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David Mannes

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The Philosophy of Violin Teaching

That David Mannes, the well-known violinist and conductor, so long director of the New York Music School Settlement, would be able to speak in an interesting and authoritative manner on his art, was a foregone

conclusion in the writer's mind. A visit to the educator's own beautiful

"Music School" confirmed this conviction. In reply to some questions

concerning his own study years Mr. Mannes spoke of his work with

Heinrich de Ahna, Karl Halir and EugËne Ysaye. "When I came to de Ahna

in Berlin, I was, unfortunately, not yet ready for him, and so did not

get much benefit from his instruction. In the case of Halir, to whom I

went later, I was in much better shape to take advantage of what he

could give me, and profited accordingly. It is a point any student may

well note--that when he thinks of studying with some famous teacher

he be technically and musically equipped to take advantage of all that

the latter may be able to give him. Otherwise it is a case of love's

labor lost on the part of both. Karl Halir was a sincere and very

thorough teacher. He was a Spohr player _par excellence_, and I have

never found his equal in the playing of Spohr's _Gesangsscene_. With him

I studied Kreutzer, Rode, Fiorillo; and to know Halir as a teacher was

to know him at his best; since as a public performer--great violinist as

he was--he did not do himself justice, because he was too nervous and



[Illustration: DAVID MANNES, with hand-written note]





"It was while sitting among the first violins in the New York Symphony

Orchestra that I first heard Ysaye. And for the first time in my life I

heard a man with whom I fervently _wanted_ to study; an artist whose

whole attitude with regard to tone and sound reproduction embodied my



"I worked with Ysaye in Brussels and in his cottage at Godinne. Here he

taught much as Liszt did at Weimar, a group of from ten to twenty

disciples. Early in the morning he went fishing in the Meuse, then back

to breakfast and then came the lessons: not more than three or four a

day. Those who studied drew inspiration from him as the pianists of the

Weimar circle did from their Master. In fact, Ysaye's standpoint toward

music had a good deal in common with Rubinstein's and he often said he

wished he could play the violin as Rubinstein did the piano. Ysaye is an

artist who has transcended his own medium--he has become a poet of

sound. And unless the one studying with him could understand and

appreciate this fact he made a poor teacher. But to me, in all humility,

he was and will always remain a wonderful inspiration. As an influence

in my career his marvelous genius is unique. In my own teaching I have

only to recall his tone, his playing in his little cottage on the banks

of the Meuse which the tide of war has swept away, to realize in a

cumulative sense the things he tried to make plain to me then. Ysaye

taught the technic of expression as against the expression of technic.

He gave the lessons of a thousand teachers in place of the lessons of

one. The greatest technical development was required by Ysaye of a

pupil; and given this pre-requisite, he could open up to him ever

enlarging horizons of musical beauty.


"Nor did he think that the true beauty of violin playing must depend

upon six to eight hours of daily practice work. I absolutely believe

with Ysaye that unless a student can make satisfactory progress with

three hours of practice a day, he should not attempt to play the violin.

Inability to do so is in itself a confession of failure at the outset.

Nor do I think it possible to practice the violin intensively more than

three-quarters of an hour at a time. In order to utilize his three hours

of practice to the best advantage the student should divide them into

four periods, with intervals of rest between each, and these rest

periods might simply represent a transfer of energy--which is a rest in

itself--to reading or some other occupation not necessarily germane to

music, yet likely to stimulate interest in some other art.





"The violin student first and foremost should accustom himself to

practicing purely technical exercises without notes. The scales and

arpeggios should never be played otherwise and books of scales should be

used only as a reference. Quite as important as scale practice are

broken chords. On the violin these cannot be played _solidly_, as on the

piano; but must be studied as arpeggios, in the most exhaustive way,

harmonically and technically. Their great value lies in developing an

innate musical sense, in establishing an idea of tonality and harmony

that becomes so deeply rooted that every other key is as natural to the

player as is the key of C. Work of this kind can never be done ideally

in class. But every individual student must himself come to realize the

necessity of doing technical work without notes as a matter of daily

exercise, even though his time be limited. Perhaps the most difficult of

all lessons is learning to hold the violin. There are pupils to whom

holding the instrument presents insurmountable obstacles. Such pupils,

instead of struggling in vain with a physical difficulty, might rather

take up the study of the 'cello, whose weight rests on the floor. That

many a student was not intended to be a violin player by nature is

proved by the various inventions, chin-rests, braces, intended to supply

what nature has not supplied. The study of the violin should never be

allowed if it is going to result in actual physical deformity: raising

of the left shoulder, malformation of the back, or eruptions resulting

from chin-rest pressure. These are all evidences of physical unfitness,

or of incorrect teaching.





