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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