talks with master violinists and teachers
(Part of "Classical Music Sheets Library")


I. Eugène Ysaye
The Tools of Violin Mastery
II. Leopold Auer
A Method without Secrets
III. Eddy Brown
Hubay and Auer: Technic: Hints to the Student
IV. Mischa Elman
Life and Color in Interpretation. Technical Phases
V. Samuel Gardner
Technic and Musicianship
VI. Arthur Hartmann
The Problem of Technic
VII. Jascha Heifetz
The Danger of Practicing Too Much.
Technical Mastery and Temperament
VIII. David Hochstein
The Violin as a Means of Expression
IX. Fritz Kreisler
Personality in Art
X. Franz Kneisel
The Perfect String Ensemble
XI. Adolfo Betti
The Technic of the Modern Quartet
XII. Hans Letz
The Technic of Bowing
XIII. David Mannes
The Philosophy of Violin Teaching
XIV. Tivadar Nachéz
Joachim and Léonard as Teachers
XV. Maximilian Pilzer
The Singing Tone and the Vibrato
XVI. Maud Powell
Technical Difficulties: Some Hints for the Concert Player
XVII. Leon Sametini
XVIII. Alexander Saslavsky
What the Teacher Can and Cannot Do
XIX. Toscha Seidel
How to Study
XX. Edmund Severn
The Joachim Bowing and Others
XXI. Albert Spalding
The Most Important Factor in the Development of an Artist
XXII. Theodore Spiering
The Application of Bow Exercises to the Study of Kreutzer
XXIII. Jacques Thibaud
The Ideal Program
XXIV. Gustav Saenger
The Editor as a Factor in "Violin Mastery"
  Technical page




Edmund Severn's activity in the field of violin music is a three-fold one: he is a composer, an interpreting artist and a teacher, and his fortuitous control of the three vital phases of his Art make his views as regards its study of very real value. The lover of string music in general would naturally attach more importance to his string quartet in D major, his trio for violin, 'cello and piano, his violin concerto in D minor, the sonata, the "Oriental," "Italian," "New England" suites for violin, and the fine suite in A major, for two violins and piano, than to his symphonic poems for orchestra, his choral works and his songs. And those in search of hints to aid them to master the violin would be most interested in having the benefit of his opinions as a teacher, founded on long experience and keen observation. Since Mr. Severn is one of those teachers who are born, not made, and is interested heart and soul in this phase of his musical work, it was not difficult to draw him out.


"My first instructor in the violin was my father, the pioneer violin teacher of Hartford, Conn., where my boyhood was passed, and then I studied with Franz Milcke and Bernard Listemann, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But one day I happened to read a few lines reprinted in the Metronome from some European source, which quoted Wilhelmj as saying that Emanuel Wirth, Joachim's first assistant at the Berlin Hochschule, 'was the best teacher of his generation.' This was enough for me: feeling that the best could be none too good, I made up my mind to go to him. And I did. Wirth was the viola of the Joachim Quartet, and probably a better teacher than was Joachim himself. Violin teaching was a cult with him, a religion; and I think he believed God had sent him to earth to teach fiddle. Like all the teachers at the Hochschule he taught the regular 'Joachim' bowing—they were obliged to teach it—as far as it could be taught, for it could not be taught every one. And that is the real trouble with the 'Joachim' bowing. It is impossible to make a general application of it.

"Joachim had a very long arm and when he played at the point of the bow his arm position was approximately the same as that of the average player at the middle of the bow. Willy Hess was a perfect exponent of the Joachim method of bowing. Why? Because he had a very long arm. But at the Hochschule the Joachim bowing was compulsory: they taught, or tried to teach, all who came there to use it without exception; boys or girls whose arms chanced to be long enough could acquire it, but big men with short arms had no chance whatever. Having a medium long arm, by dint of hard work I managed to get my bowing to suit Wirth; yet I always felt at a disadvantage at the point of the bow, in spite of the fact that after my return to the United States I taught the Joachim bowing for fully eight years.

