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An Interview with Joey Corpus: The Violin Doctor

An Interview with Joey Corpus: The Violin Doctor

LIVS: An Interview with Joey Corpus, the Violin Doctor

A Conversation Between Joey Corpus, Gregg Deering and Charles Rufino.

First published in Classical Domain.

Greg Deering (GD): As a violin neophyte I want to ask a question that will take some explanation. There’s a psychologist. D. H. Winnicott who is famous for declaring that “There is no such thing as a baby.” Meaning that any discussion of a baby’s development is part of a relationship. So, along those lines, do you believe there to be a “player” and an “instrument” or is there just a relationship between them? For instance when someone already has the technique, what do you teach them?

Joey Corpus (JC): That depends on the student. I consider the whole person and the way they play physically. I get a sense of their needs as I get to know them.

GD: So you consider the person first, and then how they physically play the violin?

…the way each individual thinks and hears music or does not hear music. A big part of teaching is to train the student’s ears. They may play a phrase a certain way without realizing it. If I point out an oddity in their playing and ask if they really wanted that effect, they usually say no…
JC: I think it’s a totality. I can’t really separate the physical from the person. Often we’ll talk and I get a sense of them even before they begin to play.

GD: I suppose the two cannot be separated. Psychology must be a big part of your work.

JC: I think it’s a big part. Perhaps a very talented musician went straight into playing more difficult repertory, skipping much of the rigors of the standard violin education of scales and etudes. Even though it may not be necessary, they feel a need to remedy that by going through material they don’t really need. This can be a deep seated and disturbing fear, enough to rob them of their confidence and convincing them that they are incompetent.

GD: I’ve read that you like to start slowly with the basics. I’ve read that you often begin by taking students back to review fundamentals?

JC: With the advanced students I don’t take them to the very beginning. Some teachers like to change everything; bow hold, left hand position, etc. I only do that if it’s absolutely necessary. Perhaps they need to review to some basics. Perhaps they have been squeezed into a tight orchestra pit on Broadway with a limited range of motion and because they can’t move the bow freely their arm mechanics start to go awry. Or their performance schedule is so busy they have lost the habit of maintaining their technique with scales. I try to analyze the physical and the musical, envisioning a finished product and then I work backwards.

GD: What do you mean by a finished product?

JC: How I believe they might sound their very best in performance. Considering how every note fits into a phrase, or how they are trying to communicate their ideas. If there is a technical problem we try to solve it: how they are shifting or using the bow, because that prevents them from their playing best.

GD: Does your problem solving consider different approaches to music?

JC: Yes, the way each individual thinks and hears music or does not hear music. A big part of teaching is to train the student’s ears. They may play a phrase a certain way without realizing it. If I point out an oddity in their playing and ask if they really wanted that effect, they usually say no.

GD: So how many ways have you heard the Brahms Concerto?

JC: (laughing) Hundreds! Once I taught four students in a row preparing the Brahms Concerto and it didn’t seem like the same piece. I always try to understand the musician’s intention, help them along where they need it, or maybe clarify their ideas. The technical obstacles of playing well are very great — so there are always physical things that have to be taken care of, how to practice effectively and so on.

GD: I’m very curious about the technical aspect. When someone plays for you for the first time and you are judging their technical proficiency as well as their communication skills as a musician, is the technical aspect easier to deal with?

JC: Yes, but because I think of the finished product first, I prefer to go about it from a musical point of view and then work backwards. So if I want to give them an idea of how it might sound eventually I will ask them to play a phrase a certain way and we will start by paying attention to how to practice this phrase, or look at the bow arm or other aspects of technique.

…ultimately a musical performance is the goal, and I try to make that clear from the very beginning, even if we are dealing with a lot of technical issues. So I think the musical part is most important because it determines so many, many things; how much bow you use, how much vibrato you use, all the tools of expression. The most difficult thing about playing the violin is interpretation; it’s very easy to play mechanically without any commitment. But to nakedly show your soul to the world (Joey snaps his fingers) with everything exposed, that takes guts…

GD: It seems to be such a huge abstraction. You are expected to play with technical correctness, including the current notion of how it should sound, which is difficult enough. But on top of that you have to think about individual communication and trying to be authentic and spontaneous in a live performance. It seems to be an impossible task.

