VC INTERVIEW | Benjamin Roe – President & CEO of the Heifetz International Music Institute

The Violin Channel recently caught up with Benjamin Roe - President & CEO of the Heifetz International Music Institute

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The Violin Channel recently caught up with Benjamin Roe – President & CEO of the Heifetz International Music Institute.

Tell us about the Heifetz Institute – its history, philosophy and mission?

“The Heifetz Institute was founded in 1996 by Daniel Heifetz – as he was called during his career, ‘the OTHER Heifetz’ – to guide the next generation of exceptional young musicians through the Performance & Communication Training method that he pioneered.

To step back for a moment, just imagine being an incredibly talented young violinist named … Heifetz. Imagine growing up in the same city as the world-renowned Jascha Heifetz (a distant cousin), dubbed in a recent PBS documentary as ‘God’s Fiddler.’ Then imagine being so good at the violin that your talent is spotted by the elder Heifetz to the extent that you take lessons from God’s Violinist himself, and he is sufficiently impressed to invite you to become his student. You are 14 years old. What, then would YOU do?

Thus begins the unorthodox career of Daniel Heifetz, and with it the very foundation of the Heifetz International Music Institute. For while both Jascha and Daniel Heifetz earned well-deserved reputations as front-rank concert violinists, their styles could not have been more different. The legendary Jascha: Cool, distant, commanding, impervious, and technically- and note-perfect. The upstart Daniel: Hot, immediate and in-your-face, reactive….and, oh, yes, technically- and note-perfect! What Daniel innately understood is that the best concert music connected not only the head, but also the heart.  And what was second nature to him was either utterly unknown or deemed unimportant to the world of conservatories and music schools.

And that really is the origin story of the Heifetz International Music Institute. Daniel flew across the country to study at the Curtis Institute of Music with Efram Zimbalist and Ivan Galamian, was a medalist at the Tchaikovsky Competition, and was the youngest artist ever signed by the legendary talent manager Sol Hurok. And after a quarter-century of playing on the world’s biggest stages, Daniel continued to be distressed by the fact that the emotions that birthed some of the greatest works of what we call ‘classical music’ were barely taught and even lesser understood.

So, in true (Daniel) Heifetz style, he decided to do something about it.  And thus was born, with two dozen aspiring fiddlers gathered for two weeks in a Howard County farm, the Heifetz International Music Institute. Another quarter-century later, here we are, having to figure out another way forward, balancing rigidly inflexible necessities with challenging but limitless possibilities!”

 

How does the Heifetz Institute differ to other summer festival and academies?

“That preamble is all to explain the need for personality to be a part of what we are urging our students to discover and explore. We have a saying at the Institute that ‘No one gets to hide here,’ particularly with our focus on solo and chamber music. Students are encouraged, and in fact trained, to bring out their individuality, not only as on-stage (or, this year, on-Zoom) performers, but also, and more importantly, as young men and women seeking to discover their own true artistic selves. The Heifetz Performance and Communication Training method is interwoven through all aspects of the student experience, augmenting both their individual practice, their collaborations, their approach to performing, and even the relationships they form with fellow students.

We are trying to give these exceptionally talented young artists the tools to perfect their artistry as well as their physical, mental, and emotional range. Our program guides students through multidisciplinary courses that are ultimately designed to connect those learnings and experiences back to their musical pursuits and the concert stage, often with discrete and measurable goals.

Another defining characteristic is the sheer number and variety of performance opportunities throughout the six weeks of the Heifetz Institute. Pushing the ‘chicks out of the nest’ to perform onstage – ready or not – is an article of faith. Our Artistic Director Nicholas Kitchen sums up the Heifetz experience to our students this way: ‘We don’t have conductors at the Heifetz Institute. Once you walk out on stage, YOU are in charge of everything that happens after that. What you say, what you play, and what you give is entirely up to you. We are only here to help you get to that moment.'”

With daily concerts, and only a single night per week devoted to faculty and guest artists during our regular years, the overwhelming majority of the summer stage time goes to our students. Additionally, there are many opportunities through outreach performances in libraries, schools, assisted living facilities, and other community events, as well as our Saturday Heifetz Hootenannies in which performers have opportunities to expand their repertory experience to the new ‘Three B’s’ of Broadway, Bluegrass, and Beyoncé, and beyond!”

