Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Gift

Image from
In the documentary "First Person Singular" which is a glimpse into the life of writer Elie Wiesel, he speaks of growing up in the town of Sighet, Romania on the eve of the Shoah. This film is a revelation to me in the manner that Wiesel describes music in relation to words (he grew up playing the violin in the same village as Josef Szigeti, paying for his lessons with brandy as he had no money; when the bottle of brandy ran out, the lesson was over); he shares his philosophy about teaching and his love for Bach and Beethoven. I especially find helpful Wiesel's penetrating insight into the many gifts we receive from strangers as long as our ears, eyes and hearts remain open. In his view it is the stranger that holds the key to teach us much about ourselves.

Upon my completion of the memoir Frantic, I received many heartfelt messages from various readers, near and afar, many of whom I had never met. I'm most grateful to all, and can boast that a particular e-mail with a few words of praise made me feel as if I had won the Pulitzer Prize, for the messenger is the progeny of a legendary violinist.

I purposely concluded my childhood memoir at a point when I enter the masterclass of Jascha Heifetz. There is much to be written about that experience, of course, and I intend to continue in the near future, but one of the aspects of learning under such a unique artist was that his suggestions were always straight to the point and never convoluted by jargon. "It's just as easy to play in tune as out of tune. So why not play in tune?" Heifetz would ask his students.

I'm reminded of this in part because of a meaningful book I received in the mail from a cellist of renown:
Practice for Performance for Cello and Related String Instruments by Daniel Morganstern.
It is a slim volume packed with useful tips for practice and performance. As a student of both Channing Robbins and Leonard Rose, Mr. Morganstern shares with his readers advice such as "any method of practicing that makes a passage more difficult results in greater security when returning to the original version." The tricks include practicing everything with reverse bowings, practicing in each third of the bow, and playing one octave higher. In a section entitled "Bilateral Transfer" Morganstern writes of the tendency of one side of the body to influence the other. These words strike a chord with me, as my former teacher, Erick Friedman, made a point of using this method to free up tension. I was advised to lead with the bow whenever the left hand had complex passagework, and I felt immediate relief. In Mr. Morganstern's case, it was Channing Robbins who emphasized the use of bilateral transfer by concentrating on the work of the "easier hand"; concentrating on the right arm during shifts, and focusing on the vibrato oscillation during the length of a sustained note. In another section entitled "Using Syllables," Mr. Morganstern delves into the loosening effect provided by mentally syllabalizing notes of a solo with words. This is a wonderful way to suffuse every note with meaning while maintaining a steady and relaxed pulse.

As I look ahead to performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra in May, I will keep this helpful guide to practicing and performance right on my music stand alongside of the score. Morganstern closes his book with a final thought: To spend one's life in the company of genius is the major compensation of being a musician. I couldn't agree more. A valuable gift from a stranger; now hopefully, a life-long friend.

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