I was in Maribor, Slovenia as a guest of my colleague Prof Dalibor Bernatovic January 10-14, 2018 to teach a masterclass for his students at the Maribor Conservatory who were preparing for their national competition earlier this month. It was called a seminar, something that is traditionally scheduled a couple of weeks before the competition is to take place. Students are ready with their repertoire and this is a good time as my friend Dalibor says, to hear suggestions from someone else. “Often the same” he says, “but it does good to hear them from someone else”. Well thought out!
This was my fourth visit to Slovenia in the past 11 years and whether it is to teach or to serve as a judge in competitions, every time I am amazed at how well the harp is developping in this relatively small country, in a region where harp playing is not historically wide spread. Such a case is not limited to Slovenia. Colleagues in the Netherlands, Iran, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand have done wonders in a short amount of time and generations of harpists have started to show up on international competitions from places one did not expect. But I have had the chance to observe Slovenia from a shorter distance and I am so happy I have had a chance to do so.
Students I taught back in 2006, on my first visit to Slovenia are now teachers in music schools across the country. I keep a very warm souvenir from this visit as I was 5 months pregnant and had arrived to Slovenia after long months suffering from a terrible lack of appetite. Once in Slovenia nausea had stopped! And luckily for me. To devour the one thing I craved most for, white cabbage salad!! I would eat three plates piled up with this fresh and juicy salad seasoned with sunflower oil which is a specialty in Slovenia. A very green, thick and aromatic oil that also tops vanilla ice-cream in a total surprise for the first time visitor. That masterclass lasted a week. There were nearly 30 students. I taught 10 hours a day, and with joy. It was a very nice moment in my pregnancy and to be surrounded by teen-agers all week long, I felt blessed.
Students are amazingly well cared for in the hands of my colleague Prof Bernatovic, who not only attends to their harp playing but also assists them as they turn from young children to young professionals. That treaturous path, the “Wonder Years” as it is called, in my favorite TV Show of all times (although I have not had TV at home for the last 25 years I watched this at my parents Washington DC home in my twenties) are well guided with Dalibor who knows when to be a teacher, when to be a friend and how to be both when needed! A very caring soul and in this regard I am always reminded of my fantastic teacher, Susann McDonald. The first time I met Susann McDonald, it was in France at the Gargilesse Festival and Competition, it must have been 1986. She was a judge at the competition and I was there to listen to the competitors. After a few days I grasped myself to approach her and to tell her that I would love to study with her. She, this great figure of the harp world, this grand lady, had said: “Come my child”. That was it for me. That warmth, that love, without which I believe no mastery of an instrument can be conveyed from teacher to student. Or from the master to apprentice.
Dalibor’s students stand out with the wonderful sound quality their playing features. There is passion, a very good understanding of what they are playing. Clean and mature. Step by step the teaching is custom fitted to each student. One of my favorite harpists now is Dalibor’s son: Brin Bernatovic. Now a student of yet another great harpist, Diana Grubisic Cikovic at the Zagreb Music Academy, his sound, so round, powerful yet, always delights me. That comes, like all of Dalibor’s students from Dalibor himself. Of Croatian descent Dalibor’s mom is also a harpist. His experience as a solo harpist as well as once the solo harpist of The Maribor Opera House shows in every detail. Lush and passionate. I love it.
And so, I was amazed at the devotion of students, some very young, but so engaged with music already. The country, from ex-Yugoslavia has inherited a system for music education well in place. Youngsters are offered good posssibilities to demonstrate their hard work and abilities in national and international competitions held in their country. They are focused and seem to have found their identities. And so Slovenia with the heart and professionalism of Prof Bernatovic has blown my mind away one more time. I was so honored to be teaching these youngsters, going over one more time about the phrasings and minor adjustements.
Ears full of wonderful harp playing, on my last day there, I took a stroll in the city where old Europe is still alive. It was a very cold, freezing Sunday with lovely images engraved in my mind before heading back home.