Pearls of Wisdom From Avante Garde Violinist, Paulina Derbez

Paulina Derbez is a wonderful violinist who not only plays and composes, but created her own business model, which is something I advocate to all of my students and anybody who is engaging in an artistic endeavor.  Here are the pearls of wisdom she shared with me.

1. What inspired you to create Calling Our Ancestors?

The creation of Calling Our Ancestors arose from a need to share with the audience the work that I’d been doing with composer and performer Barbara Croall for the past six years.  This disc is a testimony to our work together as both composers and performers in search of new forms of sonic expression.

2. How would you describe the music?

The type of sonic expression conveyed on this disc is a fusion of contemporary avant-garde music with elements drawn from Ojibwe and Aztec cultures.  Each of the pieces represents an element of nature, because nature is our main source of inspiration. This can be heard clearly in pieces like “Reflections on Water” and “Fire”. In “Fire”, Barbara uses First Nation instruments such as shakers and drums to recreate a sonic ritual in honor of fire. The music evokes an ancestral time, which is the meaning behind the title of the CD. I think Dulce Huet of Radio UNAM described it well when she said that “Calling Our Ancestors transports you to another time, another dimension, to a sonic landscape.” It is a style of music that seeks to honor nature and its expressive power through new sound experiences. A very important element for its creation was to be in a meditative state that would allow each of the compositions to flow and develop naturally.

3. What was your journey as a musician that led you to avant-garde music?

The journey that led me to create new expressions in sound began in Lugano, Switzerland, during my studies in violin at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana. Without doubt, being surrounded by the imposing mountains of southern Switzerland had a strong impact on my first musical creations.  It was as if I felt the need to express the landscapes around me through new sonic forms. For me it was the discovery of a whole new world in which I felt totally free to play the violin. It’s a world that has grown a lot since then. Its evolution has led me to Calling Our Ancestors and to my one-woman concert “Shika:  Out of the Silence the Sound is Born”, in which I use violin together with voice and choreography to transform myself into a sonic character onstage. In this way this work also enriches my classical playing greatly.

Not long ago I performed a concert that interwove poetry and screen projects with classical pieces by Franck, Corelli, the Mexican composer José Pablo Moncayo and others. And of course it enriches my work playing traditional classical music with the Ontario Philharmonic. In my work, these two worlds – of traditional and avant-garde music – enrich each other mutually. I firmly believe that a musician is an actor and a dancer on stage who paints sonic landscapes in the space around her.  Earlier this year I had the opportunity to return to Lugano, where this sonic journey began, for the first time in years. I had the honor of sharing my experience in an interview with Alessia Caracciolo on Switzerland’s Italian radio station. It was very special for me to return to the birthplace of my musical inspiration and to have the opportunity to reflect on where the journey has taken me since in this interview.

4. What advice would you give to violinist just starting out now?

My main piece of advice would be to look for a teacher that you feel you click with both personally and artistically. It’s very important to form a good work team between student and teacher. If you come out of each class keen to practice you are in good hands.  Another key factor to establish a healthy and creative relationship with your instrument is creativity in your daily practice. Your study method is just as important as your teacher, considering you normally spend 1 hour a week with your teacher and the rest of the time you’re on your own in your daily practice. This is why it’s important to use your mental, emotional and physical capacities to the maximum and to see practice not as an obligation but as an opportunity to create a true work of sonic art.

It’s very important to resolve every problem, whether technical or musical, in your mind first of all. What that means is to visualize the solution first, seeing yourself playing the piece exactly the way we want to, and then transferring that visualization to the physical reality. In this way, your ears will know what you want to hear and you will be using your real mental capacities in your practice. It’s like creating an exact mental sonic map of the piece you’re practicing. This kind of exercise is called Visual Motor Rehearsal and is something that athletes have been using for years. It’s even used by astronauts in NASA in preparation for space travel.

At the emotional level, it’s important to recognize and feel the kind of expression that you want to convey with the piece you’re playing. To do this, it can be helpful to use images of nature, as these will recreate a specific emotion for you, which will in turn evoke a natural expression in your performance of the piece.  Finally, the basis for a solid and effective technique lies not in hours of practice, but in your physical condition.

To ensure good condition you need to do physical exercise to relax and tone your body before, during and after each practice. A change of position is harder with tense shoulders than if your shoulders are relaxed and strong. Playing music is physically demanding, and seeing yourself not only as an artist but as an athlete will promote a healthy, creative and tension-free relationship with your instrument. In this way, your musical ideas and deepest feelings will be able to find the perfect means of expression in your playing.

My book, El Músico Consciente (the Conscious Musician), contains these and other techniques for daily practice, as well as tools for transforming stage fright into a moment of pure, captivating expression in which the communication between artist and audience is profound and moving. The book is currently available in Spanish only, but the English version, The Conscious Musician, is slated for publication in 2014 by the publishing house Editorial Ink.

5. What advice would you give to musicians graduating from University?

Explore different forms of musical expression that reverberate with your soul in a deep and powerful way, and also to seek direct experiences in other artistic disciplines like dance and theatre, as these performative arts in particular can have a big impact on enriching your work as a performing musician.   Avoid falling into a mechanical practice and always seek out new ways of resolving each part of the musical process. Read and research different methods for musical and instrumental practice.

Engage in physical exercise, whether through yoga, tai chi, swimming or any other physical discipline, and make it part of your practice schedule. Take walks in natural environments whenever you can and let nature inform the emotional dimension of your artistic performance. Reflect on your mental state and look at this as a key element in your development as a musician, as all issues are resolved first in the mind.  Find your true artistic passion as this is what will lead you to achieve your most valued goals. See yourself as athletes, because you play your instrument with your whole body; as actors, because you act out a story through the world of sound, and as painters, because you paint colors in the space around you with the sounds you create.

violinist Paulina Derbez

To learn more about Paulina Derbez or El Músico Consciente (the Conscious Musician),

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