Alexander Saslavsky is probably best known as a solo artist, as the concertmaster of a great symphonic orchestra, as the leader of the admirable quartet which bears his name. Yet, at the same time, few violinists can speak with more authority anent the instructive phases of their Art. Not only has he been active for years in the teaching field; but as a pedagog he rounds out the traditions of Ferdinand David, Massard, and Auer, acquired during his "study years," with the result of his own long and varied experience.
Beginning at the beginning, I asked Mr. Saslavsky to tell me something about methods, his own in particular. "Method is a flexible term," he answered. "What the word should mean is the cultivation of the pupil's individuality along the lines best suited to it. Not that a guide which may be employed to develop common-sense principles is not valuable. But even here, the same guide (violin-method) will not answer for every pupil. Personally I find De BÈriot's 'Violin School' the most generally useful, and for advanced students, Ferdinand David's second book. Then, for scales--I insist on my pupils being able to play, a perfect scale through three octaves--the Hrimaly book of scales. Many advanced violinists cannot play a good scale simply because of a lack of fundamental work.
"As soon as the pupil is able, he should take up Kreutzer and stick to him as the devotee does to his Bible. Any one who can play the '42
Exercises' as they should be played may be called a well-balanced
violinist. There are too many purely mechanical exercises--and the
circumstance that we have Kreutzer, Rode, Fiorillo, Rovelli and Dont
emphasizes the fact. And there are too many elaborate and complicated
violin methods. Sevcik, for instance, has devised a purely mechanical
system of this kind, perfect from a purely mechanical standpoint, but
one whose consistent use, in my opinion, kills initiative and
individuality. I have had experience with Sevcik pupils in quartet
playing, and have found that they have no expression.
WHAT THE TEACHER CAN AND CANNOT DO
"After all, the teacher can only supply the pupil with the violinistic
equipment. The pupil must use it. There is tone, for instance. The
teacher cannot _make_ tone for the pupil--he can only show him how tone
can be made. Sometimes a purely physiological reason makes it almost
impossible for the pupil to produce a good natural tone. If the
finger-tips are not adequately equipped with 'cushions,' and a pupil
wishes to use the _vibrato_ there is nothing with which he can vibrate.
There is real meaning, speaking of the violinist's tone, in the phrase
'he has it at his fingers' tips.' Then there is the matter of _slow_
practice. It rests with the pupil to carry out the teacher's injunctions
in this respect. The average pupil practices too fast, is too eager to
develop his Art as a money maker. And too many really gifted students
take up orchestra playing, which no one can do continuously and hope to
be a solo player. Four hours of study work may be nullified by a single
hour of orchestra playing. Musically it is broadening, of course, but I
am speaking from the standpoint of the student who hopes to become a
solo artist. An opera orchestra is especially bad in this way. In the
symphonic _ensemble_ more care is used; but in the opera orchestra they
employ the _right_ arm for tremolo! There is a good deal of _camouflage_
as regards string playing in an opera orchestra, and much of the
music--notably Wagner's--is quite impracticable.
"And lessons are often made all too short. A teacher in common honesty
cannot really give a pupil much in half-an-hour--it is not a real
lesson. There is a good deal to be said for class teaching as it is
practiced at the European conservatories, especially as regards
interpretation. In my student days I learned much from listening to
others play the concertos they had prepared, and from noting the
teacher's corrections. And this even in a purely technical way: I can
recall Kubelik playing Paganini as a wonderful display of the
_technical_ points of violin playing.
A GREAT DEFECT
"Most pupils seem to lack an absolute sense of rhythm--a great defect.
Yet where latent it may be developed. Here Kreutzer is invaluable,
since he presents every form of rhythmic problem, scales in various
rhythms and bowings. Kreutzer's 'Exercise No. 2,' for example, may be
studied with any number of bowings. To produce a broad tone the bow must
move slowly, and in rapid passages should never seem to introduce
technical exercises in a concert number. The student should memorize
Kreutzer and Fiorillo. Flesch's _Urstudien_ offer the artist or
professional musician who has time for little practice excellent
material; but are not meant for the pupil, unless he be so far advanced
that he may be trusted to use them alone.
