Jack Ma, Michael Tsalka

 

In this interview, Dr. Michael Tsalka talks about music, musical education, and how his love of music is incorporated into his way of living. 

Jack is a current employee of Vanke Meisha Academy. This Interview was conducted between Dr. Tsalka and Jack. 

 

J:
Good morning Dr. Tsalka. I am very honored to get to know you through this interview. I have checked out your website and found you have traveled extensively! Our last principal Mr. Peter Warsaw was also a musician. He said music was a passport that can take you anywhere in the world. I believe that is very true and that you are the living example. Do you mind sharing with us how the passport of music brought you here to VMA?

M:
Hello Jack, I am grateful for this opportunity! Peter Warsaw is an outstanding musician: it was through his efforts that I arrived at VMAA. I really appreciate the ethos he developed for our school: forming young musicians with humanistic values and respect and care for each other. These ideas were clearly outlined in the teaching position announcement together with the required expertise in chamber music. I thought this could be a marvelous environment for me, where I could make a difference. I had no idea who taught at VMAA! About two weeks after I applied, I heard from Leonard Lindweld. He inquired if I remembered him. He mentioned that he had studied under my guidance in Stockholm as a teenager.

 

J:

Did you remember him?

M:

I did. He was a brilliant student, a highly serious chap! Fortunately, during the last decade, we have both developed our sense of humor and realized that looking at life only from a serious standpoint can be detrimental. When Leonard wrote, I had not heard from him for almost seven years. Out of the blue, he mentioned he wanted to invite me to audition. In June 2019, I arrived here and stayed for two weeks. I taught every day, played recitals and lectured. It was a pleasure to meet Leonard again! He now has become not only a former student but a dear friend. Leonard has a fine career as a performer, and he is a very impressive pedagogue and thinker. It is a privilege to work together with him and in a sense, teaching his students is a rare privilege.

 

J:

Three generations of artists working in the same room! Could you please share with us something about yourself? Tell us a bit about your childhood and family?

M:

Of course! I was born in Tel Aviv, a rather secular, intellectual city. It is the center of cultural and scientific life in Israel. I began to play the piano at age 5. I come from a family of artists: my grandfather was an opera singer; my father was a well-known writer: he published twenty-seven books and often lectured at universities in Israel, Europe, and the USA. My mother is a flute teacher, a fine musician. At home, we were always among intellectuals and artists, discussing great paintings, philosophy books, and music. I grew up in this magical circle. Art, music, philosophy became dear to me from an early age.

 

J:

I would certainly like to live in a family like that! What does it feel like to grow up surrounded by artists and writers?

M:

It is a wonderful thing because I realized from an early age that art, music, and philosophy exist in a parallel world of ideas and beauty. We, of course, exist in an objective, material plane, but there is another ideal world, which has infinite possibilities of transformation and knowledge. Great intellectuals, writers, and artists work meticulously and intensely all their life discovering an infinite combination of colors within a painting or finding the exact words to transmit their emotions in a poem. This metaphysical vision of human creation is, of course, not an invention of mine: it is encoded in the thought of Socrates and the writings of Plato, for example, two of the forefathers of Western Civilization.

In some ways, my life is devoted to the transmission of emotions and visions through music. I am a sort of an oracle through which this ideal plane can be revealed to an audience. When I mentor my students, I show them how to interpret and master the technical intricacies of the musical score, but also, perhaps most importantly, how to become attuned to the great possibilities of the ideal plane which it ciphers, and how to find it within themselves.   

 

J:

You mentioned you were born in Israel, and Israel is a rather religious place, right? I am wondering, how do you understand the relationship between art and religion, especially in Israel? I am getting a little bit sidetracked, but I am curious because in the past a lot of great arts were devoted to god, but right now the world is taken over by the secular powers. I wonder if “arts for god” is still the case in Israel.

M:

I lived in Tel-Aviv until I completed my bachelor’s degree. At that point, I resided in different parts of Europe, in Germany and Italy, for seven years. In 2002, I began my doctoral studies in the U.S.A. Later I lived in Mexico City, Stockholm, and Spain, and also spent several months in New Zealand. And at present, I am here in beautiful Dameisha! Yes, a lot has occurred in Israel during the past 20 years. The way I speak and feel about music has always been spiritual. In general, musicians from the Western Classical tradition often share a semi-religious view of their craft. The Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach used to sign his musical scores with the Latin initials S. D. G. (Soli Deo Gloria).  

