A Lesson with Harold Wippler

February 15, 2004, 11:53 PM · There is nothing like a few hours with a wonderful teacher!

I’ve been grinding away at the music for this Audition for The Big Orchestra. Though the audition committee will likely listen to seven, maybe 10 minutes of music, the list of required repertoire takes about two and a half hours just to play through, not even working on anything.

To light a fire under my, ah, self, I decided it would be nice to take a lesson about month in advance of the Audition. But not with anyone -- that could be a little dangerous. As one who is more than 10 years out of graduate school and not taking lessons on a regular basis, I wanted to make sure I went to someone who wasn’t going to pull anything weird on me like, “You know, if you just changed your bow hand, threw away your shoulder rest and altered your entire set-up…”

I decided to go to one of my favorite teachers for excerpts and basically anything: Harold Wippler. He lives in Denver, my favorite city and hometown, so earlier this week I left sunny Southern California for the icy, snow-covered Rocky Mountain state.

I’ve not once seen the upstairs of Harold’s home in the nearly 20 years since I took my first lesson with him as a high school student, but I know every object in the basement studio as if it were something from my childhood. As I did when I was 17, I parked on the street then walked down the long, icy driveway to the back gate. I went in and down the steep back stairs to the basement door, which he was just opening for me.

“Come on in,” he said, smiling. He looked just the same, a tall and thin man with a friendly face. He showed me to the studio, then went upstairs while I unpacked.

Inside I put my fiddle on the familiar old red davenport with green fringe and looked around. I had a little time to warm up, so I thought I’d take a close look at some of the pictures on the wall. Like the picture of Harold’s most famous student, which was signed, “With gratitude to the man who taught me all I know about violin technique, Fondly, Eugene Fodor.” And from Desiree Ruhstrat, a picture she signed as a girl, “To Mr. Wippler, the greatest teacher in the world.”

In the center of the room was the wooden music stand, positioned so that one could avoid bowing into the silver pipes running along the ceiling. And there was the little fireplace, on the mantle a ship and pictures of Schubert and Wagner. On the walls were pictures of nearly every violinist I could think of: Paganini, Kreisler, Milstein, Heifetz, you name it. And even several funny photographs of Brahms, one with a giggling teenage girl. There was a large picture, set on a diagonal, of Mr. Wippler talking to a conductor; he had been concertmaster of the Denver Symphony for many years. Over his violin hung his 1947 diploma from Curtis Institute, where he studied with Efrem Zimbalist.

What a lot of rich history in this basement.

Down came Mr. Wippler, and we started in with the work, so much of it!

Mr. Wippler reminds me of my favorite editor, from back in the days when I was a newspaper reporter: Pete Larson (of the Omaha World-Herald.) Pete could take a story that I wrote and gently, magically transform it. He’d move a paragraph here, change some wording there, request a new sentence to bridge this to that, and in the end I’d look at it and think, “What a genius writer I am!” He did it in such a way that it seemed like he’d barely done a thing with it. It was still my story, only even more the way I wanted it to be. Of course, I did appreciate that he had turned my so-so story into something of a gem.

So Mr. Wippler listened to my Mozart, and he pointed to some simple but transformative things I could do to make it better. He listened to Tchaikovsky.

“You know,” he said, sitting back on the yellow-cushioned stool, “You need to sound more like a big, fat Russian guy. You know, someone who eats borscht, instead of, of…”

“Of a little California woman who goes to yoga class?” I asked.

“Yes,” he smiled. So I put some borscht into the Tchaik. And the excerpts: he changed a fingering here, a bowing there, an articulation, asked for more vibrato…and suddenly everything made a whole lot more sense. I knew where everything needed to go and had a good idea of how to get there. Even with the weird 20th century works, ones he’d never played, he displayed his amazing ability to read the complex pitches and rhythms on sight and get right to the core of the music there.

After two and a half hours we were finished. He was so generous with his time. Of course my work has just begun. But thank you, Mr. Wippler.


January 5, 2005 at 02:59 PM · I am SO glad that you, within your blogs, repeatedly mention, in some reverence, Eugene Fodor, whom I believe has not been given his due (and has paid his dues as a person and artist).

I do believe RCA Masterwork's marketing of Fodor in the '70's ("...the Mick Jagger of the violin..."), as well as his repeated performances on the NBC Tonight Show with Johnny Carson contributed to his never having achieved the fame of Perlman. There were vicious rumors that he was an upstart who never felt the need to practice. ALL untrue. Nevertheless, he is a violinist of the first rank.

His recent recordings with the Kiev Philharmonic show this; the Sibelius is equal plus to any of Perlman's or Bell's recordings. The Lalo is as mesmerizing as Francescatti's.

As a professional classical music audio engineer, I have never been a fan of Heifetz's recordings (even the latter stereo recordings; too much "steel" in the recordings, some concerti seems to be paced at lightning speed). Fodor, a student of Heifetz, had some of the best balanced analogue recordings of any violinist for RCA (the Paganini #1, however, left out some portions of the first movement; was this intentional?).

I digress. To restate, I really appreciate your occasional mention of Fodor.


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