Eighth in a 10-part series
Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster: 'Music as medicine'
(CNN) -- This is the eighth entry in an exclusive 10-part series at CNN Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's player: Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster
Dicterow was a child prodigy: He first picked up the violin at age 8 -- and three years later, made his solo debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where his father was principal of the second violin section. Years later, after Glenn joined the orchestra as associate concertmaster, then concertmaster, father and son would play together.
Now, Glenn Dicterow holds one of the highest-profile positions in the orchestral world: concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He owns a 17th-century violin made before Bach was born, but plays a slightly newer Italian instrument purchased for him by the Philharmonic -- and plays it with extraordinary passion and grace.
What is a concertmaster -- and what is the concertmaster's role?
"Concertmaster" is a nice title given to the first chair violin. You represent the rest of the orchestra - when the conductor comes out and shakes your hand, the conductor is symbolically greeting the entire orchestra.
Then when the conductor takes the podium, you're supposed to communicate to the rest of the string section the ideas the conductor is giving to you -- different conductors have very different ideas about standard pieces. You're basically a conductor, too: You're trying to unify this army of string players -- the violins, the cellos, the violas, the basses -- so that we're all playing in a cohesive union. It's important for all these sections to match phrasings and bowings.
How difficult an instrument is the violin? What are the hardest aspects for most players to master?
Of course our biggest challenge is being able to play the notes in tune -- we don't have frets; we don't have keys. It's sort of blind trust on the fingerboard: Playing is based on your memory of where those notes, those intervals are.
I would say the weakest link in most violinists is their right arm, their bowing arm, which gives you the precision. Basically, it's your paintbrush -- you create the most "colors" with your bow arm. You can have the greatest left hand in the world, the most incredible (fingerings) -- and it doesn't mean a thing unless you can communicate with your bowing.
Playing the violin is going against nature -- just picking this thing up, you're fighting gravity all the time. There's all this resistance. When you're trying to play soft, you're resisting the weight of the bow. You're trying to hold it up in the air -- like a plane, coming in for a landing, but you're just touching down and not allowing it to land. You're in suspension all the time.
That's pretty much what eliminates most people in auditions. When we ask them to play at a tremendously small volume, they can't do it. They can play any concerto -- they can come out and play Paganini and Brahms and all the show pieces, and knock your socks off -- but playing soft? They can't do it.
'Wanted to be a catcher'
How old were you when you first picked up a violin?
I was 8 years old. My parents were musicians. My mother was a concert pianist, and still plays. My father was the principal second violin of the L.A. Philharmonic from 1945 until four years ago, when he retired after putting 51 years in; he has just recently passed away. Music was always surrounding my house. My brother, who was three years my senior, started the violin, and I wanted to do it as soon as he started.
My father wasn't anxious for us to go into music. In those days, the '50s and '60s, being an orchestra musician was not exactly the most secure profession. Symphony seasons were much shorter and when you weren't playing in the orchestra, you'd have to scrounge around to make money for the rest of the year. My father was just thinking that maybe lawyer or doctor would be better and he managed to redirect my brother into the field of medicine. My brother is now a violinist, but his main profession is as a doctor.
But it didn't work with me. I progressed quickly on the violin -- I started playing concerts after about two years of study. Within a few years, I had advanced to where I could play duets with my brother. We even played the Bach Double (Violin Concerto) with the L.A. Philharmonic in a children's concert -- at the age of 11, I was doing that.
So you were a child prodigy -- what did that do to your childhood?
Well, I didn't have a normal childhood, of course. There were many things I wanted to do, like be in Little League. I ended up playing baseball in the street with my pals, and my parents were always saying "Watch out!" -- especially because I wanted to be catcher, the worst position you could possibly play, for your fingers. There's not a major league catcher who hasn't had at least 25 broken fingers. I was very attracted to that game, but those kinds of things were not possible.
I was practicing three and four hours a day and, when you're practicing that much, and going on tour, you have to accept that you're not doing what most kids are doing -- going to a regular high school, going to the prom. I didn't have much time for school, or a lot of friends.
