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.