PHOTO: Summer hiking in the Tetons
Professor Claudine Bigelow’s research and performance lead to international recognition
By Sarah Ostler Hill
Music is a part of every culture. Most people have an appreciation for it. A few people feel it deep inside their soul, knowing they were born with music almost literally in their blood. When Dr. Claudine Bigelow, associate professor of viola studies at BYU, speaks of music and how she got started, her voice pauses in wonder here and there, and when she says she feels music on a spiritual level, you believe her.
Bigelow teaches and plays the viola both on-campus and around the world. Her studies have taken her across continents where colleagues have become close friends, and old composers feel like contemporaries.
PHOTO: Bigelow’s viola students go crazy at the Salt Flats
Bringing Barták to BYU
On September 7, Bigelow will present her most recent research on Béla Barták and his 44 viola duos, originally for the violin, in the Madsen Recital Hall of BYU at 7:30 p.m. The respected scholar Dr. Donald Maurice from the New Zealand School of Music, who worked with her on her research while she was there on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2012, will join her. This event is free to the public.
Bigelow first met Maurice, considered one of the top Barták scholars in the string world, in 2000 when she was attending the International Viola Congress in Sweden. They became good friends and over the years had traveled to each other’s universities to play in concerts. In 2011, Bigelow began to consider a Fulbright scholarship, which would enable her to teach at Maurice’s school.
“I looked it up and learned it was hard to get a Fulbright,” Bigelow says, with a little laugh. “But I’ve also learned over and over again that 50 percent of winning an audition is showing up.”
In the past, violists had recorded some of Barták’s duos, and violinists had created recordings with all 44, but Bigelow discovered that no violist had ever recorded all 44 on one album. She talked with Maurice and he became an enthusiastic accomplice, writing a letter extending an invitation for her to come to the New Zealand School of Music, with or without the Fulbright.
“One thing led to another, and then everything came together and helped me get this project,” Bigelow says. In January 2012, she and her family headed to New Zealand for the next six months.
Bigelow and Maurice wanted to honor Barták’s original intent, so they weren’t going to just sit down and play the 44 duos for recording. These pieces were based on traditional Hungarian, Slovakian, Bulgarian and Romanian folk music. To get to know this music, Maurice acquired recordings from sources in Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, where the original wax cylinder recordings had been transferred to modern formats.
“Thomas Edison had just invented the ability to record on wax cylinders,” Bigelow explains. “Barták felt a need to preserve the folk songs of his heritage, so in the early 1900s he took to the mountains and recorded people in their native villages singing these old songs. People were flabbergasted by the technology. It took him time to establish trust. But he felt like he was saving culture.”
Barták was right to be worried. Most of the songs found in this agrarian society have since been lost. Bigelow marvels at how brave Barták was to undertake such an expedition. He had to rely on the hospitality of strangers. Inspired by the recordings, Barták then wrote the duos.
“We’ve put the recordings from the wax cylinders side by side with our modern recordings,” Bigelow says. “There are different layers of meaning that come out when you look at all the details.”
She talks about how the original folk music had distinct poetry associated with each one. Some were humorous, others were sad, and others appeared to be nonsense, similar to nursery rhymes. Barták’s music didn’t have lyrics, but after hearing the folk music, Bigelow and Maurice could replicate the un-notated musical slides and tempo changes present in the vocalizations.
“Sometimes you’d hear giggles at the end and feel the humor,” remembers Bigelow. “We can add a gesture to mark that.”
She went to great lengths to find people to help translate some of the poems. Even BYU, which has the most diverse language center in the country, did not have someone who spoke these rural dialects. Studying Barták’s efforts made Bigelow passionate about his music.
“This brings more conviction to my own playing,” she says. “He went to such lengths to preserve his heritage. I feel more committed to him and what he has written.”
Bigelow and Maurice will launch the CD of their recordings at their September 7 performance, which will include a presentation of photographs and music demonstrating some of their findings. After that, they will present their research at the International Viola Congress in Krakow, Poland, on September 14.
Growing Up with Music
It is surprising to discover that Bigelow didn’t start playing the viola until she was 14. Her exposure to music, however, began at a very early age. Her father was working on his doctorate in music at UCLA and played the guitar every day.
“When I was a baby, my dad would practice at night to get me to fall asleep,” Bigelow says. Then, almost in wonder, she adds, “I remember that. I remember getting stories and then music. Music has intensely been a part of my life from the beginning.”
Bigelow’s smile is contagious as she reminisces about a family trip they took to Mexico when she was only four. There, her dad bought her a guitar, which she played the whole way home. When she was a little older, she and her sister used to choreograph elaborate rollerskating shows to her dad’s LP collection of the Brandenburg Concertos.