TONE: PRACTICE TIME
"Broad playing gives the singing tone--the true violin tone--a long bow
drawn its full length. Like every general rule though, this one must be
modified by the judgment of the individual player. Violin playing is an
art of many mysteries. Some pupils grasp a point at once; others have to
have it explained seven or eight different ways before grasping it. The
serious student should practice not less than four hours, preferably in
twenty minute intervals. After some twenty minutes the brain is apt to
tire. And since the fingers are controlled by the brain, it is best to
relax for a short time before going on. Mental and physical control must
always go hand in hand. Four hours of intelligent, consistent practice
work are far better than eight or ten of fatigued effort.
A NATIONAL CONSERVATORY
"Some five years ago too many teachers gave their pupils the Mendelssohn
and Paganini concertos to play before they knew their Kreutzer. But
there has been a change for the better during recent years. Kneisel was
one of the first to produce pupils here who played legitimately,
according to standard violinistic ideals. One reason why Auer has had
such brilliant pupils is that poor students were received at the
Petrograd Conservatory free of charge. All they had to supply was
talent; and I look forward to the time when we will have a National
conservatory in this country, supported by the Government. Then the
poor, but musically gifted, pupil will have the same opportunities that
his brother, who is well-to-do, now has.
SOME PERSONAL VIEWS AND REFLECTIONS
"You ask me to tell you something of my own musical preferences. Well,
take the concertos. I have reached a point where the Mendelssohn,
Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms concertos seen to sum up what is
truly worth while. The others begin to bore me; even Bruch! Paganini,
Wieniawski, etc., are mainly mediums of display. Most of the great
violinists, Ysaye, Thibaud, etc., during recent years are reverting to
the violin sonatas. Ysaye, for instance, has recently been playing the
Lazzari sonata, a very powerful and beautiful work.
"My experiences as a 'concertmaster'? I have played with Weingartner;
Saint-SaÎns (whose amiability to me, when he first visited this country,
I recall with pleasure); Gustav Mahler, Tschaikovsky, Safonoff, Seidel,
Bauer, and Walter Damrosch, whose friend and associate I have been for
the last twenty-two years. He is a wonderful man, many-sided and
versatile; a notably fine pianist; and playing chamber music with him
during successive summers is numbered among my pleasantest
"In speaking of concertos some time ago, I forgot to mention one work
well worth studying. This is the Russian Mlynarski's concerto in D,
which I played with the Russian Symphony Orchestra some eight years ago
for the first time in this country, as well as a fine 'Romance and
Caprice' by Rubinstein.
"Is the music a concertmaster is called upon to play always violinistic?
Far from it. Symphonic music--in as much as the concertmaster is
concerned, is usually not idiomatic violin music. Richard Strauss's
violin concerto can really be played by the violinist. The _obbligatos_
in his symphonies are a very different matter; they go beyond accepted
technical boundaries. With Stravinsky it is the same. The violin
_obbligato_ in Rimsky-Korsakov's _SchÈhÈrazade_, though, is real violin
music. Debussy and Ravel are most subtle; they call for a particularly
good ear, since the harmonic balance of their music is very delicate.
The concertmaster has to develop his own interpretations, subject, of
course, to the conductor's ideas.
"Violin Mastery? It means to me complete control of the fingerboard, a
being at home in every position, absolute sureness of fingering,
absolute equality of tone under all circumstances. I remember Ysaye
playing Tschaikovsky's _SÈrÈnade MÈlancolique_, and using a fingering
for certain passages which I liked very much. I asked him to give it to
me in detail, but he merely laughed and said: 'I'd like to, but I
cannot, because I really do not remember which fingers I used!' That is
mastery--a control so complete that fingering was unconscious, and the
interpretation of the thought was all that was in the artist's mind!
Sevcik's 'complete technical mastery' is after all not perfect, since it
represents mechanical and not mental control."