Violin playing is a basic matter of proportion and balance.
With all the bowings, fingerings, pitch, tone, rhythm, phrasing and sheer agony that goes into it, just how does one boil violin playing down to that basic matter?
This is the brilliance of London-based violinist Simon Fischer's contribution to violinkind: In his books, magazine columns and teachings, he cuts a path straight to the issue at hand, whether it's wobbly vibrato or out-of-tune scales. Sometimes he even makes the solution seem so simple as to be self-evident -- such is the genius of good pedagogy.
I first met Simon at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in New York in 2007, when he was giving a lecture on tone production. By then he'd already written the two books that many consider essential to any violinist's library: Basics and Practice.
Most recently I spoke to him on the phone about his latest projects: books called The Scale Book and The Violin Lesson, and an epic DVD on tone production. He also has been working on a number of transcriptions, including the Purcell "Chaconne," and he recently released a recording of the Brahms Violin Sonatas that he made with his father, pianist Raymond Fischer.
Simon and Raymond Fischer
Simon has taught at the Guildhall School since 1982, and at the Yehudi Menuhin School since 1997. He also writes a monthly column for The Strad magazine. In addition, he plays all over London, from the studios to the concert stage.
Laurie: How did you get started with the violin?
Simon: My late brother Mark, who was six years older than me, took up the violin when he was nine, so I was three at the time. We lived in Sidney, Australia, and I remember walking with him to his violin class. Pretty soon he gave up the violin, but I wanted to learn. However, my father wanted me to wait.
Simon: He's a professional musician, a pianist, and because of the difficulties of the profession, he was wary of parents who push their children too soon. He wanted to be absolutely sure. What he wasn't taking into account was that earning a living as a pianist is a very different matter than earning a living as a string player. When you play the piano, you tend to spend an awful lot of time on your own. The violin is a completely different world – he shouldn't have worried.
I kept on pestering my parents until I was seven and a half, and finally I was allowed to start violin lessons.
Laurie: How did you end up in England?
Simon: He and my mother both wanted to come to London, so in 1961 the whole family uprooted to here, and here we've been ever since. My father had to start again from scratch in a foreign country at the age of 32 – very, very difficult, especially for a pianist. When I was growing up, he was forever telling me that I was going to enjoy an advantage that he had not had in this country, in that I was growing up here, with my generation, and all of those contacts.
Laurie: So then was he Australian?
Simon: He was born in Australia, my mother was born in England.
Laurie: Tell me about your schooling.
Simon: I was briefly at the Junior Guildhall at 11, where I studied with Christopher Polyblank and Clive Lander. But then at 13, I left and studied privately first with Homi Kanger, then with Eli Goren, then Perry Hart, then Sydney Fixman. It was only when I met Yfrah Neaman, at Guildhall, that for the first time I stayed for many years with one teacher.
I stayed five years at Guildhall. In those days it was a three-year course, and some students just left and started free-lancing. I was offered a full scholarship to do a fourth year, and I thought, why go out to work if I can be paid, in effect, to stay at home and practice and have lessons? That seemed an obvious thing to do. Then I was offered another scholarship to stay a fifth year, and so the same applied. By then, I was teaching myself, really, by watching the fantastic players that Yfrah Neaman had in his class. Yfrah was sitting on the juries of lots of international competitions, and lots of international competition players would come to study with him. The cynic can say that that's because they knew that he'd end up on the jury of the competition they were wanting to do! (laughs) But for whatever reason, he had fabulous violinists studying with him.
Laurie: It sounds like you were soaking it up like a sponge.
