When one of the foremost experts on violin technique writes a book of double-stop exercises, one must take note!
Roland's exercises are called Exercises for the Violin in Various Combinations of Double-Stops, published last summer by Carl Fischer, with an introduction by Rachel Barton Pine.
I recently spoke to Roland Vamos about both these technical exercises and about his full and fascinating journey as a musician.
In her introduction to Roland's book, Rachel writes that she began studying with the Vamoses at age 10 and spent the next eight years in their studio. Roland primarily led her technical development, while Almita took charge of her musical development and repertoire. "In one of my first lessons with Dr. Vamos, he handed me a one-page photocopy containing a set of double-stop exercises of his own devising. Little did I know that this innocent-looking little page was actually an entire exercise book, and that it would prove to be such a valuable tool in my technical development."
The one-page photocopy became legend -- circulating through the Vamos studio and beyond. "Explanations of how to decipher and use it were passed by word of mouth from one player to another," Rachel writes.
Roland told me that these exercises evolved from some of his earliest learning on the violin. Roland studied with a number of famous teachers, including Oscar Shumsky and violist William Lincer, but one of his most important teachers was the one he had as a teenager, named Susanne Gussow. She had studied and worked as an assistant to the great Czech violin pedagogue, Otakar Ševcík.
"I studied with her from the time I was 12 through the time I was 18. I went through just about everything that Ševcík ever wrote, and that's quite a bit," Roland said. "So I went through a huge amount of extra studies, while I was studying the repertoire."
"She gave me a book to study, a very thin book of double stops by this Russian pedagogue, Sergei Korguof," Roland said. "There were two Russians who came to the United States in the 1920s: Korguof came to Boston Conservatory, and at the same time, Leopold Auer came to Juilliard. The only reason I know that Korguof went to Boston is that this thin book was printed by the Boston Conservatory Press. I studied this book when I was young, then I always used it as a warmup. Somewhere along the line, I started expanding it. I changed the order of the exercises, I added something to do before it to develop the flexibility of the first joint, and something after it to add a bowing component to the exercise. So actually two-thirds of it is mine, and only one-third of it was Korguof's."
The exercises evolved both as warmup exercises for Roland, and as teaching exercises for his students.
"I did it for myself, and I still do it when I want to warm up," Roland said. "And my students all learn it. It's a wonderful exercise that goes through seven combinations of double stops, going through seven positions on each set of strings. It covers anything that you would do in one position; it doesn't cover shifting."
The exercises are appropriate for intermediate and advanced students who have already studied some positions. Roland said that they have helped students correct and perfect their left-hand position.
"It self-corrects," he said. "If you have a bad hand position, and you do these exercises correctly -- carefully and slowly -- over a period of time, your hand position is getting corrected by itself. Little-by-little, you develop a solid, good hand position."
One warning: don't over-do it. These kinds of double-stop exercises can cause strain, if done incorrectly. "You have to be careful not to tense up," Roland said. He has devised some exercises to loosen the fingers, prepare the hand and take tension out of the thumb, before the student begins the double-stop exercises. He writes about these in the Introduction and illustrates them in the DVD that accompanies the book.
He has also changed the notes from eighths and 16th notes, as they were written in Korguof's book, to quarters and eighths, to emphasize the fact that these should be played slowly.
"At first your muscles can't take too much, so at first maybe you'll only do four positions," he said. "Then after a week, go to the next combination, the next exercise." In the back are some charts, meant to help the student keep track of doing the exercises. Once you get good at it, you can go through all the exercises, in all the positions and on all strings, over the course of 21 days.
"There are a lot of teachers that teach technique only through the repertoire, and I disagree with this approach because I think it develops a spotty technique," Roland said. "You might spend three months on a concerto, and during that three months you're doing this little technique here, this little technique there. The next thing you know, you get another piece. Maybe one of those techniques will be the same, but there will be a few others. It will take you forever, and you wouldn't be systematically going through all these things. If you can develop a systematic approach, you've learned all the combinations, now you just have to put the combinations together in a musical setting. Now, when you go to the music, instead of taking 10 hours of practicing until you learn a certain passage, you learn it in one or two. Over a period of time, of course."
Roland Vamos's life and early career is a testament to the fact that the road success can be a circuitous route, and that late bloomers can indeed bloom.
Roland was born in New York to non-musical family, though his father was an amateur violinist. By profession his father was a house painter and his mother worked in a millenary shop. Roland started playing the violin at age 10.
"My father sort of psychologically wangled me around into thinking that I was the one that wanted to start, but I think he was the one that wanted me to start!" His father remained the force behind his practice sessions. "He would work with me all day long. I had to practice two hours a day -- two of HIS hours. I would think, 'I've practiced one hour, I've got one to go,' then he'd say, 'You call that last hour practicing?' So I might end up with four hours anyhow. He was a taskmaster. I hated the fact that I had to do that instead of going out and playing ball! But that's what probably gave me a firm technical foundation: I had the instrument in my hands a lot."
Roland's father died when he was 15 years old, and when he was 17, his mother had a stroke that paralyzed her left side.
"Someone had to earn a living, and there was an audition for the Denver Symphony," Roland said. "Next thing you know, I was on my way to Denver." But he was back in New York after just a season or so, due to the not-so-great pay in Denver.