Faith in the power of music to transmit a variety of ideas, sentiments, and visions—even to heal the malaises of the soul—is a necessary component in the road to becoming a fine performer. A musician is not a typist, translating musical symbols into mere sound. He is also not a faker, making empty gestures to impress the public. This is something I often explain to our students. When we work on a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach or Mozart, we are giving it life. We have the responsibility of recreating in sound the inner world of the composition and the composer and presenting it through our knowledge, domain, and sensibility to an audience. When I read a score, I often feel that I establish a conversation with the composer and his or her bygone world. If you listen to the recordings of the greatest interpreters of the twentieth century, you will certainly find that kind of respect for the expressive powers of the composer.

 

J: 

You have performed in many places. Does traveling so extensively change you in any sense? Does it change your perception of who you are?

M:

I have lived in six continents and performed, so far, in about 60 countries (not much has happened during the last year, alas—we have all been stopped by this awful pandemic).
I emphasize to my students at VMAA, that traveling and residing abroad is essential because one becomes attuned to the ideas of other cultures and to their attitude towards art and music. Were you aware, for example, that orchestras in Germany have a different sound culture and concept than orchestras in the U.S.A.? These countries possess a distinct culture of sound and technique, a diverse perception on how to prepare a musical score. Who is the bearer of truth? It is a question of perspective.

I find that each tradition has its own strengths and weaknesses. When traveling, living in new environments, we learn how to best integrate diverse realities onto our own possibilities: it expands the way we think.

When our lovely students travel and perform abroad, folks in Germany, Austria, the U. K., U.S.A, Australia and New Zealand will get acquainted with a new generation of young Chinese artists. That is essential in the field of Classical Music, which is fast undergoing a transformation that prioritizes enrichment through international collaboration. Today, we are fortunate to have on stages throughout the world many fine musicians from various countries! True music performance is based on talent, intense work, respect for a great tradition and one’s generosity as an artist—as a chamber musician, as a teacher, etc. It is a marvelous thing, this core of idealism within the world of Classical Music. Naturally, there are many difficulties and sacrifices on the road to becoming a true artist. Nobody said that having a career as a performer was an easy task!

 

J:

That is a very inspiring point, considering that nationalism and tribalism is running rampant across the globe. I was wondering whether cultural constructs have any role to play when it comes to the interpretation of classical music? In other words, how do the cultures you are exposed to influence your understanding of music and your performances?

M:

I studied in Israel, the United States, and Europe. But as a performer, lecturer, pedagogue, I feel very much a part of the European tradition. National schools of interpretation are still a part of the fabric of music-making in Europe. I studied with professors who were formed within the German, Italian, French, Polish, Israeli, and Russian schools. As an artist, I attempt to fuse the stronger parts of these traditions. This fusion can only be achieved through critical thinking, attention to detail, and fine-tuned coordination of one’s ear, heart, and hands to your instrument. I strive to transmit this flexibility to our students, not only in regards to technique but also on how to prepare a musical score and understand the musical style it encodes. In other words, how to conduct research, how to really listen to music, how to read and understand German, Italian, French, Spanish better—knowledge that will assist them to make intelligent decisions as artists throughout their lives.

 

J:

Speaking of teaching, could you elaborate on the last bits—“not only techniques but also how to think and how to conduct research”?

M:

When we mentor the next generation of artists at VMAA, we are trying to teach them how to develop as interpreters so they can eventually become independent young professional musicians. That way when they leave our school, they will not be helpless before new situations or musical challenges. Ideally, they will have the foundations through which over time they can develop a strong artistic personality based on a solid knowledge of their craft and a love of beauty, Classical music, and the arts.

During their four years of musical training at VMAA, our students are developing a clear concept of sound production, technique, and musical style. They are also acquiring the know-how required to complete research in music theory and history. Why is this knowledge important? For example, J. S. Bach seems very far away from us, right? The great composer was born in 1685. That means there have been almost 320 years of theorists and musicians commenting on a variety of theoretical, aesthetical, and historical aspects of his compositions. Each generation has found a different interpretative approach to performing his music; this is clearly proven by almost 120 years of recordings dedicated to his compositions. The variety and depth of cumulative knowledge are simply astonishing and a young sensitive student has good reason to feel insecure and lost when playing one of his many preludes, fugues suites, or organ chorales. I have dedicated much of the last twenty-five years to the performance, teaching, and recording of the compositions of J. S. Bach and his sons. I am delighted to share my knowledge and expertise with our students so that eventually one day in the future they might contribute their own voices to the ongoing tradition of Bach’s interpretation.

