Nelly Berman wanted to instill the value of hard work and competition in the children she taught at the Nelly Berman School of Music in Haverford.
But it’s not to turn students against each other or anything vindictive — it’s to illuminate the self-worth children receive when they work hard at something and are rewarded for it.
“My mother always told students, ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t win; it’s the reality of life that some people win, some people lose,’ ” said Elena Berman-Gantard, who now serves as the school’s director. “‘But the fact that you are doing it and you’re here is that you’re all winners in the sense that you have tried, you have worked hard, you have pushed yourself outside your comfort zone and consider yourself to be winners.’”
Berman passed away in August 2015 from heart issues, but Berman-Gantard is carrying on her mother’s legacy and values.
In the beginning of the year, the school’s international music competition, “Young Classical Virtuosos of Tomorrow,” was held, a revival of a competition Berman held in 2010 and 2011. This iteration featured 250 applicants from 12 states, and countries such as Italy and Russia. Students between ages 7 and 25 competed in piano, strings, winds/brass, voice and chamber.
The competition was narrowed down from 250 to 90 and then ultimately 60 musicians divided into 30 winners in the gold category and 30 winners in the platinum category, Berman-Gantard explained, with two kids in each age category — there were four age groups — from each instrument category.
On June 18, “gold medalists” will perform at 10 a.m. and “platinum medalists” will perform at 3 p.m. and monetary prizes will be awarded. The third- and fourth-place winners played concerts earlier in the year so everyone had a chance to perform, she noted.
The competition was a dream of her mother’s, Berman-Gantard said, because of what it teaches the students.
“She dreamed of a classical music competition to give kids the opportunity to have a goal. When kids practice for a goal, it’s very different from just practicing. Competing is a different skill,” she said.
The international component to the competition was key for Berman-Gantard because her mother’s influence reached well outside of just the United States.
Berman-Gantard came to America with her mother and brother in 1976 after growing up in Odessa, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union.
Odessa was unique, she noted, because, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, it placed a particular emphasis on the arts and was famous for its Jewish community.
Berman, whose prowess for piano was passed on to her daughter, went to a musical school for gifted children in Odessa started by violinist Pyotr Stolyarsky.
“The school became very important in the Russian musical community because those kids would be chosen by various traits to enter,” Berman-Gantard said. “This is the culture that I and my mother experienced and many Russian musicians experienced. My mother was a student there, I was a student there and the philosophy of the school was to create professionals.”
Her mother became a music teacher and one year, a 9-year-old student named Inna Shafir entered a Ukrainian competition and was awarded first place, playing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1. However, when the administration found out the student was Jewish, they rescinded her prize, reasoning that Berman taught her a piece that was too difficult and it was against the rules, which wasn’t true. The anti-Semitism Berman endured was enough to make her decide to leave.
A former student lived in New Orleans and sponsored the family to come there, where Berman-Gantard later played for an orchestra.
When she and her mother moved to Philadelphia where Berman-Gantard was given the opportunity to study with pianist Susan Starr — Berman-Gantard’s brother stayed in New Orleans and her parents divorced when her father stayed in Russia — Berman’s passion for teaching remained.
“For my mother, there was no way she would change her profession. She was so passionate and she was a great teacher,” Berman-Gantard said. “She always wanted to teach kids for whom music touched their souls.”
In 1983, she opened the Nelly Berman School of Music as its only teacher and she first taught seven students. Today, according to the school’s website, it has more than 40 faculty members and 400 students from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. In 1995, she founded the NBS Classical Music Institute, a nonprofit that provides merit-based scholarships for gifted but financially needy students.
But the international mark Berman left on students, especially as some have gone on to play in orchestra across the world, remained a key piece in reviving the competition.
“I thought the best way to commemorate her and her passion and achievement was not through only the students from the school, but I felt that my mother’s educational musical reach was far beyond her music school,” she said.
She hopes that a younger generation can learn to value classical music and musicians with the same reverie that they do athletes.
“My mother would say, ‘How come there are Olympic games and … everybody celebrates athletes, why not celebrate classical musicians?’”
The students who will perform in Sunday’s concerts will make you forget how young they are because of their skills, Berman-Gantard said.
“They are brilliant, they are unbelievable,” she gushed. “You hear this music and you forget about the fact that they’re children … and you just listen to this glorious music. It takes you to a different world. Music can touch people to such an extent that other arts do not.”
She hopes the school and the competition will continue to honor the values her mother held close and carry them on to the next generations.
“My mother wanted kids to compete,” she said. “She felt it was a way to make them more aware of who they are as people.”
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