JC: Yes, sometimes it does.

GD: How do you sort all that out with each individual that comes to you?

JC: Again, it depends on where they are in their playing, especially if they understand exactly what’s supposed to be going on musically. It’s a combination of guidance, giving them ideas, listening to them, analyzing, and considering what might improve their performance.

GD: The way people approach the violin has changed a lot. Comparing modern to older recordings some interpretations are more streamlined and make perfect sense. But sometimes that older approach is just a little oh… “chewier” and they seem to get more out of a phrase.

JC: Yes, I definitely like the “chewier” kind of performance. Each generation likes to purify their music making — to get rid of the excesses of the past. But the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction — we threw away everything.

GD: Can you give us an example?

JC: Well, the more expressive devices in violin playing like portamento, that’s when you slide when moving from one note to another, that’s been pretty much eradicated from violin playing. It would be nice to hear more of that, if done properly and tastefully. I think we’ve lost something in the search for musical purity.

GD: How does vibrato fit in with in this topic?

JC: I think these days there’s not enough variety in vibrato because people don’t think enough about how it’s used. They most often vibrate when it’s convenient, without thinking how it fits into a phrase, or how it might color the sound of certain notes.

GD: I find this fascinating, can you teach someone different sorts of vibrato that are appropriate in different contexts?

JC: Yes, I may give a student exercises to learn to better control vibrato, after which we can discuss its proper application, which usually depends on the music. In general, when you are playing a very intense passage at full volume you can’t use the same vibrato appropriate for a quieter passage. There are many different sorts of vibrato, even the physical execution — some vibrate with the hand, the arm, just with the finger or in combination, so there is a lot to it both in the physical skill and the interpretive application.

Charles Rufino (CR): This is a perfect example of imagining a perfect mental image of what an individual can achieve. Carl Becker [one of America's great violin makers] taught me to look at instruments in the same way. Just as you describe, he would look at an instrument and get a sense of its full potential, and within the constraints imposed upon us, bring the instrument as close as we could to that full perfection.

JC: Approaching that perfection depends greatly upon the student and how much they can understand and apply. I believe in the classical methods to acquire technique; etudes and scales, while always keeping in mind the finished product of performance.

…while I might make suggestions, I’m not going to superimpose my ideas on someone who has already formed good musical ideas. But that depends who is playing for me. Sometimes, yes, I tell them “You have to play it this way, at least for now, and later on, you can do what you want…
GD: Speaking of acquiring technique, how did you learn all about vibrato? When you started the violin you taught yourself.

JC: I started playing when I was 14 years old and one day I saw my uncle, an amateur violinist vibrate and I copied him. I was also inspired by a Milstein recording with a beautiful vibrato. I just shook my hand until I could do it, because for the first six months I didn’t have a teacher.

CR: Both of your Grandfathers were violinists; were they involved in your playing?

JC: No, my paternal grandfather passed away a few years before I was born. My maternal grandfather was a pianist and composer, so he was very encouraging but not involved with my development as a violinist.

CR: Do you still have that first violin that you played on?

JC: It was a three-quarter sized instrument that belonged to my maternal grandfather and we gave it back to him when I moved up to a full size.

CR: I’d like to ask a little about your training here as a violinist, and actually have a question my wife wanted to pose. When you were 14 years old you were offered a scholarship to Juilliard which you were unable to accept. Yet you have accomplished so much in spite of that early setback. Did you ever think at the time when you had to refuse that offer that you would achieve as much as you have?

JC: No, I’m sure I didn’t; I just wanted to play the violin. This may sound odd, but I never really thought about the future or doing grand things. I just wanted to play well; that’s what drove me. I wasn’t thinking about making a name… maybe in my youth, but I can’t even think that far back. I wanted to study and to play well to my satisfaction, so I practiced a lot.

CR: You finally made it to the States in 1982 to study with Jascha Brodsky, what was most memorable about that experience?

JC: It was a great seven years, it was amazing. Every lesson I learned so much. A lot of my teaching has been influenced by him. He taught me how to listen; that was a big huge part of it. And it would take years to tell you even a small part of it. My memory is pretty good, so I remembered a lot; I wrote down very little during lessons but I applied everything, so his lessons are a part of my brain.

