a conversation with Jesse Levine

by Antoine Tamestit (©2018 - all rights reserved)


A.T.: In your teaching, I remember that the use of the bow, the creation of sound, the different kinds of vibratos or the left hand expression were very important subjects. Where did all this come from in your teaching?

J.L.: I think, probably, the fairest answer as to where my own musicality was nourished was from my absolute passion and love for certain gods, who were my gods in the generation when I grew up, and whose playing, somehow, came right to me, so deeply that I just wanted to play like that. It’s just an impression of such greatness, that I was completely captured. And those gods would be: 

-of course Jasha Heifetz at the very top: the magic of his playing, things that he does when he plays; it was for me like a bouquet of flowers, endlessly blooming; there wasn’t a note that wasn’t inspiring.

-Nathan Milstein was another great god as well, who offered other aspects of playing: an impetuosity, a youthfulness, a spirit, different than Heifetz’s. Putting those two together was even a greater world of string playing.

-William Primrose: that sound, that extraordinary depth and profundity of sound, its tenuto, its sostenuto, a kind of nobility and strength, never affected, always straightforward and honest. He was just the greatest in infrastructural playing of anyone.

I happened to grow up at a time when I could be at the feet of such great players, looking up to them, taking inspiration and knowledge from them, watching their hands, watching how they did what they did, l learned and learned and learned.

Now, underneath that, I studied with a great teacher named William Kroll, in New York City. I went to him when I was 12, and he was my only teacher from then on. He was a violinist so I trained with a violinist on the viola. I auditioned for him as a violinist but he quickly switched me to the viola, and I quickly fell in love with it. There was no looking back. It was a great years of lessons, technically and musically. He was a chamber musician, so he offered me things different than a soloist teacher might. He taught me a lot about listening, about ensembles, and playing with others, and being a violist in a group like a string quartet, the values involved, the give and take of music making, and the need for flexibility, the expressions of music. He also was a great exponent of French literature. His quartet playing of Debussy and Ravel was for me wonderful. I was lucky to be placed for 9 years with a teacher who seemed to offer me everything that I wanted. Because I could couple with what he was giving me the work of those great artists, who, in those years, you would hear on record or on rare occasions in the concert hall. That was where I was formed: by being in love with their playing.



Do you think your playing and your practicing have changed over the years, and how?

Both have. My practicing has changed in that I was by nature a slow learner, although I’m capable like anyone else to be a fast learner when I have to be. I need time to mature in pieces of music. So when I’m learning music, I start early, I start months before the first performance. In fact, I even give myself a date to be fully formed, maybe a month or six weeks even before the first performance, so that I reach a plateau of closeness long before the performances. I seem to need that. And I realised it even as a young person. I practiced a lot for that reason. And I loved it. It was always what I did, and I loved doing it. 

As far as what I do in music now: yes it is different, I’ve gone through several renaissances in my life, where I felt my playing has changed, or I’ve matured in some ways, or I’ve gained something that I’ve worked for 15 years to acquire, and suddenly it’s in my playing, and that inspires me to go in a certain direction. The last several years, I’ve been trying to learn and play all the music out there that I never got to in earlier years. Whereas I’ve always had the scores of Bliss, Bax and other sonatas, I never got to them until now. Including Hindemith 1939 Sonata for a concert soon… For me it’s an open book. As long as I’m able to play and learn and grow, I intend to keep doing it.


Coming back to your teaching, do you find that you teach each student differently and how do you adapt to each of their differences?

That’s a hard part of teaching: trying to figure out what each student needs, and figuring it out quickly so that you don’t waste weeks when you begin your study. Also, not only what each student needs, but how to find the key with some students who are a little more hidden than others in their personality, and not to step on their personalities, not to be so brusque or so impressive myself, that I, in the beginning, overwhelm them. I want them to come to the water by themselves because they are thirsty, so to speak, and not because I have water to offer them… It’s a balance between the two. 

So my need to do things quickly is an effort at getting to certain points I feel they need rather quickly: technical points, opening to musical ideas in a particular repertoire… I resist showing them 10 different fingerings for one passage. I want them to take a hint that there are other fingerings, other ways of approaching a phrase and have them hooked on exploring. In the old days I even used to have a sign in my studio: “explore the possibilities”. Some of my students used to make fun of me… But that’s what it’s about: if you don’t search for all the wonderful things that are available to you, you can’t make informed choices about how you really want to play a phrase. And if you take a phrase after the next in a sequence of music, it’s a wonderful journey: not to be too quick in making decisions, so you remain open. I don’t think anyone is that clever to know all the answers. You learn the answers en route. You learn things on the 10thday of looking at a phrase that you never even thought of on the 2ndor 3rdday of working on that same phrase. So it does involve fingerings choices, line, using the bow. It involves all the things that we do as players, in wonderful combinations. Finally it’s got to satisfy your heart, your musical soul and your intellect as well. You must find a way to be true to the music you’re playing, by re-creating someone else’s music honestly and doing it in a way you believe it should be done. That takes time.

