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Interview with Shmuel Ashkenasi

The former Vermeer Quartet leader and Curtis Institute professor discusses the negative sides of Ilona Fehér's 'tough love' school of teaching, and of violin competitions

I recently interviewed Shmuel Ashkenasi for ChamberStudio, ahead of his chamber music masterclass for them at Kings Place on Sunday, 10 May. Conversation turned away from his views on chamber music to his past, and below are some of the other topics we covered.

Born in Israel, from the age of eight Ashkenasi studied with the Hungarian violinist Ilona Fehér, a formidable teacher and former Hubay student, known for training the likes of Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz. Apart from instilling in her students the knowledge of a truly beautiful sound, Fehér offered them 'tough love', which you can see playing out in the fascinating documentary here, especially when you hear Shlomo Mintz's account.

Ashkenasi left for the US at the age of 15 to study with Efrem Zimbalist at Curtis, which he regards as the first time he really learnt about music, not just how to be 'an ape'. He came second in the Tchaikovsky Competition, and discovered chamber music through his summers at Marlboro, and formed the Vermeer Quartet in 1969, which he led until it disbanded in 2007. His recordings of the Paganini violin concertos have acquired cult status, and many people regard him as the finest quartet first violinist of the 20th century. He now teaches at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

What were the strengths and weaknesses of Ilona Fehér’s teaching?

What was great about her was her extraordinary commitment. She was persuasive because she was completely committed to us and really loved us. She put a lot of emphasis on good posture and set-up – how you held the instrument and your body. And she let us all go when it was time. She didn’t cling: after a few years she recommended that we go abroad to be exposed to more teaching and more music.

She was a concert violinist, so she could demonstrate at a high level. She was knowledgeable about the instrument and the traditions of how pieces should go, although I don’t think she was profoundly knowledgeable about what made the music and chords wonderful. She had studied with Hubay, a great master, composer, teacher and violinist, and a lot of it rubbed off on her. She knew how pieces should go, although she was not very verbal in explaining why.

Where she was weak was in her understanding of psychology. She didn’t know how to deal with different students in different ways. Sometimes certain students suffered. She was brutally honest and often people couldn’t withstand her honesty, so they wilted. She was convinced that honesty was the best way, but in my opinion that’s questionable. It’s one way and it was successful, so her successful students have had successful professional lives, but it was at a cost.

She was rarely complimentary. She felt that complimenting you was detrimental, that it would make you work less or make you feel good, which she thought was unhealthy. This is not the way to raise children, and we were children – I was eight when I went to her. She didn’t mean the criticism personally, but because she was so loving and invested in us, we had to feel it was personal, even if it wasn’t. But you can’t argue with success, and she was extraordinarily successful.

‘It’s wrong when the student is made to feel bad as a human being when they don’t play in tune or beautifully’

Is that harsh style of teaching valid?

I don’t think it’s necessary to use terror – physical or psychological. One can be strict and firm about music – picky, perfectionist and demanding: as long as one sticks to the music. It’s wrong when the student is made to feel bad as a human being when they don’t play in tune or beautifully.

Many of these brutal, demanding great teachers don’t know enough about psychology, otherwise they couldn’t teach the way they do. One should be strict with the music, but not so strict with the personality. One should treat every student in a different way. It’s important to be able to identify what is necessary for each one, and to teach that, rather than just teaching what one knows. A lot of it is psychological, not physical or technical. Some students need a lot of confidence and others need to be motivated to work.

What was your experience with Efrem Zimbalist at Curtis?

Zimbalist was in his 70s and had difficulty hearing the high registers, but he was extraordinarily kind and complimentary, to a fault. His teaching was much more general. He was a combination of great virtuoso and great musician. He played the piano, knew harmony and counterpoint, and wrote a lot of music. He loved the violin and the virtuoso aspects of violin playing, and that was an asset because his students had to play all the difficult showpieces, as well as being excellent musicians. He was a great influence.

