aspects of teaching classical music, or any creative art form, is that the capacity for knowledge is limitless. Students learn from teachers; teachers from students.

Presently, I've been resuming piano and theory studies in order to add yet another dimension to my mentoring. I've not studied piano since my year in the Heifetz Masterclass. It is gloriously fun to attempt piano accompaniments with several of my students, for in some ways, my blunders might prove empowering to them. For if I can laugh at my own mistakes, and wish to improve upon my silly errors, what better way is there of demonstrating a will and desire to learn? I'll admit, it's humbling to multitask as a pianist in my advanced years! I can well appreciate performers who possess more than one instrumental skill with expertise. It has been noted that Jascha Heifetz's first love was the piano. Heifetz demanded that all his students learned viola, in addition to the piano. By doing so, a violinist could succeed in experiencing the inner voice of a string ensemble piece, provide a supporting role to the diva first violinist, or better yet, crawl right inside the music. My most cherished memories from masterclass days were when we enjoyed rounds of string quartets and quintets, Heifetz included, never knowing which of us would be offered whatever part.

Recently, I've formed and joined a spirited book club. We call ourselves "The Wisdom Seekers" and have begun with Shakespeare and Goethe. My fellow seekers in this journey are a bit older than I am, for one of the readers, concert pianist Randolph Hokanson, is 97 years old. After listening to Goethe's poetry aloud in German (the Wisdom Seekers are fluent, but I can comprehend much of spoken German through my smattering of Yiddish), the issue was raised that today's youth are bound to be distracted or put off from learning classical music due to peer pressure. "Certainly," stated a Wisdom Seeker, "your students must face social isolation if they admit to their friends they'd rather practice the violin or viola than spend time texting and messaging on facebook!"
Which gave me pause. My husband Ilkka and I were set to present another Talvi Studio recital the very next evening. We do so regularly.
"No," I replied, after much thought. "I think the opposite. For instance, when we form groups and join together for chamber music, it's a thrill for our students. Just like what we're doing here. How is it much different from reading Shakespeare together as a quartet, or reciting Goethe's poetry? It is cool. So cool, in fact, that I'd imagine other youngsters might feel envious for what they're missing. That is, if they only knew what it was they were missing."

We, as mentors, can never know what path a young learner may seek, where the journey will lead to those who have communed with the great spirits of art, music and literature. We only know that our children's lives are all the richer for it, and it is time well spent.

Here now, a magic moment from our most recent Talvi Studio Recital. Ilkka's wonderful violinist/violist student, Sage Mitchell-Sparke, a testament to the youth of today.