Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

The Nature of Nurture

The Nature of Nurture

Leading Peabody faculty tell why they foster an ethos of encouragement—rather than “tough love” and rivalry—in their commitment to train top musicians.

By Alan H. Feiler
Photo by Will Kirk

Amit Peled (left) in the
studio with student Jan Fuller.

Jan Fuller fidgets nervously while sitting on a cushioned bench outside of Amit Peled’s office studio on the fourth floor of Leakin Hall. An amiable 19-year-old Peabody freshman, Fuller cradles his cello and checks his watch sporadically while waiting for Peled, who is running a few minutes late.

Fuller rises like a dutiful protégé when Peled shows up. The tall, lanky, Israeli-born instructor is a bit winded and his long, dark locks are rather tousled, but the two men shake hands warmly and enter the studio. Taking off his tweed sports jacket, Peled immediately turns up the heat and draws a couple of curtains to keep picturesque Mount Vernon Place out of view and maximize his pupil’s potential for full concentration.

Peled and Fuller then sit in a pair of chairs facing each other in the middle of the studio, their cellos nestled between their knees and their eyes fixed directly on each other. Nineteenth and 20th-century cello masters stare down from photographs on the walls.

“So, how did it go?” Peled queries Fuller about a recent performance in New York. The student hesitates for a moment and responds, “Well, it was good. My biggest problem is that I get nervous.” Peled waves his hand dismissively. “Look,” he says, “everyone has that fear. You must overcome it. Everyone must. It’s not like practicing at home. The stage is totally different. You must prepare for it. You don’t just go out there.”

Plucking the strings of his instrument unconsciously, Peled asks Fuller what he was doing shortly before the concert. Fuller replies that he meditated. Peled shakes his head. His manner is firm and authoritarian, but his tone is always reassuring and caring, almost paternal, but not patronizing.

“It’s very personal what people do before a concert,” Peled says. “But right before you go onstage, you should just play and play and play. Be completely warmed up. That’s what athletes do. They pump up the muscles before a game.” He stops and gazes into Fuller’s anxious eyes. “Just do it, Jan,” Peled says. “It’s all there.”

Over the course of their lesson, Peled talks to Fuller about trying new techniques, such as breath control, arm placement, and “pinching” his fingers in a particular manner on the fretboard to avoid “over-decorating” notes. “Don’t be nervous, because you’ll shake and be less musical,” he says. “Don’t ever lose the chord. Much better! Bravo!”

At the end of their hour together, Fuller places his cello and bow back into a case and informs Peled that he plans to enter a prestigious competition and will try to win. Again, Peled shakes his head. “You don’t want to try, Jan. You want to win,” he says. “That’s the right attitude. Don’t do competitions as an exercise or experiment or just to play. That’s a waste of time. You want to win!”

When exiting the studio, Fuller looks like he could easily float above Mount Vernon and high-five the statue of the Founding Father perched atop the Washington Monument. He unabashedly admits to being enamored with his instructor—“ I just love this guy!”—whom he says is a clear reflection and the living embodiment of Peabody.

“I think learning takes place in many different forms,” says Fuller, who grew up in Concord, N.H., won top honors at the Libby Family Concerto Competition in 2012, and attended the New England Conservatory of Music Preparatory School. “Being at Peabody, we get constructive criticism, but we all know it’s for a good purpose. We’re here to learn, and I don’t feel intimidated at all. I feel very comfortable with Amit. He’s so busy in his life, yet he always tries to help you find your voice and help you get better.”

“Peabody professors try to help us shape our paths,” says award-winning composer Angel Lam.

In the mind’s eye of the public, there is a timeworn caricature about music conservatory teachers. Often of European provenance and with thick accents—as the stereotype goes— they tend to rant at their young, nervous charges when they play a false note or fail to grasp a key component of music theory. That image may be a thing of the past, but there is a “Peabody professors try to help us shape our paths,” says award-winning composer Angel Lam. strong sentiment among some that “tough love” works best in producing premier music students. After all, in a field as highly competitive, specialized, and often marginalized as music, such a culture—where the milieu and instructors are no-nonsense, relentlessly demanding, and ceaselessly critical— might make sense to some. The logic is that survival in a music career requires that type of harsh, take-no-prisoners approach.