 

How have you pivoted and adapted this year to the unprecedented difficulties of the COVID pandemic?

“The most important decision we made was the earliest. I’m proud to say that our Heifetz Institute Board of Directors not only supported our decision making wholeheartedly, but they also truly helped us forge a path forward in a most uncertain and confusing time. We convened a Task Force early on – made up of doctors, attorneys, business and community leaders – to explore our options, ranging from the most pessimistic to the rosiest optimism about what lay ahead. Soon after, the group formed a consensus that the odds were against holding a physical Institute this summer in Virginia. Thanks to their forward thinking, by the end of the month – in March, mind you! – we had committed to a summer Institute that would solely function online. (We had actually published our first announcements on our website regarding potential COVD-19 plans in January 2020, as it happened.) .  

Of course it was a difficult decision, but it also represented a moment of clarity – we knew that if we were going to accomplish this, we had no time to lose by hoping things would change. We braced ourselves for disappointed students to opt out of the program. And some did. But as it turned out, we had little trouble maintaining our enrollment between the previously committed students who chose to stay on, and new students who were eager to jump through a summertime window when so many were closing around them.

Our Artistic Director Nicholas Kitchen’s firm conviction that for so many of our students a summer without the focus, intensity, and learning potential of an elite summer program like ours would be catastrophic for their development – it’s like an Olympic athlete having their training put on hold. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but in my five years at Heifetz I can bear witness to how the time students spend here truly can have a powerful, transformative impact on the arc of their lives and careers: The colleagues they meet, the teachers they encounter, the pieces they play; the personal challenges they meet and overcome. As it happened, before this all hit we had a record number of applicants to the Heifetz Institute, and the level of talent was exceptional. We felt that we really owed it to our students to honor the work and commitment that they had put into that entire process to get accepted into the Institute in the first place.  

Despite the upheaval, 100% of our faculty committed to teaching in this virtual environment – adhering to the same weekly schedule we laid out before any of these changes were made. To be sure, some have been offering private lessons by video for some time now. For others who are not as technically inclined, they’ve had no choice but to come up to speed quickly at their own institutions. The dedication from the string teachers, the communication training instructors, and the collaborative pianists has been incredible, and they have all stepped up to make this a success. I think the collegial relationship with our faculty – and the loyalty they have displayed to the institution – is a real tribute to the ‘core DNA’ that Daniel Heifetz instilled in the Institute that is now being carried on by Nicholas Kitchen” 

 

What challenges have you had to overcome this year to ensure a smooth online edition?

“In all, 100 students and 45 faculty members across nine time zones are participating in the program, which is providing a meaningful and intense musical learning experience in the digital realm that thrives on the Heifetz Institute’s unique vision and assets. The challenge of coordinating these participants cannot be understated. We have taken to calling our Office Manager Ana Abrantes an ‘Air Traffic Controller,’ running three screens day and night and responding to ‘MayDay’ calls with tremendous efficiency and without batting an eye.

One of the reasons I think that the faculty likes coming to Heifetz is that we pride ourselves on ‘making the trains run on time,’ with a fierce commitment to making the dizzying and complex daily schedules of each and every student and faculty member work as smoothly as possible. That has been pushed to the limits this summer like never before, but the rhythms and routines have continued to adhere as closely as possible to the in person experience with a full schedule of private lessons, studio classes, Communication Training, daily performances, and additional student life activities.

The technological issues of how to connect these participants has also been a challenge. In what Bob Dylan would call a ‘simple twist of fate,’ our Artistic Director Nicholas Kitchen, whose Borromeo Quartet is famous for being the first major ensemble to perform exclusively off of digital devices, and who builds his own foot pedals for page turning, is arguably the most qualified artist in the world to accept this enormous challenge. We’re extremely fortunate to have someone in Nick Kitchen who has both a keen musical mind, as well as an intuitive understanding and embrace of how technology can enhance artistic aspirations and accomplishment.

