Q & A Corner: Shmuel Ashkenasi


Jasmine: You’re on tape right now.

Shmuel: Oh I see, OK. (chuckles) (pause) In that case, I’m nervous.

Ru Pei: Some of the questions might be stupid. So I hope you don’t mind?

Shmuel: Some of the answers may be stupid too.

Ru Pei: OK, so… What do you do when you’re not motivated to practice?

Shmuel: You practice unmotivated-ly.

Ru Pei: OK, so, you’re sitting in front of the TV, and you just turn it off and get yourself–

Shmuel: You know, you know, my feeling is that if you’re a member of a quartet, the most that you can do for the quartet is to study the score and practice your part. There is no shortcut for that. And that has obvious reasons… but the un-obvious reason is that when you know the score, and when you practice your part, you accept criticism better. If you are not prepared musically, knowing the score, or technically, practicing your part, then if somebody tells you, and you know already that you are not prepared, you get defensive. And that wastes a lot of energy and… time.


So when you sit in front of the television, and you’re not motivated, just think of your colleagues — that it’s a very selfish act not to practice. Practice artificially — and if you love the piece that you’re playing, that should motivate you to look at the score and get to know it better. And if you don’t love the piece, don’t play it, or don’t play music. Either don’t play the piece or don’t play music.

No one has had more difficulty practicing than I. No one. Really. No one. But because I know I have this problem… when I was a member of the quartet, when we planned the repertoire for the following season, I started practicing already a year in advance. Because I knew that I cannot practice a lot. So I would practice already a year in advance. All my life I’ve done that. I practice in small increments, but very very early. You can rationalize, “Well there is still a year, or there is still 2 months, so I have a lot of time”– but knowing that I’m also not motivated… It’s not actually that you’re not motivated — very often there is a psychological resistance to practicing. It may be because your parents pushed you to practice and you resisted, and now you’re free, and nobody will tell you what to do, and so on… But it’s a very selfish act, not to practice for the quartet.

Ru Pei: What was the most memorable trip you took with the quartet?

Shmuel: Gosh, I’m not prepared for the question… Um… There were so many memorable trips — I — I would say — what comes to my mind is, the very first time we played the Beethoven cycle. I think it was in Geneva… and I was very very excited, very very nervous, very scared, because we existed for 39 years as a quartet, but we didn’t do the cycle until we were 30 years old. So for 30 years (pause)… we played the Beethoven quartets a lot, but never as a cycle. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we had changes in the quartet and so… you know when you have changes you don’t have any repertoire. That was a big part of it, but also, you know — it’s very — it’s very demanding on the other repertoire, because you cannot do only Beethoven. Many many clients don’t want only Beethoven. So you still have to have 3 programs plus the 3 programs of Beethoven. When we did it, we did use a lot of Beethoven in our regular programs, so we didn’t have to do more than necessary. But I think that was the most memorable trip, because I looked with a lot of anticipation and excitement to play the Beethoven cycle.

Ru Pei: What do you find most challenging about quartet playing?

Shmuel: (pause) Um, this may sound — this may sound– a little bit crazy, but I found always to have mutual respect the most difficult thing in the quartet.

Obviously, if you don’t have respect you shouldn’t play with anyone. But even if you have respect, every once in a while, one colleague may say something that is totally stupid, and another colleague may say something that is extremely profound, very prepared, very much related to what you think about the score. And you have to treat both of them equally. And that is artificial and very difficult. That has been very difficult for me over the years. But it’s something that you really need to do. You cannot say to your colleague, “This is just stupid.” So you treat each with as much respect — which is artificial because you don’t respect the idea — here and there, you know — it’s not everything, because if it’s everything, then you shouldn’t play with this member. But that has been the most difficult for me, is to pretend to respect something that you don’t respect. But it’s necessary to do in the quartet; otherwise you will not have… you will not have peace.

(pause) If I gave you 500 guesses, what is the most difficult, you would not have thought of that one, I’m sure!

