Heifetz as teacher: Words from the master

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Ayke Agus served as Heifetz’s personal accompanist during classes and performances for the last 15 years of his life. Here, she shares recollections of his practice routine and teaching methods with Enrico Alvares

A well-known Zen parable begins with a monk showing a visiting master craftsman around his monastery. Upon seeing a book of collected teachings, the craftsman says, ‘Well, if your business is anything like mine, only the commonplace will be found in those pages. A master’s real secrets can’t be written down or spoken, but only passed on wordlessly from master to apprentice.’

Anyone who has read Ayke Agus’s 2001 memoir Heifetz as I Knew Him  knows that she has shared almost everything that can be captured of the man in words. As a violin student in Heifetz’s masterclasses at the University of Southern California from 1971 to 1973, and his long-time piano accompanist during classes and performances from 1973 to 1987, Agus had rare first-hand contact with the virtuoso violinist in both private and professional settings.

She points out early in our interview that Heifetz loved to quote one particular line from the text of the traditional Hebrew traveller’s prayer Tefilat haderech: ‘May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands.’ I think we can safely infer from this that Heifetz saw him self much as Bach saw himself – as a devoted craftsman.

His personal practice regime certainly remained a constant throughout his life. ‘It’s important to understand,’ she explains, ‘that all the practising I heard was after he had stopped playing concertos and recitals. Even so, I accompanied him daily for 15 years, and we worked methodically through his entire, vast repertoire from A to Z. First the concertos, then the sonatas, then the longer short pieces, then his transcriptions – of which there are more than 200! Unsurprisingly, he was extremely focused when we practised together. Of course, I often wondered what he would have been like with a concert on the horizon.’…

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