Emmanuel Feuermann on Playing Music and the Cello

Edited by D. Jacobson

Very few virtuosi have attempted a treatise on playing. Even less tell much that is helpful. The great cellist Emmanuel Feuermann wrote the beginnings of a book on playing. He died at the age of 39, never completing the treatise. Yet what he wrote contains many valuable insights.

I should explain before continuing why I believe the insights of a great cellist should be interesting to any serious musician. It is my opinion that at a foundational level the technique and musical intelligence needed to play at a virtuoso level are essentially the same for all instruments. After all, music itself is no different for a piano, singer, or trumpeter. Virtuosi play on that level primarily because of the way they think, both about the physicality of playing and the emotional and intellectual understanding of the music.

I have edited his unfinished notes to make the text less repetitive, and more coherent, at least to my thinking. What follows is in abridged form, with commentary by me in brackets. I have bolded comments of Feuermannʼs that I find particularly interesting. A less edited version can be found on the internet under the title Notes on Interpretation, by Emannuel Feuermann.

The following is the treatise:

Emmanuel Feuermann on Playing Music and the Cello

I intend to write neither a theory nor a method. I do not even know if this will be a thick book or a small pamphlet. I think that the title "Words of Advice" approximates what I want to say. I might say that a method describes how something should be accomplished. There have been many methods written with the best intentions and with much success. There will be directions for how one should draw the bow, what the different keys are, and surely some progressive exercises, so that the student achieves a certain facility and precision in his intonation, and if he is talented and has a good teacher, he will play fairly well up to a certain point.

Because of my experiences with musicians on my own instrument, and with violinists and pianists as well, I would maintain that the most important point, the most important goal, has been ignored. Only thus is it understandable that good players, if there were an attempt made to explain to them the goal and the route to accomplishing it, could without much effort improve their playing to an amazing extent. I would like to say that it must first be clear what one wishes to reach and the how will play a secondary role.

Hundreds of cellists have played for me and some of them have become my students. I nearly always ask two questions: why they have come to me and where do they feel they are lacking?

The answers are chiefly: faulty technique and depleted repertoire. Thus, the cellists who come to me have all completed their formal musical training, many of them have positions with orchestras either as first-desk solo cellists or in the section, of with quartets. They are persons one could call accomplished and expert in music.

What has always amazed me is that not a one has even come close to saying:

I realize that I do not play that badly but I find it impossible to express that which I have in my mind; or, I have a certain idea of how the cello should sound, but I cannot achieve it alone.

This has led me to the conclusion that most instrumentalists, at the stage when they are allowed to become independent by their teachers, should be able to think independently. They should be clear about their instruments and their music. Yet they are not prepared for such a situation, and are therefore hardly capable of developing alone. As sad as this may be, I can only thus explain to myself the standstill most musicians come to at a certain age and level. They feel that as soon as they leave the school or the teacher they have reached the height. But is not this the point at which the development begins.

The most blatant example is the prodigy. The prodigy is usually the performing voice of a good teacher: he is soft putty in the teacher's hands. I am of the opinion that a prodigy is not even destined for music, but that is another matter. In any case, it is a fact that most prodigies do not develop into artists, but at that moment when their own personality should make its appearance, they fail completely. [so do all the students that come to play for him, prodigy or not. So we could say that the problem of performers being unable to think and advance on their own, and having their own intelligent musical direction is common.]

Many reasons have been advanced for this and each case is different. Probably common to all is that, as long as they are under the influence of teachers or their often profit-seeking parents, they are treated as machines. No one tries to influence and develop their personal lives as musicians and people. On the contrary, to get the most out of the object--the prodigy--it is necessary to keep under strict control whatever appears to be the most advantageous as a momentary goal. But the prodigy is completely unprepared for the future as an independent, thinking human being; he is completely defenseless. This development, which is considered normal, is similar for most musicians.

Musicality and Technique

In my opinion, a war exists between technique and musicality. It brings with it only confusion, and makes a great performance virtually impossible. If one understands that by musicality is meant that one recognizes the intentions of the composer, then the other half of the term--"technique"--can be explained as possessing the real means necessary for bringing these intentions to fruition.

It is clear that musicality has priority; but for that very reason one should value technique even more highly, because it alone makes it possible to do justice to a composition.

I fear that the words "virtuoso" and ʻtechniqueʼ will be falsely understood and misused. The word "virtuoso" comes from virtus which means ability and should also characterize one who possesses the ability that is necessary for the interpretation of music. Virtuoso should be a title of honor, and I believe that even among the greatest names on the stage, only a few deserve it.

Virtuoso includes: the greatest ability, respect for a piece of art, and the ability to fit one's personality to the art work. How many of us have this? How many of us believe we have it, and are mistaken about it? And how many could have it if they were guided properly during their development?

Consider that my present technique was developed in direct opposition to the way I was taught to play myself; and consider that I am seldom satisfied with my own playing and, if at all, only with parts, never with a whole performance. [It is unfortunate that he never wrote about what he had to change in his technique and what he changed to.]

The question arises automatically, why is it that in all other professions there is an effort made to raise the standard and the average, while in our profession, there is not even the slightest attempt to recognize existing lacks or more especially the need for correction?

There is a shameful reason behind it--one expects nothing special from the average cellist and accepts unquestioningly that the difference between the few really good cellists and the mass of cellists must be so great. Besides, most people are too polite and few are interested enough to perceive the reasons for the difference.

From a "letter" to a student:

The Demands of the Instrument

I do not believe the cello must be played poorly. I will maintain that in the not-too-distant future the standards of cellists, will be raised. I cannot stand idly by and see so much talent and energy wasted. To me every serious-minded, ambitious young cellist is a living reproach: I am talented, I want to work; is it not possible that my talents can be developed?

They say one must be born a musician. Of the cellist one can say one is perhaps born to be a cellist, but one is not born with the possibility to develop oneself fully. Take your own case. You asked me in the lessons and again in your letter why no one had ever taught you to look at things the way I suggest. The answer is that in years of studying with teachers of good standing you have not been led to recognize the simplest and most obvious principles, or almost any principles.

What I have told you is not that you did not grasp the idea in a certain piece or that you played out of tune. Rather I outlined to you your lack of knowledge of:

1)  how to look over a piece of music and recognize its structure and its moods, 

2)  the physics of your arms and their proper use, 

3)  difficulties of the instrument and bow and the rules and principles to overcome them, 

and 4) most important, how to bring these rules and principles to life and how best to apply them to the music. 

It is surprising how few rules and principles there are and still more surprising how completely they change the entire style of playing. Believe it or not, my dear friend, the really outstanding string players, whether Kreisler, Casals, or Heifetz, are similar to each other in the way they use their muscular systems and handle their instruments and bows. The main differences lie in their different personalities, talents, and ideas, and only to a very small extent in their techniques, for which, again, physical differences are accountable. [Unfortunately he never says what those rules and principles are.]

Analysis, patience, and endurance are the main requirements for your development.

Except for groups of fast notes where a given number of notes are one single rhythmical unit, there is not a note in music that should be played without expression or articulation. It can be compared to speaking, in which every syllable has its rhythm and phrasing within a sentence, according to its desired meaning. So, every note must be played according to the intended expression within the musical phrase.

As in a written sentence the only guidelines are the single words, commas, periods, question marks, etc., so in music notation we have only the bar lines, the bowings, the pitch and length of the single notes, and expression marks (accents, crescendi, etc., play quite a special role). What meaning can there be in a story recited in a monotone? Very little. The words may be recognizable, but there will be little real sense.

Cultured people grasp meaning by silently pronouncing what they are reading. This is an automatic process. Only children and people not used to reading read with great effort and are content if they can get an approximately correct literal meaning, without troubling themselves with the real meaning.

When you played for me, I showed you how little attention you have given to this way of looking at music, to this kind of approach, the most important one for a performer that I know of.

A combination of a responsible approach towards music and complete mastery of the instrument to make possible the realization of the music is the ideal toward which I am constantly striving and which I would like to pass on to my fellow musicians. Talent for music is another thing; here we are discussing intelligence.

Talent: the Scale

I dare say that it is not any more difficult to play well than to play poorly. Talent plays an important part in how well one plays, but talent alone, unless combined with intelligence, effort, and persistence, is not enough. One can say that the better balanced one can keep talent and general intelligence, as well as specific intelligence, the better one will play.

Naturally, years of practice will advance a performer, and a certain amount of facility, a beautiful vibrato, and a good tone quality are accomplished by many. I am always struck by the thought of how much better most musicians (who now just get along) would play if they had been led the proper way.

And what do I like to hear? A scale made up of clean tones, the fingers going down in such a way that the unequal strength of the fingers is hidden; a scale in which audible string crossings do not exist and in which the position is changed so quickly that the difference between a finger placed on the string and a change of position can hardly be felt; thus a row of notes of uniform strength, perfect in intonation and without disrupting, extraneous noises, these are the fundamentals of a scale, the ideal!

