Theory: They Are Winners Already
A Conversation with Professor Milan Vitek
By Marci Janas '91
Photo by Herbert Ascherman, Jr.
nice as it was to have been made a Knight of Dannenbrog, 1st Order,
in 1999 by the Queen of Denmark, Professor of Violin Milan Vitek
prefers to be remembered for more than a quarter century of teaching
young violinists, many of whom are laureates at some of the most
illustrious competitions in the world, including the Queen Elisabeth,
Carl Nielsen, Washington International, Corpus Christie Young Artists,
Finnish National, Jaroslav Kocian, Jean Sibelius, and Jeunesses
Musicales. Most recently his student Julia Sakharova '03 took first
prize in the 2002 Olga Koussevitzky Competition for Strings [see
"Accolades," p. 10].
Vitek has won his fair share of competitions, too, beginning in
1959 with the International Youth Festival Violin Competition in
Wales followed by a prize at the Jacques Thibaud International Violin
Competition in Paris two years later. And he has sat on the juries
of some of the most distinguished international violin competitions,
including Denmark's Carl Nielsen, Italy's Rodolfo Lipizer, Estonia's
Heino Eller, Germany's Brahms and Yfrah Neaman, and The Netherlands'
seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to preparing young musicians
for the rigors of competition, the merits and the drawbacks of which
he discussed, among other aspects of a musical life, in the living
room of his Oberlin home, into which he and his wife, Sofia, had
moved just three months earlier. A Hindsberg baby grand piano is
snug in a bay window, flanked at the right by shelves lined with
books in English (the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) and
in Czech (novels by Karel Capek and Vaclav Havel). Tea and Danish
cookies were offered as Vitek made himself comfortable in a chair
international markers illuminate the geography of Vitek's life.
He was born in Czechoslovakia, where he cofounded and served as
concertmaster of the Prague Chamber Soloists and as leader of the
Czech Nonet, the official chamber ensemble of the Czech Philharmonic
Orchestra. He fled his homeland for Denmark in 1968 when Soviet
troops arrived to snuff out the Czech reform movement known as the
Prague Spring. With the exception of two years in Canada, various
teaching assignments and performances throughout Scandinavia, Germany,
and Switzerland, and a year as visiting professor at Oberlin, he
spent the 33 years that followed in Denmark, most of them as professor
of violin at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen; he also founded
the Danish Chamber Orchestra and cofounded the Trio Pro Arte. He
joined Oberlin's faculty in 2001.
are certain "skips in the track" - either in comprehension
or in syntax - when interviewer and subject do not share a
primary first language. An example of the former: one question inspired
Vitek to consider whether there is any difference between an idea
and an opinion. "An idea could be a question of the moment," he
concluded, "but opinion is a more constant condition based on experience."
An example of the latter: Vitek was given sample questions in advance
of our interview, to which he typed out the answers in Czech (although
he did not refer to his notes during the actual conversation). All
of his responses were in English. I have elected, with few exceptions,
to render his responses into a grammatically standard form.
Your reputation preceded you here; there was great excitement that
the teacher of many award-winning violinists was coming to Oberlin.
Is there some secret to your success? And to theirs?
I would not say there is a secret. You are, of course, working more
intensely to prepare the students for competition, but I think what
is important is the basic work must be done.
is the basic work?
To build up their technical skills and their understanding of the
music they are going to play. Competitions are just the result of
daily work, although I often have students play their programs through
for an audience. That way they are used to playing for people. In
this sense it is perhaps a kind of special preparation.
advice do you give students to help them deal with the stresses
and pressures of competition, or when they are competing against
I say they should play like they play for a concert, for the audience.
In that, there is no element of competition. Also, because they
work so hard to be very good for the competition, they generally
improve. So I always tell them that they are winners already because
of the amount of work they've done, the increasing mastery of their
playing, and their expanded repertoire. If they win a prize in the
competition, great. But if not, they already have achieved so much
that it doesn't matter in principle.
my own experience, when I've competed with friends, it's not personal.
It's possible there are some who take it personally. But, for example,
here at Oberlin's Concerto Com-petition, the four violin students
wished each other good luck. I didn't feel any tension or change
in their attitude toward each other at all. I think they were great,
all of them. It's like that in other competitions. I don't think
danger musicians would dislike each other because someone was more
lucky that time.
Because it's the condition of the moment. If you are in good spirits,
that helps. This is what I mean by luck, to be in good emotional
balance, good physical health. It happens so many times that some
people go to a competition and win a prize, but they go to the next
competition and don't make it to the second round. The difference
in the level of playing between good players is so very small that
luck is also always necessary.
back to your own experience in competitions, do you remember those
winning moments as being pivotal? Did you tell yourself, "This is
going to change everything?"
After I won the prize in the Jacques Thibaud competition, of course
I was excited, but I don't think I was flying so high in the sky
that I had to land hard. [laughs] No, that was not a problem for
me. Competitions were never a goal for me, but an inspirational
and motivational element.
there ever a downside to winning a competition?
This is difficult to imagine, but yes, perhaps. If somebody had
really great expectations, if somebody thinks, "Now I've won; I'm
going to have a solo career," then, if the career doesn't happen,
the achievement could be anticlimactic.
are some of the obvious benefits of winning a competition? The money?
That doesn't last very long! [laughs]
about the publicity? Although there doesn't seem to be as much publicity
when someone wins an award. Are there too many competitions?
There are many competitions; it's hard to say if there are too many.
And there are many winners, but only a few players who can sustain
a career, who have not only talent for the music but also talent
for administrating a career - for marketing it. There is also
too much fixation on the competition. For example, some students
told me that if you are not winning important competitions, your
chance to get a job in their country is quite diminished. There
are musicians who don't enter competitions because they just don't
like them; it doesn't mean that they are lesser players or lesser
musicians. I think what makes me happy, as much as my students winning
competitions, is the fact that almost all of them have jobs. That's
really more important.
own career has been, for the most part, a European one. Why did
you decide to settle in the United States?
I think there is a danger when you spend too many years in the same
place. The security could lead to a kind of complacency. When you
come to another place there is something new to build or to start
or to do. It keeps you more active and alive.
living and working in Oberlin for nearly two years, have you found
that you are no longer in danger of complacency? Has the Conservatory
infused your career with new challenges?
Definitely. Oberlin has a high standard for its students. The amount
of knowledge they have to master here is much greater than what
my experience has been in Scandinavia. And the environment -
having the College and the Conservatory together - is very
special. The interests of the students are broader; they extend
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