Simon: Well, I got terrible shock when I went to Guildhall. When I went to Guildhall, I thought I was the best. And the reason I thought I was the best was because as far as I knew, I was! We're talking pre-Internet days. Today is the day of information, but it certainly wasn't in the 1960s. I didn't even play in the National Youth Orchestra. I won the prizes in the local little competitions in Wimbledon, and I didn't really know anybody who could play the violin at all. I could play anything that was put on the music stand, but people didn't put Paganini Caprices on the music stand, they didn't even put the Bruch Concerto on the music stand! I very easily got my place at Guildhall, nevertheless. Then in my first week at the Guildhall, Mincho Mincheff, the fabulous Bulgarian violinist who had just won the Carl Flesch Competition, was standing there, about five or six feet away from me, playing the Brahms Concerto -- on Szigeti's Guadagnini which had been left to him. I thought, my God, I can't do that, I'd better learn how to!
By my fifth year at Guildhall, I won the top competitive scholarship auditions to go to America, playing the Paganini Concerto No. 1. Also at that time I won the Noel Millidge Concerto Prize at the Guildhall, playing the Bruch G minor with the Symphony Orchestra. I have a recording of that performance that I am very proud of. Two weeks before that competition, I went from London to Aspen to audition for Miss [Dorothy] DeLay, and it was the Bruch that I played to her there.
Then, after I came back from studying with Miss DeLay for two years, over the next few years I had between one and about four lessons with several teachers, including Zakhar Bron, Hermann Krebbers, Igor Ozim, Frederick Grinke, Sandor Vegh, Emanuel Hurwitz and Eric Gruenberg. At that time I was playing some international competitions, though I didn't win any of them – though I did get to the semifinal of the Carl Flesch – doing them partly simply to try to power or force my playing up to new levels. After I was past the age-limit to play competitions, I carried on studying by myself and ended up doing all kinds of nice things, from playing recitals on the BBC, to leading lots of the orchestras here, to playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos with the Philharmonia at Kenwood (London's equivalent of the Hollywood Bowl) in front of audiences of 10,000. I often say to my teenage students who can already play Paganini Caprices in tune and easily, that if I could do what I have done, starting from where I was at the age of 18, they can do anything!
Laurie: Do you remember your first student?
Simon: I remember my first student very well --- two students. I left school when I was 15. Because I was too young to go to Guildhall, I went to what was then called a Polytechnic. I took Music "A" level, kind of the highest exam you take in high school before you go to college. That was a two-year course, and it was a fantastic time. In the second year, somebody phoned to ask if there was somebody who could give two children violin lessons. I was 17, and I was the violinist there, so I was asked. I taught a little boy and girl, 9 and 7, both from Ireland, and I taught them for about two terms, every week, and took them through the associated board exams, Grade 5 and 3. Each took an exam, then the family moved back to Ireland, and I left Chiswick and went to Guildhall. But I used to skip down the road after those lessons. I just loved teaching those kids, it was just the best.
Then, I went to the Guildhall. Seeing Yfrah -- with his master classes there -- the way he was enjoying this whole violin world and this repertoire and all these students, it was this feeling of camaraderie amongst his class. I just looked at him doing that and thought, that's what I want to do. It was as simple as that.
Laurie: You've managed to teach quite a lot, and to continue playing. How do you keep the balance between the two?
Simon: What I've always found is that the teaching improves my playing, and of course my playing improves the teaching. Then I've found that writing about playing improves my playing as well. It has to do with mental rehearsal and mental visualization: When you are practicing something, then you decide to play it in a different way, you are changing your mental picture. Galamian was talking about it in the 1950s and 1960s; he said that all practicing is a matter of training the mind – nothing to do with training the muscles. When you make a change in your practice, you change your mental picture. This is why mental practice is so fantastic. You don't need a violin; you can go sit on a bench in the park and do fantastic work on whatever piece you are playing, There is a catch, though: you have to know what are the images you're meant to be forming in your mind. And there's a limit to it; you can't learn repertoire like that.
Laurie: Was there ever a time when you came across a student who just could not get something?
Simon: You mean have I ever found myself unable to cope with a particular student, can't sort them out? I've occasionally come up against a brick wall with a student, but very rarely. It's almost impossible that that happens.
