December 2007 interview with Peter Wilson

December 21, 2007 16:38

The older I get, the more I realize how many totally cool jobs simply don't appear on the roster during High School Career Day. For example, scuba diving instructor. Where was the table for that? Even within the violin profession, some people manage to find more unusual gigs.

Take, for example, Peter Wilson. When I found out that he has spent his career playing as a violinist in the U.S. Marine Band, I did a double take. They have violins in the Marine Band? Peter and I knew each other as students at Northwestern University, where he was concertmaster of the orchestra, as well as a member of the band. I knew he had a healthy dose of fun and adventure (like me, he also played in the Disney All-American College Orchestra at Epcot)... but joining the military?

The more he described it, the more I had to know about life as a violinist who plays regularly for U.S. presidents (and has done so for three administrations). He also has served for 12 years as “The Voice of Marine Barracks, Washington, DC," announcing more than 50 parades and ceremonies annually.


Wilson started playing the violin when he was two, and his first teacher was his mother, Suzuki teacher Mary Wilson. Currently, he lives in Fairfax, Va. with his wife, Katie, and sons, Bradley, Gregory and Thomas.

In addition to all the military work, he is the conductor of the Waynesboro (Va.) Symphony Orchestra and is an Ysaye specialist (he treated us to some fairly encyclopedic knowledge a few years ago in this thread). He also has teamed with double bassist Aaron Clay, and they've made some fun arrangements that take advantage of the wide range covered by the highest and lowest instruments in the string family. They play for educational concerts and other engagements, and their album, Bridging the Gap, was recently made available on iTunes.

Peter took some time from his very busy holiday performing schedule to answer some questions I thought would interest readers. Here's what he had to say:

Laurie: What was it that made you decide pursue a military musical career?

Peter: My violin teacher in high school, Donald Portnoy (then at West Virginia University) had been a violinist in the very same ensemble back in the fifties. However, while I knew he played at the White House early in his career, I was really unaware that he was in the Marine Band and I was even less aware that there were opportunities for string players in the military at all. It wasn't until I was well into my undergraduate work at Northwestern that I really learned about the Marine Band from a good friend and former classmate, Pat Sheridan. He left NU after our sophomore year to attend Arizona State and then promptly won a Tuba spot with the Marine Band.

During the spring of my senior year at NU, Pat called to let me know about a violin vacancy with the Marine Band's White House Orchestra and said, "Pete, this job has your name written all over it!" While I was committed that summer (1990) to serve as Concertmaster of the Walt Disney World Orchestra in Florida, it appeared the Marine Band audition would be late in the season and I was able to negotiate a brief getaway from Orlando.

Laurie: What exactly is your job, and what has it been, in your years in these groups?

Peter: Officially, our job or "mission" is to provide musical support to the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. While our primary commitment is to the White House, we do have a healthy schedule of musical activities throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan region. That includes performing free public concerts (orchestra and chamber music) at local venues as well as performing patriotic openers for non-profit conventions.

Personally, I have worn several hats in my capacity as a member of the Marine Band over the years. I have served as Principal Second Violin with the Marine Orchestra since 1991; I am the band leader, fiddle player, and vocalist, in our contemporary country music ensemble "Free Country;" I have been a writer and coordinator of our Music In The Schools program in which we send string quartets to local elementary schools to perform outreach concerts. Since 1995, I have served as the official ceremonial narrator ("The Voice") for Marine Barracks, Washington, DC which means I serve as emcee or public address announcer for dozens of parades and ceremonies each year. Just this month, I assumed the duties of Commander of the String Section for the Marine Band as my predecessor will be retiring soon.

Our typical White House commitments involve performing in a 30-piece orchestra for state dinners or other formal receptions, string quartets or quintets (sometimes with piano) for smaller receptions or luncheons, and even solo violin, which I have provided at the bottom of the Grand Staircase or up in the "Residence" as welcoming music for guests.

Finally, the Violin & Double Bass string duo I have been playing in for over 10 years with my colleague Aaron Clay has been adopted by the Marine Band as an official performing duo. As such, we have performed for the President & First Lady as post-luncheon entertainment for their guests as well as after-dinner entertainment for senior military and government officials around the DC area to include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. We also perform frequent outreach programs at area schools.

