Noa: There’s a few key things that I’m really curious about given your background and years of experience both with competitions, orchestra auditions, and performing solo works, and ensemble, and orchestrally. But the overriding question I suppose is, I’m curious as to how you prepare for performances, in particular the really stressful kind of big deal performances that you have?
David: Well I’ve kind of come full circle. I used to, I mean I practiced so much. I’m sure you’ve read the Gladwell book, Outliers.
David: I’ve done my beyond 10,000 hours of practicing and all that stuff so there have been periods of my life where I’m not proud to say but I have kind of ridden my talent and all those years of practice and kind of just played through and kind of just get familiar with the material again and kind of like an overview and review and that kind of thing, nothing too wood-sheddy, if you will. And then as I’m getting older now, I’m 49 now, and as I feel more and more the ravages of time I can’t depend on my, all that old practice and I can’t depend on my nerves as much. So I’ve come back around to just playing old, really slow wood shedding and it’s been kind of a revelation even within the last six months and it’s just amazing, the fruit is so immediate. It’s very affirming, and just right at the moment when you’re on stage and the solo rolls around, I don’t know, something psychological you just feel in the back of your mind like, okay I really practiced, and it’s miraculous like the intonation of even the higher kind of clearer level, it’s just everything feels more, somehow, solid and assured.
David: It’s a very general answer and it’s not terribly specific but that’s my main goal nowadays when I’m preparing for something. It’s just over and over, kind of repetitive, slow, slow practice. I guess I could add one more thing and that is that I’m always, and this is probably from my, from Dorothy Delay’s influence, for me intonation is the great, great equalizer and so my one overarching goal is always to try to play in tune. And so in doing that many other issues are addressed.
David: So it’s just making sure that I try to play in tune.
Noa: Would you mind describing a little bit what the slow woodshedding looks like, just kind of assuming I don’t even have a concept of what that might appear like in the practice room?
David: I may have even mentioned this to you [inaudible 00:03:09] at the symposium when you were taking those notes but it’s been shown through studies that when you’re trying to teach a young person a new language you repeat a certain word seven times and I kind of try to stick by that when I find a difficult spot in a piece or in a solo that’s very tricky. I’ll literally kind of woodshed really slowly, I try to do note by note and then I find that the problems can lie in shifts. And that’s where the dangers lie and so I will do the shifts back and forth at minimum seven times. Even if they’re going well I don’t just say, “Okay it’s good, now I can move on”, I really try to just solidify it over and over, and I try to do it well seven times.
David: And then I usually, in most of my music, I put a little X in the margins so if I come back to a piece say two or three years later, or even five years after I’ve played it last, I know which places are particularly problematic and I will focus on those places. And then as I get closer to the performance date I will kind of intersperse the slow practice with run throughs and try to get used to the feeling of not stopping, not fixing, just kind of going through.
David: And then at the very end, the last possible moment right before I go on stage I really find that that is really the most valuable time to do some really slow woodshedding. Really, really just kind of trying to discover even little problematic hand condition things. Even 20 minutes before I walk on stage I’ll still be trying to find, wait a minute I just discovered, whatever, if I pronate my wrist just a little bit on this it really helps it, if I try to make the bow feel sticky for these three notes it helps me nail that next shift, things like that. I find that it’s so kind of delightful at the last second when you’re suffering from nerves to, boom, and find those last second things.
Noa: It sounds like it’s a very thoughtful process for you. I mean, you’re not just going through the motions but you’re really paying very close attention to the minute details as you’re going through it slowly. I mean, is that fair to say?
David: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Noa: And kind of reminds me of, I didn’t take a lot of martial arts but I took some and I remember one of the teachers or instructors was often talking about doing things very slowly, doing the kicks slowly because if you could do it really slowly you were much more cognizant of what actually was happening as you were doing a particular technique.
