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Mischa Elman on Daily Practice

Daniel Broniatowski

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Published: February 6, 2015 at 6:50 PM [UTC]

Violinist Mischa ElmanA few weeks ago, I came across a source that claimed that the great Twentieth Century violinist Mischa Elman practiced daily until the day he died. We violinists are no strangers to daily or almost-daily practice, but I was really curious as to what it was that motivated him to keep going until the day he died.

My guess is that a man this successful could have easily retired into a life of rest and relaxation, perhaps reminiscing about his past successes on the concert stage. He could have easily succumbed to old age and said "I have done enough, I am finished".

Yet, Mr. Elman would have none of that. In Mischa Elman's obituary from the Gettysburg Times, published April 7, 1967, he states to an interviewer at or around the age of 74 that "I don't have the right to let my admirers down. And so I practice every day. It is the duty of every artist to do so." Further inspired and interested, I started thinking about how this man, who performed over 5,000 concerts in his lifetime, could teach us musicians about our roles as performers.

Surely, a man who felt this passionately about the ritual of daily practice would have been incredibly interesting to interview today! Taking the above quote, one sees that Elman believed that practicing was his duty. He believed very strongly that his music mattered and since he did not wish to "let [his] admirers down", he practiced daily.

This brings us to an interesting question. Does the artist define him or herself in relation to the expectations of the audience, or does the artist define him or herself in spite of the audience? Any business person knows that in order to be successful, you have to have a product that sells. Whether it's music, books, or television sets, if there is no dialogue between the audience and the "producer", there is no success. Furthermore, continued success is dependent upon the income stream that the audience provides.

While I do not know what Mr. Elman's financial situation was in his seventies, I will, however, assume that he did not need to keep playing to make ends meet. So, I hypothesize that there was a voice deep inside Mr. Elman that really wished to connect with the audience, irrespective of money. He had clearly established a decades-old following and was a musical-hero. This was likely what inspired him in his daily violin practice.

In short, Mr. Elman's music meant something larger to his community of followers - It was a sharing of his soul with all of us through the medium of sound. Perhaps this is what inspired him to practice until the day he died. To be able to share and connect with others through sound is one of the most beautiful gifts one can be blessed with. You may hear a recording of Mischa Elman below:

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Music to Warm the Heart
Maestro Musicians, LLC
Greater Boston and New England

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From Sander Marcus
Posted on February 6, 2015 at 10:23 PM
I recall reading a quote years ago attributed to Jascha Heifetz (and I do hope it's true). Apparently, someone asked him if he had to practice every day. Heifetz replied: "Yes. If I don't practice for one day, I can hear the difference. If I don't practice for 2 days, the orchestra can hear the difference. If I don't practice for 3 days, the audience can hear the difference. And if I don't practice for 4 days, the critics can hear the difference."
Posted on February 7, 2015 at 1:32 PM
There are two documentaries on Netflix right now that may contribute to understanding the reason why someone would continue to play their whole life. One is "The Lady in #6" and the other is "Alive Inside". Music is a deep part of us, even those who are not musicians, and it makes connections in our brain that can even break through dimentia and Alzheimer's. Perhaps he played because it was what he needed and loved.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 7, 2015 at 5:12 PM
Elman's name is one I remember from early childhood. My parents had some vintage Elman recordings, and I recall being fascinated by the violin sound and the musical selections this artist played. Piano was my first instrument, but I didn't get beyond the basics. Partly due to Elman's recordings, the violin muse got me, and I made the switch. I can still hear a couple of the selections he recorded -- or, at least, bits of them -- in my mind. Can't identify the composers or titles at the moment. BTW, before writing this, I played the Achron track twice -- fun to hear Elman again after all this time.

I'm a strong believer in daily practice. Sandy mentioned the Heifetz quote I was thinking of on this morning's walk. Previously, I thought it was from pianist Arthur Rubinstein. A quick Net search just now turned up Yehudi Menuhin, Pablo Casals, and Vladimir Horowitz as having said it, too; so it seems to be common property. Whoever started it, my experience bears it out.

I, too, plan to keep practicing till the day I die, even if it means not living as many years as someone else. "A long life may not be good enough, but a good life is long enough." -- Author Unknown.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 7, 2015 at 7:09 PM
Did Elman have many students? The reason I ask is because I vaguely recall that my boyhood violin teacher claimed to have studied with him for a time. My teacher was a WWII veteran so the timing may have been right. He was an excellent violinist who also practiced and performed into his 90s. I could easily have misinterpreted what he told me though.

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