 

J:

It does not matter where they come from. What really matters is where they are going and what they are going to do with the wealth of experience and technique, and all the knowledge of music.

M:

Absolutely! I have always believed that talent is mysterious. When I hear a young player who, from the start, performs with beautiful sound production without having much understanding of the craft, one begins to believe in a spiritual force. How can an individual who has attended very few classical concerts or rarely read a book about classical music play with such correct instincts? There is something uncanny about this phenomenon, which I have encountered often during my years as a teacher. Talent indeed works in enigmatic ways, and it has nothing to do with nationality. We can easily find great painters, writers, philosophers, musicians, who were born to unremarkable families in a village in the middle of nowhere; such is the case with Giuseppe Verdi, Marc Chagall, Vladimir Horowitz, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

On the other hand, the initial potential is very different from true artistic fulfillment. The difference lies in how much we are willing to dedicate ourselves to our craft every day. I emphasize to my students that being accepted into a top conservatory of music is not an end of the journey. Following graduation from VMAA, they will have many years ahead as professionals, creating music, teaching, composing, perhaps conducting, or writing about music. If one wishes to live a full, joyful life as an artist, one has to try to become slightly better every day, to have a strong discipline, and never lose one’s ideals.

I would hope many of our students would feel the same way because in the end, passion, love, and dedication are what it is all about. Otherwise, music-making would not differ from working in an office to make a living in a post from 9 to 7.

 

J:

Passion is indeed very important. It frees us from the banal and trivial realities of everyday life. Thank you!
 

Now let us talk about music and classical music. I looked at your Apple Music page and listened to Mozartiana, your latest CD for the NAXOS label. I have been listening to it the entire week! I love the original quality of the two early keyboards you use, the pantalon and the tangentenflügel. They can often sound like string instruments. Overall, the texture is quite soothing and elegant.

M:

Thank you, Jack. How very lovely to hear you enjoyed Mozartiana!

These two historical keyboards are part of the Pooya Radbon Fortepiano Collection. Mr. Radbon is a fantastic restorer and collector of historical instruments. He is originally from Teheran, Iran, and immigrated to Germany about ten years ago. Pooya locates old keyboards from the Baroque, Classical and Early Romantic eras, which are in ruins, and through his vast expertise and enormous talent restores them to their full glory. His collection is one of the finest historical keyboard collections worldwide. He is a dear friend and was closely involved in this project. Among other things, he prepared the two instruments and tuned them repeatedly throughout the recording process, assisted and inspired me with the selection of repertoire which would better showcase the timbric peculiarities of the tangentenflügel and the pantalon, two instruments that were common in the eighteenth century, but have all but disappeared from our collective memory.

 

J:

I was watching your videos and spot a tiny detail. You seem to always take a deep breath before you perform. What is taking place during this brief instant?

M:

With that breath, I move mentally into the world of performance. I fully concentrate by invoking the colors, character, and sentiments of the composition I am about to interpret. The first phase is essential because we are about to tell a story. Imagine that we are in a theater and all begins: the curtains open, then we notice the first landscape and the first characters come onto the stage. How we orchestrate all this in our body, mind, and in the space where we are performing is of great importance. That is a point I often discuss with our students: I recommend they take a few seconds to concentrate; they should sing mentally the first two or three bars in the correct tempo and with the exact quality of tone. In other words, they should avoid “just starting” and only becoming better as they reach the middle of the piece. The deep breath is the physical summation of a process that takes years to perfect.

 

J:

And what happens after getting in the zone of performance? Are you relaxed and just enjoying playing the music thoroughly? Is this what is called “muscle memory”? What is your take on muscle memory when it comes to classical music?

M:

I would advise against muscle memory as a main technique of study. First of all, audiences that listen to us, and instruments that we play on, and spaces where we perform, vary constantly. This means that every time we perform, we have to make important mental and physical adjustments to deliver the best possible interpretation.

Performing music has much to do with our imagination and creativity. During a compelling performance, we create a link with the ears, minds, and souls of our audience.

Let us consider Franz Schubert, for example. He died very young at age 33. We admire him, since he composed numerous masterpieces, notwithstanding that fact. Schubert was not a happy person: he suffered from illness during the last decade or so of his life; every morning waking up he wished he would have died the previous night, but then he would compose the whole day. In the midst of his unhappiness and pain, he found a strong sense of purpose, self-discipline, love of music.