David: Absolutely. I mean I think if you go through many different sports you’ll find a lot of the same things. There’s really one of the great teachers of the twentieth century of golf is a man named Harvey Penick, and he was a teacher of some of the great golfers of our time mainly from Texas, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, and he wrote a little book of just little homey, down home, just little bits of advice and one of them was to practice your golf swing super, super slow, not even having the ball there, and I’ve really tried to adopt that to violin practice at times. I tell kids, “Hey, just sit in front of the TV”, I mean the parents are gasping in horror but I say, sit in front of the TV, no bow, but just hold the violin like a guitar and practice the vibrato motion so it looks good first because as soon as we have the bow and we hear stuff then we get all paranoid and we forget about what was the original purpose of our practice session and if you just sit there I find it’s a great way to get them to understand the motion and getting the right look of a vibrato before moving on to personalize it because it is probably the most personal of all things in violin playing is the vibrato motion.
Noa: Right. It sounds like that’s probably where a lot of your confidence comes from, is that perhaps, is that the case?
David: It’s weird, it’s a little mind game. I mean, you’d think after 13 years as concert master of one of the world’s great orchestras that I would be brimming with confidence and feeling so good about where I am in my career and all that stuff but it gets harder. It’s almost as if you’ve set your mortality and … I’m a Christian so I am trying to always not think of myself as a great person and oh I’m a good person, and I’m trying to come to terms with my own sinful nature and that’s kind of one of the tenets of Christianity and so I feel the same thing about my playing.
David: I don’t even have to try, I feel more of my inadequacies as a violinist and musician as I learn more and live more and play more and perform more. And yet to get on stage and actually be able to get on stage and not melt in a puddle of urine and vomit if I can be so bold as to say, really I’m not really trying to be funny, I’m really just saying that because it’s the truth, that there are times when you have to psych yourself up and get away from all that modesty and oh I’m not that good and you just have to keep saying, oh come on, you’re the best, you’re the best, you can do this, you’re not here on accident. You have to psych yourself up and then you mentally have this game, it’s like right at the moment before you jump off of the high diving board you’re like, come on, go for it, go for it, go for it! You know that kind of psyching yourself up. And sometimes that’s about all you can do. Just say a little prayer and just go for it.
Noa: The go for it bit is sort of interesting because I remember one of the things you talked about is that behind the screen you can get a sense of whether the person is being tentative and if there’s some fear there, or if this person despite the fears is really prepared to go for it and trust themselves, have you found a way to do that yourself that seems to work pretty consistently in those moments where you aren’t quite sure how things are gonna go?
David: No, I find that something that has been a real revelation to me say in the last year has been, and don’t get me wrong it’s not like all these epiphanies have happened to me in the last 12 months but it’s just an ongoing process, with all the pressure you’re constantly mulling things over and trying to figure things out. But I find that sometimes, I think it was, I can’t remember, I think last fall my orchestra, we were on tour in Europe and I have a small group of friends, about three other guys, actually two other guys and a woman, and the four of us had a little dining club and we’ll research a little out of the way wine bar in the outskirts of Vienna or something. We’ll just always find little foodie joints and great wine and then we’ll go and we’ll talk about all kind of stuff. And after all the conversations we have, of course about things like our children, or what our favorite foods are, or cinema, whatever it is, invariable the discussion comes back to the orchestra, soloists that we’ve had, our opinions of various guest conductors, our colleagues, our own playing, our own fears or abilities, and I cam to the realization that we shouldn’t be worrying so much about what people think of our playing.
David: I’m certainly constantly trying to not worry about what people think of my playing because it’s just paralyzing, it’s counterproductive, it’s stupid. And what I realized was, in a nutshell, people, even the greatest musicians, even my colleagues who are some of the most wonderful, esteemed artists in the world, they don’t remember, barely. If you ask me what our program was two weeks ago in Philadelphia at our new festival at the Academy of Music I can’t remember. We play so many concerts a year, year after year. There’s so many soloists. We play the same repertoire over and over, we play new repertoire over and over as we’re discovering new things. We see some favorite conductors year after year, some conductors come once, they’re done. It’s simply impossible to remember every little detail and I realized that it’s more fun, it’s more rewarding to live in the moment, go for it, and actually try to enjoy the moment, as crazy as that seems because next week if I, in my paranoid way, go to Mark and say, “Mark did you notice that I was really out of tune last week” and Mark is not even gonna remember. Mark’s gonna just have kind of a vague, foggy recollection and say “Dave, I kind of remember from last week but I thought it was fine” and he’s moved on as soon as he walked out of the concert hall that night.
