Violin-less

August 1, 2014

It’s that time of year again.  I’ve worked hard for it, I deserve it, and nothing’s going to stop me from it.  Yes, I’m packing up my violin and bow, putting them in the closet, and then I’m not going to practice for a while.

Just for a few days.

Well, maybe a week.

Mmm, maybe even a little more.

“But wait just a minute,” I hear my conscience say.  “Won’t you be rusty when you start fiddling again?”

“Yes, that’s true, but so what.”  My conscience (I call him Frank by the way) can’t leave it at that.

“And won’t you sound—to put it bluntly—terrible, while trying to get back into shape?”

This calls for a smackdown.  “Listen, Frank, I often sound terrible even when I’m practicing.”

As a kid, I hated to practice.  I loved music, especially the sweet sound of the violin, and I also enjoyed performing at my teacher’s little student concerts.  But practicing?  Ugh.  It was so much more fun to play games with my friends in the nearby fields.

Mom and Dad had ways to counteract my disdain for the P word, however.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, they told me, and violin lessons cost money.  No practice, no lessons.  This was more than I could bear for I was already beginning to play alluring melodies such as “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” and “Song of the Volga Boatmen.”  I practiced just enough for lessons to continue.

Later, as a teenager grappling with the virtuoso violin repertoire, my parents employed a different form of coercion to get me to practice.  Time and again they trotted out something that the violinist Jascha Heifetz had apparently once said: If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the whole world knows it.

As much as I hated to admit it, there seemed to be some truth to what Heifetz said.  I noticed that if I missed a day of practice because of, say, cramming for a major school test, my playing suffered.  My fingers felt like molasses, my rhythm tended to be sluggish, and I sometimes missed notes I usually could play in my sleep.  It didn’t take me long to realize that, along with my quest to become an artist, there was another component to playing the violin.  I was training to be an athlete and, as such, not so different from the guys I hung out with at school who were working on their hundred-yard dash or mile run.  Me?  I was working on my Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that I had to perform later in the year.

People go to the gym to work on their abs, but violinists have their own unseen muscles.  For me to master some of the passages in the Tchaikovsky concerto meant hours of work building up the strength and accuracy of my fingers.  I had to be able to toss the music off brilliantly not one or five, but ten out of ten times in a row if I wanted to be a successful violinist.  Not only that, I had to play the entire concerto with complete mastery—a work that lasts easily thirty minutes.  This wasn’t a mile run.  It was the marathon.

In time, I began to enjoy practicing, even to look forward to it.  There is something intensely stimulating and absorbing about the process of learning a piece of music—in experimenting over and over until a phrase has the wings it needs to lift off the printed page, or in chipping away at a passage half tempo yesterday so that I might be able to do it faster today, and perhaps at its right speed tomorrow.

Practicing, especially intense and sustained practice, has its dangers, however.  Leopold Auer, the great violin pedagogue, advised that anyone planning to practice four or five hours daily should reserve six or seven for the task in order to give the hands time to rest and relax every thirty or forty minutes.  He undoubtedly had the physical well-being of his students in mind.  Our profession is littered with the aches, pains, and sustained injuries of those who ignore Auer’s advice.  Playing a string instrument is a high-risk occupation, and especially so for those who must work at it for many hours a day.  I’m thinking of the soloist with a hefty amount of repertoire to learn and play, the string quartet player who not only has to practice and rehearse, but also perform many times a week on tour, and the orchestra player with a demanding rehearsal and performance schedule on his or her plate even before thinking of outside work.  Just imagine having to perform a four-hour Wagner opera night after night in the orchestra pit.

This might seem to the uninitiated like hyperbole or even manufactured hysteria aimed at dramatizing a violinist’s profession.  The instrument weighs hardly one pound, and the bow?  Why, it’s no heavier than a feather.  What’s all the fuss about?  My teenage son, having heard me practice all his life, once asked to hold the violin and bow and attempt to make a sound.  He, a person whose body still had the elasticity of a rubber band, gave me back the violin quickly, complaining that just holding it was awkward.

