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Interview with Giovanni Guzzo

In this article, originally commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, violinist and professor Giovanni Guzzo describes his teaching priorities, and explains why it’s important for students to believe that everything is possible

Meeting Maurice Hasson and coming to the Royal Academy were the best things that could have happened to me at such a key stage in my career. I did my BMus and postgrad here and it was a life-changing experience. Being in London was a bit daunting at first, because it felt like such an immense and fast-paced city, but I managed to get the best out of it, taking advantage of being surrounded by so much culture.

At the age of 82, Maurice Hasson still practises five hours a day and continues to discovers new things. That is an amazing career to have. He was a pupil of Szeryng and taught me a lot of that old tradition, but the greatest thing he gave me was a very clear structure to my playing. Once I had that structure, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. That was very important to me – it was like building a house that I could furnish and decorate myself.

One of the most rigorous things about Maurice Hasson’s philosophy is the importance of the score. It is the direct connection we have to what the composer wanted to say. Starting from there, the possibilities are endless, but always within that structure.

There’s no way you can play the solo violin part in a concerto without knowing what’s going on in the orchestra and how that affects what and how you should be playing. I recently performed the Sibelius Concerto, and that is one big symphony. I ask students, ‘Who is playing here?’, ‘What is this leading to?’, and ‘What is the phrase?’, so they understand the search for knowledge behind it all.

One of the key elements of my teaching is never to take away the personality of the student. We all have different things to say and I believe my work is to give the tools to students so they can translate that in the best possible way. The violin is not an easy instrument to play, but having these tools allows them to develop their own voice.

Students arrive here at such an important moment in their lives. The years between 18 and 28 are a key time, when they want to play and explore and absorb as much music as possible. So many things are coming together for them. They have a lot of the musical ideas but they are ready to develop through their environment. It happened to me when I was here – the Academy became a haven where I could explore musical ideas and different styles of playing, breathing and living music every day and being inspired and surrounded by so many different artists and personalities.

At that age everything is possible – or at least one should believe that everything is possible, and that mentality helps you achieve things that later you realise were very difficult. Sometimes I come back to a piece I played with orchestra as a young man and I wonder how I managed it back then.

While they’re at the Academy, students go from being young people to being adults – not only in their personal lives, but also in how they play and approach their instruments and the musical elements of pieces. It’s fantastic to see that process. Sometimes it happens very quickly and sometimes it happens more slowly. They are laying down the foundation stones of who they will be, taking decisions that will shape their future in one way or another.

I would never say, ‘Let’s stop everything and just use scales and etudes,’ because that can be frustrating and demoralising. At the end of the day everyone wants to play – that’s what we enjoy.

It’s essential to find the right piece for the right person at the right time. I believe most technical aspects you need to overcome can be solved through music. Understanding why the composer uses a technical element to express a musical idea is key. I was always playing pieces that I wanted to play and overcoming the obstacles, so I always try to solve technical difficulties through musical ideas.

Everyone is different, and that fascinates me. There are people who come here with fantastic musical ability and phrasing, and like a nice car that has everything, they come to the point where they want to have all the tools to get the best and most effective balance out of the engine – you put oil in and all the pieces start to work. And there are people who come with a fantastic technique and you just have to help them spread their wings and free their imagination.

Teaching others is the greatest way of teaching yourself. You have to come to every lesson with a different mind for each student. It’s rewarding for me as an artist, because not only do I give to them, but they also give me a lot to think about my own playing.

The most important thing is the willingness to want more. It’s so easy to listen to good music these days – you can watch the greatest orchestras, conductors and players on YouTube. There is a lot of information for students to absorb, but ultimately, creativity comes from the desire to become a better artist, to have more to say with what you do. That’s what we’re all trying to achieve.

