Social Media, Teaching Philosophies, and Travel with Alex Fiterstein

Date Posted: November 16, 2017

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Interview conducted by Rebecca Scholldorf and John Hylkema

We recently have seen your videos playing excerpts on social media, what sparked you to make those clips?

I thought it would be useful to play small sections of music and give tips to people who might be interested in how to practice certain things. I included a little bit of text with each one and I thought it would be a good way to reach more people and extend my followers, and it’s actually been really good in that regard. I’m just experimenting at this point but I think that it could be a way both for recruiting, because I will be teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in the fall and I’ve been at the University of Minnesota, so I’ve been teaching for a while, but I also thought these would be helpful for performances. If it can help different people in some way then that’s even better, so that’s basically been the idea behind it.

Have students or followers been commenting on a lot of these videos?

I haven’t had a lot of comments but I’ve had a ton of views. One video has 2,597 views which is a lot for just a thirty to forty second video. I’ve been able to get a lot of followers just in doing those types of postings so I’m assuming people like them, or at least don’t mind them (chuckles).

When you’re recording something that you will be putting up on social media, do you have any audio concerns with how the excerpt will sound through someone’s cell phone or however they may be listening?

Sure, I think with Instagram that because it’s such a short time frame, I believe the limit is one minute, I find that it doesn’t bother me as much. I basically do the recordings on a small stand, just using an iPhone, so it really doesn’t concern me all too much. If I were to do a longer video, maybe ten to fifteen minutes of explaining different things or playing an entire piece, then I would try to get a higher quality sound. For this purpose I think it’s okay.

What have your teaching philosophies and methods been like while teaching at the University of Minnesota?

I would say that my general philosophy is that each student is in an entirely different place in terms of where they are in their playing. I try to first see where the student is and assess their level of playing and strength of the particular student. I will try to develop them as an artist, with more emphasis on artistic aspects such as phrasing, knowing more about the composer and some of their other pieces. Say they are working on a Brahms Sonata, we’ll talking about having more context in terms of the composer. When thinking about developing their skills over time, everyone’s different, so it’s really about working with the individual. It all depends on their personality, some are more receptive than others. Some students make progress quickly and with others it may take a while and then all of a sudden they have a big jump after figuring something out and it becomes a lot easier for them. To be able to see that process happen makes teaching interesting and exciting. I recently had a student that won the school’s concerto competition, which was open to all instruments, and she was one of the two selected winners. She got to play the Copland Concerto with the orchestra just a couple weeks ago (as of 5/3/2017). Seeing her come from where she started to playing the Copland Concerto was a fun process to see. She gave a really compelling performance not just technically but visually too, the way it all came across was great to see as a teacher.

What’s it like as a teacher to see that type of progression from a student, what do you feel?

It’s a great feeling, I like to think that I had a part in it. You really think, “Wow I was able to help them a little bit there!” Which makes you feel great. You also will see them (the student) bring something to the table that only they can bring, stuff that’s so individual when they play things you stop and say to yourself, “Wow I didn’t even think about that!” So as a teacher you’re also constantly learning from the student. You have so much information coming at you just from watching and listening, but it really comes down to having a personal rapport with the student. Having a respectful relationship where the student is open to learning new things and is respectful by taking the time to take everything you say into consideration can produce some amazing results. Other times when the connection is not ideal, like if there’s a bit of resistance, you can definitely tell that the student may be developing as well. Although in most cases I would say that you (as a teacher) find ways to reach the student and eventually there will be growth that happens but sometimes you just have to wait for it to happen.

When doing masterclasses overseas, is there ever a little bit of a language barrier? How do you manage?

That’s a great question because I’ve done a lot of masterclasses in different countries. I once did a masterclass in St. Petersburg, Russia and it was interesting because I speak Russian, but because it’s not perfect I thought, “Okay I’ll need a translator for this.” So they offered a translator and I noticed that the stuff I was saying to her was not getting translated exactly right. The things I was saying were somewhat getting lost in translation. I could understand the things she (the translator) was saying to them (the students), mostly, and I could tell that it wasn’t quite what I meant. So I bet a lot of that actually happens like when you’re doing a masterclass in an Eastern country, you don’t know what the translator is really saying. But I do believe that music is such a universal language that if you can demonstrate yourself a little bit more to get the message across. So in those types of situations I will play a little bit more, and show more with my hands like it’s a rhythm-type thing, rather than speak. If I’m doing a masterclass in the US like at a university or something I could speak for fifteen minutes and I know that everything I’m saying is going to have an impact on the student because we speak the same language. But I feel that in those translation type of situations they get the more simple type of things like if you say, “Get louder,” or, “Get softer.” However if I were to say something more complicated than that then there’s a risk that the message won’t come across how you intended. So when I’m in China I think I will do a lot more demonstrations and keep any of the spoken comments a lot more simple.

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