This is the second part of our interview with acclaimed violinist and Ovation Press editor Helmut Lipsky (see part 1 here), in which he discusses teaching, pedagogy, and education. Mr Lipsky has taught at several universities and colleges and is currently professor at the Montreal Conservatory for classical violin and string improvisation. He has also taught jazz violin and improvisation at the Université de Montréal and Concordia University.
String Visions: I would like to talk a little bit about your experiences as a teacher and violin pedagogue. How are you able to merge all these different aspects of your life and manage to do so many things at the same time?
Helmut Lipsky: Teaching has always been an important aspect of my life because it keeps me in touch with the young generation. I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work with wonderful students. Many of them pursue impressive careers throughout the world. One of the great things about teaching is, that you learn as much doing it as the students who are receiving it. Having to express and articulate your observations about the playing of many different personalities and musical temperaments broadens your perception and forces you to readapt your technical and musical knowledge to benefit the playing style and learning skills of a particular person. You have to find solutions to problems you might not ever had yourself. You can gain new insights into a work you always knew but which offers a new perspective in the hands and mind of a young person, coming from a very different background and point of reference. You also can learn a lot about human psychology, especially since musical expression is so strongly connected with feelings and human emotions.
Having taught for a long time, I have accumulated a lot of experience, but at the same time I must remain flexible and open to new ideas, approaches and tendencies. This is because music, the standard repertoire as well as the creation of new music – is an organic and ever-evolving artistic field. Old ideas and concepts have to be reevaluated constantly in the light of new research, but also under the influence of new sensitivities and an ever changing aesthetic environment.
String Visions: That is fantastic.
You were born in Germany, then your family moved to Switzerland, where you went to school and then studied at the Conservatory of Zurich. Then, at the age of 19, you came to the US, to New York, to study with Ivan Galamian and later with Itzhak Perlman at CUNY. Tell us a little bit about your formative years as a student.
Helmut Lipsky: Throughout all my years as a student, I was lucky to have had excellent and very open-minded teachers. At the Conservatory in Switzerland I studied with the brilliant violinist and concertmaster Abraham Comfort from Israel, who gave me a solid technical and musical basis and introduced me to the modern music of the time and encouraged me in my youthful endeavors as a composer and improviser. He was himself an avid fan of jazz music.
In ’74, I got a national scholarship to study in New York. I was a student of Ivan Galamian from ’74 to ’77; then from ’77 to ’80 I studied with Itzhak Perlman. I gained a lot from both of them. They were very different, although Perlman, also a former student of Galamian, taught the same technique. With Galamian, you profited from his big experience. He didn’t talk a lot but he always knew exactly what to say at the right time. Galamian had an uncanny ability of selecting and assigning precisely the repertory that would help each student move to the next level in their violinistic and musical development.
Galamian was extremely demanding, but without having to express it verbally. I had to learn, assimilate, memorize and perform a major concerto every 5 weeks, together with 2 etudes or caprices per week, a complete Bach solo sonata or partita, a virtuoso piece and/or a sonata. He kept you busy and pushed you to become independently proficient and organized.
I studied a vast amount of repertory with him, covering the whole standard repertoire. That enabled me to perform and to teach all those works.
Working with Itzhak Perlman was another fantastic experience. Without the pressure of assimilating a lot of new material, we would spend a whole lesson just on a couple of movements of a sonata, going into every minute musical detail. I worked on a lot of sonata repertoire with him, adding also some more concertos and virtuoso pieces, but I was able to discuss with him various shades of articulations and vibrato in Mozart, Beethoven or Franck… Perlman would never impose his own interpretations, but would try to understand what I was striving to express. Mr. Perlman seems to choose his students very much on the basis of them having strong individual musical personalities. He expected me to arrive at each lesson with a strong musical concept of my own of each work. We would then discuss the merits or weaknesses of the performance. After that Perlman would give his advice for how to make my musical and technical intentions better and more convincing. On the technical level, he was at the same time very intuitive but also very articulate, observing carefully one’s playing and providing valuable help and advice on how to adapt the basic technical concepts of the Galamian school to the physical and temperamental personality of the student.
String Visions: Being a student of Mr. Perlman, I can’t imagine not wanting or craving to imitate him.