Why do people come to concerts? They want to feel something. I use images a lot in my teaching. What are you imagining? What do you smell? What do you want people to feel? As musicians we want to transport a feeling, to move people. They’ve taken themselves out of their houses, got into their cars and driven to the concert hall. They want to enjoy themselves. In the scheme of things, one mistake in half an hour doesn’t matter, but they can’t be moved if you are not trying to say something.

We learn to play the instrument with enough ease that we don’t have to think about how we do what we do. It should be like the human voice. The main goal is to forget about all the technical challenges and just to communicate.

You only have to listen to Spotify to realise that we are living in a golden age of violin playing, but there is a special charm older generations had. They took more risks, because recording techniques meant that everything had to be done in big takes. When you listen to those players, you hear that they were doing interesting things. I encourage students to listen to as many violinists as possible – both from today and historic ones – and to think about the elements that attract them from their playing. It’s fascinating, because we can find a lot of information to bring to our own playing.

We are living in exciting times, because I think we’re going back to the excitement of the live performance. There are more CD companies focused on live recordings. The CD has been an amazing tool, and we have got close to perfection, but it’s exciting to see this tendency going back to risk-taking. We all have to aim a lot higher than just playing the right notes at the right time – we’re getting away from what a computer could do.

It’s important to find the joy in everything that relates to music. Everything feeds into everything else. The profession has changed so much in 20 years, and these days we expect soloists to be able to play concertos, but we also want to listen to them playing chamber music. I also lead orchestras. Chamber music feeds into solo playing and also into orchestral playing. It all feeds into the same pot. You have to be a complete artist, to have a huge thirst for everything, and for understanding all those different sides of your career. Most artists are like that now, and audiences want that.

Music is not just about the world we create within the walls of the Academy – when you step on to the streets of London there are so many amazing things on offer: free museums, concerts, theatre. I encourage students to grab it all.

As teachers we try to give students the tools they need. We teach them how to play as soloists, through the solo repertoire, but at the end of the day, they will also need all those tools as orchestral players or in chamber music.

It’s important to be open to life fulfilling its promise in different ways. Some people come here with the mentality of wanting to be a soloist and are disappointed to find themselves playing in orchestra. Playing in an orchestra can be an exciting life – it has been for me.

There’s so much more to the concertmaster role than playing. You have to be able to manage a section, to know how to ask for things, and to be able to get the best out of people. The English word for it, ‘leader’, is perfect, because it illustrates how you are part of a group, but you are also helping to achieve something greater. You are the bridge between the conductor and the orchestra, and you help transform the ideas that conductors have. It’s a fascinating conversation and has made me into a different artist.

Leading an orchestra involves psychology, in the same way that football coaches get the best out of their players. In a good orchestra everyone knows how to play their instrument, so you’re creating an environment where they can bring out the best of themselves and feel part of the bigger process, and that they’re essential. It’s easy for the back desk of first violins to feel lonely, so my position as leader is to make them feel as important as the first desk. Every group brings different challenges, so I’ve discovered a lot about human interaction.

Ultimately, we are all sharing fantastic music, playing together in beautiful moments that will never happen again. It’s magical when it happens well. The most important thing is to bring people together to find a collective feeling of being part of something great.

The big challenge for students is time management, because there are so many opportunities to learn and get involved, but they still have to practise. Time is so precious, and this is the most valuable time for students. They have to learn so many things so quickly and it’s fantastic to be able to use this time to improve, and to keep growing before they go out into the big wide world. I realise now how great a luxury it is to have so much time to practise.

The financial crisis changed our profession and the way artists and ensembles work, but in a way, it opened up a whole new vision of what is possible with less and what the priorities are. I find that exciting. Artistically, there are many opportunities. It’s exciting to see how creative people are now. Many new projects have come to life – new orchestras and people doing things differently. This search for innovation and creativity is constant, which is important.

People come to the Academy with fantastic ideas and they find the help here to shape them into something that is beautiful, and that it’s possible to take out to the wider world. It’s exciting, and can only happen because we’re surrounded by fantastic people here.

This interview was first published on the Royal Academy of Music website in 2016

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