How Russia Makes Great Violinists

In 2012 Allie and I travelled to Russia, fulfilling a long held ambition. Journeying through the vast winter landscape, walking around the rustic villages and talking with the people, we tried to understand some of its enigmatic genius. The Russian psyche seems to be shaped by the country’s enormous distances, held together by a deep national identity and a culture that extends to the remotest corners. Russian people have showed an extraordinary capacity to endure and thrive in the face of the enormous challenges, changes and tragedies of history.

Our first destination was the St Petersburg Conservatorium of Music. We wanted to see how they grow young violinists with such amazing success. Not long after arriving back in Australia I wrote the following account, published here for the first time…

St Petersburg Church

Nickolay takes us through the back streets to the historic St Petersburg school building. Inside, fresh-faced young students rush along the corridors. We are introduced to the smiling director, who sends us off with a shy young teacher upstairs to a room with two pianos. We can’t speak Russian, they can’t speak English. Motioned to take a seat, we wait expectantly. How do the Russians produce their amazing musicians?

All the travel agents had told us it is only possible to visit Russia as part of a group tour.  Allie and I don’t like tours: the challenge of getting around by ourselves – learning some of the language, meeting people, eating local food and using local transport – makes travel an enjoyable adventure. Besides, it wasn’t really true. We found a company online who promised, for a nice fee, to get us visas to travel independently, without having to join a tour. So we booked the flights and packed our warmest clothes. Here in Australia we were experiencing another hot summer, but it was wintertime in Russia.

Flying through the long night ahead of the elusive sun, we land in the grey Amsterdam dawn. Next day we take a SAS flight to St Petersburg, in a jet airliner that is unusually quiet. Or am I just tired? Floating silently through the clouds, I relax into the soft timelessness of space, pondering about what we will experience in Russia.

At St Petersburg airport dour officials wave us quickly through immigration. I wonder if it will be as easy at departure. On the plane we had to complete a little two-part form. One half is held by the Russian authorities, the matching half must be shown on departure. We’d heard a disturbing story about a couple who were detained for several days after losing it, so I pack it away carefully. A harrowing taxi ride takes us through dense traffic to our little hotel, Tradition, where a friendly Natasha welcomes us. Our room is tasteful and quiet, with a spotless modern bathroom. It is the best hotel of our stay in Russia.

The St Petersburg Conservatory is one of the world’s most famous music academies. Founded in 1862 by the pianist-composer Anton Rubenstein, their list of faculty members and graduates reads like the history of Russian music – composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Glazunov; violinists Leopold Auer, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein; pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, impresario Sergei Diaghilev and many more.

Russia has produced generations of famous violinists and I want to see how this great musical tradition teaches young children. I remember how Vadim Repin’s charismatic performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in the Perth Concert Hall sent shivers buzzing down my spine.  David Oistrakh’s recordings of Bach and Mozart concertos are treasured timeless masterpieces. Everyone is awed by Maxim Vengerov’s virtuosic playing of Sarasate, Saint-Saens, Paganini, Ysaye, Mozart, Mendelssohn.

We’d received a warm invitation to visit the conservatory from Regina Glazunova, Head of International Relations. It is located about 6 kms from our hotel, so we decide to walk, setting off in the freeze of the early morning. My anticipation increases as we walk through the icy streets. With my trusty Ipad map guiding us , we look for a fittingly grandiose edifice and finally recognize the austere old conservatoire building. We go inside and wander about corridors that breathe musical history. Tchaikovsky walked these wooden floors. Look, there’s his office.

We get a few curious stares until Nickolay, a friendly young music student from the International Office finds us. Due to a missed email, we are an hour early. In a short impromptu tour, he takes us into conservatory museum, a large room packed with musical artifacts, treasured letters, photographs and concert notices of the conservatory’s glorious past. The charmingly enthusiastic curator greets us warmly and shows us her favourite exhibits, oblivious to our unfamiliarity with the Russian Cyrillic letters. St-Petersburg-Music-Conservatory

When Regina arrives, we are relieved to discover she is a fluent English speaker. For an hour or so we chat about life at the conservatorium over coffee. Her daughter studies violin and we joke about the travails of music mothers and the rigors of daily practice. It’s a laughingly familiar story. We are interested in visiting the conservatory school to meet young students and their teachers, so Nicolay walks us to the school. A shy young teacher leads us to the lesson rooms. Following her up the stairs and along corridors, we exchange smiles with bright-eyed students.