Another thing as a teacher: we learn tremendously from our students. We learn so much more about our own craft; by seeing the process our own students need to go through to learn for themselves, we learn to be better as well. So it’s a very symbiotic relationship. I’ve always learnt incredible amounts from my students. I’ve solved some of my own problems by helping students solve similar problems for themselves. I’ve come to realise some problems I wasn’t conscious of in my own playing, by seeing it and becoming aware I have that same problem. I couldn’t see it in myself. But when I see it someone else, a light goes on: “I’ve got to work at that too”…


In what you are saying, you don’t seem to separate so much the technique and the musicality…

No, I never did. I presume that the people I come upon, and I have the opportunity to be the teacher of, already are very advanced technically. That work was done to a large extent earlier in their lives. But then what happens is: if you have really interesting musical ideas, you need the technique to support those ideas, to go after them. And that’s where it becomes interesting, it’s no longer the basic infrastructural technique, it’s at a different level of concern, it’s far subtler; it has to do with becoming a singer on the string instrument, and not a player of the string instrument. I’m not sure all people want to do that, and they have a right not to want to be a singer, but for me, the goal was always to get as close to being “song-full” on the viola as I could. And that to me was one of the reasons I played. So to be a singer means a beauty of sound as the most important value, because all the musical ideas are transported to the listener on your sound, with your sound. Therefore, your concept of sound, all the time, has to be what you believe is appropriate or beautiful. And you don’t have a beautiful sound for its sake alone, but in the service of the phrases in the particular piece that you play. That’s when your sound is most beautiful, if it is married to the phrase in a perfectly successful way. 


So you try to find a student’s weakness, technically speaking, within the music?

Yes, you see it and sense it in the music: if the sound is not beautiful, if the vibrato is not to the point, if the first finger vibrato is tremendous, but the third finger vibrato is a wobble, and they don’t realise it… You have to open their ears to the quality of fingers. The difference between the fingers is a wonderful thing. But in the sound, it is not a value. You need to play beautifully with all your fingers. A weaker technique will have balance problems in the left hand, where one finger will be superior to another just by nature, and one needs to work to even that out. Otherwise people sacrifice the use of all their fingers, to favour certain fingers. And therefore fingerings become, at some time or another, a problem: because you’re only playing with three fingers, or don’t want to use that fourth finger… So to get people to understand that they have a wonderful army of four, and to use them equally in playing, is a very important thing. Things like that are weaknesses, because it means fingerings and the whole concept of how you play a phrase is limited, compared to someone who can use four fingers. How many do I see, fine players, with that habit …


I’ve always noticed, and now I’m speaking on my personal experience, that you also tend to care personally about each student. Is that a conscious choice?

No it’s not. I’m basically a friendly person. I like to feel that my class and my students are more than just students. Not being a formal man, I’m not a formal teacher. And therefore I want a friendly and warmly spirited atmosphere, which extends itself beyond just the lessons. I go to the orchestra rehearsals; I go to as many of their concerts as I can, I want to be as supportive as time and physical layout will permit me. I want to invite people to my home; I want to take everyone out for dinner. When I bring people over from foreign countries to this country, I am especially careful that they are happy in the beginning; that this acclimation to the change of culture and to the change of life, being separated from friends and family; as they develop new friends, I want to be family, I want them to know that they are not alone. These are all very important things. It makes their work better; they acclimate more quickly and happily. And then they become friends for a lifetime. I have friends amongst students from 25 years ago, that I count amongst my closest friends. I know their children, I’m like their grandpa…. That’s great…


What was the influence of your father, personally and musically?

Well, the influence of my father was strong, and still is. In fact my father was a cellist, not a classical cellist, but one would call a commercial cellist, performing in hotel restaurants and classy places in New York before recorded music moved them out, and killed their business. But he was a great classical music lover, and I grew up in a household where music was terribly important. I remember my father practicing the cello at home, when I was a little boy. I remember his warm and beautiful sound, but he also bought every recording of every great artist, and my life was full of his record collection and the sounds of music through all my growing-up years. So in that sense music was a feast in my household, it was just ever present. As a result of that, I naturally wanted to do it. 

