What I've Learned: Interview With Luis Haza

Why You Shouldn't Think Too Hard About Music, How to Conquer Stage Fright, and the Importance of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

By: Ken Adelman

WHEN LUIS HAZA PERFORMED IN Russia under conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, he felt like one of the Beatles.

"It was such a memorable experience," he says, "especially for a Cuban-American like me. I never imagined that, having escaped Cuba, I'd be playing 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' in Russia."

Haza, who has been a National Symphony Orchestra first violinist for 30 years, was born in Santiago de Cuba. His father, a poet and human-rights activist, was chief of the national police department in that city. He opposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and supported a democratic regime. Soon after Castro seized power in 1959, he was executed without trial.

Nine months later, at age nine, Luis Haza took up the violin.

"I had so much emotion pent up that music became my obsession," he says. "Since I could not express my feelings verbally, violin became my way of expression."

Two years later, he debuted as a solo violinist in Havana, and then he toured the country. In 1964 his family escaped to Spain; months later, they came to the United States. Haza had scholarships to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

Besides his position with the NSO, Haza conducts the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Virginia Chamber Orchestra, and Virginia Ballet Company. He has conducted the NSO, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the national orchestras of El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala. He has performed as soloist with orchestras throughout the world and has played or conducted on many CDs.

In 1994 Hispanic Business magazine named him among the 100 most influential Hispanics. In 2002 he received the Recording Academy's Heroes Award for his work as artistic director of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

Haza lives in Vienna, near Tysons Corner Center; his mother and brothers also live in the area.

After an NSO rehearsal, we talked about what he's learned.

What is it about music that brings out emotion?

Music expresses what words cannot. It does that rather mysteriously. Through various techniques, great composers evoke sentiments they feel themselves. They make it such a gripping personal experience that listeners identify with it.

What composers evoke the most emotion in you?

Beethoven, Bach, Mozart--the meat and potatoes of repertoire--along with Brahms and Mahler. In violin repertoire, I especially love Paganini and Sarasate.

When I play in opera, I wish I were a tenor. I play my violin like I'm trying to sing, since I'm not blessed with a tenor's vocal chords.

Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" moves me so much. I love his "Leonore Overtures," especially because of their message of freedom. The opera Fidelio likewise deals with liberty. Beethoven captures humanity's desire for freedom.

And I so love the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven speaks to me in such a big way that even if it's a piece I never saw before, I feel as if I already know it. What comes next seems inevitable. Even when it is supposed to be a surprise--and Beethoven puts surprises here and there--I know it's coming.

While Mozart wrote so easily, without the toil of Beethoven, it's Beethoven's music where I find the greatest intimacy.

But his music can be depressing.

Not for me. I think it is very hopeful.

Like Mozart, even if they coped with many hardships and encountered stumbling blocks, they were positive in expression. That's the way I face life. You must stay positive to surmount challenges.

How can amateurs get the most out of a concert?

It helps to know something about the composer and pieces. The Kennedy Center has fantastic people writing our program notes. They help you recognize elements that the composer seeks to highlight.

After getting an intellectual introduction, you should sit back, relax, and enjoy it. Open yourself up to it. It's primarily an experience of the emotions.

We have to intellectualize music when we're working on how to play the piece, but you miss its essence if you approach it too intellectually. If the music doesn't speak to your soul, all the program notes don't matter.

What are Washington audiences like?

We're blessed with wonderful audiences. They're open to any works we play and listen enthusiastically. They're very supportive.

We face a constant challenge at the Kennedy Center since Washington is a cultural capital. The best musical entities--opera companies, ballet companies, symphony orchestras--come from around the world to perform in our venue. We must compete with top-level talent.

Nonetheless, our Washington audiences stay faithful and appreciative of us musicians who live here. We're very conscious of that, so we try even harder.

We often take our art abroad. The longest standing ovation we ever got was in Buenos Aires. They stood and clapped for 25 minutes.

Of course, Latin Americans are passionate about everything they do. When I travel there, local musicians won't let me pay for a single meal of an orchestra I conduct. They shower us with presents and good wishes. I've developed relationships that have lasted many years. And I've brought their composers and performers here from Latin America.

Are passionate people better musicians?

Not necessarily. Being emotional can help make you better, but it can also interfere with listening accurately to yourself when you're practicing. It can hurt when you need to develop the technical tools to become a great musician.

We need to keep our emotions in check and retain a sense of objectivity. That's the only way to produce a great artistic product. If we're just emotional, that doesn't work.

Is there an objective standard for great music? Or is it only a matter of taste?

I'd have to say that, yes, there is absolutely better music. Great music speaks to people more than most music. It connects intimately with the human experience.

History has a way of sifting through what's quality and what's not. The best always remains, while the mediocre gets forgotten.

How does a conductor affect an orchestra's performance?

You can't have a great performance without a great conductor. I'm a little sad to say this, because as musicians we should play great no matter who the conductor happens to be. But we don't.

