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Alexander Woods Shares ‘The Work of Translation: the Violin as a Seer Stone’ in Faith + Works Lecture

Woods emphasized key principles of faith and personal revelation in translating works of art

School of Music professor Alexander Woods encouraged students to think about the relationship faith plays in their art in his Nov. 7 Faith + Works lecture. Speaking about “The Work of Translation: the Violin as a Seer Stone,” Woods took students through his process of applying faith to the way he interprets — or translates — musical compositions to make sense of the world around him.

“I really believe I’m looking through a very special lens when I perform,” said Woods. “I can translate how I see the world.” The foundation of “the violin as a seer stone” traces back to some of Woods’ studies as a young man — including the idea that “fidelity is key” to faith, as suggested in Adam S. Miller’s “Letters to a Young Mormon.” Before diving into his personal history as a musician, Woods bore his testimony of the many things he believes in and invited students to ponder this question: “How could being faithful to something transform what you work on or what you want to work on?” For Woods, fidelity to the gospel is the driving force that inspires him to seek understanding and interpret unifying works of music that touches the spirit. Woods’ violin journey came as the result of what he called “a game of telephone” where one great violinist would pass on his knowledge to another great violinist. The skills of Lucien Capet and Ivan Galamian — both violin legends — were passed down to Pinchas Zukerman, who eventually taught a young Woods.

“These people to me are — in music terms — like the prophets or the scriptures,” Woods said. “They are my spiritual mentors with incredible wisdom and guidance. I couldn’t have done anything without them, and I’m grateful that their knowledge was passed down.” While studying at Yale, Woods learned another approach to the violin from his instructor Robert Mealy. Different from the strict “play as I play” instruction Woods was used to, Mealy taught Woods to learn from the past master artists. It was also around this time that Woods began learning how to play with a baroque violin and bow as well. Mealy encouraged Woods to let the instrument teach him. Woods continued to refine his skills as a violinist as he began translating music into the instruments and stylings of the Baroque era — a creative undertaking that required him to combine his knowledge and lessons learned from each of his teachers. “At the end of the day, I really needed personal revelation,” said Woods. “That was the thing that was going to give me the courage to put something forth and not feel vulnerable.” Woods then shared a quote from President Russell M. Nelson about personal revelation.

“How can we become the men and women — the Christlike servants — the Lord needs us to be?” asked President Nelson. “How can we find answers to the questions that perplex us? If Joseph Smith’s transcendent experience in the Sacred Grove teaches us anything, it is that the heavens are open and that God speaks to his children.” Toward the end of the lecture, Woods began to play a few phrases of music he had translated. One was from a Montanari Sonata, the other was from the beloved Brahms D Minor Sonata, and both he had his wife performed their arrangement of “Come, Come Ye Saints” to conclude. Expressed in his message was the importance of understanding what music means to both yourself as an artist and your audience, but above all, the importance of creating work that is personal and reflective of your interests, beliefs and unique perspective. “You don’t want to throw away anything that your teachers are giving you, because I would be nowhere without people like Pinchas Zukerman and Robert Mealy,” said Woods. “But at some point, you have to make it your own.” In closing, Woods summarized the importance of faith and dedication — the power to fuel translation. “There’s no magic until you really live faithfully,” Woods said. “Part of that faith is how you’re practicing and your dedication to your work. Are you really invested in it? If you are really invested in it, you will have a lot of faith in yourself and what you’re doing, and incredible stuff will happen.”

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