March 1, 2012
What makes a good teacher? For that matter, what makes a bad one? Some teachers merely pass on information. Others excite a student’s interest through their own love for the subject. Some teachers employ fear and intimidation. A very few manage to teach you how to become your own teacher. The craft (or is it the art) of teaching seems to be an elusive and mysterious thing.
I don’t remember much at all about most of my teachers but I certainly remember the very best ones. Take Mrs. Kindall, my sixth grade elementary school teacher who was tall, slender, and could turn you to stone with a look. On the first day of class she told us that everything would be fine if we worked hard and lived up to her high standards, but if we didn’t, God help us. Scared and thrilled at the same time, I worked my little tail off for Mrs. Kindall and learned a great deal.
Sixth Grade Class Photo; Mrs. Kindall (middle right) and Arnie Steinhardt (back row, far left).
There was Mr. Allen, my wood shop teacher in Junior High School. He held up a hand that had two-and-a-half fingers missing and told us to be careful using the band saw. We were careful. But Mr. Allen also inspired me to make a ping pong table in class—something I thought way beyond my capabilities.
My first violin teacher, Mr. Moldrem, had a special way with children. He taught rhythm by fruit. A quarter note was a pear, two eighth notes an apple, and four sixteenths a watermelon. When I panicked over my first triplet rhythm, Moldrem put me at ease. The triplet was just a pineapple, he explained.
Another violin teacher of mine, Toscha Seidel, a fiery Russian virtuoso, yelled at me when my playing displeased him and even hit me with his bow occasionally for emphasis. It was the if-you-can-survive-me-you-may-have-a-chance-at-a-career school of teaching. But there was another side to that school when Seidel played the violin. The intoxicating warmth of his sound and the unbridled freedom of his music making revealed unimagined possibilities.
It was said of my next teacher, Ivan Galamian, that he could teach a table to play the violin. Step by incremental step, he patiently built violinists into solid, intelligent players, No yelling with Galamian! On the contrary, he spoke so quietly at lessons that the last words of a sentence were often hardly audible. And yet I hung on every one of those words, for when studies with him finished, I knew I would be able to call myself a violinist.
I spent the summer of 1962 with my last teacher, the Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti. He talked of “speaking” music—he called it “parlando”—as a way of infusing notes with clarity and emotional meaning. He asked me to imagine the unique sound of a particular orchestra instrument—say, the bassoon, the clarinet, or the French horn—in order to help capture the essence of a passage. Szigeti encouraged me to use imagery and to reference other music while learning a work: He compared one phrase to an impassioned dialogue between lovers, another to a piano work of Chopin. He told me to differentiate between music that should sound effortless and music in which the audience must sense the performer’s heavy task—Szigeti likened it to the labor of kneading dense dough. To this day, a full fifty years later, I still feed off much that Szigeti said.
Which brings me to something told to me after a concert in Miami, Florida, some years ago. Julian Kreeger, the presenter, generously had invited musicians and friends as was his custom to the Versailles restaurant for some Cuban cuisine. I found myself seated next to a violinist whom I had never met before and have never seen since. We chatted amiably as sangria, shredded pork, fried plantains, black beans, and flan came our way. Soon, I learned that he (let’s call him Sam) had once studied with Jascha Heifetz. I asked Sam the inevitable question about the great violinist’s abilities as a teacher. In answer, he told the following story:
Sam was assigned to play Ernest Chausson’s inspired Poeme for Violin and Orchestrain Heifetz’s weekly master class. Naturally, he prepared the work to the absolute best of his ability in the days before. Sam, like all the other students, was in awe of Heifetz as a violinist. That was pressure enough, but Heifetz was also a very strict, even forbidding, and unpredictable teacher. At the class, Sam had barely finished playing the solo violin’s very first note—one that tapered gradually from loud to soft—when Heifetz tapped on the table with his pencil and ordered him to play the note again. Sam did so. Heifetz tapped once more. Sam played the note once more. Heifetz kept tapping with his pencil and Sam kept repeating that single note over and over, at least fifteen or twenty times, without Heifetz ever saying what displeased him. Each time Heifetz stopped him, Sam tried something different in order to figure out what Heifetz wanted. He started the note louder. Then he started it softer. He played it longer, then shorter. He employed a more intense vibrato. Then he tried almost none. Still, nothing pleased the master. Sam began wildly searching for more uncommon ways to play the note in a desperate attempt to satisfy Heifetz—but he never succeeded. The lesson mercifully came to an end when Heifetz signaled for another student to play.
Sam stormed out of the class in a rage. Heifetz had to be the absolute worst teacher in the world. What stupidity to mindlessly make a student play a single note over and over with not a word of explanation. Whenever Sam thought about this experience over the next few years, he would get mad all over again. The Heifetz encounter had not only been mean-spirited but also pointless. Even much more time elapsed, and to Sam’s surprise, he began gradually to see things differently. As nightmarish as that single note trauma had been, there were actually redeeming features to it. Sam reluctantly conceded that Heifetz had proded him to think creatively.
As we sat in the restaurant, Sam told me that twenty years had passed since he had managed to play only one single note of Chausson’s PoÃ¨me for Heifetz, but he had completely changed his mind about the experience. By saying nothing directly, Heifetz had forced him to open his heart and mind as never before to a much larger world of creativity. Sam told me that he now considered Heifetz to be a great teacher.
So, was Jascha Heifetz a terrible teacher, or a truly inspiring one?
You be the judge.
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