"Class study is for the advanced student, not the beginner. In the

beginning only the closest personal contact between the individual pupil

and the teacher is desirable. To borrow an analogy from nature, the

student may be compared to the young bird whose untrained wings will not

allow him to take any trial flights unaided by his natural guardian. For

the beginning violinist the principal thing to do is to learn the 'voice

placing' of the violin. This goes hand in hand with the proper--which is

the easy and natural--manner of holding the violin, bow study, and an

appreciation of the acoustics of the instrument. The student's attention

should at once be called to the marvelous and manifold qualities of the

violin tone, and he should at once familiarize himself with the

development of those contrasts of stress and pressure, ease and

relaxation which are instrumental in its production. The analogies

between the violin voice and the human voice should also be developed.

The violin itself must to all intents become a part of the player

himself, just as the vocal chords are part of the human body. It should

not be considered a foreign tone-producing instrument adjusted to the

body of the performer; but an extension, a projection of his physical

self. In a way it is easier for the violinist to get at the chords of

the violin and make them sound, since they are all exposed, which is not

the case with the singer.


"There are two dangerous points in present-day standards of violin

teaching. One is represented by the very efficient European professional

standards of technic, which may result in an absolute failure of poetic

musical comprehension. These should not be transplanted here from

European soil. The other is the non-technical, sentimental, formless

species of teaching which can only result in emotional enervation. Yet

if forced to choose between the two the former would be preferable since

without tools it is impossible to carve anything of beauty. The final

beauty of the violin tone, the pure _legato_, remains in the beginning

as in the end a matter of holding the violin and bow. Together they

'place' the tone just as the physical _media_ in the throat 'place' the

tone of the voice.


"Piano teachers have made greater advances in the tone developing

technic of their instrument than the violin teachers. One reason is,

that as a class they are more intellectual. And then, too, violin

teaching is regarded too often as a mystic art, an occult science, and

one into which only those specially gifted may hope to be initiated.

This, it seems to me, is a fallacy. Just as a gift for mathematics is a

special talent not given to all, so a _natural_ technical talent exists

in relatively few people. Yet this does not imply that the majority are

shut off from playing the violin and playing it well. Any student who

has music in his soul may be taught to play simple, and even relatively

more difficult music with beauty, beauty of expression and

interpretation. This he may be taught to do even though not endowed with

a _natural_ technical facility for the violin. A proof that natural

technical facility is anything but a guarantee of higher musicianship is

shown in that the musical weakness of many brilliant violinists, hidden

by the technical elaboration of virtuoso pieces, is only apparent when

they attempt to play a Beethoven _adagio_ or a simple Mozart _rondo_.


"In a number of cases the unsuccessful solo player has a bad effect on

violin teaching. Usually the soloist who has not made a success as a

concert artist takes up teaching as a last resort, without enthusiasm or

the true vocational instinct. The false standards he sets up for his

pupils are a natural result of his own ineffectual worship of the fetish

of virtuosity--those of the musical mountebank of a hundred years ago.

Of course such false prophets of the virtuose have nothing in common

with such high-priests of public utterance as Ysaye, Kreisler and

others, whose virtuosity is a true means for the higher development of

the musical. The encouragement of musicianship in general suffers for

the stress laid on what is obviously technical _impedimenta_. But more

and more, as time passes, the playing of such artists as those already

mentioned, and others like them, shows that the real musician is the

lover of beautiful sound, which technic merely develops in the highest



"To-day technic in a cumulative sense often is a confession of failure.

For technic does not do what it so often claims to--produce the artist.

Most professional teaching aims to prepare the student for professional

life, the concert stage. Hence there is an intensive _technical_ study

of compositions that even if not wholly intended for display are

primarily and principally projected for its sake. It is a well-known

fact that few, even among gifted players, can sit down to play chamber

music and do it justice. This is not because they cannot grasp or

understand it; or because their technic is insufficient. It is because

their whole violinistic education has been along the line of solo

playing; they have literally been brought up, not to play _with_ others,

but to be accompanied _by_ others.


