Practice Makes Perfect
The violin is an extremely volatile instrument. Its precocious nature is to blame for many deaths by suicide. The pressure of improving and the stress that goes along with it has caused countless mental breakdowns. These facts may shock the reader, but they’re true. Even the truly great players of past and present have confessed that some days they just don’t have it.
As a guitarist I have spent many concerts and club dates backing up jazz and or classical fiddlers and their insights and psychological struggles with the instrument are telling to say the least. Every professional fiddler has his or her own methods as to performing and practicing.
One night I was part of a concert in California that included Frank Sinatra’s concert master: a beautiful violinist with a truly “old world” sound. When he discovered that I too had been a sucker for the fiddle, we hung out and I put forward the primary question asked of most string players; how do you practice? He smiled and said, “Well, every morning I take out my violin and tune it, rosin up the bow, and then set them on a table and wait for them to call me over!” I believe that this is the best answer I ever received to that question.
You can own a Stradivarius worth millions and there are just some days that it sounds like it is stuffed full of cotton. Climate conditions, dry weather and humidity all contribute to the inconstancy of priceless Italian violins. Add to this the fact that the instrument is not held in a natural position on the body. Many violinists have had severe shoulder and back injuries that have caused them to take time off or quit all together. Nigel Kennedy comes to mind at the moment. Several years ago his neck was so damaged from playing that he had to take two years off. Acquiring the necessary technique to perform consistently day in and day out is a pattern of rigorous physical demands as well as the mental stress which accompanies the process. Think of it. The sound, good or bad, is merely a few inches from your ear while practicing. Both arms and hands are doing something different, unlike the piano which has similar duties for both extremities. Once in an interview Itzhak Perlman was asked if the violin was a difficult instrument to learn? He smiled and said, “…well now, you take the average person and sit them down at the piano and in a matter of a few minutes at the most, they will be able to peck out the melody to ‘twinkle, twinkle little star.’ Give them a violin and come back a year later for the same result!”
In the early seventies I auditioned for a solo spot with a symphony composed by one of Stravinsky’s students which featured electric guitar and orchestra. I got the job and went on a four Symphony tour which included being on the bill opposite, Gary Graffman, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman. Perlman found a kindred soul in me because of my bout with polio. He invited me to his dressing room to see his Strad. When he went to hand it to me he let it slip in his hands as if he were about to drop it. I panicked. He smiled and said, “I won’t let you handle it, I’m sorry, you’re too nervous.” Then he tossed it up in the air and caught it. “You have to treat it like a two dollar fiddle or you are sure to break it.”