ts a bumpy flight for the young violinist, full of sudden patches of turbulence and stretches where the bottom just seems to drop out. Shes in Robert Lipsetts little office, flailing away at the soaring second movement of Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, the piece shes supposed to play in a few weeks with a symphony orchestra. And its just not coming out right.
The violin tests the air, glides and dips, then dives recklessly into the lower register, like a pelican alighting on a pond. Splash. Abruptly, the girl stops playing.
Lipsett, an imposing man with cool blue eyes and thick arms like a lumberjacks, a violin stuck incongruously under one of them, appraises his 14-year-old pupil. Theres a pained look on his face.
When youre performing, do not stop, he says, gesturing with his violin. You need to learn how to make a mistake and continue. Symphony orchestras dont stop; they just keep going.
So the lesson goes, with the 14-year-old violinist attacking the knotty piece and Lipsett, USC professor of music and one of the worlds premier instructors of young violin talent, whittling away at her technique. If she shifts her feet too much, fumbles with her fingers, or glosses over a phrase, Lipsett is there, relentlessly correcting her.
Like this, he says, fingering the neck of his violin.
I cant... begins the girl.
Cant? Lipsett says levelly, looming over his student. Cant isnt in our vocabulary.
THE VOCABULARY OF the virtuoso violinist excludes a lot of words that the rest of us might employ while trying to coax beautiful music out of two pounds of wood, varnish and wire. Impossible comes to mind, particularly when you dip into the virtuoso repertoire, huge, demandingly labyrinthine pieces, all of them seemingly designed to test the absolute limits of a performers skills.
Try squeezing a three-note chord out of the instrument at full gallop, or playing a string of 50 staccato notes with a single stroke of the bow.
Of course, the violinists that Lipsett deals with from child prodigies, as young as 9 years old, to battle-seasoned USC undergraduates, some of them veterans of the concert circuit come equipped with extraordinary abilities.
Perhaps most important of all is a vast confidence in themselves, Lipsett suggests.
Ego? he says. Yes, Id say they need ego. I dont mean in the sense of someone whos disagreeably obnoxious. But frankly, youve got to believe in yourself to walk out on a stage in front of thousands of people, with four pieces of wire stretched over a bridge and tweaked to the right pitch. And you walk out there believing that everything is going to work? Its a high wire act.
Take Lipsetts 14-year-old, tussling with the Vieuxtemps concerto and, it turns out, a stomach ache. She may be having a bad day, but she treks stoically through the rough terrain, listening calmly to Lipsetts critiques, her back as straight as a fence post. Theres clearly a fierce ego at work here, a vision of something far beyond a few momentary setbacks.
Nothing is more important than self-confidence, Lipsett says afterwards. If you dont have that, you have nothing.
LIPSETT, 50, HAS been instilling the proper attitudes in young violinists since he was 16. So far, the list of violinists who have gone through the rigorous Lipsett regimen include Leila Josefowicz, Robert Chen and Tamaki Kawakubo, all former prodigies who have moved up to status as young comers on the solo concert circuit. Lipsett has also seeded the nations symphony orchestras with his former students, including the likes of Sheryl Staples 91, principal associate concert master with the New York Philharmonic, and her classmate Elisa Barston, associate concert master with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
I dont think anyone else is developing the numbers of really fine students that he is, says Staples, who stayed with Lipsett from age 9 through graduation from USC.
Not many, at least.
Lipsett with pupil Rachel Kim. Cant isnt in our vocabulary, he tells his students.
There are a handful of people in the United States doing what Lipsett does, says the Juilliard Schools Dorothy DeLay, 81, the widely acknowledged grande dame of violin teaching. She could think of four others besides herself, then quickly revised it down to three. There were her two associates at Juilliard (Hyo Kang and Masao Kawasaki), an elderly gentleman from the Curtis School of Music (But, oh, yes, he died) and Lipsett.
I dont know him that well, but I respect him a great deal, says DeLay, who has taught, among many others, Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Shlomo Mintz, [Nigel] Kennedy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Sarah Chang. I think hes a fine teacher. Ive seen the results.
Larry Livingston, dean of the USC School of Music, says Lipsett is on the short list of world-class violin pedagogues, a teacher who has become a magnet at USC for prodigiously gifted students. One extraordinary thing about him the brighter the students, the more likely they are to want to study with Lipsett, Livingston says. Hes a brilliant diagnostician. He can analyze whats wrong and he knows how to fix it.
