E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
November 13, 2003
Prog, trad and choice in the early education of Yehudi Menuhin

I've been reading the autobiography of the late Yehudi Menuhin, Unfinished Journey. He was not only was he a great musician and a most intriguing human being, but he also wrote beautifully, it would seem.

The education of someone like the young Menuhin was bound to be interesting, and so it proved.

The first thing to be said is that almost from the word go, Menuhin himself was determined to become a violinist. He wasn't pushed into it, still less forced into it, by ambitious parents, although once he had embarked on his course his father and mother ("Aba" and "Imma") backed him to the hilt. No, what happened was that Menuhin saw and heard a violinist in a circus, by the name of Carichiarto. And he saw and heard the "concert master" (that's what they call the leader over there) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a man named Louis Persinger.

The finger I pointed at Louis Persinger could base its choice on four years that had given me what as many years of college rarely give the graduate: a sense of vocation.

And like the teacher he himself was later to become, Menuhin immediately starts to speculate and generalise:

Is this particular sense native to childhood itself? I wonder. Have the fortunate simply rescued from an otherwise lost age of innocence the conviction of unlimited possibility, the instinct for real worth, which make it easier for children to identify with great soloists or simple souls with able middlemen? Certainly, looking at children from an adult perspective, I have long believe that the grown-up world consistently underrates the young, finding marvels in ambition and achievement where none exists.

Older children have no "vocation" not because they never had one, but because they lose touch with it, is what I suppose that to mean.

At the age of four I was far too young to know that the violin would exact a price commensurate with the grace conferred the grace of flying, of occupying an absolute vantage point, of enjoying such dominion over nerve, bone and muscle as could render the body an ecstatic absentee. But I did know, instinctively, that to play was to be.

Quite simply I wanted to be Persinger,

Whatever the vocations of others, Menuhin himself was firmly set on his course. Louis Persinger was asked if he would take the young Menuhin as a pupil, but he declined, so instead Menuhin was entrusted to the instructive attentions of

the local Svengali, Sigmund Anker, who, with the techniques of a drill-seargeant, transformed boys and girls into virtuosi by the batch.

There then follows a fascinating description of what Menuhin learned, not from Anker exactly, but as a result of the way Anker taught, combined as it was with Menuhin's determination to make sense of it all.

Anker's business in life was to groom the young to brilliant performance of Sarasate and Tchaikovsky, and as far as I can gather from dim memories of those distant days, he had neither capacity nor ambition for anything more subtle. He knew nothing of style, the classics, chamber music; more fundamentally, he knew nothing of the process of violin playing, or if he did, lacked the skill to pass his knowledge on. Not that he was alone in his darkness, for violin teaching was altogether a hit-and-miss activity then, as indeed it still too largely is. Anker's method was to set up a target correct intonation, full round tone, or whatever and whip his pupils towards it by unexplained command. The result was that one taught or failed to teach oneself, as one had earlier learned to walk and talk mainly by self-instruction; but violin playing being more complex than such inbuilt human skills, an illumination beyond what one's own nerves and muscles could supply would have been gratefully received.

At the outset merely holding the violin, at arm's length, very tightly, lest it fall (or recoil), seemed problem enough; where did one find a second pair of arms to play it? I was invited to fly; I answered by hanging on for dear life. Where the left hand, in the 'golden mean' position, should form spirals round the neck of the instrument (as the right hand does around the bow), mine pinioned it between thumb and the base of my first finger. Where the digits should arch softly over the fingerboard, each muscularly independent of the others, mine all but the smallest, which drooped behind cleaved to one another like three parade ponies, moving en masse from one positional rung to another up the chromatic ladder as if they found safety in numbers. Where the violin should lie on the collarbone, secured there by the head's natural but delicate weight, I clamped it tight. Where the right hand (and by extension the wrist, elbow, arm, scapula) and the bow function rather as the wheel and axis of a gyroscope, the former rotating in order to keep the latter on a true course, I sawed a straight line and, on every downstroke, swerved or 'turned the corner' (to make matters worse, the bow was too long for me). At crucial points where sound should have vibrated freely, it was hopelessly grounded. These abominations were so many symptoms of my ignorance of the violin's nature, an ignorance which clearly was not going to be corrected by the explanations of a third party, but only by personal exploration. The gyres, the pendular swings, the waves required by an instrument that itself forms one continuous curve, I had to teach myself, and could do so the more easily perhaps for inhabiting my own absolute space, for lacking the linear perspective that relates people to one another, for feeling in circles.

After six months I had made remarkably little progress. Mr Anker would bode the worst, having expected the best, Imma would report his diminishing hopes, Aba would fall silent, and I felt like a terminal case bandied by future pallbearers.

