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Interview with György Pauk

In this article, originally commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, violinist and pedagogue György Pauk explains some of the most important violin playing principles, which came to him through the great Hungarian tradition

I was 13 years old when I was accepted into the Liszt Academy. I was little and wore short trousers. This was unheard of, because all the students were 18 and over, but I was one of the exceptions. Ede Zathureczky listened to me and heard I was talented, and invited me into his class. I named my teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music after Zathureczky, because he was a great violinist and a great teacher. He was the continuation of the once-famous Hungarian violin school, which started with Joseph Joachim and continued with Jenő Hubay, who was the director of the Liszt Academy. Zathuretsky was a pupil of Hubay and became his successor there when he died, continuing the tradition.

There have been so many great Hungarian violinists – Zoltán Székely, Franz von Vecsey, Tibor Varga, Joseph Szigeti, André Gertler, Loránd Fenyves and Sándor Végh all came from the same school, and many of them studied with Hubay. The Hungarian violin school is distinguished by the quality, beauty and purity of the sound. The way to find this sound is to find the balance between the two hands, and to be absolutely free in the body, without any pressure – like the human voice.

The most important thing to produce a big sound is to use the weight of the right arm, which must be matched by the speed of vibrato. Some schools talk about pressure with the right arm, but I don’t agree with that. If you press, you choke the sound, and it becomes ugly and forced. One can only create volume with the weight of the right arm.

Violin playing is difficult, but it should look easy to the audience – then you know you’re using your hands and fingers in the right way. The difficulty is that we constantly have to work against gravity. We have to win – with ease.

The most common difficulty I find in new students is bow control. The bow should be the continuation of the arm. Many players are afraid that if they’re not pressing with the fingers they’ll drop the bow, but that’s all in the mind. It’s a big problem for some players because as soon as they put pressure on the bow the wrist becomes stiff, which means they are unable to control the bow speed.

The best way to hold the bow is with a rounded hand, as if you’re playing the piano. The thumb should always be a little bit bent. As soon as it becomes straight you get stiffness in the rest of the hand. The violin should be positioned on the shoulder naturally, without you having to hold it or apply pressure with the chin. There should be a right angle between the violin and bow, like the letter L. That’s how you get the best sound, with the bow parallel to the bridge. At other angles the bow moves around and the sound becomes unclear.

The right hand has to be matched by a strong left hand and a good vibrato. Students should do scales and exercises for at least an hour a day. We have to teach the fingers of the left hand to have power, taking advantage of gravity as the fingers drop. Never press, otherwise you will have pain, but you have to make the fingers strong, especially the tips. For this one needs to play scales, dropping the fingers from high up. There are wonderful Dounis exercises for strengthening the fingers.

The other thing that makes violin playing difficult is shifting, but that’s purely mechanical and can be learnt by practising exercises. After a while you don’t have to think about it – the shift will be right because you’ve practised it properly and you can forget about it. It’s very important to make clear shifts. In the old days they used to slide a lot between notes, but there’s a different style today, and shifts are much clearer.

I prefer not to spend a lesson hearing scales – I’d rather focus on the music – but sometimes I need to. It’s a good way to work on bow speed and intonation. With intonation, the ear tends to get lazy after a while. You play but you don’t hear whether something is properly in tune. I suggest playing 4ths for five minutes – that’s the best way to clean your ears. I also recommend 3rds and 6ths. Play each note very slowly until you are satisfied it’s in tune, making tiny adjustments in the fingers.

I often ask students to sing. How you sing a melody is usually the most natural way of phrasing it, so then I get them to try to imitate it on their violin. If you want to express a special phrase, you need two things: dynamics and timing. Timing comes from breathing, which is why the best way to understand a phrase is to sing it. Humans always have to breathe and music always has to breathe.

Some of my students call me Mr Sustain, because I often talk about sustaining the sound. When you play a long note on a clarinet or piano you get a consistent sound, but with the violin the sound goes away, because the bow gets thinner at the tip, so one has to compensate. One has to sustain the note – to give a little more weight to the arm as the bow gets thinner.

I was a soloist, and I’m trying to teach my students how a soloist should play. They may not necessarily all become soloists, but they should know how to sustain the sound – that can be the difference between the way a soloist and a chamber musician plays. Not everyone becomes a soloist, but it’s easier for a soloist to switch to chamber music than the other way round.

We work on technique and music at the same time, but if there are technical problems we talk about them immediately. It’s important that students know the notes when they come to a lesson so that we can approach everything from a musical point of view. Before you learn a piece you have to know the form and structure, so you know what you want to do. I can help and explain, but students should always study the complete score first, including the orchestra or piano parts, because music is all about give and take.

