• Tanya Tomkins
  • October 14, 2014

I Was a Lousy Music Student

Bylsma-Anner-01Personally, I was never a kid who responded well to the great teachers of my instrument. I always learned best by playing with other people, listening to other people play and just being around music. Even now it is often hard for me to isolate the mechanics of cello playing divorced from a musical context. It has taken me nearly my whole life as a cellist to get interested in the physical aspects of playing the cello.  I have only managed to stretch my technique through playing harder repertoire rather than by working on scales and études. Perhaps it is an excuse, but I prefer to think that there can be a danger of technique that surpasses the musical content and that the physical struggle of playing technically hard music belongs in that music. When technique is too good, too effortless, it can become an end in itself, and though it is often stunning to hear a flawless technique, I sometimes find myself distracted with thoughts of how well the person is playing, not how beautiful the piece of music is.

It was later in my studies when I got to “hang out”with my teacher, Anner Bijlsma — listen to him practice, play with him, take part in his life —  that I started to really learn about music and the performer’s life. I am now drawn to this style of teaching myself.  I like to teach and coach students that already have their technique. There are plenty of great teachers who can show them how to perfect their technique. Rather, I feel that I have a lot to offer about how to “be”as a musician, what to watch out for, what to focus on, and perhaps especially what NOT to worry about. For me, it is most important to encourage young musicians to keep an open mind and to make mistakes, even in a musical culture that adores and rewards perfection. They must allow themselves to listen and to be aware of different styles.verschleppt-die-tempi-gegen-den-zeitgeist-nikolaus-harnoncourt

I was very lucky to get coached by Nikolaus Harnoncourt when I played in Euridice Quartet with members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. We were working on the “Dissonance” Quartet by Mozart. We were nervous to play for this great master and poised to receive his pearls of wisdom. What I took away from this session was very different from what I was expecting and far more useful than anything I could have imagined. He told us to “use the ears of (our) colleagues” (don’t argue with ideas different from your own, but try them out). This single  concept shifted the whole dynamic of our quartet and helped us to respect each others’ thoughts. I took this philosophy with me from that moment forward, and as a result, it allowed me to enjoy the collaborative experience of rehearsing chamber music much more.

The other thing was that he didn’t know the piece and basically admitted as much. In his not-knowing, I observed him exploring it, studying the score, experimenting by hearing us play things in several different ways, and staying very receptive to different results. This was so contrary BHC_logo copyto the authority and certainty I expected from a famous Viennese early music expert that witnessing his process was a huge education in itself. My belief that there was one “correct” way to play a piece was, fortunately, forever dispelled. My love of teaching is one reason Eric Zivian, my life and musical partner, and I are going to start a new music festival in Sonoma next summer called Valley of the Moon Music Festival. (More on that soon!)  We hope to expand on the success and pleasure we have enjoyed over the last two years mentoring and coaching our Apprentices of our Benvenue House Concert series.

Eric and I have both independently become steadily more interested in teaching, and in particular, coaching by playing with younger musicians and producing them in their own concerts.  Performing on original instruments is still new enough to invite an open-minded approach, and chamber music is by nature a very collaborative form of interpreting music — free from the absolute authority of a conductor or an overbearing pedagogue.

I look forward to the founding of a festival with these values, that emphasizes education through osmosis rather than imitation. It worked well for me, and gives me great pleasure to pass it on to the next generation.

Best of the East BayBenvenue House Music, which was recently named “Best Place to Hear Chamber Music” in the East Bay, has an exciting new season coming up and we have just announced the concerts that will feature our apprentices. All the details are on the Benvenue House Music website.

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