David: I realize I’m the same way. I don’t remember much at all from ten years ago and there have been some incredible performances through the years in concert halls all over the world with the world’s greatest soloists, the world’s greatest conductors, with this tremendous orchestra, and I don’t remember a lot of it. I just have vague recollections of certain performances where the moon and the stars lined up and it was magical. It’s kind of a general remembrance but not specific or anything like that.
Noa: When you have those really magical or memorable performances that everything just seems to come together at one moment, do you have an idea of what you’re thinking about at those moments as opposed to the times where it’s one of those real struggling, difficult, rough performances?
David: That’s the irony is that, at least for me, when you are in the middle of one of those magical performances where you just know everybody feels it, everybody on stage, the audience, the conductor, everybody is on a different plane where you just know it’s one of those performances people walk out and remember, some people for the rest of their lives. I have to say that that happens quite often as a member of this orchestra, and I don’t just say that because it’s my orchestra. I really say that because we are very fortunate, we play in these incredible venues, [inaudible 00:15:09] houses, tremendous soloists. And the irony is when we do have those days or those moments on stage, you don’t think about anything, you’re just reacting, you’re almost kind of in an altered state and you just enjoy being in the zone.
Noa: Do you have a recollection of what is it that you’re thinking about when it’s not one of those kinds of performances?
David: Oh, absolutely. I’m thinking about, I could be thinking negative thoughts like, oh what kind of idiot programmed this piece, what audience would like this kind of long, boring piece. Or I could be thinking something like, I cannot wait to open this bottle of cabernet after and oh, I have to remember I have to go to the bank tomorrow and I’ve gotta get my oil changed this week and uh, I forgot to write down something to change in this part for the next time we play it that doesn’t work, configuration doesn’t work and so I had to remember. And sometimes I will even do something as crazy as in a brief rest I’ll put my wedding hand on the wrong hand, I’ll put it on my ring finger of my other hand and then when I get off stage it will remind me something really important like, I gotta go to the library and get music for next week so I can prepare before I go home because I’m not gonna be back in the city until Tuesday. It can be as mundane as that. Or I can be thinking, uh can you believe these people are sleeping in the middle of an incredible performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can look over from the corner of my eye and see somebody absolutely out for the count. So basically in a nutshell, I could be thinking of anything, it could be absolutely anything.
Noa: Have you found a way to shut that off and get back to where it is that you were?
David: I received some fantastic advice from a violinist who’s here right now with us in Vale, she’s just vacationing but she’s one of the great soloists of our time, her name is Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. She and I are childhood friends and I remember she’s got this God given ability to just have people give her a standing ovation after the first ten minutes, it’s like this visceral reaction she has, this animal kind of excitement and instinct, it’s kind of Martha Argerich-esque. And I asked her about that once when we were about 13 or 14 and she said “Sometimes when I’m kind of not into it on stage I almost pretend that I am, I’ll move a little more, maybe I’ll make a couple of faces, maybe I’ll toss my head a little bit, maybe I’ll crouch down for a second”, whatever she’ll do, she’ll try to shock her system into being more into it. And once in a while if I feel a little bit out of it mentally I will do exactly that. I’ll perhaps lead a little more physically, a little more aggressively, I’ll try to make more eye contact with my colleagues, I’ll try to have more of this unspoken contact with the conductor, and many times it works. Or I might even play to the audience a little bit and try to feel that I’m having some kind of connection with the audience, those people who are in the first ten rows. And many times it might snap me out of it.
Noa: That’s interesting. I never heard that before. It makes sense though, I don’t know if you’ve read any, his name is kind of hard to pronounce, I think it’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the guy who originated this whole notion of flow or being in the zone. Have you read any of his stuff?
David: No, I’ve never heard of him.
Noa: Yeah. He’s at The University of Chicago, he’s been around writing about this for maybe 30 years or so now and he was doing a talk recently and I think this is just an estimate but essentially we have a fixed attentional capacity, there’s only so much we can think about or pay attention to or process at any given time and for instance if you try to have a conversation with both your kids at the same time it’s not possible because one conversation takes about 60 bits, the other conversation takes about 60 bits, and we can only pay attention to 110. So we end up dropping lots of what ends up happening in front of us and so one of the difficult things is making sure we monopolize our limited attentional capacity with only those things that are related to what we’re doing at this very moment in time.
