Written by Stephen Brivati
Published: March 9, 2015 at 2:25 AM [UTC]
While watching both the superb documentary about Ivry Gitlis and his somewhat surreal masterclasses on YouTube, I was repeatedly struck by how little patience he has for practicing in general. This intrigues me because it raises interesting questions about the correlation between hours of practice and level of performance. Gitlis at his best is technically one of the most dazzling violinists of all time, surpassing Heifetz in more than a few ways. Of more recent players the violinist who to my mind really rivals that mind boggling facility is Kavakos although I am sure there are others.
So why is it that the number of hours one has to practice is now (fairly) standardized at around five other, than the fact this is the figure advocated by Dorothy Delay and set as limit by Perlman. After all, these are two people who clearly know what they are talking about. And yet Auer set the limit at three and Heifetz echoed this admonition. Could it have anything to do with the marvelous generalization of Gitlis in said documentary that "the fingers of yesterdays violinists followed their souls, whereas today's players follow their fingers?"
I suppose if you are a genius who has imbibed rather a lot of the black juice in the same cafe as Satre frequented you can say these things without missing a beat....
However, joking aside, I think the three-hour thing is worth more consideration. Perhaps the issue has a lot to do with concentration and listening. Let us consider the former first.
The majority of us actually don't concentrate that much. A non-violinist colleague of mine who has been meditating daily for about forty years states quite baldly that he can use genuine concentration for about ten minutes and that he can count the number of people he knows who can do that on one hand. Sadly, I am not among them. This is somewhat similar to the Buhdda remarking that a man who can genuinely concentrate for ten minutes can rule the world.
When most of us practice we aren't really concentrating for the whole time. Indeed, recognition of this issue has lead to ideas such as cutting the dreaded and meaningless unit of 'an hour's practice' down to fifty minutes followed by a ten minute break. This seems to be pandering to the idea that if we concentrate for the first and last ten minutes then that is more useful than struggling through th least ten minutes. But I still don't think this directly addresses the issue of how much we can actually concentrate at the 'Buddha minus one' level. It varies a lot between individuals. In my case, if I am really focused to the nth degree on what I am doing I get quite burned out after about thirty minutes. I don't think most people can really go much beyond that, truth be told.
But this sort of raises the question as to what we are actually concentrating on....
I think, going back to another Gitlis burble, 'our intellect is getting in the way of our intelligence.'
Since the Galamian revolution, when he famously stated something to the effect that 'the purpose of practice is to strengthen the correlation between our minds and fingers,' so many good practice techniques have become available, there should not be any excuse for rapid advancement. Yet somehow.....
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the act of genuinely listening to ourselves. I love the anecdote Simon Fischer frequently tells against himself about how DeLay told him that he only listened when tuning the violin. And this, a seasoned player whose Bruch performance got him a scholarship to Juilliard in the first place. My lower-level experience of this kind was being berated by the other violinist in our quartet at college who said, 'If only you learnt to listen to yourself, you would be a great player.' With hindsight, it was the best lesson I had at college, although I ignored it, of course. But Simon tells the anecdote to make the startling point that there is a euraka moment in violinists' lives when they do actually start really listening to themselves, and it can be when they are well into the music profession for some people. What were they doing before that? Would it have been more useful to clock up some real-life experiences rather than waste that time?
It may be that if we can genuinely pay attention to the sound coming out of the instrument, rather than the feelings of our fingers, the motion of our body or the sound we 'imagine' we are making, then practice time may indeed become maximally concentrated, while the notion of doing three hours maximum becomes common sense rather than 'goofing off because all the other players in the college canteen try and out-hour each other.' A competition that is as pointless as much of what they do.
* * *
Ivry Gitlis plays Henryk Wieniawski "Capriccio-Valse E major", op.7 (1968):
Documentary: Ivry Gitlis and The Great Tradition
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How much practice do I myself do? Very rarely do I reach 60 minutes at a time. I usually work almost exclusively on the tricky stuff and let everything else take care of itself (which makes for a fresh performance every time!), and I like to work on tone production in particular - every lesson my teacher drummed this into me. But, I do have 8 hours of orchestral rehearsal every week, and then I try to monitor and think about what I'm doing as much as possible.
Because he is himself in every way.
Still, there must be something to it. In that first video, Gitlis looks like he's having way too much fun. And what's that he's doing with his bow before he starts playing? Why, it's those finger pushups and teeter-totter exercises my teacher has me doing.
Thanks for the pointer, Buri - there's another great violinist for me to watch and marvel at.
Pianists quote Liszt in this regard:
"Think ten times, play once."
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