The Violin Channel recently sat down with Ida Kavafian, Professor of Music at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia.
Can you tell us about your passion for teaching and how your approach/pedagogy has evolved over the years?
My teaching and my approach to music in general is based on my biggest influence, both musically and violinistically, my teacher Oscar Shumsky. He always had a small class because he gave each student such individual attention. I have not always been successful in keeping my classes small, but I have tried my best to teach all of them according to their own needs, be it physical or personal or musical.
It takes a lot of energy to teach this way, but I am blessed with incredible talent at the Curtis Institute. They keep me going all day and all night without even thinking about fatigue!
My philosophy is to work from a good score or from an urtext edition. I try to instill in my students that they are smarter than anyone who got an arbitrary gig editing a violin part, because they know themselves and know what fits them. My pet peeve is all of the editors that seem to know better than the composer. Too many times we are stuck with the changes to the score that are made by players that can’t execute what the composer wrote, so they change the parts according to their own shortcomings. This makes me crazy!!!
Give us what the composer wrote and let us make the decisions about whether we can or cannot execute it. Sure, give us some ideas, but first and foremost show us what the composer wrote.
What are the most beneficial aspects of having weekly studio classes?
The camaraderie that comes from the support that all of these students give each other is something they will remember for all of their lives. They all respect each other so much that the pressure of playing in studio class is probably greater than any pressure they will feel in any performance or recording for the rest of their lives. This results in an amazing learning experience that they will carry forever.
Since all of them are encouraged to comment on each other’s playing, their listening skills are also keenly developed. I make limited comments in studio class but mostly go around the class encouraging all of them to comment on each other. This tells me a lot about what each student is listening for in the performances. I will then try to subtly help them listen for what I think is important if they have shown me otherwise.
Let’s not forget that every school group activity was canceled. Studio class is a small consolation that we were able to retain. I feel like Studio Class is even more crucial for all of us remotely than it was in person.
How did you adapt your teaching to the COVID-19 situation?
Getting used to teaching remotely was a challenge. I would not want to teach a new student remotely, exclusively. It helps a lot to know the player because sometimes you have to imagine what is coming out due to the limitations of the technology.
Teaching sound is really difficult. Technique and musicality is more possible, though because of the compression and equalizing, it is sometimes difficult to hear dynamic range and of course color. We’re all doing our best in a tough situation.
What do you feel is the most challenging for students during these times?
I think it is really difficult for the students to not to be around each other both musically and socially. The fact that all of their summer activities to which they were looking forward were canceled, that was super difficult.
Imagine working towards getting into a festival and finally getting in, only to have it disappear. The same thing with concerts and competitions. School projects such as orchestra concerts and opera give the students a team spirit. Those were gone as well.
For those of us that are older and have experienced all of these things for so many years, I can only imagine the frustration and sadness that all of the students felt as things simply disappeared.
How did you come up with this idea of a studio class concert series? What are you hoping to achieve? What are your goals for your students?
When it was clear that we were not going to return from spring break, I knew that I needed to find something to motivate and inspire my students. I thought that perhaps a class project that was practical, that was possible to achieve on their own was the answer. What better way than to explore the vast repertoire for solo violin?
I presented the challenge to them and invited them to choose a work. I also provided a list of works for them to explore. I was thrilled with the variety of repertoire that they chose! This is an important age for them. They will retain what they learned during these years forever.
Did you witness any positive aspects coming out of this project?
There were many positive aspects coming out of this project, but I would say class camaraderie and support for each other was one of the most important. Since each one of the students chose works that would stretch their imagination and ability, they naturally improved their playing by working so hard on this project.
I can also think of wonderful practical results – when Eric has an orchestra appearance and needs an encore, he can confidently play the Kreisler Recitative and Scherzo. Jenny can play the Andante from the Bach A Minor. Hana can play the last movement of the Hindemith Sonata. When Emily needs a work after 1960 for an audition or a competition, she can play the Maderna Widmung, a work that no one else is likely to choose! Lun can play one of the four Songs of Solitude of John Harbison.
When time is limited with a piano collaborator, any of them can drawback on the solo pieces that they learned for this project to complete a recital.
What advice/encouragement would you like to give to students for this coming semester?
I will continue to find projects to try to challenge and inspire my students. Some of them will benefit from going through as much repertoire as possible. Some will benefit from digging deeply into works in detail like the Beethoven Concerto. Some need to work on specific bad habits and this is a great time to do so, while they don’t have to prepare for specific engagements.
Mainly, I will work my hardest to give them each what they need as individuals, whatever that might be.