This past spring I had the distinct honor to celebrate Ludmila Lazar's 50th year of teaching at the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA). She was my professor during my master's degree at CCPA, and has continued to be a mentor and coach for Bow & Hammer. The history of Dr. Lazar's tenure highlights not only the legacy of Rudolph Ganz but the rich tradition that has existed at CCPA.
Just to give you a little background: Dr. Lazar first came to Chicago to study at CCPA as a young woman from Slovenia. Her time as a student under Ganz shaped so much of her work and led her down many roads of musical discovery. Dr. Lazar's musical knowledge is one that is extremely vast while yet being extremely personal. Her Slovenian heritage remains an incredible compass in navigating different customs and languages. She describes Slovenia as a crossroads of many cultures, and attributes her life there with giving her a sense of discovery and also the ability to recognize the dance and song within many musical languages. She is especially celebrated for her performances and lectures of the music by Béla Bartók.
While I know she has touched and truly changed the life of many, I'd like to (as poetically as I am able) share my experience of studying with her.
If there’s one thing that can be difficult to navigate as a student (or a teacher) in the arts, it’s the balance of cultivating self intuition and expression while learning techniques, styles, and forms. While that may not sound like a tricky balance, often in the pursuit of learning proper technique and style, students can straight-jacket themselves into regurgitating examples from their teacher or become solely concerned with getting a passage ‘correct’. While at the same time, students who forge ahead on personal feeling that is uninformed, can produce playing (or art) that lacks sophistication and maturity because they are not informed of historical context, fail to recognize references from the composer, and/or understand concepts that would make the work clearer and more palpable to the listener.
A lesson with Dr. Lazar addresses these two paradigms effortlessly. I remember working on the “Les Adieux” Sonata by Beethoven, and we spent the entire hour on the first 3 lines. The dotted rhythms in the introduction were not high on my priority list, and it became clear to her that it wasn’t a lack of rhythmic coordination on my part but furthermore that I wasn’t sensitive to what Beethoven was referencing with these distinct dotted rhythms. She asks, “Come on, Elizabeth, where have you heard these rhythms??” I shrug my shoulders. She exclaims, “Baroque French Overture!” I nodded, even though this perplexed me. Afterwards, I scurried home to listen to several recordings.
This would be the first of many stories where context would illuminate notation, helping me to see the stories and narratives the composer was saying through each work. This isn’t to say it discouraged me from creating my own narratives, but it helped me to recognize the concrete ideas already put in place, their historical references, and the possibility of connecting ideas to other contextual suggestions. The ability of the performer to relate a work to the surrounding world, personal situations, and for a larger global context is vitally important, maybe now more than ever. And this ability (for me at least) undoubtedly relies on a creative balance between specific and ambiguous contexts.
One last note about Dr. Lazar: She jokes about her 'dinosaur-ish' nature (refusing to email, not tech savvy). I find this quality about her extremely refreshing. As an American, I recognize my country's struggle with managing a talent for innovation and discovery while also maintaining and enlisting a deep and diverse knowledge of past and cultural traditions. These are often acknowledged as opposing ideas. Yet, her presentation of these two worlds is incredibly unique and genuine. To truly understand the past, to recognize the roots of our present abilities and actions with the achievements and failures of previous generations, can never be complete without acknowledging their risks, acceptance of new ideas, and ability to integrate the new with the old.
I'm so thankful to know her. I hope to be that person for others in the future. Thank you, Dr. Lazar, for all that you do and for all that you've done.