The Violin Channel recently caught up with Miguel Negri, artistic director of Piccoli Virtuosi.
Can you tell us about Piccoli Virtuosi. When was it founded and where is it based?
Piccoli Virtuosi is an International Music Boarding School founded in the Gstaad region, Switzerland. It opened its doors for the academic year in 2019 / 2020. It is a school that combines musical studies with regular academics for children between the ages of 8 and 18 who have the potential to develop a professional career in the world of music.
What is Piccoli Virtuosi’s primary mission?
Without a doubt, providing the education of children and young people implies both an enormous privilege and responsibility. These are the years in which the character is formed and values are established. It is also the ideal age to learn languages, something in which the Swiss are specialists, as it is a small country with 4 official languages. Our international school has English as its main language, but it is located on the border between the French canton of Vaud and the German canton of Bern, so English, French, and German are the daily bread.
Personally, in addition to being a violinist, I have studied engineering, so I have always tried to use cutting-edge technology to improve learning processes for the benefit of our art.
I was recently invited by Dr. Katsuyuki Sakuma to visit the IBM headquarters in New York in order to test a fingernail sensor that they had developed. This allows precise analysis of finger drop, impact velocity, and finger pressure on the violin strings during articulation and changes of position and vibrato. We implement all this analysis at school, also complementing it with video recordings of the students' hands from various angles and in slow motion. Our mission is to provide young people with first-class musical and academic education, to give them all the necessary tools to help them become not only outstanding artists but also great human beings.
Can you tell us about your learning environment and how your curriculum balances intense musical education with each child’s academics?
There are several well-established institutions for young students over 18, but very few solutions for children of school-going age. These children face a challenge, whereby they need to balance both, academic and music studies.
Thanks to the flexibility that the Swiss educational system offers, our students, in addition to being able to follow their academic studies, enjoy a reduced program that allows them to dedicate and focus more hours on their music studies.
What does an average day at Piccoli Virtuosi look like for your students?
A typical day at our boarding starts at 6:45 am. Students take a shower, tidy their bedroom, and make their bed. Then they go down for breakfast.
From 8:00 to 12:00, most of them are busy with their academic studies.
After lunch, all kids can enjoy a break until 1:30, when they start with their music lessons and practice time until 8:00.
Dinner is served at 8:00, after which the boarders have some free time until 9:30, when it’s time to go to bed. The older ones can read a while in bed at night, until 10:00, when all the lights should be off.
On weekends, some boarders go back home.
Tell us about your faculty and guest faculty?
Andrey Baranov, 1st Prize winner of the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and Miguel Negri, founder of the Piccoli Virtuosi School, are the professors of violin. The chamber music classes are in charge of Andres Gabetta, founder of the renown Capella Gabetta together with his sister, Sol Gabetta. Maria Baranova is in charge of the piano classes and during the first two years, artists such as Pavel Vernikov and Jeremy Menuhin visited us for masterclasses.
Our school, of very recent creation, is currently configuring a high-level faculty for other instruments as well, together with the construction project of a new headquarters on magnificent land offered by the Town Hall of Château d'Oex. The new headquarters is the creation of the Piccoli Virtuosi Foundation, with Martin T:son Engstroem, founder and director of the Verbier Festival, and Jeremy Menuhin as prominent members of the Board.
What are the main components that you hope your students are able to develop during their time at Piccoli Virtuosi?
Apart from the human formation and values mentioned above, the goal of our school is for students to achieve the most solid instrumental technique possible that allows them the greatest freedom of interpretation. During these formative years, we also provide them with many options to play in concerts as an important part of the learning process. Once they have completed their studies at Piccoli Virtuosi, many of them will continue with their university studies, and we intend that their level of instrumental, musical, and academic education be high enough to allow them to access the University of their choice.
Where are your students coming from and what qualities do you look for in your intake?
The location of our school, in Switzerland, attracts students from many countries, including Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Ireland. Our school is also an attractive destination for students from America, Asia, and Oceania.
Regarding the admissions, the level required to enter depends on the age of the candidate. For the youngest, we look for potential and talent. For those older, the level according to their age is an essential requirement to be considered. In general, the key aspects come down to checking that applicants have musicality, a good ear, and a sense of rhythm.
How can someone apply, if they are interested in auditioning for the school?
The audition process is open all year for kids aged 7 to 17 at the moment they request admission. The students that are admitted are incorporated into our school in the term following the date of admission.
The first step is to fill in the admission form, which can be downloaded from our website. The application form should be sent by email together with a recent video of the applicant performing one or two pieces of their own choice on their first instrument.
The musical director of the school will review the application together with the main teacher of the candidate’s instrument, and together they will decide the steps to follow. In some cases, the candidate may already be accepted or rejected, although in most cases, the candidate may be invited to the School to pass a probationary period, which can vary between several days and up to 3 months. During this time, they take part in the life of the school and have lessons before a final decision is made.
You also offer Summer and Winter short courses — the next one taking place between August 8 and 21, 2022. Could you tell us about these and who they would be most suitable for?
The summer and winter camps are usually the best opportunity for establishing first contact with new candidates interested in studying throughout the academic year. For the school, it is an excellent way to get to know these students, and for the students, it gives them a chance to get to know others and live together in the boarding house. Our school maintains a family atmosphere, which is why it is important to get to know each new child who joins on a human level, in order to guarantee that the atmosphere of camaraderie among all is maintained.
Next year you will also host the inaugural Piccoli Virtuosi International Violin Competition in Gstaad, Switzerland. Tell us about your plans to date for this?
International competitions, when approached correctly are in my opinion an excellent form of motivation. First, the participants get a great incentive to learn new pieces and make an additional effort to take them to a high level. Also, all professional musicians know that playing in public is part of the learning process. In competition, many young people have, for example, their first opportunity to play as soloists accompanied by an orchestra. In the case of the first edition of the Piccoli Virtuosi International Competition, the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra from London will visit us in Gstaad.
Furthermore, it is important for the participants to have opportunities to measure their level in relation to the highest international standards. These are a few days in which the participants will also have the opportunity to meet great internationally renowned artists who will be part of the jury. In the first edition, the jury will be made up of Salvatore Accardo, Pavel Vernikov, Pierre Amoyal, Hyung-ki Joo, Raimund Trenkler, Mihaela Martin, and myself. Our contest will take place every year in two categories, junior up to 14 years old and senior from 15 up to 19.
Why do you feel Piccoli Virtuosi is able to provide the optimum environment for nurturing talented young students?
First of all, Switzerland has a long tradition of hosting the best international boarding schools in the world. Our school is located in the Gstaad - Château d'Oex valley area, a unique place for its natural beauty, purity of air, and an idyllic environment in which to efficiently dedicate yourself to your studies.
In addition, the parents who visit us are delighted by the security that our region inspires. Our school is located in one of the most beautiful areas of the Swiss Alps, in the mountains, surrounded by green, in a small community that is like a big family.
But in addition to all this, it is in an area with an immense musical tradition, since it is where the legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin found his personal refuge more than 60 years ago. It is where he himself came in search of inspiration and where he founded the Menuhin Festival, which attracts every summer the greatest international artists.