"I really like your piece very much!!!! Thank you for your integrity and your keen comprehension of what it takes to be a teacher."

- Ida Kavafian

Ida Kavafian: Encouraging individuality


February 2013


This fall in New York, I had the opportunity to observe a few of Ida Kavafian’s violin lessons. It was one of the most beautiful Friday afternoons of the season and, despite the summer heat, there was no place I would have rather been than her sacred Juilliard classroom. Having been a journalist in Belgium, I had come to see firsthand the miraculous teaching methods of the teacher whose three students were finalists at the most recent violin session of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. The three lessons I attended represented various different stages in the life of a student embarking on a music career: the first hour was daily practice; the second, final adjustments before a concerto performance with an orchestra; and the last hour was spent on how to adjust quickly to a new instrument.


The first piece of advice Kavafian gave her young Korean student worried about using her practice time more effectively was to write down all of her thoughts, plans and goals in a notebook. She suggested setting a concrete goal each day, even if it seems very small—one realistically accomplishable goal every single day. Then, return to the notebook at the end of the day and, this time, write down what has been accomplished and what can be improved in terms of both practice and playing.


“Teachers don’t spend enough time discussing practice,” says Kavafian. “The problem is that when you teach advanced students, you assume they already know how to work effectively, which is not always the case.” The fact is there is never enough time in the day. Twenty minutes of practice done well is always better than nothing, and there is nothing worse than practicing for hours just for the sake of it. Musicians have a tendency to spend a long time repeating things over and over, but nothing is achieved by continuous repetition; practicing requires reflection and using one’s head. 


The corrected version of the piece must be engraved in one’s mind so that the next time the passage is played, the error is not repeated and the piece is played well from then on. Effective practice requires mental discipline driven by a desire to solve a problem. A good approach is to be conscious of each note, measure and phrase, providing a solid plan of attack in performance. This way, the mind focuses on resolving problem after problem, moving from one to the next, like stops on the road to performance.


After the first lesson, Kavafian turned to me, her eyes sparkling, and said in a confident yet proud and mischievous way that she loved her young student’s temperament and it was a pleasure to teach her. This is exactly what defines the Kavafian magic: pure and simple enthusiasm for what she does and for the people around her. “I’ll tell you my secret to great teaching: great students, period!” she says. This love of teaching makes each student an adventure—a completely new story. Kavafian tells me that the nicest compliment she has ever had was during a weekly studio class at Curtis. A student heard a fellow classmate playing the same piece he was working on, and exclaimed that he couldn’t believe they had studied with the same teacher, because they both played it so differently. “My main objective is to make each person better at being his or herself,” says Kavafian. “Of course, this requires a lot of effort because every student must be treated differently, but, at the same time, it is my job to bring out whoever they are.”


Kavafian’s attentiveness to her students is apparent during lessons, and it goes both ways, with strong ties between student and teacher. She acts like a fairy godmother, concerned, for example, about whether her students have had time to eat before the lesson. She caringly lets each student talk and confide in her about their week. Kavafian is modern and not overly-formal, so it is not strange to hear things like “holy crap that sounds good” or “that was cool” from time to time. One of the students, hesitating to start the Sibelius because his recently loaned Stradivarius still gave him difficulty, played a few open strings in double stops to buy time. Sensing his anxiety, Kavafian told him, “The open strings sound good. I guess you did a great job there at least.” Confident, the student then managed beautifully.


This is certainly not to say that the teacher lets anything get past her, but that her approach is good-humoured and enthusiastic. She always tries to highlight the qualities of her students, to open their minds and to encourage them to be fearless. The road is hard, but it is also unbelievably rewarding.


Published on Violinist.com on August 2013: