Thursday, December 2, 2010

Diagnosis (Ch.13 Pt. 3)

Heifetz teaching Friedman
"It's just what I thought," Erick Friedman said after I finished the first movement of the Paganini Concerto. He got up from the piano bench. I glanced at my parents huddled on the sofa. They sat stock still, as if awaiting a life or death diagnosis from a prominent surgeon about to wield his knife.
"The gifted ones tend to exhibit tension in their playing and are the most at risk."
"What?" I asked.
"I hear it. The squeezing and over-pressing; symptomatic of improper training. I'm amazed you don't suffer from tendinitis. Set the violin down and let me examine your hands."
I lowered the instrument to its case, feeling self-conscious. Afterward, Mr. Friedman gently took my left hand into his own. The backs of his were covered with thick black hair all the way down to his knuckles. His hands felt strong and protective.
"Let's take a look." He lingered a bit on each finger, then went on to caress the callouses. "Good length. Even the pinky. And there's just enough padding—"
I looked up not knowing how to respond. The mezuzah around Mr. Friedman's thick neck flickered against the lamp light.
"I recognize all the tell-tale signs, though," he stated with perfect conviction.
"Of—of what?" I asked shakily.
Mr. Friedman's face darkened with concern. Was I about to be dealt a fatal prognosis?
"That charlatan."
"Oh no. I haven't studied with Galamian but with DeLay." I slid my hand away from his and wiped it on my skirt. Gazing into those smoldering charcoal eyes, I realized that Erick Friedman was the handsomest man I had yet to encounter. I'd have believed anything he said, for it was as if I had fallen under the spell of Svengali.
"DeLay. Galamian. Same defects." Friedman's baritone voice filled the room. His vowels were from New Jersey.
"They teach how to press, how to squeeze, how to tighten and force. Tell me, Marjorie dear. Have you ever heard Dorothy DeLay play?"
I reached back into my memory which was a stockpile of music lessons. I recalled the one time that Miss DeLay offered a couple of notes to demonstrate vibrato. "Not really," I found myself admitting.
"That's right. And you won't."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because she can't."
"But, but—she could."
"There's a dichotomy between teachers and doers," he said.

"Let me elucidate my reaction to your playing." He stepped nearer to the violins that rested on top of the Steinway. "Given your talent, and remarkable hands, you have the potential for a career. I think we share more similarities than differences."
I looked at him quizzically. Erick Friedman was an enigma, this six-foot-three hunk of a man.
"Like yours, my parents were dedicated to my training. My father played the violin but as an amateur. And he was determined to grant me the finest musical education that money could buy."
"Like me!" My mother interrupted.
Mr. Friedman nodded slowly.
"He'd take copious notes at every lesson. I studied first with a patient of his who happened to be none other than Samuel Applebaum. You know that name?"
"I do." My mother raised her hand as if in a classroom. "I know of Applebaum. I had my Marjorie study all his duet books; we played them together. Wonderful!"
"Take it easy, Frances," my father said. He placed his arm over her lap as a restraint. "Let the man talk. Go ahead, Boychik. Interesting stuff you're telling us."
She thrust her hand up a second time. "Oh, so Mr. Friedman.Your father must be a doctor?"
"Frances, I told you. Enough already," warned my father.

Mr. Friedman laughed softly. "My father's a dentist. I come from a family of medical practitioners, which partially explains, I suppose, my interest in the physiology of violin playing. As a matter of fact, my brother is a  neurosurgeon. When he was younger, though, he was an athlete. I learned through him that the muscles have one active motion: contraction. In fact, there's a strong muscular association between the hands. When the left-hand muscles are squeezed and pressed, the right hand tends to react in the same way, and vice versa."
For some reason I had a flashback of Dr. Ben Casey on TV.
"Let me make myself clear; there's no instrument more unnatural to play than the violin. You have to be like a pretzel!"
Mr. Friedman reached for his "Ludwig" Stradivari and tucked it under his chin. He inclined his left elbow far to the right, and twisted his neck. "See?"
I laughed out loud. Erick Friedman suddenly resembled Quasimodo.
"That's how I used to look when I played."
"No." I shook my head in disbelief.
He laid the Strad gently on the piano.
"I studied with Applebaum until I was ten years old, then alternated between Galamian and DeLay."
"Miss DeLay, really?" I asked.
"Yes. 'Sweetie this and Sugarplum that.' Meantime, so many bad habits set in because, like you, I was talented and worked hard. I was tied up in knots."
 I waited for him to continue, wondering what he might prescribe.
"I don't know if you've ever experienced nervousness. You don't look the type, but—"
I didn't want to respond to this question. I got nervous just thinking about getting nervous, so sometimes it was better not to think. "I—I do."
"Yes? Because I doubt anyone suffers from nerves more than I do," he announced at last.

I stared at Erick Friedman in amazement. Those broad shoulders and large biceps. No way could I imagine a  big man like that battling stage fright. I had watched him in every episode of the Heifetz Masterclass on television. He had performed J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins with Heifetz, and seemed totally at ease, unaffected by the cameras which must have loomed close.
"I don't get it," I muttered.
"I'll let you in on a secret, Marjorie. Would you rather be called Margie?"
"Yes. She prefers to be called Margie." My mother stated from across the room.

"Margie, when I was just a bit younger than you are now, in my early teens, I had a series of concert engagements. My mother was good friends with Michael Rabin's mother. Michael was offered management at an early age, so she, a nice lady, got me signed under contract too."
I heard my mother gasp. "How fortunate!"
"No. I wasn't ready. One evening I was to perform Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' here in New York. I underwent such a panic attack that I wound up not on the stage, but in the E.R., gasping for air. It was awful. I still remember my mother screaming at the doctors for help."
My pulse quickened. "What happened?"

His face turned ashen as he retold the tale. "Well, I was diagnosed with asthma. But, you know, it took years for me to finally understand that this condition was brought on by extreme fear, and it reoccurred every time I had to perform. In other words, my asthma was psychosomatic. Not until I studied with Nathan Milstein and later Jascha Heifetz, and analyzed their playing up close, did I begin to realize that I had been improperly trained, which affected my nervous system. If a young performer is not guided properly, it can cause trauma."
"How so?" I asked, somewhat confused but also impressed by his depth of knowledge.
"We're like athletes. If something is fundamentally wrong, we cannot perform well, or sustain a career for a number of years. By observing those great master violinists, so relaxed, devoid of undue tension, I learned economy of motion, and subsequently, the art of relaxation. But I had to practically start over."
"And the asthma?" I asked.
"It went away."

He leveled his gaze at me, and I thought I might melt.
"But the moral of this story—and I know that I talk too much," he said. "You'll need to protect your playing by consciously allowing the muscles to relax. Let's imagine, for an instant, that you have an important performance, or God forbid, a professional career. A nasty critic shows up with an agenda to thwart your success. You, somehow, become aware of this unfortunate circumstance, and you know what? It makes you downright anxious. Scared, even. Michael Rabin was addicted to sedatives; we all know that. And he died not too long ago, a young man in his thirties. The pressure was too much for him."
I nodded. Rabin's untimely death was a loss for the entire music world.
"Margie dear, take my word for it; I know a little something about this business, which is cutthroat. You'll need to be prepared for such an event as a critic or colleague's determination to crush your career. Because in this field, it's not a question of if, but when."