Dorothy DeLay: Nobody Ever Said 'No' to Midori

October 25, 2021, 7:29 PM · EDITOR'S NOTE: Monday was Midori's 50th birthday - happy birthday, Midori!
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On a couple of occasions after I finished studying with Dorothy Delay, I went to New York to watch her teach at the Juilliard School. On both trips I sat with her all day every day for a week, and between the lessons we would chat about the students. At the end of the day, often as late as 10 p.m., she would drive me home to my apartment in Manhattan.

Every time we arrived at my address and she parked outside, she would turn the engine off and sit back. It had been the same when I studied with her. My lessons were often the last in the day, and she would drive me home each time then too. I used to love those chats in the car with her.

During the second of these observation visits, the very last lesson I saw was with the Japanese-American violinist Midori, who was then aged 14. Midori’s mother was there too. I can’t remember who the pianist was.

At that time, Midori was already almost a household name, chiefly because she had been featured on the front cover of Reader’s Digest when she was 12. She had shot to fame as one of the wunderkinds whom Dorothy Delay introduced to the violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) and to the conductor Zubin Mehta.

Stern was the main power behind both the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. Midori subsequently played the Paganini D major Concerto with the NYP in Avery Fisher Hall (now the David Geffen Hall) when she was eleven.

I heard her play when she first came to the United States. She gave a recital at Aspen in 1980 when she was a few months shy of ten years old. Everybody went to hear her. She was just about as high as the grand piano she stood next to, or perhaps a couple of inches taller. Luckily, I took a picture of her.

Midori 9
Midori, age 9, in recital at Aspen in 1980.

She played the Bach Chaconne and Paganini’s 17th Caprice. In the Bach, she had a memory slip in the long bariolage section, and improvised her way back into the right key. In the Paganini, her fingered octaves remain to this day the only time I have ever heard them in tune. Not Itzhak Perlman. Not Michael Rabin. None of the edited, recorded performances. Just Midori. Aged nine.

Dorothy DeLay
Dorothy DeLay, in the tent at Aspen in 1980.

Anyway, what does a high-powered lesson from one of the most famous teachers in the world, to one of the most famous young violinists in the world, look like?

The main part of it was when Miss DeLay showed Midori – or rather, Midori’s mother – how to stand Midori in front of the mirror in order to practice drawing the bow parallel to the bridge.

The latter consisted of dividing the bow into two halves – not by length, but from frog to the square position, and from there to the point – and playing very fast, single strokes with a pause after each one. I notated and developed that exercise and put it in my Warming up book.

About Midori’s mother: she had been an orchestral violinist who gave up her career in order to supervise Midori’s practice. From about the age of five, Midori did six to eight hours practice every day, 360 days or more each year, all of it with her mother sitting there helping her. It was the same with Sarah Chang, who also studied with Dorothy DeLay a little later on than Midori: Sarah’s father sat and practiced with her for eight hours each day from about the age of four.

So it was for that reason that after the lesson I am describing, Miss DeLay said to me that she was not Midori’s teacher, but that Midori’s mother was her teacher. I tried to suggest that perhaps Miss DeLay supplied the headlines, while the mother filled in the small print, and therefore Miss DeLay was indeed Midori’s teacher, but she didn’t seem convinced.

The lesson began with Midori performing the Chausson Poème. I use the word "performing" deliberately. It was an incredible performance. Yet before she started, she addressed Dorothy DeLay and me sitting on the sofa, and apologized. She had been studying the Chausson for only one week, she said, and had not heard the piece before that.

Then she played it from memory, without blemish from beginning to end. It had all the expression, pathos and climax that the piece requires. She had gone from start to finish (of course there is never any "finish" in making music, but here was a performance that could have been a one-take recording), in just one week!

Watching and listening to her playing just a few yards away, I found myself thinking that this was what it must have been like for people to hear Yehudi Menuhin when he was only a little older than Midori was now. It was then that he made the most fantastic recording of the Chausson Poème, conducted by George Enescu.

