If you love music, the rest will follow: Reflections on studying with Atar Arad

Atar in his studio working with a student, circa 1995ish

Atar in his studio working with a student, circa 1995ish

Bloomington, Indiana, circa 1992. I was in the midst of a lesson with Atar Arad, pestering him about the details of HOW to do a specific technical passage, “But Atar, how do I move my thumb, what fingerings should I use, HOW do I do this technique, do I put my finger down like this, or like THIS?” He replied to me, likely exasperated by the minutiae of my questions, “Julie, you could play it with your nose and it won’t matter as long as it sounds good!” This is the essence of what it was like to study with Atar Arad, he asked you to look beyond your own playing and focus on the reason you were playing: to make music.

I am personally honored and excited that Professor Arad is this year’s Primrose Memorial Concert guest at BYU, and that the University of Utah and the Utah Viola Society are honored to present him in a masterclass.

In getting ready for his arrival in Utah, I’ve been going through some old photos that I took sometime probably around 1994 or 1995. Steeped in nostalgia I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like studying with one of the world’s best violists and musicians.

Prior to Professor Arad’s arrival at IU, I had been in a constant state of filling out paperwork to transfer to University of Minnesota. I hated the weather in Bloomington, the endless corn fields were…well, endless. I missed my South Dakota friends, and I wanted to live in the Twin Cities. (In the early 90s there was no place cooler than the Cities. The Seattle scene hadn’t erupted yet and the Cities were home to a music scene that included bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum, legendary artists like Prince and legendary clubs like First Avenue, not to mention the two world-renowned orchestras of the Twin Cities: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and my dream job the Minnesota Orchestra.)

So I hadn’t been intending to stay at IU, but when I heard that Atar Arad had been hired to replace the retiring Abe Skernik, I sent him a recording of my recent recital just on the off-chance that I decided to stay. I vividly remember his message on my answering machine telling me that he would accept me as a student at IU and that he thought we could “do some good work together.” That message sealed my fate, and needless to say I stayed in Bloomington, and stopped regularly filling out transfer paperwork for the University of Minnesota.

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Studying with Professor Arad wasn’t always easy. He was demanding, and his expectations were very high. He could be intimidating, though he was fond of saying with a wink and a smile, “Julie, haven’t you figured out yet that I’m a nice guy?” I cried on more than one occasion in lessons, and if you know me you know that I’m not a crier. (That Kreuzter #8 haunts me to this day!) Those early lessons were difficult; I found him hard to read and I was uncertain if he even liked me or my playing. I went to speak to him one afternoon. I asked him why he always sat with his hand covering his face during my lessons. I told him that it made me feel like he just hated what he was hearing, and that I just crumbled inside when I looked over to him and saw him hiding behind his hand. Was he cringing? Frowning? CRYING?? He said, “Ah, Julie, what you don’t know is that behind my hand I am really SLEEPING!”

As tough as he could be sometimes, he was also funny, and found humor in all the right things. (After those early lessons I certainly laughed more than cried in lessons!) He enjoyed the individualities of his student’s personalities and their unique qualities as players and people. He likes to tell stories about them, and some of the stories have extremely long lives. (I hear from current students that he still retells a story about my contemporary Michael Fernandez asking if it was ok with Professor Arad could he play a particular passage down-bow staccato, and then asking HOW to play down-bow staccato.) My very favorite thing about studying with him, and I think it’s one of my favorite things in the world, is that none of his students sounded alike. When you studied with Atar, you were taught how to be a musician and an artist, you were never molded and pressed into a player that you weren’t in the first place. We all had different techniques, different set-ups, different bow-holds, and different sounds. We all retained our individuality and developed our own musical personalities. He never taught you how to play like him; he taught you how to play like yourself, only better.

Atar is a very honest musician and teacher. Sometimes that honesty stung a little bit. But you could always trust him because he never lied to you to make you feel better, and there’s something very reassuring about that. It means that when he pays you a compliment it is worth a lot and really means something special. And most importantly you know he’s telling you the truth.

He likes to tell a story about me, about how I asked him about getting a good orchestra job, and if he could help me do that. He laughs about that, and I think he tells the story to illustrate a point: that it’s more important to become a well-rounded musician than to be only focused on taking auditions and getting a job. But in the end he DID help me get a good orchestra job, though not the way I thought back then, and every day I continue to work on becoming a well-rounded musician.

I’ve been honored to be able to send two wonderful students to him. I’m grateful to be able to send him students that play better than I did when he encountered me, and happy to know that their individuality and unique-ness as violists and human beings was preserved and nurtured. And I can rest easy because I know that they are well-rounded musicians and beautiful players and will have wonderfully fulfilling lives playing the viola and making music.

In honor of his propensity for story-telling, I will share a couple of my favorite stories about Atar.

The first lesson we had on the Bartok concerto was a lesson on the difficulties presented in the Serly edition. He explained that the concerto was unfinished at the time of Bartok’s death, and that Atar had an opportunity to look at the original score and wrote his essay “The Thirteen Pages: notes from a violist’s first encounter with the much debated manuscript of the Viola Concerto by Bela Bartok” based on what he learned from viewing the manuscript. (Atar’s essay and experience seeing the manuscript pre-dates the Peter Bartok publication of the manuscript.) We spoke at length about the responsibility one has as a performer to the intentions of the composer, and as I left the studio that day he called after me, “Ask not what your Bartok concerto can do for you, ask what you can do for your Bartok!”

After I told him that I had put his recording with the Cleveland Quartet of the Mendelssohn Quartet as my outgoing message on my answering machine, he called me and left a message saying “Out of tune, out of tune!”

And finally, when I was yet again pestering him about how to get a good orchestra job, he replied, “Don’t worry about getting a job! If you love music, the rest will follow!”