Interview with Donald McInnes

Recently, world famous violist & teacher Donald McInnes sat down for an interview with us. As an Ovation Press editor, Mr. McInnes has arranged a number of scores from Romantic era composers, the most recent of which included three viola solo arrangements by Fauré for Valentine’s Day and three new scores by Korngold, Schubert, and Strauss.
Donald McInnes is known in virtually every corner of the artistic world for his appearances with major orchestras, recitals, chamber music participation, and numerous master classes. Since retiring from public performance in 2009, he has maintained an active schedule teaching viola students, judging major competitions, and giving viola/chamber music master classes throughout the world.

Donald McInnes

Ovation Press: Thank you for speaking with us today. You retired from public performance in 2009 after a long and distinguished career with some of the top orchestras, conductors, and artists in the world. Do you miss performing in general?

Donald McInnes: No, actually I really don’t miss performing. After a great five decade run, I strongly felt that others should have their opportunity in the spotlight, and I wanted to focus on other areas.

Ovation Press: Since then your focus has been primarily on teaching viola students via lessons and master classes, as well as adjudicating major competitions. Why did you decide to shift your focus to teaching?

Donald McInnes: I have been teaching (full-time) since I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC). First, I was at the University of Washington; then the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music; then University of Michigan; and finally I returned to USC. I have always been passionate about sharing my experiences performing in a way that helps my students to grow. It works in reverse too. Many of my students will come to lessons playing certain passages in a manner that I have never heard. This, in turn, makes me think differently about how I may want to play the piece in the future. And with regards to why I stopped playing, I had gotten a little exhausted of practicing four hours each day which is necessary to keep your playing up to par!

Ovation Press: As string teachers we spend a lot of time teaching fundamentals to our students to equip them with the necessary tools needed for their profession. What are some specific skill sets that you want your students to have, and how do you go about teaching them?

Donald McInnes: I use scale studies (Carl Flesch) and etudes (Kreutzer, etc.) to teach the basic hand positions and skills that are necessary for good performance. I spend at least half the lesson time on these. After a short while, it becomes very clear to the students how important they are.

Ovation Press: Having such an experienced teaching history are there any issues with students or teaching today that still surprise you? Are there aspects of viola-playing or music in general that you find yourself needing to spend more time on than you would expect?

Donald McInnes: No, not really. I have tried very hard to teach the students the most important technical requirements for good playing, as well as what things are just not accepted in performance. In addition, I spend a great deal of time with each student to teach them the ramifications of musical taste and the limits of expression that are acceptable to the audience. In regards to seeing changes in the students, I am sad to say that more and more I am hearing students who strive to just play perfectly (perfect intonation, beautiful tone, and perfect rhythm) without anything else or more to show distinctiveness. I think that this is affected by, or perhaps a result of, their preparation for orchestral auditions.

Ovation Press: How do you go about introducing and teaching orchestral repertoire to your students?

Donald McInnes: Orchestra excerpts are extremely important. About 85% of the job openings every year are orchestral positions. For jobs in the top 30 or 40 orchestras, there are generally 150 violists that show up for the auditions. I make it very clear to the student that the orchestral jury is not initially trying to find the player they want, but that it is basically a disqualifying process. If there is a technical problem in the playing, the applicant is immediately dropped. No basic technical problems can be apparent. The teachers in the US who are the most successful with their students in an orchestral audition make sure that all basics are covered in their students’ preparation.

Ovation Press: Before you alluded to the idea that the rigorous nature of preparing for orchestral auditions (perhaps the emphasis on technicality) has affected the development of distinctive musical qualities in younger students. As a teacher, how do you help your students to find a balance of these performance elements?

Donald McInnes: The teacher has to prepare the student for the profession! This involves emphasizing different aspects of musical development at different periods of the students upbringing. I try to teach the complete technical and artistic background to the young student. Later on, when the student is near the end of their college training, I zero in on preparation of orchestral excerpts. A beautiful tone is essential, but so are the other important ingredients I mentioned earlier to you. To conclude, there is no limit to technical perfection in preparing for an orchestral position.

It is also very important to explain to the student that the best violist will not necessarily get the job. More often than not there are political influences which enter into it. Sometimes the conductor has a “friend” in mind for the job. Also, it is common for the winner to be a student of the principal violist of the orchestra.

Ovation Press: Can you tell us a little about your relationship with William Primrose, the violist who formerly held your teaching position at USC and one of your own teachers? What kind of influence did he have on you as a violist and musician?

