Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thank You, Mr. Heifetz (Ch.9 Pt.2)

To the degree that I was familiar with the Mendelssohn Concerto, I had no option but to give it my best shot at Heifetz's insistence for a spontaneous hearing. Although my teacher at Juilliard forbade me to study the concerto prematurely, I would play it by ear whenever possible, and read through the score with delightful anticipation. I was especially inspired  after watching and listening to the twelve-year-old child prodigy violinist, Lilit Gampel with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, performing the entire Mendelssohn Concerto live on television.

I surprised myself at the audition. When I reached a point about halfway down the first page of the finale, where I could no longer conjure up the notes, I laughed at my mistakes. I glanced up at Heifetz seated behind his large desk with a score in front of him, and noticed the glint in his eyes.

"Not bad," he said. "You're not untalented."
"Thank you," I replied, figuring that those words from Heifetz were meant to be a compliment.
"You wanted to play the Rondo Capriccioso for me, so go ahead."

The nervousness had almost completely abated. I closed my eyes tight, flicked my hair, and dug into the Saint-Saëns. For heightened effect, I clicked my heels against the floor during a frightfully difficult up bow staccato passage. I didn't miss a beat, and reveled in my own performance. I had performed the composition so many times in public, that it felt as if I could toss it off in my sleep. I pulled out all the stops with a repertoire of grimaces and gyrations that I had inherited from Juilliard and Meadowmount students.
Jascha Heifetz tapped the TV antennae for me to stop.
He paused. "Are you an actress or a violinist?"  
I had no idea how to reply."What?"
"Do you wish to become an actress?"
I looked at him quizzically.

"Tut, tut. For a rather nice looking girl, you certainly make yourself unattractive with all those terrible faces. You might consider saving the theatrics for the dramatic stage."
I felt suddenly self-conscious. The bodily gestures, contortions, and facial expressions were purely for show; an entertainer's bag of tricks.
"Your grimaces, not to mention grunting and heel clicking, is nothing more than a distraction, and it detracts from your performance. You don't have to see your own horrible faces, but I do, or the audience does. The music will speak for itself. But, if you wish to act on stage, that's another thing all together. Who knows? You might be successful."
Thank you, was all I could manage to mutter.
"You have temperament," he added.
"Is that OK?" I asked sheepishly.
"You cannot be a performing artist without it. There would be no point in making music."
It would be revealed to me later, that like his own teacher Auer, Heifetz had no tolerance for anemic or unimaginative playing. Temperament was the artist's life blood.
"Thank you," I said, feeling slightly better. I waited for the next acerbic observation, but found myself enjoying being at the center of attention. How many kids from Memorial Middle School in Beverly, Massachusetts could boast the honor of playing for Jascha Heifetz?

"What's that contraption?"
"What?" I had no idea what he was alluding to. "Attached to the violin. That hardware."
"Oh, you mean this?" I pointed to my shoulder rest, a bulky black pad, fastened underneath the violin with rubber-coated, metal clasps. I had never played without one.
"Yes, that. Why do you need such a thing?" He looked querulously.
"I—I have a long neck, and it offers support?" I ended with a question, intentionally, and wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt.
"You're not exactly a giraffe. Except for those horrible faces while you play, you appear, to me at least, a normal girl with a normal neck. You know that contraption, too, is a distraction as it takes away the beauty of the violin. It dampens the sound. Did you ever think of that?"
I shook my head, no.
"I'll bet it leaves marks on your violin."
I lifted the shoulder rest, and sure enough, there were tiny scratches from the clasps.
"You see?" he said. "If you must have something there for added security, use a cloth, but be discreet."
I fumbled with the shoulder rest, not knowing what else to do.

"I'll hear a scale now—G# Minor, first in single notes followed by thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths."
 I hadn't practiced a daily regimen of scales in years, not since private studies with Sarah Scriven, and was at a loss for a reliable fingering pattern. I got tangled halfway up the sharp-ridden scale, and couldn't navigate my way back down. I slid into home base with a wobbly G#.
An awkward silence filled the room.  
"Come on," Heifetz said, tapping the TV antennae. "You can do better than that, I hope. And then I expect the same scale in double-stops, beginning with the thirds."
I drew a blank.

"I don't have all the time in the world, you know. Not at my age, anyway."

I suspected that I had failed the audition right then and there, from lack of preparation with the dreaded scales. I couldn't continue any longer.
 Heifetz put down the antennae and leveled a stern gaze, but his voice remained calm.
"Scales are the foundation of technique. They are to the violinist as calisthenics to an athlete. If you find yourself with little practice time on a busy day—that is, if you're hurried for some reason—the scales are a necessary requirement to stay in condition. They are to be practiced daily before anything else. Agreed?"
"Yes," I agreed, dejectedly. "Thank you."
Jascha Heifetz rose from his desk. "That will be enough for today. Thank you and good-bye."
My audition for the Heifetz Master Class had ended.
As I recalled my mother's instructive to offer respect and gratitude in the face of a critique, I said thank you in a somewhat affected voice.
Heifetz responded with an impersonation of my high-pitched thank you.
I laughed and packed up my violin. "Thank you again," I said without flinching.
"Thank you, thank you. I think we've thanked each other enough all ready." He reached for the door. "I'll have a word with my secretary, Mrs. Reynolds, and she will speak with your mother—"
"Yes," I said, as I edged away from the famous classroom at Clark House, and headed downstairs with the words, thank you Mr. Heifetz, on my lips.