I wanted to start writing this article a month ago, as homage to my former violin teacher Ruggiero Ricci for his 94th birthday (24thJuly), but I was held up by other things. Weeks after, today we are notified that Mr. Ricci died of heart failure on the 6th August 2012.
It doesn’t come as a big surprise because for a long time we knew that he was suffering with a lot of health problems. In the last few weeks he hadn’t been eating nor speaking to anyone; he spent most of the time in bed. Nothing was wrong with him, his body just gradually stopped working because of his age…
I spoke to my ex-husband (violinist Chris Nicholls) and found him in tears. Mr. Ricci has been his long time mentor and our teacher in Salzburg, Chris was also Mr. Ricci’s teaching assistant when I studied there. He said, ‘at least he is not suffering anymore’.
No he is not: and yet what a life he had lived as a great musician!
I have been thinking about him a lot recently because I was preparing for an orchestra audition in Vienna – after so many years of playing the Mozart concerto for the first round, this time in my preparation I reached a point where I felt this total freedom and could just play the way I feel (not the way I want it to be!), and not caring about the technical details which sometimes limited my interpretation in the past.
It was in the year 2000, the day before my first diploma exam in Salzburg, Mr. Ricci said to me on the phone, ‘Honey, always play how you feel!’
This is the very sentence Fritz Kreisler said to him when he played in front of this great Viennese violinist. Mr. Ricci regarded Kreisler as one of the biggest influences in his life, and he repeated this sentence many times to his students.
After years of life experience, working experience, and now thanks to yoga and other spiritual influences, it’s the first time I really understand what’s behind this sentence and really know how I feel.
It sounds crazy and ridiculous, right?
Everyone thinks and feels, how can someone not feel?
Yes in a way I felt, I have been musical and expressive, but there is still a difference between someone who is talented and musical, and someone who really tells a story through his playing and connects with other human beings- this person lives vividly, feels life.
I was reflecting on this phrase a lot: to be playing the way you feel it, is not how you want it. When we want something, it means that it’s something we don’t have: we want to achieve a goal, a certain style of playing or perfect technique: how to do the phrasing and create an atmosphere…there is a point where we want to arrive.
I love Heifetz’s playing, I want to play like him. After I reached some good technical level, I can start to imitate his playing, his taste, where he puts his glissando and vibrato…I’m learning from him, I’m copying him. I want to feel how he felt; I do things which he would do- this is not “to play how you feel”!
How can you say to a student or a musician “play how you feel” when this person is emotionally disconnected? What if he doesn’t know how he feels? He may not feel much because he’s been very well protected by his parents or family, he hasn’t had a chance to make a mistake of his own, plus in our teaching tradition, we are told what to do- the teachers teach us their interpretation as well. When we prepare for an audition or music competition, it is very common to have lessons with the juries, to get the opinions of what they want to hear in order to win.
So, it is very hard to play how you feel, the way that you can identify yourself and be you!
Plus, behind the playing we are also dealing with control of nerves: you can’t play nervously because you feel nervous (well you can but one prefers not to). To play how you feel, it requires the total attention, a relaxed mind and body. To feel is to feel the emotions within us, to connect with ourselves then transmit it to others, it’s to connect to something we already have and we know what it is, and the audience have that too! The energy goes in a circle between the musicians and the listeners; that’s what is magical in live concerts.
It’s an important step because “wanting” is like to imagine, and “to feel” is to visualize, to make it become real.
Mr. Ricci was an inspiring teacher, I actually learned much more from him after I left Mozarteum and started working, than while I studied with him full-time in Salzburg. I remember his teaching, I was much more aware of what I was playing, I listened more to myself.
The greatest thing he said which I never forget is: ‘the best teacher teaches you how to teach yourself!’
This is also the best way to describe his teaching.
While I studied with him in Salzburg from 1996- 2000, I sometimes felt that his teaching approach changed from time to time. But the main thing was that he was very critical about the intonation. We had to practice lots of scales of double stops, and he asked all his students to practice Bach and Paganini. He called the scale practice as “the ear training”, so one can actually establish his technique by training his own ears. If a string player plays out of tune, the main problem is not because he has bad technique, it is because his ears are not trained; not tuned – and all the string players can make huge progress by practicing scales. So when the ears (controlled by our brains) are sensitive enough, we correct ourselves automatically.
And Bach, of course is useful both for ‘brain training’ and musical purposes. He himself kept practicing the 3 fugues of Bach and Bartok’s fugue in later years after he had retired from the Mozarteum.
He was not like other teachers who would tell you exactly what to do, how to phrase here and there. He would only point out when there was something disturbing the music.
I think in a way, there were some students who didn’t appreciate him as much, because normally, at a certain age we want the teacher to tell us what to do all the time, so you feel that the teacher gives you everything right there and you are the one who absorbs like a sponge. He wasn’t like that, he sometimes would stop you, say ”NO”, and kept saying it while the students repeatedly attempted to play this way and that way, until the moment that the student finally found out what he needed to change, then the “NO” stopped.