Laurie: How do you avoid it?
Simon: I'm passionate about proportions, and this is something I got from Dorothy DeLay. I've put this in the Practice Book, and in the Violin Lesson book there's a big new section on this.
The story DeLay told me is simply this: Leonardo da Vinci was asked to go along and inspect an ancient statue that had just been unearthed. When he turned up, the statue was surrounded by a group of people, all talking about it in what today we would call "artsy-fartsy" language. He stood there in silence. Then he got out one of his famous notebooks, and he got out his measuring tools. He measured every angle, every width, every diameter, everything. He wrote it all down and went home.
As a man, he could see the beauty of the statue: the light and the line, the radiance and the expression. But as an artist, he knew that everything he was looking at was the result of certain proportions, and that was the key. Everything is a question of proportions: if you're a painter, if you're an architect, if you're a cook, if you're a designer of anything whatsoever, what you're dealing with is proportions. When you're making yourself a cup of coffee, you're dealing with proportions.
To me, this is the be-all and end-all, it's the answer to everything: Proportions.
Occasionally, you get a student come to you for a first lesson, and they say that their teacher just didn't know how to fix their problems, so they had to move on. Then you look at the student play, and all the proportions are completely wrong: the bow isn't straight to the bridge, the hand isn't round and nice on the bow...you don't know where to start. You think about the previous teacher not knowing where to start, and you wonder, how is that possible?
If you think in terms of proportions, as a teacher, you never reach that stage where you simply don't know what the next step to take with a student is. And as a player, you never reach that stage – you always know what to do next and improve next. If you can improve and refine the proportions, it's just endless.
Laurie: What exactly does this mean, when you are in a room, looking at a student?
Simon: What it means is, that everything technically can be described in terms of proportions. For example, tone production, every sound that comes out of the violin is the result of certain proportions of speed to pressure to distance from the bridge. Spiccato – every sound in spiccato is the result of certain proportions of length of bow to height of bow, with the added ingredient of how much hair you're using. And intonation, in the major scale, it starts whole-tone whole-tone half-step. You don't want a narrow whole-tone for the first two notes and then a wide whole-tone for the second two, they've got to be equi-distant, and that's a matter of proportions. You play an arpeggio, and if you go A C# E, A C# E, A, all the C#s have to be exactly the same, that means the proportion of two to one. It's all numbers, in the end. Vibrato is a question of mixing different proportions of speed and width, and another extra ingredient, how much finger pressure. Every single aspect of playing the physical violin is describable, and in few words, and the language of the describing is proportion.
You can also use proportion to describe music. To describe an accelerando, each note must be proportionately sooner than the previous one. If you make a crescendo, each note must be proportionately louder, and you can gauge and grade these things accordingly. Of course, lots of people think they make a crescendo when they don't, because they don't listen – actually every note is the same volume. But if they would listen – it's just proportions, everything is.
Laurie: How did you come up with your ideas for Basics?
Simon: Thinking in terms of proportions, or practicing with this in mind, you get flooded with ideas for new combinations of actions that lead to fantastic exercises which are entirely original, and yet based on completely sound principles and elements of violin playing. So many of the exercises in Basics are entirely original as a result of this. All the great violinists have played in these ways – but not necessarily knowing what they are doing or being able to explain it to somebody else.
The Basics book and the Practice books are simply the record of all the things I had to learn, in trying to learn how to play the violin. The Basics book started because, after a year or two of teaching in the early 1980s at Wells Cathedral School and continually writing out the same exercises for students in their notebooks, I finally woke up one day and thought, why don't I write it all down just once, photocopy it and hand it to them? Thus the very first Basics book was born, and it was 20 pages typed, on a typewriter. Then I kept revising it and producing better copies of it. A few years later, I bought my first word processor and decided to make a better version of the Basics book. I thought it would take only a week, but it took three months. It went from 20 pages to 50 double-sided pages because I added all the things I'd been doing in lessons and in my practice in the meantime. A few years later, I got my first proper PC, and that was when I thought I'd make the real super-duper Basics book, which then eventually led to it being published.
