Indiana University has a diverse string faculty: soloists, chamber music players, pedagogues, former concertmasters. In some cases their areas overlap, and all to the good. Our overall purpose is the same. Each of us pursues that elusive Greek, Orpheus. Happily, each in his own way.
Confine four of us in one room to discuss a piece of music, and chances are there will be a variety of concepts. We may differ on phrasing, fingerings, dynamics, tempi—no matter. Multiple ideas expose the inquiring student to a wider range, present him with choices. One hopes he will be forming his own opinion for the ultimate goal, a few moments of beauty.
Of course, without good technical application, there can be no beauty, no matter how admirable the musical intent. One needs to know how to move fluently, be it tennis or fiddling. Thus, when a student progresses to the point where he can turn a meaningful, imaginative phrase, my day is made.
How does a teacher go about having a student produce moments of beauty?
There is no one method or approach. Each student is different, physically and mentally, and it is up to the teacher to evaluate capabilities and to work accordingly. I have no magic pills, no pat innovations. To my way of thinking, nothing can take the place of talent, constructive daily practice, and “big” ears.
Awareness of intonation through intervals, chords, and keys must start with the first breath of the very first tone. The listening process never ceases, ears strung up like antennae and dictating to the brain each finger placement. A student will know that from B to C is a half-step. But how close? It will differ with the size of each finger. Only the ear is guide. Only the ear can measure and correct and demand clean pitch as well as a quality of sound.
Entering my studio for the first time, a student is subject to a “physical.” As he plays for me, I probe, checking hand positions, finger action, bow strokes, string-crossings, shifting, vibrato. At the end of the session, I tell him, “My job as a teacher is to make my points clear. If there is something you fail to understand, say so, and I’ll keep on lighting candles. But once you understand the problem and its remedy, it becomes your business to solve it. Fair enough?
“That means developing good practicing habits, which I cannot overstress, and which we shall be talking about frequently. In most cases you will be seeing me once a week; therefore you must teach yourself the other six days. Waiting for me to correct something that could have been done on your own is being lazy and wastes time. When a passage doesn’t go, don’t squander time in useless repetition. Pause for analysis. Revert to fundamentals. Practicing with thought and correct muscular conditions will result in improvement.
“Something else. Don’t spend time on what you can already do. Concentrate on the troublesome places. At the end of the day, after the spade work, play through your assignments as a whole, noting what has stuck and what still comes unglued, and relegate the rough sections for additional work the next day.
“We deal,” I inform the student, “with two elements: muscular control and musical perception. For the moment, I’d like to speak a little more about the physical.
“Like an athlete, an instrumentalist needs his daily dozen: scales, arpeggios, double-stops, and, very important, trill studies. Without doubt, trills are vital in developing good independent finger action. I think it unforgivable for a player to pass off a vibrato shake for a legitimate finger trill.
“Over the years, I have compiled a series of short exercises and excerpts, shifting, bowings, finger-extensions, all geared to the various problems that may come up. These are added to the daily dozen and played in different keys and rhythms, and by rote. With no printed page to get in the way, you can concentrate on your bow and left hand.
“Etudes and caprices are an integral part of the violin literature, and we shall be doing a variety. Most of them are attractive and beneficial, each with a special aim. Let me caution you again that dwelling too long on a single deficiency can become tiresome and dull the mind. Space your practicing, five minutes on a run in thirds, six minutes on a scratchy spiccato, and so on, returning to your problem during the course of the day with a fresher mind.
“I am not obsessed with calisthenics. I believe in doing only what is necessary to train your muscles. Unless there is a massive problem, I like to progress as soon as possible to the music itself, working on several contrasting pieces at a time. Diversified repertoire is refreshing and challenging, with each sonata, concerto, partita presenting its own style and difficulty. Thus, in blending musical thought and the correct use of muscles, you will be putting together factors that make for performance.”
When the student leaves, I weigh his pluses and minuses. I ask myself, how will I open doors, expose him to song, show him the unlimited possibilities of musical expression? I must convey to him that notes in themselves are dormant ciphers on paper, each waiting to be roused, re-created, not by a robot who fires off a round of arpeggios, but by a thinking, fiesh-and-blood player. Our medium is unique—a vibrating world of organized sound that includes shading, texture, pulsation; evokes nobility; projects a mood, a picture; embodies the full range of human emotions.
Untutored talent is an uncut gem that needs shaping and polishing. Emotions have to be re-defined. Beethoven is not Tchaikovsky, and that slide will never do. Sometimes an unruly temperament gets in the way. But when it works and the light catches, how rewarding!
