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Interview with violinist Sarah Kapustin - Performance, teaching, practicing...

I tend to follow my instincts quite a lot when it comes to making decisions, and I’m so thankful to the Eider of the past who, in 2021, decided to follow her gut and move abroad to study with a teacher who she only had an online meeting with. In an email that I sent her a couple of days before the video call, I mentioned how I was trying to be more expressive in my playing and working on musicality, which has always been my weak point in music. I remember ending the call and having no doubt that she was who I needed to continue with my musical education. She understood my concerns from the very beginning and transmitted me such a passion for music that got me shaking of emotion. I never had a lesson with Sarah Kapustin before I applied for my Master's Degree in ArtEZ Conservatorium, but I never felt I needed one to be sure that I wanted to study with her. Somewhere deep within myself I knew that was the right path for me to follow.

After the amazing experience of interviewing the Spanish illustrator 72 kilos, I realized there is so much I can learn from talking to other artists. Not only that, I also enjoyed the whole process a lot, so I was willing to take it further. Sarah was the first person who came to my mind, so last March we sat down and chatted for a bit. The topic was again artistic identity, only that this time I chose to focus on how it evolves during your career.

For those of you who don't know her, Sarah Kapustin was born in Milwaukee (USA). She studied at Indiana University with Mauricio Fuks and then did her Master’s Degree in violin performance at The Juilliard School with Robert Mann. She has been awarded in various competitions and she is currently violin professor in ArtEZ Conservatorium (Zwolle), chamber music professor at the Prins Claus Conservatorium (Groningen) and she also teaches in the Sweelinck Academie (Amsterdam). Besides being an amazing teacher, Sarah also performs regularly as a soloist and with orchestras and chamber music ensembles, so when interviewing her I had the opportunity to get an overview of her different facets. Even though I have listened to her perform lots of times, I know her much better as a teacher, so getting a glimpse of what she thinks about audience interaction and other performative topics was very inspiring. We also talked about what practicing means for her, and that’s exactly where I’d like to start.

Sarah Kapustin's ArtEZ violin class in Berkenrode, April-May 2023
Sarah's ArtEZ violin class 2023

Something that I find myself thinking about quite a lot these days is what practicing will look like for me in the future. During the last six years, I’ve spent hours and hours studying every day, but I’m very aware that this might change in the upcoming months, once I finish my Master’s. For Sarah, practicing used to be a lot about learning notes and unlearning bad habits when she was in the conservatory. “Now I would say it’s a combination of things: 1. preparing my upcoming projects; 2. maintenance; 3. trying always to find the most direct line between what I’m imagining and what's actually sounding. Often our awareness of the sounds we produce is not entirely accurate, not completely matching our idea of how the music should sound... I'm constantly trying to bring those two things closer together."

This is a skill that we have been working on thoroughly, as she always encourages me to imagine the sound I want to produce and to be able to get it straight away. It’s crazy how the same passage can sound so different depending on the character I give to the music and the type of sound I produce. There are so many nuances within a piano or a forte, and approaching my practice from this point of view makes it much more fun and enjoyable. Like Sarah would say, “to be busy with the right things.”

Interestingly enough, here’s part of what I wrote in my Study Plan for the first year of my Master’s: “I want my instrument to sound the way I want it to sound from the very beginning when the bow touches the string.” I believe I was thinking more from a technical perspective when I wrote this, but reading it again now I realize that there was also much work to be done in terms of “the way I want it to sound”...

Being music such an abstract art, it may seem that there is no right or wrong when it comes to personal interpretations. The violinist Augustin Hadelich said something about this in one of his recent interviews with WDR Sinfonieorchester: “There are wrong ways to play a piece, but there are also many good ways. And then, as a teacher, you sometimes have to think very carefully ‘what is my own interpretation and what is universal for all?’” And that’s exactly what Sarah does, as she told me during our talk: “I think it’s most important for all of us to take all the information we receive and integrate it into ourselves. You take what you need from various sources and then you combine those elements into something that’s working for you, and for every person that’s different.” It’s like a superpower which allows her to be a chameleon and not only play her own interpretation of the pieces, but also understand what the student is doing and adapt to that.

