Episode 009 Transcript

Master Class with Thomas Halpin (1/31/18)

VANESSA VARI [bumper]: Hi there! This is Vanessa Vari, Director of the Suzuki Strings of Denver in Colorado. You’re listening to episode 009 of Point of Learning with Peter Horn. Enjoy!

PETER HORN: On today’s show, a master violinist and teacher considers his decades-long career.

THOMAS HALPIN: There’s good teaching and bad teaching. I’ll begin with the bad …

HORN: Some thoughts on making the leap from advanced student to artist: 

HALPIN: The technical obstacles presented by the violin, beast that it is, can interfere with the player’s very recognition of his own expressive feelings.

HORN: And a few insider secrets!

HALPIN: I realized immediately that I was seeing teaching of a kind that I never knew existed …

HORN: Chances are, if you didn’t study violin yourself at some point, your sister or best friend did. As somebody who took weekly lessons from the time I was 3 until about age 19, I continue to be interested in the study of music for its own sake, but I’m talking today with the man who used to be my violin instructor because I realized shortly after I began teaching English in a public high school that Thomas Halpin hadn’t only taught me violin. Through sustained exposure to his methods and techniques, I learned how to break down challenging problems down into component parts in ways that translated fairly easily to studying English—or most anything else. We’ll get to some of those strategies later in the show, but as we’re getting started, I need to warn you that Tom is fairly direct about his bias in favor of the violin as opposed to, well, any other instrument. 

HALPIN: Don’t get me started on string bass!

HORN: Notwithstanding this low-level bigotry, there is something about the violin, which I asked him to address. (You’re right to assume, by the way, that all the violin music on this episode’s soundtrack is played by Halpin himself.*) [to HALPIN:] Can we riff for a minute on the popular idea of the violin? Even people who claim to know nothing about classical music can usually name a famous violinist or two.  What is it about the violin?


HALPIN: First of all, the sound of the violin is enchanting throughout its entire register.  A violin may create gorgeous melodies reaching deep down into its G-string territory or soaring high above the staff on the E-string. There may be dazzling passages and thrilling displays of virtuosity. Of course, a flute or a trumpet might dazzle or thrill, but those instruments don’t have the palette of tone-color the violin does. They can’t produce double-stops. The piano can play two or more notes at once, but it too has limited tonal variety. But what is more important, possibly, is that violin-playing is fascinating to watch. With wind instruments, the change of pitch is visible in the fingers. But the air-column — equivalent to the violinist’s bow — is concealed within the horn. The same is true of keyboard instruments; while articulation and pitch-change are clearly visible, the apparatus that strikes or plucks the strings is hidden under the lid. With the violin, the entire mechanism of music-making is exposed. The left-hand fingers select and vary the pitch, while the bow produces the column of sound. The audience can witness visible action leading to audible result. Of course, the same is true of other stringed instruments, but the lower strings don’t produce as appealing a sound — especially not the viola or the string bass. While the cello has its fans, the violin possesses a hole-card, a quality that causes professional wind and keyboard players — masters of their respective instruments — to confess that they always wanted to play the violin. That quality is contained in words of the the pop classic “Misty” [music by Erroll Garner; lyrics by Johnny Burke]: “Walk my way… / And a thousand violins begin to play….” In the collective imagination, the violin is the instrument of romance.