LIPSETT IS A NOTORIOUSLY reticent man. His students have learned not to expect small talk from their teacher; lessons are businesslike, focusing almost exclusively on fingering and bowing techniques and interpreting the music.
Hes a man of few words, chuckles one School of Music colleague. You ever get his answering machine? Lipsett residence. Leave a message.
But get him talking about the violin, and how to nurture the abilities of young prodigies on the instrument, and Lipsett settles in for a long conversation. Sitting in his office in the Virginia Ramo Hall of Music, with a picture on the wall behind him of a lean, hatchet-faced Niccolò Paganini, the diabolically gifted 19th-century violinist, Lipsett talked about the profound stretches that he demands of his students.
To talk about the violin in a logical way, youd have to say: Its just not possible, scrap that idea, he says, with a look of worldly bemusement. Just keep in mind the idea of having a finger board with no frets, on which you have to play units as close as a half step. And as you move up and down this finger board, you discover that the distances never remain the same.
Because of the variations in frequency differentials at different pitches, theres a lot more room at the lower ranges for fingering than at the top. The high notes, as they go higher, come in demandingly tinier increments. Somebody like Itzhak Perl-man, who has wide, fat fingers, really has to do a dance up there, Lipsett says.
Theres also the way the bow works with the strings, making infinitesimal adjustments of the angle of attack to play the right note on the right string at precisely the right moment. There has to be phenomenal coordination between left hand and right, Lipsett says.
And theres the matter of keeping the violin in tune. Unlike the piano, whose pitch is mostly up to the piano tuner, the violin must be played in tune. The performer matches a knowledge of where to touch the fingering board with an ear that has a refined ability to discern pitch. Without that ability, the violinist might not know when hes hitting the right note and when hes straying into dissonance.
Someone who comes to me has got to have not a good ear but a great ear, he says.
HISTORY AND LITERATURE are full of references to magical or superhuman powers of violin virtuosos and to the mystery of the instruments origins. Its almost a mystical instrument, Lipsett says.
Perhaps thats because the violin somehow touches something primal in human beings. Of all the musical instruments, its the one that comes closest to the sound of a womans voice, contends violinist Yehudi Menuhin in his book, The Violin. It covers all the soprano and contralto registers and thus reproduces completely that original instrument which we all bear in our memory: the voice of woman, the voice of the mother singing to soothe her child.
Nobody knows exactly where the violin came from or who invented it. There are records in the Middle Ages of stringed instruments that were bowed and of various viols and violas whose shapes began to resemble the pinched sides and graceful soundholes of the violin. But the actual instrument, lacquered wood, scrolled neck, chin piece and all, didnt make its first appearance until the early 16th century.
It was more than a century later that the genius violin makers from Cremona, Italy, working intuitively, turned out the invaluable instruments that are still prized today by concert violinists Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnieri, names that are still synonymous with the worlds great instruments.
That those violin-makers came across the principles of acoustics the way they did [without the aid of scientists] is astounding, Lipsett says.
But as mysterious as the violins origin may be, eliciting beautiful, fluid music from it is a dull, numbingly repetitive pursuit. Its a matter of scrupulous daily practice of scales, perversely challenging etudes and knotty exercises called octaves, requiring nimble leaps through the entire chromatic scale.
There used to be a television commercial where all of these gremlins were trying to get into a car engine, to attack this and attack that, Lipsett says. Well, violin playing is like that, even for artists who have been playing for a long time. Things want to break down.
The only way to avoid the breakdowns is with constant attention, via technique-enhancing exercises, to the weak spots, Lipsett insists.
Entropy in technique its a constant theme in Lipsetts lessons. Not because his often brilliant charges cant perform the difficult, finger-twisting exercises, but because they do them with such facility.
There can be maneuvers that the students have no right to be able to do, Lipsett says. Theyve never studied them or worked on them, yet, just because they have this great athleticism, a natural instinct and tempo and coordination, theyre able to do them.
Lipsett smiles knowingly, like someone who has just swept a gremlin out the door.
Well, its one of my philosophies that we dont skip over anything, he says. Just because somebody can imitate something doesnt mean that hes learned it.