The issues of the current music education system are now more apparent than ever before.
Updated: May 20
Last December I visited Berlin, where I met American cellist Natania Hoffman to chat about professional musical career, arts education and what does it mean to grow up in a family of well-known classical musicians.
Natania has toured extensively in Europe, USA, China, India, and New Zealand as a chamber musician, soloist, and orchestral musician. She is also a founding member of Trio Agora, winners of the 2018 Anton Rubinstein competition (Düsseldorf), and is currently pursuing a master's degree in chamber music at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin.
I've been extremely lucky to get to know Natania and to learn that she is so much more than her impressive credentials. I hope that after reading this interview you will also get to know her personality.
As you know, since December the world has changed completely and today we are facing a major health crisis which affected all of us. In this interview you will find thoughts from before COVID - 19 and from today. I hope that my colleagues and musician friends will find comfort and a new motivation to move forward, but most importantly, will rethink their purpose and goals - what they want to achieve in their music careers.
I know that you come from a musical family. What did it mean to you to grow up surrounded by professional musicians?
I started playing the cello at the age of four. I wasn’t especially aware of what my musical family meant to me until I turned 23 and began studying with my uncle Gary, an incredible musician who became a huge presence in my musical journey.
My father is a composer, my mother is violist, my brother is a violinist and the list goes on… this has meant all sorts of things: getting to meet wonderful musicians, having opinions about certain kinds of music, but most of all, having very complete examples of what the life of a musician can look like at many different ages.
Photo credit - Monika Penkūkū
Do you think that there is a difference between the musicians who do and do not come from a musical family?
First of all, I think it’s worth mentioning that the music world keeps changing and is different now than it was for my parents and my grandparents, most recently in terms of social media.
Of course, it is extremely helpful if a parent knows how connect what happens during lessons to practice at home. In that sense, my mother was very important until I finished high school. She helped me understand what many musician parents know - that regularity is more important than quantity of time spent with the instrument.
My parents, especially my father, were reacting to the post-World War II all-or-nothing paradigm they were raised in. His parents were first-generation Americans and their parents had come from Europe (Lithuania, actually). They were Jewish, struggled economically, and felt that the only place to be safe was at the the very, very top. And his mother was a concert violinist with a busy schedule, at a time where many mothers of four hadn’t even considered entering the workforce.
It's interesting because my father and his three siblings have incredible lives and incredible careers (as did their parents before them). Simultaneously, they all struggled profoundly with the sense that no matter what they did, it could never be enough.
Three of those siblings had children who were all raised radically differently. I realize now that my upbringing, in part, compensated for what my father went through. Whatever I did, I was always supported. My parents could certainly have pushed me harder but they consciously decided to never to do that, nor to put conditional love in the mix. That was extremely important for them.
Don’t you think that all of the hours we dedicate to music can also be a curse, because we might be talented in other things and might never find out?
Oh, yes! That's something that I thought about many times; that’s something that my brother and I have both thought about - our alternate “closeted” career dreams that we never explored.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember what convinced us to stay on our paths: for my brother, a violinist, it was his doctoral studies at Yale that made him truly appreciate the value of his work and our profession. For me it’s working with my trio, Trio Agora, and professor Eberhard Feltz at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule in Berlin. I think that society needs people who’ve had a meaningful education in the arts, so I’ve continued on this path. But, of course, there are lots of things I would love to do!
Photo credit - Monika Penkūkū
We’ve arrived at a very interesting point now. Successful career vs. happiness and purpose. Is it the question of our ego, which way we go? And how do we balance these two opposites?
A classical music's relationship with success is an interesting one. I was reading a New York Times interview with Philip Glass recently. It was funny because the subtitle of the article was “of course I’m a sellout. What else would I be?”
Success. I have a conflictual relationship with the ideas of fame and recognition because so much of what we do is sitting in the practice room and working hard to polish our craft as well as we can. It's hard to flip to the other side and say “I'm done, I'm ready, and everyone should love what I do.” That’s something really hard to reconcile. As musicians we are asked to split our personality, so that one half is working on a product and the other half is already selling it.
One thing worth mentioning to an audience of non-musicians: standard training for young musicians is almost exclusively focused on solo repertoire. At least until our conservatory studies, we only learn pieces written to be performed alone or as a soloist with an orchestra behind us, to prepare for the spotlight. That is an issue for a couple different reasons.
First of all - numbers. Not everyone will able to assume that role; the market is saturated with young musicians. Second of all – personality. Not everyone is made for that lifestyle, and oftentimes teachers don’t talk about the hidden strain of travel and the incredible amount of energy needed to perform. (Here, again, I was lucky to have a musician family and to see these things from an early age.) Yet a successful musician needs to be prepared for both, on a regular basis. And third of all - it leads to a general culture that is anxious, frustrating, and frustrated. This is something that I see all the time, all over the place.
Looking to the future, it’s important to remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Often, people who have spent twenty years of their lives practicing realize around their late twenties that they’d like to have a family and need a stable income. They start to audition for orchestra positions or start teaching children, but don’t necessarily like what they're doing. And an orchestral job is by no means guaranteed; many Conservatory graduates never secure a tenure-track position. Even if they do, unresolved frustration can poison work environments or worse, perpetuate the problem as frustrated teachers pass their problems to a new generation of students.
When my father, as a young child, went to his first piano lesson his teacher showed him a poster of herself in a fancy dress in front of an orchestra. She said “Is that what you expect? It’s not going to happen; you’re going to end up teaching children just like me.”
If we think about professions in medicine or law, for example, it is clear that there are more and less ambitious career tracks; one can become a medical researcher who has an incredible breakthrough, or a family practitioner. Either way, a stable, respected place in society is practically guaranteed. Not so with musicians, despite the decades of training required.
