The Austrian violinist gave the below lecture on 8 December 2019 at the first meeting of the Shanghai Conservatoire of Music’s Advisory Council for International Artists
The process of educating and developing young and talented violinists consists of many closely linked and interconnected details, which have an impact on the artistic, intellectual and moral image of the young musician.
Given that the whole process of forging talent involves many details, dealing in the wrong way with any of the many elements entailed, either by a passive or exaggerated action, can lead to the slowdown or even to the destruction of a budding and developing young talent.
From my point of view, it is very important to distinguish a ’talented’ young performer from a ’very capable’ young musician.
On the one hand, I call ’very capable’ violinists those young performers who possess one or several very important qualities for performance, to name just a few: the availability of a very nice tone, a virtuoso technique, excellent memory, the ability to control stage fright when performing and many other aspects.
On the other hand, I call ’very talented’ young violinists those who possess practically all of the complex range of important skills that a brilliant musician/performer should bear. These facts will indeed help them at their performances or during competitions. These musicians excel immediately among their capable peers from the very first notes they play.
In this point, I would like to mention that for me, being a teacher and performer, there exists one more category of performers, whom I call ’genius’. They are born extremely seldom and their names remain forever in the history of performance. I can, almost without mistake, determine by listening to a recording of an unknown violinist, if a ’very capable’ or a ’very talented’ musician is playing or if I am listening to a ’genius’ … and I only need a few seconds for this.
Mostly, I can determine a ’genius’ playing not only by a highly intellectual performance but, especially by the outstanding beauty of the sound and by the phenomenal singing and cleanliness of the technique employed.
But let us return to the topic of the education of talented violinists. I think that a teacher has to know very clearly which qualities are required in order to consider a young musician as ’talented’, which qualities are missing or are not developed enough and how they need to be reinforced.
Hence, as far as I am concerned the major important abilities of the ’very talented’ students are:
- The availability of a beautiful or very nice sound.
- The possession of a discerning aural skill and the ability to play constantly with perfect intonation
- The ability to play the technical parts of a piece in a fast or very fast tempo
- The skill of singing on the violin, not only when playing the slow parts of a piece but also when playing very technical and/or fast parts of a piece
- Having the patience and the understanding of the importance of setting the left and right hand in the optimal and natural position for playing the violin
- Having a very good memory and thus being able to retain the majority of the works, and being ready to perform them, having only very little time for preparation.
- Having solid nerves and being able to restrain one´s nervousness and cope successfully with stressful situations on stage
- Not to be envious of other peers who have success at competitions.
- The ability to enjoy receiving remarks and proposals from his or her teacher or friends and musicians whom they trust and not to fall in depression from critical remarks.
In addition, I want to emphasize that for a successful education and development of a young and talented violinist/musician at least two most important conditions are required:
- Availability of a competent, thoughtful, highly professional, intellectually developed and patient teacher
- Availability of loving parents or close people who have patience and the understanding that the education and development of talented people is a long-term and very difficult process
Let us look closer at some of the aforementioned abilities:
Point 1: The availability of a beautiful or very nice sound
Many years ago, it was very difficult to buy tickets for concerts of outstanding violinists like Menuhin, Oistrakh, Heifetz, Stern, Kogan, Elman and some others as the concerts sold out immediately. The people who could not go to the concerts often asked the people who had attended the concerts how they liked the playing of the violinists. The answers were mostly similar. The people replied: ’The concert was fantastic’. When they were asked what exactly was ’fantastic’ the answer was mainly: ’Fantastic was the sound of the performer’. The sound impressed and delighted. To the question: ’How was the technique of the performer, the vibrato, the intonation, etc.’ the people from the audience mostly answered that they did not pay special attention to these details as they were first and foremost impressed by the sound and the interpretation of the performer.
Nowadays, the artistry of the violinists has changed significantly, and to the question: ’How was the concert’ of this or that violinist, the answers equal to: ’The concert was wonderful’. When they are asked ’What exactly was wonderful’, many people from the audience reply: ’The violinist played very brightly’ or, ’The performer played without or with very little vibrato’ or ’The rhythm and tempo were very precise’ or, ’The violinist played very virtuosically’, etc.