Then Midori played the Mozart E minor Sonata, K. 304. This seemed rather less impressive, at least in terms of musical grammar and vocabulary. After the lesson, I playfully remonstrated with Dorothy DeLay for not pointing out that occasionally Midori did not diminuendo the decorated appoggiaturas in the second movement. All Miss DeLay said to that was, "Oh, that’s a really interesting idea, sweetie!" But after that, Midori played Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate.

Now I was astounded all over again - especially in the movement with the thirds, which were so very fast her fingers were a blur. In the arpeggio passages, she flew up and down the fingerboard without seeming to notice the feats that she was achieving. It was all utterly easy for her.

At that time, I was many years away from the 17 years I spent as a professor at the Yehudi Menuhin School. There I witnessed many children playing jaw-droppingly well, and it is actually something that you get used to. But seeing Midori at that time, so close-up, was a new level for me in one so young.

After the lesson, when Midori and her mother had left the room, I looked at Miss DeLay incredulously.

"How is it possible?!" I asked her. "How is it possible to play the violin so easily and so well like that?"

Miss DeLay did not reply immediately, but thought for a few long moments. Then she looked back at me and said, "The thing about Midori is that nobody has ever said 'No' to her."

If I had nearly fallen off the sofa listening to the young Midori play the violin, this comment from DeLay really nearly had me on the floor. For I saw all at once, in a flash, how my mindset at that time, when I was navigating my way around the fingerboard, was all "No, no, no!"

When I was playing virtuosic arpeggio passages up and down the fingerboard, I would basically be shouting "No!" to myself throughout. When it came to passages of double-stopped thirds, I approached them with "No!" at my every attempt.

But Midori, in the split second before playing any of those virtuosic passages, was saying "Yes!" When she came to the double-stopped thirds, her mindset was, "Yes!"

So, what is the answer to this? It is the same answer as to every other question about how to develop technical and musical skills on the violin, and how to grow perpetually as an instrumentalist and as an artist.

The answer is two-fold. First, more and more "money" needs to be put in the violin "bank" – the bank of good technical habits. In particular, any exercises that increase navigational skills around the fingerboard should be practiced as much as possible, so that the intonation is secure whatever the group of notes you are playing, with any fingers, in any order, in any key, in any position, on any string – all without thinking about it.

Second, mental rehearsal. You have to build up images of yourself whizzing around the fingerboard with freedom and ease.

Looked at from one point of view, whether one habitually holds a "yes" or a "no" at the front of one’s mind could be a matter for a psychologist to solve. No amount of technical work is going to help.

But in fact, Nature can be very kind. In many areas of life, the moment we perceive our limitations they tend to be easily surmounted, or they just disappear, bursting like bubbles in the moment of the realization. The simple awareness that we are saying "no" to ourselves can signal the end of it, with no more work to be done on the subject, and we are then free to move forwards unhindered.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Simon Fischer's upcoming book, "The Fearless Performer."

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Replies

October 26, 2021 at 03:32 AM · Hi Simon,

this is an absolutely lovely article. I am often surprised Midori is not mentioned so much in the same breath as all the true great of violin history. I was lucky enough to hear her in recital here in Japan some ten years ago. At that time I would have been a little hard to convince that music can leave someone dazed for days. Except that I was and had a real struggle navigating my way home. Perhaps a once in a lifetime event like that is all anyone deserves :)

Looking forward to your book,

Buri

October 26, 2021 at 06:22 AM · Please stop writing such great books. I'm running out of money!

My left hand has felt "clumsy" lately, especially at the 4th finger, despite the fact that I'm practicing frequently and scrutinizing the basics constantly. Maybe this "no, no, no" thing is more the cause of these mishaps than some mistaken technical approach I'm trying to identify? I'm ever conscious of when a "4th finger moment" approaches; I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that these moments often fail. When I watch my left hand on video, it looks fairly comfortable, even during spots when I'm mentally uncomfortable, including spots that don't go so well. Something is getting in the way of me doing the thing I already know how to do. We practice, and "grind", and research, searching for a keener understanding, more agile facility, when these may already be in our grasp.

