As the first American harpsichordist to tour and teach master classes in several Polish cities, Elaine Thornburgh spent much of her time talking about taking risks.
"The overall technical level was much better than I generally find here, but the expressive level was much lower," Thornburgh, an adjunct lecturer in music, says about the students and teachers she met with during her 11-day visit in April. "Feeling free and imaginative about music didn't seem to be ingrained in students."
Thornburgh was invited to tour Poland by Pawel Skrzypek, head of the piano faculty at the Frederic Chopin School of Music in Warsaw. She gave seven solo recitals and taught three master classes in Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow, Katowice and Bydgoszcz, often performing in 18th-century halls.
As the birthplace of Chopin, Poland takes music seriously, and Thornburgh says students are groomed for international competitions from an early age.
"My basic goal was to get students thinking about what they were doing musically, and why," she says. "If they weren't making choices in their playing, I wanted to show them how they could begin to do that, and I frequently asked students to try arpeggiating chords in five different ways."
With the help of translators, Thornburgh tried to explore ways in which silence and timing could be used for musical effect.
"On a harpsichord, you can't adjust the dynamics as you can on a piano, so silence is an important tool," she says. "Beginning and ending in silence can determine the musical effect, the drama and the emotional expressiveness."
Thornburgh also found that many students weren't accustomed to listening to the bass line.
"The bass line defines the character of a piece, with the harmony coming up from the bass," she adds. "We did a lot of left-handed playing so they could get used to hearing it."
As a practicing Jew, Thornburgh also wanted to visit her family's hometown of Krynki, two miles from the Byelorussian border. She and her husband, Tsvi Bar-David, explored the area, video camera in hand, where 2,000 Jews had lived in 1940 -- and where 10 survive today.
"Sixty years ago, one-fourth of the
world's Jewish population lived in Poland, but today there isn't a
single rabbi in the country," she says. "But I told my audiences
that I'd come to Poland as a Jew with an open heart and that it was
an honor and privilege to perform for them. And it was."