GD: Do you ever hear his voice when giving instructions?

JC: He used to ask “Are you going to teach or are you just going to give lessons?” (laughter) A very tough act to follow. He was like a father to me.

CR: How did you discover your gift for teaching?

JC: Very early on people just wanted to play for me, even when I was in school, and I just naturally gravitated to it.

GD: You have wonderful reputation as a skilled communicator and listener. Do your students come here with expectations?

JC: I guess so, but they don’t tell me (laughter), and I’m afraid to find out! (more laughter). People get very nervous when they play for me and it surprises me. But I remember at my first lesson with Mr. Brodsky I was shaking like a leaf, so I do understand. But I don’t really think so much about what their expectations are. Also I don’t have any expectations of them, even if I’ve heard them play before, maybe on a CD.

GD: Well you’re putting them into that next place once they walk in, right?

JC: Yes, that’s the goal; that’s the hope! (Laughs)

CR: Do you find there are some students who resist your attempts to help them?

JC: Yes, very occasionally, not often. Some were taught a certain way very differently from my style, but usually they give me a chance. It is only natural to get resistance when I ask them to try something they are not used to. But usually it works out.

GD: What is the most common thing that your students have to relearn or find other paths to?

JC: Usually we need to focus our attention on the interpretative more than the physical or technical, a different way of playing from a musical standpoint. Examining the aesthetic and philosophical way of interpreting things.

GD: Well, different schools, places and training produce different sounds.

JC: Now the barriers are down and one can’t hear any differences regardless of where somebody went to school or with whom he studied.

GD: Do you think that’s a bad thing?

JC: Well, maybe not that bad… but… yes. Part of me that wants to hear more differences between schools; maybe it’s a pipe dream. But more individuality in the performances would be nice. So many modern performances sound so similar. In that I’m more old school than many other people.

GD: Well it’s the streamlining we were talking about before, which can have a detrimental effect on music. We’re trying to be more authentic, believing we’re getting closer to “Original Intent” by jettisoning things. Sometimes it seems to me like polishing a statue so much that you lose its patina.

…they often have no training in shifting the focus of their listening to something else. Violinists can very easily get caught up in intonation because that’s the first thing you hear. Sometimes you forget that the sound is not beautiful — all you hear is the intonation…

CR: There’s a legendary theatre director who said “Authenticity is the enemy of individuality.”

JC: Well these days I think performers are not being left to do what they should be doing, as in centuries past. The performer’s path used to be different from the composers path. Now they’re blending the two. Like the idea of trying to reconstruct the first performances; I don’t know if I completely agree with it. But I’d better watch out, I’m going to get in trouble with my baroque friends here. (laughing)

Earlier, I think performers were allowed to do their art, rather than trying to narrow the gap between the performer and the music, which is really a modern idea. And a lot of individuality has been lost. We don’t know in which direction the pendulum will swing next but there is a certain amount of sameness in the way music is today.

CR: Could this situation be like the International Gothic style of the late 13th and early 14th Century when all across Europe they were painting in a similar style and then a century or two later styles were very unique and different?

GD: If they only had art books then, it would never have changed because everybody would have been able to see everything.

CR: Right! So do you think that the easy access to recordings has damaged the ability audiences to hear? When you have people showing up expecting to hear one violin in front of 70 musicians sounding the same as a recording where the left channel is the violin and the right channel is the orchestra?

JC: Yes the availability of recordings has changed everything!

GD: Your students say many great things about the impact you have had on them. But what would you like them to take away from their studies with you.

JC: The music is the most important thing; that is the way to find yourself through the technical requirements of playing the violin. Making music is the most challenging thing to teach and what I most want to impart to my students. While I might make suggestions, I’m not going to superimpose my ideas on someone who has already formed good musical ideas. But that depends who is playing for me. Sometimes, yes, I tell them “You have to play it this way, at least for now, and later on, you can do what you want. ”

…I hope I am not getting too technical, but mechanically playing a scale is completely different from playing a phrase and doing everything that’s musically required. In order to execute a simple crescendo you need to do many physical things properly, and if you can analyze of how you do it, later you can solve many technical challenges that impede your musical expression….

