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.