"Then, when he first came here, I heard and saw Ysaye play, and I noticed how greatly his bowing differed from that of Joachim, the point being that his first finger was always in a position to press naturally without the least stiffness. This led me to try to find a less constrained bowing for myself, working along perfectly natural lines. The Joachim bowing demands a high wrist; but in the case of the Belgian school an easy position at the point is assumed naturally. And it is not hard to understand that if the bow be drawn parallel with the bridge, allowing for the least possible movement of hands and wrist, the greatest economy of motion, there is no contravention of the laws of nature and playing is natural and unconstrained.

"And this applies to every student of the instrument, whether or no he has a long arm. While I was studying in Berlin, Sarasate played there in public, with the most natural and unhampered grace and freedom in the use of his bow. Yet the entire Hochschule contingent unanimously condemned his bowing as being 'stiff'—merely because it did not conform to the Joachim tradition. Of course, there is no question but that Joachim was the greatest quartet player of his time; and with regard to the interpretation of the classics he was not to be excelled. His conception of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms was wonderful. The insistence at the Hochschule on forcing the bowing which was natural to him on all others, irrespective of physical adaptability, is a matter of regret. Wirth was somewhat deficient in teaching left hand technic, as compared with, let us say, Schradieck. Wirth's real strength lay in his sincerity and his ability to make clear the musical contents of the works of the great masters. In a Beethoven or Spohr concerto he made a pupil give its due emphasis to every single note.


"Before the violin student can even begin to study, there are certain pre-teaching requisites which are necessary if the teacher is to be of any service to him. The violin is a singing instrument, and therefore the first thing called for is a good singing tone. That brings up an important point—the proper adjustment of the instrument used by the student. If his lessons are to be of real benefit to him, the component parts of the instrument, post, bridge, bass-bar, strings, etc., must be accurately adjusted, in order that the sound values are what they should be.

"From the teaching standpoint it is far more important that whatever violin the student has is one properly built and adjusted, than that it be a fine instrument. And the bow must have the right amount of spring, of elasticity in its stick. A poor bow will work more harm than a poor fiddle, for if the bow is poor, if it lacks the right resilience, the student cannot acquire the correct bow pressure. He cannot play spiccato or any of the 'bouncing' bowings, including various forms of arpeggios, with a poor stick.


"When I say that the student should 'draw a long bow,'" continued Mr. Severn with a smile, "I do not say so at a venture. If his instrument and bow are in proper shape, this is the next thing for the student to do. Ever since Tartini's time it has been acknowledged that nothing can take the place of the study of the long bow, playing in all shades of dynamics, from pp to ff, and with all the inflections of crescendo and diminuendo. Part of this study should consist of 'mute' exercises—not playing, but drawing the bow above the strings, to its full length, resting at either end. This ensures bow control. One great difficulty is that as a rule the teacher cannot induce pupils to practice these 'mute' exercises, in spite of their unquestionable value. All the great masters of the violin have used them. Viotti thought so highly of them that he taught them only to his favorite pupils. And even to-day some distinguished violinists play dumb exercises before stepping on the recital stage. They are one of the best means that we have for control of the violinistic nervous system.


"Wrist-bowing is one of the bowings in which the student should learn to feel absolutely and naturally at home. To my thinking the German way of teaching wrist-bowing is altogether wrong. Their idea is to keep the fingers neutral, and let the stick move the fingers! Yet this is wrong—for the player holds his bow at the finger-tips, that terminal point of the fingers where the tactile nerves are most highly developed, and where their direct contact with the bow makes possible the greatest variety of dynamic effect, and also allows the development of far greater speed in short bowings.

"Though the Germans say 'Think of the wrist!' I think with the Belgians: Put your mind where you touch and hold the bow, concentrate on your fingers. In other words, when you make your bow change, do not make it according to the Joachim method, with the wrist, but in the natural way, with the fingers always in command. In this manner only will you get the true wrist motion.


"After all, there are only two general principles in violin playing, the long and short bow, legato and staccato. Many a teacher finds it very difficult to teach staccato correctly, which may account for the fact that many pupils find it hard to learn. The main reason is that, in a sense, staccato is opposed to the nature of the violin as a singing instrument. To produce a true staccato and not a 'scratchato' it is absolutely necessary, while exerting the proper pressure and movement, to keep the muscles loose. I have evolved a simple method for quickly achieving the desired result in staccato. First I teach the attack in the middle of the bow, without drawing the bow and as though pressing a button: I have pupils press up with the thumb and down with the first finger, with all muscles relaxed. This, when done correctly, produces a sudden sharp attack.

