Etude 1942

The American publication Etude, 1942.

back to literature >

Interesting Problems in Music Making
A Conference with Bronislaw Huberman
Internationally Renowned Violinist
Secured expressly for the Etude by Myles Fellowes

Bronislaw Huberman holds a unique place among the world’s great musicians. Beyond development of his own distinguished career - in which critics and public alike depend upon him both for artistic performances of the highest quality and penetrating analyses of the meaning of music - he has found time to serve humanitarian causes. With the cooperation of Albert Einstein and Toscanini, Huberman organized the Palestine Symphony Orchestra of refugee musicians. In the realm of international politics, he was one of the guiding spirits of the movement for a Pan-European federation of states, the realization of which would undoubtedly have served to prevent the present catastrophic war. A native of Poland, Huberman began his artistic career as a child prodigy. At the age of nine, he played at the Vienna International Exhibit of Music with such success that he was immediately summoned for a command performance before Emperor Franz Josef. In recognition of the child’s gifts, the Emperor presented him with a violin. From Vienna, young Huberman went to Berlin and was accepted as pupil by Joachim. A year later, at the age of ten, he launched upon his first European tour. At thirteen, he played Brahms “Violin Concerto” for its composer. Brahms, notoriously skeptical of “infant prodigies,” entered the hall in a bad mood. The child appeared; as the audience hailed him, Brahms scowled. At last the Concerto began. As the pattern of the work took shape under the child’s fingers, Brahms’ face relaxed, softened. A look of incredulity crept into it. Then, without attempting to conceal his emotion from the observant crowd, Brahms wiped the tears from his eyes. Among the many signal honors that have come to Huberman was the decision of the City of Genoa to place at his disposal Paganini’s violin.

Mr. Huberman’s chief enthusiasm is the cause of music itself; he regards the violin as but one of many means of serving that cause. In the following conference, he makes an earnest plea for the special kind of music making which must inevitably precede any true florescence of art.
- Editorial Note.

“America’s chief musical need,” says Mr. Huberman, “is a revival of dilettantism in the best sense of the word; that is, delight in some personal expression of art. A review of the important epochs of musical history - indeed, of the history of all the arts - shows us the recurrence of a singular fact: each period of great creative ability was both preceded and accompanied by a period of marked amateur activity. There is a sound reason for this. Art, unlike science, can never exist alone. If the laws of science are discovered, it matter little whether or not the general public knows about them. Art, on the other hand, needs more than its creators; it needs an aware and sympathetic group of plain people to receive it and, by their reception, to stimulate and echo the creative artists. Art, essentially a reflection of human dreams and aspirations, is meant for people. And the amateurs who approach it closely, not merely as passive audience but as active participants, are vitally necessary to art and artists alike.

“It is significant that most of the great Russian composers began their careers as amateurs. Indeed, it was precisely this vivid interest in amateur music making that enabled the creative spirits to assert themselves. In my early tours of Russia, I was often amazed to find better performance standards among some amateurs than among many professionals of other countries. If we wish to hasten the arrival of truly great American creation, we must foster this same vivid interest in personal music making among persons who have no advantage to gain from music except that of pouring one’s heart into a beloved cause. It is not enough merely to hear good music. Certainly, the passive taking in of music is excellent; it stimulates taste and helps to build standards. But it lacks the values of active personal participation. In the old days in Vienna, five hundred persons would fill the Boesendorfer Hall to hear a concert. Of these, at least a hundred could have played the program themselves. That is a sound proportion to maintain between passive and active music lovers. Translating it into our own terms, it would mean that, of the hypothetical ‘million listeners’ who hear some notable broadcast, two hundred thousand should be able to repeat the program themselves!

Personal Participation Above All
“I have only admiration for the many fine performances brought by mechanical means to audiences that might otherwise hear no music at all. But the function of mechanical music must be clearly established. It should supplement personal music making - never supplant it. It will undoubtedly sound better to play the Mendelssohn Concerto in the recording of a reliable artist; it is better for you to play it yourself! Imperfect as the performance may be, it will nonetheless express active, living musical interest. Oddly enough, this potentially imperfect performance will also do greater service to the larger development of music. Atmosphere and tradition are built only through personal participation, personal living with music. I well remember, in my own student days, hearing musical amateurs who were doctors, lawyers, business men, tell of some point of interpretation that an older friend or relative had absorbed directly from Brahms. None of these was a professional musician; yet all gave life to their love of music by personal participation - and so the great tradition lived on.

“One of the chief causes for the decline of amateur participation lies in the mistaken attitude of parents that only gifted children should study music. Then they proceed to judge of the child’s talent by his fondness for practicing. Love of practice has nothing to do with musical aptitude! Sometimes even the reverse - by very reason of his gifts, a highly musical child is often less inclined to the orderly, methodical habits demanded by practice. Beethoven and Weber had to be forced to practice, often at the end of a cane! And no wonder. Practice is drudgery, particularly in its early stages when music as such has not yet entered the process and the necessary drills are all purely mechanical. A young artist can say, ‘If I practice this exercise now, it will help me give a fluent rendition of the Beethoven Concerto in six months’ time.’ He will weigh values and decide for himself. But we can hardly expect such logical thinking in cause and effect from a child of ten! He will see only the drudgery of practice. And, unless his parents are very wise, they will misinterpret his distaste for drudgery as a lack of musical ability. That is the danger.

