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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Ah Julian!: A Memoir of Julian Brodetsky

Ah Julian!: A Memoir of Julian Brodetsky - Leonard  Holton

How is it that this book is so unknown that it might as well be nonexistent? There is not a single review of this on Booklikes or Goodreads, it isn't even given a cover on the its page on both websites, and I know only one other person--the music teacher who recommended this to me--that has read this book. Maybe Holton/Wibberly should have named it The Most Awesome and Amazing and Bestest Violin Teacher Ever or something. That's a way more eye-catching, and more accurate, title in my opinion.

Okay, here's the usual cover for this book, because I really hate the blank green cover in the place of an actual cover.

ETA: Someone put a cover on this book's Goodreads page! Thank you, whoever did that.

As a note, I will refer to the author as Wibberly because that's what it says on the cover of my copy as well as his Wikipedia page. (See, he's a pretty prolific author--still no idea why no one has ever heard of this book before!) I assume Holton is a pen name or something? Anyway, moving on....

I usually dislike giving summaries, but because of this book's lack of a wide (or any) audience, I think it's necessary. At its base, this is a memoir about Wibberly's journey of learning the violin as an adult through meeting quite arguably one of the most extraordinary violin teachers that ever lived: Julian Brodetsky. It starts with Wibberly's introduction to violin as a child, his multiple failed attempts to teach himself violin as he grew up as well as encountering many unhelpful teachers who damaged his technique, and finally finding a true expert who could actually teach him how to play. Now, the fact that no one has heard of Brodetsky or this book is quite interesting to me. Art as a pursuit or occupation is often tainted by social and economic goals: along with doing their work well, many artists desire fame, reputation, and money. Part of it is just necessity; people need a way to eat, after all. Students today intent on pursuing classical music as a career struggle with competing with musicians that already have established huge names: Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell, Yuja Wang, etc. Dorothy DeLay, another violin pedagogue (who taught Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg) once told her students something along the lines of, "if you haven't built a reputation by the time you're 22 years old, no one will take you seriously." Artists, and in this case musicians, have to juggle two separate and occasionally conflicting things: perfecting their art, and trying to establish themselves socially well enough so they can support their careers.

My point here is that the world of classical music, based on my admittedly limited research, can be kind of corrupt. Classical music itself is difficult enough that it takes a very specific kind of rigorous environment to support someone's learning of an instrument. Anything less will usually fail. This makes it difficult to learn classical music--and I mean really fucking LEARN it, not just pointlessly memorize some Beethoven with so little regard for the music that you forget it within a couple of weeks--for those who are not child prodigies, those who did not grew up in musical families, or did not have parents who understood the discipline needed to nurture musical growth. All the best musicians I know, including some precocious 12-year-olds who can rattle off Rachmaninoff without batting an eyelash, had this environment. All the lousy musicians I know lacked this environment. Our wider culture in general sees classical music as a high and rigorous art form, but very few people understand what it takes to learn an instrument. It is a demanding process that requires constant hard work, but it is so easy to get lost along the way and give into social reasons, forgetting what the whole point was in the first place. I personally struggled with playing the piano for years for this reason--not that I didn't like it, just that every time I performed, I never felt as if I was expressing anything worthwhile, and no one ever corrected me. Too few people valued classical music for what it really was, so there was no way I could have either. I've met many people who feel the same way--uncomfortable about their lack of familiarity with this strange art form, but without the knowledge to understand why. Leonard Wibberly, the author of this book, only pulled through with the violin because that discomfort bothered him enough for years on end that he actually tried to address it as an adult, and was lucky enough to find the right teacher.

Which brings me to Brodetsky. Why is it strange that he's so unknown? (Or was, since he died in 1962). Truly, when I read this book, he is devoted to his art form, and to his job as a music teacher, to the point of being unreal. And that's just Wibberly's description of him; I cannot even begin to imagine how my mind would be blown to pieces if I actually met the guy.

The music Julian introduced to me was worship, an exact, demanding, magnificent striving toward a perfection that could not be achieved, yet must be always striven toward, irrespective of the sacrifice. It was a dimension of devotion such as I have never encountered before, and its objective was not the glorification of the individual or the promotion of his own career and fame. It was the perfection of playing so that what was produced was an offering fit for God.

Do you see what I mean here? Oftentimes, when we try picking up any skill, there is a point when we start making excuses for ourselves--mistakes are "unimportant," stylistically jarring parts are some sort of "unique self-expression," difficulties regarded as "beyond our reach." Not just for music, but also for writing, painting, drawing, any art you can name; science and mathematics could be thrown in here too. We all know deep down what it would really take to achieve mastery, but only a very few people will keep their sense of perspective clear enough to keep going anyway, to demand of themselves nothing but the absolute best. It's easy to imagine an ideal; it is infinitely harder to actually work to achieve it. That goes even more for music, which has been said to be the purest of art forms and whose quality is largely based on theoretical aesthetic. And we often forget our own bad habits too. We accept them, thinking it's just a normal part of things, to the point that we stop trying to work to correct ourselves. And the way those bad habits build up over the years is incredibly, incredibly damaging, so much so that it can be quite scary to face it. One of the stories in this book that Wibberly tells us is about a student of Brodetsky's who, after years of pursuing an education as a violinist, discovered that he never had the ear to play violin in the first place and tried committing suicide. One of the major factors was the string of previous teachers who had repeatedly told the student he was destined to be a great violinist, and it was so psychologically difficult to handle that Brodetsky had to lie to his student and keep teaching him anyway to prevent him from trying to kill himself again.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much this applies to any other art form besides classical music. And many people never take it seriously enough to reach that extreme kind of case. Still, it's quite amazing how this is so applicable to almost everything in life, about the way we learn to face ourselves, and equally importantly, how teachers pass on knowledge to their students about what their studies actually mean. Teaching is acknowledged to be a noble occupation, but few people realize how much responsibility and power comes with it as well. And few teachers understand what learning means enough to transmit things to their students without any sort of lasting damage. Human communication is imperfect after all; misconceptions and loss of information happens along the way, which requires an extraordinary amount of self-awareness, knowledge, and discipline to prevent. I'm guessing in Wibberly's experience, it took meeting Julian Brodetsky to realize that. For me, it required this book.