GD: So you are building a conceptual base for their future learning.

JC: Definitely. How to work, how to hear, how to maintain your playing ability, and how to practice properly so there are no accidents.

CR: Do you employ recordings to help students hear themselves?

JC: Very often they tape of videotape their lessons, and they immediately hear what I want them to focus on. They often have no training in shifting the focus of their listening to something else. Violinists can very easily get caught up in intonation because that’s the first thing you hear. Sometimes you forget that the sound is not beaufiful…all you hear is the intonation.

CR: Do you teach other instruments apart from violin?

JC: Viola and cello. A lot of violists, a few cellists, even double bass. Mostly I teach interpretation; how to practice little things, not necessarily for the mechanical part, more like musical coaching.

CR: This is a small studio. Do you do that over the phone?

JC: (laughing) Actually, the other day, someone from England played her entire audition over the phone.

GD: Talk about phoning in a performance. (more laughs) So what did you tell her?

JC: We talked about a few things, I made a few comments, and she said it was helpful. She was in New York a few weeks ago the day before her audition and she wanted me to hear her.

GD: You’re a Life Coach for instrumentalists! Does that happen a lot?

JC: One of my students actually referred to herself and her friends who are my students as “Joey’s Broken Toys”

GD & CR: Awwwww, that’s sad! (laughter)

JC: Yes it is sad, of course it’s not true, and they meant it in a humorous way.

GD: Well everybody needs a place where they are secure, and I think that this business is full of insecurity, because it is such an abstraction.

JC: I think also musicians are also naturally paranoid, it’s almost impossible to avoid. (Chuckles) Sometimes you just need somebody to confide in because it gets to a point where it’s affecting you.

GD: So then they call you.

JC: Sure, sometimes for just phone conversations. As I said sometimes it takes them a while before they start.

GD: Is there a level where players no longer can benefit from teaching?

JC: Yes, I surely think so. But as I said earlier, sometimes they don’t really need coaching, but can use a little word of encouragement or reassurance.

GD: Or an educated ear; somebody can feel confident about their decisions discussing them with you. I might tell them they sound great, my opinion might not make them fell particularly secure!

JC: Yes, a lot of people come just for that express purpose. And some of them will play something just before they record it just to make sure that everything’s OK.

CR: Do you see yourself as part of a school or tradition as a violin doctor? Or do you see it more as an expression of your musical training?

JC: I see it as the latter. Yet even though I come from a certain tradition, my job is to help my students realize what they want to say. While I might make suggestions, I’m not going to superimpose my ideas on someone who has already formed good musical ideas. But that depends who is playing for me. Sometimes, yes, I tell them “You have to play it this way, at least for now, and later on, you can do what you want. ”

CR: Do you ever think “Oh my, they’re destroying that poor piece of music?” It must be difficult to be diplomatic if it is a piece you especially love!

JC: Well, in cases like that I say “I think we can make this better” and take it from there. Usually people are very open. I imagine they come to me to get a different point of view. And I do not argue (chuckles) I assume they want to hear what I have to say about it, but if they don’t agree, that’s fine too.

…many people associate sound and tone only with playing pieces and repertoire, that you work on your sound later, after everything else is fixed. Some students never get to think about sound because playing is physically uncomfortable or they face a multitude of technical problems. I like to bring tone to the forefront right away because it makes sense to me. I think it is a quicker road to improvement…

GD: So you distinguish between a teacher and someone in charge of interpretation.

JC: Yes, some people come to me just for technical help and don’t want their interpretations touched. That’s fine too. Whatever makes them better performers.

GD: You’ll stand back in that situation and stick to the technical aspects.

JC: Yes, I’ll try to understand what they want to achieve and even if it’s completely different from what I like, it’s still my job to help that person realize what they’re trying to express with their instrument.

GD: You obviously have a huge love for the sound of the violin. Do you ever have students who don’t?

JC: Many people associate sound and tone only with playing pieces and repertoire, that you work on your sound later, after everything else is fixed. Some students never get to think about sound because playing is physically uncomfortable or they face a multitude of technical problems. I like to bring tone to the forefront right away because it makes sense to me. I think it is a quicker road to improvement.