In certain countries, music education is taught in such a narrow-minded way that students’ chance of happiness and fulfillment actually decreases.
I think that generally speaking, our systems of art education are sometimes destructive because of this narrow-mindedness. It’s not that we are not good professionals. We are. It is just that we are so closed-minded that we see only one way of success or fulfilling life and career.
People talk about winning a music competition and its similarity to winning a lottery. The idea of a lottery is great, in a certain way, because it eases the pressure that is on young musicians. It puts things into perspective, instead of assuming that winning an international competition is the responsibility of the musician alone.
The issue with the lottery metaphor is that, contrary to the real lottery where a ticket costs a few euros, a ticket costs 15 years of life or more. I do not think that it makes sense to train music students solely in order to play a super high-stakes lottery in their mid-twenties. Most of us start to play an instrument between the ages of four and twelve and spend our entire childhood sacrificing playtime, vacation, and schoolwork. With this mindset we become artisans, not artists. And the beauty of this profession is that it demands us to be both.
Let’s face it: dedicated musicians might not attain economic stability, despite the countless hours invested in their profession. This is a real possibility, and it’s counterproductive and dangerous to raise thousands of young musicians without understanding and coming to terms with this fact.
What we need, and need desperately, is ambassadors for the arts. We need musicians who love music deeply, who are convinced by the inherent value of what they do, and who are perhaps less attached to material possessions than most members of society. Of course, some of us will be compensated for our sacrifices, but some will not. In order to follow the path of being a musician, I believe we need to be prepared to take that risk; after all, the beauty of this profession is its never-ending quest for the intangible, for the incredible.
In the past two months there have been thousands of musical delays and cancellations across the world. What impact this crisis had on you and how did it lead you to reconsider our mission and purpose as musicians?
Like all of us, my world was turned upside down over the course of just a few days. An international cello festival in Los Angeles that I was going to participate in was cancelled first, then my Artist Diploma recital at the Queen Elisabeth Chapelle in Belgium. Many other concerts followed; several were postponed, some were not. Personally, I have cancellations through to September, and new dates all the way into the 2022-2023 season. And it’s impossible to know how many further changes are still to come. The summer might bring some positive surprises, but we have to be prepared for negative ones, too.
Photo credit - Luc Luyten
For a minute, I personally felt, that everything what I do and work for creatively, suddenly lost its meaning and purpose. I thought that the art was the last thing people think of in this global health crisis. How did your feelings and thoughts evolve through this time?
The feeling of purpose is one of the most compelling aspects of our profession. At the beginning of the crisis, I found comfort in the sense of purpose that teaching provided me. I was more grateful than ever before for my cello students in Berlin, and for our weekly online lessons… and looking to the future, it’s important to remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint. I believe that from a cultural standpoint, there is hunger for the arts right now.
Žilvinas, my boyfriend and the clarinetist of Trio Agora, and I recently played for a friend’s mother outside her apartment; her balcony was on the ground floor. Within the first few minutes of our impromptu serenade, dozens of neighbors had come out to their own balconies to listen, with smiles on their faces. Passers-by were stopping to listen. Spontaneously, people started throwing money toward us (which was a tiny bit embarrassing, but it was a special moment for sure)… and it was one of the times, along with family weddings and funerals, in which I most profoundly felt the power of music, and its place in society.
We need to change the education system for musicians. Now, more than ever.
Dreaming is a beautiful thing, the world needs dreams and dreamers. At the same time, we need to work on the grounded side of the artistic profession, and we need concrete guidance. I think that this crisis has exposed how vulnerable many young freelancers are, in general. It’s so important to have a good grasp of bureaucracy, to know one’s rights and also one’s duties. This critical component has allowed some to navigate the system, access help and relief, and rely on a support system while others were caught off guard and very lost.
We need to get through many more months of this with skill, organization, and creative thinking. We need to have the courage to have dialogues about our financial situations, to talk to our friends from different professions, and to use this time wisely to plan and to learn. Musicians will be among the last to be able to return to work, and we will find a very different concert scene from the one we left. There are plenty of speculations on how coronavirus situation will change the world. Have you thought about any scenario? Maybe there is something positive we could all learn?
There were some incredibly positive aspects of this quarantine time for me. For so many years the list of things that I wanted to take care of, if only I had time, had been growing. And little by little, I’m catching up with myself — that’s a beautiful feeling. I really hope that many of us will want to hold onto, even be unwilling to give up, a slower pace of living. Having a daily rhythm which includes time to exercise, cook, clean, and especially think is something fundamental yet, in “normal” times, often overlooked. Of course, I know that I am extremely lucky to have a situation which doesn’t involve the impossible problem of combining childcare and work, or a full-time job that was transferred online, or the virus itself. We all have our own battles during this time, and some are far greater than others. (And we are all consuming information from very different sources and standpoints, which could unfortunately bring our society even further apart; this remains to be seen.)
However, the self-awareness and questioning that comes with this seismic shift that we are experiencing is a positive force from which we can all take away something powerful.
And despite this crisis, history is cyclical. In the words of the great cellist Lynn Harrell, who passed away in April, at a commencement ceremony in 2004:
“I am here as a scout. I am here to report back on what it looks like down the road. And I can tell you that the journey at the beginning, and the journey to the end are no different -- music is one and the same journey, and it always continues. I meet young musicians in their early twenties who are already turned off; they're bored; they're cynical. "It's all politics," they'll say.
But I met them thirty years ago, too, like that -- and those are the talents who disappeared. Only the music remained -- and those who in delighting in the music; in never failing to find refreshment in it; who rejoice in their gift... those are the musicians who have lasted, whose way has been lit by this special lantern of our art.”