In the beginning when I just started to work for a chamber orchestra in Spain, I still kept coming back to Salzburg to have lessons with Mr. Ricci, and he was very critical about my playing in that period of time. Many times I came out of classes crying, because I felt that he was being especially picky on me but not with other students. I felt very unfair, but I still did whatever he told me to.
After a student’s concert in the Mozarteum where I played Sarasate’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy (I had very tough lessons on that piece with him, I cried and was angry after the lessons), I called him before I had to leave for Spain again, he congratulated me on my performance and he was really pleased with my playing, he said: because you remembered everything I said and you did it on the stage, you’ve got good brains!
In a way it was very good for me that he gave me some tough times, it’s better to receive strong criticism from a world legendary violinist, which actually made me change and made me stronger under pressure in my student years, than afterwards in a professional working world being picked up by other musicians who may have no idea what they are talking about.
He himself was a great example to all his students. I say so because it’s not about what he taught but about what he did, and what he was.
He was always interested in the violin; he developed different practicing methods every now and then, and constantly looked for ways to make the violin sound better. I mean, just to see that he played the most varied repertoires all his life, and in his late 80s he started to write a new technique book “Ricci on glissando”. He didn’t stop loving the violin all his life.
I learned all Bach’s partitas and Sonatas with him the first year I studied in Salzburg. I remember very vividly that when I was studying the Ciaccona, I was studying the piece for three weeks running, and every time he had something to say about it. I was getting a bit impatient; I wanted him to say, ‘okay, you can learn something else now’! But he didn’t give any hints. So I asked, ‘Mr. Ricci, till when do I have to play the Ciaccona?’ He smiled and answered, ‘Till the moment you die!’
He was of course half joking, but it is also so true. Ever since that moment, the Ciaccona has been a very special piece for me, I always relate the Ciaccona to a person’s life: the main theme and the variations. It’s like one’s true self, going through different periods of time, different things happening, happiness and sorrow, ups and downs, feeling of being lost, finding oneself again…But the rhythm continues, just like time, that life goes on no matter what.
People tend to relate Mr. Ricci as the Paganini specialist, and the tendency of a human mind is that once you label someone, it’s like he can’t be anything else. There is a quote by Mr. Ricci: ‘A specialist is someone who does everything else worse’. It seems like a joke, right?
He was the first violinist to perform and record the 24 Caprices by Paganini, but his performances of Bach and Ysaÿe’s violin sonatas can move you to tears. As a child prodigy he was famous for playing Mendelssohn and Mozart. His recording of the Prokofiev violin concerto Nr. 1 with the Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg; Louis de Froment conducting (Vox recording) is my favourite recording of him. The way he played the Ernst study Nr.3, how the lines, different voices continue from the first note to the end, is just amazing! Nowadays there may be more perfect violinists than him, but no one had worked like him, to such a tight schedule that he didn’t have proper time to practice; he was reading most of the Ernst polyphonic studies while he recorded them (except the ‘Last Rose’, of course. By the way, he was also the first violinist who recorded the complete 6 studies by Ernst).
One of the most amazing concerts I’ve seen was when he celebrated his 80thbirthday concert in Salzburg (it may have been to celebrate his 70 years of performing on stage), where he played the Bach double violin concerto, the Beethoven and Paganini concertos. Lots of people were moved by his playing, including some players in the orchestra they told me afterwards, that they were in tears while playing.
My favourite encore piece by him was the transcription of Tarrega, which he played very often in concerts, but in that concert how he played it was magical. The audience didn’t seem to exist; he was there on the stage and this beautiful music came out – like the violin was playing him and there was nothing else in the world. It was like an old man telling you his life story, no technical details, but purely life itself.
Afterwards we students went back stage to congratulate him. After such a moving concert, you know what he said to me? He said, ‘well, you know, you just put the most difficult piece in the beginning [it was the Bach double] and afterwards you can relax!’
He was just so humorous sometimes. He was so human, so noble to everyone, he never appeared arrogant to anyone for who he was and what had he done. When I studied one of the Mozart concertos with him, he said, ‘Play! Just play! Some people think that Mozart is sacred, but in fact when he wrote these concertos he was only an 18 year old boy chasing after girls!’
Mr. Ricci’s great personality and music will always live, because, quite simply he played the way he felt and it goes directly to the core of your heart. Once on the subject of playing the way he liked, rather than by some arbitrary rules, he said “Now, I will play the way I like. It’s better to be a prostitute than a nun.”
This article is dedicated to Maestro Ruggiero Ricci and Mr. Chris Nicholls, the very two important violinists and teachers of my life, who taught me everything they know about the violin and helped me enormously. I am very honoured that they gave me their precious time and valuable lessons, and that they are in my life.