“We were encouraged to listen to classical music as loud as we wanted,” Bigelow laughs. “Other kids listened to rock and roll. We turned up the classical music. I had a really fun childhood with music.”
Her first instrument was the piano, learning from her parents. She took some formal lessons in third grade. Though these lessons weren’t consistent, her parents knew enough to keep her going, and Bigelow practiced a lot.
“We lived in a branch, so they asked me to be the pianist in primary when I was still in primary,” Bigelow says. “So then I as really motivated to practice.”
In high school, she played the hymns in sacrament meeting, young women’s meetings and seminary. She attributes this experience to teaching her a lot about music. The summer before Bigelow turned 15, however, changed her musical course for the rest of her life.
“My dad had an acquaintance who was starting a new chamber music program for the summer,” she says. “She was desperate for violists. She offered me a scholarship to the camp if I would play the viola.”
This acquaintance was Marjorie Aber, one of the people responsible for bringing the Suzuki method to the United States. She knew Bigelow was a musical person. She must have also known Bigelow had a gift.
Bigelow was hesitant at first, so her father had a viola teacher at the local university give her a few lessons. She decided to give the summer camp a try.
“They put me with 8 year olds,” she laughs. “But it was such a wonderful experience.”
At this summer camp were some of the greatest musical instructors of the day: Bill Preucil, Sr., Roland Vamos and the famous Dr. Shinichi Suzuki. Preucil and his wife, Doris, helped bring the Suzuki method to violists and run their own music school. Vamos is on the faculty at Northwestern University.
“I look back now and realize how good they were to me,” Bigelow remembers, warmly. “I was the big girl sitting at the back of the section, completely lost. They had compassion for me.”
One of the tenets of the Suzuki method is that everyone is talented. With the amount of attention and encouragement she received, she believed she could learn this new instrument.
Suzuki brought a number of child prodigies from Japan. Rather than be intimidated by such talent, Bigelow was deeply moved and inspired. Preucil took extra time to make sure Bigelow was holding the instrument correctly. She remembers how Vamos, on his lunch hour, would sit with her and work with her while eating his hamburger and milkshake.
“Vamos made sure I learned the notes,” she says, fondly. “He was never disparaging. I was hooked from that time forward. I threw myself into it. I was deeply invested.”
In learning her new instrument, Bigelow also looked to her younger sister for inspiration.
“I would practice two hours a day, but my sister would practice her cello four hours a day,” Bigelow says. “She was a prodigy. I learned a lot from hearing her play all the time.”
Through practice and summer camps, Bigelow gained a deeper appreciation for music and the life lessons it teaches. Dedication, diligence and endurance are all principles in action through music.
But Bigelow still didn’t recognize she had a special gift until one day, as a BYU student, she was stopped by then-Professor Eugene England. He saw her pouring over a music score and tapped her on the arm.
“He said, ‘You can hear all that right now, can’t you?’” she remembers. “That’s the first time I recognized that I did that. I had to have someone else tell me, ‘Look what you’re doing.’”
Bigelow can look at music and hear it perfectly in her mind. This skill can be troubling, because she feels she never quite reaches the ideal, though others may find that hard to believe.
She laughs at the great paradox that the more she learns about music, the more she realizes there is to learn.
“Music isn’t for showing that you’re talented or the best at something, because someone will always be better,” Bigelow says, matter-of-factly. “Music is for communicating love. Music can be one of the highest forms of spiritual communication.”
Empathy accompanies Bigelow’s words as she recounts how she has been able to touch people who don’t speak her language. As a teacher, she has seen how music can be the balm for a damaged person, helping them in times of emotional distress.
“Music gives people a safe place to work with their emotions without directly addressing specific events from their life,” she says, with the wisdom of a philosophy professor.
Music, to Bigelow, affirms that there is a God. She believes He created her to do music in this way, but while some people are really driven in their career, she never felt very passionate about working outside the home. Even though this tension is hard, she believes Heavenly Father wants her to be musical.
“I discovered it was painful for me to not be musical,” she says, almost resignedly. “Every step of the way in my career, I have felt Heavenly Father’s influence in my life. He paved the way for me to do it. There are times I’ve felt inadequate and he’s magnified me and helped me do it. I’m not always sure I’m the best person, but I’m the person there to do it. So I’ve got to.”
Bigelow is grateful for a husband and children who are extremely supportive. They must realize the innate need she has to create music.
“When I’m playing music well and properly, in the way I had conceived it, and everything is going well, I get that same overwhelming feeling of joy as when you’re rocking your child to sleep and see their eyelashes flutter,” she says, almost poetically. “You realize you’re in the middle of a perfect moment.”
Bigelow encourages students to work hard and be dedicated. They shouldn’t focus on what they can’t do, but what they can. She encourages balance, but also laughs at the idea, saying she’s never felt it. “And they need to show up for the audition,” she says, laughing.