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.