String Awakening

Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben-Zeev

Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman and Shlomo Mintz are more than just great Israeli violinists. They are also symbols - proof that the legendary Russian-Jewish tradition has continued in Israel.

This tradition - which produced virtuosos such as Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern - has brought the world great Jewish musicians on other string instruments as well. Consider Emanuel Feuermann, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mischa Maisky and Janos Starker on cello; and Efrem Zimbalist on viola. It seems so natural that this tradition would be deeply embedded in Israel, and that the indefinable Jewish spirit would continue to produce string players of extraordinary genius.

Two young musicians performing last week during the Netanya Music Conservatory’s annual Young String Player Day.

A look at music education in Israel, however, seems to indicate that the Jewish spirit is not enough. A broad and generous educational foundation is necessary to develop great musicians - especially those who play demanding instruments such as string instruments. In this respect, Israel seems to be going from bad to worse; educators here are concerned that the art of string instruments is in danger of extinction.

What a pleasure, then, to spend time with students continuing this musical tradition at the Netanya Music Conservatory, which held its fifth Young String Player Day a week ago. The annual celebration featured workshops and master classes, lessons and a delightful concert mostly featuring students performing with their teachers.

Adi Hlavin, the director of the conservatory's string instrument department and the producer of the day's activities, mounted the stage in the packed auditorium and kicked off the event with a few words of thanks. A young violinist, Hlavin opened the evening with a section from the String Quintet by English composer Ethel Smyth, a 20th-century women's rights activist and revolutionary musician. It is difficult to remember the last time a concert opened here with a composition by a woman.

"It's mainly a day to have fun," Hlavin said of the event. "Our theme this time is English music, and they [played] Vaughan Williams, Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar."

"The children have worked on these pieces for two months, and it is an opportunity for them to perform and become more closely knit as a department, to show their parents and friends and the rest of the city what they do, their musical activity here," she said.

While the first part of the day was devoted to three workshops - led by percussionist Tomer Yariv; cellist Ira Givol; and musician Zohar Sharon, who worked with students on improvisation - the afternoon was devoted to orchestra rehearsal. The cherry on top was the rehearsal of a joint orchestra comprised of 60 young students and graduates, conducted by Noa Eliezer-Shelef, a teacher in the department.

"The strings are the jewel in the crown," says the conservatory's director, Motti Miron. "Our goal is to raise their level to that of the wind players, who broke the national record in their high school matriculation exams."

"No fewer than 32 of our students took the exam this year. No string player has tried yet," says Miron. "String instruments demand twice as much time, in years and hours of practice, in order to reach the required level of wind instrument players. And that's without mentioning the difficulty the children have making this kind of an investment, which is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our times. How many children today can think about the long term, delay gratification, spend hours every day concentrating on playing?"

Backing by the local authorities is like oxygen for conservatories. Fortunately for the Netanya Music Conservatory, the city of Netanya supports its efforts. Mayor Miriam Feierberg has made significant investments in music, a field that is important to her, according to Miron, and the conservatory is also supported by the Education Ministry, the Jerusalem Music Center and the Netanya Cultural Center. But as with all such institutions in Israel, parents bear the highest financial burden, in the form of tuition, which runs from NIS 400 to NIS 800 per student a month, depending on the city. Tel Aviv costs the most, while the periphery is often the least expensive. Netanya falls somewhere in the bottom range.

"In this sense, things are easier for our neighbors, Ra'anana and Kfar Sava," Miron says, noting that the money required to support string players is an especially heavy burden. "We have problems enlisting a suitable population. You can find talent everywhere - there are no differences among people in this regard - but not money. Unfortunately, our stronghold, the place where we can look for future students, is in the better-off neighborhoods: Ramat Poleg and Kiryat Hasharon. Nonetheless, in the end, most of Netanya is represented in our school."

According to the Netanya municipality's web site, the city has about 30,000 students aged 7 to 18. About 550 students study in the conservatory, in addition to its other external programs.

"Under the Education Ministry's community model, we enter schools in the city and teach wind instruments starting in second grade, and strings from fourth grade," Miron says. "And unlike other towns we don't switch instruments during the school year. This is not a taste or a trial, but instruction."

Miron has nothing but compliments for the controversial method of teaching children in groups. "Without the community model, most children would never get to learn music or to play at all, and in particular instruments like the tuba or trombone," he says. "Most of the students who begin in school reach us as regular conservatory students."

"This department is my baby," says Hlavin, who boasts an impressive musical background of her own. In addition to teaching, Hlavin is the leader of the Revolutionary Orchestra, and she also performs with other ensembles.

Hlavin, who grew up in Herzliya, studied at the Striker Conservatory in Tel Aviv, and when she was 14, a violin professor from London heard her play and invited her to study there. "At 15 and a half I went to London without my family and began to study at the Purcell School," she says. "They were highly intensive studies. I lived with a Jewish host family, and stayed for a bachelor's and then a master's degree, eight years in all away from home."

"It was a fantastic period in my life, and it gave me knowledge, a basis and musical development," she says. "I met many people from all over the world and then I said thanks and returned to my roots."

When Hlavin returned to Israel in 2003, she was offered a teaching job at Striker, and she also began teaching in Netanya.

"There have been very good developments here over the last five years," she says. "Today we've seen how happy the children are, and how their parents support them. As to the number of them, quality was always more important to me, and mainly the love of music. My strongest memory as a child is the love of playing, and the happiness and desire to listen and be listened to. Over time, involvement in music becomes more difficult, and that's why the fun and joy at the beginning of the process is so important."

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