The Journey to Oneself

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Throughout my childhood, I was only aware of two areas of interest: art and education. I saw my mother teaching the piano and painting, while my father worked in theatre. So I never really wondered what I wanted to do as a grown-up! At age five, I said I wanted to become an “international soloist”, rather complex terms for a young child, but which led to my meeting with Yehudi Menuhin. Indeed, I well remember meeting this extraordinary man during his 1983 visit to Montreal. My mother and I wanted to attend his concert at Salle Claude-Champagne and, upon arrival at the venue, we came across none other than Maestro Menuhin himself, getting ready to go on stage. In all youthful innocence I told him that he was my idol and that I listened religiously to all his documentary children’s tapes. I remember that he smiled, told me a few words that I cannot remember, and rumpled my hair in a paternal way. Today I can say that this moment marked the beginning of my musical and artistic quest.

Teaching is at the heart of musical learning from the very beginning of the process. To nurture serious ambitions in classical music, one must start learning and working with an instrument very early, but it is difficult to find a good teacher who adapts well to children. It is an art to be able to inspire children of five or six and convince them that they must practise seriously every day. Of course parents have to help, but if the child doesn’t want to practise and shows no enthusiasm, it is a waste of time. I was lucky to have very good teachers during my childhood. These teachers gave me the willpower I needed to improve quickly and the rigour to fulfil my ambitions.

Even before going to university, most young musicians have already had more than a decade of individual instruction from top-level teachers who shared their expertise. (It is a very special learning system that differs ­completely from the traditional and general system, where one imagines classes of more than thirty students receiving information and making requests of a single teacher). In music, the privileged relationship with a great teacher is almost parental, since the teacher becomes more than just a tool for transmitting ­information: they are confidant, mentor, idol, a great source of inspiration, and sometimes even a rival or opponent. Music students are therefore quite mature when they come to graduate school.

My career was a little different from that of my colleagues, since I had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in piano and a master’s ­degree in violin before the age of 18. I had the chance to burn through a few steps of my ­education, thanks to several of my teachers who helped me save a few years in elementary school. I finished high school at the age of ­fifteen and used my three years in the ­university system to attend two different institutions in two different but complementary programs (piano and violin) and thus obtain my degrees almost simultaneously. This background was accompanied by some less positive repercussions, since I felt the tension at university ­created by my young age. I was not able to get as close to my teachers as I would have liked, which had an impact on my academic career.

Indeed, one should never underestimate the value of student-faculty contacts and what these relationships can bring later in life. For ­example, a good student who has forged ­relationships with their professors will have a better chance of associating with this institution in the future, and similarly of benefiting from the recommendations of these same teachers once in the professional environment outside the university. If I have any essential advice to give to new students, it would be to choose the right institution and to view each course, each relationship with the faculty, and each performance as a professional opportunity that may have an impact on one’s future career.

For a student, the location of the university is of paramount importance, since the links that are formed during these few years of higher education are often more valuable than one may expect. If, for example, a student from France comes to live in Quebec for their bachelor’s degree, they are more likely to ­settle there after graduating. For me, that’s what happened. I left for Europe after graduation, intending to study for a few years with Zakhar Bron, whom I considered the best teacher in the world for aspiring soloists. (The list of his students includes Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, and countless concertmasters of the most prestigious orchestras, including those of Berlin, London and Vienna). After my ­studies with Bron, I stayed in Europe for more than a decade. It was just too difficult to leave a place where I felt free and accomplished, surrounded by beauty and history.

Teaching has always been at the centre of my professional and personal life. At twelve, I already had young students. In my early ­twenties I had many commitments as a guest soloist and was often invited to give masterclasses in the same cities as my concerts. I gave a great many public lessons in dozens of countries and it was an excellent training. ­Because when you teach privately, there is no tension other than the one you want to keep between the student and yourself. When teaching a student in front of hundreds of ­people, it is necessary to get an idea quickly of the psychology of the student. I do this not only to offer the audience an interesting ­lesson but also to inspire more deeply the pupil who is playing, whether they are at an advanced level or not.

This series of public lessons taught me to react at lightning speed, to draw on my knowledge, and to transmit it in a serious and ­positive way. I would like to emphasize the word “positive”, because to teach music, we must all ­understand that students have to overcome challenges that are not necessarily related to ­instrumental technique or musicality. Often there are psychological challenges, connected with all sorts of complexities and fears, including that of playing in front of an audience.

To motivate students, various techniques have been applied by great masters for nearly a hundred years. For the violin, the most ­effective — but also the most brutal — was that of the Soviet school. Indeed, the USSR bloc housed an army of great and fantastic ­musicians, all motivated by the artificial ­desire to stand out in the communist system in order to access the benefits reserved for the best of their respective circles. Like Olympic athletes, instrumentalists began to see the art of playing at a very high level as a way to a ­better life. For the teacher, everything seemed permissible, since teachers and students who were ­successful in representing their country by winning awards and medals in international competitions were rewarded upon their ­return. Teaching techniques that had more to do with psychological control, brainwashing, and military training were applied to countless musicians, many of whom nonetheless went on to make history.