There came a time, about age 15, when I had to go to a special private school. I was able to attend from 1 - 4 p.m. and in the morning I would practice -- and they wouldn't mind if I had to take a leave of absence to play concerts. Of course, I would have to make up the work, correspondence-style. And then, at 18, I went to Juilliard.
What was your first job after Juilliard?
My first move was back to Los Angeles to be closer to my family. I was going to do some freelancing. I was still signed up with a manager to do solo work. But Zubin Mehta, who was then the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, contacted me and said, "The present concertmaster is thinking of retiring. At least try for the position."
I'd never played in an orchestra. Even at Juilliard, I was one of the very few people ever excused from having to play in the orchestra -- I got out of it because I was very busy doing solo work, and my teacher, Ivan Galamian, had the clout to rotate me out of orchestra work.
So there I was, groomed as a soloist, and Mehta says "Would you be interested in taking this position? We'd give you weeks off to do your solo work, plus train you how to be a concertmaster." I had a family at that point -- I had gotten married and had a baby on the way -- and I thought, "I'd better have some steady income here."
How difficult was it for you, as a soloist, to learn to be an orchestra player?
It's a challenge. You have to learn how to be not just a stellar player, but how to play with other people -- how to meld in and not stand out, how to be part of the team and help that team along.
Before the first time I ever played (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Mehta asked me, "Would you mind sitting in the back, anonymously, so you can get used to playing in an orchestra?" It was Hollywood Bowl season, and for two months I sat in the back and learned.
It's harder to play in the back of a section than in the front -- there's so much distance. It's a little like a train: the front cars follow the conductor more closely; everyone else follows along a little bit later. If you're in the back, and you play exactly when you see the downbeat of the conductor, you're going to be early.
The second violins in the back have the worst position, because they're near the brass and percussion -- they're bombed out in a nuclear explosion of sound. And you can't go around wearing these earplugs all the time because you can't hear yourself, and if you don't hear yourself, you can't play the violin. It's hard back there.
There are times when I still go sit in the back. When I go on tour as a soloist and play with other orchestras, after playing a concerto in the first half, I'll change my clothes and then go sit with the violins in the back for the second half. I very much empathize with the people who sit back there -- they're getting the signals a little bit later and they're expected to play exactly with the concertmaster, yet there's 20 or 30 feet of distance there. Of course, it's also difficult playing in the front, because you're on the firing line.
'Soul of the orchestra'
You made the transition successfully. You won the position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- the same orchestra your father played in, yes?
Yes. I was associate concertmaster, then concertmaster, and he was the Principal of the second violins. We worked together for eight years, '71 to '79. I decided to try my solo act again, and I resigned the L.A. Philharmonic, thinking that I was going to get back on track, stay the course; a thousand points of light (laughs).
And no sooner did I do that than Zubin Mehta, who was then in New York (as conductor of the New York Philharmonic) came back into my life. He said, "We have an opening for concertmaster, and we weren't able to find anybody in the last set of auditions. Would you be interested in coming and sitting with us for a month?"
I was separated from my first wife but I had two kids in Los Angeles. In the back of my mind was, "gee, do I really want to leave my kids?" That was a very big decision. I went to sit in for about a month, in January of 1980, and they offered me a contract at the end of the month. It was a very attractive offer and I decided to take them up. I started in September of 1980 -- this is my 20th year.
How would you characterize most of the parts, the music, you play?
They call the violin section the "soul of the orchestra." That's what they say, but I don't know if it's always true. We are sometimes overshadowed by our brass colleagues, because of the mere fact that they can blow us off the stage. And that's a constant problem in our hall (at Lincoln Center) especially: the brass are against the wall, which forces the sound out -- and they have loud instruments anyway. We're always struggling to be heard.
The first violins definitely get the most difficult string parts and have the most work -- of all the instruments, we have the most virtuosic parts. And tremendous amounts of orchestra repertoire have solo parts for first violin -- solos that are the responsibilities of the concertmaster. That's probably the hardest aspect of being a concertmaster, is to be part of a sea of sound -- and then come out like a soloist for ten seconds -- and then be part of the complexity of sound overall.