The school exudes an old-world Russian atmosphere, built to withstand the harsh winters. It is starkly different from the spacious Australia schools with their expanses of playing fields and gardens. Here in the conservatory school, another kind of contrast soon becomes evident. We meet several of the top violin students, whose virtuosic prowess – there’s no other word to describe it – exceeds anything we have seen around the world.

Tatyana, the head violin teacher, welcomes us to her studio. We uncover no common spoken language, fruitlessly trying out our English and French and her Russian and German, but her warm friendly personality shines through – she is delightful. Without a translator, we muddle along by approximating her German into English, but ultimately it is through music that we really communicate.

An 11 year old girl plays some dazzling Sarasate for us – Caprice Basque Op. 24.

I video little snippets on my tiny Sony camera. (You can view one of these here in Videos) She performs flawlessly with a powerful vitality, her rich tone resonating powerfully through the room. I hear the effortlessly accuracy that comes from years of mindful practice. Despite her youth, she has already reached a pinnacle of athletic mastery. Her waking hours are dedicated to music. This is the pathway she has chosen to discover the soul, the meaning of art.

We see students at earlier stages and I am interested to see the appearance of the Suzuki Books along with the usual scores and texts. A class with one of the other teachers still burns clearly in my memory. In this lesson, the student’s mother sits to one side with a notebook and tape recorder. Her daughter, a slim young girl, is intensely focused as she begins playing. Any imperfections – one could scarcely call them mistakes – are corrected quickly on the spot. A slightly out of tune note or interval elicits a simple fix, often by the teacher singing the correct pitch or interval. Musical points, such the shape of a phrase, are also sung. The concentration on complete accuracy is unrelenting. The lesson proceeds like this for an hour or more. It’s hard work, yet despite the heavy labour there’s a friendly rapport between teacher and student. The music’s bigger picture slowly emerges from the intensive polishing of its finer details.

Among the galaxy of young stars one cheerful young girl stands out. She plays with the assurance and expertise of a major soloist on tour. There’s no tension here: it’s all smiles and artistic freedom, enjoying the spotlight. A little slip brings peals of laughter from her, rather than self-censure. When she attempts to introduce each piece in English more giggles burst forth. I have the sense that we are watching Russia’s next generation of world class violinists.

Our visit to the school leaves profound impressions, transporting me into the kind of prolonged reverie that feels like a shift in consciousness. I think about it through the following days and nights, the sights and sounds playing vividly in my mind. Weeks later I am still feeling the reverberations. Some ideas I have been working on for a few years start to fit together with a satisfying clarity, like a mental jigsaw arranging itself.

From this experience of Russian education and its traditions at work, I begin to understand the extraordinary results.

  • They are unequivocal about a key principle of learning: superior skill – talent – is created by intelligent, fulfilling hard work.
  • An obvious point: both the amount and quality of practice and study from an early age determines the level of musical ability.
  • Parents of these children are intrinsically involved in their children’s education.
  • The teachers are well-trained experts in the art of teaching.
  • Children are constantly exposed to the high level musical environment at the school and conservatory.
  • In this rich musical environment, rapid progress and exceptional results are normal expectations.
  • Successful entrants to the school come from families where good study habits are valued and practised.
  • Even whilst upholding the great tradition of Russian violin playing, the school is open to new ideas and methods.

From the wider perspective, because education is highly valued, Russia is a nation of well-educated people.

Teachers hold a respected position in society. The adult literacy rate is almost 99.4%. More than half of the Russian adult population has earned a tertiary education – twice the OECD average. Russians are justifiably proud of these achievements. They are determined to be the best – for Russia. The merit they earn is collective.

These young Russian musicians will help ensure that the world’s great music will live on. Tchaikovsky’s masterworks are in good hands…

As I write this post, many questions remain in my mind about the value and purpose of elite training for young children – a good topic to explore in the future.

Well that’s it for now! Thanks everyone for your interest in Teach Suzuki Violin and a warm welcome to our new members. This post is a little late in arriving, as we’re in the throes of moving to another state. (Take my advice: never move house, just go on a holiday. It’s much, much easier and lots more fun!)

I’m looking forward to your feedback and emails. Have you had a similar experience – one that has had a profound effect on the way you teach, learn or think?

Cheers, John

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