June 7, 2022
At the first lesson of the young pianist Josef Hofmann, his teacher, the legendary pianist Anton Rubinstein, told his student that he would talk about music and technique, but never play for him. Rubinstein wanted Hofmann to develop unencumbered his own musical personality.
On the other hand, as a teenager studying with the violin virtuoso Toscha Seidel, I was often only able to play a few notes of my assigned concerto before Seidel would order me to stop. He then would perform the work spectacularly. Seidel hoped to give me an example of a finished performance.
Which approach was better?
My violin teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, Ivan Galamian, required that all students use his own well-considered violin fingerings for the standard repertoire. He thought that time was better spent dealing with the all-important issues of technique and musicianship.
However, my last teacher, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, would spend great amounts of time at lessons discussing the pros and cons of various fingerings. He believed that it was an important way to explore nuance and meaning in music.
Which concept was more useful?
After our Guarneri String Quartet performance of Alban Berg’s Quartet Opus 3, I asked the violinist Felix Galimir, who was in attendance, what he thought of our rendition. Felix, who had known Berg well and his Opus 3 Quartet intimately, gave me a highly detailed critique of our performance.
Quite the opposite occurred when I and other young musicians rehearsed chamber music with the revered pianist Rudolf Serkin. Serkin, who knew the work in question inside and out, often had relatively little to say after a run through. But then he would smile sweetly and say, “Let’s just do it again.” The idea being that through the inspiration we derived from his playing, and from the understanding and feeling instinctively acquired with each play-through, we would move the work forward. And then Serkin might once more smile and say, “Let’s do it again.”
Which approach would produce the better performance?
Useless questions, wouldn’t you say? One hundred distinguished musicians could have one hundred different teaching styles, and each might be both inspirational for a student.
But I once heard a story about a teaching moment that I’ve never forgotten and to this day keep thinking about.
It took place after a Guarneri String Quartet performance of ours in Miami, Florida. Julian Kreeger, the concert’s presenter, generously invited us and many of his and our friends to the Cuban Versailles restaurant. I sat next to a Russian violinist I had not known before and have never seen since. During the course of our conversation, I learned that he had studied with the violinist Jascha Heifetz.
For those of us in the violin fraternity, there is a widespread belief that there are great violinists, and then there is Jascha Heifetz. Yes, Heifetz’s command of the instrument was consummate, but what drew listeners to his performances was his daring, his sense of nuance, his unexpected changes from virtuoso violinist to the most touching of poets. And so, I simply had to ask this stranger sitting next to me what it was like to study with the great violinist.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the Russian violinist’s name, but, in any case, I’ll let him answer my question himself, to the best of my recollection.
As you undoubtedly know, Heifetz taught a violin class with all his students present, and several usually were chosen to play at each lesson. At one particular class, it was my turn to play Ernest Chausson’s “Poème” for violin and orchestra. Not only because it was for the great Heifetz, but also because the “Poème” is one of the most magical and atmospheric works written for the violin, I had prepared especially well in the hope of delivering a polished performance.
Brooks Smith, Heifetz’s long time piano accompanist, played the opening orchestral passage and I entered on a low B flat that gradually fades away and leads into a deeply moving passage for violin alone. But I never got further than that long, low B flat, for Heifetz rapped on his desk with a pencil he always kept handy, and ordered me without comment to begin again. Brooks played only a few of the opening bars this time and I, uncertain as to how to deal with that B flat, tried it tentatively once more. Heifetz sternly rapped on his desk before I could even finish the note, and merely said, “Again.”
What followed was the stuff of nightmares. I cannot exactly recall how often Heifetz made me play that same B flat, but it was easily twelve or fifteen times, and all without a single word or comment from him. I desperately wanted to please Heifetz, so I began the B flat each time differently—first louder, then softer, then longer, then shorter. I applied more vibrato to make the note sound especially expressive, and then the next time quite the opposite with a sparse vibrato for a somewhat eerie effect. I experimented with different ways to let that long note fade away—first by remaining loud much longer, and then by trying to let go of the sound quickly. But it was all for naught. The only words out of Heifetz’s mouth were “once more” or “again,” and finally, “That will be all.”
I stormed out of the class in a stew. Why had Heifetz made me play the same note over and over again without so much as a single word of explanation? It was cruel. It defied logic. And it was certainly the most upsetting experience I’d ever had in a violin lesson. Jascha Heifetz might be a great violinist, I fumed, but he was without a doubt a terrible teacher.
Over the following years, I kept on thinking about that Heifetz lesson. For the longest time it just upset me, but as time passed my anger gradually subsided and I began to consider those endless and nightmarish B flats that Heifetz had forced on me in a different light. Because he had said nothing, I was prodded into thinking for myself in a way I had never experienced before. With each of Heifetz’s maddening raps of his pencil on the desk, I was gradually faced with a whole world of possibilities for the long B flat that introduces so expressively the solo violin entrance.
It has been twenty years since that lesson with Heifetz, and I’ve slowly come to realize that he had presented me with a rare opportunity. For those uncomfortable moments during the lesson when Heifetz basically set me adrift, I had entered a state of deeply creative thinking as never before.
The Russian violinist looked up at me and smiled.
I now consider Jascha Heifetz to be the greatest of teachers.
Whenever the Russian violinist’s story comes to mind, my first thought is usually not about his lesson, but about Heifetz himself. Of course, I’ve listened to Heifetz’s exquisite recording of the “Poème” and, specifically, how he played that very first B flat. But my real question is not how Heifetz rendered the note, but how in the confines of his studio he practiced it. Heifetz was known to be an obsessive practicer. Would it be far-fetched to think he demanded of himself, for that first note, the same kind of intense exploration that he expected from the Russian violinist? And to imagine further, Heifetz might have muttered over and over with increasing frustration, “again”, and “again”, and “once more”?
So, was Jascha Heifetz a great teacher or a terrible one? I still haven’t decided.
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