Letter to a Young Violinist
Thank you for sharing your background, and thank you for contacting me. I am honored that you feel my opinion would help you. The questions you ask seem directed towards someone who fits the definition of "violin soloist," or "professional classical musician." I am not comfortable with such labels. I am a person who happens to play violin, rather than a violinist as such; I often prefer discussing or reading about Iranian politics, Pakistani history, or cultural diplomacy to discussing historic recordings, recital programming, method books, and career paths. Lately I spend more time walking in the park than practicing.
Please understand that I don't mean this as a rebuke to your questions (which I will answer shortly) or as an underhanded way of condescending to those who do derive great satisfaction from the conventional career paths offered by classical music. Rather, I inform you that my own perspective is rather unusual.
I am the founder and director of Cultures in Harmony, an organization that promotes cultural understanding through music. We have conducted sixteen projects in ten countries from Qatar to Zimbabwe. In August, I will travel to Pakistan with Cultures in Harmony. In October, I will move to Afghanistan, where I will take up the post of Violin and Viola Teacher with the Ministry of Education. I will continue to run Cultures in Harmony remotely from Kabul.
Your teacher, family, and friends may very well disagree with all my answers. You should consider my thoughts as coming from an atypical source, and apply them or not as you see fit.
One week after my freshman orientation at Juilliard concluded, the planes screamed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This tragedy changed my life, and transformed my view of music. On September 16, I played for some soldiers from the Fighting Sixty-Ninth regiment as they were coming back from a long day of rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero. This experience made me realize that I could not remain in the ivory tower of classical music while the floodwaters of history raged outside. As musicians, we possess extraordinary power to help direct the flow of history. Yet that power is too infrequently explored or understood.
I founded Cultures in Harmony to explore that power, but many other organizations exist as well, including ones that are far more famous and have far more impact than my own. My conviction that the musician is not separate from society is hardly original. The president of Juilliard, Dr. Joseph Polisi, repeatedly returns to this theme, most notably in his book, The Artist as Citizen.
Because of this conviction, I urge you to think not about how to budget your practice time, but how to make violin practice part of a rich and enriching college experience. What interests do you have outside of music? How can music complement, enhance, or further those interests? What concerns you about the state of your community, your nation, your world? How do you define those different groupings? How can music help address your concerns and right the wrongs you observe?
Certainly, when I was a freshman I practiced a lot. I wish I had taken more walks, read more books, seen more plays, discussed more political developments, reflected more, evolved more, listened more. In December 2007, I performed solo with orchestra in Carnegie Hall. I have not performed with orchestra since then. I do not think that if I had practiced 100 more hours, I would have performed a concerto since then, nor do I believe that if I had practiced 100 fewer hours, I would never have enjoyed that singular honor.
After graduating from Juilliard in May 2006, I resolved to free-lance in New York. By August of 2006, I had been awarded the job of Interim Concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony. Yet what mattered was not that I was concertmaster. What mattered was the impact I was privileged to have on the community because I was concertmaster. I sought out opportunities to do outreach even the last-desk players didn't want, such as helping out with a petting zoo or playing at a nursing home. I enjoyed the plethora of activities offered by a beloved orchestra in a smaller community: solo work, chamber performances, new music, gigs, and more.
I free-lanced in New York for a year (2007-2008). Following that, I was a Fellow at The Academy. The most meaningful part of The Academy was not the regular performances in Carnegie Hall. With considerably more fondness, I recall the adorable class of first grade violin students I taught at PS 108 in Brooklyn.
While I have not had many solo engagements, I am not particularly bothered. I find more meaning performing for children in the slums of Cameroon or for indigenous tribes in the jungle of Papua New Guinea than I do in performances given in cold, darkened halls for old, wealthy audiences whom I do not know and am unlikely to meet again. I sometimes joke that I have performed on three stages that I love: Carnegie Hall; the ancient Roman coliseum at El Jem, Tunisia; and a tiny amphitheater in the remote mountain village of Miarayon on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
My biggest struggle as a classical violinist was learning to accept that I will not be the next Joshua Bell, but that struggle resulted in the current stage of my professional career, where even an average day means more to me than the highlights of the conventional career I thought I wanted. One hundred forty-five people in Zimbabwe can see because of a benefit concert my organization presented for Eyes for Africa. Children in Moldova are reading 7,000 books because of a benefit concert I played in 2005. In Cameroon, Cameroonians and Nigerians work together to build mutual understanding and respect, and their work found new inspiration in our project there last month.
