Sunday, July 13, 2008

Personality Is Instrumental

Professional musicians, as a rule, are not known to be rocket scientists. Perhaps all those hours spent practicing since early on and lack of good general education are partly to blame. Before my generation becoming a musician simply meant that you couldn’t do anything else for living. The profession was often compared to working in a circus and was bunched together with a vague title of ‘entertainer’ with actors and clowns alike. A concertmaster from my home country was in love with an army officer’s daughter. In spite of the suitor’s stable job with the state-owned radio orchestra, the father of the young woman would not tolerate the prospect of such a serious involvement with a mere musician. So, she was sent out to the far corners of the globe but the fellow in love was persistent and followed her. Eventually they got married but, if my memory serves me correctly, they didn’t live happily ever after, ending up divorcing like so many others.

A couple days ago marked the 31st anniversary of my immigrating to the United States. Although I have often questioned the wisdom of that move, at the time I had no options as my first wife had promised her dying father to return. During the first year in Los Angeles I went to my local branch of Bank of America on Larchmont Boulevard to discuss the possibility of a loan to buy a Vuillaume violin from a retiring colleague. At first the banker was very friendly and misunderstood me, taking my accented ‘musician’ for a ‘magician’. No problem, she said, but when she finally learned of my true profession, her smile froze. No, they didn’t lend money to buy furniture, especially to a musician. To no avail, I tried to convince that a violin was not like a piano collecting dust in someone’s living room. Well, I found another bank with a better attitude and took my business elsewhere. Luckily I was able to pay the loan off in no time.

Since I grew up with top musicians coming to help in my father’s orchestra, I soon learned about the peculiar characteristics players of different instrument tend to have. I have a soft spot for oboists as my favorite guest artist was the principal of the Helsinki Philharmonic, those days known as Helsinki City Symphony. Asser Sipilä was not only a great oboist but a wonderful man. As he was also a beekeeper, he would always bring honey for me. For some reason, he preferred it to be packaged in tubes. I watched him make reeds and even learned the technique of continuous breathing from him, how to blow air out with the muscles of the cheek while inhaling. In addition to him, principals came as needed from Helsinki, occasionally from Lahti, to play the rest of the wind and brass family. Also, string instrumentalists would often come to play as soloists. All in all, I met with a whole bunch of different top musicians over the years.

I learned early on that French horn players were somewhat an odd bunch. There were two brothers who both played the instrument, one in Helsinki, the other in Lahti. It wasn’t until some years later when I met the great Vitali Buyanovsky from what was then the Leningrad Philharmonic that I learned to appreciate the instrument and to understand that someone playing it could be a great person as well. His entire horn section all vibrated in unison; a splendid sound not well known on this side of the Atlantic. The visiting trumpet player suffered from the ‘rooster syndrome’ which is often so typical to that instrument. It wasn’t until much later that I met a few trumpeters that were nice and truly wonderful as people. Mr. Sipilä explained to me that when young brass players practice too much, especially when they play an instrument that goes high up and demands tremendous air pressure, blood flow to their brain is interrupted. Perhaps that occasionally results in some form of brain injury, I don’t know, but the personality of such a musician often is that of a cock. I guess the trombone is easier on the system; at least the jolly fellow nicknamed “the Duck” was very nice indeed.

Back to the winds: in addition to the aforementioned oboist I was very fond of one of the clarinetists. Mario Sgobba was an Italian gentleman who had ended up in Finland through marriage. When my father turned 50 and I was 12, I had written a composition for my father with a dedication in Italian which I had an interest in and had studied on my own. Upon my father proudly showing him my present, Mr. Sgobba started rattling away in that language, thinking that by some miracle I was fluent in it, so obviously the text was correct. Like the hornists, the bassoonists struck me as odd, but I felt that anyone taking themselves seriously tooting the big cigar all day long had to be out of the ordinary. The flutists (we didn’t often use one as our own was very good) seemed full of themselves. In addition to the violin, the flute is the most popular orchestral instrument and often players of note are excellent. However, a voice in me told never to trust one. Still, one occasionally hears simply splendid playing on that instrument. When my student Lydia Kye played a movement of the Sibelius with the Garfield High School orchestra last month, the program also featured a phenomenal talent on the flute, Angela Potter. She played with incredible brilliance, faultless rhythm and perfect intonation, and without the omnipresent vibrato many older players use to cover up their mistakes. My only gripe was that like all flutists, she insisted on using the music for her concerto. Miss Potter’s playing left some old-timers in the dust and one can only wish her the brightest future with her studies at Northwestern University with the legendary Walfrid Kujala. He in turn has at least some of his roots in Finland as his last name could only originate there.

I shouldn’t even go there, but the string players always were and still are my least favorite group of musicians. First violinists can’t understand why someone else is playing as soloist and not them, or why someone gets promoted for reasons other than skill. They can also be such petty people. Second fiddlers suffer from an inferiority complex and granted, it is not fun to have to play off-beats endlessly. True to their reputation, it isn’t difficult to find ‘experts’ in any viola section. When I make fun of them, I include myself and some members of my family in the group. Our one-eyed cat is very sensitive to the high overtones of the violin and leaves the room, however sound of viola is to his liking. Cellists are often too preoccupied with what’s between their legs and bassists can get by with murder: an out-of-tune note is a half-inch or more in the wrong place. The latter can also be deaf and yet be actively playing.

