Two recent experiences have brought me back to a somewhat irrational belief I have long held, that what great classical musicians do is magical, incomprehensible, and immensely admirable, whereas what I do is pedestrian and really not very difficult at all. On Sunday, Susie and I, desperate for a movie to see, went to If I Stay, a forgettable film about a teen-age girl who plays the cello. At one point, the actress is seen playing quite magnificently during a Juilliard audition [apparently, even though she studied cello for seven months to prepare for the role, in the end they digitally grafted her head onto the body of a real cellist -- an operation performed, I take it, without benefit of anaesthesia.] Then, a few moments ago, as part of my preparation for playing Mozart's violin/viola duet K423 this afternoon with my fellow amateur, Susan Strobel, I went to YouTube and listened to David and Igor Oistrakh performing the piece while I followed along with the viola part on my lap. My purpose in this exercise of self-flagellation was to find out what tempo they take the Adagio at, but I listened to the entire duet. Needless to say, they play it beautifully. The Adagio, by the way, is taken very slowly, with plenty of room to breathe, musically speaking. Even the runs of sixteenth notes are allowed their full space. I would not have given myself that much room, left to my own devices, so it is a good thing I listened to the Oistrakhs.
I studied the viola for eight years [in my middle sixties and early seventies] with the co-principal violist of the Springfield MA symphony, taking an hour and a half lesson a week and practicing at least an hour a day. My teacher is a fine professional violist who is, it goes without saying, in an entirely different world from me when it comes to playing the viola. Over time, it became clear to me that she views the playing of the viola as, in a manner of speaking, an assemblage of techniques that one can master with sufficient time and effort -- a smooth bow arm, a vibrato [which I have never conquered], double stops [which I did master, to my delight and astonishment], legato, staccato, spiccato, playing in the higher positions, and of course, that old stand-by, playing in tune. [When I was a boy, studying the violin, I thought that playing in tune was something you had to be born with, like naturally curly hair. Only as I approached my dotage did I discover one can actually learn to play in tune by listening to oneself and adjusting the position of one's fingers on the strings. Pianists have it easy. It is impossible to play the piano out of tune.]
Now, one can of course master all of this and still not be a Yo-Yo Ma or David Oistrakh or Pinchas Zuckerman. But one can, in fact, with enough time and effort and discipline learn to play well enough to, let us say, earn a chair at the back of the viola section of a decent regional professional orchestra, which, by the way, is actually a very high standard these days.
My teacher, for her part, viewed my academic accomplishments with the greatest respect, even though in her studio I was the patzer and she the maîtresse. I suspect that teaching Philosophy and writing serious books seemed as far beyond her as performing a Mozart duet creditably and beautifully seem to me. I recall one year she was expressing anxiety about having to make some welcoming remarks to the gathering of her students and their families at their annual little recital. She was terrified of getting up in front of an audience, even that audience, and speaking -- something I had been doing many times a week for my entire adult life. Meanwhile, I was going to my doctor for an Inderal prescription to control my heartbeat and shaking when I rose to play my little "piece."[[Inderal is a beta blocker, prescribed for serious heart problems, and I doubted my doctor would even consider giving me a prescription for so trivial a reason, but when I asked him, he agreed without hesitation, telling me that his wife, who was a professional musician, took it before every concert.]
Well, the obvious and natural response to all of this is to say, Yes, yes, each of us has the illusion that what other people do is marvelous and what we do is run-of-the-mill. But I do not really believe it is an illusion. I simply cannot escape from the conviction that the great concert violinists and violists, the great string quartet players, the great pianists are gods who have condescended to spend their lives among mortals rather than in Valhalla where they rightfully belong.
Now I must return to K423 and decide how close I can come without disaster to the tempo at which the Oistrakhs took the concluding Rondo.