Noa: And it sounds like with her strategy there of pretending that you’re into it, and I mean all the things you described have to do with what you were doing in the moment, nothings that were outside of you or outside of the hall, they’re happening right now, they’re not happening a line from now or two measures ago, they’re happening right now and so it seems like that would be a pretty good way of bringing you back to what is happening in the moment. So that’s interesting. It’s impressive that she came up with that at 13.
David: Yeah but she is really an extraordinary performer and has always been. We’ve all known it and we’ve all just been innocent bystanders as she just takes over. It’ll always be there and she’s just one of the most extraordinary performers that I’d ever seen.
Noa: I have a couple more general questions I suppose that have more to do with career if that’s okay.
Noa: I’m always curious about people’s successes and also their failures and what they find to be their successes and failures because oftentimes it’s not what other people on the outside would consider looking at that person. So I’m curious about what you would consider to be your greatest success in music or even outside for that matter?
David: My greatest success, that’s an easy one, is winning the audition process to become concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was so much more difficult than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Yeah, it was a long process. I had auditioned for five, I was in my early 30s, like 33 when I decided that finally, I finally came to the realization that I was not going to make it as a big time soloist and the fact that it was so late in my years as a musician shows you how delusional I was and how naïve that I thought, oh I’m 32 and I still might get that call or hook up with the right manager or something, it’s right around the corner, shows basically how stupid I was and self delusional.
David: So when I finally started auditioning for orchestras I failed miserably at the first five, and I auditioned twice in Chicago for concert master, twice in Cincinnati for concert master, once in New Jersey Symphony for concert master, and then I finally started realizing that, oh man you gotta, and this is all my wife, she was like, gosh would it not be sensible to pay your dues a little bit, would it be so destructive to your ego if you played assistant concert master maybe for a year or two. And after I got over my indignance, I was so indignant that she would consider me anything less than a concert master, I started taking auditions and immediately I found success.
David: But then that next jump to get to the big time to become concert master of Philadelphia Orchestra was a long process. The audition was four rounds and then they, it was them and me and ironically the gentleman who won first prize in the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986 when I was there, his name is Ilya Kaler, unbelievable violinist. It was not even close, he just kicked all of our asses in 86 in Moscow. I mean he was like a man among boys and it was kind of strange that many years later we ended up competing for this job but obviously I was never gonna outplay him, I mean he’s a different league than me as a violinist but I worked as hard as I could and there have been a few time sin my life where I have really sacrificed and worked really, really hard and this was one of those times. Then when I came back to Philadelphia four months after the initial audition process for two weeks of trial concerts, basically joining the orchestra for two weeks of subscription concerts including a concert at Carnegie Hall, that was one of the great achievements of life. Yeah, so that’s certainly the greatest one.
Noa: Is it okay if I ask about your most difficult failure and how you bounced back from that?
David: Oh, of course. I was fully expecting that. No, I guess I would have to say it’s kind of in the same vein. It’s not one occasion, it was the first, I would say about five, six years as concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 99 to roughly … wait a minute, let me do some math here, we’re in 2012. Yeah. I would say about the first five or six years of my career as concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra were in many ways a great failure. I’ve never said that to anybody but I’m very comfortable speaking about it now. It was a combination of ego, stupidity, hubris, arrogance, insecurity more than anything, insecurity, pride. I just came in guns blazing and thought that I had to be the savior, the greatest concert master in the history of the world. I just thought I had to be the new sheriff in town, I had to show people that I was the boss. I was just a real jerk, I mean not all the time, but there were moments where I would hurt people, I would say unkind things, and that’s not me. It’s really not me. It was like an out of body experience. Alienate people, hurt people, make enemies, I never had enemies before, suddenly I had enemies. I twas an awful time and I hated my job and I was just a very unhappy person. I’d wake up, I hated going to work every day. I was lonely, orchestra would go on tour for three weeks and I would be in utter depression and loneliness because I wouldn’t have any friends. We’d go to a different city every other day and people are going out to eat and shopping and sightseeing together and walking through the hall and they have friends and groups and I’m just alone and lonely and alienated and marginalized and I felt horrible. So that was, through my own stupidity and stubbornness I was, because I guarantee you there were people that were trying to give me great advice and gently try to say, including my parents, like come on, you don’t have to be like that, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody, you just have to do your best and be humble, and put your trust in God and things will turn out okay. But I couldn’t do that, I wanted to do it of my own strength and prove it on my own, and it was an utter failure. Don’t believe it if you speak to other people and they say, oh David was great and he did a fantastic job, don’t believe that, there were brief moments of happiness or a little bit of redemption but in general it was not good.
