“The way you grab it by the neck the first time determines your career,” says cellist Tomáš Jamník who has obviously grabbed the neck of his instrument securely and flawlessly. After all, his music career that kicked off by succeeding in the Prague Spring international competition is a testament to that. Currently, Tomáš performs with the greatest global orchestras on a regular basis, is the artistic director of the Chamber Music Academy and the artistic director of the Ševčík Academy. In 2016, he launched Vážný zájem, a project in support of domestic classical music concerts that has been successful in attracting new audiences to classical music. He does a lot, but stays focused on what it is that defines him, which is cello playing.
Were you drawn to classical music and the cello while a child?
My brother played the cello with Professor Mirko Škampa and I started learning as a child, since mum would take us both there. It happened naturally; mum simply put the instrument that I liked into my hands. Unlike my brother, I actually stayed with it. Our sister had a very good first start on the piano, but I am the only of us three siblings to stay with the musician job.
You live in Berlin half the time and play with the world’s best orchestras – I guess not everyone is lucky enough to have such a career. What is needed for a musician to “kickstart” their career as well as you did?
Good teacher’s guidance is the foundation of success. I was immensely lucky with all my teachers. I think it’s even more important early on than it is at a later stage, because the teacher will give you the basics of technique that stay with you all your life. The way you grab it by the neck the first time determines your career. Professor Škampa with whom I started my studies was not only an excellent technique teacher – he is a tremendous musician too. In a class I shared with his son Martin, he was able to evoke a beautifully friendly yet competitive environment that motivated us to do better. He would often send students to competitions, and I really loved preparing, concentrating, improving, and finally getting up there in front of people and performing. While still a student, I went to dozens of competitions and slowly built the confidence that I can make it on a local, then national and then international level. Professor Škampa wrote a letter of recommendation to Professor Josef Chuchro to admit me to HAMU as his final student, and Mr Chuchro offered me a completely different insight, and his approach was also very warm, treating me almost as a family member.
You are highly conversant with the music environment here and in Germany, as a performer and as a student. Can you compare them?
In terms of the players’ talent, this is not just comparable; I believe that Czech musicians are hugely talented. I think there is some truth in the old proverb that says that every Czech is a musician. The nation has always been highly musical. So, the initial position the same I believe, but what I saw already when I came to Germany as a student aged fifteen for the first time (I have been living there for 15 years now), the talent is just the beginning there. Then comes the period of hard work, during which you need systematic support from individuals or ensembles to be able to assert yourself on the international scene. This means various grant and talent programmes that select the best students and offer networking and background to help them develop. Of course, it is necessary and actually essential to focus on auditioning for major orchestras and opera houses, for example – this is one cornerstone, and it is equally important for students to try soloist and chamber careers once they graduate from the university. Students need support and systematic help. And this is what I try to do through several projects.
Can you introduce them?
The first project I launched is the Chamber Music Academy. It follows a model that I experienced first-hand in Germany while still a HAMU student. It’s a networking platform that connects you to excellent teachers as well as students selected through an audition who, for the next three years, can connect with colleagues on an equal level. The mission of the Chamber Music Academy is to foster an environment that involves teaching, concerts and additional activities. It’s like an activation package for students and it’s much in demand. The best students attend the auditions, and we always choose one who gets the slot for three years and can gain experience internationally.
That’s not your only project…
The next is Vážný zájem, a series of home classical music concerts, seeking to revive home and salon concerts. Classical music is strongly supported from public sources in Europe, but it is not quite enough. For everything to work properly, support from private entities is necessary too – say, in a form of sponsoring or patronage – and home concerts are the perfect environment for this. It is an attractive format that will draw even people who may not be classical enthusiasts. These are small, intimate concerts with a premium, and we make sure that HAMU students also get to play the concerts. This way, they can practice their repertoire and meet new fans, who can buy their CDs on the occasion or come to their graduation concert. It works. There have been hundreds of concerts and new promoters keep appearing in Prague and country-wide. With this project, we have motivated enthusiasts who, by now, have now been long-time home concert promoters and they scout and support students on their own.
What is your third “baby”?
