A year spent studying nothing but technique with Curtis Institute teacher Aronoff gave future Juilliard School viola professor Appel total musical freedom
I started the viola when I was nine – my first and last teacher was Max Aronoff. My father was studying cello and my two sisters violin, so the family needed a viola player and I was the only one left. They took me to Max, who looked at my hands and said, ‘bring him in for a lesson next week’; and that was it.
I started with a violin strung up as a viola and quickly graduated to a $350 outfit. The first lesson was spent walking across the room swinging my arms about wildly, picking up the viola and passing it between my legs and behind my head, throwing it in the air; playing games so that I would become natural with it. Everything was based on changing as little as possible from how you are when you’re standing talking to someone. I credit that for my being pain-free for so many years.
After becoming comfortable with the instrument, we started with ŠevÄík op.1, learning how to listen and play in tune, the correct left-hand position and developing strength: Max liked to hear the banging of the fingers up and down. He had studied with Flesch and it was basically that school of vibrato and bow work, and we used Flesch’s scale system.
He used his own bowing exercises, which were like callisthenics. Instead of moving your entire arm, you move just your fingers and wrist alternately. At the heel, you make the down-bow motion with your fingers, keeping the hair flat on the string: this is the bottom of the square. Then you lift the bow off the string for the second side, moving only your wrist. The third side of the square is made by moving your fingers only in an up-bow direction, still keeping the wrist high. You then lower the bow, using wrist only as the fourth side of the square, arriving back where you started. The exercise was repeated at the heel starting on an up bow and all over again at the middle and tip. The squares were the basis for all the strokes that start from the string and were enlarged into half and full bow strokes, both staccato and legato. Max would show it to me and write it in a little book: I still have the drawings.
We would go over these exercises as if he was practising with me, correcting every step. Then we did the same thing with vibrato. We would go through ŠevÄík opp.1 and 8, working sometimes on as few as three bars. I had to practise scales but he rarely checked them; only when he wanted to practise, and then we would do them together. We used Kayser and Wolfhart; Kreutzer came later. Those were for advanced bow exercises. He wanted me to have a huge range of strokes available so that I would never be caught without the ability to do what was needed by the music.
When we started learning music, after a year, it was in the same kind of detail. The first piece I played was a little Mozart C major piano sonata transcribed for viola. Max would make things more difficult than they needed to be to force me to find a way to sound beautiful, with no attention paid to the hurdles put before me. He would go into phenomenal detail, asking: ‘why would you do this down bow rather than up bow? What happens if you increase vibrato on this note rather than decrease it?’ He showed me how to learn a piece of music so that I could go to the next piece and not be awed or wait for someone to tell me what to do.
Max paid great attention to finding the core of the sound, one that would project. He would call me ‘tuchas’ (a Yiddish insult) and get into a bad mood if I didn’t keep the sound he expected. He would ask me to play Kreutzer no.10 five times without any errors and put two quarters on the stand, saying: ‘those are for you if you can do it.’ I was very motivated by that. Still am!
Max was always well dressed, with suit, tie and gold cufflinks, although one couldn’t always see him for the cloud of pipe smoke. I was quite quick and even though I didn’t practise much he thought I did. He looked on me as his son: we had a wonderful relationship and I loved him very much. His advice was that if you play something right 99 times at home and screw up in front of the audience, that’s the one that they hear, so you had better practise more than 99 times. When I was about 16 he suggested that I should also learn with Joseph de Pasquale, because there was certain repertoire he didn’t know and didn’t want to learn, like the Walton and Bartók concertos.
When I was in my early 30s someone asked me to play first violin in their quartet. I went back in my mind and taught myself the violin exactly the way Max taught me the viola, adapting the vibrato; it worked incredibly well. He would turn over in his grave if he knew I was playing the violin, though.
Photo: Lisa Crosby