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Paul Kantor: A Mindful Mentor

When one envisions a renowned pedagogue, it’s difficult to squelch the image of an old-school taskmaster: a rigid authority whose lessons intimidate, in truth, more than they trigger improvement. And while such clichés fade over time, musicians still subscribe to their (residual) logic: from high-altitude festivals to bustling conservatories, instrumental training routinely employs factory-bred formulas—those designed to crank out human "products" possessed of audition-winning polish.

Paul Kantor, the University of Michigan’s Chair of Strings and cherished faculty for 30 years now at Aspen’s Music Festival, rewrites this tradition with an amalgam of wit and novelty. Instead of propounding a homogenized method and thus developing entirely like-minded students, Kantor’s more efficient approach isolates each student’s needs and refines them, hands-on, to spur artistic growth.

A former pupil of Dorothy DeLay, Kantor emits an insightful energy and convivial warmth. He dresses casually and, though students muse over his beloved Porsche, it’s his lack of pretension that allows him to engage them inquisitively.

"Kantor combines the analytical and technical approach of the DeLay school with a probing intellect," says cellist-teacher Anthony Elliot. "He’s in search of an individualized musical expression personally that is personally tailored to the particular student."

But instead of conjuring recipes for success, Kantor steers students to cook up their own. In a studio of 24 (annually sieved from droves of applicants), his only standardized practice is a commitment to sharp personal assessments of his pupils.

Katie McLin, now on the faculty at Arizona State University, calls Kantor’s "incessant questioning" his hallmark. "Why do you choose that fingering?" he’d ask her. "Why do you keep missing that shift?"

"At first, I wanted him to tell me what to do," she notes. "Now, I realize he was forcing me to be accountable for my choices. That’s what helped me bridge the gap from student to professional."

Doctoral student Maria Sampen concurs. "He’s like a master psychologist that intuitively knows the best way to reach his student," she says. "There is no Kantor ‘cookie-cutter’ mold. He cultivates each student’s strengths and stresses making one’s own musical conclusions—not following a teacher’s mandate."

Jennifer John, Kantor’s assistant at Aspen and a faculty member at the University of Colorado, discloses more: "He’s able to create an idea for a student without giving away the answer."

The result? Students who make a more human music and persistently win jobs, awards, and international competitions. "I’m never very far from the reality of how challenging music making is," Kantor smiles with self-deprecation. "I’m more an experienced guide who helps provoke the right questions. Violin teaching is a one-on-one experience. Hard-and-fast regimens are perhaps more appropriate in a classroom. To say, ‘This is the way because this is the way I do it,’ requires an unrealistic security with the subject matter and an assumed arrogance. The minute you provide an answer, it closes the door. It’s an end. Asking questions is the way to grow."

Born in Staten Island, New York, Kantor studied at Juilliard from his teens through graduate school, working among stars such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and former Tokyo Quartet leader Peter Oundjian—indeed, a daunting challenge in itself. "At Juilliard I noticed a different standard," he says. "I heard astonishing people my age. You can either be crushed by something like that or say, ‘O.K., work needs to be done here.’"

That work led to an appointment, at age 23, as concertmaster of the Aspen Chamber Symphony with a faculty position. He soon found teaching to be as meaningful as performing and took posts in turn at Yale, New England Conservatory, Juilliard, and, eventually, Michigan.

"I remember feeling stressed out as a student, needing to impress with my playing. I wanted something different for my students. A lesson should be an opportunity to develop. It shouldn’t be a perpetual test." It should also, he maintains, be an "organic" exploration. "Any time we force things to happen—with or without the instrument—something’s wrong." The rational mind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I believe more in the power of instinct: the idea of tapping into what’s natural."

In one lesson, Kantor catches a student’s tendency to mock a famous soloist’s robotic posture, tensing his body unnecessarily. Instantly, Kantor zeroes in. "You’ve got AVS: Aristocratic Violinist Syndrome," he says. The answer? "Stop studying your Heifetz videos!" he kids. "Relax and come to the instrument your way; let it rest with your body."

"Like a neighborhood doctor, Kantor doesn’t just diagnose musical ailments," says Chicago Civic Orchestra member Elizabeth Brausa. "He finds the right treatment and teaches you to apply and remember it." Hence his use of the instructive adage, "Be my teacher," which Kantor accompanies with exaggerated imitations of his students’ problematic habits.

"Seeing one’s flaws in someone else is incredibly easy," reminds Kantor. "My idea is to demonstrate a student’s mistakes and then ask them to teach me, to assess what I’m doing wrong." The idea is that students can more easily spot their own impediments in another person. "Musicians should be as perceptive with themselves as they are with colleagues," he adds.

Another of Kantor’s innovations is to sidestep the blanket use of etudes for exercises, instead employing repertoire-derived "distillations" that "make better use of time."

He also encourages a liberal-arts education for musicians, such as that offered at Michigan. "Students need a balance," he declares. "People now can be more Renaissance than they even imagine."

—Adam Baer


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