Playing styles

June 26, 2009 at 01:22 AM ·

I never had any conflicts with my teacher for the first 1.5 years I studied under him. I did nothing but scales, études and technical pieces (such as Paganini's Moto Perpetuo) during that time. It was very frustrating, but ultimately worth the effort. I feel my technique is quite secure nowadays: I can play a piece such as Bazzini's Round of the Goblins without much difficulty, and major concerti no longer seem technically daunting.

With most technical aspects resolved, he turned to sonatas and concerti, and their musical approach. This is where the conflicts started: my teacher hates any violin music recorded before the 1950s, and even then, modern violinists are sacrosanct to him. He has refered to Heifetz (my personal idol, for musical reasons) as a purely technical show-off with no thought for the musicality  he admires in modern performance. My jaw was close to dropping when he trashed Milstein's recording of the Stravinsky concerto, and proceeded to praise Vengerov's, out of all people.

I find myself in the opposite sphere. Heifetz is my absolute idol for his intensity and sensuality, but I find Oistrakh to be a master of poetic nuance, and the rubati and glissandi of Kreisler or Elman are extremely musical to my ears, while my teacher finds them cheesy and unmusical (this seems to be the general opinion of 2009's violin world). I will often have musical ideas which my teacher angrily rejects: the whole 'modern' aesthetic suffocates me. I'm aware of the fact he won't have control of me forever, but even when I stand on my own as a musician, how would competition jury members and critics react to someone like me? Am I an unmusical retrograde, or is there a point to my way of thinking?

Replies (31)

June 26, 2009 at 01:30 AM ·


well, although you are presenting your teacher as extreme I can`t help feeling you are also thinking this way in some cases. For example you state that the majoprity of Violnists of 2009 think Kreisler and Elman cheesy.  I venture to suggest that most of today`s young players who have actually heard them (in itslef a rarity at times) are bowled over by much of Kreisler and I don@t think they are so critical of Elamn either.  Perlman praise dhis use of bow quite genuinely on the Art of Violin Video.  Ms Hahn has also praised older players such as Huberman in a variety of formats.   

The simple answer is possibly don`t disucss violnists with your teacher.  Accept you like differnet things.  If there is a deeper issue or conflcit going on then perhpas you need ot refelct on that and see how importnat it is to you in the long run.  Actually,  of all the teacher si studied with both before and after college very few of them discussed othe r@players,  perhaps recognizing thta it does all boil down to personal opinion and taste. 



June 26, 2009 at 11:30 AM ·

Sorry for a disgretion, but Milstein's recording of Stravinsky's concerto? When?

June 26, 2009 at 11:55 AM ·

i knew of a teacher that did as you say your teacher is doing, knocking these violinist and praising those.  However!  Students began to imitate his viewpoints, just because he must be right.  At the end of the school year he came in a room and was a totaly different person.  He intentionaly did as he did for the reason that if you love a certain violinist (s) can you honestly point out what's truthfuly good about them, and not just because of their hype!  And some things he praised which were in fact not so good... who would have the courage to disagree and honestly tell why it is not good! Formulate your oppinions based on the facts and truths and stand up for them!  Now I hope that this makes since and I don't know if your teacher is doing something like this?  But it is food for thought.  Don't argue, but if you think you are right you may can just simply say, "Well.... I disagree. Period!"

June 26, 2009 at 02:02 PM ·

My personal feeling is that you can't be Heifitz, Milstein or even Vengerov.  You can only be Tomás Costa.  So you need to play like HIM.  Music is an expression of your own heart and soul ... and brain!  But don't discount your teachers perspective just because it differs from your own.  You need to keep your mind open as well.  You don't want to become dogmatic as well.  Try it his way first before resisting it.  If it doesn't work or it doesn't satisfy your artistic expression, let him know ... talk about it.   Don't take his dislike of your personal heros personally.  Music is probably right up there as one of the top 10 most subjective things in human experience.  Condider that your love of these old masters you mention is because that was your early exposure perhaps, and what you learned to internalize. 

I guess what I'm saying is don't limit yourself to one way of doing things.  I can't speak for what auditioners and juries will want to hear ... my crystal ball is in the shop awaiting parts.

