A varied diet of technical problem-solving and focus on nuance from his teachers gave the former Boston Symphony concertmaster a rounded approach to playing
When I was very small it was determined that I had absolute pitch, and when I was three I had a violin put in my hand. My father was a violin teacher and I learnt everything by ear from hearing older students play, so it was some time before I learnt to read music: I was a Suzuki student before Suzuki.
I studied with my father until I was about twelve – he was a wonderful teacher and had a big influence on me. Then I studied with Josef Gingold for a year when he came to Detroit as concertmaster of the orchestra, but in that very short time he had a huge impact on me. At this point he had a great deal of time and I had two or three lessons a week with him. He taught with his violin in his hand, which was very important for me. His playing was very colourful – persuasive and inspiring – and at that time he was the best violinist I’d ever heard at close range.
His teaching technique was more directed towards nuance and colourful effects than anything else. He pointed out fingerings that were given to him by Ysaÿe and made me conscious of the personal qualities of the playing of Kreisler and Heifetz. He had a great talent for demonstrating how each of these players achieved certain effects and he would imitate them in the lesson.
I didn’t study any etudes with Gingold but I did play a lot of virtuoso repertoire – Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps and Spohr, the 19th-century virtuoso violin repertoire. At that age it was the right diet for me.
Gingold was preoccupied with tuning and made me very conscious of intonation, both tempered and expressive. He pointed out how one could heighten the sense of tonality by raising leading tones and major thirds, and darkening minor thirds.
He also showed me how to practise slowly and analytically. Many years ago there was an edition of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Š evÄík's methods of practising, which he used to recommend. It was very laborious, slow work and involved no analysis of technical problems, but instead made one repeat all the elements of a given passage many times. I found it pretty dreary so I didn’t stay with it too long. With my own students I advocate methods of scale practice that involve much more dynamic interest than I had as a student.
After Gingold, I went to the Curtis Institute for five years with Efrem Zimbalist. I also had a few lessons with D.C. Dounis. He was a technical analyst: he was able to say, ‘All right, this passage is not going well. What is the element in this passage that is causing the difficulty? Let’s take it out and look at it. Let’s see if we can find a way to eradicate that difficulty.’ He would extract the specific problem and write out an exercise on manuscript paper, explaining how it should be played and what problem it was attacking. Then I would mark some notes underneath the exercise and he would go on to the next. Often, these were things that didn’t appear in his publications. They might involve shifting sequences, chromatic movements in the left hand, movements from Bach’s solo sonatas, or interesting and imaginative patterns, all of which would achieve results that were immediately palpable. It was an efficient way of dealing with technical problems, which I had not experienced up to that point.
While I was at Curtis I also had William Primrose as my chamber instructor. He had a little catechism which still stays with me and which I repeat to my students ad nauseam: ‘A proper musical note has to have a predetermined pitch, a predetermined length, a predetermined dynamic and a predetermined relationship to the notes and silences that surround it. If it doesn’t have those four ingredients, it’s simply not a proper note.’ So even when you’re practising a scale, you have to think about all those elements, rather than simply playing in a motoric fashion.
Primrose often sat in with my quartet and played either the violin or viola. He had the best rhythm of any string player I’ve ever heard. And when we were playing a Beethoven quartet, the difference between forte, fortissimo, mezzoforte, piano, pianissimo, accents – every element of every note – was scrupulously followed. He was a model.
Subsequently I studied with Mischa Mischakoff. He was a pristine musician, a fabulous violinist. Unfortunately we don’t have many recordings by him, but he was a great virtuoso. He had wonderful musical taste – his years as concertmaster with great conductors such as Toscanini had refined this. I studied many of the major works with him. He had high standards, particularly with regard to accuracy of intonation, and he was absolutely strict about rhythm. I was already professional at that point – I even spent a summer as second violinist in his string quartet – so our relationship was more that of colleagues than of him sending me out of lessons destroyed.
Mischakoff was a great advocate of practising scales in double-stops and with exotic fingerings: for example using only the first and second fingers, then second and third, then third and fourth, to develop a great ease in the different combinations of shifts. I still do that to this day.
Photo: Michael Schoenfield