Camp faculty profile: Pavel Vinnitsky

A young musician spends their days learning techniques to better their musicianship. But at what point does that musician find their own, distinct voice and meaning within the world of music?

Clarinetist and Interlochen Arts Camp instructor Pavel Vinnitsky mostly plays orchestral and chamber music. His impressive resume includes the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, American Symphony, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. He’s also on the clarinet and chamber music faculty at New York University.

Vinnitsky was classically trained and has an affinity for fundamentals, but he’s not afraid to play outside the box. He’s dabbled in jazz and klezmer music throughout his life living in the Ukraine, Israel, and now New York. He was previously a member of a klezmer trio and is featured on Grammy-winning recordings for classical music labels as well as major motion picture soundtracks. As a faculty member for the Interlochen Arts Camp clarinet institute, Vinnitsky said he teaches his students to be open to various techniques and styles of music.

“It's hard to be so flexible that you're equally great at rock and roll as well as playing in the full orchestra,” Vinnitsky said. “But be willing to experience all of that and learn from each style.”

We spoke with Vinnitsky about how he mentors young students to embrace rejection, balance technique and artistry, and develop their inner voice.

As a mentor, do you have any advice for younger students on how to be adaptable to play with so many different groups?
Of course, you have to be open-minded. And you need to develop as a complete musician — to be open to all styles of music. In my case, I was a classically trained musician to start with. And then something came along, and I went with it and learned from being part of that style. I also tried a little bit of jazz. I would say maybe not strive to be adaptable per se, but be open to all styles of music and be willing to experience them if opportunity comes up.

Do you teach younger students to focus on fundamentals first and then find their own voice? Or would you prefer the route of dipping your toes in different pools of styles and then picking from there?
I never had teachers who encouraged me to dip my toes in multiple styles. I had very conservative teachers all the way through, and I feel I'm probably following their steps when I teach, myself.

Personally I have a big respect for fundamentals, but I too will vary my practices depending on students' mentalities, physicality, and flexibility. I try not to be too rigorous with the fundamentals, but more so to encourage students to be confident musicians. That to me is equally important.

Let's say if you spend four years of just doing fundamentals, you may end up with someone who is very enclosed in this cage of fundamental practicing and missing out on the actual goal of being a musician and what that actually means. What is that we are actually doing here as professionals and human beings? Are we working just to become aware of how everyone should hold their instruments or are we actually looking for unique things to bring to the audience?

As a young artist were there any pivotal moments in your life that inspired you to pursue the arts as a career?
Yes, definitely. When I was a teenager, I got to know a teacher who opened a whole new world for me. And the funny part about it is that he really did focus a lot on fundamentals, and I went through a phase of rigorous training on skills and long tones and positioning. But he was a little bit like a psychic. He could get into your mind and know exactly what and how you should practice to become a better musician. Then later on, my teacher in my undergraduate studies was an incredible orchestral player from whom I learned a great deal about how to play in an orchestra and the craft of playing in an ensemble, which was very crucial for what I'm doing right now.

And my last teacher was an international soloist who had an inspiring presence on stage. It kind of completed the circle.
I would say my teachers were my inspiration, and then later on, my colleagues, who I am very fortunate to work with. Each one of them is a brilliant musician. They’re very inspiring people. I keep learning, and it's like having lessons every single day.

How do you encourage students to balance being an artist versus just a technician?
It really is craft that we're learning when we play music. I think you can be a great musician through being a great technician as well. You have to have a certain understanding of the meaning of what you're doing and not to be engaged in just one technical aspect of your performance. That creates an opportunity for them to connect with you and with each other. It creates a deeper understanding of the whole human personality. It's possible to develop your inner voice and your deeper musical understanding.

How do you motivate students when they’re faced with rejection?
Musicians are constantly auditioning for jobs, or, if you’re in school, for chairs. It's a constant. There is always a competition going on. First of all, I think you should plunge and look at it as a very positive thing, because competitions are there for you to grow. Just by being there and playing with such strong competitors, you already have a big push to become better just by doing that.

And another thing, it's good to fail because failing means that you've done your work and know there are things to improve. This is the whole point of being an artist that you constantly want to be better—to be a better person, better musician, better craftsman, and better technician. All of those skills need constant improvement.

The times where you lose in the competition, when you fail at something, those are very important moments in your life. It only depends what you do with them.

How long does it take to learn how to do that?
You don't get it overnight, but you can learn how to get over it right away. And that's very important actually, because ultimately, you can look at your performance as a complete failure at every given moment. When you are on stage, a lot of things don't come out the way you want. And if you don't have the strength of mind to get over it right away and just absorb it and keep going, then you're in big trouble.

Why should young people practice the arts, even if they’re not going to become a prodigy or do it professionally?
We live in such crazy times where our human values are a little bit determined by our material possessions. And it feels to me that it's gotten to a point where we are absolutely blinded by that. I feel that art has such big power to uncover that blindfold and let us reconnect with each other in a way that is more natural and more beautiful.

It's very important that we keep educating young musicians and bringing art to them. Otherwise, we'll end up with just another generation of racers for a bigger living room or something like that, which would be very, very sad.

Even if you are not going to be a prodigy or an international soloist, I think it's still very important to be involved in arts and practice arts. I always think of it as a certain muscle in our brain that is responsible for the strength of our creative force. Maybe we can develop that muscle to a point where it’s helpful not just in doing music, but if you become a scientist, a road builder, an engineer, or a businessman. You can use that muscle to think out of the box. I find that is why practicing art helps you to become better at anything.

Anything else you’d like to add?
This is my second day. But I have to tell you, that even just from the very second that I've arrived here, there's some sort of magic in the air. I can't put my finger on it, but there's some kind of energy that all of the sudden, your brain starts widening. There is definitely something in the earth here or in the air.

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