June 26, 2009 at 02:13 PM ·


I think that you are entirely right and your teacher is entirely wrong.  A mind that is open to consider opinions opposite to one's own is basically a good thing, but opening one's mind to the extent that it empties the head is not a good thing.

June 26, 2009 at 04:27 PM ·

Carlos - it is on the same CD as the Schönberg concerto... :)

Tamas - my answer is going to be a boring one. Do as you teacher says. There is a reason that he is the teacher and you are the student. I came to the same problem when I went to my first masterclasses and the Master wanted me to vibrate on every note in Bach. I hated it and told him so. But he told me to give him a chance and see if there where atleast something I could learn from his approach´. He quoted Menuhin who didn't like the Schönberg fantasy but wanted to learn it from Gould since Gould loved it, because if you are suppose to learn anything from anyone, make sure that you learn what _they_ are good at, not what they are bad at.

If you listen to any of the great old masters you will see that they could play in so many different ways, and even if your teacher don't know how to teach all of them make sure that you learn what _he_ can. No matter if you like it or not it will be rewarding. I still never play bach with all vibrato, but I learned how to do it on multiple voices and on fast passages and that I use in other pieces. And I am greatful for that I have learned that.

June 26, 2009 at 05:14 PM ·

Mattias: sorry for insist, but Stravinsky and Schoenberg Milstein? Please, can you tell me

the dates and label?

June 26, 2009 at 05:59 PM ·

Sorry Carlos, bad joke. Of course he didn't record them. Or else we would have them :)

June 26, 2009 at 07:34 PM ·

So, the reference of the teacher about Stravisnky's Milstein is proof enoght that he don't have the slightest idea on what he is talking about, and he's a fool.

June 26, 2009 at 08:06 PM ·


I have that recording.


Oooops,  sorry. Its by Nathan Mulledwine and its the Stanislavsky concerto.  Serves me right for buying on the prune label.



June 26, 2009 at 08:30 PM ·

Yes, Stanislavsky's concerto demands you to act for about 40 minutes as you were playing the violin. Or you can choose to play the violin for about 40 minutes as you were playing Hamlet.

June 26, 2009 at 08:46 PM ·

I strongly disagree with your teacher

I agree with you on this


The great masters are 85% of the time better than modern musicians. The only modern violinists that are better than old violinists are Clayton Haslop, Julia Fisher, and ANNE SOPHIE MUTTER.




Heifetz, Milstein, and Oistrakh are incredible!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

June 26, 2009 at 08:48 PM ·

How could somebody call Kreisler cheesy and unmusical????????????????????

June 26, 2009 at 10:02 PM ·

The same kind of person who call Heifetz cold and inexpressive.

June 26, 2009 at 10:56 PM ·

This is very interesting in light of other discussions that  have been posted on here regarding older masters and more modern approaches to playing. I think there may be trends but people still seek out musical personalities that rise above the commonplace. Like painters with the same primary colors and the same piece of canvas and brushes,  great musical artists will use the bow and the expressive devices of the left hand to express themselves with great diversity and singularity. When you consider all the factors involved from bow speed, to proximity to the fingerboard, to amount of weight used, to choices in portamenti and fingering and bowing and where to slow down or speed up or linger on a note before moving forward and how to stylize a rhythm to be idiomatic to the style of the composer or his or her nationality, and many other factors, you begin to realize that there really is an awful lot that goes in to making each note of each piece expressed in a coherent way that is true to your understanding and interpretation of the music. One person's rushed rhythm is another's  appropriate impetuosity. One person's narrower vibrato for intensity and fiery sound is  for another too nervous or excitable . One thing I think we can say about the great players of the past is that their reputations have stood the test of time. And none of us would be where we are today without their influence and benefit. It is hard to think of  the world of  violin playing without Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, Kreisler, Szigeti, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Francescatti,  Szeryng, Grumiaux,  and many others. It would be much the poorer. They mattered and still do. They all made their imprint on us and the least we can do is acknowledge the value of their contributions and approach the music with the same spirit of selfless dedication and love that they had.  Surely, your teacher realizes this.