Is there "safety in numbers" when you're playing with the violin section? Because there are so many of you, are individual mistakes less obvious?
It depends what you're playing. If it's in the middle of Wagner, it's so loud and there's so much happening that there can be some slipped notes and nobody would notice. But if you're playing Mozart symphonies, it's very unforgiving. Or Beethoven symphonies -- you have to have utmost control, or it can be heard if you play out of tune.
Whose music do you most enjoy playing?
I love Schumann -- I think Schumann symphonies are fantastic. But they're very badly written for the instrument. You can say the same for Brahms, who wrote like a pianist for stringed instruments -- his concertos are written against the instrument, with intervals that fit a pianist's hands. As a violinist, it's very challenging -- you have to make do with magical fingerings. Whereas Mendelssohn, who was also a violinist, wrote fantastically for the instrument -- there's hardly anything you can do to make it sound bad. It flows. I love Mendelssohn -- he's such an underrated composer. Mozart as well, wrote beautifully for the instrument.
As a veteran player, do you tire of playing the "old standards" of the best-known composers?
I have to say that Beethoven, of all composers, withstands repetition best of all. You can go on tour and play, night after night, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and always find something new and intriguing. Every time I play it there's just such strength and inspiration in every bar that he wrote.
Whereas if you're playing one of Brahms' four symphonies the third or fourth time in a row, you feel it. I don't know what it is -- it's just not as intriguing. Although it's tremendously satisfying. I can't say enough about how great Brahms is.
Tell me about the instrument you play.
The primary instrument I use is owned by the orchestra. It was made by Giuseppe Guarneri -- "del Gesu" -- in 1727. I've been playing that for several years here.
The first instrument the orchestra bought for me was in 1981 or '82 -- a Strad (a Stradivarius). About six years later, they bought this instrument. Zubin Mehta started this in Los Angeles (the orchestra buying the concertmaster's instrument); the prices were not so insane then and they accumulated about 20 great instruments. It's a tremendous investment for an orchestra. But as the years progressed, prices went out of sight, so now, for the orchestra to purchase a great instrument, we're looking at a million, two million (dollars).
What prompted you to switch from the Stradivarius that the New York Philharmonic first bought for you?
I gravitated toward this (Guarneri "del Gesu") instrument because I felt it was easier to play. Strads are a little less forgiving -- you have to baby them. If you play flat-out on a Strad, it will balk at you; it will basically squawk. You have to show restraint on a Strad, whereas the more you push on a del Gesu, the more it gives you.
I also own my own violin, which was made by del Gesu's grandfather, Andrea Guarneri, in 1657. I was very lucky to get it. I purchased that instrument in the early '70s, from a collector in Los Angeles. It was owned by a man in the scrap metal business, if you can believe it, who was an avid amateur violinist. He had the money to buy the best and this instrument is a prime example of this maker's.
I used it in Los Angeles when I was concertmaster there and I used it for the first couple years here in New York, before they bought the Strad. I still play it every so often -- I'll use it on a recording. It's a great instrument. It has a very charismatic sound.
What's required by way of maintenance on these centuries-old instruments?
There's a sound post inside that needs adjustment according to the weather, because woods shrinks and expands as the season changes. If it's very cold and dry outside, you have to have adjustments made. It has to be winterized. In the summertime, you need a tighter adjustment by a fiddle-maker, or luthier, to be formal.
Very often, a violin can open at the seams, and they have to be glued. It's not a big deal. They just have to stick the glue in there and clamp it for about half a day. But the seams have to be tight -- it can definitely lessen the projection you have on the instrument if there's an opening.
Is that kind of opening visible?
No, because it's in the seam. On a violin, you have a top and a bottom, stuck onto the ribs. Where the top is stuck onto the ribs, it can come unglued; there can be a slight little opening -- just enough to stick a piece of paper inside. You can tell from the sound that something's not right, but it's very hard for those of us who aren't professional luthiers to tell where it is. They check and look with their eyeglasses, and can usually find it quickly.
