A good teacher doesn’t simply lecture, mark up test papers, and repeat the process endlessly for semesters; a good teacher enlightens and challenges students. To so many students, Daniel Myssyk, Assistant Professor and Director of Orchestral Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has done just that in their lives. In the words of Justin Williams, a 2011 VCU music education graduate, Myssyk is a “master teacher.” Williams stated, “[He] focuses on the student before the music…[he] is just as focused on creating skilled people as he is focused on creating skilled musicians.” Senior flutist Marla Smith stated similarly that her experiences with Myssyk “opened up a lot of things for me.”
When I had the chance to sit down with Daniel Myssyk recently, I believe he opened up some things for me. There are two things I don’t know a lot about – fish and opera. At the end of my chat with him, I had recommendations on three types of fish to cook. My “Opera 101” lesson will be coming later this month when I go to see VCU’s The Magic Flute.
When Myssyk was 14, he discovered guitar and began taking private lessons. His first mentor introduced him to Renaissance and contemporary music with jazz scattered in between. Myssyk says that it “produced the spark” and these experiences began his immersion into music.
Guitar eventually led him to the double bass and ultimately into the orchestral world. He began studying at Montreal Conservatory and freelancing in Quebec, playing bass with a variety of orchestras. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to explore music in depth and earned a master’s degree in music theory to prepare him for the world of conducting.
Halfway into our talk, Myssyk asked “What is music?” That was one of the same questions that helped to lead him on his journey of becoming more than acquainted with theory. He insisted on understanding theory “as an instrumentalist and then as someone who would have a thorough knowledge of what makes music what it is.” That curiosity led Myssyk to Rice University where he studied for another master’s degree, this time in conducting, under distinguished conductor and professor, Larry Rachleff.
But what is it about conducting that is so intriguing? Myssyk is intrigued by “…rhythm, pitch accuracy…it takes time [to] cultivate the vision of the piece.” It’s a learning experience for all involved, but Myssyk’s goal is to inspire students and to “lead them as positively as one can…[to] try to make them play at the level they expect they cannot.” And finally, he hopes all of his students learn to “play with a great sense of style and unity.”
Students see this clearly. Seniors Marla Smith and Marcus Redden know this firsthand. At VCU, they’ve taken a conducting course with Myssyk and played in the VCU Symphony. “He has a lot of passion for the music and it really comes out in the conducting,” Smith says. “We can sense [his excitement] as an orchestra.” Redden, who plays horn, also recognizes how Myssyk pushes his students by stating, “[H]e pushes the orchestra to achieve its very best…while maintaining a balance of fun, light-hearted humor and strict reinforcement.”
Katie Wooldridge, a 2011 VCU Music graduate who is now attending graduate school for violin performance at the State University of New York – Purchase, also took Myssyk for conducting and symphony. “I learned so much about how to be a musician and how to prepare for auditions,” she says. Real-world preparation is key for Myssyk. Since students who take conducting aren’t all aiming to be symphonic directors, Myssyk must adapt lesson plans for his diverse students who range from middle- and high-school music educators to singers and instrumentalists who may have to work with a variety of genres. At the end of a semester, students are armed with the ability to work through scenarios where they may be required to be flexible in their conducting.
Myssyk, who has been at VCU for six years now, knows that conducting is far more than just cues and gestures. Taking steps from the “big picture” to “fine details” of a score is essential to the process of conducting. It “enables the student to bring everything they learn outside (oral skills, private lessons, music history) and put it together…understanding where the piece sits in the history of classical music.”
In addition to his musical work at VCU, Myssyk is known around Virginia and Canada. He’s worked with such Virginia ensembles as the All-Virginia State Orchestra, the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Richmond Philharmonic. He also travels to Canada about three times a semester to work with the acclaimed chamber ensemble he founded, Appassionata, where he also serves as the Artistic Director. The group recently has received positive reviews for its recent album, Czech Serenades.
It’s obvious that such a lifestyle can run anyone ragged, but Myssyk has a variety of interests, including cooking. “My wife doesn’t complain at all,” he says. His favorite things to cook are fish with distinct flavors such as yellowtail snapper, Spanish mackerel, and arctic char, but grilling is also a fun pastime. (Did someone say “summer barbeque”?)
His wife, Violaine Michel, is a professional violinist and teacher. Myssyk has a seventeen year-old stepdaughter who also plays violin and is hoping to double-major in music. And he also has a six year-old daughter who is fluent in both French and English. Bien!