Understanding Fathers
And yet they will not make this mistake in other fields - they will teach the child to read and write regardless of his potential aptitudes as a poet! It is significant that a large proportion of great artists had musical fathers, who understood these initial difficulties of practice and kept their sons at music study despite them. We may hear that such children inherited the gifts of the fathers. Nonsense! In the cases of Weber, Liszt, even Beethoven, the gifts of the fathers were negligible. The root of the matter is that these fathers understood the many conflicts inherent in the methodical preparation of a child for music, and dealt with them intelligently.

Compulsory Early Study
“How, then, may one judge of a child’s inherent musical ability? By the pleasure he takes in hearing good music; by his spontaneous desire, not to practice scales, but to reproduce melodies; by his pleasurable reaction to playing (again, not necessarily practicing!); by the relative degree of progress he makes. Elementary music study should be as compulsory as elementary training in reading and writing. Then, when the first stage has passed and individual aptitudes have had a chance to assert themselves, advanced study may safely be reserved for those who deserve it. Until then, music study should have nothing to do with possible careers; as much attention, if not more, should be given to developing a reservoir of purely amateur participation, without which the best florescence of artistic ability can never arrive.”
Turning to the violin itself, Mr. Huberman believes that endurance and intonation are among its most interesting and important problems.

“It often happens,” he continued, “that a difficult run goes quite well when practiced out of its context, in the quiet of the study-room - and then comes through badly when the piece is played in its entirety. This is especially true on the concert platform, with its attendant circumstances of increased emotional strain. The reason for this is accumulated fatigue. When the difficult passage is approached by itself, the player comes freshly to it and concentrates upon it; when it occurs in its context, the preceding passages have already used up some of the player’s reserve of mechanical resistance, and this muscular exhaustion of hand makes the passage seem doubly difficult. The solution is to practice for endurance as such, quite as the mountain-climber does before attempting Mont Blanc. Train yourself for fatigue by working at the very passages which are muscularly tiring; by playing them within their context; by playing up to the fatigue point. Then stop and begin the process again, and so forth. This is particularly valuable for passages that have already begun to go smoothly. A common mistake among students is to practice a passage for its difficulties, and then to leave it as soon as they seem solved. The point at which the difficulties seem conquered is exactly where additional practice is necessary, in order to build up that important reserve fund of endurance, under all circumstances, without which virtuoso technic is impossible.

“Every country has the government it deserves; every man has the friends he deserves; every artist has the technic he deserves - no better, no worse. In other words, a mediocre technic means that its owner has not been driven by a sufficiently strong spiritual vision. If he had been he would have been spurred on to acquire better technic in order to realize it! This applies also to tone, since tone is simply one of the technical means of expressing music. It is eminently personal because individual characteristics of tone (after the normal groundwork has been mastered) depend first upon the individual artistic vision of the performer and, in the second place, upon his individual technical ability to bring this vision to life. A strong enough inner vision of how a composition should sound compels the violinst to strive for the sort of technical means, including tone, that its realization requires. Thus, the highly individual character of the demands a player makes upon his tone, whether consciously or subconsciously, renders it difficult to analyze the tone in any general way.

“Some teachers, for example, advice the constant use of the vibrato, while others regard it as a special means of varying tone and advise that it be used, graduated, or omitted, as individual passages demand. Again, some authorities advocate a long bow for forte passages and a short bow for piano effects. On the other hand, entirely different tonal qualities and carrying powers are created by varying the bow; taking a pianissimo in an allegretto, for instance, with a quick whole bow, and a subito forte with only part of the bow. Tone depends upon these and so many more intricate details that there is no one way to determine its mechanical fundamentals.

“Right and left hands are equally important, although their functions are so different. One needs to work longer - all one’s life! - at the technical demands of left-finger fluency, while the powers of the right hand depend more, perhaps, upon a good foundation and sound methodical training. With practice and experience, the left hand might often find its own way of solving difficulties; but if the training of the right hand is basically wrong, even the most gifted violinist is handicapped in reaching his musical goal.

“I hesitate to prescribe exercises, because what one practices is less important that how one practices it. However, I can recommend playing scales in double stops in thirds. Such drill is invaluable because it strengthens endurance and develops that special sense of relativity of the fingers in their approach to the fingerboard which I consider as indispensable to the solution of the most complex of all violinistic problems: intonation.

“In the last analysis, though, the highly individual matter of how to practice can be determined only by the teacher. Which, by way of conclusion, reminds me of the three categories of teachers! First, there are those who call attention to faults without being able to correct them. In second place are those who can point out defects and correct them by explanation and demonstration of the right way - without being able to show the pupil how to travel that right way. In the third place, then, come the best teachers - those who can not only point out mistakes and demonstrate their correction, but who can take the pupil by the hand and lead him along the road of improvement.”

back to literature >


Bronislaw Huberman