Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1

An uncompromising devotion to music is just part of the legacy Miriam Fried is passing on as she trains new generations of violinists in . . .
Music that Speaks to the Heart
By Deborah Galyan

The walls of Miriam Fried’s studio are decorated with posters and photographs, most of them tributes from her students. But there’s not much in the surroundings that suggests the domain of a renowned violinist with a solo career that regularly includes engagements with the world’s major orchestras—except perhaps Fried’s extraordinary violin.

IU Professor of Music Miriam Fried has her Stradivarius always at hand, whether she's traveling the world or teaching in her School of Music studio.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Near the window, lying in an open case, is a 1718 Stradivarius. In the eighteenth century, the instrument was owned by composer Louis Spohr and also by a woman, the Italian virtuoso Regina Strinasacchi. Strinasacchi probably used instrument to play the Sonata in B-flat K. 454 with Mozart, who composed the piece for her. But in Fried’s modest presence, even this icon of classical music seems less charged with mystique and more like a cherished working companion.

Fried, a professor of violin at the IU School of Music in Bloomington since 1986, dispels mystiques, including the idea that classical music belongs only to the realm of the intellectual elite.

“Musical performance is a form of communication. You can view it as a very abstract, rarefied kind of communication, or you can take the position I take, which is to say that it transcends all language, all barriers of culture,” Fried says. “It cuts straight to emotions, where we are all the same. Of course, music has an intellectual component. But if you play, and the person listening to you does not receive the emotional content, you haven’t touched them.

“Ultimately,” Fried insists, “music making is not an intellectual pursuit. I believe that music has the ability to give happiness and peace to everyone in this world. And I feel forever sorry and saddened that this is happening less and less.

“I know what music has done for me and for countless people around me,” she continues. “I’m convinced that it could do the same for others. You don’t have to be a musical expert to get that feeling of happiness. And I think it is shameful that our Western society in the twenty-first century values it hardly at all.”

Fried pauses, searching for words, then adds: “Having said that, I don’t think we musicians have been active enough in trying to stop this decline. It is a complicated issue, but we all need to work harder.”

Fried’s importance as a music maker can hardly be exaggerated. In her early twenties, she was awarded first prize in Genoa’s Paganini International Competition. Several years later, she became the first woman violinist to win the Queen Elizabeth International Competition of Brussels, and for thirty years since, she has held the attention and deep respect of classical music audiences around the world. A list of her fairly recent engagements includes the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Czech Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony, the Orquesta Filarmonica de Mexico, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Japan Philharmonic, and the BBC Philharmonic. As recitalist, soloist, and chamber musician, Fried plays to equal acclaim.

And she holds one of the rarest accomplishments among classical musicians—a best-selling record. Fried’s prize-winning performance of the Sibelius Concerto with the Helsinki Philharmonic was a Critics’ Choice selection in Time magazine.

Music critics may rhapsodize in print, but the compliment Fried seems to hold in highest esteem is from her former violin teacher and IU School of Music professor, the late Josef Gingold, who declared Fried “one of the great violinists of this age.”

Fried and her mentor, the late Josef Gingold, share a moment at his 75th birthday reception in 1984.
Photo, Jerry Mitchell, IU News Bureau; courtesy IU Archives

In the music world, there is something deeper—something Fried calls “more personal”—about the relationship between teacher and student. Yet Fried quickly dismisses another bit of classical music mystique—that the imperious music teacher transforms students into musical clones.

“I don’t play a lot during lessons, because I don’t want my students to feel that they should imitate me,” she says. “But demonstration has its place. Sometimes I can talk and talk, but I can tell that I’m not getting through. So I pick up my violin and begin to play. And then I almost always see the recognition, the ‘Now I get it!’”

Fried understands that her students require and deserve much more from her than musical clarification. Her own professional life has awarded her a keen understanding of the complexities they face.

“I don’t think music is about practicing passages, although that’s obviously part of it,” she says. “Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what kind of a person you should strive to be—a fine musician, yes, but also a contributing member of society who happens to be a violinist. And when I see that question getting lost, I must bring it up, because that is part of my job.”

When Fried describes how her professional time is carefully apportioned between her violin students in Bloomington, her various administrative responsibilities (she is also the faculty chairman of the Ravinia Steans Institute, one of the country’s leading summer programs for young musicians), and her demanding travel and performance schedule, it seems as though she has constructed three separate careers. Or, perhaps, just one impossible career.

But Fried doesn’t see it that way.