"I came back to New York, where all the auditions were," Roland said. At that time, "all the conductors came to New York. They would hire out a hall and listen to auditions there. Then they went to Philadelphia and they hired a hall there, and then they went to LA and hired a hall. Basically, they would go to those three major cities to get their players. Anybody that wanted to take an audition went to one of those cities to audition with them."
He found a better deal with the Houston Symphony, "and I decided wow, this is great, I think I'm going to stay here forever." But then he ran into a major career roadblock: "there was a little thing going on called the Korean War. My brother was already on the front lines, fighting in Korea, and I was led to believe by my draft board that I would be in the Army by the fall." He let the Houston Symphony know that they needed to replace him because he would be drafted.
"I left Houston and came back to New York, and for three weeks I was practicing the baritone horn." Roland said. "I figured, if you're drafted into the Army, and they say, 'What do you do?' and I say, 'I'm a musician.' Then, 'What do you play?' and, 'I play the violin…' They'd hand me an M-1 rifle and send me straight to Korea! Maybe if I said, 'I play the baritone horn,' I'd get into an Army band. So I practiced four hours a day, until I couldn't feel my lips, they were so numb."
Around that time, a friend told him that the University of Miami orchestra conductor was in town, looking for scholarship students. It had been too late to try out for Juilliard, so this looked like a good possibility -- one that would help him get a student deferment. "I hadn't touched the fiddle for three weeks," he said. "So I opened my fiddle case and made sure I still had four strings on it. I took the audition downtown in New York, and I got the student deferment. They accepted me as a full-time student with a scholarship and everything."
His draft board agreed to the deferment, and he was off to Miami. "At that time, you couldn't earn a living in Miami by playing legitimate music," Roland said. "The only kind of music that was possible was strolling violin in the nightclubs and the hotels. So I bought a Fake Book that had 1,000 tunes in it, with the lyrics and everything. I took that and started trying to memorize tunes! Every tune has a beginning part, a middle section (which you call the 'release') and then back to the beginning. I always got my releases mixed up -- I would start one piece and then go to the release of another piece, and then how in the hell did I get into that?"
He stayed in Miami two years, strolling and studying, then he finally decided, "I should get this darn Army business out of the way and then go about my business, living my life."
The U.S. Army band looked good, as it did indeed accept violinists, and with just a three-year enlistment. "The audition was the longest I ever had in my life, it lasted around three hours!" Roland said. "They had a stack of (music) books to read, and they gave me some reading from everything you could imagine." Of course, the Army could afford to be very picky at these auditions. "During the wartime, every decent instrumentalist wanted to get into a service band because they'd avoid having to go overseas and fighting."
"I got in," so he spent the next two years in Ft. Myer, Va. Toward the end of his enlistment, a friend encouraged him to come back to New York and audition for Oscar Shumsky at Juilliard.
"So at age 25, I started my college career," Roland said. "I spent five years at Juilliard, where I was majoring in violin. By age 30, I got a bachelor's, and I got a master's degree, and then I was working in Radio City Music Hall, playing in the pit."
While at Juilliard, he met a rather younger girl -- Almita. She was still in high school!
"She was hanging around the school, and I got to know her. She also studied with a teacher from the Juilliard School." Roland said. "I was hanging around with her a lot, and then at a certain point, hanging around got more serious. When I discovered that she was that young, it was too late already!"
The pair have been married for 52 years. Somewhere along the way, each of their careers became "our career."
"At a certain point, it got to the point where I wouldn't accept a job, nor would she, unless it came as a packaged deal," Roland said. "Somehow or another, we didn't have any trouble getting these situations. Of course, both of us are qualified enough that you weren't going to get one person and say, well we'll have to take the weak sister with it. You were going to get two decent players that were both qualified, and two decent teachers."
The Vamoses (the "Vami"?) currently are on faculty at Northwestern University and at Music Institute of Chicago. But they have taught all over the U.S. Midwest: at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Western Illinois University and the University of Minnesota.
Many students over the years have studied with both husband and wife, simultaneously. Roland said that this kind of collaboration evolved several decades ago, when the couple was teaching members of the Ying Quartet.
"The violist wanted to take lessons with me, while the first and second violinist took lessons on the violin with my wife," Roland said. "I was giving the violist a bunch of technical things to do, and the first violinist said, 'I'd like to do some of that, too!' The next thing you know, they were all taking lessons with me, devoted mostly to technique, while my wife was continuing to work with them on the repertoire. When it got close to the concert, I'd move in on the repertoire. By then they'd gotten tired of hearing my wife say the same things over and over again, so a new voice saying the same things was good. It was a combination that worked pretty well."
That's an understatement. The combination of Almita and Roland Vamos has "worked pretty well," not only for the Ying Quartet, which is the quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music and maintains a full performing and recording schedule, but for an entire roster of today's hottest violinists and violists. Former and current students have placed in (and won) the world's most esteemed violin competitions and have gone onto careers as well-respected soloists, concertmasters, professional chamber and orchestral players. Those students have included Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh, Benjamin Beilman, Cathy Basrak, Benny Kim, David Bowlin, Alexandra Switala, and many more. (Here's a more complete list).
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