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.