Noa: Do you remember what it was that started to turn things around for you?
David: Well certainly the greatest thing is my faith, my Christian faith, and realizing that I was never going to accomplish anything on my own, of my own efforts, of my own talents or anything. Just that it was a power much greater than my own and that I had to surrender to that and in doing that I could actually relax a little bit and kind of surrender and let things happen on their own and then it wasn’t such a disaster if I made mistakes along the way and I said stupid things in meetings or I stood up at the orchestra in front of the orchestra during rehearsal and suggested something that was actually obvious to everyone, just things like that I all of a sudden didn’t have to worry. That was one of they key things.
David: Another thing that happened was there were a lot of personnel changes within about two years at the orchestra that made life much different for me. And I won’t speak of any departures, I won’t speak of any personalities, but I will speak of arrivals. One critical arrival was my stand partner, Juliette Kang, and it was just an amazing transformation in just the way I could do my job having somebody there as a colleague but also as a friend whose, the chemistry between us on stage working together was just perfection, I think. And I knew that was critical and the key arrival in new personnel that was the beginning of a huge turnaround in my life. Yeah, so that was the beginning, those two things. And those two things were kind of the [inaudible 00:30:31] of many other things that are difficult to explain.
David: But also just the time that had gone by and I think I had heard from some colleagues who were very experienced orchestra players that it usually takes about seven years to get through all the repertoire, the standard repertoire, to where you start feeling like hey, I know kind of the basic stuff and I’m gonna see some stuff over and over again and you don’t have to sit there and woodshed and learn stuff every single time. And they were right. It took about seven years and about seven years in I was suddenly like, oh my gosh I didn’t have to practice new music for every single program because early on, the first several years, every piece was new to me even if it was standard to everybody else.
David: They’d played it a million times. For me, it was all new and that meant a Beethoven canon concerto accompaniment, or a Mozart canon concerto accompaniment, even stuff that is technically not difficult, I mean I would go to the old Tower Records and I would buy, easily I would buy $500 of CDs every few months and just sit there with earphones on and listen and listen. And put it in my car and listen to it over and over again just trying to marinate my brain as much as I could so I wouldn’t make a total fool of myself on stage at the first rehearsal. Because everybody else, they knew it by memory almost, they remembered everything but it was all new to me.
Noa: Something in what you were talking about reminded me of, have you ever heard the term, imposter syndrome?
Noa: They’ve done some studies, and I don’t remember exactly the nature of these studies, but they wanted to find out how prevalent this imposter syndrome was. It’s basically where you have the credentials, you are on paper perfectly capable, but you have this fear that one day you’re going to be found out, that your colleagues or that others will somehow realize that you’re some kind of a fraud and you’re not really who it is that you’ve made yourself out to be and that’s so common, not amongst folks who don’t have credentials, but they looked at attorneys who have to pass the bar exam, and psychologists, and doctors, people who really have to go through not just educational rigor but a whole licensing credentialing process and they found out that it was a pretty staggering percentage of these folks who are secretly afraid that one day everything is going to come crashing down and they’re going to be revealed as some kind of a fraud. And I mean it sounds like that might have been part of what was happening in the early years but certainly now it seems like you’ve gone past that because one of the things-
Noa: Go ahead.
David: I’m sorry to interrupt you but now I realize that I don’t think it’s true. That I’m not an imposter but I do realize how inadequate I am really for the job. But in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, I’m good enough on a playing level, I’m good at basically just good enough to handle the musical aspects but it’s the other things I bring to the table, I think, that make me quite fit for the job. It’s that I love to talk to people, I love to fundraise, I love to get up in front of audiences and speak, I love to be the spokesman for the orchestra, and that’s what Gladwell was saying is that they looked at all these people with incredibly high IQs and they didn’t necessarily achieve what they wanted because they didn’t have the EQ, they had the IQ. So now I’m very, very aware and comfortable with the fact that I’m certainly not the best fiddle player in the room but I’m good enough and I can also offer some other gifts.