"There are no amateurs of music," he said, not once but many times. "You know what I mean by amateur? I mean those who are content to do something half right, negligently, carelessly. Music will not permit of such an attitude. All my students must be professionals. They must tolerate no compromise. They must be as exact, as scrupulous, as careful as a scientist. Music is truth, and truth cannot tolerate error or approximation."

Sounds difficult, doesn't it? And boy it totally is.

I do not know what it is that keeps teachers generally, and especially music teachers, sane. It must be that at the other end of their teaching they perceive the presence and the will and indeed the benediction of God. Certainly their fees are nowhere near adequate recompense for the unending repetition of the same thing, of the constant reiteration of instruction, again and again, until unwillingly, slowly, by particles, the student grasps and absorbs what is intended. When I met Julian he had been teaching violin for forty years. [...] He had heard the same mistakes made in each one of the exercises by every one of those thousands of students time without number until you might think his brain would break down at the inevitability of human error and the denseness of the human mind. And yet he put as much vigor and enthusiasm and sheer hard work into the lessons he gave me as he put into the lessons he gave the very first of his pupils.

That is dedication. Nothing broke him. Not for one moment would he compromise and let something pass that was wrong.

I've often wondered if most attempts at teaching are just systematic failures at fully preparing our children for the adult world, and more importantly, preparing them to face themselves. Now, having read about Brodetsky, I think my hypothesis was right.

Let me make this super clear: you do not need a single scrap of familiarity with any music whatsoever to connect with this book. There was a point I felt quite early on as I was reading that Wibberly was not merely writing about his experience of learning to play the violin. It is a major part of the story and his experiences are formed in that context, but encountering Brodetsky's approach to musical practice was a tiny fraction of what I took away from this book. (And if you know nothing about violin as I did, it is explained quite comprehensibly and succintly). It shocked me into realizing that I will never stop learning, never reach a point when something is "easy" (if it seems so, I'm probably missing something), never reach a point when I will be able to let go of the responsibility of questioning myself, and of asking myself whether what I'm doing is worthwhile. Most people are familiar with Socrates's famous saying that "the life unexamined is not worth living," but not many realize just how fundamentally important that is. But Brodetsky does. Wibberly does. And I hope I do too, although the pitfalls of human nature are endless and I'll probably be stupid enough to forget it one day.

Now I'm sure some of you are wondering, what could have produced such a man as Brodetsky? Well, Wibberly gives us plenty of interesting background information. He was born in Russia and taught by Leopold Auer (who also taught Toscha Seidel, Jascha Heifetz, and Mischa Elman) in the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Conservatory. When Russia became politically unstable he emigrated out of the country and only escaped due to one of the border officials' love of music and knowledge of his name, leading him to realize that music was one of the few truly universal languages. His entire family was killed by the Nazis, but he was fiercely defensive of any German musician discriminated against for his or her nationality. He was close friends with such great artists as Andres Segovia and Anna Pavlova, and describes the latter as such:

I asked Julian what kind of a person Anna Pavlova had been. He could not trust himself to reply for a while. "What am I to say?" he said at last. "She was a genius. She understood music in the same depth as the greatest musician. She was not just an extraordinarily gifted ballerina. She was a musician, too. One never had to hesitate, to slow down or quicken time, when playing for Anna Pavlova. There were never any anxious moments. Her grace, her fantastic spiritual and physical lightness when dancing, made all she did a part of music. I played for her scores of times and I was always enchanted. Each performance was something new. With Anna Pavlova there was never repetition--always creation."

Speaking of which, this is worth reading for stories like this alone. To be able to know Julian Brodetsky, his wisdom, and his past even only through the pages of a book is almost otherworldly. And a short one at that: my copy finishes in a scant 154 pages with a rather large font size, even though it took me a week to get through it because I spent so much time pouring over everything as I'd never had for any other book before.

Julian Brodetsky is the kind of person one feels that, if everyone were like him, the world would be a better place. He was an artist who lived almost purely for his craft and for passing it on to his students so that they might gain a new dimension to their lives in music, and he cared nothing for social reputation. Wibberly tells us that he was still giving violin lessons up till the moment he died. He defended and lived up to his ideals without a hint of compromise. He imparted every one of his violin lessons with the same consistent enthusiasm and perseverance and always gave what was needed for the student, even an adult like Wibberly for whom many would have considered far too late to ever hope to learn the violin. And perhaps it was Brodetsky's very dedication to music that prevented him from earning the reputation he arguably deserves among the great violin pedagogues like Leopold Auer and Dorothy DeLay, although I'm sure he never gave a shit about that. I wish I could have known Brodetsky. But I'm eternally grateful to Wibberly for having written this book, and I hope someday more people will read it too and find as much value in it as I did--because this is so much more than just a story. For me it was like getting a splash of cold water. It is the kind of book that one can use to preserve one's principles and remind oneself, over and over again, that deep down we truly are capable of achieving our highest artistic dreams if only we're willing to face them.