interview with David Garrett: 'Legacy'

June 21, 2012, 4:58 PM · You might know David Garrett as a showman -- someone with a model's good looks who plays rock-n-roll in amphitheaters. After all, his last album was called Rock Symphonies; he's appeared on all kinds of TV shows, and he wound up with the Guinness World Record for playing Flight of the Bumblebee in 60 seconds.

But even if David has found great success and enjoyment covering tunes such as Smooth Criminal and performing the occasional stunt, he has never renounced his classical roots.

His new classical recording, Legacy, was released in the United States this month, and has been climbing the classical charts in Germany. It includes his performance, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ion Marin, of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler, as well as other works by Kreisler.

David Garrett

David writes in the program notes: "My home has always been classical music…I know of no adventure more thrilling than that of discovering the works of great composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and so many more. It is my hope and my wish that this album will help open the hearts of my listeners to the beauty of classical music."

We spoke over the phone several weeks ago, about his early years as a prodigy, about recovering from injury, about his Guadagnini and Strad violins, and about his attitude that performing should be joyful.

Born in Germany, David started playing the violin at age 4, mostly to be like his brother. "I always thought it was a cool thing to do because my older brother was doing it," David said. "It was typical for me to want to have the same things as he did, from clothes, to games, to the violin."

Unlike his brother, who was forced to learn an instrument, "I actually did want to play in the beginning."

Pop music -- which David certainly has embraced today -- did not meet with much approval from David's parents during his childhood. "It's not that they said, 'You're not allowed to listen to it,' but it was pretty clearly stated that it's not really something which is a quality product," David said. "I always felt almost embarrassed, at a certain age, listening to it. Of course, that's the most ridiculous thing, but when you're young, your parents have a big influence on you."

David was on that young classical prodigy track: he started winning local competitions at age five and playing in public at age seven. At age 10, he soloed with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was working with conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado by age 13. At age 14, he was signed to record for Deutsche Grammophon and proceeded to record Mozart Violin Concertos, Paganini 24 Caprices, Beethoven Spring Sonata, Bach solo works, and the Tchaikovsky and Conus Violin Concertos -- all by the time he was 17.

It was a lot of success for someone so young, but it was also rather stressful.

"I started having problems with my left arm, when I was about 15 or 16 years old," David said. "I pretty much had it until age 21, so that's almost 5 years. I would go on stage feeling miserable because I was in pain. I felt I couldn't really emotionally connect with music because physically, I was not free. It was a very difficult time in my life."

He couldn't convince his parents that he should see a doctor about the pain. "My father and my mother did not believe in seeing doctors," he said. "I was complaining, 'It doesn't feel right, I can't really move my hands properly.' But being a classical ballet dancer, my mom is kind of a tough cookie. She always said, 'Mind over matter.'"

Things did not get better, so after three years of pain, he went to the doctor on his own, at age 17. "It was just a combination of really bad stuff: the wrong positioning of the violin; practicing a lot; shoulder and neck problems and that went into the arms; a little bit of tendonitis here and there."

How did he get rid of it? First of all, he changed his daily practice routine to several 20- to 30-minute practice sessions, with breaks in between. "It's actually much smarter than practicing for two or three hours in a row," David said. "I find my brain does not function as well after a half an hour. For me, you have to be 100 percent there, physically and mentally. After 30 to 40 minutes, you kind of start practicing wrong. And there's only one thing which is worse than not practicing: it's practicing wrong!"

He also learned to re-position the violin, and he hit the gym.

"Violin playing is not necessarily the most comfortable and the most natural position, so you have to train your back, your whole body," David said. "You've got to be in shape, to be able to play two-and-a-half-hour shows. There's no way you can do this without physically being quite athletic."

What kind of physical activity has helped?

"I do a little bit of cardio, and mostly weight training, just really to get the right muscle groups," David said. "Of course I'm careful, in the sense that every motion is controlled. I'm not stupidly just pushing pushing pushing, I'm very aware what I do. But I do do the weights, and I push myself hard. I think its very important that you build up muscle groups; it really helps in the playing. Of course, I'm not going to go extreme and bulk up a lot; that would be counter-productive for playing."

"In the beginning, it feels uncomfortable and you think it's going to ruin your playing," David said. "But that's just because you've never worked those muscles. People give up too quickly. If you do this for three months, you will see a big difference -- you're going to be more relaxed. I even work out on the day of a show. Three hours before, I hit the gym hard; no problems."