Basics and Practice books are just glorified lesson notebooks. If you had five years' worth of lessons and if you went to the trouble of writing down everything at the end of each lesson, you'd end up with a pile of hand-written notes. And if after five years you collated them and put them into order and gave them nice bold headings, what you'd end up with would be these books.
Laurie: What are some of the top exercises in the books?
Simon: Many people ask me that, and it is difficult to answer because I always want my pupils to do them all. But the intonation exercise, number 255, is perhaps one to mention. It is simple to prove how good it is: play, say, a three octave scale in A major; then practice number 255 for 10 minutes in A major; then play the scale again. The scale will be very much easier and more in tune. The question is: if you had practiced the scale itself for ten minutes, could you have improved it that much? Normally the answer is: no way. I always like to say that if there is a violin heaven-world, then Dounis, Flesch, Sevcik and all the rest are up there either shaking their fist at me in annoyance - because they did not think of it themselves - or else (hopefully) they are nodding encouragingly.
Then there are the tone exercises. I call these "million-dollar tone exercises," because they are worth a million dollars each. They will be in my Tone Production DVD, which is set to come out in about six weeks. Three or four of these were taught to me by Dorothy DeLay and Masau Kawasaki, the rest are my own combinations out of the basic exercises. But just 10 minutes a day doing these exercises in the first few weeks, then 10 minutes three times a week for a while, then once a week after that (or used briefly as a daily warm-up), is all it takes to utterly transform your tone.
Laurie: Tell me about the recording of the Brahms sonatas that you did with your father, Raymond Fischer. What's it like to collaborate with a family member?
Simon: We played the complete Brahms in Wigmore Hall in 1988 or '89. Prior to that we played them in at least six or seven music club performances around the U.K. Something about those sonatas remind me of my childhood, of my mother. I just love playing them to death, and to play them with my father. We played them in a big concert in Australia in 2004, and that was my first visit back to Australia since I'd left as a child. My mother passed away a long time ago, and so she never lived to see my career unfold in the way that it has. So it's very significant to be playing those pieces in Sydney with my father, as an adult.
As for Brahms, Benjamin Britten said that, once a year he would listen to a piece of Brahms just to remind himself how awful music can be. In the Brahms vs. Berlioz clash at the time, the composer Hugo Wolf, as a young man, wrote as a music critic to make some money on the side, and he wrote that in one cymbal crash from Berlioz you had more music than in the then-three symphonies (he hadn't written the fourth yet) of Brahms put together. This is what he wrote! All I can say is that if these people do not understand Brahms, then what can you say to explain it to them? I just can't be bothered.
Laurie: I actually love Brahms. He's one of my favorite composers.
Simon: Mine, too. The second piano concerto, the piano quintet, the clarinet quintet, the fourth symphony, the second symphony....
Laurie: ...and the first and third as well!
Simon: The first and third! And the fiddle concerto! I have to say I'm not the greatest Benjamin Britten fan...I would exchange the entire works of Benjamin Britten for one of the violin sonatas, any day, without thinking twice about it!
Laurie: Now one last question, I hope you'll indulge me. I know that you've played a lot of studio gigs, and also that you played with Sting. I'm a pretty big Sting fan – what was it like to work with him?
Simon: Yes I did play with Sting. The recording for Ten Summoners Tales took place at his house in Wiltshire -- it's a 16th century mansion that you have to see to believe. I don't remember this, but someone reminded me recently that at one point in the day I met Sting in one the hallways. "Nice place you've got here," I said. (Don't ask me why I said that, but I did.) He looked around thoughtfully, and said, "Yes, and I got it for a song. Well, two songs, actually!"
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