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By Shelby Britt
When I sat down to interview Jephta Bernstein about her organization Off the Hook Arts, I knew it would be a fascinating interview, but I didn’t realize just how much I would learn from her.
Not only did I learn more about her as a person, the creative vision of Off the Hook Arts, but she inspired me to pick up my violin and play for the first time in over six years.
Bernstein’s passion for music is evident in the way she discusses not only her own history but the classical music genre as a whole through explaining the technical concepts of violin, histories of composers and contemporaries in her field and with the way she explains the science behind her festivals.
When did you start playing the violin?
I told my mother that I wanted to play the violin when we lived in Princeton. They had a wonderful Suzuki program there where you start with a parent, so my mother and I started together when I was five.
Did you have the little tapes on your bow?
Oh yeah, I did! We also put an imaginary ‘colored’ egg on the tip of our violin bows and were meant to ‘balance’ it. I just got sucked in. Of course, kids learn so quickly and it was much harder for my mother. She quickly fell behind as I began to excel. She became discouraged and eventually quit. I think I’ll always have a twinge of guilt about that.
It was because of your unparalleled egg-balancing skills, wasn’t it?
Exactly! Yes, you are so right! But that is how it started. When we moved to Fort Collins, I went through several teachers before I settled in with Will Schwartz, who was the violin professor at CSU (for years!) and the founder of the Fort Collins Symphony. Eventually, in my junior year, I began studying under Harold Wippler who was the concertmaster for the Denver Symphony Orchestra (now the Colorado Symphony Orchestra).
What was it about the violin that caused you to stay interested?
It fit my personality perfectly. I was such an extroverted child. From my bedroom window in Princeton, I used to invite people to come upstairs to listen to me practice. I loved the warmth and human sound of the violin. It’s a very soloistic and melody-based instrument, which matched my personality as a child.
I believe personalities are matched to your instrument and I definitely had that “look-at-me” personality as a child; much less so as an adult. Now, I find myself gravitating towards the viola, which has a warm, resonate, supporting voice to it.
Since Viola is in another clef, did you find it hard to learn or did your previous music experience make it easier?
Because the violin and viola are so technically similar, it wasn’t that difficult. The difference is just a clef-reading difference; it’s very close to the violin.
Sometimes, as an adult, I look at the music in a ‘performance’ situation with complete brain fog and feel total and utter panic. “What clef am I in? Which note is that? What am I doing?” It definitely keeps you on your toes and your brain sharper.
It feels like being bilingual sometimes because music is a language. I remember growing up and swapping back and forth from piano to violin and It would get confusing.
Yes, and you still think in your original ‘mother tongue.’
I also remember having to relearn how to read music because my first fiddle teacher didn’t make me learn the notes, she just wrote the letter A, B, and C instead of the note.
Suzuki is a very similar shift — from ear to the written page. That new reading element is where a lot of students get lost.
Whenever I switched to violin, I can hear my violin teacher getting onto me about “pancake hand” and I can see you shaking your head-
That is a big peeve of mine, as a teacher. If you watch great players — violin or fiddle style playing — no one has bad technique, because you can’t shift that way. I’ve watched fiddlers with bad left-hand techniques try to shift and it’s a jarring motion, which often gets in the way.
I’m a stickler for this when starting students. We do not move on until they’re pretty consistent about basic techniques. They thank me later, as frustrating as it might be at the moment.
Speaking of teaching, why do you believe that music education should be accessible to everyone?
There is no other way that a child can get the same experiences, values, and impact in their development, in the way they think, feel about themselves, process information…. The list goes on.
Plus, there are so many skills you can gain. For example, just the confidence that comes from believing that you are capable of doing something and that what you have to say is worthwhile. The work ethic that you learn.
That thrill of being on stage and being successful from doing something that scares the pants off of you. There’s nothing like that rush. The experience of, “oh my gosh, I just did that!” builds and builds, every time you do it.