When we listen to his String Quintet in C major, D. 956, to his Winterreise, D. 911, or to his last three piano sonatas D. 958, D. 959, and D. 960, all composed during the final months of his life, we have a clear sense in this extraordinarily beautiful music that the composer knew his death was close by. Paradise and hell combine in a sublime but uncanny aural perfection. These works are also a summation of his extraordinary gifts as a composer. Schubert reaches out for beauty in the midst of his suffering. As performers, we must strive to transmit to our audience these pure emotions.

And the more mentally and emotionally prepared we are, the closer we can reach to this height of performance. It is, however, too easy to disavow our duty as performers and only play the notes and rely on muscle memory. I have performed Schubert’s last piano sonatas for over two decades now and yet I know that I must continue to improve my performance of these works until the last days of my life. The students are always very surprised because they often believe there is a magic wand: you wave it and you are the master of a composition forever. Alas, that is not how classical music or artworks.

 

J:

For the performing artists, is there a purpose to honing on the same pieces for twenty, thirty, or forty years?

M:

A live performance of a masterpiece by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms can be beautiful. It can be recorded but it can never be recreated in the exact same way. As artists, we can never set a limit to our quest for sonic refinement, beauty, and depth of interpretation. We also develop over time, and our concept of composition also changes over the years. That is why many great musicians—the greatest musicians—played the same repertoire throughout their long careers. I am thinking of pianists like Joseph Hofmann, Moritz Rosenthal, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Radu Lupu, and Murray Perahia, for example.

 

J:

I wanted to learn how to play the piano, but my teacher concluded that I could not, because my small finger was not straight, therefore I would not apply the necessary strength to press the keys. As I grew up, I read more stories about how physical flaws should not be in the way of life, and I started to wonder if that teacher had made a mistake.

M:

Why not begin again now? It depends, of course, why you want to study and how far you want to advance. You could study a year, a year and a half, and already play works by Bach or Mozart. Many great composers created repertoire for all pedagogical levels and you can enter this world rather quickly. Perhaps you have heard declarations such as “you should learn how to play the piano when you are little” but this is not necessarily the case.

I have had several students who were in their 50s and 60s. They had not played the piano in decades but wanted to connect again with something which had given them great joy in their youths. Much can be achieved even when you begin at a later stage in life!

Our students can acquire the technical flexibility required by a professional player because as teenagers their muscles and minds are not yet completely formed. A person who is, let us say 25 or 30, has the greater intellectual capacity, but the physical development of certain skills will take a longer time. The way one learns a new repertoire and approaches different parts of a work is very much linked to our mental skills; therefore, it is possible to advance your skills as a pianist when you are an adult.

 

J:

It is about how you deal with stereotypes I guess, and if you will let them take over you. In that sense, I find that too many people are lacking in imagination; they give in to the “people say’s” and “rules” and how things are done “normally”, and do not dare to envision the possibilities in life. But in recent years, I began to have a feeling that as long as you want to try, you will find the world actually offers way more opportunities than you would expect.

M:

Yes, that is true! As long as you dare to dream and to work intensely and imaginatively in the world, the possibilities will materialize. This is one of the essential messages for our VMAA students. I must reemphasize how innovative our music department truly is. In the rest of China, high school music students tend to concentrate on performing showy virtuosic compositions for the piano. Our faculty emphasizes a more introspective style of performance, which includes a core of compositions by masters from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary periods. We also teach the students to listen with great detail to each other through the performance of chamber music, a concept, which is still rather alien to Chinese musical pedagogy. We also have now three students who are majoring in composition. The next academic year, I hope we will be the first high school in China to offer fortepiano and/or harpsichord as a major. David Feldman, an extraordinary countertenor with a fabulous career and a vast knowledge of vocal pedagogy and repertoire will also be joining our voice faculty: imagination, dedication, and envisioning a world of possibilities, right? Our music teachers are convinced that these policies are already reflecting in excellent educational and professional opportunities for our graduating students. In the next years, such possibilities should grow exponentially. That is why it is essential to have a vision, the imagination, and the resources to invest in these objectives, which I believe is a part of who we are as a community in VMA and VMAA.

 

J:

Thank you very much Dr. Tsalka for your time and patience! I have learned a lot today and gotten to know you better. I believe our audience would feel the same!

M:

Thank you! I enjoyed our talk and please let me know when you decide to become a piano student!