10 Jul 2017

A diary of working with Pinchas Zukerman in Canada

Violin Fellow Bridget O’Donnell shares her experience of the Young Artists Program


As an SSO Violin Fellow last year I had the opportunity to work on and perform the Mendelssohn Octet with violin legend Pinchas Zukerman. At the end of the program he suggested I visit Ottawa in Canada to attend the Young Artists Program to have lessons with him. Naturally, I got researching. After months of back and forth emailing between two wildly different time zones, submitting audition tapes, flight bookings and a whole lot of excitement, I finally made it to Ottawa last month for the 19th annual Young Artists Program.

Bridget O'Donnell (3rd from right) with (L-R) Andrew Haveron, Roger Benedict, HyungSuk Bae, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, Bridget O’Donnell, Nathan Greentree and Brett Yang in 2016.

Week One

Day 1. So after a solid 27 hours of bad plane food and last minute score study, I’ve finally arrived at the University of Ottawa, where I’ll be living for three weeks during the program. My roommate, Christina, is an ex-Aussie who lived in Brisbane for 10 years but now studies at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. She’s super lovely, and thanks to our super thin bedroom walls, I can confirm she’s also a seriously top notch violinist. Tomorrow I’ve got my first lesson with Mr Zukerman (I’m not nervous or anything).

Morning runs around Ottawa aren’t so bad when these are the views!
Morning runs around Ottawa aren’t so bad when these are the views!

Day 2. After two hours’ sleep and a 5am sunrise run, I’m feeling a little less than ready for my lesson, but there’s nothing like a challenge I suppose! Mr Zukerman was amazingly welcoming and wanted to know how the Fellowship was going this year and what I was wanting to work on over the course of the program (sound production from the bow for those who are violin technique inclined). Interestingly, Mr Zukerman has been co-teaching with Patty Kopec for 25 years, and so they were both in my lesson. They jump in and out of the discussion but always maintain a cohesion of ideas, just verbalising them slightly differently. After playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto 1st movement, they decided I was going to work on open strings, scales, technical studies and Bach for the next three weeks and really develop the sound I make on my instrument. I’m actually pretty happy about this, as when I’m home in Sydney, it’s hard to find solid time to just work on technique with the amount of repertoire we need to get through in the orchestra.

Image: Smiles all around after surviving my first lesson with Ms Kopec and Mr Zukerman.
Smiles all around after surviving my first lesson with Ms Kopec and Mr Zukerman.

Day 4. The last few days have been filled with a mountain of personal practice, early morning runs, chamber rehearsals and very little sleep thanks to my old friend, jetlag! I’ve been assigned to work on the Dvořák String Quintet and our group has been working through the first few movements. My quintet is made up of lovely musicians from all over the place (New Jersey, Shanghai, Chicago), and the Dvořák is an incredibly challenging piece!

Day 5. Today we had a group session with Cathy Kerzner, a performance psychologist. She talked about psyching yourself in and out of performance and developing techniques and practice habits to help optimise performance. I found this particularly useful to consolidate some ideas I’d been thinking about, especially a visualisation technique, where you completely imagine an audition/performance scenario in its optimum outcome.

A snippet of some techniques discussed in reference to using Adrenaline to your advantage in performance situations.
A snippet of some techniques discussed in reference to using Adrenaline to your advantage in performance situations.

Day 6. More lessons! Mr Zukerman is definitely piling me up with a tonne of ideas on violin technique and I feel like I’m starting to understand how he creates his iconic sound. We had a Q&A session today with Mr Zukerman and we heard some pretty remarkable stories about his experiences working with Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

Day 7. Today was our free day so with a few adventurous friends, I headed off to Gatineau Park, a national parkland an hour out of Ottawa. We set off on a 10km hike and promptly got eaten alive by black flies and mosquitoes, and stuck in some serious mud mid-hike. The swim in the stunning Lac de Phillip thankfully made it all worth the struggle!

The End of the Gatineau Park hike – Lac de Phillip.

Week Two

Day 1. This morning I had another lesson with Ms Kopec and we continued our work on technique fundamentals. The kind of work we are doing is pretty finicky but I feel like I’m definitely making a lot of progress! Mr Zukerman popped in to my lesson just to have a chat and catch up. After lessons I’m finding myself going back to my room and typing up pages of lesson notes just because I don’t want to forget anything. Tonight we had the Young Artists’ Program reception at the National Arts Centre. Everyone got dressed up and we met with the donors of the program and two of the violinists from the program performed the Bach Double! The same piece I had just got the opportunity to perform on regional tour with SSO’s Associate Concertmaster Sun Yi as part of my SSO Fellowship.

At the YAP Reception with horn player Molly and some of the lovely NAC donors.
At the YAP Reception with horn player Molly and some of the lovely NAC donors.

