Interview with Daniel Heifetz, Part 2: Touring as a soloist, then discovering a congenital nerve defect

April 25, 2016, 10:06 PM · This is PART 2 of a three-part interview with Daniel Heifetz. Click here to read:

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When Daniel Heifetz was 21, he received an invitation he could not refuse: the great violinist Henryk Szeryng, who was in his early 60s at the time, asked the young violinist to join him on a tour.

Upon arriving in Paris for the start of the tour, Heifetz checked into a hotel and "I started practicing like crazy because Maestro Szeryng was going to have me come into his apartment the next day to play for him," Heifetz said. While in his room he received a call.

It was Szeryng. "Daniel, (it's) Szeryng. What are you doing?" he asked. Daniel responded: "I'm practicing!"

"Put that violin down and get to the Louvre!" Szeryng demanded.

"He wanted to impress upon me the fact that it's not just sitting in your room, practicing your violin. It's who you are as a person," Heifetz said. "Here was one of the most cultured, cultivated human beings. I think he spoke 10 languages fluently. And he didn't speak just German, he spoke 'Hochdeutsch,' the highest, most sophisticated kind of German. Very worldly person. That was a tremendous experience."

His time with Szeryng was a tremendous musical experience as well. "I toured all over Europe and Mexico with him, and I had lessons with him constantly," Heifetz said. "We played the Bach Double together. Then we would go to a city or a country where he was performing as a soloist, and he would have me play for the conductor. He would accompany me on the piano, which was astounding. He would sit down and start playing the orchestra part to the Brahms concerto on the piano, while I played the Brahms. He was basically introducing me into Europe."

"I experienced the life of a solo artist touring the world, and I also saw how he handled it," Heifetz said. "I saw him backstage, I saw him the day of the concert, I had my hotel room just across the hall from him. I saw the whole thing -- how he packed his suitcases, so economical. I saw when he practiced, how he practiced, his rehearsals, the pianists he played with." Heifetz said it developed into a close relationship, almost like father and son, Heifetz said.

"By the way, I never saw him intoxicated," Heifetz said, referring to Szeryng's reputation as a drinker. "I was with him three months. He would have a drink, wine at dinner, a schnapps after a concert. But in my daily experience with him, he was never inebriated."

When the young Heifetz returned to the United States, he began touring for the famous artist manager Sol Hurok. One major concern at that time was having an adequate instrument. While at Curtis, Heifetz' parents had bought him an Andreas Guarnerius violin -- for $10,000. "Those were the prices then!" Heifetz said. "It had a fantastic lower register, but a little bit thin on the upper register." After winning the Merriweather Post Competition and before his debut at Lincoln Center, "I asked (Efrem) Zimbalist if I could borrow his Guarnerius del Gesù, and he said yes," Heifetz said, with some amazement in his voice.

After being signed by Hurok, "I went back to Zimbalist," Heifetz said. "I said, 'Mr. Zimbalist, I've got a career starting. Can I buy your del Gesù?'" Zimbalist -- near retirement at the time -- said yes. "He almost gave it to me," Heifetz said. "He took my Andreas as a trade-in, and with a minimal amount of money, I became the owner of the Zimbalist del Gesù. And what an honor."

Daniel Heifetz and Henryk Szeryng
Daniel Heifetz (left) and Henryk Szeryng (middle) compare Szeryng's del Gesù with the Zimbalist del Gesù, with a friend of Szeryng's.

Heifetz played on the instrument for nine years, then switched to a Strad on the advice of conductor Zubin Mehta, who felt Heifetz had more of the personality of a Strad player than a del Gesù player. He found the Strad at Jacques Francais' shop in New York, the 1722 "De Chaponay" Strad.

Heifetz' early performing career took him not only to concert halls, but also to some other interesting places.

"There was an organization called Pro Musicis in New York that was founded by a Franciscan monk," Heifetz said. "He wanted to see what it would be like to send a classical musician into a prison, so he created a tour with me and a French pianist. We were to perform in major concert halls in cities all across the country, but in every city, we would also perform in a prison."