How does one approach this idea? Just by playing a scale over and over again, believing everything is done if the scale is played fast and approximately in tune? No. By having such an ideal, an imaginary, perfect, scale in the mind and in the ear, every cellist can overcome the difficulties of the instrument to a surprising extent.

You must also remember how much concentration it requires, how much careful watching and especially careful connecting of notes to give those "scales" (in Beethoven Sonata in A Major)--every note--the beauty which lies in the evenness of their execution.

To understand something--more important still to improve something--one must get to the foundation and analyze it; it is necessary to discover the relationships of the single components to one another. Then it becomes understandable--in cello playing--how much has been taken for granted, when the only information passed down over the years is harmful and twisted: it consists of poor judgment, incomprehensibility, ignorance, and a lack of perception of what on the surface is obvious. As obvious and superfluous as it may seem to mention it, it is my opinion that the basic ills of poor playing lie in the absolute disregard of natural laws.

The cello presents a performer with great opposition. This is true of most of the lower- register instruments. There are general physical rules, and for the instrument and bow specific rules, which one must learn and follow if one wants to go beyond the mere skills of music to stretch the capabilities of the instrument.

The body should be so comfortable and relaxed when playing that the use of the muscles, tendons, wrists, and fingers is in no way inhibited. It is not stressed often enough that the playing of an instrument is physical work and therefore the same rules can be applied to it as to any other activity in which skill is demanded. A certain amount of timidity leads musicians to fear that they will be considered craftsmen, not artists, if they give importance to the physical aspects of playing. But this is small-minded. To conceal such realities could harm the development of the real artist.

It is art and music which ennoble technique and skill and which, therefore, make the most talented, intelligent, and skillful musician into a true artist. It could be said that Rafael, even without hands, would have become a great artist. Yet one should not forget that Rafael had his hands. Technique is necessary that the genius, fantasy, spiritual power, and richness of ideas of a Rafael be allowed to rise above being just good art. In the painter are combined both the creating and the performing artist, which in music would be the composer and the interpreter.


In my viewpoint, one must be very clear about the various factors within the music, which are independent of one another, and whose union is found for the first time in the accomplished performing musician: a composer must have learned an instrument, must have mastery over it in order for his compositions to be performed. Thus, genius, talent, knowledge of the musical content are not sufficient to be even remotely just to the task of interpretation. Mastery of the instrument is necessary for this purpose.

How often, however, within the interpretation, the performer's grasp of the musical content and the performance itself --as well as musicality and technique--become separated from one another.

I believe that the question of a musical goal can be discussed and the goal is: within the interpretation, the incorporation of the most intelligent grasp of the music; and within the performance, a sense of responsibility to the smallest detail. I believe that much mischief has been done because hardly anyone has attempted to clarify the function of interpretation.

What is the function of the interpreter? Without wanting to appear to have found the only valid answer to the question, it is my opinion that the function of the performer is to become gradually acquainted with the mind of the composer, with the content of the composition, and then to fit his own personality or ability to them.

The ideal interpreter for me would be one who:

  1. is capable of grasping the period, the style, taste, and intention of all compositions which he must play, 
  2. possesses unlimited technique and interpretative skills, and
  3. is capable of applying his technique and interpretative skills to the composition.

Such an interpreter does not exist. Even the greatest, most earnest performer will play best that music which lies closest to his nature, his character, and his general musical education, yet he will still try to grasp the spirit of the piece he is playing.

How sad, however, is the result reached by the performers who have never concerned themselves with these questions and whose interpretative skill is a closed book. How often I have heard a ʻfamousʼ artist present a Bach gavotte as if it were a composition by Offenbach, and on the other hand a piece by Brahms or Beethoven in which, true, the notes were played, but with neither content nor meaning.

It could be compared to listening to a recitation of a poem in a language one does not understand. Where does that leave the sense of responsibility of interpreting? Is a composition the same as a piece of wax with no specific shape, or is it something to which an interpreter must first give shape? Or is not a composition the property of the composer, which is presented to us, the players, for its, final realization, an unknown property that we must oversee with the greatest conscientiousness and love, with the addition of all our spiritual and material powers.

Interpretation technique

I used the term "interpretation technique" earlier, and I would like to discuss it more fully. Usually the concepts of technique and musicality are played against one another--a player is characterized as a mere technician, but not musical, or else as a good musician, but without technique. Usually the latter is said in praise, as if musicality alone makes the artist, while the term "technician" is an unflattering description meant to disparage the artist. This debate about technique and musicality results in much nonsense and confusion, and what is worse, is aided through amateurism.

How simple it is for the musician who can really do precious little to display an air of authority, in that he boasts about his "musicality," but consciously demeans ʻtechniqueʼ as something inferior, possibly even inartistic. Rating musicality above technique is tempting for many performers as well as for the public, because they can then believe that they are in the upper spheres; this justification is used by many players.

Well-intentioned people believe that through such an underestimation of technique, of basic skills, they can concentrate on more fitting goals in music--the spiritual--when in reality they open wide the doors and gates for those who cannot play; they sanction the desecration of music by these bluffers.

How many good artists would be found among the amateurs and in the audience, if the only consideration were the ability to recognize and comprehend the spiritual, the metaphysical, the technique of writing in music. I myself know hundreds of non musicians all over the world who are completely at home--as dilettantes--with either orchestra or chamber music literature, or with the instrumental repertoire, and about whom one could maintain that they have grasped the music.

Nothing is easier to answer than the question why they are not also capable of interpreting the pieces. Because they do not have the ability to direct a symphony or to present a concert on an instrument. It is therefore useless to praise the musician above the technician; the comparison leads to confusion from which only the fakers and bluffers benefit.

There is little interest taken in analyzing or clarifying the word ʻtechniqueʼ when speaking of an instrumentalist. This expression is usually employed to mean facility, secure intonation, and mastery over all the different types of bowing. If this is technique, how should one designate the ability to interpret a piece of music; for interpreting does not mean simply playing through a piece quickly but--after one has grasped the spirit of a piece, the important themes, the musical line and structure--then one has the means for presenting the music as one wishes.

I would say that the word "technique" should be used to express mastery over the entire mechanism. When one understands that mastery of the mechanism of an instrument creates the real artist as little as does simple comprehension of the music, we can then go farther to say that the combination of these two factors is still insufficient. It is what happens in the link between mechanism and music which counts, the application of the mechanism to the music.

The Scale: An Example of Interpretation Technique

When I look around myself among students, orchestra and chamber music players, and concert artists, I realize again and again the amazing fact that interpretation technique is neither known nor developed; at all events, not enough emphasis is placed upon it. We are concerned here that the two spheres the mechanical and the musical--not be viewed as separate entities, but that it be recognized that artistic playing in music can only be reached through uniting the two. The simplest example: a scale.

Is a scale only a technical exerciser? What is practiced in a scale? What can and should be practiced in a scale?

The answer to these questions is not as easy as it might appear, at least for me, because the real purpose of practice is to change an idea into reality. Therefore, it is necessary to have some idea beforehand to give meaning to the practicing.

For me, as for all who consider a scale as something more than a group of consecutive notes played fairly cleanly, the ideal scale would be comparable to a row of pearls of equal size and luster. Is such a perfectly played scale only a matter of mechanics? Or is it not rather a musical challenge which must be met if a scale is called for in a piece?

What must be practiced, watched for, and accomplished to do justice to a scale according to the very highest of musical demands?

  1. Even articulation for each individual note, whether fingering, change in positions, or open strings are concerned.
  2. As little difference as possible between going up the scale and going down.
  3. Rhythmical independence of string and position change arranged so that, the notes are played on a string or in a position, groups of two or three note are formed.
  4. No break in the scale because of bow changes.
  5. Secure intonation.
  6. Rhythm: a scale as practiced is a matter of mechanics.

Practice and Teaching

One of the most interesting topics in music and the teaching of music is practice. Here, as in everything, lack of forethought and interest commonly dominate. The pupil receives his assignment, he returns for the lesson, the teacher points out false notes here and there, changes a few fingerings, perhaps suggests more freedom of playing or scolds because the pupil has not given enough time to his lesson, and with this it is over. Even an untalented pupil will with this customary kind of instruction make progress over the years and reach a certain degree of facility.

Counter to this way of teaching is one in which one single method dominates. One teacher constantly emphasizes ʻtechnique.ʼ The pupil must practice long hours; above all he must practice difficult pieces, must concentrate on intonation and speed. The mechanism which is so necessary for the beauty and elegance of music is not practiced, the music must be played quickly and clearly. Its melodic qualities and its phrasing are hardly touched; and the real precision work on the instrument--which is as enduring and gratifying as the inside of a watch or as the work of a smithy--does not exist.

Sevcik, the famous violin teacher, said once--in my presence--to a pupil after he had completed the first movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto: “We can go on to the third movement, the second you will play well later on your own.”

Another form of teaching, found mostly in Germany, is one in which music is considered a holy matter, so metaphysical--not of, but above the earth--that it would be a sacrilege even to hint at anything resembling technique within music.