June 26, 2009 at 11:10 PM ·

This is find Thomas! I am myself super old fashion in my setup... gut strings on D and G and play with the no shoulder rest technique.  My violin is very dark and even sound old fashion (not as beautiful...  : ) but the same family of sounds, colors)

I have modern idols but slightly more from the period you refer too.  There is no problem with this.  Stand with this.  Don't talk about it with your teacher if you wish to keep him (if he is good), but listen to all these master at home + play the way you want (if the tempo and dynamics are ok and truthful to the composer, there is no reason why you can't add your personal touch for the rest. Vibratos, sound colors etc)

Good luck!

Maybe your teacher is a jealous, maybe he wants to control too much his students! Who knows...

June 26, 2009 at 11:55 PM ·

Stephen Brivati - I think that in a way it compares to contemporany composers. They might praise Bach, but they would never compose like him. I don't discuss violinists with him, only musical ideas: it merely happens that my musical ideas fit more with the old world than with the new. They're not specific imitations.

carlos majilis - I haven't heard it either. My teacher merely mentioned it.

Royce Faina - I've expressed my disagreement many times, invariably leading to his anger and frustration (though he's usually a calm person).

Steven Albert - The thing is, Tomás Costa's natural habitat is that of those old masters, instead of today's performers. I always form my own approach to pieces - it just happens to not fit the modern mold. As to doing it his way, it's what I've been doing all the time - or else! My love for old masters only came relatively late: I was only exposed to modern musicians for many years.

Mattias Eklund - My teacher has certainly taught me many valuable things - mostly technical, but I've honestly liked some of his musical ideas. Liking them is the exception rather than the norm, though.

Ryan Frania - I'm torn when it comes to Mutter. My teacher adores Julia Fischer, though I find her to be dull. I haven't heard of Haslop, I'm afraid. As to your PS, I agree 100%. And yes, I have no idea how people think Kreisler is cheesy and unmusical, but I've met many people who do feel that way.

Ronald Mutchnik - My teacher's philosophy is that of a 'contract'. There is freedom of interpretation, but within certain rules, just like citizens of democratic countries have freedom within the boundaries of law. But not even (most of) those rules are clearly defined and absolute. The musical approach of many musicians of the old age is not idiomatic to my teacher.

Anne-Marie Proulx - Haha, I'm not sure.

June 27, 2009 at 12:42 AM ·

Hi, If you don't like your teacher, dump him and find another.

June 27, 2009 at 02:29 AM ·

David Allen - I wouldn't go as far as that. For starters, there's really no one better in Portugal: I've played for many others and none had his tact, his experience or his resumée. He's done more for my technique in a year than I had in the nine years I'd studied before I went to him. It's just a matter of disagreeing on certain musical things. My hope is to fix those disagreements, not to dump him.

June 27, 2009 at 06:54 AM ·

OK, so he's a keeper. It sounds as if he knows how to increase your technical abilities. Now that he's dealing more with interpretation why don't you use that as a jumping off point to explore his statements. In other words, exactly why is one interpretation better in his view? What's wrong with a little fire or emotion? Is he against it entirely or is it a particular piece? Have him give you an alternative example of how he feels a piece should be played and just as importantly, why it should be played that way. Use your time with him to YOUR advantage and pick his brain while you can. As you say, it won't be forever. Learn to play it his way AND your way. It can only make you a better, more versatile player. That, after all, is what you are paying him for and may be what he is trying to do.

June 27, 2009 at 01:07 PM ·

I like what David Allen says, and as far as your teacher getting upset, there is an exspresion which goes, "Don't waken a sleeping giant".  Know what triggers his anger/frustrations and avoid it.  It just wastes time which could be spent on more productive things.

June 27, 2009 at 02:32 PM ·

There's no reason to agree with your teacher, but I would suggest being respectful of what he likes or does not like.  You are there to get the most of what he has to offer and his opinions come as part of that package.  This does not mean that you have to like what he likes and dislike what he dislikes.  You are evolving into becoming an independent musician and the fact that you disagree only shows that you are growing into a thoughtful performer... so this is a good thing. 

