A young person’s guide to the solo stage

by Jacqueline Vanasse, Images by Giorgia Bertazzi

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff is one of the most inspiring artists of the moment, especially for a new generation of talented young musicians. His name comes up countless times in discussions with other violinists. Almost every young musician I have interviewed has mentioned the 49-year-old German soloist and chamber musician as an inspirational figure. Tetzlaff is special, different.

I had the opportunity to meet him last spring while he was in New York to perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. We spoke in the lobby of his hotel, and I asked him what he would tell today’s young generation of violinists.

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Tetzlaff’s first advice is to do things that enable you to experience the music, really experience the music, and that is not when you are standing alone in your room practicing. “Of course, it’s necessary to practice scales and études and learn your part, but the real music education should happen with playing in orchestra, with sight reading, with trying to form a chamber group, and with reading a lot of music that touches you. It’s about being taken by the music and seeing the ultimate goal in experiencing it deep inside.”

When Tetzlaff started as a professional, the violin was simply one possibility of making music. He came to music from a different angle than most of the other soloists. “When I was 11 or so, I said to myself that I was going to be a violin soloist, but there was no foundation for that. That was a time when I would maybe practice 40, 45 minutes, sight-read a lot with my brother at the piano, and play youth orchestra,” he explains. “This was the time when I started to really be into music—when I discovered this joy of communication.”

From ages ten to 20 he played with a youth orchestra. “With the orchestra bringing us young people together in a common interest,” he adds, “I learned to love music and its social possibilities.”

Some would say that playing in orchestra is counterproductive on the solo violin level. “All I want to say is stay away from what the violin offers easily,” he says. “That was always the main preoccupation of the violin schools—Russian or American, for example—to make violin playing easier, to make it perfectly successful and safe, but—from my point of view—utterly uncommunicative.”

Not only do you need to have something to say, you also need the desire to communicate. In other words, you have to make yourself completely understood on an emotional level, though sometimes it looks like communication is not part of a musician’s concern. For Tetzlaff, it’s up to the teachers to believe more in the music than in the violin. A lot of instructors today, he says, are teaching something that is just the first step of the process. “Apart from some ground strokes, the technique for every piece is very different,” he says. “You invent the technique for a piece to make it sound like it should. There are not ten different strokes and colors, but 200! You have to try different bow grips and vibrati for different pieces. It’s not easy. It’s real work, but intensely rewarding. It’s a kind of work that pushes you beyond the ‘normal’ sound limits. There is so much more out there, so many ways. Just as in real life, if you are with a person you love or you hate, there are so many ways of communicating what you mean. There can be so many variations in intonation and beat in every sentence.”

Tetzlaff believes that the score—or more precisely what the composer gives you in the score—answers what an interpreter can and should do with a piece of music. Everything is in there. “Just by looking at the score, you will come to very extreme statements about human nature,” Tetzlaff says. “This is what we need if we want to make the audience think that this music is really important for them, that this is not just entertainment. We have to make them see what Brahms went through, what Beethoven went through.”

However, following the composer’s will is not enough, he adds. The composer also needs you, the interpreter. The composer needs your own feelings, so you are not talking about something else, or nothing in particular, but bringing everything you are into the music. It’s also so much more fun to be able to read music without boundaries preconceived by somebody else. “Music is an open field. You make your decision—you see what can be done,” Tezlaff says. “You don’t just hope to be able one day to play the Beethoven Concerto like [Russian violin virtuoso] David Oistrakh did. You have to make things your own.”

Tetzlaff advises players not to be afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. The more vulnerable you can be in your real life, the easier it will be to transmit to an audience successfully. “You have to allow yourself to talk about yourself onstage. It’s a complex issue,” he says. “As a violinist, one might be scared of doing that for several reasons: It will screw up your intonation from time to time if you really get lost in there, and it is also simply difficult to do—especially at age 20—to really show who you are.”

If opening up helps in music, it also helps in real life. When you really share, it’s better for everybody, and everything becomes more meaningful. “In the long run, it’s better to live life without armor,” Tetzlaff says. “Armor might save you some pain, but as a musician you become meaningless. Many soloists go onstage invincible and impeccable, but not communicating about the composer and the music’s emotion. The look-at-me attitude is the last thing our music should have. One should not go onstage with this idea of being adored. It takes away all the essential qualities of the music.”

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To set your life in perfect order is not a guarantee of fulfillment or happiness, and neither is a flawless bow stroke. Tetzlaff urges young musicians to be spontaneous and warns against too much practice. “When you practice eight hours a day, you literally drop out of life—you are not there anymore. The self-fulfilling prophecy is that you are great because you practice so much. That is rubbish.”

According to Tetzlaff, if you are talented, you will succeed with more thinking and fewer hours of practicing. Also, you might be a bit happier.

Violin playing presents players with simple technical problems and you will find solutions, if not now then later on in your life, when you are more relaxed and receptive. You don’t have to learn everything before you are 12. It’s really just about time and practicing intelligently.

In the end, true art is not about positioning yourself in the music society as early as possible. “Let things sink into your body and brain and don’t stress about that,” Tetzlaff says. “We are living in a culture of anxiety and distrust. Concerts provide fantastic moments of communication and pleasure, but the real life is the life you live.”

Tetzlaff encourages students to simply sit down and read music: Consume music and develop connections with other players. He encourages sight-reading just for fun.

“To put these pieces of music together in a decent, understandable manner is a naïve and simple way of dealing with music, but at the same time, it makes it very communicative,” he says. “To have that playful relation to what you are doing is very important. I don’t think Brahms or Beethoven expected us to sit down for a year to perfect the performance of a piece. That is a new phenomenon and it’s not always right.” Still, the musical-learning experience never ends. Playing music is a game. “It’s a beautiful game but with a dead-serious subject,” Tetzlaff says. “It’s very sad that a concert should be a success for the soloist instead of a feast of communication for everybody, including the audience. We go to a concert to allow ourselves to explore our soul. When that works, it is the best thing that was invented on this planet. It is the best form of communication, of direct communication and belief in each other, of connection between human beings.

“I am not pessimistic for the future. I just wish more and more teachers and colleagues would discover the real joy of the job we have.”

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