Helmut Lipsky: That’s right. But he usually would stop you right there, “Okay, so…”
String Visions: If you started to imitate? He didn’t like that?
Helmut Lipsky: No, he wanted you to be, or to become, yourself, and at the same time to be respectful to the musical style and text. For example I would copy certain slides that I had heard on one of his recordings. Mr. Perlman occasionally placed slides tastefully, discreetly and effectively into a Beethoven Sonata. When I would play like that Perlman would say, “I know you heard me doing this, but I don’t think, it benefits your interpretation.” At another lesson I played Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise for him and used some exaggerated slides here and there. But Mr. Perlman did not like my concept and thought I did too many slides and not always at the best places, so he started to negotiate with me, saying you take this slide out of here, but I give you another one over there”. It was pretty funny, but very rewarding musically.
String Visions: That is a great story. I find very often that slides are very personal. Sliding is such a fundamental part of singing and string playing but has to be adapted to each players style.
Helmut Lipsky: That is true and I think that is why Perlman is making sure that people don’t try too much to imitate, neither him nor other great violinists. Additionally, Perlman encouraged me to be creative, to compose and to improvise.
String Visions: Having had such an experience with these great teachers you truly have a tradition to carry on to the next generation.
Helmut Lipsky: Yes. And I also want to mention my teacher Mrs. Oran Shiran, who was Mr. Perlman’s assistant when he was touring. She also came from the same school, having worked as an assistant to Dorothy Delay, and her very analytical approach complemented Mr. Perlman’s teaching very well.
String Visions: Yes we stand on the shoulders of our teachers and the teachers before them.
Helmut Lipsky: Yes, and I am aware of my role to carry my learned knowledge to new generations and to expand on it with my personal experience. For example, I sometimes teach improvisation classes, either at summer camps, like the Laurentian Music Camp or at the International Academy of the Domaine Forget. I also gave two improvisation workshops in Germany at the Thüringische Sommerakademie. I taught improvisation at the Conservatoire de Montréal, which the students always appreciated very much. I developed my own approach of teaching it, because classical musicians come from a very different background than for example jazz musicians. I usually start out with the musical vocabulary, knowledge and experience our students already have and use these as the first building blocks for their initial improvisations, sometimes over the harmonic structure of, for example, a Bach Minuet or a Chord Progression in a piece by Schumann. Textures, sound colors, modes of interaction, but also derivatives from basic scales and arpeggios… then gradually introducing new modes and harmonies, building a bridge between the vocabularies of classical, contemporary, jazz and ethnical musical heritages.
String Visions: I totally agree with that; you started out in this interview speaking about the great composers of the past and how they also were great improvisers. In order to be a complete musician it is important to develop the ability to compose, improvise and to conduct. Having those skills enhances the ability to really look at a score from the inside out and eventually seeing the big picture. However nowadays there are so many other things to do due to technology that it almost seems like there is less time available. Two hundred years ago people had less distractions and in a way more time available.
Helmut Lipsky: That’s true, although many of these things we do today were supposed to be time-savers: technology enabling us to do things more efficiently, e-mailing to save us the trip to the post office, transportation means that enable us to get from New York to Paris in the same time it took Mozart to travel from Salzburg to Vienna… but of course, since everybody has access to these “time-savers”, one is expected to do many more activities then 200 years ago. But I still marvel at how Mozart wrote so much music and accomplished so many things in such a short life span without all this technical “progress”…
String Visions: You are right, and it should be a requirement at all music school to master these skills.
Helmut Lipsky: Yes, and these skills also enhance the connection between ear training, music theory, harmony, counterpoint, formal analysis, etc. which our students learn and do have to learn, because it is important for performance. But at this time, the links are missing…
String Visions: That is in my opinion due to the fact that there is hardly any connection at any music schools between their pre-college programs and college programs. Developing those skills takes many years and one has to start at a very early age.
Helmut Lipsky: It’s like, you learn the grammar and the vocabulary of a language, and you get taught to recite poems in that language, but you don’t learn how to speak and think in that language. This capacity does not come by itself. To give a practical example, I learned Latin at school for many years, but because we were always translating, constructing and analyzing, but never conversing in that language, I cannot express myself in Latin and forgot most of it. But other foreign languages I learned, like English, French and Italian, I had to speak starting from the very first lesson on, and at the same rate, as my vocabulary grew, my knowledge of the rules and grammar developed, my capacity to express my thoughts and feelings expanded and became more subtle and differentiated.