Photo: Kathy Wheatley

My master Bron told us many horror ­stories, including the disturbing methods of preparation for international competitions. Apparently teachers’ committees woke up gifted students in the middle of the night and demanded that they play long and difficult programs on the spot, so that they would ­become reflex machines and performance beasts who would not be affected by stress and the unexpected. It can be said that this ­regimen was effective after a number of years, since from this system were born wonderful artists. What we cannot fully measure is the harm that these techniques of pseudo-teaching left behind. A true musician must be ­inspired, not forced. Art and beauty are born out of necessity, yes, but also out of wonder, a sincere desire to share, and hard work and ambition. It is a clever mix that the teacher must provide in order for the student to aspire to take the right path.

My student experience was born of a ­mélange of different scenarios and techniques. I started at the Conservatoire du Québec, where I was able to train at a high level as a complete musician. Thanks to this system, which ­included the preparatory years, I was able very early to become a musical “scholar”. I ­remember, for example, passing sight-reading exams at age twelve by singing in five ­different keys, G, F, C, etc. (In comparison, I think the violin students I meet today would probably not be able to read notes except in the G ­­clef — used for violin scores — since few of these ­students receive any pre-university musical training apart from playing their ­instrument).

In Europe I studied under the Soviet system with my master Zakhar Bron. I was near to him for four years and literally became one of his close apostles. We were a small group of ambitious violinists who followed him everywhere. We did not mind hitchhiking, sleeping in train stations, or waiting all day for the ­master to give us a few minutes of attention and lessons, all in the hope of becoming “great” violinists. And our master knew how to play with our minds! I will always remember how he summoned us to his studio early in the morning to give us an approximate ­lesson schedule, often offering us late-night time slots. He presumed that we would lock ourselves up all day in a rehearsal room. If he found us out of our studio at certain times of the day, he would simply cancel the lesson ­altogether and say that if we had time to ­sunbathe or chitchat, then we did not need his valuable teaching! In short, total and excessive psychological control. I must say, ­however, that it worked well for me. At the end of my studies with Bron I was trained, “drilled” as they say in the army. I could ­handle stress without any problem, stay cool in extreme situations, and cope with the ­intimidating techniques of certain conductors.

After Bron, I left for Vienna where I ­obtained a graduate degree. That’s when my real life as a musician began. In this city no control technique is required, since the city ­itself gives musicians a unique perspective. In Vienna we find all levels of music, from the best to the worst. Depending on our preparation and seriousness, we reach one level or ­another and we integrate into the music ­community or we don’t. It’s simply the law of the jungle: only the strongest survive. When I arrived in Vienna, I thought I knew everything I needed to know in music and that I could play anything at the highest level — but I had never been so wrong! I knew how to play the violin and could move my fingers faster than lightning, but was I a true, intelligent, ­educated musician? No. I needed now to ­become a real scholar, to be thirsty, to find the deep meanings of music.

In Vienna I met amazing teachers, ­violinists, conductors and other musicians. I learned so much by rubbing shoulders, ­exchanging ideas, and playing for them. Later I became aware of the incredible value of their respectful and inspiring teaching. I will always remember my lessons with Rainer Honeck, Concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerhard Schulz, member of the Alban Berg Quartet, and Johannes Wildner, renowned conductor and former member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. These artists never imposed a musical choice on me, never pointed out to me my ignorance, but ­instead raised crucial questions that made me want to learn and perfect my musical education. I must also mention that, incredibly, none of these musicians ever demanded ­financial compensation for the countless hours of lessons they gave me in private, as I was not attached to any institution. In short, these musicians gave their precious time ­simply to help a young musician who seemed ­motivated. These are gifts that shaped my youth, and today as an educator I try to give back and donate my time as often as possible, to help passionate students who demonstrate a healthy and enlightened ambition.

It is this background, and more, that today dictates my behaviour as a teacher and mentor. I want — like all my colleagues, I’m sure — to combine the best of all my former teachers, even being the ultimate version of what I would have liked to find in the ultimate ­master. I have worked as an educator in the higher education system for over a decade and have learned much, especially from those ­experiences that have changed me and made me realize the real needs of today’s students. ­ndeed, today’s reality is not that of the Cold War years, or the golden age of record labels and large agencies, or orchestras regularly subsidized by governments. Today, young graduates face a more diverse, complex and competitive world where money is scarce. In short, it is a world very different from that of my teachers and surely different from mine. We must keep in mind the reality of the ­modern music industry.