Sarah Kapustin's violin class in Berkenrode, April-May 2023
Sarah's ArtEZ violin class 2023

I can see a very clear example of this when I listen to my colleagues play: even though we’re all Sarah’s students, the way we play is extremely personal to each of us. As you can imagine, for someone researching about artistic identity this is a very interesting approach to teaching and playing. I swear this was a complete coincidence, but it’s also very related to another statement by Hadelich in the same interview I mentioned before: “The teachers who brought me the most were teachers who didn’t try to somehow change everything about my playing so that I play like them or like others in the class, but those who simply worked with what I brought and helped me to go my own way.”

Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that when I practice, I often ask myself what advice would Sarah and my previous teachers give me to improve my playing. I was curious to know if Sarah sees what her teachers taught her reflected in the way she plays, and she had no doubt: “I do feel like me right now, as a player and as a teacher, is a big combination of my influences. (...) The three main teachers that I’ve had, Mimi, Fuks and then Robert Mann, they’re with me all the time. I remember so many specific things that they told me that it’s inevitable that that’s working its way into everything I do.”

It's so interesting how, besides what we talked about during our interview, there are so many personal experiences that I can add to this article. I could talk for hours about Sarah as a teacher, but let's move into something different. Sarah puts the same energy and passion into playing as she does into teaching, so I got a lot of inspiration from her on that as well. “The first time after COVID that I experienced a full hall again was like ‘yes, this is what I’ve been missing’. Because you feel an electricity, a kind of a buzz, and you feel like what you’re doing is really impacting. That’s an amazing feeling, it’s like a power. It's like you have this power to decide, for example, how long a silence is.” Too inspiring not to add it to my decalogue, don’t you think? Sarah mentioned something similar in one of our recent lessons, in which I played the piece Fratres by Arvo Pärt for her. She told me I had the power to decide when the music would start, and I had never looked at it like that before. I must admit that it’s much more empowering to think that I am in control to decide when the music starts than to think that the piece begins with a pretty long violin solo (which could even seem a bit scary). It’s crazy how a simple thought can change so much about the way you play…

“There are almost no days when I’m completely not busy with music in some way, whether it’s teaching or studying something or playing.” - Sarah Kapustin

As you can probably tell by now, Sarah has a very exciting and thrilling approach to music, very connected to emotions and feelings. To be honest, I've always struggled to be confident on stage and present myself as a musician in a way that I feel proud of, and that's something that Sarah is helping me a whole lot with. “In the way that I learn, practice and perform pieces, it’s like storytelling. I want to take my listener with me on an adventure and show them all the beautiful things in the music. I view what I do as an interactive experience between performer, composer and audience.”

Last but not least, I want to address a topic I am still learning to approach from a perspective that will help me improve rather than from one that will bring me nothing but disappointment: listening to recordings. Do you remember that connection between what you imagine and what's sounding that I mentioned at the beginning? Well, sometimes it’s hard to realize that they’re really much more far apart from each other than I thought, especially when I was optimistic that this time I had nailed it. Not to speak about old recordings from years ago… I guess it’s good and bad at the same time, as Sarah says: “If I listen back to recordings I have made recently, even professional ones, half of me is satisfied and the other half would do it totally differently now. But that’s a good thing! That makes you an artist, actually, the constant questioning and re-examining what you're doing.” And even if it sometimes may be hard to look at it from a growth perspective, Sarah has helped me realize that it would be much worse if I'd find nothing that I'd do differently now.

Wow, this probably is the longest post I’ve written so far! It was really inspiring to talk to Sarah about practice, teaching, audience interaction, performing… and I can imagine this is going to be such a beautiful experience to look back at in the future. During the past two years, I’ve learnt and improved so much, to the point that the way in which I approach music and violin playing has changed radically, becoming something much more healthy and enjoyable. Something that I love about having lessons with Sarah is that every time I leave the room I’m willing to go practice and explore all the input she has given me, no matter how tired I am. She inspires me to be more curious and to trust myself, to try out new musical ideas without being afraid of mistakes. In other words, she makes violin playing as exciting as it could ever be.

I want to close this post with something that the oboe teacher of the conservatory where I studied my Bachelor told me once that made a huge impression on me: it’s not only the teacher who chooses his students, but also the students who choose the teacher. So thank you Sarah for choosing me, mine couldn't have been a better choice.

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