My father was worried that I wanted to be a musician because his life as a musician was a hard one. But I trained to be a concert musician; I trained in a different way, because he gave me that opportunity. So my life as a musician has not been the struggle that his life as a musician was. And I still have his cello, as a matter of fact. My father passed away 20 years ago, and I never sold his cello. I lend it out to students. So his influence was great, it was a mutual love affair. When my father was in his last days in the hospital, I got him a walkman and tapes to listen to (and of course Heifetz tapes among other things). I remember visiting him in the hospital in one of the last days. He opened his eyes, while he was listening, and he looked up to me and just said “Heifetz, aaaah, Heifetz….” And it just meant everything because I knew exactly why he was transported to another place, by the sheer beauty of Heifetz’ playing. So that was very important. My family was very in love with music, and therefore I was deeply in love with music.


As a student of yours, it felt to me that you carried out a tradition of playing. Do you feel this is true? Is tradition important to you?

Well, I don’t know if I “carry” a tradition, but I know that I’m part of a tradition. And it’s natural to be that way. You grow up at a time when there are certain figures who are the gods of that day. And as you live your life and the years grow longer between those days and who you are later in life, you still somehow have your roots, clearly planted still in the time that was your growing up and your learning. So I always thought that I have one foot well planted in the past, and one foot well planted in the present. And my eyes always look both ways, which is why I had a large period of my career deeply involved with composers, and playing new music. It was always a passion and an interest of mine. Most especially, at a certain time, the music of Lukas Foss, when I premiered his “Orpheus” for Viola and Orchestra; Morton Feldman and his “Viola in My Life” series, though he didn’t write them for me, I certainly was one of the first people to play them, especially the one for Solo Viola and Orchestra. And I still have a deep interest in that, and want to be part of it, very much so.



As a student, while preparing for competitions, you often reminded me to “go on stage with a smile, and only care about the music”. I always felt that you put an importance on the psychological or mental preparation for a performance. Is that something you do consciously: to educate someone technically, musically, but also psychologically?

If it seems necessary, sure. In your case, I wanted to be sure, as I watched your temperament, week after week, that you didn’t become engaged in the idea that, to be in a competition, you had to be someone different than who you should be in any case as a player. And the difference would be that, if you focus upon certain things such as only perfection of technique, that’s not really who you are as a person, you are a musician beyond that. And sometimes a person’s focus narrows as you begin to think about what a jury may want to hear, what the expected qualities need to be to win a competition, etc… I think most people are wrong in that conception. And if someone goes there with a fine and perfected technique, and plays all the passage work cleanly and beautifully, but at the service of music, and does it with a spirit full of life and energy, that stands out amongst everyone else who seems to play like it’s the job of playing for a competition. So it was important for me that you always have, as the first priority of thought, that you are going to perform as you would in a concert, with the same richness of musical hopes and expectations; and not “dried out” because you want somehow to be a competition player.


Do you tend to teach a certain state of mind?

No I don’t. I just try to be enthusiastic about music myself, and therefore set, in my own personality and character, an example of love and joy and spirit for music, that I hope my students will pick up on and become infected by. You can’t teach certain things. I can talk about this way of doing things or that way of doing things, but, in the end, people are who they are. If I was impressed in my youth by the example of others who I admired, my hope is that there’ll be aspects in my personality and my playing that my students might admire, and therefore take from, because it is all to be shared. So I can’t really teach to feel good about music, but if I’m loving every note that I’m playing, surely that’s got to rub off in everything I do with my students. In many cases it does, and in some cases it doesn’t, and I try other things, because I want everyone to benefit from the work they are doing, but not everyone is touched by the same approach. Where I succeed quickly with some people in certain cases at certain times, I also fail with some people at the same time. For those people I have to search a different way to be a good teacher. And I try. I don’t presume to be the same for everyone. 


Do you think there is a state of mind needed to prepare each performance?

You live your life as a performer in cycles. You’re not always performing. Most of the time you are in the process of practicing what you’ve already learned, or learning repertoire that you haven’t yet learned. Your life is spent in the work of it. The concerts are kind of the cake: that’s the result of your work. It’s actually not for me the most rewarding part. It’s in the studying and the learning that I find myself most enriched. A performance that is the result of all that studying lasts two hours, whereas the work to prepare it is a lifetime, endless and continuous effort. That to me is where the joys are. So in the end it is a combination of performances and rehearsals, but even if you play a hundred concerts a year, you still spend more time in your practice room. So one has to learn to make that time pleasurable, and I always have, always loved that work.


So being a musician is opposed to being perfect?

I’ve never understood what perfection was. To me it’s not a goal in itself. The journey towards perfection is where I find the value and I am very aware of the fact that one never achieves perfection as such. It defies definition. To play better and better is a value. To try to reach your own standards and fulfill your own potential, those are very important things. But you’re right, concerts are a reflection of hopefully your best, and you always fall short of whatever perfection might be. So the question is: do you get upset by it?…

(October 2006)

(©2018 - all rights reserved) 

(©2018 - all rights reserved)