And how does David mentally prepare for a show? He doesn't feel that it's so much mentally preparing as it is being fully ready. "You're either ready or you're not ready. Confidence is, in that sense, worked. You prepare yourself -- you practice, you make yourself comfortable with the piece, and then there's nothing you can do on the day of the show."

"All practicing is practicing your concentration, practicing performing," he said. "It's very important, not just to practice the piece, but to practice playing music. Then when you're on stage, try to make yourself as comfortable as possible. See the stage as your home, as your friend. Don't see it as something you feel uncomfortable with. And invite people to listen to music. It's a blessing to be playing for people, and you should enjoy it. Anything to do with nerves or not being secure with what you have to do is always going to lead to not performing as well. You have to know that you just play better if you're relaxed. You can't stop mistakes from happening. Of course when you practice and you're well with your concentration, they won't happen. But nerves only get in the way, they will not make it better. Once you realize that, you're not nervous."

In terms of teachers, David has worked with some of the strongest personalities and best players of the last century: Ida Haendel, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Itzhak Perlman. He started taking trips to London to see Ida when he was still very young.

"Ida is such a character," David said. She always insisted that she was not a teacher. "We would just listen to each other -- she played a lot for me, I played a lot for her. She always insisted that it's not about doing it her way. She wanted me to realize that she had really worked on her own interpretation. Then she would say, 'I put my thoughts into it, now show me what you want to say with it.' She would never say 'Do it like this,' or 'Do this fingering,' or 'Do this bowing,' or 'Phrase it that way.' It didn't matter if she liked it or didn't like it, but it was very important for her that I think about it for myself."

At age 18, David made a unilateral decision to move to New York to study with Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard. "I was readjusting my violin-playing, because I had been without a teacher for quite some time," David said. "Of course I saw Ida, but it was not very regular. So when I went to Juilliard, for me it was more about adjusting certain things that had gotten a little loose: bow arm technique, being aware of sound."

"You can play beautifully, but if you are not being heard properly through the orchestra, nobody will hear it," David said. "It's all about projecting and really being a serious soloist, and having the right physical position in order to get this sound. So that was what I learned mostly from Perlman."

It was at Juilliard that he won a composition competition in 2003 for a Bach-style fugue, and composition remains an important facet of his playing career, both in crossover and in classical music.

In his new album, "All the Kreisler pieces have been newly arranged by me and my good friend, Franck van der Heijden," Garrett said. Those pieces, which they have set to rich orchestration, include Praeludium and Allegro; Kreisler's version of 'Variations on a Theme by Paganini' by Rachmaninov; Caprice Viennois; Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Romance: Larghetto On A Theme By Carl Maria von Weber; Tambourin Chinois; and Liebesleid.

"We even put an organ in the background!" David said. "It kind of works, it really is that period, with that Bach kind of sound. I just felt the chords were so very choral-like, like in a Johann Sebastian Bach choral, so it fits," David said. "It was really nice, especially with the Corelli, to add some harpsichord. I was trying to go with the same basic idea which Kreisler intended, and just update it a little bit more."

The result, to me, is rather epic, check out the Praeludium and Allegro, a piece that I've never heard accompanied by anything other than a piano:

"Some of the pieces, they work beautifully that way," David said. "Of course, you can't just rewrite everything 'epic,' some pieces you have to just leave in that chamber music mode, there's no way to change that. But if it's possible, I'm of course a fan of making it substantial.

Even when David plays his big-ticket crossover concerts that feature popular music, he believes in hiring a substantial orchestra as well. "If I go on the road on a tour and it's basically me lining up the people, it's normally like 50 to 60 people on stage, which is a good solid symphony orchestra."

Why not just use a synthesizer for the pops concert?

"Because it sounds better with an orchestra, it sounds alive!" David said. "There's nothing more important than music being alive. You can't manufacture music, it needs to come out of the moment. It's like when you talk: you think in that moment, and you say something which means something to you. That's very important in music. Although we repeat the things, it always has to have conviction. With a synthesizer, it would just be repetitive, and I don't like that.

Also, "I never use anything but a classical violin, and I'll tell you why: I think the sound sucks from an electric violin -- for me, personally," David said. "If you know how to play the classical violin properly, the electric violin is not even five percent in comparison. Everything you need is in that instrument, to do any music you desire. "

What makes a violin great is its subtlety and range. "The colors, the different dimensions, the phrasing, going from little to everything -- these kinds of things, you cannot do with an electric violin. It's just a synthesizer sound, even if you play it live."

