Thoughts from the Road
Being a musician on the road is equal parts exhaustion and exhilaration, poured on a base of hard work. Since the start of the season, I’ve run around the country performing in some exciting and unique venues: the Brahms Concerto in Juneau, Alaska, a fantastic experience, paired with rainy, cold, dark days - and seeing a black bear and her two cubs just 10 feet from me; the Mozart G Major Concerto in the “wild west,” aka Montana and Wyoming, where people take their cowboy boots just as seriously as their music; Chicago the day after the election when the entire city felt like it was running on three hours sleep; Bruch Concerto in Westchester; and filming in a cavernous studio in downtown NYC.
With it all came the mundane and sometimes infuriating norm of travel. The canceled flight and broken plane that added an unplanned night in Seattle to my schedule and caused a performance of Ysaye to be played on very little sleep. The other broken plane and resultant travel challenges that forced me to cancel my dress rehearsal in Chicago, 10 minutes in, because I felt so sick. And, of course, the endless security lines, empty hotel rooms, and search for reliable food.
As I settle back into my hometown for several short weeks, I begin preparations for the next round of it all. Yesterday, I worked on the Schubert Fantasie in C Major and spent about 45 minutes on the first note. A really, really long beautiful, extraordinarily difficult note that requires strict bow planning, purity of sound, vibrato control, and dynamic shading. It was both frustrating and addicting spending that much time on one note, all in the pursuit of artistic perfection, or something close to it.
It’s truly hard work. doing what we musicians do; it requires a seemingly bottomless amount of dedication and perseverance. No matter how many flights get canceled and hours of sleep get lost, that one long note will always be there beckoning for your full attention and being when you walk out on stage.
That is why it is so disconcerting and frustrating to hear about the problem we have in music today. Well established orchestras fight for their survival, arts education is the first to get cut, news organizations gradually reduce their art/music sections – music is being put second, or third, or fourth, all in a bid to save money.
The next time you go to a concert or listen to music, and feel some emotion cut into your core, think about the endless hard work, sweat, and tears that went into producing it. And try to imagine a world without music - it will be hard, as we are bombarded by music every day from every source – but try. I know without a doubt that hearing the music of Schubert, for example, has intangibly, yet directly, made me into a better person. And I think its not going far to assume that many of us have a piece of music or specific memory of music affecting us profoundly. So, the bottom line is that we need music. We must support art and artists and respect the enormous burden they shoulder upon themselves. Music is not a budget extra that can be cut and replaced as necessary; it is an unwavering necessity of life.
This New Season
Oh September, one of my favorite times of year. The breeze begins to carry a crisp chill, colors slowly creep onto the New England leaves, students take over the city with their brand new books, and we scramble to figure out our football pools (New England Patriots all the way, fingers crossed). It’s a new concert season, a new academic season - a new year.
Like the New Year, it’s a clean slate and a time to dive into one’s work and priorities. For me, this will mean many countless hours (some dull, some exciting) slaving away alone in a practice room, hours of rehearsal with others chipping away at the finer points of Bach and Berg, a daily dose of (sometimes) frenzied phone-calls and emails, and last but not least the hours upon hours spent in airports, on airplanes, trains, etc. As at the start of each season I always seem to say that this year will be different, that I will slow down the time and savor as much as possible, that the season won’t become just another crazed whirlwind and race to the finish line. Yet, I always seem to look up the following summer and say, “what happened to September?”
As I was dissecting a phrase in the Brahms Concerto the other day, playing it over and over, analyzing each note, it’s direction, it’s coloring, it’s intonation, I realized that what we musicians ultimately attempt to do on a daily basis is to convey the innermost emotions and thoughts of a composer at one set point in time to a listener listening at an unrelated point in time. To do this, we must ceaselessly work to attain a greater understanding and mastery of the music, and certainly, we take our time (years and years) to do it.
And then, it dawned upon me that I can apply this same drive for greater musical knowledge to September and beyond. Though the rat race probably won’t change all that much, there will always be the crazed times, ample work, and long hours, we can attempt to go through it all with a deeper understanding, always peeling away at the layers of whatever may come up.
So, I for one resolve this season to learn more, work more, understand more, and just live more. To not just go by rote, but to scrub the daily routine, as we musicians so often do with music, and find the deeper meaning as often as possible.
Happy new season!
