J.S. Bach and a night visitor, Josef Gingold

It was the 1970’s, and I was a percussion performance major at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana.  I was studying percussion with George Gaber, and as far as I could figure, I had died and gone to heaven.

The I.U. School of Music was in full bloom to say the least.  I’m guessing there were 6 or 7 full orchestras, including the top-of-the-top ‘I.U. Philharmonic’ orchestra.  David Baker had 3 or 4 Jazz bands going all the time.  There seemed to be endless wind ensembles, chamber ensembles, new music ensembles, composers premiering their pieces, avant garde groups, recordings, opera, ballet, choral groups, recitalists looking for other instrumentalists to perform with them, and on and on.  If you weren’t on a stage at least once a day playing something, either rehearsing or performing, I’m not sure how that could happen to anyone at that place during those years?

When I arrived at IU, Mr. Gaber explained to me that a lot of good playing opportunities would be coming my way, as they did for other musicians there.  These were opportunities to leave Bloomington and join touring bands, pop bands, rock bands, jazz bands, and more.  He asked if I planned to stay and learn the depths of what was available there?  I promised him I would.  And even though I did take a number of terrific playing opportunities during those years, and was afforded travel to some amazing countries and places,  I always returned.  I did finish the whole path with Mr. Gaber, taking longer than others for all the great opportunities that came my way.  I took full advantage and finished what I started with Mr. Gaber and the IU School of Music.

Among percussion’s other primary disciplines, I was playing a ton of mallets.  Mr. Gaber got me into wood shedding and performing a lot of J.S. Bach pieces on marimba and vibes, along with constant scales and arpeggios, with a strong dose of Paganini, and four part Bach Chorals for sight reading, just to make sure I was paying attention.

As I discovered and played more and more of these pieces I was amazed by their beauty and power.  As I began to gain a personal perspective on this music, I gravitated to Bach, and specifically Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.  Bach’s D minor Chaconne for violin was up for one of the pieces on an upcoming recital of mine.  I took aim to play it on vibes, (you know, one of those great sounding Gold Bar Musser Vibes of the time).

At that time, any night that I wasn’t on stage playing something else, I was in my favorite practice room going through and through Bach’s  Chaconne.  Mr. Gaber was teaching me and guiding me in my lessons with him, and I was having the time of my life.

One night, late, I was playing the Chaconne.  It was beginning to really come together, when my practice room door opened.  Standing in the doorway was Josef Gingold, one of the world’s truly great violinists of that time.  I didn’t know what to do or say, and luckily for me he spoke first.  In his still thick Russian accent and deep gravelly voice, he said slowly,  “you’re playing my music”.

Still, no words were coming out of my mouth.  Then he came in and closed the door behind him.  He motioned for me to continue, and said smiling, “play”.  Mr. Gingold listened for several minutes, and when I paused, he looked at me and said, “beautiful”.  Then he smiled and walked out with the door closing quietly behind him.  I thought the whole experience was really cool, and figured I was doing something right.

An aside, important notes on Mr. Gingold:  Mr. Gingold’s story is clearly one of those ‘larger than life’ experiences that is nothing short of miraculous.  Born in Russia in 1909, he emigrated to the USA in 1920 at the age of 11 with his mother.  Studying then with Vladimir Graffman in New York, he played his way into the NBC orchestra just a few years later under the direction or Arturo Toscanini.  This is also where he and George Gaber first met, as the young George Gaber was also a member of that same NBC orchestra under Toscanini.  In unfair brevity here to his amazing career and accomplishments, Mr. Gingold then became concert master of the Detroit Symphony, and then later concertmaster with The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.   Mr. Gingold said that his greatest teacher throughout his life was George Szell.  Mr. Gingold was clearly one of my greatest teachers, forever changing my experience with performance and the way I play things yet today.

Back to Bloomington . . . the next day, there was a note on Mr. Gaber’s bulletin board for me, (an actual ‘paper’, hand written note, not an email or text like we have today 🙂  The note said I was to come and see him that afternoon in his studio.  When I did, he offered that I sit down.  He then said, “I understand that you and Mr. Gingold met last night?”  I said “yes, we did”.  And then Mr. Gaber explained that Mr. Gingold had called him and wanted me to study with him.  I said nothing.  Mr. Gaber said, “this will be very good”. He then gave me the day and time of my first lesson with Mr. Gingold, and explained that I could take my favorite gold bar vibe down in the freight elevator to Mr. Gingold’s studio for each lesson.  I thanked Mr. Gaber, and was working to take in everything that I thought had just happened as I left his studio.

Right on time the next week I arrived at Mr. Gingold’s studio on the first floor of the music building with my vibe, mallets, and my book of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in hand.  I knocked, the door opened, and Mr. Gingold invited me to roll my vibe in.  He was smiling.  I thought it was good that he was smiling.

First, he simply asked me to play the Bach D Minor Chaconne for him, which is about a 20 minute piece in duration.  I was enjoying thinking about how well he knew this piece that was and had been part of his lifelong performing.

He listened, taking it all in.  When I finished the piece, there was some silence as he was thinking, and then he offered,  “you know we can’t do that on the violin”.  Following his remark  I’m sure I looked confused, and then he added,  “the chords, for us:  the double stops”.  He liked how the vibe could express those beautiful Bach chords, written for violin, all at once with four mallets.  When violinist’s play them, they do so as quick double stops in immediate succession, to create the full written chord sonority, in-time with their phrasing, tempo and expression.  That has to be tricky business for any violinist to first learn and then master.

After that, Mr. Gingold really got into the minutia of the piece with me, teaching me phrasing, shapes, et al, from his ‘master violinist’s’ perspective.  He taught me what had to be maintained in this violin music, now being played on a vibraphone.  We spent a number of visits on the Chaconne, and then ventured off into other pieces and parts of that Bach collection.  I remember Mr. Gingold was always very fond of  Bach’s Fugue in E Major too, and Paganini.

My lessons with Mr. Gingold were every bit the gift that my  lessons with Mr. Gaber were, and Mr. Duff in Cleveland.  As we were finishing up and I was about to leave town for another playing opportunity, Mr. Gingold and I had a ‘parting’ conversation that meant a lot to me.  I will always remember how he said to me, “you know, if Bach had known about the vibraphone, there would be a lot less violin music today”.

I learned so much from my time with Mr. Gingold, and he so willingly shared his great depth of knowledge generously, including the importance of sharing perspectives and remaining open to all kinds of musical wisdom and expressions.

If you are not familiar with Mr. Gingold’s stellar career and hefty contributions and world-stage performance career, please take a little time to check it out.  I remember how years after I had completed my time in Bloomington, a Sunday morning CBS TV show of the time called, interestingly, ‘Sunday Morning’, hosted by Charles Kuralt, did an entire segment on Mr. Gingold and the amazing contributions to the musical lives that he touched throughout the world.

Thanks to Gordon Stout for his appreciation of this memory as I shared it with him sometime earlier this, or last year, which prompted this blog memory and entry.

Also thanks to Cameron Leach and his young, on-fire performance abilities, reminding us all of just what can happen with a stack of years of very dedicated work and persistence.

    Practice, prepare, always play your best!

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