The Violin Masterclass – Asynchronously

Pinchas Zukerman on methods
of videoconference teaching

Advice to Finnish readers: Tämä on artikkelin kansainvälinen versio. Voit suosia suomenkielisyyttä selaimesi kieliasetuksilla.

The present article has appeared in issue 4/2003 of Unisono, the Finnish magazine for music teachers in schools and music playschools.

The Finns think of Canada as a sparsely populated land of vast forests and long distances. Though cast on a different scale, Finland and Canada resemble each other in many ways. They do, after all, both lie close to the Arctic Circle. Canada is a state capable of making innovative political and social decisions. Whereas their neighbours to the south are spreading the message of the fight against terrorism, the more northerly Canadians have followed the path of peaceful development, dialogue and constructive partnership.

Canada has set us Finns a fine example in the building of the information society and the development of distance education. The promotion of telecommunications there has not, however, been left to the 'market forces'. Rather, Canada looks upon the promotion of the information society as an intrinsic value. A couple of years ago Pinchas Zukerman, the world famous violinist, prepared a masterclass in the violin to be conducted as a videoconference. The aim was for him to teach students in Israel and the occupied regions of Palestine. The political leaders of these states nevertheless wanted to step up their mutual hostilities and the project was cancelled at the last moment.

A masterclass as a video conference

The pioneering work done by Maarit Rajamäki in organising the Zukerman masterclasses is an inspiring example of good organisational skills. One especially interesting feature of this project set in motion in the late 1990s was the idea of the masterclass taught as a videoconference.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen, at that time Finland's Minister of Education, spotted the merits of Rajamäki's work and channelled a considerable sum of money to the development of this mode of teaching via the Sibelius Academy. The Minister expressed the hope that the Sibelius Academy would engage in partnership with ICL and two telecommunications companies: Nokia and the Helsinki Telephone Company. Maarit Rajamäki carried out her part of the bargain, but the administration of the masterclass project failed to achieve the hoped for results.

At no stage have there been any problems with the Canadians, however. My colleague Matti Ruippo read a paper at the ISME 2000 conference in Edmonton. While there, he decided to go and meet an acquaintance called John Spence working at the Communications Research Center (CRC) in Ottawa. Their talks were further enhanced by the arrival of a third party with experience of Finland: Pinchas Zukerman.

The MusicGrid distance teaching project

Thus began a partnership that looks set to continue for a long time to come. The International Centre of Chamber Music - Virtuosi, at Kuhmo and the Kuopio Department of the Sibelius Academy were approved as partners to the MusicGrid project. Their joint R&D has proceeded smoothly, together with John Spence and his colleague Martin Brooks at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). All have shared an interest in the teaching of music by means of videoconferencing.

Last spring the Särestö Academy founded by Maarit Rajamäki arranged for its summer camp to be held at the same time as the Canada's National Arts Centre's Young Artist Program (YAP), thus creating an excellent opportunity for working together. In addition to fencing and archery, the programme for the violin course held this time at the foot of Levi Fell in Lapland also included asynchronous masterclass teaching in the violin provided by Maestro Zukerman.

In June 2003 the author, assisted by Matti Ruippo and Timo Haverinen, organised a masterclass with the Särestö Academy as a network communication application. The solution was based on asynchronous, i.e. non-simultaneous communication. The method is a simple one: the student asked a musical question that was relayed via an Internet file transfer to Zukerman, who was teaching at the YAP camp. He then studied the material at a time that suited him best and recorded his comments for transmission to Finland.

The result was a sort of ping-pong teaching operating in both directions across the Atlantic. We soon found that the time difference was actually an advantage.

Matti Ruippo and the author had a chance to meet Pinchas Zukerman when he appeared with pianist Marc Neikrug in the Stars Series at the Kuopio Music Centre. Acting as their local manager on this occasion again was Maarit Rajamäki, Director of the Särestö Academy, who set up a joint breakfast conference for us. We thus had a chance to hear what our Canadian visitors had to say about the project.

Videoconference like talking on the phone

Pinchas Zukerman made it clear from the start that for him, there was nothing unusual about videoconferencing. "I teach from the same building as the one where Martin works. It's just a matter of going downstairs," he said.