Lessons with Mr. Totenberg
I started studying with Mr. Totenberg when I was 14. My previous teacher, the esteemed Zinaida Gilels, had just passed away and insisted prior to her death that I continue my studies “only with Roman Totenberg.” When I arrived for my first lesson and rang the bell, Mr. Totenberg answered the door himself. He was impeccably dressed, wearing a suit and pocket square, had a soft understated smile, and a confident but not overbearing presence. He spoke to me in Russian though I learned he also knew Polish, English, German, French, and Italian. His studio was covered with autographed photos from the Roosevelts, famous musicians, and other prominent people. His noisy little bird observed our first meeting from a cage on the corner desk. Needless to say, I was quite overwhelmed, nervous, and spent the entire lesson sweating bullets. Despite what I felt was an underwhelming display, he agreed to take me on as his student.
During my first few lessons, I came to recognize the truly great artist and teacher with whom I had the privilege to study. He had asked me to prepare several etudes by Jakob Dont, each one designed to train a different technical aspect of violin playing. I found these to be boring, simple, purely utilitarian compositions but with Totenberg, they took on a whole new meaning. He didn’t focus so much on technique as much as phrasing, the composition as a whole, playing it beautifully. I remember vividly when Mr. Totenberg demonstrated a Dont etude designed to train chordal technique – the way he played it was simply gorgeous. He turned it into a brilliant and elegant composition. That’s what we focused on for several weeks, the phrasing, the dynamics, making the composition stand as a whole. Lo and behold my chords improved too.
His guiding principles were twofold; know the phrase - every note and its purpose, every rhythm and its direction – because the musical phrase is king, and always play that phrase with your distinct voice. This reverential approach made every lesson with Mr. Totenberg not only an exercise in becoming a better violinist, but a better person. He was not one to dole out too many flowery compliments, nor was he particularly negative or aggressively critical. He was constantly nurturing and understanding. When things just weren’t working he would look at me and say, “…well that didn’t sound very good,” with a dry little smile. I got a ton of those during my years with him. When things did work well, a simple “good” or “very good” spoke volumes. I got a few of those as well.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from a particularly frustrating lesson with Mr. Totenberg. I hadn’t played well and, as I was packing up, I launched into a 10 minute tirade about my displeasure with my progress. I pleaded with him for some advice and wisdom. He calmly sat there, without saying a word, until I finished. He looked at me silently for what must have been a minute but felt like an hour and then, in his low growly, soft voice said one word: “Listen.” At first I was dismayed that this was all he had to say after I had just poured out my heart and soul to him. Then, as the weeks and months went by, I realized just how right he was. The key was and always will be to simply, “Listen.”
After about 8 years I finished my studies with Mr. Totenberg but we continued to stay in touch and occasionally I played for him. His advice and quiet wisdom always seemed to reassure me in this ever-challenging and demanding field. As I arrived at his house this past Monday, for what I knew would be my final lesson, I tried to prepare just the right words. Instead, he wanted to hear me play, more and more, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, Sarasate. Even though he could barely speak or open his eyes, he was as tough as ever – clapping and conducting in time with the music, trying to show me the correct phrasing, rhythm, and tempo. In the Wieniawski Polonaise, which we had worked on years ago, he stopped me and, as before, defiantly clapped out the tempo he much preferred. It sounded better immediately. The time had come for me to leave and I still hadn’t found the right words. So, I held his hand, said thank you for everything, and told him that I was about to travel to Germany to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto several times. He managed to give me a faint but distinct nod of approval and I left.
His relentless commitment to music, to the phrase, to the violin, and to individuality will forever be a model to me. For years Mr. Totenberg has been, and continues to be, my inspiration. I can only hope to one day approach his level of achievement, musicianship, and humanity. He was a brilliantly profound musician, this is certain, but more importantly he was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.
Thank you for everything, Mr. Totenberg. I will be listening.
What I Learned From My UMass Residency
This past week, I spent 6 days as an artist in residence at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). In addition to working with the students in the music department and performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, I spent much of the week playing for and speaking to large groups of non-music majors, who as part of their general education curriculum take classes exposing them to music and other arts. I was truly impressed by the commitment UMass showed to giving everybody an opportunity to experience art.
In one week, I spoke to nearly 600 college students who, over the course of the year, were covering everything from traditional Sonata form in the Baroque and Classical periods to Indian Ragas. We talked about the inner workings of the Mendelssohn Concerto, the Romantic period, the 20th century composers on my new album, dissonance, and even 12-tone music. Over the course of these classes, I probably heard and answered upwards of 150 questions, many of them great, well-thought-out points – some of them concepts about playing that even I myself will continue to think about.
