SHARE

 

12-year-old Brianna Perez was the first to inherit Holo­caust sur­vivor Joseph Feingold’s violin. | Courtesy

When Joseph Feingold left a Siberian labor camp after his six-year internment during the Holo­caust, he found a black market and swapped a pack of American cig­a­rettes for a violin. The instrument was his haven for more than 65 years, and now its legacy of solace will live on in the hands of young vio­linists in the poorest con­gres­sional dis­trict in the country.

The Oscar-nom­i­nated doc­u­mentary short “Joe’s Violin” follows the violin’s journey to its new home at the Bronx Learning Institute for Girls, where alumna Hannah van der Swaagh ’08, a strings teacher at the Institute, will witness the violin con­tinue to change lives each year as another of her stu­dents takes it as her own.

“The project was a very eye-opening expe­rience in a lot of ways because it was very hum­bling and yet, at the same time, it helped to solidify for us the work that we do,” van der Swaagh said. “It shed some light on our program in a way that we thought was encour­aging because we felt like we’re doing some­thing right. We’re touching lives. We’re making a dif­ference.”

“Joe’s Violin” debuted one year ago at the Tribeca Film Fes­tival, and has since been screened at more than 50 film fes­tivals around the world. Van der Swaagh said the quality and impor­tance of the film’s story war­ranted its eight awards as well as its Oscar nom­i­nation.

“Those few shots at the Oscars were very mean­ingful because it was over so fast, but in those seconds it really cap­tured the essence of the film and the essence of this whole project — which is music — and the work we do in our classroom, and the lives that have been and will be touched by this violin,” van der Swaagh said.

It all began in 2014, when WQXR, New York City’s clas­sical radio station, part­nered with The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foun­dation to organize an instrument drive for local schools. In the film, Mr. Holland’s Opus Program Director Tricia Steel said the mission of the drive was to bring instru­ments to schools. When she learned of Feingold’s donation, she said she was con­victed of the need to find a good place for the special violin.

After WQXR found a place for Feingold’s violin at the Institute, 12-year-old Brianna Perez, one of van der Swaagh’s stu­dents, was selected to receive it.

“We chose Brianna because we knew that she was an incredibly artic­ulate, pas­sionate, and sort of wise-beyond-her-years,” van der Swaagh said. “And we knew that she would under­stand the value of this violin as more than just a violin — we have lots of violins in the classroom, but we knew that she would under­stand why this violin is special.”

Both van der Swaagh and Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, the Institute’s music director, described the doc­u­mentary filming process as com­pletely organic. The cam­eramen crew filmed several times over the course of six months, but no dia­logue was scripted, and no sig­nif­icant por­tions were reshot. When Brianna was selected, the teachers delayed their momentous announcement until the director was ready to film in order to pre­serve the film’s authen­ticity.

Tanaka-Suwan founded the Bronx Learning Institute for Girls in 2008 with only a kinder­garten and 1st- grade class and has added an addi­tional class since to eighth-grade.

“Music is an integral part of the school cur­riculum and some­thing every student shares in common,” Tanaka-Suwan said.

Every student at the Institute learns violin through the Suzuki method for strings starting in kinder­garten, Tanaka-Suwan said. The Suzuki method empha­sizes parent involvement and private lessons to max­imize the influence of music on the child, but the music staff has suc­ceeded in teaching their stu­dents to play the violin in group lessons of 25 to 60 girls.

“Every year we bring in some new stu­dents in the upper grades, but our main focus is on that incoming kinder­garten class. They start on violin in kinder­garten so we’re building that foun­dation from the beginning,” van der Swaagh said. “The violin requires so much expla­nation and so much under­standing before they can even try to create a sound. It’s an incredible lesson in dili­gence, self-control, deter­mi­nation, and mystery.”

Van der Swaagh, a lifelong musician, studied music at Hillsdale College under Pro­fessor Melissa Knecht. After receiving her masters in music per­for­mance from the Uni­versity of Mass­a­chu­setts at Amherst in 2010, van der Swaagh began her teaching career at the Institute.

“My No. 1 purpose and joy is that I get to bring music into these girls’ lives,” van der Swaagh said. “They fight us about that some­times, and they’re not always excited about violin class, but I’ve already seen a lot of fruit come from that, and that’s a huge encour­agement.”

Tanaka-Suwan described van der Swaagh’s teaching style as loving and nur­turing: “She really cares for the stu­dents. She’s a team player, she has great classroom man­agement, and she con­nects well with the stu­dents.”

Van der Swaagh’s own music teachers said they remember her fondly. Pro­fessor Melissa Knecht, who taught her viola, said that Hannah was perhaps the most mature music student she has taught at Hillsdale.

“Whenever she played she could touch the vein of whomever lis­tened,” Knecht said, “Hannah seemed to be devoid of any ego. She just loved music.”

Music Director James Holleman taught van der Swaagh in orchestra and chamber choir, and said he remembers her expertise ini­tially as a vio­linist before she con­quered a steep learning curve after picking up the viola. Today, van der Swaagh remains unchal­lenged as a three-time con­certo com­pe­tition winner.

Knecht remarked that this strings cur­riculum might be a fan­tastic model for Hillsdale’s charter school ini­tiative, although most of their success is probably due to their fortune in having van der Swaagh as a teacher.

Van der Swaagh said she is grateful for her Hillsdale edu­cation and she strives to recreate a similar com­munity for her own stu­dents. She appre­ciates Hillsdale’s unique safe space that allows stu­dents to be com­fortable while studying the values of good cit­i­zenship and a shared her­itage.

The film con­cludes by explaining that “Joe’s Violin” will be passed on from Brianna Perez to another special student chosen at the end of each year. Although the film stars Perez, the con­tinuing story unites all of the stu­dents through this special violin. “Joe’s Violin” may not have won the Oscar, but this is just the beginning for the story of Joe Feingold’s violin.