Laurie: Did you have to go through Basic Training to take a job in the Marine Band?

Peter: No. Marine Band members do not attend Marine Corps recruit training for several reasons. First and foremost, we already are highly trained to perform our required duties for the Marine Corps (performing as musicians with the Marine Band) and Marine Corps recruit training teaches an entirely different set of combat skills that are not required for our jobs. The majority of line Marines enlist out of high school and are trained over a 13 week period. Over 90% of the Marine Band is made up of personnel with undergraduate and in many cases advanced degrees--having developed their skills over many years. We can never be transferred to a fleet Marine unit and it would be impractical to send highly trained musicians through the Marine Corps recruit training process, risking serious injury. That said, we are all active duty Marines in the Marine Band and we occasionally select candidates through the audition process who have prior service in a Marine Corps field band or another branch of service in which they would have attended recruit training.

Laurie: How is your job different from an ordinary orchestra job?

Peter: While we do have a public concert series (one orchestra concert each month from January through August), our schedule is significantly different from that of a typical professional orchestra. Due to our commitments at the White House, we cannot schedule the same season of concerts as many orchestras. The job is quite different for our wind and percussion players as they are required to march parades and funerals in addition to their concert and White House performance commitments.

Laurie: In your view, what function does live music serve for the military?

Peter: It is a complicated question to answer simply because musical units across the board in each branch of service have different functions and missions. Historically, live musical units within the military provided motivation to the troops preparing for battle or they might provide direction to troops by way of musical commands and marching orders. If one were to focus on the bugle calls on a ship, for example, one could see the critical role music plays in the daily routine of getting up in the morning to eating to retiring for the night.

When the Marine Band sends its tour band out on the road each fall, it serves in many ways as a recruiting tool for the Marine Corps by representing the Public Affairs Division of the Marine Corps with each performance.

That said, when considering that the Marine Band is America's oldest professional musical organization (founded in 1798), it is my belief that we have a duty to preserve the musical traditions of the United States while promoting the old and new music of our nation. When combining this duty with our mission of providing music for the President at the White House, we of the Marine Band truly serve as a living history within the walls of the Executive Mansion. When guests enter that mansion, they view all the historic art, admire the beautiful architecture, and they can see and hear the wonderful sounds of musicians from the Marine Band, who have provided such music since the first performance for John Adams on New Year's Day 1801.

In summary, and speaking only for our organization, I believe the function of our live music is to provide a certain atmosphere, "musical soundtrack," or even entertainment to an event at the White House, provide a ceremonial element to a military event, or to entertain and educate our audiences at public concerts.

Laurie: Which Presidents/leaders have you played for, and what where there reactions to the music? (whatever significant ones come to mind, you've probably played for a ton!)

Peter: There have been quite a few over the years. As for sitting Presidents, I have played for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In addition, I have played for events at the White House that were attended by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. One very memorable moment was playing the event at the White House near the end of President Bush's term in January 1993, when he awarded President Reagan the Medal of Freedom. President Reagan came over to the orchestra to say "hello" and had his hand on my shoulder during most of his remarks. Of course, perhaps the most significant encounter with a world leader happened in June 1992, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin reached out to shake my hand during the first Russian State Dinner following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recently, when our string section steps out of the orchestra to provide strolling music in the Dining Room, I cover the tables of the President and First Lady. At nearly every dinner, the President leans in to me as I'm about to begin the last tune and says "Thanks a lot, big guy!" One night, he even whispered, "Don't break a sweat!"

Laurie: What has been your most interesting or surreal moment in this job?

Peter: Again, there have been many as you might imagine. Most recently, I led a string quartet at the State Department for the dinner in which the Kennedy Center Honorees were presented their awards. While providing receiving line and cocktail music, Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma approached and motioned to sit-in with the quartet. Our cellist and I surrendered our instruments, Perlman sat down and saw Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" on my stand and promptly said, "Well, this won't work because I don't got rhythm!" So, I quickly flipped to an arrangement of Kreisler's "Liebesfreud" and they were off. While this would have seemed surreal enough, about halfway through the very hammed-up performance as I stood by, thrilled, I realized that Joshua Bell was standing next to me, having made his way over to the obviously engaged area of the room. I stood frozen for a moment. A great memory. Now I call my violin the "Ex-Perlman."


