the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Jessie Sark

Practice makes music

When Jessie Sark was in first grade she wanted to take piano lessons, but her mother had different ideas. Kathy Sark introduced her daughter to the violin and enrolled her in Goshen College’s String Preparatory Program, with teacher Debra Kauffman ’86.

“Who wanted to play a squeaky violin? I wanted to play the piano, like my friends,” said Sark. “For two years, I was determined to quit and my mother was just as determined that I stick with it. If my mother wouldn’t have been so persistent, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Now, a recent performance with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic is still resonating through her instrument and graduate study is in her sights. She practices four or more hours a day, and teaches violin from her home studio in addition to taking college courses and working at a part-time job.

“I admire my mom for being willing to make me practice; I’m sure it was hard, because I am stubborn too. But growing up in the Strings Prep program at the college, I had the sense from my parents at lessons and in the master classes that ‘we’re in this together,’” Sark said. “With the Suzuki method of learning violin that I experienced, parental involvement is really important.”

Sark developed her skills to the point that Kauffman asked her to teach beginning students in the Strings Prep program when Jessie was a high school sophomore (in a home school curriculum). Kauffman describes Sark as “an excellent teacher,” as evidenced by the progress of her students. “She also does very well with group lessons, which are difficult,” Kauffman said.

Around the same time, Sark was beginning to “really practice” herself.

“Sometimes practice can feel like homework, but that’s when the discipline kicks in. You have to stay focused. There are times when it’s really fun, like after my lesson when I’ve experienced the beautiful sounds my teacher articulates,” said Sark. “People often don’t understand what goes into the practice – they think that if you practice four hours a day you should be Itzhak Perlman or something. Practicing makes the performance look easier.”

Sark learned a lot about both practicing and teaching from Professor Emeritus of Music Lon Sherer. She particularly admired Sherer for his deliberate work in retraining himself to play the violin after suffering a stroke, which he wrote about in a popular Pinchpenny Press book, Practicing: A Liturgy of Learning. She said Sherer helped her find new ways of approaching music and new ways of practicing, “making it new each time you came to the instrument, which leads you to a world of discovery in the colors and nuances that are available to the string player.”

Sherer was also instrumental in helping Sark develop her own pedagogical philosophy, by example.

“Lon was always an inspiration. He helped me think about how to apply my own lessons to how I was teaching,” said Sark. “The teaching style of my current instructor, Carolyn Plummer, reminds me of him. I once had a teacher who never gave me room to do my own interpretation of the music; the music was no longer a part of me, wasn’t personal – it was as though I was a machine. It wasn’t me.”

Yet practicing hasn’t always been easy. In high school, she experienced carpel tunnel syndrome, and had to carefully monitor when and how long she practiced in order to continue growing as a musician yet not exacerbate her injury. Then when Sark entered Goshen College as a full-time student in the 1999-2000 school year – she had taken music department courses while in high school – she began preparing for Goshen College’s Concerto Aria competition, and was selected as a winner to perform with the college’s orchestra.

Now, three years later, Sark’s passion and discipline paid off when she won the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Philharmonic’s 2003 Young Artists Competition, and the honor to give a solo performance on March 11 with the orchestra. For her interpretation of the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor,” she also received a cash prize for the top ranking among a pool of more than 20 other college students.

When Sark’s violin teacher wanted her to enter the Fort Wayne Philharmonic contest, she had one month to prepare for the event. Historically, she hasn’t enjoyed competitions. “I’m competitive enough with myself that it is hard to be compared to other people,” she said.

Sark realizes, however, that being judged in such settings is par for the course for those seeking to become professional musicians – a path that she now knows she wants to pursue after having once considered a career in nursing.

After several years as a part- and full-time student at GC, a break from her deliberations about the future, and a bit of musician burnout, came in the form of realizing another dream: to do missions. In the fall of 2001, she joined Bridges for Peace, a program in Israel.

“Bridges for Peace feels that, as Christians, we should be a bridge to the Jewish faith – and that building relationships is most important,” she said.

Sark had never been on such a trip by herself, and hadn’t flown in a plane. She had not opted to bring along the music recordings that so often soothe her. But she did take her violin and, throughout the several-month assignment, played at worship services. The trip introduced her to a new culture and helped her reflect on her own life.

“When I decided to go to Israel, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish school when I got back,” she said. “But by getting distance from the situation I was in, I was able to sort out what I wanted to do.”

In the year and a half since her return, Sark, now a junior, is considering graduate study at schools like Oberlin, Eastman or the Cleveland Institute. She continues to live at home, where she says she practices best and, importantly, has the opportunity to spend more time with her younger sister, Sarah. She also teaches seven young violinists there, where she continues to draw on her own experiences as a student to relate practices in musicianship.

Said Sark, “In teaching I try to be personal. The teachers who have meant the most to me have shown interest in me and have cared about me as a person. That has affected the way I teach. If a teacher didn’t seem to take an interest in me, I would wonder why I should care about playing.”

Instead, her attitude is quite the opposite. The Fort Wayne Philharmonic appearance is one of several major concerts for Sark during the spring semester, which also include a solo recital in January and a performance of a Bach double violin concerto with Emily Hershberger (Jr., Portland, Ore.) in March.

“For me, music is a way that I am able to see inside myself,” said Sark.

“Practicing presents an atmosphere where I can reflect on things. I can make decisions about life when I’m practicing. It just feels like a part of me. Even if there are times when I don’t like to practice, I always come back to it. If I’m not playing music, I’m listening to it – music just makes the world seem like a better place.”
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