And so, I take a vacation from the violin every year in order to give my body a rest.  Usually, it’s for a few days to a couple of weeks, but the longest I’ve ever spent away from the violin was not by choice.

I was once a soldier in the United States army for six months, and for the first two of those in basic training.  Keeping a violin with me while learning how to shoot a rifle, while carrying forty pounds of supplies on my back, and while marching for hours at a time was out of the question.  When basic training was finally over, I arranged to have the cheapest violin I could get my hands on sent to the army base, and as an afterthought insured it for a thousand dollars.  Its arrival caused a sensation for nothing of remotely that value had ever been sent to that base.  Sergeant Jones called me on the public address system: “Steinhardt, get your butt over here on the double.”

When I arrived, Jones glowered at me and demanded to know what could possibly be in the package that was worth the unheard sum of a thousand dollars.  I told him that it was a violin, that I was a violinist, and that I hoped to practice at the base during off-duty hours.  Jones thought about this for a moment and then grinned maliciously as he put his boots up on his desk.  “Alright, Steinhardt, you can have the violin—but only if you play “Flight of the Bumble Bee” for me.”  In the best of times, this would have been impossible.  I had never taken the time to learn that virtuoso and challenging bit of fluff.  When I nervously told Jones that I couldn’t play it for him, he stared at me for an uncomfortably long time.  “Alright then, no ‘Bumble Bee,’ ”he finally said, “but you’re not getting out of here without playing ‘Fascination.’ ”  “Fascination” was an enticing song in waltz time that appeared in “Love in the Afternoon,” a popular 1957 movie.  By 1960, the year I was in the army, everyone was still humming it, and so apparently was Jones.  But fortunately, so was I.

I took the violin out of its case and put it under my chin for the first time in two months.  How strange it felt to hold this block of wood covered with four strings in one hand and a stick with horsehair tied to each end in the other.   And yet, all that practicing from an early age on had connected the proper synapses in my brain and set up my muscles to work in the right fashion even after long disuse.  Somehow, I managed to play “Fascination” creditably enough for Jones to let me keep the violin.

My wife, Dorothea, and I are going to Montana on this vacation.  We’ll visit with friends, go on hikes—maybe I’ll get a chance to wrestle a grizzly bear or two.  Will I miss the violin?  Not for a while.  It will be heaven not to practice and not to even think about music.  For a brief few days, I’ll be able to pretend that I’m a normal person—that is, not a violinist wed to daily practice come rain or shine.  But sooner or later, Frank, my conscience, will come calling.  “Time to get back to work,” he’ll say, and I’ll put up no objection.

In truth, practice, whether to prepare for an upcoming concert, to work on new repertoire, or just to keep in shape is a deeply ingrained point of orientation that makes the rest of the day feel right.  How could it not be with something I’ve done almost every day of my life since the age of six?

Frank will be correct.  I’ll be rusty and probably sound terrible when I return from Montana and begin practicing again.  I’ll have to start with something basic.

Frank, what about “Fascination”?

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Comments

  1. From Annabelle on August 1, 2014

    Have a great vacation Arnold! Lovely to read this piece and to hear Fascination again. Didn’t your mother say to you as you were growing up “Arnold, you look tired, you need a rest, why don’t you go and have a little practice”?
    Hope to see you in NY in November. Love to you both Annabelle

  2. From Cho-Liang Lin on August 7, 2014

    Arnold:
    Don’t wrestle any grizzlies. Just ask them kindly if they like Opus 132 and if they would to do some practicing for you. That should be more effective than any pepper spray.

    Jimmy

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August 1, 2014

Violin-less

It’s that time of year again.  I’ve worked hard for it, I deserve it, and nothing’s going to stop me from it.  Yes, I’m packing up my violin and bow, putting them in the closet, and then I’m not going to practice for a while. Just for a few days. Well, maybe a week. Mmm, [...]
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March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]