Interview with Michael Tree, Part III

This is the final installment of our interview with Michael Tree, in which he shares with us some of his concepts about practicing. If you have not yet read the first two parts we encourage you to do so before you continue with this one.

Michael Tree is an editor at Ovation Press, having published works such as Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston.

Michael Tree with the Schumann Trio (see the bottom of the page for more on the trio)*

Michael Tree: While touring we would have very little time available. Eleven minutes here, maybe eight minutes there, maybe backstage 14 minutes, for so-called practice. So we had to really, really zero in on everything. 

String Visions: How could you make yourself focus like that?

Michael Tree: I would convince myself that this was the last time I’ll ever be able to practice this particular work… before performing it. The very last time. And that would scare the hell out of me, and it would force me to really zero in and become consciously aware of every single motion. It’s impossible to duplicate that if you have loads and loads of time.

This way of thinking, I think, psychologically played a big role in the way I practice also to this day. Even though I am now in semi-retirement, I find I’m traveling a great deal and luckily playing with other quartets, which I love doing, or as the fourth member of a piano trio, and it’s as busy as I want it to be. But I still feel that I don’t have enough time to practice as I should. And so there’s an extra bit of concentration that comes if you really can convince yourself that this is the last time. 

String Visions: Yes there is nothing like being close to the battlefield and feeling, “This is it.”

Michael Tree: Yes, “This is it.” That’s right. It’s like the bullets are going to be flying within minutes, and so you practice in a totally different way. 

String Visions: Do you practice slowly or quickly? Can you be more specific?

Michael Tree: No, I think slow practicing. I’ve always had the belief that if you can play it slowly, you can always play it fast, but the reverse is not necessarily true because a lot of very fast passages become a little sloppy at times if you don’t break it down once again into its roots, its beginnings.

String Visions: What about fingerings?

Michael Tree: I love experimenting with fingerings. I always preach to my students, “Please don’t be a slave to the printed fingerings you see. Be always skeptical. Because the printed fingerings you see are probably indicative of a style of playing that went out of fashion maybe 50 years ago, maybe a hundred years ago.”

It may be of interest to know what Joachim might have done in a particular spot or what have you. Great players like Francescatti, Heifetz, they’ve all made editions of various materials, and it suits their playing perfectly. But they have nothing to do with us or we with them. And the best fingerings are the ones that utilize extensions and contractions. In other words, fingerings that we don’t dare print. 

String Visions: How did the Guarneri Quartet decide on bowings?

Michael Tree: One thing we always adhered to is that bowings are only important if the overall sounds are correct. In other words, it’s not what we do that’s so important. It’s what the listener hears.

String Visions: That’s fascinating!

Michael Tree: Exactly. While playing, you’re changing the bow always at the same moment. With certain types of music, I think that’s actually a negative, and I can promise you I’m not exaggerating when I say that. For 45 years, we’ve played literally thousands of concerts never using the same bowings. 

String Visions: Really?

Michael Tree: Never knowing what bowings we’re going to use or what our colleagues are going to use in a given time? Absolutely true. Now, of course, the so-called bowings to my mind have nothing to do with the bowing but everything to do with phrasing.

String Visions: Yes, that’s true.

Michael Tree: It’s the closest any composer could come toward suggesting how many notes belong to a certain family. And certainly, we do change the bow unexpectedly at times onstage because of simply being out of bow. I mean, what would a singer do if he or she were out of breath? They would have to take another breath, of course! But this business of trying to squeeze so many notes in one bow, if it works is fine. If it doesn’t, change the bow but with the idea in mind not to advertise it. That’s it. Because  we nevertheless have to adhere to the wishes of the composer. At all times we are beholden to that. That’s the pact that we sign. 

String Vision: That technique is also used in orchestral playing.

Michael Tree: Yes I remember hearing stories in Philadelphia as a student about the old Stokowski days when he conducted the orchestra. Now, of course there were times when it was probably impossible not to play the same bowings in certain delicate passages.

For example, the Mozart, or early Beethoven, or Haydn, or what have you in the Classical literature. But in the Romantic literature, I would say from the 1800’s on, Stokowski wanted every string player to play according to what made them happy and comfortable. In other words, to play within their comfort level.

String Visions: You mean free bowings?

Michael Tree: Yes assuming that there are no false accents, and the players are skillful enough to make the sound blend together. That kind of playing produced a wonderful rich sound. It was a liberating experience for so many string players. And I think, may I even dare say, that I don’t think that an orchestra ever sounded any better.

The lusciousness and sheer beauty of sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra attained, and I must say Mr. Ormandy’s ability to continue that tradition, it was a sound that ruined my ears in that it was very difficult to listen to other orchestras. They sounded somewhat different.

String Visions: Yes Leopold Stokowski was a visionary in popularizing the concept of free bowings. The world we live in today is quite different.

Do you have any advice for young musicians starting their careers today?

Michael Tree: Well, these are tough times, naturally, and we keep hearing over and over again how many chamber music societies have closed their doors. But stick with it. It can’t go on forever. The great works will live on and deserve to be well played for hundreds of years to come. I wouldn’t know what else to say.

String Visions: Yes I totally agree.

Michael Tree: It’s discouraging, and we grieve for these young players, because I’m convinced that the standards have never been higher overall. I mean, there will always be standouts, naturally, but the overall standards are extremely high. And I just finished three days, just this week, of listening to players entering into the chamber music society of Lincoln Center Number 2. I’ve never been more impressed in my life with the overall quality of playing.

String Visions: Yes the current level of playing is very high.

Michael Tree: The same thing goes for Marlboro and for the Curtis Institute. And I’m privileged to also teach at Juilliard as well in Manhattan. Here right now at the Young Artist program in Ottawa the chamber music playing is wonderful. And I think that it would be a pity if any of these players were discouraged enough to quit.

String Visions: Yes it will take conviction, imagination, hard work, and belief in oneself to keep the musical world as we know it alive for future generations. I actually think that people need it now more than ever. Everything moves so fast these days that taking the time needed to open up to the magic of our wonderful musical world is more essential than ever.

Michael Tree: Yes, now is the time actually to be more loyal, more appreciative of the great works than ever.


The Schumann Trio was conceived in 2008 by violist Michael Tree, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Anna Polonsky. These three artists made their initial musical connection at the Curtis Institute, and the Marlboro Music Festival. After many years of performing together in different combinations, crossing paths at music festivals, and collaborating with the Guarneri String Quartet (of which Mr. Tree is a founding member), the three musicians decided to come together to explore the rich, and somewhat under-represented, repertoire for clarinet, piano, and viola or violin. Their 2010-11 engagements include performances at Tilles Performing Arts Center at Long Island University, the Library of Congress, Coleman Concert Series in Pasadena and Town Hall in New York City.


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