Cheyen: What is your proudest achievement outside of music?

Shmuel: That’s easy. My proudest achievement is my job as a father. There is no doubt about that. I feel very proud as a father, and with the job that I did with my kids.

Cheyen: If the world is going to end on Dec. 21st, 2012, what is one thing that you would like to experience before it’s too late?

Shmuel: (pause) Uh, none of your business. (chuckles) (loud laughter from everyone) Gosh… I can’t answer that because I… you know, it’s hypothetical. You know. Hypothetical… so I don’t know. (pause)

Actually, I know what I would like to do, but it’s very personal, it’s kind of metaphysical, or religious, or something that (pause) — is not easy to share. So if you don’t mind, I will pass.

I’d to hear a little bit about the teachers that you studied with.

Shmuel: I studied with Ilona Feher, the teacher of Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz and many Israeli violinists. She was my second teacher; my first teacher was my uncle. And according to her wish that I never study with him because she had to destroy everything that he taught me and start from new. Then I came to the United States and I studied with Zimbalist, and Eto who was his assistant, and… that’s the only official teachers that I had, but… when I was at Curtis, there was a very big Heifetz craze. Everybody was listening to Heifetz. But I listened to — the two artists that I listened to a lot — were Maria Callas and Fischer-Dieskau. They influenced me more than any teacher or anybody. I listened a lot to them, and when they performed in New York I went to their concerts. Now, looking back, I find that both of them were not as great as I thought at the time. But they were great enough. They — they really influenced me a lot.

Wayne: Can you tell me a little bit more about Zimbalist?

Shmuel: He was quite old, and quite deaf. Not entirely deaf, and not entirely old, but quite. And he was… he had, I think, 3 extraordinary qualities. (pause) One quality that was very unique, was that it was important for him to preserve the student’s individuality. So, by coincidence, three of us, John Dalley, myself, and Hidetaro Suzuki — I don’t know if you know, he was a Japanese student who concertmaster of Indianapolis for a long time — we happened to play, one afternoon, Glazunov concerto, one after the other. It just happened. The pianist was Billy Sokoloff who was Mrs. Sokoloff’s husband (he played for our classes). He told me how amazing it was how different we played, and he [Zimbalist] did not change that. I mean he changed things, but he didn’t change the style, or the approach, or the tempo, or whatever. So that was one of his greatest qualities — because many many teachers — their students sound similar, if not the same. But with Zimbalist it was unique that we — obviously we have something in common, but… so that was a great quality.

Another quality that he had was that he did not listen to the same piece very long. He would listen 2 weeks, 3 weeks, and then would ask you to bring it again in 6 months or in a year. And that had a very very positive effect, because (pause)… you know, if you bring a piece to, let’s say, 75% of your capability, to make it 76, takes so much effort. But if you wait 6 months or a year, not only is the piece more fresh because you haven’t just practiced it for 3 weeks, but you’ve developed, presumably, so — then — to improve on the level that you were, is much easier. So that was very very good.

(pause) The worst thing about Mr. Zimbalist was that he was too nice. You know… I studied with him for almost 6 years, and the meanest thing he ever told me was, “I’d like to hear it again”. When he said “I’d like to hear it again”, it means that it really sucked. That — was very gentle. He could be cynical, and he sometimes hurt my feelings because he made fun of pieces that I loved… or an artist that Ioved — he could be very cynical. But he was very very gentle, and very gentleman-ly. (pause) But he didn’t teach all that much, because most of us played quite well, and he was… fairly deaf when I came to him. So I don’t know how he was, earlier.

Jasmine: Jan 11 is your birthday. What birthday present would you like to receive?

Shmuel: I would like… I would like, uh, that there should be peace in the Middle East. (laughter from all) That’s what I would like. There is an old viola joke about a very bad violist. I don’t know if you know it, so I’ll tell it. It’s apropos. (tells joke)



Shmuel Ashkenasi

Shmuel Ashkenasi



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