For acoustic, classical performances, Garrett uses his Stradivarius, the 1716 ex-Adolf Busch. For his crossover concerts he uses his Guadagnini -- the instrument that was strapped to his back when he fell down a flight of stairs after a 2008 performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the London Philharmonic, at the Barbican Arts Centre. He described the incident last year in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It had been a rainy day and the steps leading to the car park were wetter than I realized. Still wearing my flat-soled concert shoes, I lost my footing and took the entire flight on my back in classic slapstick fashion, riding the violin case like a sledge."

It was a devastating loss at the time, but he told me that now, "to be quite honest, it sounds the same because I went to a really, really good restorer and he did such a good job. It looks the same, too; but of course, value-wise, it kind of lost the special value." (He declined to name the New York luthier who restored his Guad to playing condition.)

David said that he sees his crossover shows as an opportunity to connect with young people and give his audiences new ways to think about music.

"I don't need to do educational concerts for the young people because I have so many young people coming to my shows," he said. "Basically, my educational concerts are my real concerts. I always talk about music, always explain what I'm doing, what my influences are, why I arranged something like this. For me, it is part of the show, to educate a little bit. People might see it only as entertainment, but my underlying goal of course is always to say something which has substance, which will kind of change the way that they listen to a piece."


June 22, 2012 at 09:10 AM · "I think the sound sucks from an electric violin"

Nice one! i should tell that to one of my students who wants his first violin to be an electric one. I told him they suck and that you can do everything with an acoustic violin aswell and better.

David Garrett is somehow a musical hero. I certainly don't like his faces during playing. I think its a little too much. But that comes with showbusiness I suppose.

I certainly think, that his ability to arrange and compose build his carreer, not his technical ability on the violin. This is something we all should think about when mindlessly playing our scales.

Can I write a fugue in bach style. Or a choral. What do I know about other instruments, their range and difficulties. Would I be able to write a orchestra piece?

That are definetely things one should spend more time on.

Its very interesting to read about his injury. I have at this time also problems with my left arm and fingers, since a week or so. But I have the luxury to be able not to practice for some days. But I certainly will have my neck checked, because I got the feeling its a major problem with violinists and it affects mainly the hands.

Big thumbs up for the interview! I see in some of my pupils how he communicates all (not just classical) music to young people. He really does a good thing for violin and music!

June 22, 2012 at 04:00 PM · Great interview!

June 22, 2012 at 06:15 PM · Thanks Laurie

Nice interview.

June 23, 2012 at 12:01 PM · I like Garrett's arrangements and willingness to stretch the violin genre. While he's not necessarily one of my favorite violinists he has an approach I can really appreciate. I think it's also great that he brings large groups together to play with him. Orchestras can bring such an exciting alive sound that you can't duplicate electronically. He is really helping to broaden classical music audiences and with the hiring of orchestras, employing other musicians.

But I also wonder what he would think about his playing back in 1997, i.e. more straight-up playing. How does he approach playing now compared to back then?

I suspect he might say he is pushing boundaries now, compared to back then when he was staying within himself.

But it seems to me that his playing back when he was younger was perhaps more from the heart and genuine.

David Garrett 1997 Mendelssohn Concerto

David Garrett 1994 Mozart Concerto

David Garrett 2007 Mendelssohn Concerto

June 23, 2012 at 05:37 PM · I think this videos show, how important the personality of one person is for the path they are going. I think he was always a stage person, he just changed his style and his facial expressions changed with it. Still there is always a strong visual communication.

on the other hand his story shows us, that the technical and musical foundation is key to everything. He could not be anything without his background in classical music.

Also he is used to success. Such people will never end up in small pubs drinking beer while playing. He will always push it to be heard. With great success so far!

I personally wouldn't buy his recordings but I would listen to them if I can.

But thats not against him, I just prefer old reordings.

June 25, 2012 at 03:00 PM · Great interview with a brilliant musician who has a mission.

Thanks, Laurie, for your support in broadening the field—brava!

June 26, 2012 at 03:33 PM · Garrett was kind of demolished by the classical world a while ago due to some incident during an edition of the Verbier festival where he performed a less than stellar Beethoven. But I think we must admit that this guy can really play the violin, in particular has an amazing projection (which, as he says in the interview, he learned to achieve from Perlman).

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