Music students sat in rows of chairs on stage at The Runnels School’s theater Feb. 1 facing each other.
Upstage left, students sat tuning their stringed instruments, with music stands in front of them. Downstage right, an audience of younger students sat quietly, waiting for violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to arrive.
Salerno-Sonnenberg, an accomplished and world-renowned violinist, visited music classes at Baton Rouge High School and The Runnels School.
Gladys Runnels, co-founder of the school, said the visit was a wonderful opportunity for young string students to learn from the woman whose talent and skill has taken her around the world.
As part of her work as resident artist at Loyola University College of Music and Fine Arts in New Orleans, Salerno-Sonnenberg spends time teaching and mentoring students of all ages, from elementary to college.
In a 45-minute session, Salerno-Sonnenberg listened to the group of students play through their orchestral piece, then methodically worked through the piece with them, giving students technical advice on how to improve their performance. The class concentrated on sound dynamics, practicing the very softest musical notation to the very loudest, over and over, so they could feel the difference.
The Runnels’ orchestra has no conductor, Salerno-Sonnenberg pointed out, which, at first glance may seem a harder way to learn group music. In the end, however, the practices teach players to watch and listen to each others’ musical clues — like the dynamics they practiced in the session — to fuse the separate parts into a working piece of music.
Paying attention to dynamics, she said, “is a great way to enjoy music more — for both playing and listening to music.”
But technical proficiency aside, there is no better way to put feeling into a piece than to have fun playing it, she said.
“Watch me, and do what I do. You don’t have to look at the music. You know this. You’ve memorized this piece. Just enjoy it,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said, beginning the music and swaying dramatically from side to side as she played. “Use your bodies a little bit.”
After two session with two groups of students at the Runnels — Salerno-Sonnenberg held session with students at Baton Rouge High earlier in the day — they got an opportunity to ask her questions about her storied life.
Music has taken her everywhere, she said, and it’s impossible to name her favorite piece of music or her favorite venue, though she did say the Royal Albert Hall in London was a beautiful setting.
Students asked about her records label, NSS, which she founded “because I wanted to record what I wanted to record,” she laughed, adding that the music business has changed a great deal from the time she started playing professionally, and now offers many ways to distribute music.
That allowed her to choose her music, her collaborations and her pace.
Salerno-Sonnenberg started playing the violin at 5 years old, “because my mother made me. But I’m so glad she did, because I’ve had a wonderful life in music.”
An American born in Rome, Italy, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s Italian string teachers recommended she consider more advanced study in America, and at 8 years old, she and her family emigrated so she could attend The Curtis Institute of Music, and later, the Juilliard School, she told the students. Her biggest venue was a baseball stadium with a capacity for 45,000 people, she said, and she loves performing in Japan, because, rather than a standing ovation to show appreciation for the music, “they just never stop clapping,” she said, while audiences in Europe do so by synchronizing their applause.
One of her proudest moments was playing for Big Bird on an episode of the children’s television show “Sesame Street.” “He is a very big bird,” she said, describing how the puppeteer inside used his arm, sticking straight up the costume’s neck, to control the eyes and beak.
Music, Salerno-Sonnenberg said, has taken her many unexpected places, in part because she worked hard and learned to enjoy playing.
“The hard part about playing music is learning the notes. It’s not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun,” she said. “After learning the music, making the music — that’s the fun part.”
“It is a great honor to have her here, and a wonderful opportunity for our students,” Gladys Runnels said.
Salerno-Sonnenberg has hosted “Backstage/Live from Lincoln Center” program for PBS, and appeared in the PBS/BBC series “The Mind,” according to a news release. She was the subject of the 2000 Academy Award-nominated film, “Speaking in Strings,” an intensely personal documentary on her life. Salerno-Sonnenberg appeared on ABC’s primetime comedy “Dharma & Greg” in 2001, and she has also been interviewed and profiled on “60 Minutes,” “Sunday Morning,” CNN’s “Newsstand” and a host of other talk and news shows. On the publishing front, “Nadja: On My Way,” her autobiography written for children discussing her experiences as a young musician building a career, was published by Crown Books in 1989.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s professional career began in 1981 when she won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition. In 1983 she was recognized with an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and in 1988 was Ovations Debut Recording Artist of the Year. In 1999, she won the Avery Fisher Prize, awarded to instrumentalists who have demonstrated “outstanding achievement and excellence in music.” In May of that same year, she was awarded an honorary Master of Musical Arts from the New Mexico State University, the first honorary degree the university has ever awarded.