Some of these old instruments have old, historical cracks that sometimes open up. And if that happens, the top has to be taken off, and major surgery is done to patch it and reinforce it. It's very fragile -- I mean, these things are 200 and 300 years old. My instrument was made before Bach was born. It's amazing that with over 100 pounds of pressure on top of that hollow box, this thing is still surviving. You're playing this unbelievable, fantastic pine box that is a kind of historical document.
How much pressure is there on you to be responsible for, and care for, this "historical document"?
I never leave it for more than about ten seconds. I'm naked without it. I have to have it with me. It's more than an object, for me -- it's a living thing.
Jascha Heifetz felt that way about the violin. I (took) lessons with Heifetz when I was a teenager, 14 or so. I did his master class for about a year. First master class, I brought my fiddle in and put my fiddle case on the floor. And he said, with his accent, "Ve cannot begin zis master class ontil somebody adjusts zair violin." I didn't know what the hell he was talking about until some of the other people who'd been in the master class for a while whispered to me, "Your violin -- it's on the floor! Put it somewhere up high!"
Finally, Heifetz told me, "Ve must always elevate za violin, and have respect for it -- never to be on the floor." He felt the violin was a living, breathing thing -- and it is. There's motion in it. That's why you have to have it adjusted. It is alive in that respect.
'A very sharp German knife'
How do you have to maintain yourself to play the violin? What are the stresses of playing violin?
First of all, you can tire mentally, from all the strain of constantly reading all these notes.
On a physical level, I think you feel it in your bow arm, your right arm. Not so much in your left arm, because while you're holding the violin up with that arm, there's a way you can rest the violin on the side of your body. But you hold the bow arm up with no support. You're scrubbing a lot -- you're going back and forth -- and your right arm can feel like it's falling off. That's where most people, as they get older, feel the most fatigue and have the most problems.
We have a lot of bursitis and a lot of tendinitis going on. People have elbow problems, shoulder problems, neck problems -- there are plenty of clinics that have violinists and violists as patients. We do have special chairs that are adjustable for height, but trying to find the ideal chair is almost impossible. We do have this fatigue, sitting for so many hours and holding this instrument up.
This job is very sedentary. As an orchestral player, you're always sitting down. It's important to force yourself to do some exercise -- to walk, to have some sports. I try to walk a couple of miles at least five times a week, and I try to play tennis at least once a week.
Do you do anything special to keep your hands in good condition?
I have calluses on my fingers. They're very thick -- I can stick a pin right into the pads of my fingers on my left hand. We have a humidifier in the house in the winter, because heat is so drying. In the winter, you can get cracks in your fingers, little cracks in the corners, right where the nail starts.
Are you especially careful in handling sharp objects?
Actually, I'm very reckless -- I've been lucky. But I did have a pretty bad injury in '89. I was trying to trim a plant in my house, and I took a huge kitchen knife, a very sharp German knife, and was sawing off a limb of the plant. I slipped and I sliced my index finger (on my left hand) in a curve from the knuckle down. I didn't cut the tendon -- I was very lucky -- but I had to have 18 stitches. I had physical therapy to relearn how to play violin with that first finger, because it was a while before I could bend it.
That was the stupidest thing I ever did. Now, nobody will let me near a big knife.
How often do you practice and how do you practice?
I try to practice every day. But there are times when we have a double rehearsal and I come home and there are millions of things to do -- teach, pay bills. There's no time. So I grab moments. The concertmaster is the only one in the orchestra with a private dressing room, so I can come upstairs and during the intermission (of concerts), I grab some practice time. You've heard of power walking? This is power practicing: you cram two hours into twenty minutes.
If I'm doing something very substantial, a solo, I'll go into training for a couple of weeks, of at least two hours of practice a day. As far as honing the details of a solo, there's nothing that takes the place of very intense practice.
When you are rehearsing a solo, do you play it through repeatedly, improving each time, or work on it measure by measure, until each measure is mastered?
I don't just play everything through and then go back. I'll obsess over each phrase until I'm satisfied enough to go on. I hate to skim over things and have them sound second-rate.
How do you prepare for a concert in which you have a solo piece? Any "pre-game" rituals?