But then, the miracle

Then, for no reason I could explain, the violin began to lose its foreignness, my grip relaxed, my body discovered the freedom to forget itself, and I could enjoy what I was doing. I was at last launched. At this distance what I recall most clearly is my conquest of vibrato. To teach vibrato, Anker would shout, 'Vibrate! Vibrate!' with never a clue given as to how to do it. Indeed I would have obeyed him if I could. I longed to achieve vibrato, for what use was a violin to a little boy of Russian-Jewish background who could not bring a note to throbbing life? As with my struggle to roll an r, the problem was not to imagine the sound so much as to produce it; but vibrato proved a more elusive skill. I had already left Anker's tutelage and was perhaps six or seven years old when, lo and behold, one bright day my muscles had solved the puzzle. By such strokes of illumination, the solution proving so mysterious as the problem and leaving one almost as blind as before, most violinists learned their craft.

For Anker's combination of extreme dirigisme and extreme laissez-faire, Menuhin, perhaps without intending to, communicates gratitude. Was it so terrible to be told, as a budding violinist, that what mattered was "intonation!", or "tone!", or "vibrate!", or whatever was the word of the day, in unadorned commands? Would it have really improved matters if Anker had supervised the details of Menuhin's learning process, instead of merely announcing the required destination with one mysterious bellowed order? Would it really have made Menuhin a better musician if a man like Anker had been poking about in Menuhin's young mind when that mind was at its most responsive but yet also most vulnerable? Surely the best person to contrive the demanded outcomes was Menuhin himself. At any rate, that is what seems to have happened, although Menuhin adds parenthetically:

(The quest to perfect vibrato was to last for many years yet. Even when I was regularly performing in public as a boy, my vibrato was never very fast, and it wasn't until, as an adult, I undertook to unpick the mechanics of the operation and put them together again that I really began to satisfy myself.)

Once he had mastered the technical foundations of his chosen instrument of his vocation, that is to say Menuhin was again presented to Louis Persinger, and this time Louis Persinger said yes.

It's a fascinating story, which traditionalists and progressives would no doubt both regard as proof positive of their own wisdom and of the folly of their adversaries, that is, if such people as "traditionalists" and "progressives" actually exist, which I choose to doubt. To read descriptions of the Progressive/Traditional divide in educational theory is, I am increasingly coming to believe, to learn about two straw men locked in mythical battle, but in a battle that has decidedly little to do with real teaching. The reality of teaching, and of learning, is that traditional methods and discovery methods interact with extraordinary subtlety.

Anker told Menuhin what he wanted, but he left Menuhin himself to work out how to contrive it. To switch metaphors, Anker constructed a wooden frame, but left the plant Menuhin to grow upon it, telling him nothing. That Menuhin had to do for himself.

Meanwhile, I, the market choice in education freak, also regard it as a story about how right I am. For I regard the market choice mechanism with parents deciding whatever they must and children deciding (as Menuhin decided in the first place to be a violinist) whatever they can, and, crucially, teachers only joining in if they agree to do so as the framework within which Menuhin, Anker, Aba, Imma and Persinger, could all make their distinctive educational contributions to the glorious educational outcome (Menuhin himself).

Consider. Menuhin goes to a circus (prog choice) and to a classical concert (trad choice) and decides for himself (prog choice) to be a violinist. His parents ask Persinger (choice), but Persinger says no (choice again). The parents make do with Anker instead, who agrees (choice). Anker yells commands like a Prussian drill-seargeant (the distilled essence of "straw man" trad), yet Menuhin must himself discover (prog) how to get the results demanded, and does so discover. Anker having served his purpose, he is dismissed (choice again). Persinger notes the improvement and now says yes (more choice). It all worked out splendidly, I say.

That's more than enough for now. In due course, I hope to be telling you about Persinger's teaching methods. And when I get to the end of the book, I will also be learning about Menuhin's own teaching methods.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:17 PM
Category: This and that

This is very interesting. I study yoga (as Menuhin also did) and the yoga master I studied with in India - who has been practicing for 75 years and teaching for over 60, and is now one of the best known and most senior teachers in the world - has exactly the kind of minimalist approach Menuhin describes in his violin teacher. He doesn't care in the slightest what students' practices look like. He teaches mainly by touch - helping students into positions they never thought they could get themselves into, so that they then experience what it's like to be there and have their perceptions of what they are capable of altered. Outside of class he does - sometimes, when he feels like it - issue long philosophical lectures in a very endearing but not easy to follow mix of idiosyncratic English and fluent sanskrit - but in class it's all short, sharp commands/reminders - "breathe!", "straight arms", "your heel to your navel!". As to why the arms need to be straight, or the heel at the navel - he doesn't bother explaining, just says you should do your practice diligently every day and "all is coming". If you're willing to put the effort in, it will all make sense eventually; and if you're not, what good was a verbal explanation going to do you anyway?

Comment by: Alan Little on November 13, 2003 03:52 PM
Post a comment