We're fortunate in Washington to have great conductors. Sometimes there's a bad conductor, who either gets in the way or makes things very difficult.

What does a great conductor do?

He begins with a vision of what a work should sound like. It must be clear to him and then to us. He conveys his vision clearly from his baton to his hand to his whole body, especially his eyes and facial expressions. He must set a good tempo and keep a good balance. It's a lot of work.

The conductor needs to know intimately the composition, orchestration, harmony, and the history of that music. He needs to unify the orchestra into a cohesive instrument and not allow any wild things to happen.

He also needs to understand the personalities of his musicians and even the orchestra sections. He needs to be very enthusiastic--to inspire others, to give recognition when it's due, to listen carefully, and then to communicate effectively from the podium. In short, he needs to show great leadership.

Can someone be a good conductor without being a good player?

He must be a good player--of the piano, cello, violin, whatever--to earn the respect of orchestra members. The best conductors fully understand the challenges of those working under them.

What makes a great violinist and musical director?

A master violinist must practice the fundamentals forever. Besides extensive technical training, an orchestra player needs great elasticity--a sense of ensemble playing, a confidence in performing your very best no matter what.

And you need great etiquette--with your stand partners, the conductor, everyone in your section, the whole orchestra. You need to know, and practice, real decorum onstage, which comes out in the way you dress, present yourself, walk on and off.

What makes a great soloist?

Technical prowess, communicative skills with your instrument, a big personality, individuality as a player, tremendous stamina. You must be single-minded and persistent.

Do you get nervous before a solo performance?

Very much so. When I was younger, I would do daring things like play a concert of nothing but Sarasate. That was too taxing for me and probably for the audience.

When I was 16 and ready to play a difficult Bruch concerto, the "Scottish Fantasy," I was terribly nervous. My mother said I was thinking too much of myself.

"How can I help thinking of myself?" I shouted. "I'll be on the center stage playing this thing! Everyone will be watching!"

My mother was right. I shouldn't think so much of myself.

Think about the composer, about his music, especially the audience. Become so involved with them that you become a mere conduit in a celebration of art. That mindset helps conquer stage fright.

What does it take to be a great music teacher?

It takes a calling, real passion for teaching and for young people. It takes a love for the craft of teaching.

It's a gift to inspire young people to be the best they can be and develop a thirst for knowledge and excellence.

Young people often believe anything is possible. They're true dreamers. I like channeling their energy into excellence in art.

They need to develop a good work ethic. Without hard work, all the emotion in the world won't produce excellence.

What's the best way to teach kids music?

Start them early and instill a passion for it. If they learn to love it, they'll want to practice.

Make practice interesting by introducing songs early on, even if it's "Pop Goes the Weasel." Keep a balance of technical work and some self-expression. If you just give them exercises, you'll kill the artistic impulse.

Put kids onstage. Create recitals, even little groups of chamber music, string ensembles, wind ensembles.

And take them to concerts--somebody playing the guitar, jazz, whatever. They need role models. That worked for me.

How do you prepare before a big performance?

I go through the basics, like an athlete doing calisthenics. I play the piece I will be playing in performance, plus a harder one. That makes playing the piece onstage later seem easier. I take some quiet time to look over the score and go over things like approaching the stage. I need that as, I guess, a form of meditation. That gets difficult since people want to come around and wish you well.

How do NSO members interact with one another?

The oddest thing we do is run out of the Kennedy Center at the end of every concert--we make jokes about it. Most rush home. I've adopted the European tradition of going somewhere after performing--to a restaurant, walking around Georgetown, sometimes to a midnight movie. I feel keyed up because of my emotional involvement, so I need hours to wind down.

I have friends on the NSO, but most are on the outside. Our orchestra members get along well. This becomes especially important when we're on tour, since we travel and dine together.

Are you dying to be the conductor of the NSO someday?

"Dying" is an awfully strong word. I always welcome conducting opportunities and have enjoyed conducting the NSO. I really dream of conducting the national orchestra of Cuba after the country becomes free. Cuba has always had a great musical tradition, and I'd love to rebuild that.

What have you learned about performing?

That it's the time to open up my soul and share it with everyone through my violin or baton.

That performing opens doors of opportunity--everything from playing at the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton to playing in the Capitol.

Music reaches across political and international boundaries. I've performed in Russia, England, throughout Latin America.

Performance demands excellence. Great performances reach excellence regardless of whether the player is famous.

What have you learned about life?

I've learned to keep open to the countless forms of human experiences that become available.

I've learned how precious liberty is. I lived in a communist country under the yoke of totalitarianism, and now I'm in the country with the greatest democracy. Feeling this difference has made me appreciate freedom so much more. We need to protect it and pay the price of perfecting it.

I've learned that being an American is a great privilege.

And I've learned the glories of laughter. Don't take things too seriously. Celebrate life.