“There’s a lot of rivalry and pressure in European conservatories—you must make it big. That’s here in the States, too,” says Gustav Meier, Peabody’s Swiss-born co-director of the graduate conducting program, who attended a conservatory in Switzerland for six years. “There’s teaching by terror, which I’ve experienced, where teachers go for the negative all the time so students work harder and get better. It does work, particularly for learning more pieces, but only to a certain extent.”

However, Peabody has long employed a different modus operandi and as a result enjoys a reputation for having a nurturing ethos, say many students, alumni, and faculty members. The approach appears to get results, judging by the myriad national and international awards and honors received by Peabody alumni over the years, including most recently a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo won in 2013 by violist Kim Kashkashian; and first prize in the Bösendorfer USASU International Piano Competition for pianist and Peabody doctor of musical arts degree candidate Eric Zuber (see “Noteworthy” on p. 19 for other top student awards).

“Talent is to be nurtured, not driven, and I’ve felt that since I came here 12 years ago,” says Meier. “Teaching by terror doesn’t work in the long term. The extreme anxiety usually makes students quit. They need all the encouragement and confidence they can get. We have to be friends, in a way, and support students with their projects and to follow up. It’s a tradition here, something that’s just in the air.”

Composition Department Chair Michael Hersch, 42, came to Peabody as a student in 1992 and began teaching at the Conservatory eight years ago. He chose to study at Peabody because of its reputation for excellence and “because it felt inviting and warm.”

“There’s a continuity and a shared vision passed down from generation to generation,” says Hersch, “and that has fostered a friendly environment that contributes to everything here.”

Hersch says that virtually all of his original teachers are still here. “There’s a good mix of three and four generations that are well-represented among the teachers at Peabody, including my generation, and now some of my [former] students are teaching here,” Hersch says. “So there’s a general synchronicity in the way many of the professors approach teaching, and this was the case when I was a student. To have three or four generations interacting and who came through the same walls and with the same vision of music is special.”

Because much of the learning at conservatories like Peabody is one-on-one, Hersch says the degree of nurturing and camaraderie usually depends on the individuals. “It’s a very unique bond,” he says. “The best kind of relationship is based on approachability, while keeping a healthy distance. My old professors were approachable, and I think that’s passed down. The ultimate way to nurture is to be honest and talk to [students] about what it means to be a musician in this world, which is getting more difficult.”

Hersch believes that one of Peabody’s strengths is that the Institute does not dictate how instructors should teach. “There’s a freedom of thought and a tremendous malleability given to the faculty,” he says. Hersch has found a shared vision between faculty members from different departments that contributes to the environment. “The atmosphere is inherently supportive among the disciplines,” he says. “Peabody has a natural integration between the departments and an integrated curiosity that stretches across all of these disciplines. It’s in the DNA, this type of collaboration, and I think it’s quite rare.”

Cello faculty artist Peled has performed in major concert halls throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and is one of only a few cellists in the world to have had the honor of using the famous Pablo Casals cello. Some of Peled’s students have won the prestigious Schmidbauer International Young Artist competition.

He believes that Peabody’s location in Baltimore contributes to the spirit of warmth that defines the Institute. He says the city’s vibe as a middle-tier town with a slower tempo than, say, New York or Chicago, but with proximity to the East Coast’s larger metropolitan areas and their music venues, informs Peabody a great deal.

“At Peabody, you can appreciate your friends and colleagues,” says Peled, who first came to the Institute 11 years ago. “Often, the students were the best in their areas. Maybe they were the best cello player in Nebraska, but they come here and see some students from all over the world who may be better than them. That’s sometimes hard to deal with, but they learn here how to play and get through it.