The same applies to the development of improvisation. It is good to encourage it early on (even only 10 minutes a day!) We also know that children are much better then adults at learning – in a very practical and intuitive way – several languages at once with exactly the right accent and inflections. So in the process of practicing improvisation, while your instrumental skill level goes up and your knowledge about theory grows, these elements will interconnect and create stimulating sparks between them. Your knowledge of the musical language will become more sophisticated. Personal ideas – both in improvisation and composition – will manifest themselves. And, the quality of your interpretation of the works of others will also improve because your mind will understand better the creative process which led to the piece you are playing, and you won’t just be reading the notes off the page and applying indicated phrases and nuances…
The below video is a performance of Mr. Lipsky’s work Obstinando. Notice the presence of some of the improvisational elements that Mr. Lipsky discusses here.
String Visions: I totally agree. If there could be developed a system of teaching theory and harmony in a practical applied manner, I think people would be much more interested in that. Now, in school, students are often upset when they have to analyze chord structures because, as you implied, it becomes somehow too theoretical and too removed from the process of playing.
Helmut Lipsky: The problem in the teaching of the various aspects of classical music is exactly this disconnect between the theory and it’s application in performance since, with the help of a good instrumental teacher, you can learn and memorize your musical score without really understanding its formal and harmonic structure. This could not be the case for let’s say a jazz musician… he or she would not survive the first set at the cheapest club in town without knowing and hearing basic harmonies (such as the dominant or diminished 7th chords). On the other hand, I had some advanced students playing in a virtuoso manner a Paganini Caprice. But, when I asked them what arpeggio they were playing, they scratched their head for a couple of minutes before being able to identify these same chords… [Laughs]
String Visions: I know.
Helmut Lipsky: They analyze and then they often give the right answer, but it’s not a spontaneous thing. So learning how to improvise would help to connect these important elements with each other.
String Visions: Yes that is a great concept: teaching theory from the point of view of improvisation.
Helmut Lipsky: I definitely agree with you on that, Hans…
String Visions: Could you let us know a bit more about the school where you are teaching, The Conservatoire de Montréal?
Helmut Lipsky: The Conservatoire de Musique of the Province of Québec consists of a network of seven schools, located in major cities, and was modeled after the Conservatoire system in France. It is, I think, one of the best schools for the teaching of classical music, because we have the possibility to recruit exceptionally talented students from a very early age on. When children audition and show real potential, they can be admitted at the Conservatoire right away and they will get professional training at a time when a future musician really needs it. Comparable to ballet dancers and students of certain athletic disciplines, I would say that to become a professional violinist, or a pianist, the most important years of formative training are between the ages of 10 and 20, and you have to have started to learn the instrument even earlier on. To become a medical doctor, you can, and probably should, wait till the age of 20 or later to be trained at a faculty at a University, but for a solid music education, this age is usually too late, at least for most instruments.
The Conservatoire de Musique of the Province of Québec consists of a network of seven schools, located in major cities. It was founded in 1942 by the well-known and highly respected conductor Wilfrid Pelletier and modeled after the Conservatoire system in France. It provides music students with the professional environment they need early on, including orchestra training, music theory and chamber music, with a faculty of the highest level and where they are in contact with other students of their age group and can compare and compete in a milieu that’s totally adapted for music. During the day, the younger ones go to their regular school, primary or secondary, and in the evenings or during the weekend, they take their lessons and classes at the Conservatoire. Later, they can have their college education and get their Bachelors’ and Masters’ Degree, including the coveted “Prix du Conservatoire”, a recognition for excellence, all at the same institution. The school is still highly subsidized by the government to enable anybody who shows real talent and commitment to get a musical education of the highest order.
String Visions: Thank you so much Helmut for sharing your time and knowledge with String Visions.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part interview with Helmut Lipsky and that the wisdom he has imparted here inspires and helps you in your musical lives. To see more of his music, check out Mr. Lipsky’s extensive list of scores he has edited and published with Ovation Press.
This series continues with a two-part interview with the violinists of Duo Philia, who have recorded a number of Mr. Lipsky’s scores. Check out part 1.