Celebrating his 90th birthday in July 2008, the legendary violinist looked back at his teaching influences and revealed that he was largely self-taught
The reason I started the violin was that I heard my father playing the Brahms Hungarian Dance no.5, badly. I liked the tune and said, ‘I wanna play the violin.’ If I had heard the piano I would have said ‘I wanna play the piano.’
My first proper teacher was Elizabeth Lackey, in her role as assistant to Louis Persinger. She supervised my practice, which was a blessing. Most children don’t know how to practise – they get a lesson but then go home and don’t practise correctly. Lackey practised with me so I made very fast progress. In 1928, after two years, I played a recital in San Francisco. I was ten years old.
Lackey gave me a practical ear training, playing the piano so I heard the notes, which is good in the beginning. The most important thing you have to teach a child is to develop their ear. Without a good ear you don’t get anywhere. She also taught me vibrato. It’s difficult to learn because you have to be able to bend the first joint of the finger backwards and forwards so that the finger goes up and down a little bit. We shouldn’t vibrate above the note, though, only under it – otherwise it will sound sharp. She used to make me vary the speed, because you have to be able to control the pace and the width of vibrato. For example, on the G string, it can be wider, because the notes are more spread out, but the higher up you go, the smaller the vibrato has to get. With the bowing, it’s the opposite. The higher you go, the more bow you have to use.
I didn’t learn my technique from any of my teachers, though: none of them were good at teaching technique. I had to learn it myself. I had a sensational debut but after that people started to say that I had the wrong teachers. They said I wasn’t as good as I used to be. They criticised everything I did so I made up my mind to show them that I was as talented as they had said I was before. When you’re nine or ten you’re a genius and then when you’re thirteen or fourteen you’re nothing. These were difficult years and I made up my mind that I was going to be a violinist. This is a very important decision and nobody can make it but you.
Next I went to study properly with Persinger. He too would demonstrate on the piano: you can’t teach someone how to play musically unless you demonstrate – you can’t do it with words. He was strict with intonation and rhythm and this was the foundation. But he didn’t teach me any difficult technique, such as that required for Paganini, so I forced myself to practise that. It’s not pleasant to acquire a technique – you have to practise disagreeable things, such as double-stops, double harmonics and left-hand pizzicato. I learnt more about technique from Paganini than I did from any of my teachers. There was a time when I played through the 24 Caprices every morning – it would take me one hour and five minutes. I loved the piano too and I played a lot of piano music on the violin. It gives you a completely different aspect to your technique, because it doesn’t fit the violin. It was good for my technical training.
Persinger held the bow in the Franco-Belgian way and so did I from the very beginning – I never changed. The index finger pivots: it doesn’t remain fixed against the stick. You hold the bow between your middle finger and thumb. As the bow goes towards the frog the first finger releases the pressure and comes off the stick. The Russian school teaches the first finger to remain on the stick all the time. In order to do this your elbow has to be held high, which is a bad thing, a guarantee of early retirement. When you hold your elbow up it does damage to your shoulder and the higher you keep the violin, the more difficult it is. If you learn from pictures of Paganini, the violin should be held at a downward angle – it’s much easier.
After Persinger I studied with Michel Piastro, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He was a very sweet guy, but he was not a good teacher. He could demonstrate for you, but he couldn’t explain anything. Then I went for a short time to Georg Kulenkampff. In 1929 Fritz Kreisler and Jacques Thibaud had come together to hear me perform. Kreisler picked me up in his arms and said I was the greatest genius since Mozart! I phoned Kreisler to ask if I could study with him, but he was about to go on tour and told me to go to Kulenkampff. This was strange at a time when Carl Flesch was the big teacher in Berlin, as Kulenkampff was a solo violinist, not known as a teacher. I think Kreisler didn’t like Flesch and I guessed that this was because Flesch must have criticised him.
I discussed technique often with Nathan Milstein – our friendship began when we met on the train from Chicago to Los Angeles. We played for each other and talked about the fiddle. The funniest thing he would say about the violin was, ‘Spaghetti has to be wet’. In Italy when they serve spaghetti, they bring the pot of boiling water and pick the spaghetti out of the boiling water with tongs and put it on your plate: so the spaghetti is wet when they serve it. But I have no idea what he meant!