Only One Way

It is worth knowing that one can get hypnotized into thinking that there’s only one way to do a thing correctly. It’s the Right Way, and there are no other ways.

At All‑India Radio, where I worked for a time, I used to see Indian violinists. My father was a professional violinist, one of the best of his generation. He led at the Covent Garden Opera for several years, and for a good time after that for Sir Thomas Beecham. So I felt I knew something about violin playing. I was watching an Indian violinist in an AIR studio, playing in the orthodox way with the violin tucked under his left chin. It is axiomatic that the instrument must be held firmly in that way; at the very beginning, a pupil is made to hold the instrument like this, and then take away the supporting left hand. The instrument has to remain sticking out there, held firmly by the pressure of the chin. It has to be absolutely steady, supported between the chin and the bent left arm because the movements of the left‑hand fingers are the fastest precise movements that can be made by humans ‑ sometimes sixteen changes in a second. Unless there is absolute steadiness, it cannot be done.

Well, this Indian violinist seemed pretty good, and then he suddenly shocked me by laying the instrument along his extended left arm, still managing fast finger‑work with the left hand. My whole musical experience rose in inner protest: ‘No, no! You can’t do that!’ But he did it and still played effectively. As I was beginning to recover, he got bored with that little miracle, and stood the violin upright on his thigh, playing it at full speed like a little cello. I felt a can’t do that, can’t from inside, then I gave up.

Later I recalled something which my father had said in passing. He had learnt to hold very firmly with the chin, and he said that it was necessary in order to acquire the technical skill. But he added that in his private opinion, once mastery had been attained, it would be best to hold the violin as loosely as possible, so that the vibrations of the body of the violin are not muffled, as they must be to some extent with a tight hold. My memory is that he hinted that he thought a few violinists had discovered this for themselves, and that one of them had perhaps been Mischa Elman, who hit the London musical scene at the beginning of the century. He was famous for his ‘Eman tone’ as, in a smaller way, my father had been famous.

I remember reading about Elman’s first appearance in the West, in London I think. Several famous violinists came to hear this new star on the horizon, among them Jan Kubelik with a pianist friend. Kubelik was an established luminary, and he sat unmoving in the box as the wonderful Elman tone stretched out over the auditorium. As the applause rang out, he turned to his friend and remarked: ‘Hot in here, isn’t it?’

‘Not for pianists!’ came the reply.

© Trevor Leggett

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