Shared Mastery

Your studio teacher at NEC is an artist who embodies a rich musical tradition—classical, jazz, or outside of Western concert music. In your weekly private lesson, they provide one-on-one training in every detail of music making. Your teacher will challenge you to master your art through rigorous practice and performance. And your teacher will encourage you to take risks as you explore your individuality and learn to create a mature, convincing performance that is unique to you.

In these pages, we take a look at some of NEC's faculty and go beyond the resume to hear how they share their own life's accumulation of skills and ideas with their students.

Faculty Profile: Natasha Brofsky

“I always feel that when I bring her questions, she is eager to listen to them really carefully. When I’m wondering why something isn’t working, she looks at it and thinks about it, and she listens to it and she evaluates everything in such a detailed and compassionate way because it’s from the point of view of someone who is actively performing and actively working on her own playing.”
—Gwen Krosnick ’13 M.M., cellist of Trio Cleonice

A young cellist begins her lesson with the gravely noble Sarabande from Bach’s Third Cello Suite. The playing impresses the listener with its accuracy of intonation, warm density of tone, but also a certain haziness of phrasing. The musical line resembles run-on sentences without clear emphases or sense of destination.

Natasha BrofskyEquipped with cello and iPad for note-taking, NEC cello faculty Natasha Brofsky gets down to work. Having listened intently, she zeroes in on the phrasing, quality of sound, and articulation. “Imagine someone dancing—stepping and lifting up their feet,” she says. “But with you, I’m thinking that the dancers aren’t picking up their feet, they’re shuffling.”

She asks the student if she has played with a baroque bow and what that was like. “It’s light. There’s a little more release with the bow,” she says. By way of contrast, Brofsky plays a snatch of Brahms with modern bow to demonstrate the longer line and more saturated tone characteristic of that composer. To get a feel for the lightness and airiness of articulation that is more appropriate for Bach, Brofsky asks the student to play the Sarabande pizzicato (plucked, without bow). When the young cellist does so, she “instinctively begins emphasizing the right notes,” thereby clarifying the phrase structure.

Brofsky has several additional suggestions: “Lean into the suspensions more,” she says, noting that “the dissonance is where the interest is.” Also, “try different bowings in order to discover different options for phrasing. And don’t vibrate too much. You vibrate because you want to make the sound pretty. But it can be too pretty.”

An active performer of wide-ranging versatility, Brofsky’s teaching very much reflects and calls upon her rich performing experience.

Brought up in New York City, where she attended Juilliard Prep before heading to the Eastman School, Brofsky is the daughter of artist Miriam Kley and the highly regarded music historian/jazz trumpeter Howard Brofsky, who was fondly known as “Dr. Bebop.” After graduation, Brofsky headed to London on a Fulbright Grant to study with William Pleeth. This was the beginning of a decade-long sojourn in Europe that involved touring France with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, then settling in Oslo as a member of that orchestra. She also joined the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, where she held the principal cello position and began teaching at the small elite music school that has become the major source of Norway’s string players, Barratt Due Institute of Music.

She played everything from television game show gigs to continuo parts in the cathedral orchestra to symphonic repertory to contemporary works to concertos with orchestra and lots of chamber music. It was while attending Open Chamber Music at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, England, that she met violist Roger Tapping, formerly of the Takács Quartet and now a member of the Juilliard String Quartet. They married and now have two daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor.

Returning to the United States, she and Tapping settled in Boulder, Colorado, where the Takács Quartet was in residence. She got her master’s degree and was invited to join the Naumburg Award–winning Peabody Trio, with pianist Seth Knopp, an NEC alumnus, and violinist Violaine Melançon. She also played as a guest with the Takács, Prazak, Norwegian, Borromeo, Jupiter, and Ying Quartets.

A sought-after teacher, Brofsky has given masterclasses at many schools, including San Francisco Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, the New School for Music, and Boston University, as well as for El Sistema in Venezuela. She has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Heifetz Institute. Since 2001, she has been on the faculty at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont. She joined the NEC faculty in 2004, and was quickly embraced for her musicianship, her excellent teaching, and her congenial personality. In 2012–13, she served as interim chair of strings. Brofsky is also an enthusiastic teacher of high school students and has guided the studies of prize winners such as NEC Prep’s Sasha Skolnik Brower, Aaron Wolff, and Jonah Ellsworth.