HORN: Tom grew up in Oakland, CA, beginning his musical career at the age of 3 playing triangle in a kind of babies band. He got his start on the violin after his parents, who were both amateur musicians, noticed their son’s fascination with a little toy guitar, which, when cranked, played “Pop! Goes the Weasel." Instead of strumming it, Tom stuck it under his chin like a fiddle and pretended to play it, using a pencil like a violin bow. He began lessons and soon became the front man of that band of toddlers, known as The Calloettes to people on the SF Bay Area music scene of the early 1950s (see the show page for some great shots). Fast forward to the early 1970s, after his undergraduate work at Yale College, and Tom was earning gig money sharing the stage with pop artists ranging from the Pointer Sisters to Boz Scaggs to Petula Clark to Van Morrison. In the decades following, Halpin performed as a soloist with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Canada, and recorded works by C20 composers Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, and Lou Harrison. But he was equally outstanding as a teacher. By the time I met him, he was one of the most sought-after violin teachers in Western New York. This was something I wanted to ask about, because just because you’re really good at something does not mean that you know how to teach it. I often recall my chem professor in college, who was a Nobel Prize laureate, reputed to be one of the world’s experts on carbon. However, he did not strike me as a particularly strong teacher. I don’t blame him for the low grades I earned in that course, but I do remember thinking for the first time that sometimes it can be a liability for a professor or teacher to be so advanced in a particular field that they can’t remember what it was like not to understand the fundamentals. With this in mind, I asked Tom what helped him most in terms of learning how to teach. 


HALPIN: Well, let me start with a story. The summer before my senior year in high school, I went to String Congress, which was a program sponsored by the Musicians Union. I studied with a violinist who was the concertmaster of a major orchestra. And he had odd, individual ways of doing most everything. Well, I came out of that summer with a new bow-grip, a different right-arm height, a strange new way of confronting the fingerboard with no side-contact of the first finger—and very little chance of playing in tune. My intonation was unsure even in first position, and shifting? Forget about it! Shifting attempts would always bring proceedings to a screeching halt. I was so out of control that I couldn’t react to my Oakland teacher’s suggestion, so I ended up canceling virtually every lesson that year. When I got to college, my private violin teachers in New York City got me back to a physically normal approach. But I’d spent months terrified that I would never again play accurately. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of teaching, the experience was a windfall. What happened was that rather late in life, I had forgotten how to play and then relearned. The trip across the River Styx and back again gave me a conscious awareness of how I play, and that’s uncommon among advanced players, most of whom blissfully operate their hands the same way they have ever since they were kissed by the Talent Fairy in childhood.  

HORN: Later in our conversation, he named that New York teacher who repaired his technique, Sally Thomas, as one of his most important influences. 

HALPIN: Her help was so valuable that I studied with her exclusively throughout my freshman year. At a time when everything I’d been hearing was wrong, everything she told me was right. And that is no small thing.

HORN: So this harrowing experience of needing to rebuild his violin technique as a college freshman was a strange yet essential step in learning how to teach. The other key element was a self-designed apprenticeship with a man named Bernard Mandelkern. 

HALPIN: In 1973, when I arrived in Buffalo, Bernard Mandelkern was the Grand Old Man of violin teaching in this area. He came to one of my concerts and afterwards he introduced himself. I went to his home and watched him give a couple of lessons. I realized I was witnessing teaching of a kind I never imagined existed. When I heard him give a talk to group of teachers, I realized that what I’d seen at his house was just the tip of the iceberg. I wrote to Bernie and explained that I wanted a bigger piece of him.  I proposed an arrangement in which I would watch him teach one of his students and in the same week, give the student another lesson free of charge.  Bernie was fine with the idea and suggested his student, Eric. So for 2 1/2 years, I wrote down every word Bernie Mandelkern said to one little boy. I watched Eric move from the elementary level through the intermediate and into the advanced stages of violin study. Eric learned the violin, to the extent of his talent and interest, while having some excellent fun. And I became a violin teacher.

HORN: As you know, Point of Learning is a show about what and how and why we learn. Very few violin students will go on to play professionally. Why study music?


HALPIN: Well, let me ask you this: why study mathematics even though most who study it will never be professional mathematicians or scientists or math teachers?  Why study English although most English students will never be poets or writers or English teachers?  It is because math and English are subjects of human thought, endeavor and accomplishment.  They are worthy of study and schools exist to ensure that they receive the intellectual attention they deserve.  The situation is similar with music.  One of mankind’s greatest discoveries was that the noise of the world could be refined into pure pitches and that those pitches could be organized in a logical way that could  narrate and express. Organization of that kind is called music, and it’s a subject worthy of study.