Oh yeah. I'll get up and do some early morning practicing. Usually, there's a dress rehearsal and when I come home from dress rehearsal, I'll put the fiddle to bed -- and then I'll put myself to bed: I try to nap for about an hour. No big practice (sessions) on that day -- you can over-practice. You have to relax and your brain has to relax, as much as possible.
I try to eat tuna, some kind of fish, before the concert -- brain food. That's my usual routine: about three hours before I play, have some tuna salad and nothing more until after the concert.
Do you take a vacation from your instrument?
This past year, for Christmas vacation, I left my fiddle home for the first time. I did not take it to Florida -- I took my tennis racket. I came back to New York the day before we had to play, and I did a crash course in getting my muscles back -- and it wasn't so difficult. One week away is not so bad. If it's two weeks, then sometimes the calluses start to go, and you have to build those up again.
In your opinion, who are, or were, the masters of your instrument?
To me, the greatest ones were Heifetz, Kreisler, (Nathan) Milstein, (Henryk) Szerying. The ones that have influenced me most are (Jascha) Heifetz and (Fritz) Kreisler -- in phrasing, being in communication with the instrument, bringing it beyond just technique. I listen to their recordings more often than anybody else's. The one I have in my car going to and from work is Fritz Kreisler. That's the only (violinist) Jascha Heifetz had a picture of on his piano. Heifetz was passionate about Kreisler's playing.
Aside from the Kreisler CD in your car, what other music do you listen to?
I listen to the Beatles a lot, because my son is an 11-year-old who's discovered the Beatles in a big way. And I love Sinatra, I love Streisand. I don't often listen to classical music to and from work -- basically, I need a rest from that. But I love pop and soft rock, so I'm not an old stick-in-the-mud.
You teach. Are you seeing any drop-off in the number of young people learning to play the violin, and play it well?
It's not the numbers, but where they come from (that's changing). They're mostly Asian, and I do have one wonderful boy from Holland, and an Indian boy who's only 13, but not a lot of American kids.
Arts and music just aren't that important in this country. Look at what money goes to sports versus what money goes to music and arts education. My son goes to a private school that has a music program, but they don't even introduce instruments like the violin until the sixth grade, when (students) are 12.
If you don't start the instrument at the age of 8 or 9, maximum, it's unusual that you can develop physically into a really top-notch artist. There are certain Asian kids starting when they're 2 and 3, with parents that are bopping them on the head every time they play it wrong. That's not always good either.
We have to work on educating the younger generation, to introduce them to live music, as opposed to music on television or music on a CD. There is a difference in an in-the-flesh concert that plays in real-time; there's an excitement! Although it isn't exciting in the same way as a rock concert. We can't compete with that -- that's right in your face and it's an assault to your senses. (Classical music) reaches you on a different level.
Most of our kids these days are not really touched by classical music until they're exposed to a "Fantasia" or an "Amadeus" -- or somebody crosses over. Barbra Streisand does "Classical Barbra" and somebody will hear that and say, "Gosh, Debussy wrote that? That's really neat." Unfortunately, we have to grab 'em that way.
I wish our kids were exposed to music in the second grade, rather than in college in a liberal arts course. That's so late. My daughter, my own daughter, hasn't heard a lot of the best stuff, and she's 24 years old. She'll call me up and say, "I heard this concerto -- the Paganini Violin Concerto! It's the greatest thing I ever heard! You gotta play it, Dad!" And I have to tell her that I played that when I was a kid, and that years ago I put that to rest and moved on to a different level and started playing Beethoven.
Do you think of playing the violin as your work, or as something more -- as a calling?
It's a religion. I'm of Jewish heritage, but I don't practice -- I don't need a synagogue to go and worship in, because my religion is the music.
It's a way of life -- it totally envelops your life. Music is so time-consuming -- four nights a week, you're away. And when you come home, you're exhausted. You don't want to do anything but fall into bed or watch TV for an hour to calm down. It's one of those absorbing professions, like medicine. And very often those two professions go together: medicine and music; you see that in the number of doctors' orchestras. It's the same kind of total dedication -- whether you're practicing surgery or soothing the souls of others. I think of music as a medicine. I would hope that I would move people and not just dazzle them. You can elevate people's souls, and psyches, with music.
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