I’m careful not to push students to take my views of a piece. I like to hear what a student thinks about the piece before I say anything. Then I try to show them the style, without saying it’s the only way – that’s not good. A talented person has the imagination to create their own version. I want students to keep their musical personality. The most important thing is that a student is talented, and you can notice talent at first hearing.

You can’t live without chamber music. It teaches you to be a better musician, to listen to other people. I was very lucky that apart from my solo career I had a piano trio for many years, with Ralph Kirshbaum and Peter Frankl, which was made up of three soloists. Quartet playing is a totally different style from piano trios, though – the difference being the quality and the volume of sound.

Throughout my performing life, I practised five or six hours every day. I recommend that students should practise for three hours, have a rest, and then do a couple more hours in the afternoon. It’s a difficult profession, and if you are serious and want to succeed, you have to put in this kind of work. The competition is incredible these days – perfect intonation and technique are essential, and artistry comes on top of that.

Change can happen pretty fast – after a few months all these things come naturally. Some of my students are quick to understand. They pick things up from only half a sentence, especially once they’ve been with me for half a year.

I plan students’ repertoire carefully, to balance it and take it slowly. I will sometimes start them with an easier Mozart violin concerto, because musically it doesn’t present so many problems, but it’s still Mozart. Or I use the Bruch First Violin Concerto, which is not as demanding musically as the Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn, but is technically quite difficult.

Students will be with me for three or four years, so in the first year I’m very careful that they shouldn’t stretch themselves with pieces that are beyond their capacity. Bruch, Lalo and Saint-Saëns are much less demanding than Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius. The Sibelius is one of the most difficult concertos and very often I hear players perform it who have no sound. Teachers shouldn’t allow students to play Sibelius if they don’t have the basic projected, warm, big, colourful sound.

I like contemporary music – I played many new concertos throughout my career. I’m careful – especially with first- and second-year students – that they do basic repertoire first, though. In a way, playing contemporary music is easier than Mozart, Schubert or Beethoven. The Beethoven is perhaps the most difficult of all the concertos. You’re on stage and you feel naked, and everyone knows the piece.

All my students have to perform Bartók. I was very lucky that my professor Zathureczky had played with Bartók, so through him I knew I was hearing how Bartók wanted to hear his pieces. When I was around 17, Zathureczky asked me to play the Solo Sonata, which is one of his most difficult pieces. I’m happy that it’s played all over the world these days – much more than it used to be. I realised the genius of Bartók from an early age, and was called a Bartók specialist, but I don’t like the word ‘specialist’. Whether it’s Bach or Bartók, it should be approached from the musical point of view and not for being ‘modern’ or ‘classical’ music. There is only good music or bad music.

When you play Bartók, it’s helpful if you’re Hungarian, but you don’t have to be. His music is all based on folk music, and it helps if you grow up in a country where they sing those songs. You have to understand that Hungarian language and folk music is all accented on the first syllable, and that principle is valid for Bartók’s music. You have to be accurate in your rhythms, and about where his accents are. His marking is very clear – how he wanted you to phrase; when you should breathe; how the metre changes.

When I go to concerts I hear brilliant Prokofiev, and wonderful Rachmaninoff, Walton and Stravinsky, but I’m more interested how performers play Schubert, or a Mozart quartet or Haydn trio. That’s when you can hear the quality of a musician.

The key to playing Mozart lies in his operas. One should play his violin concertos as if inhabiting different operatic characters. Again, it helps when I ask students to sing these. Vocalise the different characters, and that’s how you should play it. I encourage students go to the opera.

Schubert may be even more difficult than Mozart. It’s in the tiniest details – how to play the accents, for example. They are not real accents – it’s all about timing them. With Schubert, you have to imagine being in Vienna, and to know what a waltz is: in Strauss waltzes, Viennese style, you emphasise the first beat, and then wait a little for the third beat. Schubert’s music is full of sadness. It is often marked Allegro Moderato – ‘yes, but…’ It always drags and hesitates and is mostly sad, because he had a terribly tragic life.

In this country, promising violinists aren’t always able to find the necessary time to devote to their playing between the ages of 14 and 18. These are the most important years, when one should learn to play instrument properly, but children are terribly busy with their studies at that age, and there’s not enough emphasis on music. By 18, they are often technically behind and it’s very difficult to catch up.

I won three competitions and have been on juries all over the world, but I’m not a great lover of competitions. They are good for motivating students to prepare repertoire, but how can they ever be fair? Everyone has different tastes, and there is always politics. Some of my students have been successful in competitions, but I don’t press them to go. The most important thing for me is the music.

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

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