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Mischa Levitzki - Getting a Start as a Virtuoso

An Interview Secured Expressly for The Etude Music Magazine with

[Editors Note : To find yourself, at the age of twenty-four, a well-established virtuoso, playing before large audiences on two continents, with great success, is given to very few of those who study the piano. With Mischa Levitzki, however, the training began so early and was pursued with such regularity under masters of note that he was able to make his debut when he was but fifteen. Since then he has made tours each year of thousands of miles, commanding large audiences in Australia as well as the United States. He was born at Kremenchug (Russian Ukrainia) May 25th, 1898. His parents were American naturalized citizens.

levitzki.jpgNeither one was especially musical. His first instruction was received in Warsaw from Michaelowski, an excellent routine teacher. At the age of eight he was brought to America, where he became the pupil of Sigismund Stojowski, whom Etude readers know by his frequent contributions to this journal. Stojowski was then teaching at the Institute of Musical Art. He then went abroad, studying with Erno Dohnanyi, the famous Hungarian virtuoso composer. His debut was made in Antwerp, followed shortly by a highly successful debut in Berlin. At that time Germany was confident of victory (1914); and during the ensuing years, 1915 and 1916, the residents of Berlin enjoyed one of the greatest musical seasons ever known in the Prussian capital. Indeed, it was difficult to realize that there was a war. The youthful pianist captured the Berlin public, but at the same time longed to return to America. After short tours which reached to Norway, he came to America, making his American debut at Aeolian Hall, New York, in 1916. Since then he has played with all of the leading American orchestras and has given many recitals here and in Australia. The following will be read with great interest by thousands of aspiring pianists:]

The First Steps

“Getting a start as a virtuoso? Let us start at the real beginning. One can begin only in one way and that is to develop the love for the best in music at as early an age as possible. Success proceeds from right thinking, insatiable desire and sincere, earnest, diligent work well directed. There was a time in my childhood when I could hardly be driven from the keyboard. Indeed, my parents were greatly worried about my health because of this. One of the reasons why many students fail in their youth is that they have to be driven to the keyboard. Instead of developing the natural love for music so that the great desire is there, many people seem to think that the proper procedure is to put on a kind of musical whip and compel the pupil to study.

“Of course there came a period when I would rather play baseball than practice, but after a short while the love came back and I was willing and glad to put in the long hours without which it is impossible to compete with the intensive musical progress of the time. Do not imagine that there was any magical recipe. In my childhood in Russia, the beginner’s book was the famous method by Beyer. There are possibly dozens of other beginner’s books equally good and probably many better and more in keeping with the advancement of the art and with the needs of the times. However, the point I wish to bring out is that it is not the book, not the cut-and-dried method that counts, but the application of the means to the individual pupil.

The Confusion of Changing Teachers

“Fortunately I was spared the confusion of many changes of teachers. Going from one teacher to another in the hope of finding some magical method is a frightful waste of time. Choose your first teachers with care and discretion. There is always some teacher whose work with pupils is outstanding in character and results. The advanced pianist only rarely accepts beginners. Therefore one must judge by results with the pupils themselves. Once I recollect that my work was interrupted by having a teacher who was more anxious to see his fanciful ideas of a special method carried out than he was of having me to play beautifully. Among other things he had a fad of teaching me to play with straight fingers. Fortunately my mentors at the time had good sense enough to realize that no pianist of high standing before the public played with straight fingers, and accordingly I was fortunately soon placed under the direction of one who realized that the curved hand position was the only normal and natural way to play the instrument. However, this interruption cost me a waste of a lot of valuable time and energy.

“When it was discovered that I was destined to be a virtuoso, I was greatly delighted and began to make definite plans for a career. One of the first things that came to me was the fact that the modern virutoso (sic) must undergo a great strain throughout the better part of his life. The strain of constant study, constant appearance before strange audiences with the consciousness that the responsibility for success depends upon himself alone and is not, as in the case of an orchestral player or the member of an opera company, divided with several others. The pianist appears for the most part alone upon the stage. He must hold his audience delighted, enthralled, if possible, for nearly two hours. To do this it was very clear that, combined with the strain of hard travel, the first great essential was to attain a degree of relaxation far above that experienced by most people in ordinary walks of life.

The Most Important Secret

“To get the right start as a virtuoso one must therefore comprehend the true meaning of relaxation, not merely relaxation of the hands and arms, but of the mind and body as well.

“All youths have an idea that power in playing is the great essential. It is, but it is not power in the ordinary sense of the word. A powerful performance is by no means a noisy one. In fact, the pianist who resorts to sledge-hammer blows, treating the piano like an anvil, may give anything but a powerful performance from the artistic and spiritual aspect.

“I have known of some pianists who have purposely sought pianos with stiff actions, for practice, so that their octaves and bravura passages when played upon an ordinary piano would roar out like thunder. They class piano-playing with pugilism. Yet with all their pounding they fail to give the impression of power which comes from the consciousness of playing with one’s artistic and spiritual reservoirs filled to the brim, although the body is relaxed.

“Of course complete relaxation is an impossibility if one is to play the piano. The thing that the student must seek is the happy medium, that is, the point where the greatest results can be produced with the greatest economy of effort.

