It was one of those dream-like thoughts that flit through your mind in a utopian stupor whilst daydreaming on the train. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place in Central London where I could teach!”
Most people sensibly let such thoughts pass after a few minutes; I have the unfortunate habit of picking up the phone and trying to make crazy ideas happen.
So it was that, a couple of days later, I found myself impulsively signing a lease on half a building next to Buckingham Palace in Westminster. As you do.
I gave myself three months, and negotiated a break clause for the same. I figured that I could lose money for no more than 2 months, otherwise the venture would be doomed. That was in April.
Now it’s mid-October, and we have well over 40 committed students, plus many more occasional ones. In just six months! It would be a lie to pretend it’s an easy ride, but I now know for sure that the gamble will eventually pay off.
And what an opportunity.
I really didn’t think about it at the time – I just wanted a central-ish box room where I could teach students without having to charge them ridiculously high rates. And then it turned out that the adjoining two rooms were also available. So instead, I seem to have established an actual, very real ‘bricks-and-mortar’ school. This is totally different to private teaching! It is an maelstrom of musical, educational and commercial checks and balances that need to be satisfied and systemised across a really wide spectrum of teachers, learners, and resources. There is one hell of a lot of responsibility. And I am doing everything I can to get things right.
For all my lack of planning, I have some very firm ideas about how a specialist ‘violin school’ should exist, and what it should stand for. You can read the first draft of my philosophy here. At the heart of it lies an embrace of creativity, for therein lies the greatest music making and also the evolution of our great traditions.
The team I am assembling is completely extraordinary – a collection of maniacs with mind-blowing amounts of experience, intelligence, and hard-won wisdom. They’re also genuinely nice people with a lot of integrity, so I have high hopes.
But the sheer amount of work involved in setting this up is fearsome even for me, and I’ve put some things (including PhD and some performing) on hold until the end of the year, by which time I hope the ship will be able to sail its own course without me doing everything myself. So if your email is one of the many hundred sitting unread in my email account, I can only apologise and say ‘I will get back to you soon’…
In the meantime, things are progressing fast. The organisation has been renamed (from London Violin Studio to ViolinSchool), a website – which will soon become an interactive e-learning platform – has been created at www.violinschool.org, and the formal curriculum is in an advanced stage of development. Some brilliant workshops and masterclasses have already taken place, a smallish but nonetheless very real violin library is in preparation, and I have just confirmed that the School’s Christmas concert will take place at the new St James Theatre (www.stjamestheatre.co.uk) that recently opened across the road. Without wanting to reveal too much too soon, I have some really exciting plans that will open up some of the world’s finest ‘violin minds’ to the public, and ViolinSchool will be the vehicle to make this happen.
As the all-consuming challenge of creating administration, finance and technology systems begins to subside – not least thanks to Maria Thomas, a music-business genius whose steady hand guides the school away from my maddest ideas – my attention turns to the legacy of 19th and 20th century violin pedagogy. I started to synthesise and filter these monumental works long ago, and so although I know exactly where the school is headed from a pedagogical perspective, I do still have to find a way of presenting the great violinistic masters (Dounis, Galamian, Flesch, et all) in a way that is relevant to today’s violinists. Violinists of any age and level (for that is our slogan).
Not wanting to give myself a too easy time of it, I thought I’d set the bar high to motivate the team. So we’re aiming to become the world’s pre-eminent Violin School within a couple of years. So wish me luck with that. Ahem.
Tomorrow is one of the first public versions of the Violin Workshop that we've been crafting for a while. I think it's a really really good program that we've put together, and I can't wait to see how it works. We (Drew and I) are at the wonderful 1901 Club again and look forward to seeing how it works out!
There's still 1 remaining place, so if anyone has a sudden last minute desire to come and play the violin for the first time tomorrow morning, now is the time to say!
I'm in Palestine again, for the annual Baroque Festival of Al Kamandjati, the music center in Ramallah with which I am associated.
Last year I didn't blog, but though I can't post daily, I'll try and write a couple of stories to give you a bit of insight into the reality here on the ground in the West Bank.
The territories are actually full of fantastically warm and generous communities, and it's really not at all the foreign and scary place that Western news media would often have you think.
As my work in Germany comes to a close, I'm transitioning back into the new season in London. First port of call: the wonderful Kings Place concert hall for a concert created by cellist Matthew Barley, who has a two day residency there next week.
