In 2013, I wrote a piece “Full circle with the New York Philharmonic”, where I described my (and the nation’s) excitement at the visit of the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta at its helm to India in September 1984. I had just gained admission to medical school that July and begged my parents to let me go to one of the Bombay concerts. I had until then not ever heard any orchestra perform live, let alone one of the world’s unquestionably greatest orchestras. My relatives magically got me a ticket to one of the three concerts, no mean feat even today where visiting orchestras are concerned.
It was my first encounter with the New York Phil’s ‘new’ concertmaster (he had been appointed in 1980) Glenn Dicterow, whom I met backstage. I’ve been lucky to hear the New York Philharmonic in London a few times during my decade in the UK. I’ve heard increasingly about Dicterow’s reputation as a pedagogue, from my musician friends on both sides of the Atlantic. And 28 years later in 2012, when I visited the US as part of an Indian delegation of musicians and people interested in music education invited by the US State Department, I braved post-Hurricane Sandy winds to hear the orchestra at their Avery Fisher Hall residence, and among the concerts I went to, I was incredibly fortunate to hear them play Brahms’ Double Concerto, with Dicterow as one of the two soloists, especially since he had announced earlier that year he wished to step down as concertmaster to concentrate more on teaching.
And now, in with the new. Last month, the orchestra announced that Frank Huang would be taking Dicterow’s place as concertmaster. Such positions are not filled lightly. In an interview to the New York Times, the New York Philharmonic’s music director Alan Gilbert explained: “The concertmaster, more than any other member, really shapes the persona of the orchestra…..I’ve made a lot of appointments, but this is obviously the most crucial.”
The story of Frank Huang’s life trajectory gives us pause for thought.
He was born in Beijing China to musician parents: his father a pianist, mother a violinist. When he was two, they left him in the care of his paternal grandparents so they could go to the US to further their music education. He joined them in Houston at the age of seven. Five years with fawning, indulgent grandparents had ‘spoiled’ him to an extent. Huang describes himself as a ‘wild kid’ when he arrived in the US. Now he suddenly had to live by bed times and school times.
His mother started him off on violin lessons at once. Like many seven-year olds, it was not an easy undertaking. He confesses, “I never understood why it was important when I was little – I did not love music the way I do now……There were some years when I was close to giving up on the violin. Even though I was technically good at the instrument, I never felt it was something I could not live without.”
But his parents’ ‘encouragement’ (perhaps a polite term for ‘nagging’ and ‘keeping up the pressure to practice’) kept him going through the confused, turbulent years through to adulthood.
Huang was an “outdoorsy sort of kid”. “I loved sports, and violin doesn’t go very well with any of that stuff, especially basketball, which was my favourite, because you can jam your fingers and get hurt.”
But – and this is the important thing that parents and children must realise — it got better and easier with time: “Gradually, over the years, when I learned more and more about how to get a good sound, when it wasn’t horrible to hear myself, it got a little easier”.
So: learning points? Even though at seven, Huang had a relatively “late” start into music (if you read the biographies of many musicians, quite a few of them began at four or five, in exceptional cases even earlier) the constancy of his music instruction after that obviously yielded fruit. Contrast this with the average age our children take up an instrument; it is usually much later. The entry age of admission at the Kala Academy is eight. Precious years are lost, during which we have the most prodigious learning capacity we will ever have in our lives. In early childhood our rapidly-morphing brain is so malleable that neuroscientists call it ‘plastic’, having the ability to sculpt itself into the perfect vehicle for learning new things from language to music. This is essentially the underlying principle (coupled with nurturing with love) for the Suzuki ‘method’. “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will”, wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s. Neuroscience today would back him up substantially.
The other point is the quality of teaching Huang received from childhood. After his mother Lilan Huang, he was tutored by violin pedagogue Fredell Lack, who remembers Huang as a “sweet kid”, an “amazing talent”( he performed as soloist with the Houston Symphony aged eleven!), with absolute pitch and a remarkable memory. But as Lack emphasised, ‘talent’ alone is just not enough; Huang stuck with it, in contrast to other kids not willing to practice as hard. After Lack, he went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Donald Weilerstein, and then with Robert Mann at the Juilliard, New York.
It is unfair to compare Goa with Houston, Cleveland or New York, but the general level of pedagogy in India lags far behind even our Asian neighbours, notably China. And there has perhaps never been a better time in our history to address this seriously. Our kids do not lack for ‘talent’ or potential, but we need to nurture this with the right milieu and first-rate teaching.
The last, very topical, point is that Huang, being Chinese-born, and by definition a ‘migrant’, has risen to the level of concertmaster of one of his host country’s finest orchestras. Commendable no doubt, but there is the simultaneous irony that the marginalised sections of the US population (native Americans, blacks and Hispanics) are conspicuous by their relative absence in music and other spheres in their own country, while migrants to the US achieve so much more in less than a generation. If every child across the socio-economic spectrum, whether in the US or here, could receive the same nurturing, encouragement and love, the world would be a much better place.
(An edited version of this article was published on 11 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)