Donald McInnes: My goodness, where do I start? Primrose was wonderful to me! Although I formally studied with him for a short time (he left USC to teach at Indiana University) I continued playing for him every 3 or 4 months. I would fly to Indiana and play a number of works that I was scheduled to perform in the near future. I never performed something that I hadn’t played for him. He was also wonderful to me in preparing me for a solo career. During my studies with him, I never dreamed that I would have a major solo career… that all came later. He was always there for me, but I never talked at length about my career with him. It was actually Jascha Heifetz who spent a great deal of time guiding me, he was the one that told me that I would have a solo career.

Ovation Press: Can you elaborate a little more on how Heifetz helped guide you to your solo career?

Donald McInnes: Regarding Heifetz’s influence on my career, it was enormous, particularly at the beginning of my career. He guided me in discussions about how I should “protect” myself from the public. Also, he talked at length about daily schedules when I was traveling, repeatedly impressing on me that I should never give up practicing scales. If I did not have time (because of travel schedules) to practice scales and repertoire on a given day, only practice scales! Without serious daily scale practice, I couldn’t count on my technique being there for me. I always remembered that.

Heifetz always told me to be very nice to the principal violist of an orchestra (who looks upon my engagement as one less for them). In addition, we had long talks on how to collaborate with the conductor… when to give into his ideas and when to hold your own. Then there were discussions about dealings with orchestra board members and the press. This all has to do with getting rehired for a future engagement. I obviously worshipped his abilities, but I was even more impressed with the time and care he took with my career.

Ovation Press: What other musicians or ensembles have been a major influence on your development as a violist and musician?

Donald McInnes: My first teacher, Stefan Krayk, was a huge influence on me (I studied with him for 11 years). He is the person who sent me to Primrose. Other major influences were: William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, and Gregor Piatigorsky. My 14 seasons with the Camerata Pacific in Santa Barbara made me grow enormously as an artist. The time with them was very challenging but enormously rewarding.

Ovation Press: When did you first get involved in making viola arrangements and why?

Donald McInnes: I had the great opportunity as a young man to be exposed to the great art of singer Lotte Lehmann when I was a student at the Music Academy of the West. I would faithfully attend her lieder master classes every week to hear all this wonderful musical material. After my solo career began, I wanted to perform some of these great songs by Schubert, Wolf, Brahms, Strauss, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, etc. So, I began transcribing them. They proved to be very successful with audiences.

Ovation Press: How do you select music to arrange for viola, and what are some of the issues that concern you when making arrangements for viola?

Donald McInnes: First, it is very important that what you transcribe fits the sound of the viola. Some really need the words to make the song effective to the listener, but there are many wonderful songs that work very well on the viola. For example: Fauré’s Nell and En Prière; Ravel’s Habanera; the Four Serenades by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss; songs of DuParc & Debussy; etc. I usually perform them in a group of three or four and do them at the end of recitals.

Ovation Press: Are there any violists or arrangers that have influenced you in doing your own editions?

Donald McInnes: Mainly Primrose and Heifetz.

Ovation Press: You are also an active recording artist and have introduced many new works for viola, including those commissioned for you. What do you look for when taking on a recording project? What type of music or artist do you find most enjoyable to work with?

Donald McInnes: My intellectual and emotional “beings” have to respond to a particular composer. I have to just like their work! Also, I think it is very important that their compositions are written well for stringed instruments. If these points are in order, then I strongly feel that their writing and my performing will create a union that is important to the musical world and will last!

Ovation Press: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers who are trying to get their music out there?

Donald McInnes: The most important thing for an aspiring composer is that they find a top-notch performer that REALLY believes in their work. This is crucial. Otherwise, the performance will never take hold and “grab” the listener. If one looks back to the most successful histories of important solo or concerto works, there has always been a performer who “sold” the work to the audience.

Ovation Press: What do you see for yourself in the future? Continuing teaching? More recordings? You have accomplished so much throughout your career but are there any particular goals that you still want to achieve?

Donald McInnes: I retired from performance in 2009 and have only taught since then. This past May, I retired from USC after teaching for 53 years. I am very much enjoying my free time, although I still teach a number of master classes around the world every year. In addition, I still teach at the Music Academy of the West, the Idyllwild Performing Arts High School, and the Royal Conservatory in Barcelona, Spain. While at home in Palm Springs, California, I have many past students who fly in to study for a few days with me. My life, both professional and personal, has been very good to me. It is now time to “pass the torch” to the younger generation.

Ovation Press: Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and knowledge with us today!

Donald McInnes: My pleasure!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Donald McInnes. To see a complete listing of his music with Ovation Press visit Donald McInnes’s editor profile.

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  4. Nan and Dave Tomasko July 11, 2016 at 12:49 am #

    Looking for Don mcinnes
    We now have homes in La Quinta and Anchorsge
    We miss you

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