"Then, I have the pupil place his bow in the middle, in position to draw a down-stroke from the wrist, the bow-hair being pressed and held against the string. A quick down-bow follows with an immediate release of the string. Repeating the process, use the up-stroke. The finished product is merely the combination of these two exercises—drawing and attacking simultaneously. I have never failed to give a pupil a good staccato by this exercise, which comprises the principle of all genuine staccato playing.

"One of the most difficult of all bowings is the simple up-and-down stroke used in the second Kreutzer étude, that is to say, the bowing between the middle and point of the bow, tête d'archet, as the French call it. This bowing is played badly on the violin more often than any other. It demands constant rapid changing and, as most pupils play it, the legato quality is noticeably absent. Too much emphasis cannot be laid on the truth that the 'singing stroke' should be employed for all bowings, long or short. Often pupils who play quite well show a want of true legato quality in their tone, because there is no connection between their bowing in rapid work.

"Individual bowings should always be practiced separately. I always oblige my pupils to practice all bowings on the open strings, and in all combinations of the open strings, because this allows them to concentrate on the bowing itself, to the exclusion of all else; and they advance far more quickly. Students should never be compelled to learn new bowings while they have to think of their fingers at the same time: we cannot serve two masters simultaneously! All in all, bowing is most important in violin technic, for control of the bow means much toward mastery of the violin.


"It is evident, however, that the correct use of the left hand is of equal importance. It seems not to be generally known that finger-pressure has much to do with tone-quality. The correct poise of the left hand, as conspicuously shown by Heifetz for instance, throws the extreme tips of the fingers hammerlike on the strings, and renders full pressure of the string easy. Correctly done, a brilliance results, especially in scale and passage work, which can be acquired in no other manner, each note partaking somewhat of the quality of the open string. As for intonation—that is largely a question of listening. To really listen to oneself is as necessary as it is rare. It would take a volume to cover that subject alone. We hear much about the use of the vibrato these days. It was not so when I was a student. I can remember when it was laughed at by the purists as an Italian evidence of bad taste. My teachers decried it, yet if we could hear the great players of the past, we would be astonished at their frugal use of it.

"One should remember in this connection that there was a conflict among singers for many years as to whether the straight tone as cultivated by the English oratorio singers, or the vibrated tone of the Italians were correct. As usual, Nature won out. The correctly vibrated voice outlasted the other form of production, thus proving its lawful basis. But to-day the vibrato is frequently made to cover a multitude of violin sins.

"It is accepted by many as a substitute for genuine warmth and it is used as a camouflage to 'put over' some very bad art in the shape of poor tone-quality, intonation and general sloppiness of technic. Why, then, has it come into general use during the last twenty-five years? Simply because it is based on the correctly produced human voice. The old players, especially those of the German school, said, and some still say, the vibrato should only be used at the climax of a melody. If we listen to a Sembrich or a Bonci, however, we hear a vibration on every tone. Let us not forget that the violin is a singing instrument and that even Joachim said: 'We must imitate the human voice,' This, I think, disposes of the case finally and we must admit that every little boy or girl with a natural vibrato is more correct in that part of his tone-production than many of the great masters of the past. As the Negro pastor said: 'The world do move!'


"Are 'mastery of the violin' and 'Violin Mastery' synonymous in my mind? Yes and no: 'Violin Mastery' may be taken to mean that technical mastery wherewith one is enabled to perform any work in the entire literature of the instrument with precision, but not necessarily with feeling for its beauty or its emotional content. In this sense, in these days of improved violin pedagogy, such mastery is not uncommon. But 'Violin Mastery' may also be understood to mean, not merely a cold though flawless technic, but its living, glowing product when used to express the emotions suggested by the music of the masters. This latter kind of violin mastery is rare indeed.

"One who makes technic an end travels light, and should reach his destination more quickly. But he whose goal is music with its thousand-hued beauties, with its call for the exertion of human and spiritual emotion, sets forth on a journey without end. It is plain, however, that this is the only journey worth taking with the violin as a traveling companion. 'Violin Mastery', then, means to me technical proficiency used to the highest extent possible, for artistic ends!"

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