Sylvia Rosenberg: On learning and practicing


May 2014


In Sylvia Rosenberg, one is given a constant example of a musician of the highest level, with unwavering integrity, honesty and an ardent fascination for the art form, teaching and the world surrounding her. Often I have heard her students saying how important Ms. Rosenberg is in their life, both musically and otherwise. Her musical principles are the simplest: to feel well with the instrument and to accumulate technical ability as a musical vocabulary. With her, building technique becomes a means to an expressive end. “Something that has always inspired me is that she never talks about playing the violin in purely technical terms, though she knows better than anyone the mechanics of the instrument, and is very clear and logical on the topic”, comments her student Elizabeth Fayette who is one of the most beautiful and special young violinists I have heard in New York City. “I find viewing practicing in these terms to be incredibly exciting, as it allows every aspect of my playing to be in service of the music, rather than viewing aspects of playing the instrument as “dusting the corners”.


The great pedagogue tells her students to practice optimistically, with the dual knowledge that while one will practice ardently for the rest of his or her life; it doesn't mean that one can't improve immediately. How you practice is a great art. The key is to practice creatively. “There are the basic mechanics of how to play the violin and then there is no end to technique”, believes Ms. Rosenberg. “It’s like with everything: if you are a poet you are looking for that certain word, if you are a painter you are looking for that certain color or that stroke.” Knowing how to practice, how to solve problems is very important but the most important thing about practicing is to play well. You have to try to play as well as you can and make it a creative process, it shouldn’t be drudgery. If you are practicing scales they should sound beautiful, those are the very scales that prepare for your beloved Beethoven Concerto. If you are practicing a D major scale keep in mind that many wonderful pieces are in D major.


Ms. Rosenberg is very keen that her students do not have any physical problems. She tries to have them relax. Being relaxed for her is all about focusing the energy properly and doesn’t imply absence of tension. Emotion is tension. “You are playing something that matters intensely to you and you are trying to communicate to somebody else, there must be tension: focused tension”, explains the teacher. “We spend many hours playing the violin. We have to learn how to do it in the healthiest way possible.” Ms. Rosenberg encourages her students to stand as upright as they can and then everything must have a down feeling. “Gravity is your friend. Don’t play from underneath”, she reminds us. Today there are many wonderful little girls who play the violin as well as very tall men; the size of the violin is constant so you have to really take into account the singularity of each person.


While reading Ms. Rosenberg’s biography, the name of Nadia Boulanger especially caught my attention. Ms. Rosenberg studied two years with the mythical French pedagogue in Paris. She remembers that time with delight. After her studies with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and having won several competitions, she received the Fulbright grant and left for Paris. She did not necessarily want to study with a violin teacher so she applied for Mademoiselle Boulanger’s class. “I played a lot for her and she was extremely strict with me, to put it mildly. First of all I had to go to her famous Wednesday classes, 36 rue Ballu. I will never forget. I can still smell the flowers. Those classes were amazing”, recalls the violinist, “we had to sing and learn a great deal. We would go through quite a bit of interesting contemporary music as well as a lot of Bach cantatas.” Together with the Wednesday classes, Ms. Rosenberg had a private lesson with her once a week. The first thing she heard was that even though she had graduated from Juilliard she didn’t know anything. “That was fine because I didn’t know much”, she comments, before adding humbly that she doesn’t know so much now either. Paris had a great tradition of solfège and music theory that didn’t exist in the United State. Ms. Rosenberg had to do a lot of homework and recalls how extremely critical Mademoiselle Boulanger was. She was very fussy about everything. In addition to that she had strong views about life. “I learned a great deal from her, she gave me some wonderful advice. She was an enormously fascinating person. I would say that those two years in France were in every respect life changing.” It was fascinating but quite stressful. It was much more arduous than what the young woman imagined it would be. “I thought: well since I am just a mere violinist and not a composer she wouldn’t bother with me too much. She bothered with me a little more than what I bargained for. She was extremely demanding. There was no fooling around, I had to do my homework and I had to do it very beautifully. I realize later how much she taught me, how she opened my ears amazingly.” Ms. Rosenberg realized she learned to listen in another way. She learned to listen much more keenly and profoundly. She learned to hear the structure of the music. It opened her to all music. It was a special time.


Ms. Rosenberg can say that she has traveled the world. She has gone practically everywhere. After her studies, she went on a seven and a half month tour of Asia sponsored by the US state department. She went with a pianist friend, just the two of them. “When I see what is going on in the world today I can’t believe we went to all those countries: India, Pakistan, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Viet-Nam. I mean we had adventures!” They played in many schools, bringing Western music to people. Ms. Rosenberg says she learned about playing music but also learned a lot about life. And of course in those days, as a woman, life was not easy: “It was always like there was the pianist and oh yes there is that woman who is accompanying him.” You learn quite a bit about life while traveling like that. In addition to her trip to Asia, Ms. Rosenberg has toured in New Zealand and Australia, Israel, China, Korea as well as Europe. As privileged people and artists she feels we have a certain social responsibility. Artists are ambassadors - hopefully in a liberal way. Beethoven first wrote the Eroica Symphony for Napoleon but changed his mind about the dedication. His one opera Fidelio is against dictatorship and tyranny. Mozart’s operas are often about servants being cleverer than their masters. The arts and artists inform people. 


The great pedagogue encourages her students to be more cultured - that is not pretentious. “They don’t often look up the precious word - what does sempre mean for example – certainly they should know the meaning of all musical terms. Music is a valuable message. Being a musician, you can go to Korea or China not speaking their languages and say 30 words in Italian, 15 in German, 10 in French and be able to communicate. Music is an international language. The greatest musicians I know are very cultured people. They have read many books and know about art and the world”, she assures.


Ms. Rosenberg has a striking eagerness to learn. She feels really privileged to be teaching chamber music as well as the violin repertoire and tries to be prepared for the lessons. She encourages her students to speak out at the chamber music rehearsal. “You may dislike each other but at the rehearsals you have to be with each other. You can say it in a nice or nasty way something but you must help and support your colleagues. If she haven’t become a violinist, Ms. Rosenberg believes she would have been a scientist. Not only science was her best subject in high school but also it truly fascinated her. She says she is sorry that she doesn’t know more. While she still has a certain amount of energy and health she would like to study a few things about science.