During the lessons the student will be constantly reminded of the seriousness, the majesty, the nobility of the artistic profession. Technique or mechanism will be regarded with contempt, with the result that after years of such instruction, the young person--who believes himself an artist, an exceptional person--is sent out into the world, often conceited and arrogant, without being capable of conveying even a vague notion, whether true or false, of art.

I wanted to speak of practicing, but instead I have been preoccupied with my knowledge of teachers and pupils. How is painting taught? A master lets his pupils work in a studio and they are always under his supervision. No time is thus lost as often happens with us-for example, a pupil who misunderstands the teacher and works incorrectly on one specific thing for a week. He must then return home and unlearn what he has practiced. In the former method, the results will not be demonstrated to the teacher during the lesson, rather the teacher can witness and follow at first hand all the phases of the student's progress, his talent, his diligence, and can therefore pay more attention to the student's personality.

How different it is with us! Usually one hour a week is reserved for the lesson--and what are sixty minutes? The student has time to play a little for the teacher, correct a little, and say: I will come again next week.

It is also necessary to have time to treat the pupil as a human being, to show him the problems and a way to solution. How often does it happen to me that at the beginning of the lesson a question comes up which brings up other questions along with it. I try to explain, to demonstrate how it should be done, while others pupils who are there come in with their problems. Before you turn around, the hour is over and the pupil has not had time to play what he had prepared during the week. I am very sympathetic towards a pupil who has not only done his homework obediently, but who has concerned himself with all the thorny problems. He has a right to question this ʻone lesson a weekʼ system, which hardly gives the teacher time to teach his student, let along influence and enlighten him.

My ideal is for the teacher to watch the student during practice. Where would the comparison to painting lie? How and where would it be possible to carry over the art of teaching painting to music? The teacher could work with his students in the same building; in this way students could always have their teachers as ʻearsʼ and the teacher could go from room to room, correcting pupils while they are practicing. This would be Utopia! Not only because of the question of room.

Candidly, teachers are not always inclined to lend their ears to their pupils for any longer than thirty, forty, or sixty minutes. A significant question remains--whose answer is hardly in the affirmative: how intensively or meaningfully do the teachers themselves practice?

As I have said above, the lesson for the most part goes as follows: from one lesson to the next the student must complete a certain amount of work: perhaps a scale, an etude, and a section of some piece. If the student is diligent he will practice his lesson, that is, he will repeat what he will have to play during the lesson numerous times, so that he can play the scale, etude, and piece fairly cleanly and up to tempo.

The teacher is satisfied, corrects a wrong note here and there. Possibly in the piece he will suggest a ritardando at some point (that may not even belong there), at another point he may speak about poetry (without being able to explain how poetical feelings can be translated into reality on an instrument), and the student gets a new assignment for next week, which he practices just as faithfully.

Thus the lessons go throughout the year until the student reaches a point where he can play fairly cleanly and quickly, attain a beautiful tone (it is to be hoped), and gain mastery over the cello repertoire or at least be acquainted with it.

An untalented or lazy pupil practices little, gets stuck in his lesson, the teacher scolds, the pupil needs two weeks for a lesson instead of one, and reaches that final point mentioned earlier after a much longer period of study, perhaps even never.

I have played cello for thirty years. My experiences with my own teachers and reports given me by many of my pupils about the lessons they had had until then, have convinced me that with certain positive and negative exceptions, in general, the lesson proceeds as described above.

Thoughts on technique and interpretation

Musical life attains its height in the great talents and in the few rare geniuses, but is sustained by the less talented, ʻthe middle class and the masses." Therefore, it is necessary to change the way of playing of the masses. As a sign of poor teaching and of difficulties common to all, most of the mistakes--those that are most fundamental--are committed in smaller or larger proportion by all players.

There is the instrumentalist who, when he sees dots over notes, forgets the music and its contents and concerns himself solely with playing the notes short. Yet there are dozens of different ways of interpreting such [a] symbol, and the performer must discern from the character of the piece which method the composer may have preferred.

There can be differences of opinion about how to interpret a dot, not however about the fact that a symbol can be presented in different ways, and one must be chosen. In contrast, there are those who do not even see the symbols.

In any physical activity, an individual's achievement is heightened the more his muscles are used to advantage and the more comfortable he feels. This generally acknowledged theory has not yet made its way into cello lessons. As calmly and well balanced as a cellist may sit with his cello, the moment he starts to play, a change takes place in his body; suddenly his head sits lopsided on his shoulders, one shoulder is pulled up, the elbow is stretched out in a pointed angle, and the wrist of his right hand becomes stiff, like a board, or his hand dangles about as if it were drunk and the left hand assumes a position that causes one to ask how it is possible even to strike a note, to vibrate, to move from one position to the next.


As in driving a car, so much has to be done at one time that it seems impossible that it could ever be done mechanically, without deliberating about each movement beforehand.

What is talent? Desire to make sounds? Desire to create something beautiful? Vanity? A longing for something inexpressible? The fingers? The powers of concentration?

Talent is composed of many talents and is dependent on fate. One likes serious music, another likes lighter music; one likes classical, the other modern. Speaking of the purely physical aspects, one may have a better left hand, the other a better right; one may have faster fingers, yet many have difficulties with trills; staccato and spiccato are also accomplished differently by each player. The greater the talent the greater the number of these qualifications the performer will be able to accumulate. Even perfect pitch does not predestine one for music.

The really important factors are a feeling for form, perseverance and patience, thoroughness and lust for discovery. Many are destined to become musicians even when they are still too small to have anything to say about it themselves. It is often said of the great ones that they are involved in a one-sided and unrequited love.


A composition is written, conceived, and, except for those experts who can read music, it is dead, does not exist, if it is not reproduced by a musician. The situation would be very simple if a machine could do this work; then a way would have been found over the centuries to pass on to the listener the composer's intention to a hair. Instead we have humans, who act as mediators; and since no two people are alike, the reproduction of the music depends on the respective performers.

In the beginning, the composer was also the player; it was, more or less, one profession. Then came a separation, and gradually the role of mere reproduction became all the more important. Since composer and reproducer are no longer the same person and since the composers whom one is interpreting have been dead for centuries, the reproducer has become independent and autonomous.

In my opinion the relationship has been disarranged to such a degree that the performer has become less the mediator between composer and listener and more the handler of raw material, who gives it its final form. This development was inevitable, for we are dealing with a human being, whose natural impulse is to place his own personality in the foreground. Even Mozart complained that his music was being desecrated, but it cannot have been as bad then as in the nineteenth century, in which liberalism led to the false admiration of one's personality.

We must make it clear to ourselves that it would do great harm to Beethoven's music if each musician were allowed to maintain the essentiality of his own personality for the shaping and molding of Beethoven.

This arrogant attitude does great damage to both music and public. The personality cannot be excluded, but the musician must try to live up to the composer and not bring the composer down to his level. We must take it for granted that of the two, the composer is the greater. The goal which I consider as the most important for the player is: abandon vanity, and ability, if there is any thought behind it at all, will come forth.

Mechanics, Musicality, Technique--a Tripartite Analysis

Here technique, there musicality--an ancient comparison which is senseless and has done great damage to the perfection of playing. There should be a three-part division: mechanism, musicality, and technique, which when used musically is the mechanism.

It is the mechanism alone that is necessary for the juggler, sharpshooter, or maker of fine instruments; on the other hand a ʻmusicalʼ person--because of his musicality, his knowledge about the music, or his love for music--is still not necessarily an artist.

There are many amateurs who have more sensitivity to music than some artists. There are nonprofessional people who are experts in the field of music. I knew a French general who had the most amazing knowledge of Bach.

If there is no fitting definition for talent, there is also none for an artist. I believe that an artist is a person who has an inexplicable longing for music, who has a knowledge of the music, combined with mastery of the mechanics of his instrument. Each of these components consists of a combination of innumerable items. In the case of music, come the different styles. In the case of man, there is temperament, education, dependence on physical conditions (which only to a certain extent coalesce in the same person, resulting in better or worse players), and even a predilection for specific periods within music.

Much nonsense is expounded because art has been misplaced in the spheres, as if nothing solid or craftsmanlike exists. How wrong this is. The great composers and interpreters were scornful of this view of art. Even a Beethoven had, even as his first works had already come out, continued studying counterpoint, and I myself have seen a manuscript of Beethoven's in which he had written counterpoint studies; and at the end he says, if I remember correctly: it could be done correctly another way as well.

More Interpretation

And now I come to the most important question for the practicing artist: is a piece composed to give the interpreter the opportunity to express himself, or should the interpreter perceive that it is his task to subordinate one's talent and ability to the composer?

An interpretation, because it is performed by a person, can never be impersonal, whether intended or not. To give an example: if one examines a composition as something written in an unintelligible language and considers the interpreter a translator, should he render a literal or a free translation?

In my opinion the player should try to extract from the very incomplete score what the composer could only indicate in his writing. He should place his personality and his ability at the disposal of the composition. Every intentional emphasis of one's own personality is an offense to the composition, in which only one personality should be expressed intentionally--that of the composer.