Laurie: Have you ever traveled with the group to play in a war zone?

Peter: I have not; however, it's interesting that you should ask that because our country music band "Free Country" (which I lead and serve as fiddle player) was scheduled to travel to Iraq in November and perform for several Marine battalions over Thanksgiving. This would have been an unprecedented tour for Marine Band personnel and it may still happen at some point, but certain logistical issues prevented this particular tour. If it does happen, I will no doubt feel emotions ranging from excitement to fear, but it will certainly be an honor and a privilege to give something back to those Marines who are serving and sacrificing so much for us.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your CD. Is it mostly for fun? I do find it fun listening. Did you make the arrangements yourself?

Peter: The CD "Bridging the Gap" is the self-titled album of the Violin and Double Bass Duo I founded with my good friend Aaron Clay. It was the result of a quick evolution of the duo that went from playing exclusively classical arrangements I had written of mostly violin and cello music or violin and piano music to jazz arrangements generated by Aaron. We quickly realized the almost unlimited potential of such a duo with regard to various musical styles and began writing even more arrangements of film music, folk tunes, and even funk. Aaron and I even began writing original compositions for the duo, since music for this combination is quite scarce. So, this first CD takes the listener on a journey through these various styles -- in fact Bridging the Gap between these instruments AND musical genres. The arrangements are roughly split down the middle between us. Is it fun? You bet. However, while we love the jazz and film arrangements, we are committed to performing serious concert works for this duo as well. In fact, a Double Concerto was composed for us (completed earlier this year) and we premiered it with the Marine Orchestra back in March. In addition, Northwestern alum Donald Womack composed a three movement suite for our duo entitled "Big Stone Gap."

Laurie: Back to the Marine Band, are there currently any openings for violins?

Peter: Actually we just filled THREE violin positions during the past year! However, it is possible there will be another opening in approximately four years.

4 replies interview with Ruggiero Ricci

December 1, 2007 00:45

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- "All that great violinists do, he did," a New York critic wrote of a 1929 performance by Ruggiero Ricci.

High praise for an 11-year-old "wunderkind." Too bad it reads like a career epitaph. Indeed, a career as a prodigy is doomed to end: Grow up and it's done.

"When I was nine-, ten-years-old, they said I was a genius," said Ricci, now 89, sitting at the round kitchen table in his Palm Springs, Calif., home. His wife of 32 years, Julia, sits near. "When I was 12, 13, I was a has-been. In my teens, I was nothing. I wasn't a grown-up artist, and I wasn't a prodigy. Those were bad years. No matter what I did, they criticized me."

But a prodigy can grow into an artist, and that is what Ricci did.

Ricci, with Laurie Niles

At 89, Ricci sits atop a mountain of achievement. And though he has retired (at age 85) from performing, he still teaches privately, gives master classes and has recently published a new violin technique book called Ricci on Glissando.

Ricci began playing the violin at age six, with Louis Persinger. Later teachers included Michel Piastro, Paul Stassevitch and Georg Kulenkampf.

It was during his difficult teen-age years, neither still a prodigy nor yet an artist, when Ricci plowed into the Paganini Caprices, territory largely unexplored at the time.

"I decided that the only thing I could do was to play more than the other guy, so I did," Ricci said. "To get a lot of technique, it's rather unpleasant. You don't get technique practicing the pleasant. You get it from practicing the unpleasant. So I forced myself to play the most difficult music."

For the caprices, Ricci went to the source of this fiendishly difficult music, the urtext; Paganini's unedited version. And while the 21st-century violinist has the benefit of a wealth of editions, recordings, and experts in the field of Paganini, Ricci did not. He dissected these works himself, and fit them into his own hands.

In fact, Ricci was the first violinist to record all 24 Paganini Caprices, in 1947. He went on to record all the available violin works of the composer, including five more recordings of the 24 Caprices, one on Paganini's own Guarneri, which by the way, Ricci said "was the loudest fiddle I ever played on.

