I like to start everyone on something by rote, to get their ears working and set-up solid, then introduce concepts of reading. Usually, that means starting with Suzuki “songs,” then introducing either Muller Rusch or Doflein method books.
Well, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was nothing short of a bitter pill for Rich. He just couldn’t stand it!
“My goal,” he said after dutifully playing through all those Twinkle variations, “is to play music that is emotionally satisfying.” He just wanted to let me know; he wasn’t really complaining, nor did he expect he’d be able to do anything about this goal right now. He seemed steeled for the goal of playing a lot of awful stuff first; he looked like someone who had just been forced to write “this is fun” 500 times on a chalkboard. It was clearly time for a change of approach.
“What music do you like?” I asked him. I requested a list, which he brought the following week. It included quite a bit of popular music, mostly things I knew. Heck, I could just write out on some notepaper for him. Why not learn the melody from some popular piece by rote next instead of, say, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”?
“How about ‘Imagine’?” I asked, after looking over his list. Who doesn’t like John Lennon?
So he has learned “Imagine,” an incredible feat for a complete beginner. I didn’t think it would do to completely water it down, so I gave him the real thing, with accidentals, slurs and all Lennon’s funny little vocal inflections. Anyone who has taught a beginner or who remembers being one knows that this is like re-inventing the wheel. But he was ready to conquer those barriers for “Imagine.” Next we’ll a spiritual “Amen” song, and then maybe a little Elton John.
I’m still making him play scales and a traditional method book, so that he will get a foundation in the basics along the way. But I don’t mind peppering his journey with things that are “emotionally satisfying.”
It’s emotionally satisfying for me to see someone in the middle of his life, in the middle of so much chaos and conflict in the world, taking on this effort to make music, when everything about it can be so difficult and discouraging. Imagine that.
Apparently the Big Orchestra in Town got more than 500 resumes for their one section violin position, and after carefully reviewing mine decided not to "invite" me to the audition. Waah! They even returned my $100 deposit fee!
This is a little disappointing, after entertaining fantasies of playing for the LA Phil. Add to that the fact that my playing is awesome right now; practicing three hours a day really does do wonders. Not to mention the trip to Denver to take a lesson. On the airplane, I actually turned off the Sting for once and listened to Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite" on my headphones the whole way there. Now that's commitment.
I kind of wonder what was deficient with my resume - I do have those nice degrees from Northwestern and Indiana University. And I've been playing professionally non-stop since graduating. Of course, none of my playing has been with, say, the Cleveland Orchestra, but nonetheless, I am a seasoned, veteran section-violinist.
They did provide more than the normal number of opportunities for people to bail out of this audition. (Did I mention they got 500 applications?) First they wanted a resume, then they provided an application to fill out. When they sent the scary Berg and Adams excerpts they noted, "If you wish to withdraw your application, please let us know, ASAP." Then a month ago came a letter saying they would be issuing "invitations" Feb. 18. (And, "If you wish to withdraw your application, please let us know, ASAP.") Of course, one has to commit to this kind of audition well in advance of a month, so I went ahead and practiced my tail off. Dove headlong into Berg!
They have, however, thrown me a little doggy-bone: I can sign up to possibly audition on a "stand-by" basis. Basically I would need to be "standing by" between the dates of March 20 and March 24 and could be called up to play at any point during that time. Like a lesson with Dorothy Delay! Even so, the letter says, "each individual audition could be as short as just one orchestra excerpt and the Auditions Committee may dismiss you at any time during your audition."
Am I deterred?
Well, of course not! I will stand by for 120 hours so they can hear my eight bars of Mozart 39. And it's going to be damn good!
I’ve been grinding away at the music for this Audition for The Big Orchestra. Though the audition committee will likely listen to seven, maybe 10 minutes of music, the list of required repertoire takes about two and a half hours just to play through, not even working on anything.
To light a fire under my, ah, self, I decided it would be nice to take a lesson about month in advance of the Audition. But not with anyone -- that could be a little dangerous. As one who is more than 10 years out of graduate school and not taking lessons on a regular basis, I wanted to make sure I went to someone who wasn’t going to pull anything weird on me like, “You know, if you just changed your bow hand, threw away your shoulder rest and altered your entire set-up…”
I decided to go to one of my favorite teachers for excerpts and basically anything: Harold Wippler. He lives in Denver, my favorite city and hometown, so earlier this week I left sunny Southern California for the icy, snow-covered Rocky Mountain state.
I’ve not once seen the upstairs of Harold’s home in the nearly 20 years since I took my first lesson with him as a high school student, but I know every object in the basement studio as if it were something from my childhood. As I did when I was 17, I parked on the street then walked down the long, icy driveway to the back gate. I went in and down the steep back stairs to the basement door, which he was just opening for me.
“Come on in,” he said, smiling. He looked just the same, a tall and thin man with a friendly face. He showed me to the studio, then went upstairs while I unpacked.
Inside I put my fiddle on the familiar old red davenport with green fringe and looked around. I had a little time to warm up, so I thought I’d take a close look at some of the pictures on the wall. Like the picture of Harold’s most famous student, which was signed, “With gratitude to the man who taught me all I know about violin technique, Fondly, Eugene Fodor.” And from Desiree Ruhstrat, a picture she signed as a girl, “To Mr. Wippler, the greatest teacher in the world.”
In the center of the room was the wooden music stand, positioned so that one could avoid bowing into the silver pipes running along the ceiling. And there was the little fireplace, on the mantle a ship and pictures of Schubert and Wagner. On the walls were pictures of nearly every violinist I could think of: Paganini, Kreisler, Milstein, Heifetz, you name it. And even several funny photographs of Brahms, one with a giggling teenage girl. There was a large picture, set on a diagonal, of Mr. Wippler talking to a conductor; he had been concertmaster of the Denver Symphony for many years. Over his violin hung his 1947 diploma from Curtis Institute, where he studied with Efrem Zimbalist.
What a lot of rich history in this basement.
Down came Mr. Wippler, and we started in with the work, so much of it!
Mr. Wippler reminds me of my favorite editor, from back in the days when I was a newspaper reporter: Pete Larson (of the Omaha World-Herald.) Pete could take a story that I wrote and gently, magically transform it. He’d move a paragraph here, change some wording there, request a new sentence to bridge this to that, and in the end I’d look at it and think, “What a genius writer I am!” He did it in such a way that it seemed like he’d barely done a thing with it. It was still my story, only even more the way I wanted it to be. Of course, I did appreciate that he had turned my so-so story into something of a gem.
So Mr. Wippler listened to my Mozart, and he pointed to some simple but transformative things I could do to make it better. He listened to Tchaikovsky.
“You know,” he said, sitting back on the yellow-cushioned stool, “You need to sound more like a big, fat Russian guy. You know, someone who eats borscht, instead of, of…”
“Of a little California woman who goes to yoga class?” I asked.
“Yes,” he smiled. So I put some borscht into the Tchaik. And the excerpts: he changed a fingering here, a bowing there, an articulation, asked for more vibrato…and suddenly everything made a whole lot more sense. I knew where everything needed to go and had a good idea of how to get there. Even with the weird 20th century works, ones he’d never played, he displayed his amazing ability to read the complex pitches and rhythms on sight and get right to the core of the music there.
After two and a half hours we were finished. He was so generous with his time. Of course my work has just begun. But thank you, Mr. Wippler.
Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
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