I didn’t know when I played beautifully or when I didn’t. I was like an ape

I was a very gifted, advanced violinist and a very poor musician when I came to the Curtis Institute. At Curtis I learnt about music, what it means to be a musician, which I didn’t know. Until I came to the US the only thing I feared was a memory slip. I didn’t know when I played beautifully or when I didn’t. I was like an ape. I imitated. I could play well with a good sound, temperament and intonation, but when I came to America so many of my colleagues were as great or greater than me. I suddenly went from being one of the best in the country to one of many, and that humbled me.

Before I studied with Zimbalist I studied with his assistant Toshiya Eto for a year, who explained why we do what we do, of which I had no clue. In the past when I was studying with Fehér I did things because she told me to do them. It was like being in the military – you get an order and you do it. In America I started questioning and being questioned and I heard different styles of wonderful playing and it was very good exposure. I give Fehér credit for that, because she encouraged it.

How do you feel about competitions?

There are many positive things about competitions and many negative things, and if a student is sensitive to these they can benefit a lot. One thing is the prize money: many students have limited means to buy an instrument, to live and to pay tuition, and the prize money is incredible these days. Competitions give students the incentive to practise. You can also listen to other young people and see how you fare in the professional music world. It can help you choose a profession: whether you’re going to be soloist, chamber or orchestral musician or teacher. It can put you in your place. If you go to five or six competitions and never make the finals, it’s a good wake-up call.

When you go to competitions and make recordings technical perfection is overwhelmingly important. That is a good thing but it’s also terrible because you give up a lot of risk-taking, and artistic playing in an individual style. When you hear competitions, you hear 40 people and 38 of them sound the same, even if some might be more in tune or have a better bow arm. The other two try to be individual but they may not be the best violin players.

Unfortunately today’s young violinists have few options other than competitions. In the old days there were fewer competitions, but teachers got you to play for great violinists and conductors. If a great conductor liked you they could make your career, or at least open doors. Today I don’t know any conductor who has time to listen to young players. Most of the celebrated ones have two or three orchestras and they’re here today and in the Far East tomorrow. So the competition avenue is almost the only one a young student can follow if they are ambitious about a soloist career.

I don’t think the purpose of a musician should be to win competitions

I am very much against my students becoming competition junkies. I don’t think the purpose of a musician should be to win competitions. So I have a resistant side to them, but I understand that students need money and motivation, and that competitions can open a career. I have to be realistic that the classical music profession is much more difficult than when I was young.

The standard is extremely high, so when an orchestra has an opening there might be a hundred people going for one or two places, and the orchestra doesn’t take a single one. They can be choosy because the standard is so high. We don’t lack great violinists, but unfortunately we lack great artists.

What is the difference between being a great violinist and being a great musician?

In order to be a great musician and a great artist one needs to study music – not just the violin. That means counterpoint, harmony, the history of music, style. Reading a lot about music is not enough and practising is not enough, but the combination goes a long way. It’s also important to listen to great singers and great old violinists. What distinguishes older violinists is that, by and large, if you listen to a violinist today, they sound like another violinist of this era. If you hear a great violinist of the past, you know who is playing in a minute, because they had their own voice. Today there is a generic way of playing.

I try to teach my students to go back and appreciate, but not imitate, the older way of playing music and the violin. All of us feel the same thing in a different way but this individuality has been lost.

‘The world doesn’t need another violinist. We need artists, poets, people who move us’

What advice do you give young players?

I tell my students that the world doesn’t need another violinist. We need artists, poets, people who move us. I try to influence at least the people in my sphere to take chances and to find their voice, while being faithful to the score. I believe it is possible.

I recommend anyone who doesn’t truly love music to look elsewhere for a career, because if you don’t have that love, you don’t have the rewards. All you have is a commercial profession. But even if you love it, you have to eat, so you have to make compromises and sometimes it’s painful.

Read Shmuel Ashkenasi's views on chamber music here.

Photo: Marc Gascoigne

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