Interview with Jascha Heifetz--"It appears to me that mastery of the technic of the violin is not so much of a mechanical accomplishment as it is of mental nature."


Have I what is called a "natural" technic? It is hard for me to say, perhaps so. But if such is the case I had to develop it, to assure it, to perfect it. If you start playing at three, as I did, with a little violin one-quarter of the regular size, I suppose violin playing become second nature in the course of time. I was able to find my way about in all seven positions within a year's time, and could play the Kayser Ètudes. But that does not mean to say I was a virtuoso by any means.

My first teacher? My first teacher was my father, a good violinist and concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. My first appearance in public took place in an overcrowded auditorium of the Imperial Music School in Vilna, Russia, when I was not quite five. I played the Fantasy Pastorale with piano accompaniment. Later, at the age of six, I played the Mendelssohn Concerto in Kovno to a full house.

Stage-fright? No, I cannot say I have ever had it. Of course, something may happen to upset one before a concert, and one does not feel quite at ease when first stepping on the stage; but then I hope that is not stage-fright!

At the Imperial Music School in Vilna, and before, I worked at all the things every violinist studies--I think that I played almost everything.I did not work too hard, but I worked hard enough. In Vilna my teacher was Malkin, a pupil of Professor Auer, and when I had graduated from the Vilna school I went to Auer. Did I go directly to his classes? Well, no, but I had only a very short time to wait before I joined the classes conducted by Auer personally.

Yes, he is a wonderful and an incomparable teacher; I do not believe there is one in the world who can possibly approach him. Do not ask me just how he does it, for I would not know how to tell you. But he is different with each pupil--perhaps that is one reason he is so great a teacher. I think I was with Professor Auer about six years, and I had both class lessons and private lessons of him, though toward the end my lessons were not so regular. I never played exercises or technical works of any kind for the Professor, but outside of the big things - the concertos and sonatas, and the shorter pieces which he would let me prepare. I often chose what I wanted.

Professor Auer was a very active and energetic teacher. He was never satisfied with a mere explanation, unless certain it was understood. He could always show you himself with his bow and violin. The Professor's pupils were supposed to have been sufficiently advanced in the technic necessary for them to profit by his wonderful lessons in interpretation. Yet there were all sorts of technical finesses which he had up his sleeve, any number of fine, subtle points in playing as well as interpretation which he would disclose to his pupils. And the more interest and ability the pupil showed, the more the Professor gave him of himself! He is a very great teacher! Bowing, the true art of bowing, is one of the greatest things in Professor Auer's teaching.

I know when I first came to the Professor, he showed me things in bowing I had never learned in Vilna. It is hard to describe in words, but bowing as Professor Auer teaches it is a very special thing; the movements of the bow become more easy, graceful, less stiff.

In class there were usually from twenty-five to thirty pupils. Aside from what we each gained individually from the Professor's criticism and correction, it was interesting to hear the others who played before one's turn came, because one could get all kinds of hints from what Professor Auer told them. I know I always enjoyed listening to Poliakin, a very talented violinist, and Cecile Hansen, who attended the classes at the same time I did. The Professor was a stern and very exacting, but a sympathetic, teacher. If our playing was not just what it should be he always had a fund of kindly humor upon which to draw. He would anticipate our stock excuses and say: "Well, I suppose you have just had your bow rehaired!" or "These new strings are very trying," or "It's the weather that is against you again, is it not?" or something of the kind.

The greatest technical difficulty I had when I was studying?

Staccato playing. To get a good staccato, when I first tried seemed very hard to me. When I was younger, really, at one time I had a very poor staccato!

But one morning, I do not know just how it was--I was playing the cadenza in the first movement of Wieniawski's F# minor Concerto--it is full of staccato and double stops--the right way of playing staccato came to me quite suddenly, especially after Professor Auer had shown me his method.

Violin mastery

Violin mastery? To me it means the ability to make the violin a perfectly controlled instrument guided by the skill and intelligence of the artist, to compel it to respond in movement to his every wish. The artist must always be superior to his instrument, it must be his servant, one that he can do with what he will.

It appears to me that mastery of the technic of the violin is not so much of a mechanical accomplishment as it is of mental nature. It may be that scientists can tell us how through persistency the brain succeeds in making the fingers and the arms produce results through the infinite variety of inexplicable vibrations. The sweetness of tone, its melodiousness, its legatos, octaves, trills and harmonics all bear the mark of the individual who uses his strings like his vocal chords.

When an artist is working over his harmonics, he must not be impatient and force purity, pitch, or the right intonation. He must coax the tone, try it again and again, seek for improvements in his fingering as well as in his bowing at the same time, and sometimes he may be surprised how, quite suddenly, at the time when he least expects it, the result has come.

The fact is that when you get it, you have it, that's all! I am perfectly willing to disclose to the musical profession all the secrets of the mastery of violin technic;but are there any secrets in the sense that some of the uninitiated take them? If an artist happens to excel in some particular, he is at once suspected of knowing some secret means of so doing. However, that may not be the case. He does it just because it is in him, and as a rule he accomplishes this through his mental faculties more than through his mechanical abilities.

I do not intend to minimize the value of great teachers who prove to be important factors in the life of a musician. But think of the vast army of pupils that a master teacher brings forth, and listen to the infinite variety of their spiccato, octaves, legato, and trills! For the successful mastery of violin technic let each artist study carefully his own individuality, let him concentrate his mental energy on the quality of pitch he intends to produce, and sooner or later he will find his way of expressing himself.

Music is not only in the fingers or in the elbow. It is in that mysterious EGO of the man, it is his soul; and his body is like his violin, nothing but a tool. Of course, the great master must have the tools that suit him best, and it is the happy combination that makes for success.

By the vibrations and modulations of the notes one may recognize the violinist as easily as we recognize the singer by his voice. Who can explain how the artist harmonizes the trilling of his fingers with the emotions of his soul?

An artist will never become great through mere imitation, and never will he be able to attain the best results only by methods adopted by others. He must have his own initiative, although he will surely profit by the experience of others. Of course there are standard ways of approaching the study of violin technic; but these are too well known to dwell upon them: as to the niceties of the art, they must come from within. You can make a musician but not an artist!

Ten Important Attributes of Beautiful Pianoforte Playing, from an interview with Sergei Rachmaninoff, The Etude (March 1910).


It is a seemingly impossible task to define the number of attributes of really excellent pianoforte playing. By selecting ten important characteristics, however, and considering them carefully one at a time, the student may learn much that will give him food for thought. After all, one can never tell in print what can be communicated by the living teacher. In undertaking the study of a new composition it is highly important to gain a conception of the work as a whole. One must comprehend the main design of the composer.

Naturally, there are technical difficulties which must be worked out, measure by measure, but unless the student can form some idea of the work in its larger
proportion his finished performance may resemble a kind of musical patchwork. Behind every composition is the architectural plan of the composer. The student should endeavor, first of all, to discover this plan, and then he should build in the manner in which the composer would have had him build.

You ask me how can the student form the proper conception of the work as a whole? Doubtless the best way is to hear it performed by some pianist whose authority as an interpreter cannot be questioned.

However, many students are so situated that this course is impossible. It is also often quite impossible for the teacher, who is busy teaching from morning to night, to give a rendering of the work that would be absolutely perfect in all of its details. However, one can gain something from the teacher who can, by his genius, give the pupil an idea of the artistic demands of the piece.

If the student has the advantage of hearing neither the virtuoso nor the teacher he need not despair, if he has talent. Talent! Ah, that is the great thing in all musical work. If he has talent he will see with the eyes of talent--that wonderful force which penetrates all artistic mysteries and reveals the truths as nothing else possibly can. Then he grasps, as if by intuition, the composers intentions in writing the work, and like the true interpreter, communicates these thoughts to his audience in their proper form.


It goes without saying, that technical proficiency should be one of the first acquisitions of the student who would become a fine pianist. It is impossible to conceive of fine playing that is not marked by clean, fluent distinct, elastic technique. The technical ability of the performer should be of such a nature that it can be applied immediately to all the artistic demands of the composition to be interpreted. Of course, there may be individual passages which require some special technical study, but, generally speaking, technique is worthless unless the hands and the mind of the player are so trained that they can encompass the principal difficulties found in modern compositions.

In the music schools of Russia great stress is laid upon technique. Possibly this may be one of the reasons why some of the Russian pianists have been so favorably received in recent years. The work in the leading Russian conservatories is almost entirely under supervision of the Imperial Music Society. The system is elastic in that, although all students are obliged to go through the same course, special attention is given to individual cases.

Technique, however, is at first made a matter of paramount importance. All students must become technically proficient. None are excused. It may be interesting for the readers of THE ETUDE to know something of the general plan followed in the Imperial music schools of Russia. The course is five years in duration.

During the first five years the student gets most of his technical instruction from a book of studies by Hanon, which is used extensively in the conservatories. In fact, this is practically the only book of strictly technical studies employed. All of the studies are in the key of C. They include scales, arpeggios, and other forms of exercises in special technical designs. At the end of the fifth year an examination takes place.

