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Simple Simon Met a Perlman...

June 18, 2013 at 10:25 PM

Simple Simon Met a Perlman.....
I live on a small island both literally and metaphorically, with a smelly cat and a good supply of prunes. Good job California!
People come to me for lessons every now and then. I am always somewhat puzzled by this and often worried that I will have nothing to say given that those people are often pros or are studying with world class teachers and/ or soloists. Funnily enough this has not been a problem. I think there is something really important going on here....
First of all, we all have different roles to play in the music world. I was born to be a teacher. If that is the case then you find this out at a very young age when other young people start coming to you for ideas or help. However, this purpose cannot be realized unless one takes the necessary steps to train as hard as possible from a young age to be a musician. It is a truism that any talent can only flourish if the necessary hard work takes place. But how exactly does a teacher teach?
I think, like many other fields of education, violin teachers start out teaching like their most long term, most beloved teacher taught them. Usually there is only one of these. Of course, as time goes by the teacher adds their own ideas and experiences, trains more and so on but I think the basic content and approach is fairly static. This can sometimes be called tradition....
Over the years I have been to many teachers. Probably slightly more than average. These have varied from the run of the mill locals of my youth up to music university professors, world class soloists, orchestral leaders and so on. They have all had a lot to offer, all been fascinating and so on, but I have always felt like I was like the blind man being offered a different facet of the same elephant without ever really identifying the whole. Everything is very helpful and good but somehow I feel that myself and many others enter the profession without ever really finding there absolute fulfillment of potential.
Later in my life I did find such a teacher from whom I learnt how to teach. I have never met him in person but I had to laugh when he said to me that after reading what I wrote he assumed I was one of his ex students. I am indeed.
The person I refer to is Simon Fischer. If you wanted to Desert Island Disc me and let me have only one book it would be his 'The Violin Lesson'. I choose his approach above the detailed philosophy and eloquence of Flesch, the ground breaking systematicity of Galamian and anyone else for that matter. I do this because I believe that without inventing anything too dramatically new his work has reprogrammed the violin world in an exciting way. He has done this by, in some senses, going in the opposite direction to many master pedagogues and books which owe their value to the complexity and eloquence of their ideas which are sometimes as elusive as they are profound.
Simon, on the other hand, takes as his basis the idea that it really isn't rocket science. There is a very limited number of aspects to violin playing and by paying attention to any one of these in the simplest possible way one can improve that aspect and therefore one's playing as a whole. This is leading, I hope, to a shift away from questions about age, doubts about ability and so on, to the idea that anyone, anywhere who is willing to apply these simple heuristics can improve their playing. This is as true for professionals as it it for 90 year olds who are realizing their dream of beginning violin study.
To illustrate what I mean here is what happened in a recent lesson I gave (she gave me?) to a very talented teenager already playing major works I don' t play anymore if indeed I ever did. As expected the worry about anything to say at all crossed my mind, but as I listened I focused on the point in 'The Violin Lesson' about what is violin playing?
It's intonation, sound and rhythm. Heuristic number two is 'prioritize'. So what could have been better?
Answer: the sound is not completely there.
Solution: put the piece to one side and go back to the simple point that sound is the relationship between weight, speed and soundpoint. Immediately the problem is obvious and so is the solution. We begin practicing Simon's tone production exercises on open strings paying maximum attention to string vibration and proportions of the three factors. Returning to the piece was a different violinist, the sound being so good it made my hair stand on end. But one must watch like a hawk and try to understand every movement or gesture that is not as easy as it should be. Some perceived awkwardness at the heel and I find a problem that affects even some violinists who are already playing professionally: there is too much thumb on the stick leading to tension in the right hand. Discussion of the role of the thumb and counter pressure, simple awareness exercises without worrying about pieces and the player now had enough material to bring her playing up to a whole new level. Starting the Brahms concerto would not have got us there. Using simple heuristics, observation and simple solutions allowed this player to enter a new dimension of playing.
Thanks Simon.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 4:30 AM
Buri, thank you for another very thoughtful and insightful blog! It's great to see you again here. My copy of the book is on its way now, thanks to your blog.

My favorite cat (we've got three) is also a smelly one, but the best prunes I recent had were from Turkey. Have you tried to stew the prunes a bit? Very nice that way.


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 4:45 AM
Yixi, stewing prunes has long been a British custom. We stew all our food in order to reduce it to a tasteless pap. Wevave been particularly progressive in separating vegetables frm their nutrients using this technique. Nonetheless I still refer soft, chewy dried prunes as a rule.
Enjoy the book's quirky brilliance.
By the way, the stupid iPad spel checker changes your name to Yiddish. Is this important?
From Nathan Cole
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 4:59 AM
Thank you Buri, I've always enjoyed your posts and I really need to read Violin Lesson after getting so much out of his Basics. How great to have worked with him!
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 5:09 AM
Haha! Yiddish! Very important indeed!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 12:55 PM
Excellent post! Thanks Buri. I was thinking as I read of asking when you learned to spell, but then I saw the reference to the spellcheck on your iPad.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 1:37 PM
Long time no read. Where have you been???

I haven't picked up "The Lesson" yet. I have been picking through "Scales" this spring, with a half mind to teach it.

My mom has a marvelous stewed dried fruit recipe. The prunes get some company! If you want, I'll send it along...

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on June 21, 2013 at 10:01 AM
Yes, Fischer's idea that it's a rational process of focusing on describable basics rather than something mystical and unapproachable has been very valuable to me as a self-taught late-starter. Can't wait to get my hands on The Lesson.

But when it comes to epiphanies, prunes and rhubarb - that's all I'm saying...

From Dave McCaber
Posted on June 23, 2013 at 5:36 AM
Dear Mr. Bruri,
Glad to read you are feeling better. Have you tried the dried prunes from Trader Joe's? You referenced California, so I am assuming you are familiar with TJ's. On which small island is your abode? Which scale book would you recommend for an advanced beginner? I never really liked Hrimaly; my teachers inevitably make me do scales, and I refuse...:-)

Prunishly yours,

P.S. I prefer the apricots from TJ's; they are inexpensive and very very good; don't seem dry at all!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 23, 2013 at 6:20 AM
Dear Dave,
Japan is a small island about the size of California. I am not familiar with the various brands of prunes available, I just go for anything that has no chemicals.
The artificial additive free scale manual is that of the aforementioned Simon Fischer. It is suitable for any level, has every scale you will ever need, detailed explanations of practice techniques and so on. Simon said many of the people who tried it said it was much a self teaching manual as a scale book. That has a lot of truth to it.
From Andrew Victor
Posted on June 25, 2013 at 2:52 AM
I've had my copy of Simon Fischer's new book, "The Violin Lesson," for about a month now. It is really a fantastic book. My initial impression (and one that will never leave me) is that it is truly a book for the ages, one I think is likely to remain preeminent for violinists for centuries. Within the first few days I found it most helpful in two areas I wanted to brush up on (more helpful than my "Galamian" had been).


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