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Laurie Niles

2011 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard: Master Class with Itzhak Perlman

June 4, 2011 at 5:00 AM

NEW YORK - Have you ever tried to do something musically on the violin, and it just doesn't come out? Maybe you haven't analyzed what technique creates the musical language you aim to speak through your violin.

This idea was at the heart of a masterclass given by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies on Tuesday.

Techniques are just tools that allow us to do what we want in music, Perlman said.

"Every time you do something technical, you hear it," Perlman said. It's important to know what you're doing musically, and technique is the tool you use to make it come out. "Every minute thing you do will make you sound different, which is good news."

With this in mind, Perlman had his private students play their current pieces for the audience at the symposium, then he gave them a tasting menu of ways to play the pieces: intense, relaxed, melodic, or "show-off." He whispered which he wanted them to try, then we, the audience, had to guess what they were doing.

One student, Doori Na, who played a very intense Sibelius, was then asked to played it "relaxed." Afterwards, Perlman thought the vibrato was still a little too fast to sound "relaxed."

"When vibrato is very fast, the sound breaks more often, when vibrato is slowed, it's less interrupted, less often," Perlman said. Less breaks creates a more relaxed feeling. He had him try it with a slower vibrato, then with no vibrato.

"When you play without vibrato, it really forces you to play in tune," Perlman said, "with vibrato, you have more…variety.

Michelle Ross, playing the first movement of the Elgar Concerto, was asked to try being a "show off." She played in a very demonstrative way, with much more liberty, hamming it up and tossing off runs quickly. The audience roared with applause. 

Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

"I interpreted 'show off' as doing things not for musical reasons, but just to get a rise out of people," Michelle said.

"Well you got a rise out of them!" Perlman deadpanned.

Another student, Sean Lee, was asked to play his Strauss Sonata "melodic." After he finished, Perlman asked him what he did to make it sound that way."I tried to keep the line smoother, and to make a longer line," Sean said.

Perlman asked if it was easier to play the piece, having something like "melodic" in mind.

"It's easier, when I know what I'm going for," Sean answered.

"Does that mean you normally don't know what you're going for?" he said, joking. The idea is to know what you're going for, and cultivate the technique to get there.

After the master class, Perlman answered questions from Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis. First, Brian mentioned that we'd just seen a video about Dorothy DeLay, "We saw you in a different outfit," referring to a scene in the video that showed Perlman's appearance some 20+ years ago at Ms. DeLay's birthday party, looking much like DeLay herself. Perlman raised an eyebrow toward the audience.

Perlman is arguably Ms. DeLay's most famous student, but he said that at first, he wasn't too fond of her tendency to throw questions back at her students and let them make so many of their own decisions.

But he's found her ideas useful in his own teaching. For example, what if a student plays very well, and you are not sure what to say, as a teacher?

"If you have an iota of doubt, just ask, 'What do you think?'" he said. "From Ms. DeLay, I got the attitude of involving the student in the process."

Brian asked him, what is the most important thing about being a teacher?

"Be mean," Perlman said. "Make sure they are scared of you."

Okay, not really. "Be nurturing, supportive," he said, "know when to say something, and when not to say something."

He said that the worst thing to tell a student about a technical passage that went well is that they played it well.

"If it's good, I'd rather not comment, just let it be there," Perlman said.

He said that Dorothy DeLay influenced the way he listens to his own playing.

"The minute you listen well, you can control more," Perlman said. For example, when your record yourself, and you hear yourself play, you usually make some surprise realizations. "It's never, 'Yeah, I know, that's the way I sounded.'"

Brian asked Perlman which violinist he admired, when he was young.

"I listened to everyone," Perlman said: Fritz Kreisler, Misha Elman, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz… "I got something from everybody."

For example, during a period when he listened to David Oistrakh, "I would do portamentos all the time." Then he started listening to Isaac Stern, and "I stopped vibrating." Listening to Kreisler, his playing took on a lilting, inward feel, "like you're sitting in a little room with a fire." Milstein inspired him to be clean, in tune, articulate.

"The danger is not to get too obsessed with just one person," Perlman said. If one violinist's playing gets into your system too much, "then you have to get an exorcist!"

From Christian Vachon
Posted on June 4, 2011 at 11:49 AM


Thanks for that blog Laurie!  I love Perlman; everything about him is such an inspiration.  This advice is a bag of diamonds in terms of information!

Thanks for sharing all of this with all of us who do not have the privilege to be there.


From Emily Liz
Posted on June 4, 2011 at 3:07 PM

"The danger is not to get too obsessed with just one person," Perlman said. If one violinist's playing gets into your system too much, "then you have to get an exorcist!"

Haha, so true... I also think it's important not to get too obsessed with one time period, since we have such a long recorded legacy to draw upon. Each era brought its own stars and language.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 4, 2011 at 3:23 PM

I agree with almost everything Perlman said!  Though not for the last thing.  Truly obsessing is always bad, of course.

By Obsessing, I mean as some crazy Elvis or Jackson fans who would have their houses full of pictures of them and pay high ammounts of money to buy anything that is related to their idols, dress like them etc...  But do these manias exist as much in classical music???

But having a great admiration for one person's art    i.e. an all time favorite player can be a good thing if you do not copy them and still listen to other violinists as well!  Sometimes, it just happens that you really prefer someones playing most of the time (very objectivly) and it just naturally becomes your favorite artist. 

You may though try to experiment to find that "sound type" as many players can share a "general way of sounding".   As Perlman said "relaxed, intense, show off"  I would add "golden"

What is totally stupid is those who have favorite artists and think all the others are no good and start youtube wars over this!  That is personal taste and not arguable.  One has to be mature ennough to recognise talent and give credit even if it's not your favorite artists or interpretation...


And for those quite odd who would really try to copy every possible detail of their favorite player I would tell "do you really think you have a chance at that game..."  except if you have the same teachers, the same body type, the same context etc it's just impossible even for the talented to become someone's clone! : ) 

But that's another topic...


Thanks Laurie for that interesting blog!

From Royce Faina
Posted on June 6, 2011 at 5:07 PM

I sometimes wonder if Perlman gets a bigger kick doing these master classes with the young violinists more so than they do having him give them? He seems like someone who enjoys young people!


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