Crossed Bows

Keeping kids playing through friendly competition.

"The year that broke the camel's back," says string teacher Karen Iglitzin of her long years slogging through the system of local and state music contests, "was the year I went into the ladies' room and saw girls crying. . . . The next year, I saw teachers swearing in the parking lot." After seeing all the energy expended by students (and parents) in the annual ritual of formal, adjudicated performances of solo and chamber repertory, she started having second thoughts, wondering, "Is it really OK that only three of these kids are going to go home happy?"

Competition's an unavoidable aspect of any adult musical career, but whether it does much good early on in making kids into artists is highly debatable. (Certainly competition within a chamber ensemble is counterproductive.) The ideal music education, like the ideal sports coaching, encourages the student to strive to improve without losing the sense of play and pleasure that lured them to it in the first place. Too often, the music contest can feel like "going to work—like it's a job," says Iglitzin.

Convinced there was another way, she decided to turn the contest format upside down, and this weekend she'll hold her sixth annual (open to the public) Anti-Contest. Standard-rep chamber works are performed in costume as part of comic skits, and— inspired by a Port Townsend bluegrass fiddle contest in which the judges "were drunk by noon"—bribes are encouraged. Teams of pirates, hillbillies, angels, and mice offer Haydn, Schubert, and Shostakovich; they play the music straight, but the presentations are as theatrically outrageous as the kids' skill and imagination allow.

In fact, the costumes and skits, Iglitzin has found, reduce performance inhibitions, freeing kids from I-can't-make-a-mistake stiffness to bring a personal investment and flair to their playing, just as it should be. It's a matter not of replacing work with fun but of showing young musicians those two things needn't be mutually exclusive, inspiring work as a means to a musical end rather than merely to get a score and a ribbon.

The Anti-Contest is just one of the innovative programs offered by Iglitzin's organization, Chamber Music Madness. Her workshops and summer camps feature a rigorous coaching schedule alongside other enriching musical instruction; classical music's roots in folk music and dance are favorite Iglitzin topics. But having toured for a number of years herself with the Philadelphia String Quartet, co-founded by her father, Alan, her standard of musicianship is uncompromisingly professional. Professionalism and fun come together at private sight- reading concerts, like a memorable January evening of Bach and Beethoven at the penthouse of photographer Wah Lui. Such musico-social events recall the roots of chamber music in the salons of European courts and bourgeoisie, and bring together current students and alumni with music lovers who know chamber music as a finished concert product but who are curious to look behind the scenes at the musical learning process.

Inspiring students not to drop their instrument, as so many do, on the last day of high school is another Iglitzin achievement. Seattle avant-violinist Tom Swafford, an Iglitzin alumnus, recalls: "I worked with Karen back in 1989–91. . . . She really knows how to relate to kids and how to make the music make sense. I've visited her chamber music workshop a couple of times in the past few months, and she is the same now as she was then. Karen's enthusiasm is contagious. . . . [She] was definitely a big inspiration to me."

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