April 2015

Role Models, Historical Performance, and the Secular Self

April 23, 2015 08:05

My musical role model is a superstar.

I am a professional, full-time historical performer. Next year, it will be one decade since I last gave a concert on a modern instrument. This makes me something of an oddity among those who post to this forum, but I think it also gives me a unique perspective on role models.

Most (though not quite all) of what we know about how music was played in past centuries comes from treatises -- texts written by composers or performers as training manuals for students. The most celebrated 18th-century violin treatises are by Geminiani and Leopold Mozart, but there are hundreds of others, by the likes of Corrette, Cambini, Woldemar, Tartini, Galeazzi. (Not to mention those from earlier centuries -- Jambe de Fer, Prinner, Playford -- and later centuries -- Spohr, Baillot, etc.)

Every single one of these musicians fits our modern description of the superstar: we don't know them personally (in this case because they've been dead for multiple centuries), and, most important, they wield a disproportionate amount of musical and technical authority. (For every 18th-century Geminiani, there were countless other violinists who didn't publish a treatise that people still find useful 264 years later.) Many musicians who really commit to historical performance find that their other musical role models -- teachers and friends -- begin to pale in comparison with the 300-year-old superstars who help them chip away at the mysteries of the past.

So, as a historical performer, I may be preconditioned to seek superstar role models. This may be one of the reasons that my musical role model is Jascha Heifetz.

HeifetzGeminiani is an excellent mentor when the goal is to play three-octave scales without a chinrest, but for so much else, I turn to Heifetz. If we're talking only about violin playing, is there any other role model really worth wanting? (Of course, substitute Milstein, Oistrakh, Perlman, Ricci, or anyone else as you wish; the point doesn't change.) We know so much about how -- really, how -- Heifetz became Heifetz, from the mechanics of his playing to his practice routines. The slow-motion video of his left hand shows the wrist and knuckle movement, the extremely flat fingers, the floppiness; we know that he didn't use a shoulder rest. Interviews he gave about practicing (see: Violin Mastery: Interviews with F. Martens) detail certain aspects of his routine, which are supplemented by video evidence. And, of course, stage presence, bow speed, bow hold, bow use, right arm mechanics, are all plainly visible.

About a year and a half ago, I decided to actively incorporate Heifetz into my playing (though, granted, still on a baroque violin, so with countless concessions). I imitated anything I could, no matter how grand or seemingly-inconsequential: I limited my practice hours to match his, I wore suit jackets in the practice room, I began to play from memory again (definitely not something early musickers like to do), I raised my right elbow, I made sure that my left hand always looked like the slow-motion video of his, I tuned the way he did (very, very short bow strokes, never actually turning the peg while bowing), I stood the way he did, I moved (or didn't move) the way he did. Of course, there are so many things we don't know about how Heifetz played, but one has to start somewhere, and I imitated as much as possible of what we do know.

Since then, my technical improvement has been astonishing. What began as (mere) imitation of a superstar has become a set of good habits, an integral part of my practice routine. (Needless to say, I don't want to imply that I've reached anywhere near the Heifetz heights! That was never my goal -- though, if I did want to go further in that direction, I now know what I'd have to do.) Of course, I never sacrificed my own musicianship, or gave up phrasing, playing, and performing like me. In fact, the whole exercise ceased to be "about Heifetz" ages ago -- but the slow shedding of bad habits hasn't stopped. My musicianship and performing has continued to improve.

The incredible improvements I made during my "Heifetz period" really brought home to me just how important the choice of role model is. The Greats are great for a reason: they not only have the mastery, but they continue to do it. Any musician, of any level, can learn by emulating any of their good habits.

One final thought: today, 23 April, is "Openly Secular Day". As a passionate musician and secularist, I'd like to suggest that evolution itself lurks behind this way of thinking about the violin. The evolutionary image (simple organisms that, through billions of years of steady, imperceptible development, become complex things like beetles, trees or musicians) is a useful one to take to the practice room: normal people, given time, direction, and progress, can become just as great as the Greats. There's lots of talk about how divinely-inspired the best musicians are, but, ultimately, we're all the same species. No miracle is needed to become a Heifetz -- just the right role models, time, and the dedication it takes to learn from them.

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