My first experience of the madness that teachers can inflict on their students was when I was 14. It doesn’t matter who the teacher was, but I studied with him for six months before my parents rescued me from him. He nearly finished me off altogether using a combination of three main methods:
First, I was not allowed to use a shoulder rest. I was pretty much the same build at 14 as I am now – tallish, long neck etc. – and while there are sensible ways of playing without a shoulder rest, he did not show me any. I simply hunched up my left shoulder and went into spasms of tension for six months. It was then that I first had to be sent off to Alexander lessons (almost unheard of at that time), and physiotherapy, to try to get around the pain I was in.
Second, the bow-hold he made me adopt was absurd – I have photos of me at that age holding the bow with the tip of the little finger on the screw, the first finger too close to the thumb (leading to loss of leverage), and the middle two fingers low on the frog (in fact, with my long fingers, they often protruded beneath the level of the frog).
But the third, final nail in the coffin of my enthusiasm – or the coffin of my talent, such as it was at the time – was that for six months I was not allowed to play any pieces. I was not allowed to play any etudes. And I was not allowed to play any scales. So what was I allowed to play? Only left hand Ševcík finger exercises!
Naturally, within a short time I would not practice at all. I was bored witless within minutes of starting to play, and I hurt too much even before getting bored. It was nearly the end of me.
A funny coda to that tale – actually, it’s not very funny at all – is that 16 years later, when I was playing in the London Symphony Orchestra, in one concert this former teacher of mine was sitting next to me. He was using a shoulder rest. I remarked on it. He said, "Yes, I’ve decided it is better." And he was a short man with a short neck!
I did not mention that he nearly ruined my whole life as a violinist, because it was too difficult to say anything without at the same time wanting to seize his violin and hit him over the head with it – which I did not feel I could do at the time, being on stage at the Barbican concert hall, and all. Besides, I would not have wanted to harm his beautiful violin. (Only joking! I am actually a gentle, nice person!)
But on a serious note, that story is nothing compared to what a friend of mine (let’s call him David) has told me about studying privately with one of the leading teachers in London in the 1970s (let’s call him A. C. Person). David went to Mr. Person at the age of 11. For two whole years he was not allowed to play anything except left-hand Ševcík. Yes, two years!
After two years, David was finally allowed to play a piece, the Mozart G major Violin Concerto. David practiced it and took it to his next lesson. Mr. Person gave him an ordinary, normal sort of lesson on it, and then when he showed David out of the house at the end, David stood on the doorstep and Mr. Person stood with his hand on the door, ready to close it.
He looked at David and said, "You used to be such a musical boy, David. What happened to you?" And with that, he literally slammed the door shut in the boy’s face.
Yes, that is a 100% accurate account! When David first told me about it, I said it was a pity that, as a child, he did not have the right answer to hand. (And anyway, Person had closed the door before he could say anything.) The correct answer was: YOU happened to me, Mr. Person!
My next experience of "technique only" was when I went to study with Yfrah Neaman at the Guildhall School of Music. His rule was that new undergraduate students had to spend the first term (September to December), not playing any repertoire at all but concentrating only on technique. We had to do the six Carl Flesch fundamental movements, the Carl Flesch Scale System, a different Kreutzer etude every week, learn and practice Dont Op. 35 No. 1 (chords), and lots of Ševcík Op. 1. It was only one term, and there was plenty to do to keep us interested. My first piece, in January, was the Mozart Adagio in E, K261, and after that the Rode Concerto in a minor, no. 7, Viotti Concerto 23 in G major, and Spohr Concerto no. 8 (Gesangsszene). All good stuff.
However, I have never once asked a student to do only technique for any period – not for even just one week, let alone a whole term – even if I have considered it many times. I was too impressed by Dorothy DeLay’s approach when later I went to her. All her students played slightly differently from each other because she did not have a "method" to drill them with. She simply took them at whatever level they had arrived at, and helped them up from there to the next level without first making them relearn everything from the beginning. With her, you did not have to go "down" before you went "up." You simply carried on up, as you had already been doing.
If the two extremes are 1) Nothing but technique for a year, or 2) only repertoire for a year without playing a single exercise, scale or etude, I would certainly choose No. 2 without a second’s hesitation.
That is simply because, in the final analysis, "technique" comes from playing music, but you can’t get "music" out of playing "technique."
The crucial difference is between "technique" and "mechanics."
"Mechanics" means the angle of the violin to the body, or keeping the left fingers close to the strings, moving the fingers from the base joints, drawing a straight bow, standing with your feet correctly positioned, etc.
The list of essentials is not even very long. All of them are easy to describe and to explain (in very few words), and therefore easy to teach. If somebody has ongoing difficulties in any of the basic areas, it means that in some way the problems are not being identified, not being analyzed correctly, and therefore not being helped.
There was once a nuclear power station that had developed a fault. The power output was slightly below normal but none of the plant’s engineers could locate the source of the fault. So they called in a specialist.
The specialist, a man in a white coat with a clipboard, wandered around taking notes. The control room contained a host of dials and meters and readout displays, all connected to equipment located around the plant. After a couple of hours the specialist took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and marked a large ‘X’ on one of the readout displays.
‘Replace the unit linked to that display,’ he told the management, ‘and it will fix the problem.’
They did as he suggested, and immediately the power output returned to 100%.
A few days later the manager of the plant received the bill from the specialist, who was asking for a fee of $10,000. Now, although this was a multi-million dollar plant, it was the manager’s job to keep down expenses. So he wrote back to the specialist thanking him for his work, but saying that $10,000 seemed a very high amount to charge considering he had been at the plant for only two hours. Would he please itemise his bill?
Some days later, a new bill arrived from the specialist and this time he had broken it into two parts: $100 for time spent on the premises; $9,900 for knowing where to put the X..
So spotting problems and solutions in violin playing is all about "knowing where to put the X." It only takes a whole year to sort something out if you don’t know where to put the X.
And then there is "technique." Real technique comes from musical expression: you feel such-and-such in the music, and because of that – and without knowing that you are doing so – you make a particular subtle little squeeze on the bow, or the vibrato is wider, or the shift lighter or faster, and so on. These things come from making music. So if you spend a year playing only exercises or scales...well, what can I say? It is just a very, very bad idea. A colossally bad idea. And surely one that comes from basic ignorance of what is possible.
But then, many talents are ruined by their teachers. The talented, fine players we know of and hear about are often only the survivors of teachers, not the products of them!
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