On October 4, the Trenton Central High School Orchestra sat down to rehearse for a concert they would perform at the end of the month. But at this rehearsal, something was different. Acclaimed violist Jordan Bak sat down to play alongside them.
Bak is a member of the celebrated New York Classical Players and a featured artist for WQXR’s Artist Propulsion Lab. Among his many accolades, he is the 2021 YCAT Robey Artist and a top laureate of the 2020 Sphinx Competition. Bak is also on the faculty of the Opportunity Music Project in New York. He’s only the third violist to earn the Artist Diploma from Juilliard, and is known as a powerful soloist and an enthusiastic advocate of new music.
Bak’s visit was sponsored by the Neighborhood Music Project, a collaboration between Princeton University Concerts and Trenton Arts at Princeton. He rehearsed with the orchestra, performed some pieces of his own, and answered the students’ many questions.
Accompanied by Bak, the orchestra began its rehearsal with Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” In their rendition, the musicians intentionally played very softly—pianississimo. It’s notoriously difficult to play so soft and still be heard by the audience. The students had no such problem. Their music flowed through the auditorium, soft, mysterious, and compelling.
After they had finished playing, they asked Bak for suggestions.
“Body language. You want to just play, like…” He turned to the drummer. “That whole drum solo. Do you want to start at the beginning for a second? Just the first four bars?”
The drummer kicked up a steady beat. Bak nodded and turned to the rest of the orchestra. “You need to just let it move for a second, and try to use that with your instruments.” He pointed to the drummer. “We all need to feel that, because that’s your groove right there.”
Now it was Bak’s turn to play something for the orchestra. He chose to perform a virtuosic Paganini Caprice. Particularly noticeable was his expressive use of body language.
After Bak finished, a student asked him, “How do you remember all those notes?”
Bak laughed, and said that he incorporates gestures into the music to help him memorize it. In other words, body language helps activate muscle memory. If he adjusts his instrument at a specific part in the song, it primes his brain to remember what comes next.
“If you think about what you might do at a certain place in the music, all of a sudden it gets much easier to memorize,” he explained.
Next up, Bak and the students played through a Bruno Mars medley that included “Uptown Funk” and “Leave the Door Open.” Unlike the pianississimo “Havana,” the Bruno Mars medley has more of an emphasis on dynamics. “Uptown Funk” is a loud and fast song, while “Leave the Door Open” is softer and slower.
Bak mentioned this in his feedback. “What really makes a great musician is the ability to play soft,” he said. But when playing forte, Bak advised the string-players to place their bows in such a way that their notes would soar out into the audience.
“Dynamics,” Bak said. “Find the groove, but show respect to the dynamics.”
The students took his advice in their next piece. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, they played a lively medley, including Gloria Estefan’s fast-paced “Conga.” For the first time since the rehearsal started, Bak didn’t have any feedback. Instead, he grinned, adjusted his viola, and announced that he was going to play the prelude of Bach’s Third Cello Suite in C Major.
“As violists, we steal a lot of peoples’ repertoire. That’s how we make our living,” he said. “This one we’re gonna steal from the cellos.”
After Bak had finished his soulful rendition and the applause died down, someone asked about how he came to play the viola.
Bak grew up on Long Island. In first grade, he joined his school orchestra. He was given a slip of paper and asked to write down the top four instruments he wanted to play. He wrote down the violin as his first choice. But when they got to his piece of paper, all the violins had been taken. Instead, he was given what he thought was a violin fitted with viola strings (but was actually just a viola).
“I thought that it wasn’t a real violin. I came home in the car: ‘Mom, they gave me a fake instrument’,” Bak remembered. Three years passed, and he remained convinced that he was playing a fake violin. But as time went on and he began performing in local youth orchestras, he made peace with his viola.
“At that point it clicked to me that yes, it wasn’t a violin, but there’s actually a good thing about it. It has its own identity. It’s a very human instrument.”
Now, Bak plays his viola with pride, and he played it alongside the students as they ended their rehearsal with a dazzling Temptations medley.
Reflecting on the rehearsal, senior violinist Francisco talked about how moved he was by Bak’s transcendent performances.
“The experience of Jordan playing was very beautiful and motivational to me,” Francisco said. “It really gave me a drive to keep playing my instrument.”