The world of music has also changed partly because of globalization. Thirty years ago, ­taking the Vienna Philharmonic as an example, it was normal to think that a certain Viennese professor could open a major door into this prestigious ensemble. There was a time when the members of an orchestral section were mostly from the same studio class and used the same style of musical playing. But today, young performers come from all over the world, are of widely different ages, and have diverse cultural backgrounds. An audition has become an ­extremely sharp competition of skill, for which some educational cultures prepare young people better than others. It is therefore to be hoped that the system in which we operate will become flexible enough to adapt to the current realities of the industry.

By good fortune I did my studies under two completely different systems, namely the ­European conservatory system focused mainly on mastery of the instrument and the Anglo-Saxon university system emphasizing general and specific knowledge and research. The best of both worlds probably lies between these two philosophical systems, and many institutions now offer different ways of amalgamating the two visions.

My experience as a student and educator prompted me to want to develop my own string program, and in collaboration with a university that wished to build a serious and solid department. I remember wanting to make the jump ten years ago, from a career totally focused on solo concerts to a professional life shared between teaching and solo ­activities. Having lived in Europe for fourteen years, I knew I was in love with that ­continent, but I also knew that my ambitions as an educator could not necessarily be fulfilled under the European system of administration, in countries such as France, Spain and even ­Germany. I needed to be able to access a freer Anglo-Saxon university environment, but one that would also encourage the uncompromising mastery of an instrument.

I searched for a relatively long time before ­realizing that one of the only places, and ­probably the best place, to develop my career as an educator — in a decision-making position where I could be a leader from the start — would be Australia. This country, although very distant from a geographical point of view, is ­extremely close to Canada in its philosophy and politics, and even close to Quebec in having two contrasting cultures, that of the “new world” and that of Europe. Indeed, Australia is a ­hybrid of the British and American models just as ­Quebecers are torn between emulating France and the US.

These are the main reasons why I chose to accept an offer in Perth, Australia, and take the position of Head of Strings at the Western ­Australian Academy for Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University. Here I found the place where I could develop a strong string department based on the high-level teaching that I had received, and this time in a modern and creative context. At WAAPA my students rub shoulders with ballet dancers, actors, musicians specializing in jazz, classical and electronic music, and sculptors and painters. In short, the campus is an island of creation where students all share and exchange their various visions. A mini-Paris of our modern time, in a place where life is good and where geographical isolation rouses people to surpass themselves.

It is an ideal “terroir” on which to develop my project, achieve the right mix of teaching systems, and perfect the tools to achieve my ambitions. My relationship with WAAPA is also bidirectional: every day within this ­system pushes me to reinvent myself as a ­university faculty member. I’m not just a ­violin teacher; I’m also a colleague, a researcher, and one of the university masons. I am even a student myself, since I am pursuing doctoral studies (PhD), an endeavour that brings me to write about my vision.

It is somehow a complex intellectual process. Let it be known that I have always been reluctant about obtaining a doctoral ­degree while being an active musician. Being a performer and an academic somehow did not feel compatible. Indeed, I have met hundreds of highly educated conductors who speak half a dozen languages, easily discuss all facets of conducting, writing and music ­history: musicians whose careers and publications should have been widely recognized as the equivalent to a doctorate of some sort, but whose focus was to attain true academia through performance alone.

The modern world, however, seems to want to measure everything for administrative ­purposes, which means placing art and artists in a matrix closer to science and engineering. I must admit that the encouragement to ­present ideas at conferences and talks, like the one I gave last year at TEDx, has allowed me to ­realize the usefulness of writing a thesis, be it for a master’s or a doctorate. This process could serve as an additional tool to sharpen my sense of communication and clarify my vision. We will see where this effort leads me, but for the moment I see only positive outcomes and the possibility of raising my level of expertise.

I will always try to offer to my students the most complete range of musical knowledge and information, and I will always continue to believe that the greatest form of music education goes beyond rules, guidance and ­parameters. Educators must share an artistic vision and passion as applied in real professional situations. True inspiration can change the lives of many young people who want to make music; it will be one of the main ­wellsprings of their achievement during their journey. Studying with an active teacher and performer, who leads a professional career as a high-level artist, is probably what most ­motivates the musicians of tomorrow.

Unlike other professions, music is not based only on the study of concrete formulas and ideas. We must also open our minds, ­understand the emotional states of the ­composers whose music we play, understand ourselves and reinvent ourselves constantly, and plunge into our deepest emotions in order to convey the essence within the music. Let us transcend our instruments, let us embrace music as an impulse for approaching more closely the meaning of life itself.

Juno Award winner Alexandre Da Costa is Head of Strings and Associate Professor at the Edith Cowan University (Western Australian Academy Of Performing Arts), Artistic Director of the Festival International Hautes-Laurentides and Artistic Director of Acacia Classics Productions. An acclaimed violin soloist, he records for both Sony Classical and Spectra Musique. He plays the “Deveault” Stradivarius of 1701, on loan from his friends Guy and Maryse Deveault.

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