May 3, 2017
Violin auditions were once again held this winter at the Curtis Institute of Music. Over a period of three days, the faculty listened to violinists from all over the world play the required music by Bach, Mozart, Paganini, and a concerto of their choice. Many of these young musicians performed with great sensitivity and technical proficiency, which made the burden of selection that much more difficult.
As each violinist was ushered onto the Curtis stage, a folder with the individual’s school application was passed around. It consisted of basic information such as where each lived, his or her teachers, schools, grades, and letters of recommendations. Several years ago, however, Curtis introduced something new in the application—a question for each student to answer:
What is your ultimate goal as a musician?
In my view, any answer should have relatively little to do with whether or not a student is accepted into the school. Curtis is a conservatory primarily concerned with developing the skills of future performers, and no matter how high-minded or interesting a student’s goals might be, the concert stage is the thing. We judges listen to whether a violinist can play Bach with freedom as well as order, Mozart with grace and proportion, Paganini with sparks flying, and the chosen concerto with personality and heart.
Still, at every audition, I am drawn to that question about music goals like a moth to the light because of the breathtaking answers I read year after year from prospective students. Perhaps the things expressed in those goals influence a performance in hidden ways we can only begin to imagine.
Below are some of this year’s answers:
I think there is no such thing as an ultimate goal in music, because we are studying our whole life as musicians.
Music is such a powerful language that unites the world without words; therefore, I want to connect people and interact with people by playing music that touches their hearts.
The New York Philharmonic made history in 2008 by touring North Korea. How was it possible? Music. Music is a powerful mechanism for bringing peace.
I study music because it defines who I am. It is me. When I play music, when I hear music, there are countless feelings, countless possibilities; life stops and sits in standstill. Its story is what I feel, and it has sustained me through both the lows and highs of life…
It is my responsibility to the world to provide music to those who are in need of spiritual uplifting and to help spread the realization that no matter our beliefs and views, our outward appearance, and our past quarrels, at a basic level we are all the same species and should be there for each other to aid, not destroy.
I have always dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. Violin has been my passion and my pastime since I was eight years old. For me, the violin is more than an instrument. It is my best friend, with whom I have shared so many good memories.
I have often done the thought experiment of imagining a world without music. I envision it would be one much less joyful, more sterile, and more in conflict. The silence would cause an oppressive pall to permeate the society and culture.
Music represents our souls. I want to become a professional musician and learn to express myself precisely through music. Because to some degree, I am a mediator between composers and great works, the reason great works can survive is that they have power to comfort, touch, and inspire people.
My ultimate goal in studying music is to discover the quality of transcendence in the music I perform. I believe that great art—whether it be literature, poetry, dance, or music—teaches a connection. Music, perhaps even more than the other art forms, touches upon the spiritual aspect in a more intimate way because it is not something physically seen or felt.
Love, pride, peace, friendship, transcendence, the soul, and the power of music! These are comments coming not from wise old musicians but from very young people vying for a place in our school and in the music profession. Take away the words “violin” and “music” from their statements and you might easily think these budding violinists are destined to become our future doctors, spiritual advisers, and peacemakers.
Those lofty goals all started with beginning violin lessons. I remember falling in love with the violin’s silvery voice that I first heard on my parents’ records. I remember struggling as a six-year-old with the basic melodies my teacher assigned me, and then the thrill of passing on to more ambitious works. I try not to remember the tortured squeaks and groans initially erupting from my violin that drove parents, friends, and neighbors to distraction. And I remember feeling great pride and satisfaction in gradually discovering the violin’s magic voice as I practiced the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto month after month.
My mother loved to tell the story of the for sale sign that was put up in front of our next-door neighbor’s house when I was a teenager. At one point, the sign disappeared and Mother took the opportunity to congratulate our neighbor for successfully selling the house. “Oh no, Mrs. Steinhardt,” she responded. “We took the sign down and decided not to sell the house since your son has finally managed to learn the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.”
Our neighbors may have been tortured by my inept dealings with the Mendelssohn Concerto but not I. The concerto, among the many that every young violinist must study, affected me deeply with its sweet sadness, soaring lyricism, and ultimate joyfulness. During the months that I studied and finally performed the Mendelssohn, its emotive story, its bold design and inventiveness, lodged in me as a small but significant part of who I was becoming, both as a musician and as a person.
Like this year’s Curtis applicants, I was already on what you might call an extended tenure track towards becoming a professional musician. There were the concertos, sonatas, virtuoso works, chamber music, and orchestral repertoire to study—each work a complete story, each a virtual universe unto itself to embrace and ingest. Then there were the student concerts in which I began to realize not only the power of music but also the power of the violin and bow I held in my hands. When I played well, listeners clapped, and sometimes they told me how much they had enjoyed my performance.
The Mendelssohn Concerto, however, was an example of the kind of transcendent music that could rise to another level. If I reached deeply into myself as well as into the music score, I had the possibility of delivering Mendelssohn’s creation in a manner that could move people and even give them solace. This discovery seemed to be at the heart of so many of the students’ comments. We are all violinists and musicians but also members of some kind of unnamed service profession.
When I auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of seventeen, there was no question about goals on the application form, but what would my answer be if there had been one?
A young violinist who auditioned for our Curtis violin faculty two years ago stated his goal succinctly and directly. It could easily have been mine as well:
“I want to be a real musician, to be a person who plays for heart, mind, and spirit.”
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!
Dearest Arnold, Reading this story touched me tears. I was sitting here reading you after having just listened to a berlin phil performance of the Rach Slavonic Dances and thinking “thete is a god”. Your musiccand writing contributes to that certainty. Thanks as always with affection. You’re always welcome in our Paris digs, Judith
Music is a mystery as deep as the meaning of life. I have never heard anyone adequately define it or describe it’s ultimate purpose in our lives. However, just about everyone has some stake in it, and musicians, potentially, have the greatest stake of all. Speaking for myself, I came to love music long before I wanted to play it. (I have never understood people who “always wanted to play an instrument” but didn’t know what music they wanted to play. After all, you need to have music inside of you before you can express it.) For the first 19 years of my life I gave myself totally to listening to music, and quite promiscuously: film scores, musicals, Peter and the Wolf, Bartok concertos and string quartets, everything was grist for my mill.
However, the first time I heard the Bach flute sonatas, I was smitten; from that point on, I promised myself that whatever it cost me in time, sweat and treasure, I would make that music my own. And 5 years later, after graduating from Catholic University School of music with a degree in flute, I was finally able to play it all, however inadequately. This was the first goal I ever set in my life and it was the first one I ever achieved.
Of course, I play much better today than when I began, but I never loved music so passionately as when I was young and the music was new. So, the difference between listening to music and playing it is the difference between admiring a beautiful woman and wooing her. When you love a piece of music so urgently that you want to make it your own, then you begin to become a musician.
Leave a Comment*/