Day 2. Today we were coached by David Geber on the Dvořák Quintet. It’s such an immensely tricky piece to put together, especially with musicians you haven't worked with before. It’s a challenge but I think we will get there! We’re planning on playing in the Work in Progress Recital soon so it’s full steam ahead in rehearsals. Tonight Mr Zukerman and Ms Kopec presented a wonderful masterclass. Three violinists performed works including the Mozart G Major Violin Concerto, Chausson Poème and the Brahms D minor Sonata. The playing standard is remarkably high and as you can imagine, Mr Zukerman and Ms Kopec put them through their paces on stage but also shared many pearls of wisdom on things like how to work out bowings and phrase structure.

Mr Zukerman and Ms Kopec in the Violin masterclass.
Mr Zukerman and Ms Kopec in the Violin masterclass.

Day 3. This morning we had a session with Pat Palmer, a musicians’ physiotherapist who has been working with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for 19 years. She started by getting us to do nine simple exercises such as seeing if you could touch your thumb to your forearm, to see how naturally flexible we are in our joints. Turns out on a scale of 1-9 (9 being the most flexible), I scored a 9 which means that I’m more likely to tighten up certain muscles to compensate and possibly get an injury if I’m not careful. She then discussed how nerve and muscle fatigue works and began discussing injury prevention. I’ve booked in a one-on-one session with her so I’m really looking forward to it!

Physiotherapist Pat Palmer
Physiotherapist Pat Palmer.

Day 4. A real highlight today was the panel session with the whole faculty at the National Arts Centre Orchestra. It was an open question session and they shared their experiences on auditions and life in an orchestra and how they developed their careers. It’s interesting that the audition process is pretty much exactly the same as the SSO (except that they have screens up for every round!). It was great to get even more advice on coping with stage nerves.

Day 5. Today the quintet performed the 1st movement of the Dvořák String Quintet in a work in progress recital. It was totally terrifying to have to perform in front of all the amazing players in the program but it was also great to have a chance to air the piece. It wasn’t perfect but we were generally happy with how it went. Lots to work on, but that’s a work in progress recital, right?

Dvořák Quintet group After the Work in Progress Recital.
Dvořák Quintet group After the Work in Progress Recital.

Day 6. Aside from a tonne of practice and rehearsals, I finally had a Beaver Tail, a Canadian dessert that’s a must have experience. It’s a donut base pastry in the shape of a Beaver Tail and you choose your topping. I’m thinking of starting a side business but Platypus Tails doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

Canadian Delicacy – A Beaver Tail.
A Beaver Tail, a Canadian delicacy.

Day 7. We had our Sunday day off and with my three friends Christina, Jordan and Hayden, we drove two hours to Montreal to do a food tour and taste the famous Montreal poutine. The food is an amazing mix of French European and North American/Canadian culture with stunning architecture and phenomenal food.

St-Viateur Bagels.
Montreal architecture
Classic Montreal houses.

Week Three

Day 1. Today our Dvořák Quintet had a coaching with Nicholas Mann, former 2nd violinist of the Mendelssohn Quartet and head of strings at the Manhattan School of Music. I felt that he bought the piece to life and we were really able to start putting much more character and excitement in to it! Aside from working with Mr Zukerman and Ms Kopec, I’ve also had lessons with Grigory Kalinovsky, a violin teacher at Indiana University. He is a former student of Mr Zukerman and has similar ideas but definitely his own distinct flair in his playing. We have been working on the Glazunov Concerto, and talking about improving bow control, releasing tension from the sound and also how to develop more solid intonation. I’m so excited to take all of this on and keep working on it once I’m back in Sydney!

In rehearsals with Chamber Coach, David Weber
In rehearsals with Chamber Coach, David Weber. Credit: Fred Cattroll. 

Day 3. Today I had my one-on-one session with Pat Palmer! I’ve noticed some tension in my hands and so she had me play for her and did an assessment of my shoulder strengths and weaknesses. Turns out I have quite significant neck tension which is causing nerve pain down my arms so we started working on stretches and exercises to help release it. She was very impressed that the SSO had its own Alexander Technique and Pilates/Yoga classes and encouraged me to keep going along.

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Some of the Theraband Resistive Exercises and stretches I did with Pat Palmer

Day 5. So it’s been a hectic few last days having my last lessons with the amazing teachers here and polishing off our Dvořák Quintet for the Final concert on Friday night! We’re all a little nervous but also excited. The standard of chamber performances has been wonderful, and I particularly loved hearing a fantastic performance of the Beethoven String Quartet Op 18 No. 1. The Dvořák went really well and our tutors David Geber and Nicholas Mann were full of praise.

Post performance of the Dvořák String Quintet
Post performance of the Dvořák String Quintet!

Day 6. It’s been an amazing three weeks here in Ottawa and I have so many ideas on violin playing and performance that I can’t wait to get working on. I’m so impressed and the quality of playing in the musicians here and have enjoyed every moment of my lessons with Mr Zukerman, Ms Kopec and Mr Kalinovsky. Having said that, it’s going to be great being back in Sydney with the Fellows and getting stuck into rehearsals for our next chamber program (We’re playing the Beethoven Septet!). And….finally getting some decent coffee!

Hear Bridget and the SSO Fellows in  An Afternoon Serenade at St James, Wed 19 July 1.15pm. Entry by $5 donation.