Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Turning Point

My memoir "Frantic" seems to have resonated with an astonishingly gifted eighteen-year-old violinist from the Iberian Peninsula. He reached out to me with these words: Having come across your memoir and being currently in the process of reading it, I found my heart sinking at numerous passages, both the ones whose situations I could relate to and the ones I never came close to experiencing.

My new reader, from the age of four, has been molded into an accomplished violinist having made his debut at the age of eight, and now, is a full-fledged artist; I listened with admiration to a recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto he sent this way. This young man became a violinist, in part, to please parents and esteemed, highly sought-after mentors for he is bestowed with natural abilities. But like most teenagers, he is now conflicted by the toll and demands the art form snatches from his youth. I find myself reading his words as if from a page of poetry. My spirit connects with his as he unburdens his heart:
My violin teacher asked me what my free time was like, and it was then that my blood completely froze. I loved music, but music is about life; in Zigeunerweisen are the bonfires of the Gypsies, in Beethoven's Spring Sonata the Viennese gardens. I couldn't give up on life—i.e., my precious free time—for the sake of those dreaded scales and exercises! It would be like tearing down a house, regardless of its cracks and paint smears, in order to labor tirelessly and put up the flawless painting of a house in its place. What for? I could certainly not live there.

And a bit later, a probing assessment:
I've met more stressed than happy musicians. I've met the accompanists with fully booked schedules and piles of sheet music to learn, the orchestra musicians with long rehearsals and back pain, and many of those people who studied hard in the most prestigious schools. What for? The fact that music, a food of the soul rather than a cold austere exact science, must be worked for the same way (or maybe more so) as accounting or engineering is a disheartening concept to grasp, one which may often miss the perception of general audiences, but which I, as a supposedly aspiring musician, can't hope to neglect if I really am serious about what lays ahead of me. And why I ought to be serious is the question that plagues my mind daily.

Since my memoir "Frantic" concludes at about the age of this reader, he asks that I expand upon the experience of studying with Jascha Heifetz, and what my present perspective is regarding the classical music profession. I will happily oblige for all readers out there, young and old.

In the final chapter of "Frantic" Jascha Heifetz enters the class nonchalantly and remarks off-handedly that all human beings are members of the animal kingdom. I believe Heifetz was attempting to set the record straight; to level the playing field; in class, we were all to be equals, including our mentor, the legendary Jascha Heifetz himself. But then, with a light touch of humor, he directed the class to acknowledge that unlike animals, or the herd, we were each responsible for our own actions. With Heifetz, every single facet of his life appeared to be a conscious act of will and self-determination. Though he may have felt nervous prior to performances, he imparted this message to students: If I do not display confidence in my work, who will have confidence in me? Before launching into a scale, he'd warn: Don't be afraid of the scale; make the scale afraid of you! He seemed convinced by the power of mind over matter as a means to prevail over impulse; he recognized the force of opposites; the triumph of the spirit. Heifetz was not to be duped. I was dismissed from the class, along with several other members at the end of the year, in part because (as my young reader might best comprehend), Jascha Heifetz felt that I was conflicted about becoming a violinist in the first place. That ambivalence manifested itself in my temerity during class. The choice of becoming a violinist had not been mine, he noted; I was the vessel for my mother's musical desires. Heifetz then advised me to depart from the class and sort things out for myself.

My young reader and I agree that to become a classical artist might be compared with the priesthood or  ministry. It is fair to conceive of music as a calling. In a marvelous book about Yehudi Menuhin by his nephew, the Los Angeles writer Lionel Rolfe, entitled "The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey" it is revealed that Menuhin was a direct descendant of Russian rabbis who created the mystical sect of Judaism known as Hassidism. Rolfe describes his uncle as having been a kind of latter-day musical Baal Shem, the 18th century Russian Hasidic prophet. For Menuhin, playing the violin was a spiritual quest; his life was one of sacrifice devoted to the service of mankind through art. Practicing, like the call to prayer, was a  pursuit leading to his own enlightenment and through performance, an offering of glory to the world.

We cannot all be like Heifetz or Menuhin, of course. In response to today's consumer driven, technological absorption, it might be wise for a talented young artist to think long and hard about the bumpy road that lies ahead for the future of the arts. I secretly wonder whether Heifetz or Menuhin would have succeeded as concert violinists in today's superficial, self-centered culture.

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