Although Kings Place (in King's Cross, near the Eurostar terminal) has now been open for a year, I've only just visited it for the first time. It's very impressive; not just architecturally, but also for it's great mix of contemporary programming, places to eat, office buildings, and general everything-mixed-together-in-a-good-way-ness. It's actually the home of the Guardian newspaper, who live in the top of the building, along with various other companies. The arts centre, including a gallery, concert halls, conference and music facilities, etc., is in the basement. A great public atrium fills the centre of the building.
This mush-everything-together-organically approach is totally reflected in the programming, and here's where the venue is groundbreaking: there's no distinction between types of genre as in other arts centers. No 'Classical', 'Jazz', 'World', 'Great Orchestras', 'Chamber Music Classics' type series here… there are only the deliniations music, visual arts, spoken word, and the all-important food and drink!
Artists are invited to 'curate' the building for a couple of days at a time. The result is an environment that is constantly changing, highly fragmented from week to week, always engaging and exciting, never looking back, always looking forward. It's an arts centre for the Facebook generation!
In fact, Kings Place is so exactly what I always hoped concert halls would turn into, that I'm shocked how good it is… and I can't believe that I've only discovered it a whole year after it opened! (Then again, I've been away).
We'll be performing in the main hall, which is underground. I've yet to try out the acoustics but people have raved about them to me, so I'm hoping it's going to be an amazing experience.
Matthew Barley's work is amazing and well worth checking out at his blog, MatthewBarley.com. He's one of these people who can't resist grabbing traditional ideas and thrusting them into new narratives, some of which can be very compelling. Here he is talking about another event he's doing as part of his residency next week. Cybercellist? Perhaps!…
The concert I'm playing in isn't webcast, sadly (though do come along – Friday 25th at 7.45pm), but all Matthew's concerts on the Saturday are, including the crazy 'Virtual Cello' concert (using the things in the video above) at 9pm (UK time). Exciting stuff, worth checking out if you're online then.
I didn't do any teaching beyond the occasional masterclass during the last few times I was here. But this time, I volunteered to teach for a couple of afternoons.
It took me at least half an hour with the first student to realize that calling the strings 'G, D, A, and E' wasn't going to cut it. It wasn't just that the student didn't speak English; the problem was that they are all trained in solfeggio – C is 'Do', D is 'Re', E is 'Mi' etc. etc….
With the help of a translator (and not a little use of my favourite two languages, Gesture and Euphemism) I finally cracked the communication difficulties, and with some of the older students – whose english is excellent – there were no problems.
What irritates me and what becomes immediately clear, is that many of the young musicians are not taught to practice – they are only told 'how to hold this', 'how to play that'. That's not teaching. What people need is to be able to think for themselves and solve their own problems. Violinistic and musical principles should be imparted as part of that process of awaking and becoming aware of possibilities.
[It's not a problem unique to this place, of course. Brainwashing creativity-free teaching of this kind is rampant in the west, even in many top conservatoires. People are just not focused on anything other than the details of the 'how to'. If you concentrate and practice hard, you can get all that done very quickly. What makes a musician is the power to question, to search, to pursue understanding. Teaching of music should be primarily about that, I think.]
Resources are getting much better now at Al Kamandjati, but it's still a hand-to-mouth survival; funding grants tend to be specific and time-sensitive, and there's not always budget for the things students need. Almost every violin bow that came into my teaching room was in desperate need of a rehair, but without access to money, skills or the hair itself that's not going to happen. One of the students didn't have a shoulder rest as he couldn't afford it.
I'm wondering if creating an international partner program with the help of Classical Music UK wouldn't go amiss. A kind of peer-to-peer network for individuals to donate instruments, accessories, and other much-needed things to worldwide music organizations, and in return see the great effects of their work at first hand via multimedia content on the internet. It could be a place for exchange of ideas and best practices too, of course. Any ideas welcome; my email address is on the left.
My brother recently returned from a fascinating month-long trip to Los Angeles, where he assisted composer David Buckley on post-production of the forthcoming Jackie Chan film, The Forbidden Kingdom.
Whilst there, he also contributed to Town Creek, a horror film that's set to appear sometime between now and Halloween.
There was a little leftover bit of the Town Creek soundtrack that hadn't been finished, so we went to play on a final few seconds of it at a beautiful studio in Covent Garden.
Here's Tommy setting things up in the control room.