On being asked how they liked the sound of the performer, many people did not know what to say.
That they were not able to say anything about the sound of the performer, which is for me one of the most important qualities of violin performance, is a very sad development in the evolution of the violin artistry. This fact implies that the beauty and richness of the sound are, slowly, becoming less important.
Point 2: The possession of a discerning aural skill and the ability to play constantly with perfect intonation
I remember my education at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire and the high demands of the outstanding teachers of the time, like Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich and many others regarding the relevance of crystal-clear intonation while playing on string instruments. Those teachers would simply not allow students to perform pieces with dubious intonation, and devoted a lot of attention towards the practice of various scales and special studies. Unfortunately, being on the jury of several violin competitions for children and adults, I very often notice that teachers do not devote enough attention towards the problem of intonation but, on the contrary, they are more concerned about young violinists performing more difficult and technically challenging pieces. It should be taken into account that such a performance, without carefully thought-out work on intonation, will only block the hearing of young performers and will be very harmful for their future development.
Point 3: The ability to play the technical parts of a piece in a fast or very fast tempo
This is a very difficult question, because from my experience and observation I came to the conclusion that if a young violinist cannot play technical places in a piece fast and qualitatively, this cannot always be developed and improved because the ability of playing fast is often a physiological skill. One can try to develop this skill by practising many exercises, special studies and various technical pieces, but one needs to remember that exaggerated demand of playing fast can lead to a nervous breakdown and, in the worst case, to the end of playing the instrument.
Point 4: The ability of singing on the violin not only when playing the slow parts of a piece but also when playing very technical and/or fast parts of a piece
Once I asked one of my students to try singing the little notes in very fast passages in one of the pieces he performed. This student replied that this is impossible, as the little notes fly by very fast and there is no time to use the vibrato for adding colors in these fast parts. I told him the following story:
Once one of the violinists, admiring the ability of Jascha Heifetz performing fast parts of one of the pieces by Wieniawski not only in an incredibly fast tempo but also with an incredibly nice and singing tone, tried to unveil the secret of such interpretation by extremely slowing down the playback on the computer of the video recording of Heifetz´s playing. To his surprise, he saw that Heifetz used a microdose of ’double-vibrato’ in every movement of the fingers of his left hand. That means that not only did Heifetz use microvibrato with the wrist, but also managed to bend the first phalanx of each finger. All this happens in hardly recognisable movements but happens constantly. After having told this story, my student then believed what I said. One can sing any notes in a piece, regardless of the tempo they were written by the composer.
Point 5: Position of the left and right hand, patience of the student and the teacher in this difficult process of education of a violinist
If we look at how any house has been built, we will notice that it is built from the foundation and the higher and bigger a house should become, the deeper and more solid the pillars should be. If the foundation is not good enough the building will collapse after the first blow of wind. The same applies to violin education: the foundation is essential. Building a solid basis is comprised of an optimal and individual based position of the right and left hand for each student, which is scientifically proven and, in most cases, a natural human position. In addition, a purposeful movement of the fingers, elbow, wrist and upper right arm together with the correct change of strings, bow distribution, the position of the left hand, change of positions, the articulation, the use of vibrato and many other meticulous aspects will lead to a long and healthy mastering of violin playing.
I remember the first lessons I had with my former student, now famous violinist, Nikolaj Znaider, who, back then, was 18 years old. On his request, and I emphasize on his request, we started to fill up the gaps in his foundation of playing the violin. We worked for a few weeks on hundreds of details (Znaider, in this time, only played open strings). I remember one strange moment when, noticing successes of Nikolaj Znaider, I decided to praise him. Znaider suddenly asked me: ’Could we finish the lesson and I come back tomorrow?’. To my question: ’Why tomorrow?’ he replied: ’I came to you to hear what is wrong in my playing and I thought that if you praise me, maybe you are tired today.’ I smiled and we continued the lesson. I would like to emphasise that not all talented young violinists coming to learn from me have the patience to learn, listen to critical comments, enjoy their success and achievements which, eventually, do not occur as quickly as expected.