October 26, 2021 at 11:23 AM · My local NPR station (WUOT) did a tribute to Midori's birthday yesterday by playing her live performance of Shostakovich #1 with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. I can honestly say I've never heard anything quite like it. It was stunning. The final eruption of applause and adulation was so genuine and enthusiastic, I can only imagine the audience had been literally on the edge of their seats throughout the concerto.

October 26, 2021 at 05:25 PM · This is great info to think about - thank you! Having been stunned by the live recording of Midori, Carnegie Hall, and seeing her live a few years ago in recital, I agree with the sentiments that she is one of the all-time great players. Connecting this concept of "yes" with her playing makes a lot of sense.

October 26, 2021 at 05:28 PM · Yes, exactly, Diana. I had the privilege to hear Midori once live in a concert. I don't remember the concerto she played nor the orchestra nor where it was (many yers ago now). What I do remember vividly is her intensity, her power to hold the audience's attention, her engagement with the music. Her technical prowess, for all its greatness, counts for little compared to her extraordinary musicianship. I can't remember ever being remotely as impressed by a soloist in any of the other concerts I have attended.

As to not saying no to her: Really? "I want to go play outside!" or "I'll practice when I have finished my novel". Nobody ever said no?

I'd stipulate that her confidence is based on experience, not on parental behavior.

October 26, 2021 at 06:19 PM · This speaks to the idea that if you just learn something firmly and correctly the first time, especially if it's really foundational, then you never have to spend 10x the time undoing things later in order to fix your foundation, and consequently, you don't have to spend time in the "no" mindset that underlies dismantling the playing to build it back up, which can also pollute you with doubt.

I went to a masterclass of Midori's years ago, and it was excellently run and incredibly insightful.

October 26, 2021 at 08:30 PM · Great point Christian.

Show me a great violinist and I’ll show you someone whose practice was supervised from the start!

Cheers,

Buri

October 26, 2021 at 09:38 PM · Yes Buri, very true. But the supervisor of the practice undoubtedly saw the glimmers of talent that justified the time and expense. I have a good friend who plays everything. He even plays the big showpieces on the viola.(e.g Last Rose, Nel Cor etc.) His father was an orchestra violinist and taught him for many years and supervised his practice almost daily. But his father recognized perfect pitch an violinistic aptitude at a young age.

October 26, 2021 at 11:12 PM · As you say Corwin.

I often wish I could give longer violin lessons and spend a large part of the time just watching the student practice.

Cheers,

Buri

October 27, 2021 at 04:09 PM · Buri wrote, "Show me a great violinist and I’ll show you someone whose practice was supervised from the start!"

But that "someone" has to understand violin technique and a whole lot more -- musicality, repertoire, recordings, how to listen, etc. It's really not something every parent can do. Just to give one example, how many parents of young violinists can hear when thirds are out of tune even when played slowly. Be assured: Not all, and my guess is not even most.

Child -- teacher -- parent / practice coach. The trifecta.

October 30, 2021 at 10:50 AM · Paul Deck wrote: "But that 'someone' has to understand violin technique and a whole lot more -- musicality, repertoire, recordings, how to listen, etc."

I think this is true to a great extent. I'm a pianist by training but supervise/coach my daughter's violin practice. Even with a lot of background in chamber music, I still struggle to hear certain things with enough fidelity to give her the kind of feedback that would optimally help her. My radar for out-of-tune 3rds is pretty good. But other things, I'm sure, escape me.

But just looking around among parents of kids in our pre-conservatory program, there is an element of commonality among even the less musical parents - which is curiosity about the instrument, about the rep, and a willingness to dive in and try to understand. Even those efforts, incomplete though they may be, can work some wonders. At a minimum, it can elevate the level of discussions within this partnership.

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