They went to The Tombs in Manhattan. "This was in the early 70s, and there had been riots a few months before in that prison," Heifetz said. "So here I went, into that prison, with the Zimbalist del Gesù and with my pianist, the late Alan Marks.

Walking into the social hall they noticed that the wires in the wall were exposed. During the riots the clock had been ripped out. At the front was a broken-down upright piano, and the hall was filled with African-American and Latino prisoners. For two white musicians, "the tension was just horrible," Heifetz said. Wanting to break it, Heifetz told them that they'd be playing some soul music for them. "No, your soul music, I'm going to play Jewish soul music."

Heifetz recalls, "A large black prisoner in the front yelled, "What do the Jews know about soul music?"

Heifetz explained that he was Jewish, that his mother was born in Germany, and most of her relatives went to the gas chambers under Hitler. "The music of one persecuted minority group can be related to by any other persecuted minority group," Heifetz said, at which point that same prisoner raised up his fist and yelled, "Right on, brother!"

Through their performance, they formed a bond with that room full of prisoners. "We were one. I played the Bloch 'Nigun,' and they were crying," he said. "I played some Brahms, I played Ravel's 'Tzigane,' they were standing and screaming." The warden told them that the prisoners reacted more strongly to their performance than to a visit a few weeks earlier by Johnny Cash. "It was a life-changing moment for me in my career as a violinist. I realized that you don't need any sophistication, any musical education, any cultural exposure, to 'get it,' when it's delivered on a basic level of humanity, of your guts, of enthusiasm, of openness, of a desire to connect and to share. None of that stuff is important. You can get the message, you can feel the power and the magic of what we call classical music."

Daniel Heifetz

Another moment of clarity for Heifetz came when he was performing a recital at the University of Vermont's longstanding Lane Series of concerts. "Burlington) is one of the biggest college towns, about 40,000 students at the University of Vermont," he said. "I noticed it was a packed audience, all of townspeople. But there were no college kids there."

The next morning, a Vermont winter snowstorm cancelled Heifetz' plane. "How do you make the best of a bad situation?" He decided call the coffeehouse at one of the dorms. "I spoke to the manager of the coffeehouse, and I told him, 'Hi, this is Daniel Heifetz, I'd like to come over with my fiddle, in my jeans, and if it's conducive just take it out and play a little bit.' And he got very rude, he started yelling at me, he said, 'Who is this? I was at Heifetz' concert last night and no artist of that stature is going to come to my coffeehouse!' and he hung up."

"What I realized is that people don't think we're accessible," Heifetz said. "So I went to the coffeehouse with my pianist, and my violin, in our jeans. The manager almost fainted when he saw me and apologized profusely." Heifetz found tables and chairs, a little platform in the corner with a chair and a spotlight. There were only two kids in the coffeehouse, and he started to warm up, playing Bach's Chaconne. "As I was playing, I noticed students filing in. So I kept playing," he said. "By the time I finished, there were 150 kids packed into this coffeehouse, they were applauding me." So he got creative. He played the Chaconne again, but this time he narrated it, describing how the music asks questions and gives answers, how it builds to a climax, how it has moments of tenderness. "I went through a running dialogue of the whole piece, and by the time I'd finished, the students went crazy. They forced me to go upstairs into the lounge, where there was a piano, and they made me play my whole recital program until 2 in the morning, talking to me between every piece."

"This was the same program that they did not attend the night before, a program they thought would be boring, stiff, no emotion, just an old kind of fuddy duddy kind of thing," Heifetz said. "It was a revelation to them, and it was an amazing experience for me and my pianist."

Unfortunately, his manager did not see it the same way. The next day his manager called and said, "Danny, what did you do? I've heard you played the coffeehouse, don't you ever do that again! People will think you play coffeehouses!" Heifetz disagreed. "They don't get it!" he told his wife after the call. "I just expanded the audience for classical music by 150 young people, and yes, I should do that again if the situation arises. Those 150 kids are going to go to the next concert in the Lane Series, and I hope it will be a colleague who has that ethos, to make it exciting."

Heifetz lived the intense life of a solo artist for nearly 20 years, touring all over North America, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Then one evening in the 1980s, something happened that changed the trajectory of his life. "I was on stage, performing the Prokofiev G minor Concerto with the Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov. As I was playing, my little finger fell off the fingerboard, and I almost dropped my bow. Both of my little fingers in both of my hands became numb."