Many times I have felt that a teacher has pushed an interpretation on me that I didn't quite agree with.  But the perfectionist in me strived to do it their way as best as I could.  Why not?  As a performer I should be able to interpret something in many different ways until my own way surfaces.  In my teacher's studio I do as I'm told.  After I leave his/her care I'm on my own and can do as I please.. only now I'm equipped in a better way.

You know why I don't like Wagner?  Because I studied the heck out of his operas.  Listened to them, played them, I can identify any leitmotif, blah blah blah.  Therefore I now have the right to dislike his music - my opinion comes from knowledge, not from ignorance.  Same thing here - try it his way and then later you'll have more command of how you play.

June 27, 2009 at 06:32 PM ·

Hello Tomas,

I’d normally resist in a public forum but I can’t help myself from saying that if the situation is just as you describe it, I find your teacher’s attitude very troubling and makes my hair, of which there is plenty as yet, stand on end. I can imagine a scenario where you play everything in hyper-Romantic style and your teacher reacting to that. But as you present this, I think he’s sadly misguided and narrow-minded in terms of his tastes, and beyond that the notion that he gets angry with you for having different tastes is very negative. I find that, despite what Buri said, there are unfortunately far too many advanced students who don’t know nearly enough about historical players like Elman and Kreisler, which means they are out of touch with a whole way of playing, of making the violin sing, speak, dance...I’ve never yet come across a student whose playing wasn’t enriched by awareness of these older generations. That isn’t to say that there aren’t current players to admire, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive! Of course the student should heed the teacher, but within fundamental musical frameworks once the teacher is dealing with matters of interpretation he/she should be opening up the student to the possibilities of the music and making the student think. Once everything is technically in place and they understand the key musical aspects, I expect my students to come up with their own ideas, to understand the implications of the different possibilities (phrasing, colouring, bowings, fingerings, etc), to express their own personality and to be able to justify their own musical choices. How much independence the student should be given obviously depends on how advanced/mature they are, but they shouldn’t be repressed from having their tastes, especially when this comes from broader rather than narrower knowledge.
Don’t let yourself be steamrolled about this!

June 27, 2009 at 07:56 PM ·


>here are unfortunately far too many advanced students who don’t know nearly enough about historical players like Elman and Kreisler, 

I think that was more or less what I said or implied;)

I remember being at music college and walking passed a music shop window where a sign was up saying `Heifetz has died.` I walked around in a daze for about an hour.  It just didn`t feel like it should have happened.  Then I went back to the college and of all the students I mentioned it to some had had not even heard of him!



June 27, 2009 at 10:07 PM ·

Geez Buri!!!!!!

Sad but true!

June 27, 2009 at 10:16 PM ·

Sorry Buri, yes I misread you. Temporarily blinded by my irritation...Something prunes might alleviate, if only I enjoyed them even just a little bit. N.

June 28, 2009 at 03:50 AM ·

I've never had this problem, but for some strange reason, I reacall an experience with language that may make sense to you.
I'm a native English speaker, but at one time, I studied both German & French. I felt a bit superior because I was learning both... until I ran into a gent who let me down with humor; he wa also a native English speaker, but my attitude must have brushied him wrong; so he tole me a joke in German, speaking with a French accent. I was instantly humbled...

It could be your instructor is trying to get you to look at the modern approach, even to the old works; trying to see them in a different aspect.

June 28, 2009 at 07:17 AM ·

Tomás, you have already been given much excellent advice, affirmation, and support.  You have told us what you value and what your teacher values, and that you are not willing to replace your teacher.

So now what remains is for you to do what is so aptly summarized in what is supposedly an old Spanish proverb: " 'Take what you want', said God.  'Take it, and pay for it.'  " 

Good luck to you!

June 28, 2009 at 11:50 AM ·

 and if thta desn`t work switch to the Arab prayer:

`God grant me good digestion.`



June 28, 2009 at 03:41 PM ·

Thank you all for your advice and support! I'm meeting my teacher on Tuesday for rehersal with piano. We'll see how it goes.

June 28, 2009 at 09:03 PM ·

Tomas, here is one last thought. The key is almost always more communication. Luck to you!

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