An Individual Problem

“This, like everything else in art, is an individual problem, something which one must teach one’s self. The teacher can help, of course, but after all it is what one builds in one’s own mind that is of the greatest significance. Every case is different. The boy with leather hands fresh from the baseball diamond cannot be treated as would be a somewhat dainty young girl. I remember a girl in Germany who had the softest and most delicate hands and yet she played with great power, largely because she had learned the secret of forgetting to bang.

“This economic principle in piano playing applies to everything done at the keyboard. One must not expect to apply it to pieces alone. It is just as much needed in the simplest exercises or in scales. To my mind they should be practiced either of two ways, very slowly with a full rich tone, or very fast and very soft. Fleet, sure, clean scales are a real attainment. To be able to run them off in almost effortless fashion, is a necessary part of the equipment of every well trained pianist.

The Greatest Artists Self-Taught

“In the wider sense of the word the greatest artists are self-taught. In my own case I was fortunate in having years of training under renowned teachers. This is a great asset, but thousands of pupils have a similar asset advantage. What counts is what the individual artist is able to put into his playing as a result of his own cerebration, the conscious and unconscious action of his brain, developed through study. What the teacher does for the artist is just so much. What the artist adds creatively to what he has absorbed from his individual teacher is what makes him an individual. There are thousands of conservatory graduates every year who “can play like streaks.” Most of them are very much alike; usually depending upon what they have been taught rather than what they have thought out for themselves.

“To get a start as a virtuoso in these days, when concert platforms are literally flooded with artists, real and potential, one must reveal to the public some new and fresh aspect of art which can only come through your own brain, plus the best experience the world commands. To get the real kind of a start as a virtuoso you must do something genuinely artistic which will stand out from the crowd. Your natural talents combined with your introspective study of yourself, and the artistic works you elect to interpret, are therefore of vast importance.

Ill-timed Debuts

“Getting a start as a virtuoso means getting the right start. Thousands of careers are launched only to be wrecked shortly after the keel has touched the water. The launching means nothing if the artist does not survive.

“A debut is a very expensive thing. A failure debut is still more expensive. The managerial cost, the advertising, necessary in these days, the excitement of the event, all concentrate much in the life of a young person. Why is it then that there are so many ill-timed debuts? Better none at all than one given by an unripe talent. Thousands at this time are doubtless bewailing the fact that they cannot rush right to New York city and make a sensational debut. In most cases they are poorly prepared. Remember, after a debut-failure it is next to impossible to gain recognition, without an enormous effort. The opportunity for preliminary experience is right at the door of most of these students. Don’t hesitate to play, and play, and play, for all kinds of audiences in small towns. Study your audience for reactions. Don’t make fun of them or pity yourself because they seem provincial. They are all human and you may learn much from them by your playing. If you fail to move them, don’t blame the lack of musical culture, but look to your own playing. Liszt could move them, Rubinstein could move them, Paderewski could move them.

The Severe Test

“New York audiences today are a terrific test, as severe as any in the world. The concert-goers have heard the greatest pianists for generations, and they will accept nothing but the best. Not until you have played and played for audiences outside of New York, until you are confident of your powers, should you dream of attempting a New York debut.

“It should be remembered that quality and not quantity is what really counts, always and forever in art. Many students make the mistake of trying to acquire too extensive a repertoire too early in their career. The literature of the piano has assumed tremendous dimensions. Far better to master a worthy portion of it than to dabble in all. There is no short cut in art. Learn all well or not at all. Do not try to play twenty concertos superficially, if you have lived only years enough to master ten well. The others will come with time and study.

“When playing in public it always is far better to play pieces well within your powers than to let your ambitions scamper ridiculously after works that are so far beyond you that the most unskilled audience cannot fail to notice it.

“The average pupils’ recital is often made up of show pieces which are veritable struggles for the students. Far better to have them play the Kinderscenen of Schumann in a truly musicianly manner, indicating that they comprehend and feel what they are playing, than the prevalent battles with Liszt Rhapsodies and the inevitable later Beethoven Sonatas which call for piano playing of the most mature character.

Era of Sensational Advertising Past

“Everybody seems to know in this day that the era of sensational advertising is past. Advertising is necessary, of course, but only the artist whose work advertises itself in the sense that he is demanded again and again after he has once had the opportunity for appearance, is the one to whom wise managers can afford to devote their time. The advertising investment in the way of announcing concerts through the papers and through posters, the cost of arranging tours, and other expenses are very large.

“Unless the artist plays in such a way that this investment becomes a permanent one, he is a bad business venture.

“Sooner or later the public will find out the truth about an artist, and false claims made in advance are positively injurious at all times. I know of the case of one singer who was heralded as ‘the greatest of his kind.’ He was a mighty fine singer with a splendid European reputation, but his manager’s advertising immediately challenged comparisons with other singers well established in favor in America. The result was he has ever since been trying to overcome the sensational and altogether unnecessary boasts of his manager. In getting a start as a virtuoso, learn that no matter how clever your advertising, the main thing is yourself. If you please, your advertising becomes an asset. If you fail to please, your advertising becomes a liability.”


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