“When you go out in the real world, you have to really fight for your spot, and there are a lot of sharks. Here, you don’t have sharks. You feel comfortable to grow and blossom. Naturally, there is competition, but it’s a healthy one. Students want to be picked as the best, and you want performers to be the best in their fields. But it’s always healthy.”

In that vein, Peabody faculty members work hard at not playing favorites and pitting students against each other to create unnecessary rivalries, says Gustav Meier. “Sometimes, one has a tendency to pick someone out and give them more attention because they might ‘make it big,’ but I’ve never seen that at Peabody,” he says. “No student is given more attention because of talent, so there’s no rivalry or anger between them. The students want encouragement but also tradition and guidance and constructive criticism, not comparisons or competition. Each student should have a chance to succeed and should be treated with respect.”

Angel Lam, a 2011 Peabody graduate and former instructor who is now a composer and teacher in New York, feels that is what makes Peabody different.

Stirring up “negativity and debates among the students … can lead to a lot of negative energy,” she says. “Peabody professors believe in artistic vision and try to help us shape our paths. It’s so helpful when mentors help us explore our visions.”

Peabody faculty members tend to give students a great deal of room to explore while providing a road map for potential growth. For example, the Hong Kong–born Lam—who has received three Carnegie Hall commissions, was voted “artist of the month” by Musical America magazine, and received a Grammy nomination in 2011 for one of her compositions on the CD Off the Map—says Peabody instructors often inform students about competitions, rather than expecting “you to find out for yourself.”

Peabody faculty are “supportive emotionally and
not dictatorial,” says pianist Eric Zuber.

That generosity of spirit is what keeps students coming back to Peabody, according to pianist Zuber. Zuber, 28, started at Peabody Preparatory at age 6 and entered the conservatory a decade later. He is currently pursuing a doctor of musical arts degree at Peabody, but he previously studied at other conservatories.“The faculty at Peabody is second to none,” Zuber says. “They really care for their students, and that’s unique. Each one has [his or her] own style. Some are more stern than others, but among the ones I know they’re very supportive emotionally and not dictatorial. From my personal experience, the faculty here have been kind and supportive and wonderful to work with, with an immense knowledge of their craft.”

For example, Zuber alludes to his longtime teacher Boris Slutsky, chair of the Piano Department at Peabody. Over the years, he says, he and Slutsky have developed an incredibly strong relationship and rapport that goes beyond pupil and instructor.

“He has given me so much attention, even beyond piano matters, and I hear other faculty members at Peabody do the same,” Zuber says. “He goes beyond what is required of a teacher. … There’s a special dynamic between students and faculty. You get a lot of personal attention at Peabody, and I’ve never heard any students say their teachers put them down or made them [feel] bad.”

More than two decades ago, Boris Slutsky says he was asked where his ideal teaching job would be. “I said, ‘Peabody,’ because after my several visits to Peabody I was really impressed with the collegiality of the faculty and the interaction with, and devotion of the faculty to, the students, and with the musical spirit that reminded me of my upbringing in Moscow,” he recalls. “Little did I know I’d be working there in a few years.”

The Russian-born Slutsky feels that there is room for different approaches within the music academic world. “Every conservatory has its own way of operating,” he says. “Some places are very competitive, and that helps them thrive more in some respects. Some people need to be challenged in that way. It all depends on who you are and what you’re looking for.” Amit Peled recalls one student years ago who decided to leave Peabody. His reason, according to Peled, was that the Institute was brimming with “too much positive energy,” and he needed to study at a place with what he considered more of a competitive edge and artistic tension.

“Some people need someplace with more tension, like New York, where the tempo is different,” Peled says with a shrug of the shoulders. “Some people don’t like all of the positive energy here, or they can’t handle it. Look, I’m a tough teacher and sometimes my students cry. They worry about what they’ll do after they graduate. But you have to be disciplined on a daily basis and try to give them the tools to become great musicians. Your job is to be tough with them and say, ‘Find your own voice and fight for it.’ So you have to be demanding but nurturing as well. You have to help them blossom.”

Alan Feiler is a Baltimore freelance writer and frequent contributor to Johns Hopkins publications.