“There is always a right approach, we just have to find it. This is the most difficult task for educators”

01. February 2018

Joel Smirnoff is the former chair of the Violin Department of his highly acclaimed alma mater, the Juilliard School, the former president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and has been a member of the four-time Grammy winning Juilliard String Quartet. He considers music education and talent development his beloved vocation and special responsibility.

“Teaching is the hardest task for an artist, as he has to be especially careful about conveying the right ideas to his students in the best way possible. Especially gifted students are particularly difficult to handle. The question that occurs to me first upon encountering a great talent is what I could possibly teach this student, how can I improve or develop him or her. I must find their weakest point, which they themselves can improve and develop. It is not easy to find this area, as being proud of their skills and abilities, everyone tries to put their strengths on display. Another important factor is that no teacher is entitled to undermine their student's personality. Being aware of this responsibility, we must work on the weak points without harming their existing strengths. We must educate people while preserving their individual personalities, otherwise we can cause long-lasting damage to their music careers. Music is an art form that is built on the manifestation of the musician's personality during performance, so we teachers must be particularly skilled when approaching our students lest we change them too much. We must simply nudge them onto another path. There is always a right approach, we just have to find it.”

 

The violinist and conductor Joel Smirnoff believes that the learning process is very long and that he himself is still a student, though in another, more advanced phase of this process: “As a teacher, you must see where a particular student currently finds himself or herself in life, as we can get them to take only one step at a time. In September, during the Bartók World Competition, one of my students didn't get shortlisted for the semi-final round. He came up to me and said that he had no idea what his next step should be. I took him out for a coffee and told him that I might know what it was, what should happen next in his music career. This made him feel much better, and he took heart from it. I must admit that teaching – although I love it deeply – is a very exacting job. It makes particular demands on a teacher: we must, for example, listen to our students’ play for many hours a day highly attentively and with a profound commitment to the music. Besides, we must make our students understand that being a musician is a privilege. Music is our life but we also earn our living from it. Our duty is to get people to comprehend the value of music and present composer giants to them in an authentic way.

 

“As educators, we tend to put our music students into categories, but in the long run it is those musicians who resist this categorization that will become successful and play music instinctively. We can observe the same with dancers and singers. The secret to their success is natural movement or a natural singing voice. This is why I keep emphasising the particular responsibility of educators: what matters most is that our students remain themselves even during concerts. We must respect their personalities and styles and must support them while, at the same time, open new doors for them. It is the music and not the teacher that must add to their individual characters: the teacher is merely a facilitator of this process. One of my professors, Dorothy Delay, once said to us that music was not about us. In a theatrical sense, music is the role that we play; in a way, every musician is an actor.

 

“A lot of musicians try to be successful by having a strong stage presence and making spectacular movements. Yet the musical giants of the past were almost motionless on stage: not one of Alberstein, Oistrakh or Bartók, nor even the Budapest Quartet, were ever ‘showy’. What is most important for success is to endow the audience with emotion. It has always been a complex task, but today it is even more difficult given that everyone is used to enjoying multimedia experiences and the majority of listeners have difficulty concentrating while using just one sensory organ. It is absolutely impossible to tell the children of today’s digital world just to listen to the music and not to watch the screen at the same time. This is why I believe that the radio was, and still is, quite wonderful. In the old days, when there was no television and people would listen only to the radio, music meant a lot more to them and reached them more effectively than it does today. Listening to music gets the imagination going – and this is unparalleled joy.

 

“Today’s youth has plenty of channels, forums and media sites to listen to music, and so they can easily access famous recordings of the past, too. This is why they can’t come up with an excuse for not having heard this or that performer. Nonetheless, it is still disappointing to ask young people about what music they listen to, as this turns out to be only young performers. I expect my students to also pay attention to old recordings. I insist, too, that they shouldn’t only limit themselves to studio-recorded performances, as live concerts are entirely different. You must witness what a musician is capable of in a live recital. It seems to me that today’s young people attend few concerts. When I was young, we used to go to countless live performances. I used to live in New York as a child, and I would sneak into the Carnegie Hall every other night. The significance of the contact between the musicians and the audience cannot be grasped by someone who doesn’t attend enough concerts.

 

“I would love to have the experience of working with a child prodigy like Mozart, someone who plays an instrument and composes music at the same time. Bartók, Chopin and Brahms would all play their own compositions. When I was president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, we had a piano student, Daniil Trifonov, who would also play his own works. In the 19th century, it was much more natural for musicians to compose their own music, even if not every piece turned out to be good. In those days, musicians had to experience the feeling of facing a blank sheet it was their task to fill. Today, the situation is entirely different: there are musicians and there are composers, quite separately. To my mind, a really good composer is also a musician.”

 

Ágnes Illyés