A young violinist came to me for lessons. He was a meticulous player, well schooled, coordinated. He possessed a good ear. Unfortunately, he was inhibited. His expressive range was 2 on the Richter scale. His vibrato was without intensity, his phrasing without direction. One note was monotonously like the next. Technically, he needed to work on his bow arm, to use the stick more generously, to vary its speed, to improve his martelé. All of this, I prided myself, could be done. The big job was to bring him out. Somewhere must lurk a spark.
One day I called him on a particular phrase. Where was the music going? What did it mean in terms of heartbeats? Style? Nuance? And the section that followed? Why was he skimming across the strings when it plainly called for a crescendo?
Later I listened to the Bach D minor Gigue. Did he think it was a dirge? Where was the movement, the gaiety? I illustrated what I meant. It was his turn to listen. Then I asked him to imitate. Because he had an ear, his attempt was promising. “Go home and think about it,” I said. “Come back with some of your own lilt. I want people dancing to that Gigue.” There was a glimmer in his eye. It seemed that I had finally gotten to him, made an impression, and I felt encouraged.
The next lesson was a musical disaster. He was back to neutral—and bloodless. It was disheartening. I began again. “For heaven’s sake, Mac, where’s the verve, the pulse, the spirit? Get that bow in the string and draw. Move it. Do something with it. Don’t simply stand there and noodle.”
I could detect a resentment, even a small anger rising in him. Was he losing his complacency? Was this progress at last? I was ruffling him. Maybe that was exactly what he needed. “You have potential,” I said more softly. “Here and there something nice peeps out. I want more conviction, more vigor, more involvement. Exert yourself! Project! If I didn’t think you were capable, I wouldn’t waste another word.”
I spent months cajoling, pleading, stirring him up, demanding that he play in phrases, emphasizing the notes he thought the composer intended to be emphasized. It was so obviously written in the music. I made weekly tapes of his progress. For the first time he began listening to himself objectively. The music, he now realized, had been mainly in his belly. He would have to present it, deliver it on a platter. It was a totally new concept for him. He realized that there was nothing personal in my criticism, and if sometimes my words were caustic, my only desire was for meaningful music. At his Senior Recital I had my reward. His playing had fine moments, even some beauty. In the Chausson Poème, a touch of artistry.
I tell my students that every worthy musician tries to find the composer’s intent. That intent may be interpreted in many ways. No two individuals see, hear, feel exactly alike. The same piece played by Heifetz and Kreisler may be as dissimilar as the men themselves. Like it or not, musical performance ends up being personal. Dynamics become personal. So can tempi. Yehudi Menuhin once said, “The whole beauty of the violin is you make your sound in your own image—your strengths, weaknesses, flexibilities, the way your blood flows, your temperament—that is you. I always wanted music to speak. I wanted the listener to say, ‘Ah, yes, that is true.’ I didn’t just want to play the violin. I wanted to say something.”
In speaking of intent, I like to single out Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 95. The first movement is marked Allegro con brio. How lively? How brio? Beethoven hands us a metronome marking, but the drama is left to the players. What do the initial eleven notes mean in terms of human expression? Can a two-measure statement result in clenched fists, a universal outcry of defiance?
I am asked, “How far up the creative ladder is the performing musician? Hasn’t it all been indicated by the composer?”
“Like a map,” I concur. “A composer notates a musical journey. A player studies it. Depending on his insight, he imbues the score with some of his own salt and pepper. The more profound his insight, the greater the artist.”
Shoptalk with a group of students: “A beautiful vibrato,” I quote Albert Spalding, “is one that sounds the note and lowers it rhythmically and quickly.” Except for reasons of color or emphasis, the oscillation should not be of the stop-and-go variety, “purling” one note and dropping the other, but a rhythmic, continuous pulsation so that the tone is even. Also, it must be quick enough so that the ear will not detect the altered pitch.
Either a wrist or an arm vibrato or a combination of both can produce engaging results if the first joint of each finger remains flexible. If that joint is locked, prohibiting a rocking motion, the vibrato will sound tight and brittle. Warning: avoid using solely a finger vibrato; it can promise only a bleak future.
I firmly believe that a captivating vibrato is part of one’s talent. The natural player gives it innate sheen and luster, varies its speed, sprinkles and stirs and whips up the right consistency to enhance the musical demands. Such a vibrato cannot be acquired any more than talent can be learned. I like to think of vibrato as musical seasoning, lifting and bringing out the full flavor of a phrase. The bow shades; the vibrato adds bouquet.
