It’s no surprise that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, which were slated to take place in Tokyo this summer, were cancelled. But violinist Nathan Cole had his own idea about a world-wide competition: on June 1, the first associate concertmaster for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, appointed in 2012, launched the Violympics, a sophisticated virtual training program for aspiring violinists across the globe.
The series of six two-week training events is designed to give advanced violinists the tools to improve their craft, with Cole mentoring participants as they explore fundamentals in an exciting format while building a world-wide community of musicians. No stranger to online teaching, Cole, a renowned educator, is also an innovator who more than a decade ago launched his own YouTube channel in order to provide his students with additional training that allowed them to be better prepared for their lessons.
“I got the idea of putting together a package of ideas for the students before they came to me,” recalled Cole, “then we wouldn’t have to use in-person time. I thought of making a video, including how I might practice and what the problems would be.”
Such problem areas included developing an effortless vibrato, pitch-perfect intonation and trilling, all of which eventually became elements of Cole’s how-to/explanatory videos. “I’d heard of YouTube,” he added, “and posted [my video] and people around the world saw that and said it was so helpful, could I make another one? I thought ‘This could be interesting.’”
Indeed, with his instructional videos getting more than 100,000 views since then, Cole, aided by business/coaching guru, Jennifer Rosenfeld, decided to launch an online Virtuoso Master Course last year. A six-month violin program consisting of a mix of pre-recorded videos, weekly group classes, monthly private lessons and more, the course, which Cole will offer again in the fall, seemed a natural precursor to the Violympics, also devised with the help of Rosenfeld.
And as the Olympics has its qualifying trials, so, too, did Cole’s games. The Violympic Trials took place in early May as a one-week introductory program that drew 3,000 people from such disparate places as Argentina and Israel, with Cole livestreaming himself for half an hour every day on Facebook and YouTube.
As for the main competition, Cole explained that each two-week event consists of two phases. “The first week we go over certain concepts and at the beginning of the second week I surprised everybody with a challenge piece. I even wrote a piece of music and had everybody learn and record it in a week.”
Cole said there was no age minimum, but participants tended to be 30 and older. Regarding judging, the musician acknowledged, “It is just me. At the end of all the games, I’ll be able to see who completed all six challenges. And there are going to be medals — gold, silver and bronze and maybe a special commemorative prize to someone who didn’t get to all the challenges.”
The cost of joining the Violympics was $797. “I thought it needed to be about $800,” Cole explained, “and $797 looks good.”
Also looking good is Cole’s coach Rosenfeld, who has multiple undergraduate degrees from Stanford University, where she also earned graduate degrees in law and business. A leading entrepreneur, educator and speaker, Rosenfeld said that most of her clients are musicians. “The work we do together is focused on their teaching and what I’ve been saying for a while is that I think it is risky for musicians to rely only on income from performances.
“A lot are also at risk of burning out and suffering injuries. It’s such a physically demanding job,” added Rosenfeld. “I think it’s important for musicians to have diversified income streams. Our field values education, so the best way to make money is through educators. There will always be a place for live performances, live teaching, and hopefully, we’ll experience it again soon. At the same time, there are so many opportunities to teach online, especially with the access of being able to teach students all over the world who can get high level education at a much easier cost — and from home.”
Rosenfeld explained that she has 20 clients who each pay a yearly flat fee of $10,000 to $50,000. She added that she’s helped them earn more than a million dollars in the first six months of this year. “COVID was an activating force for many of them as they lost significant amounts of work, but it inspired them to put more focus and attention on their businesses. Many were prepared to get going right away and not be paralyzed and figure out a way to respond.”
Thomas Hooten is another Rosenfeld client. Principal Trumpet of the LA Philharmonic since 2012, the musician had been giving Skype lessons for several years through his website. In addition to helping him negotiate contracts, Rosenfeld wrote some content for his site. It was late last year that they discussed exploring different platforms such as online masterclasses and live chats with students.
“After the Phil cancelled [its spring season], I regathered my thoughts,” explained Hooten, who began his career in 2000 with a trumpet/cornet position in the United States Marine Band in Washington, D.C. “Now I have 23 participants in online lessons, studio classes and a Zoom lecture that I give once a week where I have a theme or a guest that talks about the course. It’s 12 weeks and costs $3,500. It also includes four lessons with me and smaller components of interactions between the lessons.”
Sharing his insights and technologies from an array of fields, Hooten does a deep dive into three areas: the psychology of decision-making as it pertains specifically to musicians, preparing for auditions and making use of nerves for performance success.
“In regards to the curriculum,” Hooten pointed out, “what’s most exciting to me and is part of what I’ve integrated into a series of workshops that I’ve done throughout the country and in London is the philosophical background. What the premise was,” he added, “was a much broader based mentality of how we approach our life as musicians.”
