Violin pedagogue Jack de Wet

Violin pedagogue Jack de Wet

Prof Jack de Wet has produced some of South Africa’s best violinists, e.g. Pieter Schoeman, Jan Repko, Avigail Bushakevitz, to name but a few. This formidable pedagogue, at 82, is still teaching from Cape Town and his philisophy about teaching is an inspiration for many musicians.

How were you introduced to the violin?

JDW: When I was four we lived in Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape. People living in the town found me standing in the same place every week in front of a house, standing absolutely still – just listening.  This was quite unusual for a four year old.  My parents soon realized that I stood there listening to a violin being played – I adored the sound it made. I never saw the instrument – just listened to the beautiful sound.

When did you start your music career?

JDW: When we moved to Pretoria, there was a “Professor of the Violin” from Holland that advertised violin lessons.  As my parents knew I loved the violin’s sound, I started with lessons. I progressed very fast as I really enjoyed playing. By the age of seven I was playing at Eisteddfods and was also featured on a children’s programme on the radio.

When my family asked me what I would like to become one day, I replied “a Professor”,  since I thought that is what a violinist is called.  My nickname thus became “professor”.  Ironically, the day I really became a Professor, everyone started calling me Jack!

What did you find most challenging of learning the violin?

JDW: I never experienced it as challenging as for me playing violin was part of my routine, practising, going to lessons and I also played in an Orchestra “Die Bondsorkes”.  We played at various functions and I became well-known as I was the only child (then 10) in the orchestra.  I really loved playing! I travelled to Pretoria by train for my lessons as we lived on a farm outside Pretoria.  In the mornings I travelled with a passenger train, but in the afternoon when I returned there was only a “goods” train.  They knew to pick me up and drop me off at our farm.  One of our workers then fetched me with his bicycle for another 2 mile drive.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for young children when starting violin lessons?

JDW: Violin teachers teach their students the same way they were taught, without questioning old methods of teaching.  One should not just teach the way you were taught, but keep on investigating what works, what does not and not just stick to tradition.  We keep telling our students to “listen to yourself”, but that is not enough.
One should not forget the “sense of touch” when playing the violin.  An excellent article on this subject is “Feeling is believing”, published in The Strad in June 2009.  Remember all knowledge should be tested.  Without the testing of knowledge there can be no growth.

What role do the parents play in a child’s violin tuition?

JDW: Children and parents should form a team.  Parents should attend the lessons.  There is nothing better for a child’s self-image than to feel supported by their parents. 

Suzuki taught violin until the age of 104.  I visited him to learn more.  Just before he went into a beginner’s class he always paused for a moment.  When asking him about it he replied that he had to “become 5 or 6 years old” himself.  When I was younger I was known as a very strict teacher.  I also questioned him on his gentle way of working with the children.  I asked him if anger is ever useful.  He replied “of course” and I asked him when?  He said “when it helps”, so I asked him when it does help and he replied NEVER!  When I returned to the Free State after my visit I started teaching in the gentle way.  Some of the parents phoned my wife and asked her if I was ill!

How do you view the future of classical musicians in South Africa and do they need to go overseas to “make it”?

JDW: Our musicians have a role to play in South African in bringing our people together through music.  I think there is an “over supply” of soloists abroad.  Many young musicians leave here with expectations that are too high.  In Europe, teachers want young musicians that would bring them credit.  Even through the depression years music teachers always had work.  We have an amazing country - we need to build relationships through music.

You taught in Soweto in the Apartheid years - what was your experience there?

JDW: In those years white people were not allowed to go into Soweto, so they would put me in a taxi with two big men next to me, as to hide me.  I would also wear a hat and a big coat as disguise. I greatly valued the experiences I had there and have a great passion and understanding for teaching students from difficult circumstances.

What role does music and music teaching play in South Africa?

JDW: The purpose of music in this country is to create a sense of team-work, nation building and to bring people closer together.  “Mense wat saam musiek maak, baklei nie.” (People who make music together cannot fight.)  Music teachers will always have jobs and the work they do through music is essential in South Africa.

What is your life philosophy?

JDW: “Die dag wat jy nie ‘n nuwe idee gehad het nie, was a vrugtelose dag.” (The day you did not have any new ideas is a day wasted.)

Published 20.02.2012. Interview by Laurika Steenkamp.

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