Learning by ‘Feel’, vs the Classical Dilemma (Part One)

The proliferation of musical forms in the 20th century (from jazz, blues, bluegrass as well as the folk revival) has given us all an alternative perspective on musical virtuosity. We are now familiar with musicians who have accomplished a breathtaking level of technical accomplishment without the need for reading or writing musical notation. Nor are these players psychologically hampered by rigorous tuition which have involved years of repetitive study through scales of every description as well as a mind boggling array of technical exercises and studies which aim to cover the entire gamut of technique. These popular musicians have nonetheless dedicated a large portion of their lives to pursuing musical perfection, but have tended to use their inner ear as their ultimate tool in honing their craft. They seem to play with eyes shut, sculpting the music from their imagination with a sense of ‘feel’ as their guide. As such, they are remarkably similar to the gypsy musicians of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries who enthralled the likes of Franz Liszt with their effortless virtuosity and sumptuous turn of phrase. On hearing the famous Hungarian gypsy violinist Janos Bihari in 1822 Liszt wrote ‘His musical cascades fell in rainbow profusion, or glided along in a soft murmur…His performances must have distilled into my soul the essence of some generous and exhilarating wine…’ My violin teacher Kato Havas also remembers the gypsy musicians who frequented the streets and cafes of 1920s Hungary. She described her experiences by writing: ‘Anybody who has heard a real country gypsy plays the violin knows that the quality of his tone with its infinite haunting variety, his incredible rhythmic pulse, his almost devilish technical facility, rank him among the few top violinists in the world.’

If we contrast this with the tracts of violinistic pedagogy from Leopold Mozart to Carl Flesch, we see an effort to scientifically systematize this art into a cohesive and exhaustive approach, and in the case of Spohr’s Violin-Schule of 1832 we see a work which not only reflects the prevailing violin playing styles of the time but also gives us an insight into the regimented social attitudes of the day. This rigour is not necessarily confined to the nineteenth century: Ivan Galamian’s ‘Principles of Violin Playing and teaching’ (which is still a standard textbook for many conservatoires) reads like an encyclopedia of violin technique.

To be continued……