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A musician’s master class

The best thing about photographing yesterday’s violin master class was watching the sparks fly.

That’s how Wabash Dean Gary Phillips describes teaching at its best: “When a faculty person who is an expert and a student who has a hunger get together, sparks fly, and magic happens.”

And magic was happening on the Salter Hall stage last night when violinist and tonight’s Visiting Artist Series performer Maria Bachmann met with Wabash violinists—10 students and economics professor Kay Widdows. (Click here for photo album.)

I didn’t know what to expect; I’d photographed a jazz master class here a few years ago—casual ensemble work where no one was really on the spot but some good learning took place. I’d talked with students about their master class last year with an internationally acclaimed classical pianist—"worthwhile but grueling" was how several put it. A helpful if occasionally stinging experience.

And I guess I expected more of the latter from Ms. Bachmann. We’re not a conservatory. She’d be meeting with players of very different skill levels. She’d let ‘em play for minute or two, make a few comments, then get it over with so she could rest up for tonight’s performance.

But after she’d worked with Andrew McKone for the first 20 minutes of the workshop and professor Larry Bennett had to tell her it was time to move on or we’d be there all night, I knew better.

I heard Andrew McKone ’07—for four years one of our top violinists—playing his difficult Bach piece more precisely and with more emotion after just 15 minutes with this teacher.

Freshman Vincent Tran wanted help with his technique, and he got that, along with plenty of encouragement.

Sophomore Juan Carlos Venis, nervous and standing stiffly when he first played for Bachmann, was swaying and playing with more of the passion he’s capable of, and which the music demands.

And so it went for two hours—the master violinist listening, finding the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and working them through ways to get better.

I get to see students experience little epiphanies frequently here at Wabash. If you watch carefully, there’s a change in expression, the way they work through a problem. You know that, some time in the next few weeks, that new understanding will manifest itself in their work

But during these musical teachable moments at Bachmann’s master class I got to†see and hear the results right there, right now, the playing raised a level or two right in front of you.

Over the past several years, the Visiting Artists Series committee has tried to incorporate these workshops for our students whenever the guest performer is willing. Maria Bachmann and Jon Kilbonoff, who earlier in the day taught a piano master class, prove the wisdom of that committee’s efforts.

A performer who so loves the instrument and the music and so honors a student’s yearning to play that she takes the time to truly teach—that’s a musician. And Bachmann’s joy and devotion weren’t lost on our students. Such commitment made an impression on them they can carry with them in whatever vocation they choose.

In time, like all teachers, such a musician will leave a legacy beyond her own performing. She has certainly reached these Wabash students in ways that will resonate long after she plays her last note at tonight’s concert.