All to say that contemplating a move into a completely online arena was perhaps not as big of a leap for us as it might have been for other organizations. But that’s not to minimize the fact that nothing has been easy about the process. I’m not going to pretend for a minute that the technology we’re using is proprietary, or that we have developed some “secret sauce” that is unavailable elsewhere. I will cite instead the stirring words of President John F. Kennedy, when he announced an audacious and unprecedented undertaking to the American nation in 1960:

‘We choose to go to the Moon and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’

What we are doing under Nick Kitchen’s leadership is working to create a systematic, orderly method for creating musical collaborations across distances that is artistically valid, and faithful to our communicative mission. So creating the architecture – the standards, practices, protocols, and equipment – has been the most important component. We’ve also tested different equipment that we provided to our students and faculty as part of the ‘technology toolkit’ to help them create a higher standard of music-making, including studio microphones and headphones, and have provided extensive training across a variety of digital audio workstations. All of these elements have allowed us to design a platform in which our students could still present meaningful performances, and the results of the online collaborations between soloists and pianists, and even string quartets, have been truly amazing.

Of course all of those best-laid plans regarding scheduling and technology are still at the mercy of everyone showing up on time, inconsistent internet speeds, a hard drive that decides to crash right before a recording session, etc… and so our staff is structured so that there is always someone on call 24/7 to assist with any needs that our students or faculty may have.  Advanced, and gut-simple: We have an entire Discord channel devoted to the topic: ‘HELP!'”

 

Is the tuition and experience for the students this year comparable to the usual in-person Institute? What initiatives have you put in place to maintain your core qualities?

“We slashed tuition in half, which was of course a huge gamble. Accordingly, we honored all of our scholarship commitments on a prorated basis. As it turns out, some of our international students – approximately one-third of our student body – are attending a summer institute for the first time this summer, thanks in part to the lack of prohibitive travel costs.

There’s no question that we can’t replicate everything that makes a Heifetz summer so special: The camaraderie in the dining hall, the late-night runs to the ice-cream shop, the intense chamber music rehearsals, and the sheer energy, passion and fun of a Heifetz concert. Regardless, we committed ourselves to doing as much as we could to replicate online what you might expect from a typical day at the Heifetz Institute, e.g., private lessons in the morning, Communication classes and symposia in the afternoon, concerts in the evening. We have found that there is a real value to our students – no matter where they are in the world – to the dailiness and consistency of the schedule, especially given the uncertainty we have all been facing these past six months.

We also have had a Student Experience team in place specifically to facilitate all of the extracurricular activities that make a summer at Heifetz so memorable for many of our students. They are gathering for virtual hangouts – cooking classes, worship services, career counseling, and more based on their own shared interests. We want Heifetz to continue to be a place where people can feel a real sense of belonging – not just for the six weeks of the program, but forever after”

 

What new possibilities have you seen emerge for the classical music industry from those challenging times?

“The pivot to presenting all of our daily programming online to a virtually unlimited audience, (as opposed to our home auditoria with capacities of 100-500 people), have certainly presented an opportunity to expand our audiences and reach people who may not have ever had a chance to engage with us during our normal operations.

Closer to home, we have had the opportunity to work closely with our local hospital network, Augusta Health, to offer 18 weekly one-on-one concerts via video livestream to their patient and resident populations who are isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Heifetz students are performing for patients, as well as front line medical workers, and providing inspiration and a sense of community to those who in many cases have been isolated from human interaction for weeks or even months. While this is a continuation of the longstanding tradition of community service during the summer program, this type of sustained effort could not have been implemented during our normal operations.

It is remarkable how many people have reached out to us who want to contribute and collaborate in this arena that is challenging all of us –  equipment manufacturers, software developers, app makers, and more. We’re all trying to figure out this puzzle together, and I think one of the silver linings is that we have a lot of very smart and motivated people who are going to make profound, positive improvements in the challenge of creating satisfying musical experiences in the distance-learning arena.

Beyond that, it is incredibly inspiring to see so many of our students thriving with these new digital technologies. The skills they are acquiring this summer – video and audio production, microphone techniques, effective communication in an online setting, will surely serve them well through these current times but also in their lives and careers beyond”

 

If audiences want to tune in to this year’s Heifetz Institute, how can they do so?

“We have been presenting daily full length broadcasts through Heifetz Rubato: The Virtual Concert Hall, all summer long. In all there will be 49 concerts, with the Grand Finale on August 9th. Additionally, we’ve been presenting student and alumni performances of Bach every morning at 9am.

All of these can be seen at www.heifetzinstitute.org”

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