“She is such a great musician,” declares violinist Lucy Chapman, Chair of Chamber Music at NEC, a frequent performing partner with Brofsky, and a good friend. “She has a great sense of style, phrasing, character, finding the sound that suits the music rather than just the sound that pleases her. She plays the cello to bring the music across—not just to prove what a great cellist she is.”

Calling Brofsky “greatly beloved by her students,” Chapman said, “she sees the whole student. She doesn’t become a mother, but a guide who cares about their lives. She wants them to be better right then. She gives them tools to make them better right then. They show improvement right away.”

Christine Lamprea ’13 M.M., winner of the senior division of the 2013 Sphinx Competition, and a student of Brofsky’s for two years, agrees. “She’s very aware of what role she needs to play in a student’s development. With the older students, she helps them develop artistic independence. With the younger ones, she understands that they need a little more help. She sets little goals for them to meet over the year. She’s really good at gauging what a student requires at any given moment. For me, she was crucial in helping me look inside myself and identify my own ideas.”

Gwen Krosnick, cellist of the Trio Cleonice, which has been in residence for two years at NEC as part of the Professional Piano Trio Training Program, began studying with Brofsky after being out of school and performing professionally. “Having the acute realization that this will be the last time I would be taking lessons,” she said, “I really wanted to explore a lot of stuff I’ve been too afraid to explore. Natasha has helped me feel safe not knowing the exact next step.

“Basically, I had previously studied with only one person, so when I started studying with Natasha, some of the things she was saying were so strange to me, so foreign, such a different approach. But she’s always treated me so collegially, so naturally. So I felt comfortable saying to her, ‘this feels really uncomfortable to me. I don’t really understand. I’ve always been taught to approach, say, the bow like this. And you’re telling me I also should do this?’ She’s very quick to say, ‘I always try to make whatever sound I want to make as comfortably as I can. If that means being flexible with my hand position or changing how my body looks, I will try it.’ For me, that was a very huge shift to realize I could be a little bit more mobile with the cello.”

When working with her students, Brofsky says she always tries to analyze “how can this be better? What can we do to make this more vivid and alive? What things is the student thinking about? Color of sound? The articulation, the rhythmic energy, character of tempo, the style? Does it feel true to the composer? Is it honest? Is it too much about the performer and not enough about the music? Getting that balance right is really important.

“From my father, I inherited an analytical bent. So I enjoy looking at form, how things are put together. And I get after my students to be aware, to use what they’re learning in theory and music history to inform what they’re doing on the cello. Too often, they tend to separate those things.

“Many students here are so talented cellistically, but they’re used to just playing, not really thinking about what they’re doing. Do they really understand the harmony and the phrase structure? Do they really have control over what kind of sound they’re choosing at a certain moment? Are they engaging with the music emotionally and intellectually?”

Lamprea is very familiar with this approach: “She is always pushing me to try all the options. She’ll say, ‘You play that piece pretty well. It sounds great. But have you tried another approach just for kicks?’ She won’t let you get away with your default interpretation. She’ll say, ‘What’s the history behind the piece? What have others done with it?’ Once she had me pretend to play a piece like Fournier, then Rostropovich, then Yo-Yo Ma, and Jacqueline Du Pre. She insists that all one’s decisions be well thought out because you need to have conviction in your own decisions.”

“Everything she says is coming from someone who is actively working and searching in the same way,” Krosnick adds. “I feel such a sense of camaraderie with her. She offers the sympathy and wisdom of someone who has had similar experiences. One can be honest with her because we’re all in the same boat.”

Check out Natasha's recent recital performance below with Boston Symphony Orchestra harpist Jessica Zhou.

Natasha Brofsky's NEC faculty bio page

2014-02-19


TO PLAY WITHOUT PASSION IS INEXCUSABLE! LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN