Itzhak Perlman: Variation on a Master Class

May 30, 2013, 10:45 PM · I think I see why living-legend violinist Itzhak Perlman isn't wild about traditional master classes.

"I don't like proper master classes," Perlman said. "The actual goal is for someone to sound really bad, then you say something, they sound great and everyone claps."

Instead, Perlman has some fun with the format, playing more of a game with the students, a bit like the class he gives in a video you can find on his website. How many different ways can you play a piece? It's at least one way to start the conversation about violin playing without making a victim of your student.

On Thursday at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, he had students play various pieces, then he had them experiment with playing them in different ways. "The most important thing to me in music is to know that we have a choice in how to play it," Perlman said.

Perlman brought his own students: Francesca dePasquale, Valerie Kim, Caroline Suh, Jennifer Liu, Doori Na and Niv Ashkenazi. Each of them played his or her current piece, and then he asked each to play it again in one of four ways: 1. Expressively intense; 2. Melodically lyrical; 3. Aggressively dramatic; and 4. lacking in expression. He kept this list on his iPhone, then showed each student which to play, so we in the audience wouldn't know.

Perlman, student and iPhone
Perlman shows Jennifer which way to play her piece
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School

After they performed, we guessed which way they were striving for, and he talked about how how successful they were, what worked, and what else they might have done.

First up was Doori Na, who played part of Mozart's E minor Sonata.

"The first bar is going to sound really horrible, and I'm going to say one word and then: Sunshine," Perlman said. Everyone laughed -- we knew it was not that kind of master class. In fact, his students all seemed very at ease with their superstar teacher: able to converse with him and experiment -- publicly -- with their playing. If we didn't exactly get to see how Perlman works with a student in a private lesson, we certainly could see the results: students who played well and seemed to have a healthy, undamaged sense of themselves.

Perlman explained to the audience that Mozart had written the Sonata that Doori was playing after the death of Mozart's mother. He had Doori try it "aggressively dramatic," which meant more vibrato, a driving spiccato and more bow speed.

"Of course, the goal is not for the audience to say 'vibrato here, bow speed there,'" Perlman said. But it's interesting for our purposes as violinists.

As his students played, Perlman continued to serve us little bits of wisdom and humor. When Valerie played "Introduction and Tarantella" by Sarasate, he mentioned that at a certain point, we've learned to play the violin, and it's time now to make music. If you make a plan for how you want a piece to go, you aren't signing a contract that obliges you to play it that way for the rest of your life. "I don't want to hear the plan -- I want spontaneity," Perlman said.

Niv played the second movement of the Brahms with lovely sweet tone, and Perlman said, "That was 'B,' for 'Brave.' Sometimes I think certain things should not be played when you aren't warmed up -- the second movement of the Brahms is one!"

An audience member later asked: What is good to play if you aren't warmed up?

"An A-major scale!" he said, without hesitation.

Perlman asked Francesca to play the second movement of the Bruch "lacking in expression," which she achieved by played with nearly no vibrato.

"During Bruch's time, they played it exactly like this, no vibrato or anything," he deadpanned. Okay, not so much, it's a Romantic piece, not period Baroque. But experimenting and "playing different ways illuminates what you want to do."

Perlman in class, laughing
Perlman and Francesca
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School

About vibrato: "For me, vibrato is like a fingerprint of a string player," Perlman said. It is where you find the player's individuality and where you see the variety in different players.

After his students had performed, Perlman took questions from the audience. The first one was, did he enjoy studying with Dorothy DeLay, the late Juilliard violin teacher and pedagogue for which the "Starling-DeLay Symposium" is named?

"I hated studying with her in the beginning," Perlman said. He'd always had teachers who told him exactly what to do, so when she said, "Sugar Plum, what is your concept of G#?" it drove him crazy! "Just tell me if it's out of tune! Tell me what to do and I'll do it!"

But he became a convert to her way of involving the student in the process of learning. "I think I now teach something like she did," he said, "although I don't say 'Sugar Plum'!"

When he hears student auditions, he looks for "somebody who can play a phrase and move me, someone interested in what is going on in the music. Sometimes it's just a small phrase that tells you, this person has an ear, this person recognizes what they are playing."

How many concertos should a young artist be able to play, at the drop of a hat? Six to eight, he said.

An audience member asked about the importance of theory. He said that theory and harmonic structure is important to learn, as a violinist, but in the end, the most important thing is to listen.

"Whether it's Frigidairian mode or Mixed-Up Lydian mode, it has to affect you viscerally," Perlman said. "When I perform, I have to tell the audience how I feel about the music. This is not a private affair, playing for an audience. It's a public thing. It's not like: 'I know what it sounds like -- none of your business!'"

Itzahk Perlman
Photo: Nan Melville for The Juilliard School

Of course, one never really knows how an audience member reacts to your playing. "I'm always curious about whether the same spot (in a piece of music) gives people the same goosebumps," Perlman said. "Growing up, I had some LP records, and there would be a spot where the record was all messed up because I had to hear it over and over again!"

"I also spent a long time trying to find the elusive wrong note that Heifetz played," Perlman said. He even should slow records down to 15 rpm to detect a mistake. "I found two. You know, when we were growing up, we were trying to avoid the fact that there was somebody who was God, who was perfect."

Perlman said that he still gets nervous to perform. "Nerves are something you don't get rid of, you just get familiar with."


May 31, 2013 at 08:00 AM · Very nice interview!

May 31, 2013 at 05:12 PM · Thank you! Very interesting! He has always been one of my favorites and a very friendly person too.

May 31, 2013 at 08:57 PM · Beautiful…I just sent this to my complete studio.

As always, thanks Laurie!

May 31, 2013 at 11:08 PM · Thank you!! Laurie! I love Itzhak. He's so down to earth with an awesome sense of humor, not a bad fiddler either! lol :)

June 1, 2013 at 01:59 AM · What a delight it is to read this article -- to hear of the kindness in his approach, and that he's encouraging students towards discovery and expressiveness in their playing.

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