"It has a very strong sound," Ricci said. "It was very weird. They just take you to a little room, they take it out, and the guard is standing there, and you can't practice on it," he said. "It was a very difficult fiddle to play. It's quite a large fiddle, it has high ribs. It's a hard violin to play."

Ricci's recording of the Caprices on the violin known as the Cannon is not his favorite. "I don't recommend recording on a fiddle that you've never played on, I don't care what the fiddle is," Ricci said.

Ricci also performed the U.S. premieres of both Paganini's Fourth and Sixth Concerti, and his repertoire included about 50 of the major violin concertos. He premiered the violin concertos of modern composers Alberto Ginastera (1963) and Gottfried von Einem (1970), and throughout his long life he performed more than 5,000 concerts in 65 countries. His discography is staggering, with more than 500 recordings on more than a dozen record labels.

Does he have a favorite, of his own recordings?

"That's a little bit hard to say," Ricci said. "There's a difference in your style when you were 20 years old or when you were 40 years old. There should be a change. If you're the same, that's a bad sign. Your basic style doesn't change, because everyone has his own characteristics. You shouldn't push your style, shouldn't try to exhibit your style, because if you have one, it's going to come out anyway. You shouldn't feature it.

"For instance, Kreisler, when he was young, had some great recordings," Ricci said. "When he got older, there's much more sugar in his playing. He was a very sweet guy,and it comes out in his playing. He's still a great violinist, but I prefer the young Kreisler."

In fact, Ricci played for Kreisler in 1929. "He came to hear me with Jacques Thibaud. The two of them came together and I played them the A major Mozart Concerto. Kreisler liked me, he picked me up in his arms. I was 11, but they used to lie about my age, I was supposed to be nine.

"You can always add two years to any prodigy's age, from the time of Mozart. They always took two years off. Even Heifetz, only he never admitted it. Heifetz says he was born in 1901. But I talked to Mishakof, who was was the concertmaster with Toscanini, and he knew Heifetz. He said Heifetz was born in 1899, not '01, like he said."

Kreisler and Heifetz were the violinists Ricci most emulated during his formative years, he said.

"There are many great violinists. But I would say Kreisler was representative, and Heifetz was representative. They're both different, but they both have a stamp, or a style," Ricci said. "I don't care what anyone tells you, when you learn anything, you copy. If you didn't copy, then you wouldn't learn to speak Chinese. You hear Chinese, you speak Chinese. If a gypsy hears another gypsy, he's going to play in a gypsy manner. You can't help being influenced by whatever you hear. So sometimes we're a composite of different influences. I'm a composite of Kreisler influence, Heifetz influence. Those two. I think people recognize my style, that it's not a copy of Heifetz, or of Kreisler. But they did influence me."

Of the more modern violinists, Ricci says he likes Vadim Repin, Hilary Hahn, Gil Shaham and Leonidas Kavakos.

"In style, (Hilary Hahn) is the closest to Henryk Szering," Ricci said. "They both played according to the urtext. They both play very correctly. Not an over-stylistic, not a terribly strong stamp. Because a strong stamp is, in a way, sort of a distortion. If it weren't a distortion it wouldn't be a stamp.

"Kavakos, he's a very good violinist," Ricci said. "He has an architectural kind of style -- a strong structure, a pulse. The structure has its sharp, focal points. He's not slithering around; it's a definite viewpoint, but it's architectural in character."

His new book, "Ricci on Glissando," is an elegant explanation of advanced lefthand technique, with exercises and advice on how to cultivate a fixed-thumb position by practicing various glissando scales in single notes and double-stops. Ricci compares modern fingerings with suggestions about what fingering would look like using the glissando technique he describes. There are also some wonderful and random pearls of wisdom assembled in the back of the book. Editor Gregory H. Zayia, a PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago and amateur violinist, performed the difficult task of organizing Ruggiero's lifetime of violin wisdom into this book, Julia Ricci said.