It was “born” during my time in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic, when I realised that, while I am a strings player, I have a serious lack of knowledge regarding Otakar Ševčík, the founder of the modern instrument playing methodology. His name is known the world over. He is not unknown in our country, but it is puzzling how little known he is – such as his beginnings in Salzburg and his 17-year stint in Ukraine. This is true even though he was a huge influence on a par with the greats such as Antonín Dvořák. Otakar Ševčík was not a globally renowned composer, but what he left behind is globally recognised methodological and theoretical opuses. His success is beyond any doubt, and he was one of the most sought-after teachers globally in his time. He is a tremendous phenomenon that escapes attention. So, the third baby is the Ševčík Institute whose task is to map Otakar Ševčík’s activities while – to yield a tangible benefit – offering students from Czechia and abroad a summer academy with guest teachers and varied and attractive courses intended primarily for stringed instruments, with vocal courses being the new addition.
You also support students through an agency…
This is also based on my experience, following my success at the Prague Spring competition as a second-year HAMU student. The very next day, an agent approached me and offered me services; the company has scaled down operations since. I wasn’t realising at that point what a blessing it is, how beautiful the offer is and how vitally important it is to have a professional agent. Over time, I noticed that there were not many agencies operating on such a friendly basis and supporting small ensembles as my agency. So, you could say that the fourth “baby” is the idea for an agency. I have to say, though, that I’m just a part of the effort; the main person behind this is the amazing Martina Výrková who does the majority of the work. Agentura Makropulos represents Czech artists and includes a talent programme for students. Once every year, we take young individuals or a young ensemble on board, offering them representation and support at the start of their career.
You taught at HAMU while a doctoral student, and have experience with HAMU students in the Chamber Music Academy. What is your impression of the current students?
The people I know are amazing students, often with reach outside the world of music. I feel young people today are insightful, care about politics and care about other art genres, and I think this is the way to go – avoid focusing exclusively on a single field. They can also speak foreign languages, often more than just one. There was one project of the Chamber Music Academy where we switched fluidly between English and German. Their love of chamber music is what pleases me the most, though. Our students include top soloists who like to play in chamber ensembles. I find it great when a friendly atmosphere is created during work. I welcome students encouraging each other and seeing each other’s concerts. I believe that each university in general should operate on almost a family basis. The Juilliard School in the US can be an example – they keep supporting you even after you graduate and you are an indelible part of it forever.
If you could give any advice to students from your experience, what would it be?
You can always work on self-management; you must work on whatever you are just doing without a compromise and avoid splitting attention too much. I started my first project at age 30; I had studied until then. I would still attend student festivals at 28; I needed to absorb as much inspiration as I could. I felt like an overage student sometimes… I recommend to first find the quality in what it is you do, and then find something else to do in addition. It can be a small festival you organise in your favourite town; it can be a project with reach into different social strata; it can be anything really. The crucial rule is, however, that it must be something that resonates with what you feel and what you do. Only then it can work and complement your primary interest. And this may be the most difficult bit – stay focused on what defines you. This means that since I am a cellist, I am defined by playing the cello. It is easy to lose the thread; you have to balance the time spent playing and pursuing other projects. You should not stagnate in whatever defines you.
What awaits you in the nearest future; what are you looking forward to?
I have been working with the Juilliard School since last November; I currently teach students online and it has been very inspiring from all viewpoints. My family will move to the US for six months, and it was my dream also in connection with my doctoral studies at HAMU. I applied for the Fulbright scholarship with a project related to Otakar Ševčík who lived in America. It has all worked out. My wife and I are planning our children’s school attendance in the States and I will search for the traces a Czech genius left in the world. I will also teach Juilliard School students and guest at other universities. This is something I am really looking forward to – obtaining essential teaching experience. My professional goal is certainly to teach and to play. This is the perfect symbiosis because you learn a lot by teaching and it keeps you fresh. As for the projects we spoke about, I am really lucky that the people involved are reliable professionals. I know that if I leave for six months now, the projects will be well taken care of. I am grateful for having met such wonderful people.
The interview can also be found at www.universitas.cz/en
photo: Libor Sváček