This examination is twofold. The pupil is examined first for proficiency in technique, and later for proficiency in artistic playing - pieces, studies, etc. However, if the pupil fails to pass the technical examination he is not permitted to go ahead. He knows the exercises in the book of studies by Hanon so well that he knows each study by number, and the examiner may ask him, for instance, to play study 17, or 28, or 32, etc. The student at once sits at the keyboard and plays.

Although the original studies are all in the key of C, he may be requested to play them in any other key. He has studied them so thoroughly that he should be able to play them in any key desired. A metronomic test is also applied. The student knows that he will be expected to play the studies at certain rates of speed. The examiner states the speed and the metronome is started. The pupil is required, for instance, to play the E-flat major scale with the metronome at 120, eight notes to the beat. If he is successful in doing this, he is marked accordingly, and other tests are given.

Personally, I believe this matter of insisting upon a thorough technical knowledge is a very vital one. The mere ability to play a few pieces does not constitute musical proficiency. It is like those music boxes which possess only a few tunes. The students technical grasp should be all embracing.

Later the student in given advanced technical exercises, like those of Tausig. Czerny is also very deservedly popular. Less is heard of the studies of Henselt, however, notwithstanding his long service in Russia. Henselts studies are so beautiful that they should rather be classed with pieces like the studies of Chopin.


An artistic interpretation is not possible if the student does not know the laws underlying the very important subject of phrasing. Unfortunately many editions of good music are found wanting in proper phrase markings. Some of the phrase signs are erroneously applied. Consequently the only safe way is for the student to make a special study of this important branch of musical art.

In the olden days phrase signs were little used. Bach used them very sparingly. It was not necessary to mark them in those times, for every musician who counted himself a musician could determine the phrases as he played. But knowledge of the means of defining phrases in a composition is by no means all-sufficient. Skill in executing the phrases is quite as important. The real musical feeling must exist in the mind of the composer or all the knowledge of correct phrasing he may possess will be worthless.


If a fine musical feeling, or sensitiveness, must control the execution of the phrases, the regulation of the tempo demands a kind of musical ability no less exacting. Although in most cases the tempo of a given composition is now indicated by means of the metronomic markings, the judgment of the player must be brought frequently into requisition. He cannot follow the tempo marks blindly, although it is usually unsafe for him to stray very far from these all-important musical sign-posts.

The metronome itself must not be used with closed eyes, as we should say it in Russia. The player must use discretion. I do not approve of continual practice with the metronome. The metronome is designed to set the time, and if not abused is a very faithful servant. However, it should only be used for this purpose. The most mechanical playing imaginable can proceed from those who make themselves slaves to this little musical clock, which was never intended to stand like a ruler over every minute of the students practice time.


Too few students realize that there is continual and marvelous opportunity for contrast in playing. Every piece is a piece unto itself. It should, therefore, have its own peculiar interpretation. There are performers whose playing seems all alike. It is like the meals served in some hotels. Everything brought to the table has the same taste. Of course, a successful performer must have a strong individuality, and all of his interpretations must bear the mark of this individuality, but at the same time he should seek variety constantly.

A Chopin Ballade must have quite a different interpretation from a Scarlatti Capriccio. There is really very little in common between a Beethoven Sonata and a Liszt Rhapsody. Consequently, the student must seek to give each piece a different character. Each piece must stand apart as possessing an individual conception, and if the player fails to convey this impression to his audience, he is little better than some mechanical instrument. Josef Hofmann has the ability of investing each composition with an individual and characteristic charm that has always been very delightful to me.


The pedal has been called the soul of the piano. I never realized what this meant until I heard Anton Rubinstein, whose playing seemed so marvelous to me that it beggars description. His mastery of the pedal was nothing short of phenomenal. In the last movement of the B-flat minor Sonata of Chopin he produced pedal effects that can never be described, but for any one who remembers them they will always be treasured as one of the greatest of musical joys.

The pedal is the study of a lifetime. It is the most difficult branch of higher pianoforte study. Of course, one may make rules for its use, and the student should carefully study all these rules, but, at the same time, these rules may often be skillfully broken in order to produce some very charming effects. The rules represent a few known principles that are within the grasp of our musical intelligence. They may be compared with the planet upon which we live, and about which we know so much.

Beyond the rules, however, is the great universe---the celestial system which only the telescopic artistic sight of the great musician can penetrate. This, Rubinstein, and some others, have done, bringing to our mundane vision undreamt of beauties which they alone could perceive.


While we must respect the traditions of the past, which for the most part are very intangible to us because they only to be found in books, we must, nevertheless, not be bound down by convention. Iconoclasm is the law of artistic progress. All great composers and performers have built upon the ruins of conventions that they themselves have destroyed. It is infinitely better to create than to imitate.

Before we can create, however, it is well to make ourselves familiar with the best that has preceded us. This applies not only to composition, but to pianoforte playing as well. The master pianists, Rubinstein and Liszt, were both marvelously broad in the scope of their knowledge. They knew the literature of the pianoforte in all its possible branches. They made themselves familiar with every possible phase of musical advancement. This is the reason for their gigantic musical prominence. Their greatness was not the hollow shell of acquired technique. THEY KNEW. Oh, for more students in these days with the genuine thirst for real musical knowledge, and not merely with the desire to make a superficial exhibition at the keyboard!


I am told that some teachers lay a great deal of stress upon the necessity for the pupil learning the source of the composers inspiration. This is interesting, of course, and may help to stimulate a dull imagination. However, I am convinced that it would be far better for the student to depend more upon his real musical understanding.

It is a mistake to suppose that the knowledge of the fact that Schubert was inspired by a certain poem, or that Chopin was inspired by a certain legend, could ever make up for a lack of the real essentials leading to good pianoforte playing. The student must see, first of all, the main points of musical relationship in a composition. He must understand what it is that gives the work unity, cohesion, force, or grace, and must know how to bring out these elements. There is a tendency with some teachers to magnify the importance of auxiliary studies and minimize the importance of essentials. This course is wrong, and must lead to erroneous results.


The virtuoso must have some far greater motive than that of playing for gain. He has a mission, and that mission is to educate the public. It is quite as necessary for the sincere student in the home to carry on this educational work. For this reason it is to his advantage to direct his efforts toward pieces which he feels will be of musical educational advantage to his friends. In this he must use judgment and not overstep their intelligence too far.

With the virtuoso it is somewhat different. He expects, and even demands, from his audience a certain grade of musical taste, a certain degree of musical education. Otherwise he would work in vain. If the public would enjoy the greatest in music they must hear good music until these beauties become evident. It would be useless for the virtuoso to attempt a concert tour in the heart of Africa.

The virtuoso is expected to give his best, and he should not be criticized by audiences that have not the mental capacity to appreciate his work. The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite, or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.


In all good pianoforte playing there is a vital spark that seems to make each interpretation of a masterpiece - a living thing. It exists only for the moment, and cannot be explained. For instance, two pianists of equal technical ability may play the same composition. With one the playing is dull, lifeless and sapless, with the other there is something that is indescribably wonderful. His playing seems fairly to quiver with life. It commands interest and inspires the audience. What is this vital spark that brings life to mere notes?

In one way it may be called the intense artistic interest of the player. It is that astonishing thing known as inspiration. When the composition was originally written the composer was unquestionably inspired; when the performer finds the same joy that the composer found at the moment the composition came into existence, then something new and different enters his playing. It seems to be stimulated and invigorated in a manner altogether marvelous. The audience realizes this instantly, and will event sometimes forgive technical imperfections if the performance is inspired.

Anton Rubinstein was technically marvelous, and yet he admitted making mistakes. Nevertheless, for every possible mistake he may have made, he gave, in return, ideas and musical tone pictures that would have made up for a million mistakes. When Rubinstein was over-exact his playing lost something of its wonderful charm. I remember that upon one occasion he was playing Balakireffʼs “Islamey” at a concert.

Something distracted his attention and he apparently forgot the composition entirely; but he kept on improvising in the style of the piece, and after about four minutes the remainder of the composition came back to him and he played it to the end correctly. This annoyed him greatly and he played the next number upon the program with the greatest exactness, but, strange to say, it lost the wonderful charm of the interpretation of the piece in which his memory had failed him.

Rubinstein was really incomparable, even more so perhaps because he was full of human impulse and his playing very far removed from mechanical perfection. While, of course, the student must play the notes, and all of the notes, in the manner and in the time in which the composer intended that they should be played, his efforts should by no means stop with notes. Every individual note in a composition is important, but there is something quite as important as the notes, and that is the soul. After all, the vital spark is the soul. The soul is the source of that higher expression in music which cannot be represented in dynamic marks.

The soul feels the need for the CRESCENDO and DIMINUENDOS intuitively. The mere matter of the duration of a pause upon a note depends upon its significance, and the soul of the artist dictates to him just how long such a pause should be held. If the student resorts to mechanical rules and depends upon them absolutely, his playing will be soulless. Fine playing requires much deep thought away from the keyboard. The student should not feel that when the notes have been played his task is done. It is, in fact, only begun. He must make the piece a part of himself. Every note must awaken in him a kind of musical consciousness of his real artistic mission.