Noa: And maybe you’ve already spoken to this, one last question if it’s okay. Is there anything that you wish you would have known when you were just starting out in your career that when you were in your twenties or early thirties you just could have now at 49 go back in time and tell yourself something that would have made a difference for you?
David: Wow. That is a great question, nobody’s ever asked me that. Gotta be something about when I was talking about my greatest failures. I can’t think of anything. It’s just overwhelming to think about all of the experiences that I have, experience in life and as a violinist. Completely away from what I envisioned my whole childhood and what my parents envisioned for me and what everybody told me was a foregone conclusion, that I was gonna be another child prodigy, become a star, you know, Yo-Yo and [inaudible 00:35:49], and it just couldn’t have ended up further from the truth in that I played in a chambers music group here and there, I starred at the chamber music festival, I played strolling violin at Bloomingdale’s, it just goes on and on. There’s just millions of things I’ve done that I could never have experienced, I would ever have predicted nor would I have wanted back then because of my huge ego, I was like, are you kidding, I won’t teach, that’s for weaker violinists, I’m not gonna teach, I’m a performer. But now I teach a lot and I love it and I think that’s probably what I’m gonna end up doing some day when I retire I think I’ll end up teaching. Go figure, you just never know.
Noa: When I’ve talked to older folks that’s what they say that you just never end up doing what it is that you think you’re gonna do and you get what it is that you want but it looks totally different than you thought it was going to look.
David: Yeah, it’s true.
Noa: I guess it’s confusing I suppose.
David: I remember when I first decided to go audition for orchestras, the first person I went to was Anshel Brusilow. Brusilow was in my opinion the greatest concert master of all time. He was in, not for that long, but he was in the sixties under Ormandy when they made a lot of recordings, just landmark recordings. And he lives in Dallas now and I flew down there and to the coaching with him and, you know, wonderful, I learned so much. But then I also went to Glen Dicterow, and he lives up in New Rochelle and I was living in Westchester County at the time so I went over and we started out by just talking for a couple of minutes and he said, “So, what have you been doing the last couple years”, he knew a little bit about me and I said “Oh, working on my solo career”, and he kind of chuckled. And he said, “Yeah, I used to think that too before I decided to become a concert master”, and I remember the feeling I got right when he said that, it was indignation. I was thinking to myself, oh I’m sorry but there’s still a possibility that that might happen.
David: But now I see that, what a great life, I mean it’s a very exclusive club to be concert master of one of the big five orchestras. Perhaps getting back to your earlier question that I didn’t have an answer for you with, maybe that’s what I wish I had known when I was 22 coming out of Juilliard, that how wonderful the life is being a member of a great orchestra. And I would have started a lot earlier, I would have wasted a lot less time lying to people and coming up with these tall tales week after week, like oh I’ve been on tour. Meanwhile I was playing at a little public library on Long Island. I was kind of living this lie, people would say, oh it’s gonna happen for you and you’re on your way, and if I really, really looked at myself honestly in the mirror I would have seen probably by the time I was mid twenties that it wasn’t going to happen. But that was years away, that was years away that epiphany.
Noa: It’s interesting that I was just talking to Menahem Pressler and when he answered that question, he said that if he’s honest with himself now, even at 88, he knew the answer to that question way back when. Kind of like how you were saying right now, if you were honest with yourself then and looked in the mirror you would have been able to tell yourself then what you would tell yourself now and he was saying that, yeah 50 years ago I knew it then but I wasn’t really ready to know it then. And that’s interesting.
David: Right. And then you can’t enjoy, you can’t be experienced and successful and wise if you don’t go through all of that stupid stuff.
Noa: Right, right.
David: So that’s just the way it goes, you have to make your mistakes and learn and that’s what I was just telling my daughters. We were on the bike trail and we were reminding the girls that actually from mistakes come some of the most wonderful things in life so don’t be afraid to make them.