Practicing


1. How many hours a day do you practice?
That depends on my daily schedule, how much energy I have, and what is coming up for me. Of course, if I have to learn a lot of new pieces, that adds a couple of extra hours of practice a day. If I’m on a very busy tour, traveling and performing every day, I’ll squeeze in whatever practice I can, but I also have to remember to rest and eat. Usually, while I’m on the road, I practice between three and four hours a day. When I have fewer commitments in a day, I might do more. On top of that, I rehearse and perform. I never want to play more than six hours in a day; that’s hard on the body and difficult to maintain for very long. When I was a student, I would practice up to six hours a day. But then, I wasn’t traveling all the time, either.

2. Do you never injure yourself by playing so much?
Because I’m careful and always have been, I fortunately have not sustained any injuries or developed anything chronic. Every now and then, my muscles might ache, and when that happens, I take a break, stretch, maybe put ice on the tired areas, and wait for my body to feel better before I push myself in any way. When you catch potential problems early, it saves a lot of grief. I also don’t hesitate to visit a physical therapist from time to time to find out what I can do better in my basic setup and to get exercises to help build up the right supporting muscles.

3. How long can you go without practicing without starting to panic? How long does it take to “lose your calluses?”
People often forget how similar the practices of sports and music are. As an athlete, you have to stay in shape. You can’t skip workouts in the gym, no matter how good you are, and if you take a break, you have to build back gradually so that you don’t injure yourself. It’s the same for a musician – you can’t take anything you do for granted, because everything takes maintenance. Not even the simplest technical solution is permanent.
When I’m planning a scheduled break, I don’t count the time I’m taking away from the instrument, I calculate the time it will take me to get back in shape.
It’s hard to panic about something I have ultimate control over. If I’m not practicing – well, there’s a very easy solution: to pick up the violin and get to work.
I feel embarrassed if I walk onstage unprepared, because that is disrespectful to the audience, so I try to always be as prepared as possible. Concerts are live and won’t be perfect, but they’re much more exciting when the performers are on the top of their game. I want my audiences to be drawn in to my concerts. I want them to be excited about what they hear. Thus, I work hard to play my best each time.

4. You began concertizing and stopped taking lessons when you were still young. Who influences your playing now? How do you decide how to play?
I suppose I did stop taking lessons at a relatively young age – 19 – but, unofficially, I continued for a few more years to coach with Jaime Laredo and my colleagues until I was the age of a typical university graduate. I still feel like I’m learning from everyone I work with. That was something that my first teacher, Klara Berkovich, emphasized: I remember her telling me, “No matter what age you are, never stop learning.” Whenever I prepare a concert with a colleague, we adjust to each other. The process of flexibility teaches me a lot, by pushing me in various directions I wouldn’t think to go on my own. On top of that, I always have the chance to ask anyone I rehearse with for suggestions and guidance. Sometimes I’m looking for musical advice; other times, I’m trying to figure out solutions to logistical or conceptual issues that arise when one is on the road, floating from place to place.
It’s hard to know how to make musical decisions, until you’ve been doing it for a while. I’ve just had to come up with my own processes along the way, and even I’m not quite sure how to describe them. When I’m stuck in an interpretative block, I tend to look for patterns: hidden musical structures, melodic clues, etc. When I’m out of ideas, I might invent a random but straightforward phrasing concept that is or isn’t related to the music itself – as a starting point to begin brainstorming. The trick is to start somewhere. Trying one consistent idea usually gives me lots of new, unexpected ideas to develop as I work on the piece into the future. Eventually, a series of decisions evolves into an interpretation: my favorite ideas wind up sticking, while I lose track of the ones that aren’t as effective. It just takes time and a lot of experimentation. And then, just as you think you know exactly what you want to do, you stumble across a whole new set of possibilities, and the cycle begins again.

5. How do you approach the “big” violin concertos (Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Berg)? Do you listen to recordings of other artists?
I will always be learning as if I were a student. The same piece is never the same with different performers, in different halls, and with different audiences. Each slight deviation from what I expect makes me rethink what I’m doing and shows me a new perspective on the piece. I listen to a fair number of recordings, mainly of older violinists, people from my late teacher’s generation (he was born in 1907) and before. But I don’t treat the big violin concertos any differently from the shorter or lesser-known ones. They all need interpreting and care and honesty.