David Jacobson--On Teaching

Q: Do you think that it's crucial that a teacher be a good violinist, pianist, or cellist to be good at teaching the violin, piano, or cello?

A: Although it is an accepted truism in music that music teachers can be effective even though their own level of accomplishment is mediocre, this is simply an impossibility. In music the proof of knowledge is that one can do it, not talk about it.

Who can possibly teach what they cannot do? How can you explain it? So much is about imparting physical feelings. These are of the utmost subtlety, sometimes a matter of an adjustment of the smallest nature apparent only to a master. Moreover, it is a fact that for all instrumental playing the entire future possibility of accomplishment lies in the beginning, the foundation, because both technique, and musical thinking and understanding, are based on the variation of simple principles. The more perfect these underlying skills and concepts, the more possibility for mastery. Mastery is the ability to play without antagonism, either muscular or mental.

Yet at a certain level of accomplishment the technique of all instruments becomes the same. With our approach, which is based on the idea that mastery is achieved through the perfection of fundamental musical and physical principles that are essentially the same for all instruments and singing, in theory a master of one instrument should be able to help a student of any instrument understand how mastery is to be achieved. For example, Chopin's piano teacher was a violinist. That did not seem to hold him back.

Q: Does one need to be a virtuoso to be a great teacher?

A: One needs to be a virtuoso of some instrument. A master player can see through the complexities of music. They are masters because they see simplicity within what appears to be difficulty. Most teachers teach what they were taught, they teach how they play. If a student thinks that is good enough, so be it. But I suspect that most serious students want to know how great players play. Since this is never seriously studied, teachers, in reality teach what they guess to be true about how to achieve expertise. They are even guessing further about what constitutes actual artistry since, in general, all musicians attribute skill they don't understand to the mysterious workings of talent.

Q: Do you think that there is such thing as a student with no talent for an instrument?

A: Learning an instrument is a combination of teacher skill, parental interest, and a student with an open mind. None of these conditions just happen, nor can a student just "do it." To find a skilled teacher is rare enough, to help a parent know enough about music to help a student's learning process is another hurdle, and to overcome the fear in everyone that they are incapable is the greatest gift a teacher can bestow on any student.

Q: Do you think that there's such thing as a person with no sense of pulse? 

A: Not as long as they are alive.

Q: What do you do to help a student who struggle with rhythm?

A: Rhythm is innate. After all, without it we couldn't walk or talk. So one must separate the difficulty of learning rhythm as a conceptual understanding of what is printed on the page from the innate feeling that is in one's body. The two must be brought together.

Q: You place a lot of emphasis upon technique in your teaching. Do you also encourage the students to play scales and other rote exercises?

A: In reality technique and the ability to express oneself musically are inseparable. There is a common belief, particularly in the U.S., that there is such a thing as a performer who is an artist but does not possess great technique. That is impossible. Artistry can only be expressed through technique and any flaw in technique diminishes artistry and can be heard by the discerning listener. There are, however, performers who have technique and no artistry. In fact, they are quite common.

Therefore, to prevent their propagation, I believe that nothing a student learns should be played without musical understanding and phrasing. Even so-called exercises are music. I encourage students to play everything musically. Nothing is played in a rote fashion. There should be thought behind every note. After all, many accompanying figures in pieces are repetitive and rather simple, not unlike etudes. But there is a way to play everything musically. Part of Chopin's approach to the piano was to have a student play a single note with as many as twenty variations. A great actor could say, "How are you?" in perhaps twenty different ways with twenty, or maybe even more, shades of meaning.

Q: What is talent?

A: Talent is the lazy mind's explanation for skill that seems inexplicable. Yet a close look at talents will show they are an amalgam of several circumstances fortuitously brought together - a supportive cultural milieu, interested or at least supportive parents, hard work, fine teaching, and a mind free enough to run with intuition. No "talent" just appears, although once they have become famous every effort is made to make it so appear.

In reality, everyone has talent. Talent is a small blip of wonder compared to the miracle within everyone of being part of life. Can anyone explain how they grow? That is real talent that is inexplicable.

Nearly every aspect of great playing is explainable. As a matter of fact we have spent the last twenty years analyzing the methodologies of some of the most unexplainable great masters of the past, the results of which are discussed in my book, Lost Secrets of Master Musicians--A Window Into Genius. 

I have spoken to many well-known and famous musicians about my theory that almost all aspects of talent and accomplishment are explainable and teachable. Inevitably their response has been, "Impossible. You're speaking of genius.!" And not once has anyone asked me to prove my point. They always move to another topic.

I once asked a friend of mine, a famous player, if he could teach students to play the way he does. He responded, "I could. But I wouldn't."

It is a very competitive field. But if the art is to survive and even thrive we must do more.

Unfortunately, most performers and teachers can only teach the way they play, which even on a high level, is not enough. The responsibility of teaching goes beyond that. What if in biology everyone only taught what they had learned from someone else many years before? Why not examine and analyze how the very greatest players play and see if what they do can be understood and utilized. We--all teachers--have a responsibility to students, who, after all, have placed their trust in us. And that is that what we teach is not idiosyncratic, unprovable opinion.

And that is why at the Institute we study great players. Our goal is to create a movement to raise the level of the average player to excellent thereby raising the general level of musical accomplishment. The level of mastery will thus become more commonplace generally, creating a concert going public that is more knowledgeable and truly engaged in the art as players themselves, composers, and auditors. Musical training is a science and an art.

Q: What is a bel canto approach to instrumental mastery?

A: Groves dictionary defines bel canto as fine singing. There is a great deal of argument over what the term means. But I will say how I employ the term.

Music moves through time in a constant flow. The flow is propelled by the birth of one note to the next. This relationship between the notes is, thus, deeply connected. This connection through the relationship from note to note is the evolution of the musical composition. Notes are not discrete units. The energy must flow from note to note like water, unimpeded by obstacle. Each piece of music has a different course for the flow. But unimpeded flow is the basis of playing on which articulation and nuance may be built.

Some students learn more easily with an analytical approach, while others are more suited to a physical method. How do you adjust to these different learning styles? To have deep understanding one must look in many ways. Playing is a mind/body system.

Q: Do you place much emphasis upon arm weight in bowing in your teaching?

A: For all string instruments the weight of the right arm is, basically, down. From the "down" weight the sound is released by the spinning of the string. Too much down pressure will ruin the sound. In fact, the bow moves across the strings. A key ingredient of great tone is that the sound be released, not pressed, or forced. This applies to all instruments. Percussiveness destroys the musical line, the sound, and the athleticism.

Q: Does the left hand play a key role in sound production?

A: There are only two hands that can make the sound, and both are equally important. The left hand stops the string, shortens or lengthens it, thereby changing the pitch. The position of the fingers on the string is crucial to both the production of sound and intonation. A slight cushion must be formed at the tip of the finger. The fat of the finger creates a round sound. The pressure of the finger on the string affects the cleanliness of the tone, as does the angle of the bow to the bridge which must be 45 degrees, the wood turned away from the bridge.

Q: How important is good posture?

A: Without correct posture none of the muscles of the body work correctly and efficiently. Good posture is crucial for all athletic endeavor.

Q: How important is a fine instrument?

A: People often say that to a master it makes no difference what he plays on. Yet you will inevitably find that those same masters will spend every cent they have, sometimes millions of dollars for a great instrument, and hundreds of thousands for a great bow. The instrument and bow, in the case of string playing, make a huge difference.

Fine instruments have nuances, color possibilities that stimulate the imagination. Fine bows are balanced beautifully, making string changes and articulation more subtle, or bringing tonal possibilities from the violin which until played by a great bow have lain dormant.

Q: Some students are introverted, some are extroverted some more analytical, and some more intuitive. How do you, for example, bring out the personalities of the more introverted or analytical types?

A: If one is concerned with expressing the music and can immerse oneself in that process, there is nothing to overcome.

Q: Do you encourage your students to play in an orchestra while studying with you?

A: I encourage students to play music with and for other people. Obviously, some of the greatest music ever written is orchestral and to experience that music fully one must play in an orchestra.

The most unfortunate and worst aspect to orchestral playing is the encouragement of reliance for musical expression on the direction of a conductor, whose presence may be necessary to organize the students' efforts and teach them the piece of music, but ultimately teaches them to play for his approval, thereby bypassing their direct interaction with one another and the music. In addition to this, a conductor's job is to beat the beats, ironically the very thing which is the destroyer of a musical line.

Great music is written so that all the instruments involved interact and connect with one another, just as actors in a play. The musical lines feed in, weave around, and play off each other. The presence of the conductor interrupts this interplay between musicians because they must go through him to each other. It is as if the director of a play remained onstage and the actors could not look at each other, but first needed the approval of the director to see when and how to speak or move. The conductor, by his presence onstage in performance, interferes with spontaneity.

Q: Do you think that students should learn to compose?