Point 6: Having a very good memory and thus, being able to retain the majority of the works and being ready to perform them, having only very little time for preparation.
An outstanding memory is very important for talented young musicians wishing to establish a soloist career and trying to win top prizes at international competitions, as they need to keep in memory the majority of the pieces learnt and be ready to perform them, even in the case of having very little time for preparation. Needless to say, that memory can and needs to be developed. There are special methods and exercises to do so, but I was always mesmerized by the excellent or photographic memory of many outstanding performers and conductors. I remember a story from my colleagues from the Kopelman Quartet with whom I have performed for the past 20 years. Many years ago, two of them played in another string quartet and they came to the Big Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire for the rehearsal of the Trout-Quintet by Schubert. At that time, the thirteen-year-old pianist Evgeny Kissin worked accurately with the first violinist of the quartet, who called different bar numbers of the score, and the musicians of the quartet and the pianist quickly found these bars in the scores and started to play. What a surprise and delight of the musicians of the quartet when, after 2 hours of work, they found out that the young Evgeny Kissin had forgotten his score at home but could effortless find the correct bars without actually having been able to look at his score.
Once Mstislav Rostropovich, whom I knew very well, told me that he had to play a rather difficult contemporary piece for cello with orchestra in the United States. As he had received the score of this piece only a few days before the performance and given the fact that he had been very busy during the days before the concert, he could only learn this piece on the long flight to the United States. Added to this, he did not have the possibility of playing his instrument on board.
Point 7: Having solid nerves and being able to restrain one´s nervousness and cope successfully with stress situation on stage
We know examples of many outstanding musicians who were very nervous during their concerts when performing in front of an audience. Sometimes their nervousness reached a point which forced them to interrupt the performance and leave the stage without finishing their act. Nervousness on stage, especially for young performers, is a very big problem, and therefore the help of the teacher, the parents and friends is of utmost importance. The young musician needs to be given compliments regularly in order to strengthen their confidence, telling them what a talented musician he or she is, being enthusiastic about their interpretations, their ideas and often speaking about their achievements and not just about their shortcomings. I personally employ the following method: during many lectures with a student, a long time before a scheduled performance, I provide thorough input related to special phrasing, use of different dynamic moments (crescendo, diminuendo, accelerando, ritenuto), different vibrato, distribution of the bow, expression of the intonation and so on. In addition, I am also very keen on emphasising that the student should not forget about his/her own interpretative ideas during the performance, ideas which we have already discussed and worked on in class. The aim is that the student will be so concerned about all the tasks to fulfill during the performance, that nervousness will be left aside as there will be no time to be nervous. This method very often reduces, almost completely, the nervousness of the performer and simply distracts the young musician from the useless bad thoughts and the tense arms which occur when being nervous during performances on stage.
Point 8: Not to be envious of other peers who have success at competitions or in their careers
Envy is one of the most dangerous and destroying state of mind in the psyche of a developing young musician. Envying successful peers if they receive high prizes at international competitions, if they perform at important and prestigious concerts, if they are invited to interesting festivals, if they perform with famous conductors and excellent orchestras or if they just play very well, can turn out to be very destructive to the creative personality of young performers, putting at risk the principles of purity and nobility, which are often very fragile and in a state of development in the case of young talents. Envy distracts and takes away precious time, which could be used on more important and interesting thoughts and accomplishments. Actions from teachers, who should not even show a glimpse of envy towards the success of other teachers or their students, are also very important and it is the task of pedagogues to serve as a model for their students. It is extremely important that the teacher always treats all of his students with love and respect and tries not to highlight some of them in a special way, otherwise the feeling of envy will immediately spread out and infuse the life of the violin class with harmful feelings.
