Violinist, professor, and concertmaster Alexander Kerr’s first lesson in how to be a better teacher came early, out of the blue. He was 18, a gifted young player who had been able to coast on sheer talent. Then Isaac Stern heard him play at a master class.
“You’re playing by the seat of your pants!” Stern chided. Kerr never forgot the upbraiding. “I realized he was right,” Kerr reflects. “I realized that my violin instructors had trusted me too much. I could advance, but I didn’t have a system and I didn’t have the tools to be able to do it consistently.”
Mastering these tools as a student of Aaron Rosand and as a multifaceted performer, Kerr now passes them along in highly individualized ways to his many students at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His approach, which integrates professional acumen and strategic market thinking with the rigor of training a world-class player, has gained him one of the highest placement rates among classical violin instructors in the U.S.: nearly 93% (when even some very respected schools average around 12-15%).
Kerr’s students have gone on to play around the world, from Asia to South America, in noted orchestras and ensembles like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berliner Oper.
“Teaching isn’t a joke, or a sideline,” Kerr states. “When someone comes to study with you at a university, when someone makes that investment of time and money, this is their life. It’s my responsibility to make them employable or get them out. I don’t want to take somebody as a student, unless I feel like I can make them employable in this field.”
The field has shifted, narrowed somewhat, in recent decades. The dearth of opportunities has transformed what a successful classical musician looks like, and Kerr is well aware of the changes. “You need to be able to perform solo, to play in a chamber ensemble, and to work in an orchestra,” he notes.
To gain this ability, a violinist needs more than excellent technique and knowledge of repertoire, Kerr argues. The preparation for orchestral work, to the master musician’s mind, needs to be painstaking. Kerr draws on his knowledge of what is demanded of players—the bowing, the fingering that leads to the unified sound today’s orchestras want—to instill in his students the proper attention to detail.
“We are tying to galvanize people into a unified mindset,” says Kerr. “Bowing and fingering are ways to have a much more homogenous sound in an orchestra. Hundreds of years have led to certain developments in technique, and it’s important to know them. Otherwise, it’s like going into a job interview without knowing what the company is selling. ”
At the same time, Kerr encourages students to find their own voices on their instruments, to discover their own paths to excellence and creative expression within the rigors of tradition. “No two students look precisely alike and no two sound alike,” he explains.
Once he feels the student has a good grasp of the basics, Kerr tailors exercises and material to suit the student’s needs, the repertoire the aspiring performer will likely need to play. Kerr eschews cookie-cutter methodology. He shapes the lesson to encourage the student, not the student to the lesson, often composing etudes that will hone a student’s skills in the right area or help her develop aesthetically. “That’s something you have to cherish as a teacher,” he muses. “I don’t want carbon copies of myself. I do want people who have an aesthetic and use the violin efficiently.”
Using the instrument efficiently means understanding the physics of the object a player is coaxing sound from, the basic acoustics of wood and gut and horsehair. Yet it also means evolving strategies to maintain grace even when under great stress, to use the violin well even when circumstances prove challenging.
Kerr is constantly grappling with the ups and downs of performance, as he keeps his active life as a working musician while teaching. Kerr is the Concertmaster of The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, regularly commuting between Dallas, Texas and Bloomington, Indiana to perform and teach. This allows him to accumulate insight and to know exactly what his students will face when they get up on stage or stand before an audition committee.
“I teach my students how the violin works and how to make it work under pressure,” says Kerr. “I blend the more intellectual and scientific sides of pedagogy, with the experience of being on stage. I don’t merely think about performing; I do it all the time.” To keep his students, in particular his undergraduate students, engaged and on track while performing, Kerr makes sure they can meet via videoconference once a week.
In person or remotely, Kerr finds teaching as deeply rewarding as a life in the performer’s limelight. One of his students, a Dutch violinist who is now Associate Concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, first came to him as a retiring young man who seemed scared to death to play. Kerr savored his evolution: “After we had worked together for several years, I remember sitting at the back of the hall and watching him walk out on stage for his Final Round performance at the Oskar Bak Dutch National Violin Competition. He strode out on stage and played the most amazing performance of Bartok’s Second Concerto. A couple of tears fell; I was so proud of him. It was more fulfilling than any concert I had ever played.”