A: Without a doubt, the divorce of composing and playing, which has must have started sometime in the early 1900s and reached complete separation by the 1930s has been the most destructive and unfortunate development for the art of music. This fact has had serious consequences for our entire conception of what music means. We have lost the creativity. And with this comes an exaggerated piety for the written score. Why is this a problem?

The score at best can only be an approximation of a composer's conception, just as the written words of a play need to come to life by speech. Music is emotion. It is true that it is written by logic, but it is created, conceived, in an altogether different realm--inspiration.

Inspiration knows nothing of dead perfectionism. For example let's consider rhythm. Rhythm is the pulse of music. Music is meant to be alive, vital. As such there must be an ebb and flow, as there is in speech. The rhythm of speech is inseparable from feeling. It is the conveyor of feeling, along with dynamic variation. These nuances can never be fully shown in a score. They must come from the direct intuition of the performer. And they may be different every concert.

Additionally, we now have a situation because of non existence virtuoso performer/composers where performers have been elevated to a status musically that they don't deserve.

No matter how wonderful the performer his accomplishment is on a secondary level to that of a composer of the rank of Strauss or Beethoven. Yet we now see the performer advertised as "such and such" plays Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with Beethoven appearing in small letters under the name of the soloist. This is the wrong relationship. Without the great composers even Heifetz, Horowitz, and Caruso would have been playing and singing in cafes for a living. Conductors would not exist.

Also, we now have composers that are not only not virtuoso players, but are hardly able to play an instrument. They write music that is "theoretically" playable, but usually unfriendly to performers. The result is that no one wants to play these pieces.

So, yes, all students should be able to compose something, just as all students are capable of writing a paragraph of words. How can you teach someone to write a novel of genius. You can't. But if someone has no knowledge of literature, no understanding of grammar, and no encouragement to be imaginative, it is unlikely that great writing will be born of him. The same is true with writing music. Composition and its necessary skills must be learned. With that basic knowledge some may be inspired to write something more involved, and some may be exceptional. The odds are greatly improved if more people have knowledge.

Q: Do you tend to dictate musical interpretations?

A: I teach them general principles within which they can find their own nuance.

Q: How do you reveal the emotional depth of a work to a student who may not be able to relate to its emotional content due to lack of life experience or youth?

A: Youth does not preclude emotional depth. In my experience it is the other way around. Adulthood and the need to please often kills our ability to feel.

Q: Do you encourage your students to listen to recordings?

A: Recordings allows us to have Horowitz play in our living rooms. Or on another night we may want to visit with Caruso. In France painters learn to paint by spending the day in the Louvre and copying. All learning of a skill is done through apprenticeship. If a student could truly imitate Horowitz or Heifetz he would have to be a master.

Q: What do you do when a child is forced to play an instrument by their parents?

A: Children are forced to go to school, the point being to educate them. I am quite sure they would prefer to play video games and watch television all day. The condition of being forced is the interplay of parent with child. There are many ways to look at a child's disinclination to do something.

Q: Do you think that the study of music is important developmentally for children?

A: In school the subject matter that children study is overwhelmingly cerebral. For the most part they memorize facts, occasionally within careful circumscribed parameters practice critical thinking, and often engage in some form of sports.

To play music on a high level requires, and makes conspicuously evident the fact, that our minds are inseparable from our bodies. Playing an instrument is a physical dance by the body around a musical instrument controlled by the brain in such a way that the utmost expression is released with the least possible physical antagonism, a free flow of mental/emotional energy.

To accomplish this feat of coordination a student must develop an ability to see through apparent complexity to the simple underlying structure which is the foundation of the music. Music is essentially theme and variation, and no matter how seemingly complex, to the trained practitioner is ultimately found to be a building made of simple elements.

Because of this combination of the mental and physical and the control and awareness required over both elements, yet allowing and encouraging emotional freedom, musical study must develop the brain more holistically than our traditional educational training ground.

Q: Do you encourage students to go into the music profession?

A: We teach the art of music, and any art has nothing to do with the practicalities of our lives, which is an unfortunate comment on our society. Art is the contemplation and expression of beauty, an aspect of life without which we are nothing but machines.

Teaching an art is more than passing on a skill. Leonardo Da Vinci said that learning to draw is learning to see the world. Learning to understand and play music is confronting your physical, mental, and emotional limitations and attempting to go beyond them. To do that we have to see ourselves in ever expanding paradigms. This gradually helps us understand the world. It is this "seeing" that is the action that allows one to do. The seeing is the doing.

So art is about perceiving what is true, although what is true is never static.

To learn to play an instrument as a means to play in an orchestra or band is not learning music itself and seeing where that takes you. In fact, learning to understand music has no relationship to anything practical at all. Art is a way out of the practicalities which form the structure of our society. It is a doorway to a different world, that's entry point is the direct perception of beauty.

Paradigmatic Shifts in "Classical" Music: Education, Composition & Performance

"In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant...in the absence of a reason for seeking some particular form of more recondite information, early fact-gathering is usually restricted to the wealth of data that lie ready at hand."--Thomas, Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, "The Route To Normal Science," 15.

Interest in classical music is declining. Everyone in the field desperately tries to understand why, attempting to solve this chasmic generational shift.

Music administrators make programs more “pop” oriented. Musicians dress differently. The audience dresses differently. Orchestras play movie music. Musicians demonstrate classical music to school children, hoping if they catch them young enough interest will stick.

But it doesn’t seem to.

The one possibility musicians never consider is that it may be the musicians themselves who are generating disinterest.

Upon examination, not only does the training--the educative side of the field--confuse or often permanently impair a student’s innate talent and enjoyment of music (parents and students beware), but the way professional musicians understand the music is, to put it simply, boring.

The field is an interesting example of functional incoherence. The system functions, but in a way that destroys itself.

“Classical” music is suffering from an institutionalized constriction, a myopic understanding of what music actually is. This is fueled by a desperate search for order within the field. We, classical musicians, are attempting to create order within a genre--the so-called disciplined art of music--that is unable to agree on much of anything regarding underlying principles.

As but one of myriad examples of professional confusion I cite this comment by the well-known musician, Gunther Schuller, from his book The Compleat Conductor:

"...we ought as conductors and performers to honor the basic premise that the score is a precious, unique, sacred document, which in essence should be relied upon for all the information it can yield."

This attitude is accepted orthodoxy in the field. Yet this sanctification has frozen creativity in “classical” music. Ironically, Schuller’s reverential approach to the “work” in classical music is too awestruck because even he is mistaken about fundamental elements of the printed music that cannot be literally translated.

For example, if one were to ask professional musicians how they understand rhythm they would articulate beats--the beats align with the time signature’s pattern. That this is  the common professional practice is shown in another citation from Gunther Schuller (I don’t mean to pick on him, but his comments are useful in this context). In his book Early Jazz he writes:

"...in jazz so-called weak beats (or weak parts of rhythmic units) are not under-played as in “classical” music. Instead, they are brought up to the level of strong beats, and very often emphasized beyond the strong beat."

Emphasizing the weak beats propels the music forward. Consider the obvious difference when an audience at a pop concert claps with the music. If they clap with the offbeats (the weak beats), the music swings. If they clap with the downbeats (the so-called strong beats), the music becomes static--boring.

Unfortunately for classical music, Schuller is correct. All contemporary classical musicians underplay weak beats in this way (I might have missed one who doesn’t), which produces music that seems to stay in place and, consequently, performances that are static (boring). 

That this way of playing classical music is pervasive, as Schuller states, is easily proven-- listen to any recording made in the last thirty years of an instrumental soloist, singer, orchestra, opera company, or ballet orchestra. All contemporary technical training is based on this assumption. All auditions for orchestral positions are based on this paradigm. Even contemporary jazz and pop music is played in this way due to the influence of synthesized drum beats, which has led players to mimic machine-made rhythm even when playing without synthesized back-up. 

Yet, an examination of great master classical musicians of the past, the unarguably great such as Heifetz, Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Caruso and Jussi Björling, to name just a few, shows conclusively that they do, in fact, emphasize the weak beats in the manner Schuller describes as the rhythmic paradigm for jazz. 

In fact, the great classical artists of the past phrase beats as if they were speaking. This is true of composer/performers of the past as well, including Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Bartok.

The difference between the common understanding of today, which is essentially naively literal and pedantic/mechanistic, and the esoteric, more creative approach of the great masters of the past is subtle. But the affect this psychological shift causes to the physical movement of playing and on one’s understanding of music creates an entirely different world of technique, expression and potentiality.

The greatest musicians had many ways of “seeing” and hearing music that were the opposite of how everyone else is trained. These masters’ insight into what music is essentially did not “present” the normal difficulties and problems that occur for most musicians. Their developmental path, evolved from these biases, promoted continual growth and creativity.

In fact, their skill cannot be separated from their musical insights. The never-ending "problems" and mechanical approach that routinely and inevitably appear for most musicians (who have an opposite perceptual bias) do not arise in the bias of the great players. This difference in outcome, in what is created from initial conditions and presumptions (tacit or not), creates very different musical worlds and potentialities.