"With the invention of the chinrest, we lost one of the best features of the old system, the glissando technique – which must be studied if one is to ever acquire true mastery of the fingerboard," Ricci says in the preface to the book. (A "glissando" is simply sliding the lefthand fingers, instead of putting down one finger after another.)

"To be able to play a scale with one finger, a glissando, that's difficult. So you should practice glissando scales -- you don't need to practice the other ones, that's easy," Ricci said to me. “You don't have to practice the easy ones, you practice the hard ones."

"You need to learn the art of shifting," Ricci said. "When the thumb and first finger go [down the fingerboard] together, that's a shift. When the first finger goes [down the fingerboard] and the thumb remains [against the ribs], that's not a shift. The shortcut is the glissando."

This assumes one has made friends – good friends -- with the traditional scales that require shifting. The book is not a wholesale rejection of modern technique, nor of modern inventions such as the chinrest and shoulder rest, Ricci said.

"These are conclusions I came to over a lifetime of study," Ricci said of the glissando and fixed-thumb techniques described in his book. "Ideally, you would first learn the old system, which was glissando and the fixed thumb. In reality, however, most will learn shifting, which is entrenched, and then glissando and the fixed thumb."

The invention of the chinrest was unfortunate for the way it did away with a certain approach to the violin, he said. Ricci's book describes the different fingerboard mentality of the pre-chinrest violinist.

"This was a terrible invention," said Ricci, pointing to the chinrest on my violin, which he held throughout our interview. "Before the chinrest, they held the violin with the left hand. If you didn't hold it, it would fall on the floor, right? But when the chinrest was invented, it became chin-held, and consequently you lost contact. When it became chin-held then you started playing the trombone [sliding the left hand up and down]."

"Before the chinrest, there was no such thing as position change. There was no first-, second-, third-position," Ricci said. "When Paganini said, 'There's only one scale, and one position,' he meant that the position was here [by the ribs], not here [by the scroll]. This is no-man's-land, out here [by the scroll]. They stayed here [by the ribs]. When you make a jump, I keep my thumb [by the ribs]; I've got one foot on the ground. I make a jump, and I'm making an arc [with the left hand]. If I do this, I don't lose track."

I asked Ricci, should people go throw their chinrests and shoulder rests in a lake?

"No," he said. "You can't make a general rule. Some people have a very short neck, some people have a very long neck. What are they going to do? But the lift should be on the top," with a higher chinrest rather than a higher shoulder rest. "If you put the lift on the bottom, you are raising the violin. The higher you raise the violin, the higher you have to raise your bow arm. And the higher you have to hold your bow arm, it becomes that much more difficult. Theoretically, it would be better to hold the violin here," Ricci said, holding the violin down on his chest. "But we have nothing to hold it way down here."

A member asked what two exercises Ricci would recommend for sustaining technique, one exercise for the right hand and one for the left. For the left hand:

For the right hand, he said it's very difficult to break it down to one exercise, as the right hand must produce a variety of strokes: legato, stopped strokes and spiccato. He did recommend playing ricochet: two up and two down, then three up and three down, four up and four down.

Both hands have very different tasks in violin playing, and it's quite a feat just to pull it off:

The lefthand techniques Ricci suggests are truly quite different from the way most modern violinists play, and putting these suggestions into practice takes some experimentation, said violinist David Yonan, who has known Ricci for 20 years, since playing for him as a 12-year-old at his first international master class in 1987 Berlin.

More recently, Yonan took his own students from Chicago to play for Ricci in Palm Springs. While preparing them for the trip, he tried showing them how to do the glissando technique. In all honesty, "it was hard for the kids to accept his approach," Yonan said.

Yonan, who has played all the Paganini Caprices since age 13 and has studied them with several different mentors, including Roland and Almita Vamos, feels that what Ricci says about the lefthand thumb is invaluable. "I really think Paganini played it that way," Yonan said.

The Ricci approach comes best into focus when it is applied to the most advanced violin repertoire and employed by the most advanced violinists. This means that for most violinists, it is an understanding that will require work, experience and practice – but in time, he said he hopes its advantages will be recognized for teaching beginners.

As Ricci told me, "To improve your technique, you have to try for the impossible, in order to make the possible possible."

Ricci plays the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto:

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