Masterclass: Steven Tenenbom, Schumann Märchenbilder

Steven Tenenbom

The American viola soloist, chamber musician, and teacher explores how to find your own sense of character and flow in the first two contrasting pieces

This composition is a personal favourite of mine. It’s also great to teach: not only is it beautiful, but its strong characters help to unlock students’ imaginations.

I first studied it with Milton Thomas, who in the 1940s went to France, met Pablo Casals in exile and spent much time working with him. Thomas later taught viola to Jascha Heifetz’s violin students in Los Angeles, and he would go to Heifetz’s house to play chamber music. He was always thinking about vivid imagery in music, which I found very inspiring. This was a perfect piece for him to introduce to me.

Later I studied it at Curtis with Michael Tree. He had the most beautiful sound a violist could imagine; he would practise for hours just to get a passage the way he wanted it, and yet when he performed he was so spontaneous. I was so enamoured with him, his sound and his interpretation that I tried to become him. I would think, ‘How would he play this? That’s the way I want to play it.’

One day a friend said to me: ‘Steve, do you realise that the best you’ll ever be in your life is the second-best Michael Tree?’ At first I thought, ‘Well, that could be OK.’ But then I realised how upsetting this really was! I started asking, ‘How do feel about this?’ At some point you have to break away, to become your own number one you, whatever that may be.

If you take anything from this article, remember: you have to learn to create on your own. There are…

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