Russian violinist, WSU professor has high expectations for music students

04/03/2012 2:24 PM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

Alla Aranovskaya is out to shake up music education in the United States, and she’s starting in Wichita.

The Russian emigre and first violinist for the St. Petersburg String Quartet doesn’t hold back when discussing what she sees as the failure of this country to adequately prepare youngsters for careers in music.

“They come to study music, but they have no tools to play," Aranovskaya, a member of the Wichita State University faculty, says of music majors in American colleges.

At another point, just in case an interviewer has missed her point, Aranovskaya says the students “have no clue about the basic knowledge of how to play their instruments." Parents who pay for private lessons for their children are in many cases “just throwing their money away," she adds.

Don’t get the idea that Aranovskaya is some kind of musical ogre. The 53-year-old once made a video of herself playing violin while riding a skateboard down the street. Aranovskaya’s background gives her opinions weight. A product of the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory, Aranovskaya started the quartet (originally named for Leningrad, as the Russian city was then known) with cellist Leonid Shukayev in 1985, before coming to this country four years later.

Since then, the quartet has won several international competitions, earned a Grammy nomination and performed hundreds of concerts around the world.

It was while the group was in residence at Oberlin (Ohio) College’s well-regarded Conservatory of Music that Aranovskaya says she was first “shocked" by the state of music students here.

“Even at this famous school, I found out the education kids are getting is almost nothing," she said.

So in 2009 Aranovskaya decided to do something about it and started the St. Petersburg International Music Academy. Currently, the academy offers summer programs during which students complete an intensive schedule of private and group lessons, orchestra rehearsals and concerts and individual competitions. This summer’s programs will be held in Falls Village, Conn.; Tuscany, Italy; and Hawaii. Aranovskaya had planned for one of the programs to be held on the WSU campus before a scheduling conflict with the Chamber Music at the Barn’s music camps arose.

Plans for Wichita

She says future summer programs will be held in Wichita, but Aranovskaya has much bigger plans for the academy here, too. She envisions a school modeled on the Russian approach to music education, where students with the most talent and potential are identified early – ideally at 5 or 6 years old – and then taught as much music as they are mathematics, science, reading, writing and other subjects.

The closest parallels in this country are probably the year-round academies for gymnastics and tennis where some parents send their children to live.

It’s an ambitious goal and one that’s for now mostly in Aranovskaya’s focused head. Her bosses at WSU are supportive of the idea but also point out that the responsibility for making it happen rests mostly with the quartet.

“I wouldn’t say the university is making an investment, because that implies money," said Rodney Miller, dean of the College of Fine Arts, of which the school of music is part. “We are making an investment in terms of time, facilities, administrative help and so forth."

Aranovskaya and Shukayev were hired as professors in 2010 to fill positions that had been eliminated because of budget cuts the previous year. When the quartet’s manager suggested that WSU designate the group as artists in residence, Miller said he saw it as a "win-win for everybody," providing the group with a base and associating the school with an “internationally renowned quartet" at no extra cost.

The quartet’s two other members – second violinist Evgency Zvonnikov and violist Boris Vayner, whom Aranovskaya married last year – are adjunct professors at WSU, which gives them access to campus facilities.

“All four of them have – more than we could have hoped – located themselves into the musical culture of the school of music," Miller said. “The two that are not technically on the faculty have done numerous recitals and little performances in the name of Wichita State without any remuneration. They have just really gone the extra mile to become part of the school of music."

Miller said the academy would be a radical departure from the usual approach here. “The Russian model is one of exclusivity," he said. “Ours is a model of inclusivity. We consider it a successful music education program if we can entice someone when they’re a sophomore in high school to pick up the French horn and learn to play. It doesn’t mean they’ll go on to become a professional. It means they’ll have an appreciation of music. Theirs is designed to identify people whose life and career will be dedicated to music."

Asked if he can foresee the day when the WSU campus houses a special dorm for elementary-school-age musical prodigies, as Aranovskaya projects, Miller said: “We’re not there yet. We’ll cross those bridges when we come to it."

Perhaps anticipating how Aranovskaya’s opinions and plans might be interpreted by some music educators, Miller also sought to unruffle any feathers in advance.

“We don’t see this academy as being in competition with local Wichita string teachers," he said. “We see this as targeting a very special population of young people who have from a very early age identified their talent as being exceptional. The last thing we want to do is alienate anybody."

Requiring perfection

Russ Widener, director of the school of music, chuckles when asked about Aranovskaya’s hard-driving style. “If you want to know what she thinks, just ask her," Widener said.

Widener admires Aranovskaya’s skills as a teacher, citing a concert that she and Vayner readied a group of local high school and college musicians for. “If you had walked in and not known who they were, and I told you they were a touring group, I think you would have believed me," Widener said. “They just required absolute perfection from the ensemble and for the most part they got it."

But Widener believes a full-time music academy “will be tough to get off the ground, and I think it will be tough to keep it going."

Alina Amstutz, 20, a violin major at WSU and daughter of piano professor Julie Bees, calls Aranovskaya “by far the best" teacher she’s ever had.

“But she can be a little intense at times," Amstutz added. “She expects you to practice a lot. She has really high expectations for her students."

Aranovskaya said plenty of American students are musically gifted. Expectations are the biggest difference between music education here and in her homeland. In Russia, students battle to get into the best music schools and supply their own motivation. They practice longer and also receive education in the theory and history of music that is usually lacking here.

“So they will not play Mozart in the style of Wagner, because they know the difference," she said.

Aranovskaya and the quartet have taken several steps to make the academy a reality. Their touring schedule helps them to publicize the academy and WSU. Talented young musicians from Mexico, Brazil and Russia have been drawn to the college as a result. In November, the quartet staged a fundraising concert featuring as a guest artist 5-year-old Jonathan Okseniuk, a musical prodigy and YouTube sensation from Arizona who’s exactly the kind of child the academy would hope to attract. Another fundraising concert is planned for April 5.

Pat Hysko, a Wichita resident and classical music lover, called the group’s work with Okseniuk astonishing: “What they brought out of this child was amazing."

Hysko said a music academy based in Wichita would be great. “However, Wichita is really conservative, and even though the St. Petersburg Quartet is considered the No. 2 quartet in the United States by many experts, their concerts here have not been well attended," Hysko said. “People don’t know they’re here. It could be great, but it needs a whole lot of awareness raising by the university and musical community."

For her part, and not surprisingly, Aranovskaya expresses no doubt that she can make her dream of an academy come true.

“I know what I am talking about," she said.

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