"Yet despite all this there has been a notable development of violin

study in the direction of _ensemble_ work with, as a result, an attitude

on the part of the violinists cultivating it, of greater humility as

regards music in general, a greater appreciation of the charm of

artistic collaboration: and--I insist--a technic both finer and more

flexible. Chamber music--originally music written for the intimate

surroundings of the home, for a small circle of listeners--carries out

in its informal way many of the ideals of the larger orchestral

_ensemble_. And, as regards the violinist, he is not dependent only on

the literature of the string quartet; there are piano quintets and

quartets, piano trios, and the duos for violin and piano. Some of the

most beautiful instrumental thoughts of the classic and modern

composers are to be found in the duo for violin and piano, mainly in the

sonata form. Amateurs--violinists who love music for its own sake, and

have sufficient facility to perform such works creditably--do not do

nearly enough _ensemble_ playing with a pianist. It is not always

possible to get together the four players needed for the string quartet,

but a pianist is apt to be more readily found.


"The combination of violin and piano is as a rule obtainable and the

literature is particularly rich. Aside from sonatas by Corelli,

Locatelli, Tartini, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haendel, Brahms and

Schumann, nearly all the romantic and modern composers have contributed

to it. And this music has all been written so as to show the character

of each instrument at its best--the piano, harmonic in its nature; the

violin, a natural melodic voice, capable of every shade of _nuance_."

That Mr. Mannes, as an artist, has made a point of "practicing what he

preaches" to the student as regards the _ensemble_ of violin and piano

will be recalled by all who have enjoyed the 'Sonata Recitals' he has

given together with Mrs. Mannes. And as an interpreting solo artist his

views regarding the moot question of gut _versus_ wire strings are of






"My own violin, a Maggini of more than the usual size, dates from the

year 1600. It formerly belonged to Dr. Leopold Damrosch. Which strings

do I use on it? The whole question as to whether gut or wire strings are

to be preferred may, in my opinion, be referred to the violin itself for

decision. What I mean is that if Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,

Maggini and others of the old-master builders of violins had ever had

wire strings in view, they would have built their fiddles in accordance,

and they would not be the same we now possess. First of all there are

scientific reasons against using the wire strings. They change the tone

of the instrument. The rigidity of tension of the wire E string where it

crosses the bridge tightens up the sound of the lower strings. Their

advantages are: reliability under adverse climatic conditions and the

incontestable fact that they make things easier technically. They

facilitate purity of intonation. Yet I am willing to forgo these

advantages when I consider the wonderful pliability of the gut strings

for which Stradivarius built his violins. I can see the artistic

retrogression of those who are using the wire E, for when materially

things are made easier, spiritually there is a loss.





"And while we are discussing the physical aspects of the instrument

there is the 'chin rest.' None of the great violin makers ever made a

'chin rest.' Increasing technical demands, sudden pyrotechnical flights

into the higher octaves brought the 'chin rest' into being. The 'chin

rest' was meant to give the player a better grasp of his instrument. I

absolutely disapprove, in theory, of chin rest, cushion or pad.

Technical reasons may be adduced to justify their use, never artistic

ones. I admit that progress in violin study is infinitely slower without

the use of the pad; but the more close and direct a contact with his

instrument the player can develop, the more intimately expressive his

playing becomes. Students with long necks and thin bodies claim they

have to use a 'chin rest,' but the study of physical adjustments could

bring about a better coˆrdination between them and the instrument. A

thin pad may be used without much danger, yet I feel that the thicker

and higher the 'chin rest' the greater the loss in expressive rendering.

The more we accustom ourselves to mechanical aids, the more we will come

to rely on them.... But the question you ask anent 'Violin Mastery'

leads altogether away from the material!





"To me it signifies technical efficiency coupled with poetic insight,

freedom from conventionally accepted standards, the attainment of a more

varied personal expression along individual lines. It may be realized,

of course, only to a degree, since the possessor of absolute 'Violin

Mastery' would be forever glorified. As it is the violin master, as I

conceive him, represents the embodier of the greatest intimacy between

himself, the artist, and his medium of expression. Considered in this

light Pablo Casals and his 'cello, perhaps, most closely comply with the

requirements of the definition. And this is not as paradoxical as it may

seem, since all string instruments are brethren, descended from the

ancient viol, and the 'cello is, after all, a variant of the violin!"









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