By Harrison Goldstein
When the first student stepped to the front of the room of about 50 people and performed a piece on the violin, it seemed nearly perfect to the untrained ear. But not to internationally-recognized Israeli violinist Yehonatan Berick.
“When you play, which hand do you identify with?” Berick asked the student, who thought for a moment before deciding on her left hand. “We all think about the left hand. The truth is to be working with your right hand, because the sound comes from your right hand. We need to try to shift your identification to the right hand.”
Berick, who is a professor of violin at the University of Ottawa, taught a violin masterclass to students at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Tuesday afternoon.
The class, which was free to attend, is part of a larger series called “Masterful Strings,” in which the School of Music invites various renowned string artists to teach masterclasses and lead discussions with students.
Berick’s class, which took place in Leah M. Smith Hall, lasted about 90 minutes and consisted of three different violin students each performing a piece before Berick came to the front of the room and critiqued their work. While the students performed, Berick concentrated intently, often moving with the music.
A heavyset man with curly brown hair and overalls, Berick provided constructive criticism that was friendly but noticeably straightforward. The critiques ranged from students’ thought processes, to finger placement, to body movement while performing.
“Israelis are known for being direct,” Berick said. “What I like to do in masterclasses… If I see something that I think I can help, we find solutions, tricks and ways to manage it.”
While it seemed like some students could have been offended bearing the brunt of his critiques, Berick’s pupils appreciated his candor and expertise.
“[Berick] is fun. I was able to experiment with a lot of things,” said Mason Yu, a graduate student pursuing a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the New England Conservatory of Music. “He was very specific, and pretty demanding. Everybody learns from these kinds of experiences.”
One of the hallmarks of Berick’s teaching style was his continuous use of metaphors. He likened one stroke of the bow to a Lego block; in other words, one piece of a larger puzzle.
“The idea is that you’re making strokes, and you’re fitting notes into your strokes,” Berick told one student. “Break it into little units like Legos. Treat each one individually.”
While the aforementioned metaphor was about strokes of the bow, Berick had a separate turn of phrase for the bow itself – a bus.
“Think of the bow as a bus, not an airplane,” Berick instructed. “Don’t land it; put it on the road and drive.”
Berick was impressed with violin and electrical engineering major Anto Meliksetian’s performance, but cautioned him to leave something to be desired in the early parts of his piece.
“Hold something back,” Berick told Meliksetian. “Don’t give us all the tools you have [in the beginning].”
Meliksetian was impressed by Berick’s unique teaching style.
“He knows a lot of little techniques because he has really mastered them,” Meliksetian said. “He really encourages you to think musically instead of just physically.”
Yu said his takeaway from the experience with Berick was not getting too fixated on one thing while playing.
“Thinking big picture, and structural playing,” Yu said when asked what he learned. “Making it clear for the audience to understand the music, especially with a piece that’s more confusing than usual.”
The final metaphor that Berick used likened violinists to a different kind of performer—a magician.
“As performers, we’re not wizards, we’re magicians,” Berick said. “The difference? A wizard does magic without knowing how it works, a magician does illusions and sells it to everyone as magic.”