HORN:  One of the most famous violin teachers of the 20th century in the United States was a man named Ivan Galamian, an Armenian who was born in Iran in 1903. He studied in Russia with Konstantin Mostras, a proponent of what would come to be called the “Soviet School” of violin playing, and, after being jailed at age 15 by the Bolshevik government, in Paris, with Lucian Capet, who was known for the skill and finesse of his right arm, which operates the bow, that elegant stick strung, on high-quality bows still to this day, with hair from a horse’s tail. By the time Galamian emigrated to the US, in 1937, with deep knowledge of both the Russian and French schools of violin playing, his reputation as a teacher had preceded him. 

HALPIN: When he first hung out his shingle, he got eight very talented students …

HORN: I grew up hearing stories about Galamian, whose students included Sally Thomas, mentioned earlier, who became his assistant, and eventually, Thomas Halpin. One fascinating—and enduring—aspect of Galamian’s legacy was the summer music camp he founded, which Tom cites as a major influence on his development. As you’ll hear, it is a place where students learn from each other, as well as their formal teachers and coaches, an admirable feature of any school, classroom, or other learning environment. It’s also the location where Halpin first acquired one of the strategies I would later use with my English students. 

HALPIN: Meadowmount Music Camp. After Galamian had been in this country for seven years, he purchased a large parcel of property in Upstate New York.  He built a summer home there which he named Meadowmount.  His students migrated there each summer along with him.  Initially, they numbered eight. By 1968, my first year at Meadowmount, I was one of more than 150. Metaphorically, Meadowmount was a teeming anthill; the power of the swarm was so much greater than sum of the individual insects. Students watched each other, they traded ideas and tricks, and learned from one another. I have heard players say, “Galamian never told me much, BUT, while I was at Meadowmount, I discovered—on my own—the secret of violin playing.” It wasn’t you, bug.  It was the hill!  During one Meadowmount break, I listened to a student speak about the practice techniques of his teacher back home in Indiana.  One such technique I really liked. It had to do with three “I-words”—Identify, Isolate and Integrate. Identify a problem; Isolate the problem (and solve it); then Integrate the solution back into the piece. I use that procedure to organize my own practicing and I present it to my students as the “De-bugging Process.”


HORN: I’ve used that mnemonic device when working with students on memorizing chunks of material, like poetry or a monologue of Shakespeare.

HALPIN: It makes sense. It’s especially useful when it comes to memorization.

HORN: I’ve also used your line, “A mistake is still a mistake until you can get into it and out of it.”

HORN: I promise you, this is magic. The three I’s once again are Identify, Isolate, and Integrate. Whether you’re having a memory slip or technical difficulty at a particular point in a concerto you’re looking to learn—or a poem you want to memorize, or more generally, a pattern of behavior in your life you’d like to change: Identify what’s tripping you up, then isolate it so you can repair what’s broken, but the money step is to integrate it back into the larger passage or piece or routine, making sure you can get into and out of this tricky spot with ease. Recently I was interested to learn that Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who coined the term virtual reality and has remained at the forefront of that field, is, in his own description, a “compulsive” collector and player of musical instruments. In fact he envisions the future of virtual reality to be analogous to the work of musicians, who “create worlds together” by interacting in real time. That’s fascinating, and I’ll post a link to those ideas on the show page, but I don’t want to get too far afield with that here. Rather, I want to pick up on Lanier’s assertion that musical instruments are the “most expressive user interfaces ever designed.” Maybe because I grew up around musical instruments, it took me awhile to tumble to the realization that instrument literally means a tool used by a person to do something, or express something. Like a pen or a paintbrush, a violin in the hands of an advanced player should be a tool for the artist to express himself or herself. Tom teaches violin literature that is in some cases hundreds of years old. Classical music infamously seems to present rigid indications about how long or how fast or how loud to play particular notes and phrases, so I wanted to know how Tom thought about approaching the work of helping a player find her or his own voice, becoming an artist.  He begins with a story about Don Weilerstein, the violin professor who drew Tom to study at the University at Buffalo in the early 1970s. Weilerstein also, btw, once studied with Ivan Galamian. And yes, 3 Degrees of Ivan Galamian is absolutely the violinist’s version of 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon—but obv. way cooler. 