Fortunately, this advantage is available to anyone once these ideas have been understood, not only changing individual potentiality, but the creative potential of the entire system.

Can music really be so different from what everyone is traditionally taught? Can there be truths about music that are beyond what is represented on the page, beyond what even a composer might believe for his own work? Does music have fundamental truths that are not understood by most musicians?

If the teaching, performing and composing of classical music is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of music, creating an antagonistic relationship with its underlying reality, is it any wonder that the art is not thriving?

Our misconceived biases have built an educational and professional edifice that is functionally incoherent. This includes the default pedagogical premise of musicians that talent cannot be explained. If talent cannot be explained, cannot be investigated and understood, what is anyone teaching?  They are teaching what they guess to be true, what the teachers were taught themselves, with haphazard (and often destructive) results for all.

But if an investigation into expertise is considered an impossibility, how can knowledge within the field be advanced? 

As mentioned, initial conditions and presumptions (tacit or not), create very different musical worlds and potentialities. It is this unexamined educational approach, of which our rhythm example above is but one of many limiting beliefs, that forms the basis of the educational/creative/business (conceptual) structure of the field. 

This matrix has spawned the illusory need for conductors in performance, the deeply confused efforts of modern composers, the erroneous belief in the scarcity of talent and a bureaucratic structure evolved from and promulgating these ubiquitous and multitudinous misapprehensions that, as a system, severely compromises the future of what we call classical music. Yet, presumptions can be changed.

Can the fundamental conceptual structure of an entire field be incorrect?

This has happened throughout the history of science. And scientists are pretty smart. Why should music be any different?

David Jacobson

Suzuki--Innovator or Fraud?

“I think it is one of the biggest frauds in music history,” said Mark O’Connor, a violin teacher and professional fiddler who has spent years delving into Dr Suzuki’s past. “I don’t believe anybody has properly checked his past.”

Mr O’Connor writes “Shinichi Suzuki had no violin training from any serious violin teacher that we can find. He was basically self-taught, beginning the violin at the age of 18.” (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/11188226/Violin-teacher-Suzuki-is-the-biggest-fraud-in-music-history-says-expert.html)

O’Connor misses the point. Suzuki’s past is not the real issue. It is what is being done in his name in the present that needs to be examined.

It would make no difference if Suzuki came from Mars, had never studied the violin, was an amateur, or turned out to be Korean. What does matter is whether his method teaches correct violin technique. 

He based his method on how he taught himself to play the violin: “I found this out when teaching myself to play the violin. That’s why I planned Book 1 the way it is....” (Dr. Alfred Garson, Suzuki Twinkles, USA, 2001, 81.)

Did he guess right? Is the way he taught himself correct enough to teach students to become expert players? 

Had Suzuki been an expert violinist or known the musical/technical approach of great masters his method might have validity. Unfortunately, he was “none of the above.”

Is his method a fraud? 

It is claimed by the British Suzuki Institute that millions of students have been taught the violin with this method over the last 50 years. There are currently more than a quarter of a million Suzuki students being taught by 8,000 teachers worldwide. Minette Joyce, the administrator of the Institute, said: “The idea behind the Suzuki method is people can be taught to play an instrument to the best of their ability. It isn’t designed to turn out professional musicians but to enable children to play regardless of their ability and to increase their enjoyment of the music.” (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/11188226/Violin-teacher-Suzuki-is-the-biggest-fraud-in-music-history-says-expert.html)

Can students be taught to play “to the best of their ability” if what they are taught is fundamentally incorrect? 

If a teaching method is not geared to teaching people to become master players how will their trained ineptitude “increase their enjoyment of music?”

John Kendall writes in his pamphlet, The Suzuki Method In American Music Education:

"Have any students emerged from the American Talent Education program to become professional musicians or performing artists? Since the objective emphasized by Mr. Suzuki is not to produce performing artists but to produce better human beings, the answer to such a question may not be relevant.” (John Kendall, The Suzuki Method In American Music Education, USA, 1966, 31.)

Very few people learn the violin in order to become a better human being. It is more reasonable to assume that they want to learn how to play the violin.

If over 8,000 teachers around the world are teaching 250,000 students to play the violin it is not unreasonable to examine the methodology used. After all, one’s assertion of a method is not proof of its validity. 

In Lost Secrets of Master Musicians, Suzuki’s method is extensively examined, as is his teaching philosophy. A serious review reveals that nearly every aspect of Suzuki’s method is fundamentally opposite to the training, technique and musical understanding that produced the world’s greatest violinists. His method is superficial and fundamentally incorrect. It is not a legitimate method for teaching classical violin technique and is, therefore, damaging to the development of musical talent, at least for developing the skill to play the classical violin repertoire. 

The method is currently being applied to teach other instruments as well. There is no reason to believe that using the violin method as a template will be a harbinger of good results.

David Jacobson

The Conductor--A More Appropriate Role

We all know the scene. 

The conductor, by the mere lifting of a finger, the raising of an eyebrow or the wild flinging of his arms brings forth the immense sound of the orchestra. He dances, he cajoles, he beguiles, he erupts. And after all is finished, sweaty, tired yet elated, he turns to the audience and bows with pleasure and satisfaction over his performance.

Yet, what did he actually do?

The orchestra has done the playing, has created the sound. The composer has written the music and, therefore, the organization of the performance. The conductor has directed the musicians during the performance. 

Do they need to be directed, to be led?

The great pianist/composer Franz Liszt, an occasional conductor, thought that “the real task of the conductor, in my opinion, consists in making himself ostensibly quasi-useless.” This is the opinion expressed in Lost Secrets of Master Musicians, a point of view supported by evidence implicit in the nature of music that demonstrates a conductor’s presence in performance is unnecessary.

Do choreographers direct the corps de ballet onstage during a performance? Do theatrical directors cue actors from a podium in the middle of the stage for all the audience to see? Do coaches instruct athletes from the field or place themselves in the middle of a tennis court to play the game through the action of the athletes?

In the same way a director of theater prepares the actors for performance, so the conductor may serve a legitimate function in directing the efforts of musicians preparing for a concert, helping them achieve an overall vision. 

But, unlike the theater director, why do conductors never leave the stage?

Since a conductor’s purpose is to organize the efforts of the players, the fact that the conductor feels compelled to remain onstage during the performance suggests that the players have not been adequately prepared.

This, it turns out, is true. They have not been prepared for the performance because that is not the conductor’s goal. His actual purpose is to make himself not “quasi-useless” as Liszt would hope, but to make himself indispensable and essential to the proceedings. 

How does he accomplish this? 

By a subversion of musical values, while proclaiming a sanctified adherence to his self-asserted role as an exemplar and dispenser of profound musical insight. The conductor’s “art,” his artifice, is his imposition of so-called “conducting technique” onto a structure that has no need of it. 

Music should be led, if indeed that is even a coherent conception, not by a conductor as the mediator of action, but by the music itself and the unfiltered interaction of the people who actually play the music. The score is the rule maker, the mediator, not the conductor. 

It is generally assumed it is necessary that a musician’s every action be continually controlled by a conductor. The conductor “plays” the orchestra. The musicians supposedly willingly allow themselves to be his puppets, to become his avatars. 

Is this level of control necessary? Are musicians truly not capable of playing without a conductor? Or is this a tradition, begun as an expediency to organize the efforts of a group of players, that has become a reality because musicians have been conditioned to accept this unusual arrangement, to as they put it, “play under a maestro, a master?” 

It is time to initiate the era of the anticonductor. 

Unlike the conductor, the anticonductor would prepare an orchestra to play in concert without a leader. He dispenses with the misdirection of “conducting technique,” which by its interference with direct musical interaction between the performers mechanizes performances. The anticonductor utilizes musical understanding as an organizing principle, realizing that playing together requires that musicians think together. 

To coordinate the interaction of individual ensemble performers, players must either think together (phrase together), which presupposes that the players possess musical sophistication and technical skill (for top-level musicians, this is a given) or they must follow a leader; they must be led. Both engender very different psychological and musical states. The former promotes cooperation, creativity and energy. The latter breeds fear and a mechanical response from performers, eventually decaying to animosity towards the “leader,” masked by boredom and apathy. This circumstance cheats the audience from a truly engaged musical experience by the performers.

Is there a “directing technique” that actors must obey in live performance? Do they need the permission of the director before they may speak their lines?

In fact, the actors lead each other through the interaction dictated by the script. Similarly, a musical score forms the basis of the musicians’ interaction. Like actors, musicians are capable of “speaking” to one another on stage without the oversight and control of a mediator.

The score displays an intertwined set of relationships, which if properly understood, provides its own direction, interplay, phrasing and creative freedom, making the slavish obedience to the beating of beats by a conductor a childish and amateurish contrivance. Far from being the creator of musical values, the need for the presence of a conductor in orchestral performance represents the most banal level of musical competence.

It is time that professional musicians freed themselves and music from this illegitimate dependence. The time of the anticonductor has arrived.

David Jacobson