Bulgarian Connection

by Don Stoll

Todor Pelev

Elena Minkova graduated in 2014 and Yoana Chukleva this past May. Lili Milcheva, Class of 2017, enrolled in Idyllwild Arts Academy last year and, since September, Lili has had a Bulgarian compatriot in Anjelina Yavorova Jeleva, Class of 2018.

But the Academy’s connection to Bulgarian violinists begins with longtime instructor Todor Pelev. His colleague, Academy Orchestra Director Tim Verville, rightly calls Todor “phenomenal.”

Tim refers to more than Todor’s silver medal in the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, solo appearances at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, and concert and recording work with Ray Charles and George Benson. Musical brilliance would count for nothing at Idyllwild if it could not be communicated to the Academy’s teenage students, and Todor’s dedication to teaching them is exceptional. His publication, An Approach to Healthy & Successful Violin Practice (Mill Creek Publications, 1991), summarizes that devotion.

As Todor puts it, “I thought there was a need” to instruct young string players not only on how to master their instruments, but, while doing so, on how to avoid injuries, including tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and spinal problems related to posture. Because attaining the highest level of musical skill requires a tremendous number of practice hours, learning and maintaining the right practice habits is vital. Todor reminds student musicians that practice becomes less productive the more a musician becomes tired, but that interrupting practice with frequent rest periods keeps the mind as well as the body fresh, enabling a musician to get the most out of practicing.

Another focus of Todor’s teaching is conveying the habit of relaxation, which does not come naturally to everyone who pursues a lofty goal. However, relaxation can be combined with intense concentration if a musician remembers to perform our most natural and necessary action: breathing.

“It’s a common thing for violinists to hold their breath,” he points out, “but we don’t want them to do that.”

Fluid movement is crucial to music — it underlies the beauty that we listen for — and holding one’s breath “creates inner tension,” he says. Breathing naturally is “directly connected to relaxed movement” of the kind that allows the musician’s emotion to flow out and bathe an audience in its warmth.

Todor notes that failure to breathe is only one of the things that can block a player’s emotion from infusing the music and moving the audience. Individual musicians determined to master their own parts in an ensemble piece can lose touch with “how the piece should sound in its completeness,” he writes in An Approach to Healthy & Successful Violin Practice.

Therefore “the practicing of a given piece in a slower tempo while keeping all its musical expression” permits “expanding the motion,” since the pressure to play at performance speed can cause musicians to compress their movements. On the other hand, beauty first achieved by the languid motions of the so-called “slow film” practice becomes fixed in the musician’s memory and can then be reproduced at a faster pace.

An Approach to Healthy & Successful Violin Practice teaches other valuable lessons. Yet those lessons are taught even more effectively in person, when the virtuosity of Todor’s playing and his passion for bringing out the best in his students impart a life to his words that can only be imitated on the page.

Of course, for young Bulgarian violinists like Anjelina Yavorova Jeleva, studying with Todor has another advantage.

“For my first two weeks in America, I had a headache from speaking and listening to English, so it helped that Todor speaks Bulgarian.” Anjelina adjusted quickly, since talking with her in English now, a couple of months into the school year, is easy. Todor’s enthusiasm about her talent had brought her here on a journey of almost seven thousand miles, but modesty allows her to say little more than “for a violinist I have big hands with long fingers.” Though she loves the rock of Nirvana, Metallica, and the Scorpions, she also says “It’s a really sad thing that people have stopped listening to classical music,” including favorites of her own like Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Anjelina hopes to follow her father, a flutist, and her mother, a pianist and conductor, into a career in music, but she knows that the money isn’t good in Bulgaria. How do she and her parents feel about the possibility that her talent, having already taken her a long way from home, could keep her far away? “It’s too far away to think about, even for my parents!”