Hooten pointed out that he borrowed ideas from several non-musical sources, citing Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and the work of Ed Catmull, a computer scientist and co-founder of Pixar, whose book, “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,” also proved helpful.
“Reading Ed’s book, how they view failure, how they view dealing with success and daily interactions, my first workshop was about that,” noted Hooten. “As musicians, sometimes we tend to get narrowly focused on what we have to do and forget to sometimes look at other entities in our world. Success is a cutthroat thing. With Pixar and Apple, there are billions of dollars on the line. How do we bring that [kind of thinking] into life as musicians?
“The second course,” Hooten continued, “how to prepare for auditions and how to practice, is filtered through the first course about mindset and pursuing a lifelong dream and is the nuts and bolts of learning from great success stories. The last course deals with performance anxiety — how to harness your nerves.
“The basic psychology of what drives humans are fear, pain and pleasure,” Hooten added, “and how this paints a picture of us as musicians and how we look at performing.”
To get musicians more comfortable performing, he employs techniques from sports and human psychology and “how we use language to create our reality. Being an unofficial coach and someone who spent many hours of playing the trumpet, I was excited to merge the ideas of these workshops.”
This attitude might best be described as part Tony Robbins, part Steve Jobs and all-musician. It’s also been a boon to Hooten during the COVID-19 era, with his students between the ages of 18 to 40. “There are six to eight who have jobs playing trumpet along with a mix of freelancers. I try to really listen to my intention — which is to help more people make good music and create a mental map of where they are.
“It also helps,” he said, “to be associated with the L.A. Phil, with people knowing my name. And over time I’ve tried having a better social media presence, sharing things that have helped me.”
Hooten said he’s planning to launch another series of courses in September, likening it to a gap year. “It will be eight or nine months-long as an offering to people who don’t want to pay full tuition at a college. I think my course tries to access as many different angles as possible. I borrow from all these different areas and am tapping into what our message is — the nuts and bolts of learning our instruments so we can express our imagination to tell your own story.”
Matthew Howard certainly has a story to tell. Principal percussionist with the Philharmonic since 2016, he was previously a fellow with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. Now 29, Howard began playing drums at age 15 and recently had a signature stick named for him from percussion stick and mallet maker, Vic Firth Company.
Howard, along with Dragonfly Online Percussion Experience (DOPE, started by Dragonfly Percussion, a Buffalo-based maker of percussion products), recently offered online clinics, lessons and more in identifying technical frustrations and laying out a clear plan for building confidence.
Nine DOPE members participated in a five-day series of master classes that dove into the variables of auditioning and performing. They included percussionists Cynthia Yeh from the Chicago Symphony, Dan Bauch from the Boston Symphony and Dinesh Joseph from the Buffalo Philharmonic.
“We had around 25 people from middle schools up to professionals,” Howard explained, “and I had decided to find parallels between musicians and the world of sports psychology.”
Promoted on social media, the courses were recorded on Facetime and Zoom. Fees for unlimited access (“The Full Experience”) were $275 and included admittance to all master classes, follow-up sessions, panel discussions and one private lesson. Auditing was available for $125, for which students could access everything except lessons and follow-up sessions. For students seeking private consultations, Howard’s price was $200 for one hour.
“Whatever they want a critique on,” the percussionist said, “ranging from orchestral excerpts for auditions to solos and whatever it is they’re working on at that time, we gave them. A majority of my teaching is focused on the biomechanics — getting yourself positioned to perform naturally. If you’re not, we’re finding out the root cause of why you’re messing up, both mentally and physically.”
Howard began adapting this line of thinking while performing in Miami with the New World Symphony. It was then that he also began playing golf, calling it “life changing.” “I noticed so many parallels between percussion and golf — how to prepare mentally and physically,” he said. “It opened up this whole world that wasn’t talked about too much in the orchestral percussion field. But it helped me so drastically.”
The busy instrumentalist also teaches master classes through AEYONS, an online education platform that, according to its website, “combines world-class online learning tools with features specially tailored to educators and institutions in order to provide the best experience possible for both teacher and student.” His 30 to 60-minute lessons range from $80 to $200, with AEYONS taking a percentage of the classes, which are pre-recorded.
And while the Phil is on indefinite hiatus, Howard said online instruction is a way of staying relevant and “somewhat employed.” “Everyone’s been cut off now, but online teaching is a good temporary Band-Aid,” he said. “I’m also developing a syllabus that’s more like a college course that you work your way through. You do everyday lessons, work on them and come back next week.
“It’s something like Nathan Cole’s website and seminars,” Howard added. “I’m in the beginning stages of this and am working with a web developer and a partner — another percussion player. This could open up avenues for a lot of people.”
It does seem as if in this brave new world, the idea of online musical education — once considered somewhat flawed — is proving to not only to be a good thing for students, but also a viable economic solution for sidelined master musicians.
Top Image: Nathan Cole plays the violin in front of a green wall. | Courtesy of Nathan Cole