Lessons with Shore at the Royal College of Music in London emphasised enjoyment and gave valuable technical insights, remembers the Chicago College of Performing Arts professor
I was incredibly lucky to be placed with Bernard Shore when I was eleven. I stayed with him for a long time, which is highly unusual. He was my first official teacher, although my father taught me the violin from the age of five, and then the viola when I was nine.
Even though I spent the better part of a decade with Bernard, the format of our lessons never really changed. He always started by asking me about everything except the viola. He wanted to know if I was enjoying life, how school and scouting were going – he needed to hear the boy was having a good time. I would then take out my viola, tune up and play whatever he had set the previous week.
There was no specific warm-up routine because Bernard was aware that, as a young boy, I had little time for practice. And he seemed to approve of that, because he felt that to play music you had to understand life, and to understand life you had to be wholeheartedly involved in it, like a Renaissance child.
Bernard taught me technique by stripping down pieces to their raw ingredients. For intonation, he suggested training the left hand by first plucking the notes – I don’t think I actually did that, but it’s what he prescribed nonetheless. He did, however, teach me a brilliant shifting method. Before the actual shift, gently pull or push your left arm and inwardly sing the note you are moving to. When you are ready to make the leap, let go of the first note and, like magic, you never miss. I call this the ‘inner game of shifting’ because it is the ultimate triumph of the ear over the body, and I teach it to all my students.
Another point Bernard stressed was to keep the right wrist flexible, no doubt owing to the fact that he had lost two fingers on his right hand and had to find alternative ways to steer the bow. He told me to imagine the motion of a paintbrush, with my hand trailing behind the wrist to create a lot of flexibility.
Bernard was also particular about coordinating left-hand finger movements to enable the smoothest possible transition across strings. He played with such grace – if you imagine crossing all four strings, his right arm followed the perfect arc of a circle and his left-hand fingers were always one step ahead, rendering the note changes and string-crossings imperceptible.
Bernard had his own ideas for spiky marcato strokes. He recommended playing the first note legato, and then stopping the bow with reflex-speed finger pressure, but with both hands ready for the next note. Then he would release the pressure and play the second note legato, until the third note, before which the brakes come on again. The difference between marcato and accented legato is that for the latter, you squeeze, or accent, the beginning of the note.
Above all, Bernard cared about enjoyment. Choosing pieces, for example, was always a joint decision. Of course, he would make suggestions by saying,‘Roger, have you come across this piece? I’m having so much fun with it.’ But when I set my heart on something – like the Walton Concerto when I was only 13 – that was fine, too. With Bernard, there was always the sense that no matter the challenge, he would be there to help you see it through.
If he was ever ambitious for me, he never made it apparent. He would say things like ‘I hope we’re going to hear you do something really exciting some day’, but there was never any pressure or fear of reprimand. If I needed a boost during lessons, Bernard would start singing incredibly loudly with no warning whatsoever. It was simple but effective.
And that was his great gift – the ability to enthuse, to make the music more important than the room you’re standing in. Bernard also taught me to love practice, regardless of whether I was performing or not. He practised till the day he died and I practise every day.
After Bernard, I took viola lessons with the extraordinary Steven Staryk in Canada. You could not find two more different teachers.Where Bernard taught the viola for sheer pleasure, Steve taught me how to survive.With him, I did nothing but finger exercises for a couple of years, in order to build a rock-solid technique.
In an age where music has become so formulaic and competitive, I feel privileged to have been taught by a man who emphasised the importance of enjoying yourself with music. My life would be unrecognisable without Bernard, and perhaps that is why, when he died in 1985, it felt as though I had lost a second father.
Photo: Herbert Ascherman Jr