We finger for color and clarity, and in rapid passages to have the hand cover as many notes as possible without shifting. Our fingers are not webbed feet, and that brings up extensions. About 1751, Francesco Geminiani wrote a treatise on violin playing, the source of modern-day extensions. The ability to stretch left-hand fingers in either direction is a real advantage in negotiating awkward passages. Flexibility between fingers can eliminate unnecessary shifting, and make for smoother playing. “Let your fingers do the walking.”
William Primrose once made a fascinating remark: “Think of the fingerboard as one area, one position.”
In the early seventeenth century, the perfection of the violin played no small part in the unprecedented development of purely instrumental music, particularly the Italian solo violin sonata. When great luthiers placed superb instruments in the hands of talented composer-violinists, the Baroque period, Italian style, became one of the most fruitful and inventive in musical history. Men like Vivaldi, Veracini, Locatelli, Tartini, to name but a few, began presenting obstacle courses, raising the level of violin playing to a degree previously unknown. Modern-day violinists are still meeting their challenges, especially when it comes to the unaccompanied works of a German colleague and finger-twister, J.S. Bach.
Twentieth-century artist-teachers have updated the sound principles of the past with excellent results. Witness some of their welltaught students. I believe that there is more erudite teaching and guidance now than ever before. State universities have to a large extent become the modern temples where many top musicians gather. In some ways, American institutions have made this a golden age of music.
We are also in the space age, and velocity has become the order of the day. I remember when high speed was ten miles an hour in Mama’s electric car—and the same concerto was programmed year after year. Now we do five of them in a season, and if an Allegro movement has a metronome mark of 100 to the quarter note, we double it! Happily, not all of it is sensation. The musical level of our recitals is high and sophisticated. “Poster” music has become an endangered species. Through recordings, tapes, and television we have been exposed to the finest in music. Imagine “standing room only” for an all-Beethoven program!
I have a pet gripe, public school music. In many cases, it hasn’t kept pace with the times. The essentials of technique should be achieved in the grade and high schools, during the formative years when muscles are pliable. It is here that our fine instrumentalists and teachers should be. Often we have a jack-of-all-trades teaching all the strings. One word will cover this deplorable situation. Malpractice!
I find it criminal to see talented students entering college with impaired bow arms, faulty left-hand positions, rigid thumbs and wrists. Our studios must not turn into first-aid stations. Instead of handling emergency cases, we teachers should be administering Beethoven, Bartók, and Mozart.
The educational system needs airing. We need airing. A start has been made. Degrees must be geared to meet the situation. The Master of Strings, which trains the student properly on all stringed instruments, looks promising. Concerning our part in the venture, the better we prepare a B.M.E. student as a player, musician, and future teacher, the better staffed our public schools will be.
“Must it be? It must be!”
Having been a member of a professional string quartet for nearly two decades, I would be remiss were I to omit some discussion of chamber music. No serious student dare do without it. It opens eyes, ear, mind. It develops the listening process, instrumental control, and musicianship more than any experience I know. It also happens to comprise some of the most rewarding literature in the world. What a unique blend of musical thought and expression! It’s no accident that Beethoven created seventeen masterpieces for the string quartet.
I am invariably asked about the role of the second violinist. Add the viola and make it “the inner voices.” They’re the manipulators. They roll out the carpet for the main voice, become the accompanying playmates, the vibrato matchers, the intonation adjusters. After noodling for half a page, the spotlight suddenly falls on one of them to produce the great sum of one solo phrase. Then, presto, back to the blender.
I can now report that the day of the inner voices has dawned. Beethoven began feeding them some fine morsels in his quartets. Brahms gave the viola a lush piece of fruit in his B-flat opus. Prokofiev presented the second violinist with a bonanza in his Second Quartet. With contemporary composers on the scene, the inner voices are at last emancipated.
“But,” one may ask, “what of the um-pahs? Someone has to play them.” True, but the era of the old-world court is over. Today, professional string players are better equipped, more knowledgeable. In most cases, the two violinists in a quartet are equally skilled. Even distribution among the instruments is here.
Looking back, I smile. There are a few nagging thoughts. Can four diverse players make love at the same time to the same mistress, music? From a personal angle, just how realistic is the quartet medium? Can four musicians with dissimilar styles, techniques, temperaments, and philosophies achieve true unity? Symphonic players are whipped into line by the conductor. Members of a string quartet are in a way free souls, each with his own bias and the option to state it. I think of a quartet not as a choir of angels but merely as four humans held together by the greatness of the music.
In summing up, let me say that I strive for a relationship between a student and myself in which we learn from each other; in which we build regard and mutual respect, no matter what our shortcomings. It is always a joy for me to cultivate a student’s love for music, and for him to understand in depth the meaning of music through the ages. And when he graduates, he may leave, I hope, with an inquiring mind, always seeking a few moments of beauty.