HALPIN: Donald Weilerstein was a genius-level violinist. His absolute best tip as a teacher, in my opinion, is that students who want to make the leap from advanced-player to artist would do well to sing their music. This is great advice in the conservatory. But how could I demonstrate the value of singing to my demographic? Ever try to get seventh-graders to sing in a lesson!  They won’t, at least not solo.  But they will sing if I sing with them, and — revelation! — they will sing with greater gusto if my contribution to the duet is conspicuously wretched.   

HORN: Mr. Halpin's singing badly on purpose helps students feel more comfortable as he demonstrates a 3-step vocal process. Step 1 is singing the passage. Step 2 has you sing it again, but this time add fiddle, so you’re singing and playing at the same time, which is a trick with any instrument. The final step is to play without singing, but—and this is critical—you continue to maintain the feeling of singing. Physically, this means you’re supporting your diaphragm like an actor or opera singer. Emotionally, it means you’re using the violin as an instrument for your own voice. Tom went on to explain an advanced variation on the first step. 

HALPIN: Later, as the student gets older, I expand the first step into three. It becomes: a. Sing the passage; b. Sing the passage into the tape recorder; c. Listen to the playback and incorporate any discoveries into the interpretation. Advanced players will appreciate the expansion.  The technical obstacles presented by the violin, beast that it is, can interfere with the player’s very recognition of his own expressive feelings.

HORN: That was a nocturne by American composer Aaron Copland. Playing piano on that recording was Yvar Mikhashoff, a member of the piano faculty at University at Buffalo who frequently invited Tom to perform with him in recitals in this country and abroad. I thought we should listen to Tom’s violin for a minute, since he credits the legendary French violinist Zino Francescatti with inspiring his own unusual sound. 


HALPIN: Francescatti’s tone on the vinyl recordings in my parents’ record collection was the sound I loved and tried to emulate in my childhood. As an adult I listened to him playing short Fritz Kreisler pieces — phrase by phrase — then taped myself on the same phrases.  I listened to the playback, kept an occasional note that I liked, and tried for more. In trying to copy his sound, I found my own.

HORN: After a quick break, Tom and I will talk about good teaching, bad teaching, and a few more of his favorite ways to think about how students can tackle problems. Hope you’re enjoying this episode of Point of Learning, a monthly magazine for anyone interested in what and how and why we learn. For more ideas about music and learning, be sure to check November’s show, episode 007. Today’s interview was recorded near the University at Buffalo. If you are in the Buffalo area and find yourself in need of dog care services, why not consider Dognanny? Dognanny is a Buffalo-based, woman-owned business and proud sponsor of the Point of Learning podcast. Learn more about their unusually perfect services for dogs (and cats) at dognanny.pet. If you’re just joining us, my guest today is my former violin teacher, Thomas Halpin, who was instrumental in my approach to teaching as well as learning. 