Which was more meaningful? My Carnegie Debut, or a violin student in Tunisia who told me: “It was terrific to meet you and I hope that I will see you again next year and I’m awfully happy to know and to meet you. Besides, you’ve changed the image that I had about Americans because you’re completely different. You’re nice, kind, friendly, generous, awesome, beautiful.”
That question is impossible to answer, because clearly both experiences have tremendous meaning. Only one of them moved me to tears of joy though, and by now you can guess which one.
Finally, you ask what advice I would offer to those who would like to pursue a career as a soloist.
Be honest to yourself and with others.
Think before you speak.
Make time for fun.
Act honorably and decently.
Be kinder than necessary.
Listen more, talk less.
You might think that such advice could just as easily apply to a cable guy, and scoff that I am merely offering a mediocre recycling of Polonius' speech to Laertes.
Well, here's a story about a cable guy. A guy came to my apartment to fix my high-speed internet. When he found out that I am a violinist, he was impressed. "You get to do something you love," he said. "I'm just a cable guy," he added, with a heart-breaking, wistful tone.
Never forget that you are engaged in a magical avocation. Simply by causing the air to vibrate, you can fabricate an invisible, inexpressible connection that compels your listener to confront the humanity they share with you, with the other members of the audience, with everyone in the world. The sound waves are the same, but each interpretation of those waves is different, and from this flow the ideals of equality, democracy, justice, freedom.
We are equal in our ability to apprehend music, for even the deaf can feel the sound waves, and no language barrier on earth prevents the greatest music from having an emotional effect.
Yet that effect is different for each of us. What one woman loves bores another; what one man finds a catchy tune, another can hardly remember. From the need to respect each different interpretation, we can understand democracy.
The truism of music's universality becomes lost in cliché, but that does not make music itself any less universal. You cannot truly listen to music from another culture or performed by someone from another culture without understanding that we all share some basic traits. We all desire beauty and truth; we all cry over heartache; we all act silly with a baby. To understand this universality can be terrifying, which is why many choose not to listen to music with the intensity that would make this message inescapable.
Yet the message is there. It was there in Mexico when I observed a group of jarineros diligently practicing their music, even though their music was incomprehensible to me. It was there in Egypt when I danced on the street with fishmongers, singing a song by Um Kulthum that we distorted beyond all recognition. From this universality, a passion for justice flows as inevitably as a river from a mountaintop.
When you make music, you understand the true meaning of freedom. Freedom does not mean do whatever you want, and even the most rule-abhorring improviser subconsciously establishes rules that limit what they can or cannot do. You will meet improvising musicians who speak of "free improvisation," but in this free improvisation, will they perform the complete works of Mozart? Of course not. There are always rules, but within those rules, the freedom available to us is magnificent, terrifying, ennobling, soaring, and the only reason any of us bother to live in the first place.
Take the Bach G Minor Adagio for solo violin. Learn it strictly, with the rhythm exactly as printed on the page. Now observe two things: many violinists never bother to learn the precise rhythm, instead taking as sacrosanct the rubato they heard in some recording. Second, many violinists play this piece with eight pulses to a bar, treating each note as a significant event, rather than as a point along an ornamental curve, unfolding with a spontaneity that is logical only in hindsight.
After learning the movement, try playing it with two pulses to the bar…the metronome would be theoretically set to about 16 to the half note (one eighth note at 64). How much freedom is suddenly available to you! How profound, anguished, playful, eccentric, and impassioned becomes this one page of music! How unimportant the intonation of a given sixty-fourth note, and how all-important the relative weight of each gesture becomes!
Music is not about you, it is not for musicians, it is not its own world. It is far too serious to be taken seriously, too important to be spoken of in important tones, and too powerful to be confined to conventional venues, career paths, and modes of living and expression.
Music connects us to each other, touching us at a level few things can. If life is love, and love is the connections we value above all others, than music is no more separate from life than life is from itself.
These are just the ramblings of a 26-year-old with too much time on his hands as he prepares to go to Pakistan in three weeks, stand alongside members of The Citizens Foundation as they offer secular education to boys and girls, and perform alongside Pakistani musicians to demonstrate to a people deeply suspicious of Americans that our souls vibrate as one.