"After that, distance is no longer an issue, but personality counts for all the more. The character of students varies a lot. Mexican students are shy. Finnish students are direct." Making contact depends a lot on the teacher's attitude: "Don't think about the computer, but about the human issue, i.e. the student at the other end."

Zukerman reckons that for the system to work, the student needs the assistance of a local tutor. "You have to have someone there that the students are comfortable with," he says, and by way of example nods in the direction of Patty Kopek, who has helped to run a number of masterclasses.

Simona Bonfiglioli and Pinchas Zukerman in an asynchronous videoconference
Simona Bonfiglioli and Pinchas Zukerman in asynchronous dialogue (Photos: Ph. Donner and Martin Brooks).

How can you teach the violin by video?

We contemplate the essence of asynchronous interchange. Pinchas Zukerman emphasises in many ways that the dialogue must be very direct, spontaneous, and sufficiently detailed. Cut out all the unnecessary formalities. A question on fingering might, for example, be: "Where do you start? Where do you end?"

The student should be instructed to be very specific in asking questions. As the Maestro jokingly said, "The question should be short, and the answer should be even shorter."

The same applies to playing. The students should avoid long quotations as most things can be observed immediately. Economy is what Zukerman aims at. If the student input were more focused, he could give feedback on more questions. He would be prepared to deal with half a dozen questions or even more.

The student practising new repertoire needs a capable tutor who knows how things should be done. Some students might be heavy-handed. This is where the visual dimension of the videoconference is useful. The clever teacher can show by example how to correct the quality of the sound, "But the feeling of sound cannot be done."

Pianist Marc Neikrug was most of the time listening to the discussion, giving us quick glances with his intelligent eyes. Now he made a clever point by saying that this problem has little to do with videoconferencing. Many people may even be in the same room and still they wouldn't experience the feeling of sound.

Or as Maestro Zukerman summarised: "You can show a way to get there, but that is as far as you can go."

Computer extends the human capabilities

Pinchas Zukerman has a clear vision in his mind's eye of how the recordings made during the video classes could be used. They could lead to a data bank of material on specific works. Study of the videoconference recordings should be an essential part of the curriculum, so that the students would realise the significance of the method.

As an example Zukerman took a Beethoven violin sonata. He suggested that the work be presented by using a menu of questions. The student knows at once exactly what to do. "Click on seventeen and listen to it." And the mouse click would lead to the archive of quotations.

The Maestro is highly critical in formulating the role of information and communication technology in the teaching of music. We asked if he had any ideas for ways of optimising the quality of the recorded material by such means as post-production. Zukerman shifted the perspective from development to enhancement. From the teacher's point of view, the computer is not a substitute; it is an enhancement. It allows us to go beyond the conventional teaching. "If we think of it as a substitute, we are ... going to get crippled. It is a way of extending human capabilities."

An hour later, the two busy artists were in a hurry to get to the airport. But before they went, I was able to extend an invitation to Kuhmo. I told them about the wonderful Kainuu scenery, the forest trails and fishing.

At this point Pinchas Zukerman turned to Marc Neikrug and said, "He is the fisherman. I do the eating."

— Philip Donner

This article is based on notes taken during a meeting held at the Scandic Hotel in Kuopio on 18 October 2003 and attended by Pinchas Zukerman, Marc Neikrug, Maarit Rajamäki, Matti Ruippo and Philip Donner.

The International Centre of Chamber Music - Virtuosi operates at Kuhmo. The teaching described in this article is one of the results of a regional development project carried out by Virtuosi and the Sibelius Academy. The net communications premises of the Centre of Expertise are at Virtuosi, Kainuuntie 88, 88900 Kuhmo, Finland. The author, Philip Donner, gives a broad and detailed account of the development of the Virtuosi videoconference tuition on his web pages.

Anyone interested in the Särestö Academy masterclasses can currently view the archive of the sessions. Find out more about the Särestö Academy at the Academy's website (currently in Finnish only). The Särestö Academy office is at Paciuksenkaari 6 A, 00270 Helsinki, Finland.

The MusicGrid was established by a consortium of partners that evolved out of the LearnCanada project. The idea for the new project originated with John Spence and Martin Brooks. Any enquiries about the MusicGrid project should be addressed to Mr. John Spence (