HALPIN: There’s good teaching and bad teaching. I’ll begin with the bad. I have watched lessons, and taken lessons, which boiled down to, “You suck, you suck.  It sounds terrible. I’m holding my ears. Are you stupid?  untalented? or just lazy?  Go home and practice.”  That kind of negative teaching, unfortunately, is all too common in the violin world, but people pay good money for it. Good teaching is less typical. At its core is pedagogical advice which is nurturing and that is offered with the purpose of helping the student.  The advice should be pleasant, patient and positive. I will contrast the two teaching types.  Say that something goes wrong — a girl has learned a passage poorly or not learned it at all. Blaming her for not already knowing what he’s being paid to teach, the negative teacher pounces, resorting to abuse, invective and character assassination.  Meanwhile, the nurturing teacher recognizes an opportunity to…well…teach. Imagine that the girl has run out of bow.  The nurturing teacher—that’s me—might write at the top of her music,  ALWAYS PLAN AHEAD.  But I begin too close to the right edge of the paper, causing me to run out of space by, say, the H. I then finish the word vertically down the side of the page.  





I force a bit of a laugh and smile broadly at the girl to make sure she sees that I believe I am being funny.  So she relaxes; she’s off-the-hook — since I’ve obviously used the joke before — and now she’s more receptive to the dry, bow-distribution advice that I’m about to give her.

HORN: If I had to encapsulate Tom’s approach in one word, that word would be systematic. 


HALPIN: I like my students to have a Learning Process for approaching music that is at the frontier of their technical ability. The process involves proceeding with a bit of material at a time — say 4 bars — and dealing separately with the elements of notes, rhythm and bowing. 

HORN: The idea of breaking down complex problems into component parts is not original to Tom Halpin, of course, but I realized as I began teaching high school that learning violin was where I learned to feel comfortable facing challenging tasks. Attaining some measure of success in violin playing gave me confidence to attempt other hard things, a phenomenon reflected in educational research into students’ sense of mastery in school. Where does a given student feel smart, and how does that help them feel at least confident enough to try in other places?  I’ve added Tom’s process for violin learning to the show page. In my early years as a teacher, I adapted it to help students look at challenging poems or prose passages in literature, and to think about their writing and research processes.  Tom is big on asking, “Is there a problem?” 

HALPIN: Is there a problem? If so, try these remedies: Build the parts before the car.

HORN: Build the parts before the car.

HALPIN: If you were the greatest mechanic in the world, could you build me a car?

HORN:  Of course.

HALPIN: No you couldn’t, not unless you had the parts.  Build the parts before the car becomes the mantra of taking a problem apart and putting it back together again.  Working backwards is the best way to proceed whenever a passage is harder to finish than it is to start. Varying the problem, such as with different rhythms and bowings, adds depth to one’s command of the solution. Finally — it is sometimes possible to generalize a solution by taking a piece of it and transposing chromatically up and down the fingerboard.  Generalization looks to the future, preparing variations of today’s solution to be applied to up-coming pieces. But I am devolving into violin minutiae.  Maybe I should wrap all this up by stating what might be called my educational philosophy: In a career that spans several decades, a teacher may host dozens, even hundreds of students in his studio.  Not many of these will pursue music professionally; not many should.  But whether a student is in it for fun or in it for blood, the goal of the lesson should be to advance him, to the full extent of his talent and desire, in a setting of educational enjoyment.

HORN: Here endeth today’s lesson. My great thanks to Thomas Halpin for joining me to talk, let alone for all the amazing music he performed over the years, some 30-40 examples of which are searchable on YouTube. Everything you heard on this soundtrack is available there in some form or another. Thank you for listening and spreading the word about Point of Learning to anyone interested in what and how and why we learn. In addition to iTunes and YouTube, the show is now available on Google Play, so really, is there any good reason not to subscribe? Okay then! See you next month! 

HALPIN: Teaching violin is something that a lot of performers decide to do in their retirement. I mean you can just sit in a chair and say, “It needs a little more je ne sais quoi—oh now, it is perfect!”

Correction: I discovered soon after production that the Copland recordings were misattributed, based on some mislabeled source tapes uploaded by a third party. Halpin did record these works, but the performances included on the podcast should be credited to violinist Louis Kaufman. The pianist for Ukulele Serenade was Annette Kaufman; for Nocturne, Aaron Copland himself. I regret the error. 



















Peter Horn