More schools and universities need to learn from programs such as this. Music, much like all art, is a reflection of life. Better than anything, it can capture a sad, happy, angry, or even twisted moment in time and beautifully mirror it for all to see. Music can help us understand further, reflect and relive, and express what we feel compelled to say during the times when our words helplessly succumb to the rush of thoughts and emotions.
Music is important – and that’s putting it mildly. So why then is music (the arts) always one of the first things to get the boot when things get tough? Even though this is somewhat of a blanket generalization, I think most would find it hard to deny the diminishing regard for arts in education, particularly in public ones. The knee-jerk reaction to cut the arts as a stopgap budget measure, especially in the United States, is an abominable disservice to our future. The result is an entire generation with limited or no exposure to the arts. Access to quality arts education should be a right, not a vague possibility.
But the point of this is not to be negative; it is to raise awareness about what we are doing right and how we can continue to perpetuate it. There are a number of exemplary programs that aim to counter this downward trend, such as the El Sistema program, which aims to directly involve young children, often from low-income backgrounds, in an intense orchestral musical experience, as has been so successfully accomplished by the Sistema program in Venezuela. This includes, as I saw this week, schools such as UMass and its efforts to bring music to as many as possible.
Of course I’m not saying the goal should be to churn out leagues of musicians (that
would mean too much competition for us!), but rather to simply provide everyone the opportunity to be exposed to this vital form of human expression; to allow us all to look at the musical “reflection” and see life staring us right back. Imagine if today we all sat down to listen to some Brahms, Beatles, and Louis Armstrong, just perhaps, we might learn a bit more about ourselves…and others too.
Shostakovich and Defiance
Of the composers on my debut album, I first got to know the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. His story is an incredible example of defiance. Like so many other artists, social leaders, and ordinary individuals in mid-20th century Soviet life, he was sidelined by his unwillingness to adhere to the establishment of strict communist society. What is even more amazing is that Shostakovich was personally singled out by Stalin as a social rebel. Shostakovich was a pain in his side. In hindsight, it’s quite fascinating to think that a quiet, demure man such as Shostakovich could provoke such a passionate hate from a giant, powerful autocrat such as Stalin.
But in reality, life for Shostakovich was extraordinarily difficult. For much of his career he composed in fear: fear of losing income, fear of ruining his career, fear for his family and friends (many of whom were arrested or killed), and fear for his life. As Stalin and his associates began to shake up all of Soviet society, they directly attacked all art that was perceived to be “not for the people.” One of the most direct blows that Shostakovich experienced was the now very famous denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth. This was a major turning point for Shostakovich that put him directly in the cross-hairs of Stalin’s sights.
Music became a sort of secret outlet for Shostakovich, perhaps the only outlet available to him. He struggled with the score as he composed; trying to appease authorities while expressing his true emotions. The expression is utterly pure and raw. So many of Shostakovich’s works convey honesty and plead with the listener to hear what he’s saying; it is brave. The fact of the matter is that he was writing music and pushing a boundary that could have easily cost him his life. It is the ultimate defiance.
Defiance seems like too severe a subject matter to base one’s first album on. Yet it is something we can all relate to, in our own individual way. We’ve all at some point defied authority, reality, and life to get somewhere else, to be in a different place. This is certainly true for my family. When we left the Soviet Union in 1989, we did so to escape the tremendous and unfair pressures placed upon us because of our beliefs. Like so many other Jewish families in the USSR, life was filled with an ever-present stigma associated with being Jewish.
Although we could have continued to get through life like this, it dawned upon my parents that it would only be right to give my brother and myself the opportunity to grow up free from these pressures. To believe whatever you wish, to say and do whatever you want, and the ability to truly forge your own path are things too many of us today easily take for granted. But this is something my family had to fight for. That defiance towards authority and the status quo, and belief in progress is something that continues to inspire me every day.
Although many of us can be grateful that we do not have to fight for our lives and freedom of expression quite like Shostakovich did, we can stand to learn a lot from his life and music. This is one of the reasons I have made defiance the theme for my first album. Together with the equally powerful music of Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, and Joseph Achron, this album is a tribute to their stories and the power of the human spirit.
You can purchase my album Here: http://www.marquisclassics.com/429_def.aspx
It ships on January 31st in the United States.