What could be happening? Heifetz went to Johns Hopkins for nerve conduction tests. The neurologist would zap him near his neck and shoulders, then time how long the nerve impulses took to get to his fingertips. "They discovered that over 50 percent of my nerve impulses were being blocked at both of my elbows, which was extraordinary," Heifetz said. For the first time, he cancelled some concerts. "I went in for emergency surgery," he said. The surgeon discovered a severe problem with his ulnar nerve. "The ulnar nerve is your funny bone, and it lies in the groove in your elbow. When you bend your arm, it sinks into that groove in your elbow, and that's how it works." It controls, almost completely, what violinists call the third and fourth fingers (pinkie and the finger beside it), in either hand. "The ulnar nerve is white, and the width of a small pencil," Heifetz said. "When the doctor opened me up, he discovered both of my ulnar nerves in both of my arms were the width of a thread, and fire-engine red. He was under a local anaesthetic, and the doctor told him right then: "Mr. Heifetz, you were born with a congenital birth defect in your elbows. The groove in your elbow that the ulnar nerve lies in when you bend your arm, is too shallow on both of your arms. Every time you've bent your arms, you've compressed your ulnar nerve. How have you been able to play the violin? You've never had the full use of your hands!

Heifetz was in a state of shock. At the same time, knowing this condition explained a lot of things. "I'd spent my life as a solo artist, under constant, anxious practicing, not knowing that I had a handicap," Heifetz said. "Every day, I had to re-claim my mastery. I saw second- third- and fourth-rate fiddlers pick up their instruments and just run their fingers, which I could never do. I always had to 'get it going.' And I also never understood why playing the first movement of a concerto felt great, then the second movement I started feeling something giving up, in terms of tiredness in my hands. By the third movement, I felt like I was kind of pushing my hands. It felt like the eight hours a day of practicing would get me through it, but it was on adrenaline, and under tremendous anxiety because my hands never felt right."

"There was never pain. I didn't know why, all I knew was that my hands weren't working," Heifetz said. He had thought it was an inadequacy in his practicing, so he practiced more. And that made it worse.

You can still see the scars on both of Heifetz' elbows from the surgery. "I don't have a funny bone any more," he said. "They took the ulnar nerve and laid it under the skin. Which meant that when I would bend my arm, it wasn't being pulled across a shallow bone."

The surgery helped, but only to a degree. "I realized that I just could not keep doing the things that I'd always done," he said. "There was such severe nerve damage that the more I played, the worse it got. It wasn't like earlier in my career. It lasted for 30 years but when it finally blew, my ulnar nerves said, 'We're done.' Then it starting becoming more severe."

"Starting in '89, I started pulling back from the major concerti, and even the recitals," he said.

It was time to get flexible, to look inward. He asked himself, "What aspects of my personality can I bring to a program, in a way that won't stress the numbness in my hands, and I still really enjoy making music?" He created something called the "Classical Band," a string quartet with a double bass and a piano-harpsichord player. He created programs in which he did more talking with audiences, allowed younger artists in his band to have the spotlight, and spent more time putting pieces into context. For example, playing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," Heifetz went through the poems and demonstrated the special effects the composer himself called for. Heifetz did programs with singers and various instrumentalists, including a banjo player. They were programs tracing the roots and history of various kinds of music.

"These concerts became very successful, but it got to the point where I was having more anxiety, even playing the Four Seasons, which is all very easy for me," Heifetz said. "That was overtaking my joy of performing. I said to my wife, Janne, "For me to continue performing, with it not being pure joy, I would be continuing my solo career because of ego, rather than the joy of playing my music."

"That's when I decided to retire."

NEXT: PART 3: Daniel Heifetz Starts the Heifetz International Music Institute

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April 27, 2016 at 12:03 AM · Thanks so much for this information about the nerves! I've been learning that hand and forearm problems can come from damaged nerves in the neck and upper back. This is one more example of trouble that needs attention to get real help.

And a great person to further to message of classical music, too. Thanks so much, Laurie and Daniel.

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