It just breaks my heart when parents say they can’t afford to give their children music lessons, or when parents mention how expensive instruments are. Or when they say that they grew up in an area where they didn’t have access to a higher level of music performance or chamber music and that no one told them how much fun playing an instrument can be.
Continuing teaching music through chamber music felt like the logical place to be after running someone else’s program (in Austin, TX). I just took it in a little different direction and aimed the mission at lower-income students.
Did working with the chamber music program in Austin give you the realization that you wanted to create a non-profit of your own?
Yes. I was asked to replace the founder of a Chamber Music Program in the Public Schools (CHAMPS) — the education program of Salon Concerts, a house concert chamber music series in Austin, TX. The goal of the program was to offer string players a new voice and music education experience through intensive study of chamber music, during their day in the public schools. I soon realized that I absolutely loved every aspect of it: from creating new direction with the program (towards low-income students), interacting with parents, fundraising, and making collaborations happen with musicians in the community.
When we moved back to Fort Collins, people encouraged me to do something similar to what I did in Austin. That’s when I started the education program in February of 2012. From there, I started the summer music festival as a fundraiser for the education program (PYCH) and invited composer and good friend New Yorker Bruce Adolphe to join me.
I found myself calling Bruce every year after our initial festival saying “Hey, ready to do this again?” and it just became a habit before we eventually rebranded ourselves as Off the Hook Arts and added a festival week in the winter as well.
What is one way that Off the Hook Arts goes against the negative stereotype that often surrounds classical music?
Something we do at our concerts is bringing people to undefined, intimate, non-threatening spaces to hear music. It is not a concert hall where the audience is so far removed from the performer. We try to keep our venues much less formal. All of a sudden, it loses its mystique and distance from the audience. It’s a completely different, engaging experience.
There is something about sitting in a space like Grace Church, for instance, and letting that music just enter you because you are so close to the performer that it feels like they’re playing just to you, personally.
I remember attending the Shai Wosner concert at Grace Church and for the first time, I felt the power that classical music has. I found myself being pulled through the peaceful parts of the composition, only to be jarred back into reality from an unexpected chord progression. I never felt that emotional response to classical music before.
One of my favorite things about working with all of the interns that we have is that we have introduced all of you to a different way of thinking about classical music.
I don’t think I’ve heard from anybody that has attended one of our events that they hate sitting through the concert, or “I hate this music.” Completely the opposite — I hear that new concert-goers have a profound new interest in classical music.
Right there, we’ve changed the minds and lives of 10 people! It’s so exciting and I hope that all of you will continue to be curious about classical music even after your internships are over.
Going back to the intimacy of your shows, do you intentionally pick venues that are very small and can only hold a couple hundred people?
99% of the time, we do. We took a chance with the Rialto this year when we presented the Brentano String Quartet. I wanted to put them in a bigger hall because we wanted to interact with more people than our typical 100 seat venue space would allow.
So, it was an experiment. We did get a bigger crowd, but we lost the flavor and intimacy there. We did another concert with the Brentano in Boulder, the night before, at a beautiful church and it was a noticeably more personal experience and concert.
Venues are something we always struggle with. I don’t want to lose that flavor or intimacy and so we’re going to stick with that design, even as we grow. I would rather do two of the same concerts on different days than lose that sensibility.
Finally, what is the most rewarding aspect of Off the Hook Arts?
Watching the students who have been with us since we started to grow as musicians. Knowing that we’ve changed peoples’ relationships to music by participating in our education programs and performance events.
The students are exposed to different styles and high-quality musicianship, ways of thinking about their instrument, and how they can make music and experience it throughout their lives.
We’ve connected with a large variety of people in the community and they thank us for what we bring to the cultural arts here in Fort Collins.
I know we’ve made a difference. We may not be interacting with 160,000 people yet, but in our little corner of the community, we’ve made a difference, and that feels pretty amazing.
I shouldn’t be running a non-profit if it isn’t meaning anything or doing something valuable, and I believe we have done that. When you color someone’s life or affect the way that they think about the world, the person next to them and themselves, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.