A life in music

Heidi Jacob has carved out an interesting life as a mother, teacher and musician

By Shreepriya Poudel

It is seven p.m. and the sound of violins and cellos fills the Goodhart Theater’s music room. Members of a string quintet, one of the several chamber music groups at BrynMawrCollege, are rehearsing their final piece. The students stare at the sheet music before them and then occasionally at each other, communicating non-verbally, musically.

Their instructor, Heidi Jacob, an associate professor of music at Haverford college, stands at a distance. She watches over them practicing like a protective mother, ready to correct mistakes and come to the rescue, if needed. After a lifetime of listening to, playing and performing music, her ears are sensitive to every note.

“No, pause. Let us do this again. This part right here”, she says signaling a bar in the notation.

The students turn their pages back and play it again. Still is does not sound right. Heidi signals them to try again. Then one more time. This time the violins stop at the right beat. Finally, the dramatic pause that the composer

Heidi Jacob conducting

Heidi Jacob conducting

was aiming for is achieved. Jacob smiles a wide smile.

“I remember sight reading this piece many years ago, when I was 15,” she says later. “I played it with my brother. It was one of those revelatory pieces.”

The nearly 60-year-old Jacob has played the cello for more than five decades. She started playing the when she was eight and completed her dissertation in composition in 2011. At age 17, her performances in California and Germany won critical acclaim. She has toured as a part of a trio and as a solo artist. She has composed, conducted, performed and recorded. Hers is the life of the everyday musician — not a rock star or a celebrated musical genius — but the teacher who coaches our kids, the volunteer who conducts community orchestras or the neighbor who is always playing classical music.

A Childhood in music

“I just wanted to play the cello when I was eight because I loved it. I loved the Cello”.

With a father who loved classical music and a mother who was an amateur cellist, Jacob was quickly introduced to the cello.  She had started doing ballet when she was young and took up cello when she was eight. By the time she was 12, she had decided that she wanted to take cello a lot more seriously and quit ballet.  When she was 14, she decided that she really did not care about academics either. What she y wanted to do was become a musician. Her parents were not too keen on the idea. They had to be convinced with the help of her teachers.

After graduating early from high school, she joined the University of Indiana at Bloomington, taking lessons at the conservatory there. Deciding that she did not like her cello teacher, she auditioned for a place in the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was accepted at the highly competitive school that offers free tuition, room and board to all accepted. Graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor’s in Music, she later joined the equally selective JulliardSchool in New York to gain a Master’s degree in Cello Performance.

Recalling her time in Curtis, she relates how it was a small school with around 100 students. Most wanted to be solo performers and were supportive of each other. From her time as a student to her life as a teacher and conductor, the Jacob has been on a musical journey that has had many intermediate destinations, with her playing different roles.

Chamber music

“In a smaller group, you have to listen more and work better”

Jacob started playing for chamber music groups when she was in high school and also played with youth orchestras. During her time at the Curtis institute, she gained more experience with chamber music groups. She fondly remembers being taught by member of the Budapest String Quartet. She was a part of a chamber music trio with her husband and a violinist for 10 years and the group toured the United States together. For a while, she thought it was what she wanted to do.

Making a living out of being a musician is easy. Jacob notes that even though most students at Curtis wanted to become solo artists or perform as a part of Chamber music groups, it has now become harder and harder to make it as a musician. When she decided to start a family, she wanted to look for different jobs that would be more stable.

For the same reason, she found it hard to have a solo career, although she did tour with her husband, a pianist, for a few concerts. When it comes to making a solo career, cellists have a harder time than violinists or pianists. Orchestras are more likely to hire violins or violas rather than cellos.

She still believes that it is important for a musician to learn to play in small ensembles. She likes being able to make her own musical decisions and lets her students do the same.

When she is teaching, it is interesting to see her life in chamber music come full circle. She challenges herself by trying to find new repertoire for interesting combinations for instruments, such as a bassoon, oboe and piano playing together. Coordinating a dozen chamber music groups each semester, coaching them, seeing them through to the last performance can be a taxing job. Yet she starts speaking with a rush of energy and passion as she begins to recount all the different kinds of music that the different groups are playing this semester.