Point 9: The ability to enjoy receiving remarks and proposals from his or her teacher or friends and musicians whom they trust and not fall in depression from critical remarks
During my long-lasting pedagogical occupation, I met absolutely different and often opposite reaction of talented young violinists on my critical remarks. These often-unexpected remarks to young performers, but always deeply considered on my side, have concerned hundreds of problems connected with the playing technique, the movements of the hands, the production of the sound, the expression of the vibrato, the cleanliness of the intonation, and so on. Sometimes I saw astonishment in the face of my students, because of the unexpectedness of my remarks and suggestions, but what is very important to be noticed is that I saw trust towards myself and the understanding that the execution of my requests often leads to very good results.
Unfortunately, there were also other talented students who immediately got disappointed upon hearing criticism towards their playing. Therefore, I was forced to give up talking about all the problems and shortcomings of such students, in order not to disappoint them. Sooner or later I parted from these students, even though I continued having a good relationship with them in almost every case.
When I started to study with my wonderful pedagogue, Prof. Boris Belenky, I often listened to the lectures of other great teachers like David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Yuri Jankelevich, Igor Bezrodny, Mstislav Rostropovich, Emil Gilles, and many other distinguished teachers. During these lectures, I made many interesting and important discoveries for myself, which helped me to create my own school of violin playing. I always recommend my students, if they want, to attend the lectures of other very famous pedagogues and implement in their own playing what they discovered to be of interest for them. Additionally, I always support the desire of some of my students to attend masterclasses of very good pedagogues. On the contrary, what I never support is the desire to study with two or more pedagogues at the same time or travel to masterclasses of, from my point of view, very weak pedagogues. Nevertheless, I am always attentive to the remarks and suggestions coming from good violinists and musicians towards the playing of my students. I also discourage my students from reading or listening to suggestions and advice of undistinguished or less professional people or critics.
Point 10: Availability of a competent, thoughtful, high professional, intellectually developed and patient teacher
Not only is the appearance of talented students an incredible fortune for a teacher, but the discovery of a competent teacher by a student is also a seldom fact, as both encounters occur very rarely. It can also be the case that, a good teacher can perfectly fit one student and be inadequate for another one. An accomplished teacher has to master a great deal of qualities. To name just a few, being a good violinist, a very good psychologist, an accurate „doctor” to make a correct diagnosis of the problems and provide the students with the adequate suggestions for improvement or, to further illustrate the example with a medical metaphor, being able to prescribe the right medicine to heal a problem. In addition, a good teacher should never aim at having students play like the teacher himself, but trying to develop the student´s individuality and uniqueness. Also, a very good teacher needs to be a highly educated person and musician, have patience, love towards the students and his profession and, what is most important and very seldomly met, have a very bright pedagogical talent.
Point 11: Availability of loving parents or close people who have patience and the understanding that the education and development of talented people is a long-term and very difficult process
Some of the most important requirements of the development and education of young performers is love, patience, trust and understanding of the parents towards their talented children, who have chosen the not easy path of becoming a musician and the unveiling of the secrets of highly artistical playing on an instrument. In addition, the trust of the parents towards the teacher is essential, because without the recognition and approval of the work of the teacher, the success of the education of young musicians is practically impossible.
Another aspect is the protection of young talents from a too early and too intense concert career, and the establishment of a careful relationship with the different artist management agencies, which may not always think about a relaxed, steady and serious development of young musicians. In this sense, talented students should be protected from participating in too many international competitions, because unfortunately many of them are not always very professional or artistically interesting. Therefore, the participation in such competitions might not always have a positive impact on the development and the psyche of young and talented artists.
Friends also play an enormous role in the development of young musicians. They often influence their judgments and actions. The same applies to the school teachers of the young artists, who do not always understand the very difficult process of the development of young musicians and may not be flexible enough but, on the contrary, excessively demanding with regard to school tasks and attendance.
To sum up, it can be concluded that the development and education of young talents is a very complex, difficult and, at the same time, a fascinating and interesting creative process which, in the end, will contribute to happy and successful young musicians and performers, paving the way for interesting and amazing musical lives.
Kuschnir photo: Wolf-Dieter Grabner