“If musical performance is a form of communication, then we musicians had better know what it is we’re trying to say.”

“I love music. I’m so lucky to get to do what I love. I’m a performer, a teacher, a member of a quartet. I organize a summer program. I’m an adviser. So? I don’t want to do the same thing all the time. I become better at each one because of the others.”

As she talks about teaching, it is quickly obvious that Fried goes about it with the same intellectual tenacity and clarity that shape her approach to performance.

“As a teacher, I try to make a complete connection between the musical sense and the physical aspect of violin playing. The violin is an inanimate object, so violinists have to do something to make it speak the language of music. Essentially, that’s my job.”

With characteristic modesty, Fried makes her job sound deceptively simple.

“If musical performance is a form of communication,” she continues, “then we musicians had better know what it is that we’re trying to say. When I work with students, I try to combine all the aspects of their musical education, the things they are learning in theory, harmony, and music history classes, for example. We try to put these together to understand the musical sense.”

She clearly enjoys the struggles that accompany learning, the challenge of adapting her approach, of going to lengths to devise a technique, an idea, even just a phrase to help her students “get it.”

“I once had a student, a very gifted young Canadian woman who came to Bloomington as a freshman,” Fried recalls. “We liked each other very much, and I thought she was making good progress. Then, in her third year, we were working together one day, and all of a sudden she gasped, ‘Ah! Maybe I’m not so dumb after all.’ And I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘During my first year here, when you were talking to me about my playing, I didn’t understand anything you were talking about. Now I finally do.’”

Fried laughs heartily. “I’m sure that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in a way, that’s how it works. The student keeps at it, and the teacher keeps at it, and finally something hits home!”

Just as she devotes herself to the specific technical challenges and emotional complexities of each piece of music she plays, Fried devotes herself to each student.

“The link between teacher and student is important. You don’t just come from nowhere. You come from somewhere.”

“As a private teacher, I’m in a privileged position. I really get to know my students,” she says. “Each one works with me for one hour a week, and it’s really fascinating to observe the differences in the ways they learn. For some, the more intellectual information I give them, the less they understand. Others need and like a lot of information. Part of my job as a teacher is to navigate their different learning styles.”

Listening to her students’ concerns is also part of the job. Preparing for a career as a professional violinist can be a daunting and uncertain journey. Student violinists must contend with the anxieties of competition and performance, knowing that there are limited opportunities for professional violinists. Fried also worries about several troubling trends in the larger world her students will soon enter, including an increasingly blurred line between the classical music and show business worlds and the growing tendency of promoters to create personality cults around classical musicians, in the interest of commercial success.

“I find these trends very worrisome,” she says. “When I perform classical music, it’s not just about me. It’s about my interpretation of something much greater than me. And I will guard that view until my dying day. Call me a purist, and I will consider it a compliment.”

But Fried is not one to complain without taking action. “One of the best things I can do is teach,” she explains, “because in the course of these very personal relationships with my students, I can discuss philosophical questions, explain my point of view, and pass on my values.

“I’m not saying that it’s my job to make them think like me,” she emphasizes, “but it is my job to make them hear my side.”

Among the tributes from students hanging on Fried’s studio walls is a genealogical chart, a lovingly rendered, hand drawn account of the descent of several generations of preeminent violinists and their equally preeminent students. Fried is on the chart, along with her distinguished teachers—Alice Fenyves, Ivan Galamian, and Gingold.

“As a student, I was exceedingly lucky, because I had very fine teachers from the word go,” Fried says. “But I had one other thing, and that was the fact that I grew up in Israel in the fifties. It was an amazing time and place to be a young musician, because virtually every famous violinist came to Israel to play, and every one of them came into the conservatory and listened to kids. I actually got to meet these illustrious violinists—Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Yehudi Menuhin, and many others—when I was nine or ten years old. It was inspiring, and it brought me closer to what the profession was really about.

Underneath Fried’s name, a group of her young protégés have, albeit somewhat prematurely, added their own names. Fried laughs with affection at this prank, but also makes it clear that she understands the importance of this musical family tree.

“The link between teacher and student is important, because specific musical information is being conveyed from one generation to the next—the more we know about our musical past, the more informed our playing will be,” she explains. “But it is also symbolic. You don’t just come from nowhere. You come from somewhere.”

Despite her concerns for the future of classical music, one suspects that the powerful legacy of integrity and devotion to great music that Miriam Fried is passing on will find its way into the uncertain future, uncompro-mised and whole. Her very presence, both musical and human, is deeply reassuring.

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