Dean's Den

Violin Music Through the Ages

"And now, Doctor we've done our work, so it's time we had some play.
A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to Violin Land,
where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony,
and there are no red-headed clients to vex with their conundrums."
-- The Red Headed League, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I was given the choice to learn the violin when I was around 8, but unfortunately my parents could only afford once-a-week group lessons with an old drunk who was associated in the 1950's with the public school system in the Bronx. Believe it or not, although I stuck with it for two years this man never taught the seven children in his class how to hold the violin in the way proper for classical music -- instead we held them like Appalachian fiddlers! One Christmas my father gave me a factory-made violin he got from the Sears catalog for $25. I was so proud, but when I showed it to my teacher he said, "I told your father not to buy a cheap piece of cheesebox like this!" and almost threw it on the ground with disgust. Neither my playing -- nor my violin, it seems -- ever pleased this man. For years afterwards I held the violin clumsily and the only vibrato I could make was by nervously twitching my fingers. Even though I was convinced I was a failure at playing the violin, my love of listening to the violin only grew as the years went by.

  Aaron Rosand  
Aaron Rosand

At that time my father gave me $1.00 a week as an allowance. So every Saturday I would buy two subway tokens for 15 cents apiece and go down to Greenwich Village where there were some out-of-print book and record stores. The remaining 70 cents was sometimes enough to acquire a used lp -- if I hadn't already spent 25 cents for a hot dog! It was there that my collection of Aaron Rosand performances on Vox records began. At the time I really didn't know how to differentiate between his playing and anyone else's. All I knew was that I liked it.

When I became twenty and had to think of a career I gave up violin playing. My violin and all my records were now "childish things" and were given to my younger sister. During the next 10 years I pursued a computer programming career. Then one day around 1970 I saw a violin in front of a drug rehabilitation center on Sixth Street off Second Avenue as part of sidewalk flea market. They only wanted $20 for it! Fortunately I had that much cash on me. "Wait," he said as I walked off with my prize. "Don't forget the bow and case!"

I started playing again, but this time teaching myself. Although it was pedagogically wrong, I decided that if I was going to play anything it was going to be well worth playing, so I began with the Bach Chaconne, playing it on and off, year after year, until I had it memorized. (I had to leave out the difficult arpeggio section in the middle, unfortunately.)

Around 1985 I saw an old man jaywalking dangerously across First Avenue with a violin under his arm. I ran up to him -- not so much to help him avoid danger, but to ask if I could buy his violin. "No," he said gruffly, "but if you want to learn how to play I'll teach you." His name was Henry Rybicky and I learned that he taught the violin just for the pleasure it gave him.

As a youth Henry had studied with Adolfo Betti, Tasha Seidel (fingering) and Misha Mishakoff, who corrected his bowing arm. When it came time to get a job he passed the audition to join the NY Philharmonic but balked when the auditioner wanted $100 under the table. Henry had a fierce sense of morality and personal pride. Tragically, Henry never did get a professional position after that and spent the rest of his life doing menial labor in the A&P on Avenue A. But his real life was teaching people in the East Village how to play his beloved instrument.

For the next two years he completely retrained me. I now hold the instrument correctly and, as a result, a lovely and natural vibrato has evolved almost effortlessly. My playing, although not technically advanced, is good enough now to play in local amateur chamber groups. I have played the 1st violin part of Beethoven's First String Quartet and Borodin's Second (I can never wait for that lovely Nocturne). My fellow musicians have included an account executive, an architect, a lawyer, two psychiatrists and a social worker. Sometimes our discussions during the breaks are more fun than the actual playing.

Anyway, it was about the time I met Henry that I found a $3.99 discount tape of Heifetz's Transcriptions, performed by Aaron Rosand, at a local Barnes & Noble which I threw into my shopping basket on a whim. When I got home I listened to some of the most accomplished and moving violin playing I had ever heard -- especially the transcriptions of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and the Brahms "Contemplation". I immediately became an Aaron Rosand fan all over again, especially because his warm vibrato was exactly the skill I lacked most, and most hoped to learn from Henry. Since that time I have acquired all his recordings as quickly as they have been issued (or reissued), including the videotape of a live concert he gave in Connecticut a few years ago. I've been so delighted in the resurgence of interest in his playing that has occured in the last 15 years -- judging from the new CD's that come to market so frequently now. For the last 15 years he has been very much a symbol to my of my own violin renaissance.

I'll never forget Heifetz, of course. He's technically better than anybody in the fast and furious work. And David Oistrakh will always have a soft place in my heart because of the warmth of his tone. But without doubt Rosand is my favorite violinist of all time. He and his style represent what the violin has always been all about -- singing from the depths of one's heart.


Dean's Den

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