This leaves only percussionists and conductors. A great timpani player is a treasure but someone banging on a loud bass or snare drum will eventually suffer damage from the noise level. As for the last category, a slightly modified old joke is in place. In New Guinea the cannibals have differently priced human brain for sale. The cheapest is that from a great scientist but the most expensive is the conductor variety. What is the logic behind this? You have to catch so many baton-wielders to come up with a pound of brain.

The illustration on top is from an online collection of toilets. It shows how a horn can be useful even for men who don’t care for classical music. Obviously it is not of the English kind; at first glance I thought it was modified French but then realized it didn’t have any dents on it so I was mistaken. How about a Wagner-Tuba-Loo?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Life’s Blessings

One should always be careful with what one wishes for. So often something we desire turns out to be a curse. The opposite is true as well: "bad luck" or a loss of something, such as a job or position, turns out to be a blessing.

In my own case having to return to my old profession, teaching, has really been an eye-opening experience. Instead of burnt-out and unhappy people I get to work with wonderful young, and sometimes a bit older, people who appreciate what I have to offer. For sure, I end up playing more than in my previous life but even when those hours exceed forty per week, I don't feel tired. No more back pain! Since I constantly have to demonstrate passages or play entire pieces for often very advanced students, my skill level has improved back to where it would have been, had "orchestritis" not set in. Not that there is anything wrong with playing with a group, but doing so every day and not really hearing oneself destroys the quality and control of one's music-making. This is something no string player can escape from. After playing with 30 other violinists all day and ears ringing from blaring brass and deafening percussion, one isn't likely to take time to practice and undo the day's harm. A wind or brass player is in a different position, especially if they function as a principal and basically play solo lines. The number of notes they end up playing is a small fraction of what a violinist is faced with. We end up having to fake, often because the composer has written parts that are much harder than anything written in solo literature and rehearsal time is usually limited for financial reasons.

This past week I had to help a couple students with Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" which is not as difficult as some of the composer's other works, but a plenty hard enough nut for a sixteen-year-old to crack. I always end up emphasizing the fact that playing in correct rhythm is more important than trying to nail every one of the notes in a fast passage. The students are fascinated and somewhat suspicious when I tell them about Strauss being upset when he came to conduct his works in Boston and the string players actually were delivering what was on the printed part. He didn't want a clean reproduction but a different sound, more like an effect. Sometimes I show them the composer's violin concerto which is quite difficult for what it is worth musically, but easy compared to some of the nastier licks in his orchestral works. Even the Sonata in E flat seems like child's play on the page.

This past year has been an interesting one with students. I counted over 20 concertos, all major works which I have taught in the last 12 months, many of them numerous times. I'm especially pleased of having had two students tackle the Heinrich Ernst F sharp minor, a work that used to be known as the world's most difficult and which was one of the concertos that made Heifetz famous early in his career. I had learned it in my youth and performed it a few times with piano, even in my diploma examination program in the Sibelius Academy. It certainly doesn't feel any easier now, but most of it has stayed in my fingers. The other young Heifetz trademark was the Jules Conus Concerto which two students performed this past year, one twice with orchestra and another with piano. I can't think of another composition suiting the instrument as well. Conus had studied the violin with Jean Hřimaly and certainly knew the instrument inside out. He tinkered with the concerto for a long time and his "revised" version is quite different from the Auer and Galamian editions we normally hear. The very last line is in the key of E major in that one, too, although almost no violinist agrees with that and just about everyone finishes the work in the minor key. What intrigues me is the use of up-bows for many of the four-part chords, something very few today would attempt. All those concertos, together with countless virtuoso pieces, caprices by Paganini, Wieniawski and Rode, and almost all of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, have kept me busy as I don't believe in "lip service". A well-demonstrated example is worth more than a thousand words. I know it is an easier approach to criticize a student's playing verbally but I don't have much respect for such teaching. Students usually need not be reminded of what they did wrong, as if they have a good ear they already know the problem. What they require is inspiration and occasionally a suggestion for a different fingering or bowing that might suit them better than what they are using. How can a pedagogue practically force a young student to give up everything else in order to become a "soloist" when he/she himself has no idea what the profession is like? Yes, playing an instrument well is as wonderful and important as it was six or eight decades ago but back then few would dream of it as a profession, with some exceptions, of course. Today we have too many "failed" musicians, bitter at their parents for not letting them pursue other interests and get a well-rounded education.

Back to blessings: a loving family has to be the most important one. Just last night I was playing a July 4th performance with my orchestra and looking at my smiling wife and youngest daughter Sarah sitting together in the viola section, clearly enjoying what they were doing as stand partners. Our 20-year-old Anna was in the audience with a couple friends, taking a break from graduate studies which she started almost immediately after last month's commencement. Having her visit home is always a highlight in my life. I am also immensely pleased by the 15-year-old's love affair with the viola. Now I have an obligation to teach her to drive. She received her learner's permit earlier in the week and with a 4.0 GPA for the school year, I really don't have any excuses. But she'll be a fine driver and I plan on taking my time with her as I did with her older sister, making sure she is ready for any situation on the road. After all, I take pride in teaching them well whether they are my own or others.