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Alexander Saslavsky

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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.





"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.





"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.





"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.





"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.





"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."









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