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Ariane Todes reports on a star-studded visit to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Yesterday, on a rest day at the Indianapolis Violin Competition, I popped over to Bloomington to see the Indiana Jacobs School of Music. It felt a bit like visiting a Hollywood set, complete with A-list stars (Joshua Bell, Janos Starker, Menahem Pressler), great crew (Mimi Zweig, Jorja Fleezanis, Alexander Kerr), wonderful facilities and a buzzy atmosphere. I even got to walk across a real stage set – for the Barber of Seville in their magnificent opera house.

I was able to watch Professor Starker’s class, as he did ‘reconstruction’ work on one student, taking him back to basics on the movement of the left hand in vibrato and offering the advice: ‘When you are practising concentrate on one thing – the left hand, the right hand, or how you sit.’ The student was quite rigid in his playing and Starker talked of him having to find out ‘how to let the music go through the body and not just the head and fingertips.’ With his many years of teaching experience, he often mentions ‘rules’, which are a form of shorthand in the class: for example, the ‘Rule of D String’ whereby you automatically play more on the D string because it’s covered.

He sits in the corner of his studio dispensing wisdom with a twinkle in his eye, although it disappeared quickly when one student admitted he hadn’t prepared the agreed-on Popper study. But watching him imitate Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello goes straight on my top-ten moments of working at The Strad – a little moment of string history!

I met Jorja Fleezanis, one of the newer teaching recruits, who has a fascinating take on how students invest all their energy in working on their left-hand technique, often at the expense of the right. This despite the fact that the right hand is so much more vital to expression, and often harbours emotional issues and insecurities that need to be worked on. She also gave me some great insights for my article about the ‘American sound’ for our November issue. Is the shiny, big sound some people think of as ‘American’ really the fault of brass players playing too loudly?

And then it was off to see Menahem Pressler, surely one of the wonders of the music world. He told me of his schedule – off to London next week, then touring the Netherlands, then to China, back to the US, off to Europe. As I struggle with jetlag myself, I think of the 86-year-old and his infectious enthusiasm for life with absolute awe. I wanted to find out what advice he would offer string players about performing with pianists and he had lots of great things to say, which we’ll feature in a future issue of the magazine. One was pretty fundamental to any working relationship: ‘Never insult a colleague or question the integrity of what they’re doing.’

After a pretty intense day taking in all these wonderful things, and feeling not a little envious of the students lucky enough to experience the school, it was back to Indianapolis to hear Augustin Hadelich in recital, who won the violin competition in 2006. Although I could have done with a bit more dynamic range, this was really beautiful playing, with a refined musical sensibility. It bodes well for the winner of this year’s competition. The finals kick off tonight, so more soon.

Did you study at Indiana? Do you have any memories?

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