Heidi the teacher

“ Being a teacher means that I have to learn new things”

Anyone who sees Jacob teaching see  she enjoys it. Her work as a teacher of chamber music has pushed her to finding the kind of music she would not have looked for otherwise. She has also gotten the chance to experiment with new combinations of instruments. Occasionally, she has had to fill in during performances. “I had to play the gong once because I did not have enough people. I had to play percussion instruments,” she laughs.

She also has to sort through the students who want to play chamber music, place them together according to their ability, and create different combinations of instruments. Simply being near liberal arts colleges, she says, helps her indulge in her other interests.

Her students clearly enjoy working with her too. “She is simply amazing and really nice,” says Stella Cai, a freshman at BrynMawrCollege.

Teaching chamber music has helped her come up with ideas that are more creative. In the spring of 2014, she will not be teaching but compiling a list of recent music and grading the pieces  according to difficulty so that it will be easier for other chamber music groups to decide whether they can play it. She wants to create a catalogue of the music accessible to all chamber musicians. During this sabbatical, she also wants to compose a piano concerto for her husband.

Apart from Chamber music, Jacob has also played with orchestras. She has been a guest conductor for various orchestras and has done a lot of conducting through her teaching jobs.

The night before the Bi-co orchestra’s final performance, everyone is clearly busy. Students shuffle in an out of the stage, get their instruments ready and start tuning them. People are nervous for the last rehearsal before the performance. Seats have to be arranged; books adjusted; the stage organized.

Jacob shuffles around, taking care of details; making sure everyone is present and ready to perform.  As the group gets ready for the rehearsal, she steps onto the stage and takes her place as the conductor. She conducts with ease and grace, never forgetting that she is not only the conductor but also the teacher; the mother hen.

As the concert ends, she takes a bow, encouraging all of her students to step forward and greet the audience. She holds hands with the students and her pride is evident in her face. For someone who thought that she would never be a conductor, she seems to really like doing it.

When Heidi met Charles

“People have to find what is best for them”.

If there is anything in Jacob’s life that is more important than music, it is her family. She met her husband of 40 years, Charles Abramovic, during her years at Curtis and the couple have been together ever since. Abramovic is a pianist with an International career as a soloist. He currently plays as a part of the group “Dolce Suneo Ensemble, ” a Philadelphia-based chamber music group and is a professor at TempleUniversity.

Jacob and Abramovic have performed together and  collaborated on various projects. They are both teachers and use each other’s ideas to help their students. Being in tune musically has helped the couple travel together and work together.

Bringing up a son and being a mother have been important in Jacob’s life. Over the years, her son took a central part in deciding where she would take her musical career. She decided to leave her teaching job at BucknellUniversity after her son was born because she did not want to commute with a young baby. Having a child was what prompted her to take up teaching positions. Prior to becoming an associate professor, she started giving cello lessons to students at Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore. It was easier to keep her afternoons free so that she had more time to spend with her son once she got home.

Being a solo artist and a famous performer means that you cannot really “do much else with your life, certainly cannot have kids,” Jacob says. For her, the choice was obvious. “I did not want to miss it,” she says. “It was just so much fun.”

Music through the years

“As a musician, you have to wear different hats”.

The little girl who refused to play the flute because her fingers were too small has now composed for violins and pianos, given lessons and helped hundreds of students as a professor.

She has been a student of music for so long and is now teaching the same music to her students. Over the years, her ways of looking at the same music have changed. When she was younger, she responded more to how she felt about the music and played accordingly. With age, she has become more analytical, treating the music as a narrative where she has to figure out how the composer would have wanted her to play.

When she was starting out as a musician, Jacob did not think she would end up doing all the things that she has done. Clearly, she likes where she is now. When she was younger, she thought she would be doing more composition but did not actively pursue it because there were not a lot of role models. At the Curtis Institute, she thought she wanted to do chamber music but later chose to conduct and have teaching jobs instead. Finally, she ended up earning a doctorate in composition when she was in her 50s.

“I think there is a tendency to think that there is only one way of doing things these days, but there is not,” she says. “There are great many performers and then there are great composers and conductors. There are different paths that you can go down. They all help each other.”