GD: And you fall in love with the sound sooner. The violin has a liquid sound, but it’s also got a rough edge. Recordings take that edge off and our expectations are so different that when we encounter the real thing we think there’s something wrong.

JC: It also depends how far you are from the performer, because they have to alter their playing quite radically versus playing to a microphone a few feet away. Recordings are delightful, but there’s no substitute for attending live concerts to improve as a player. One gets a better sense of what’s required of a performer. If you listen to a recording you don’t know how much bow the performer is using or how physically free they are and unafraid to play. They are not fearfully asking themselves “am I doing this properly” or afraid of playing out of tune, or scratching. I try to free up the space around my students, to play with a lot of bow and be physically free.

GD: And that helps them mentally too

JC: Sure!

GD: This is probably old hat to you, but it never fails to interest me, and I can guarantee that there will be people reading this who will find this an absolutely new idea.

CR: Well, one of the interesting things about playing an instrument is that it makes so many people tense up. Whatever way you have of expressing tension will come out while you are playing and you need to learn to eliminate that tension rather than storing it. As I did not play the violin as a child, entering school when I was 20….

JC: You mean violin making school?

CR: Yes.

JC: And may I ask where this was?

CR: Oh, yes, the Newark School of Violin Making in Newark-Upon-Trent, in England. So I came to study all these things from the outside, because nothing was native from my childhood. And I learned that in moments of tension I habitually raise my shoulders, so if I am trying to play better I have to focus on allowing my shoulders to relax, not clenching my hand, and other ways I can express tension. Not that this knowledge has made me much of a player.

GD: OK, so here’s the answer. Just make everybody a gypsy violinist first (laughter) and then you teach them the violin. They seem the most relaxed and mobile, there have been a lot of great gypsy violinists.

JC: There’s a certain truth to that; they just play and they don’t worry about doing things incorrectly. There was a New Yorker cartoon: in the first panel a violinist is scraping away with his shoulders are all hunched up, and in the second panel his instrument is down and his shoulders are still hunched up.

GD: On another topic, I have a question. When I Googled you I found a Joey Corpus who is a boxer. Did you know there is a boxer with your name? He had a pretty good record, too. Fifteen wins—thirteen by knockout—and three losses.

JC: I had no idea. Well, I needed a night job. (Laughter) : A pugilist, wow. That I did not know. Maybe some of my students need to call him. (laughter)

GD: This is the Joey one calls when one gets bad reviews! I talk to one before I go on stage, and the other after!

CR: Apart from the violin and music, what are some of your favorite things, and how do these interests inform your teaching.

JC: Wow, that’s a big question.

CR: I’ll tell you where this question comes from. I know some people who studied with Dounis, who was a medical doctor. [D.C. Dounis, a violin doctor to the stars of an earlier generation] and they report that he frequently referred to his medical training. And I like books, and I like cooking so when discussing issues about their instrument with my clients, I often am using metaphors about food or literature.

JC: (laughing) Well, yes, I read a lot, go to concerts, watch movies. I often do magic tricks for friends. I picked it up as a boy and people just kept asking through the years to see tricks. And I listen to a lot of music, even when I’m not teaching. People wonder that I’m not sick of it. The pure aesthetic pleasure of music is important to me, I listen to all sorts of things. My father was an amateur jazz pianist so there was a lot of jazz in the house, and I’m definitely a big jazz fan. I go to jazz clubs or concerts once in a while and always notice the element of caution or fear often present in classical performances is completely absent, maybe because as improvisers, they don’t know what they are about to play.It’s also mentally stimulating; you want to hear what other people are doing, hear different ideas. Sometimes I’ll hear a violinist do an interesting fingering, maybe I’ll try it, adopt it or part of it. So in a way, (laughing) work doesn’t stop!

GD: Yes, can you separate them? Professionals often lose the ability to listen innocently, it is his occupational hazard. Does that trouble you?

JC: No, absolutely not. I just enjoy listening… I have music playing pretty much all the time. Music just seems to find its way to me, even when I am very tired… it replenishes me. Well, I think I can switch off a certain critical mode in my listening when I am not teaching. I can listen carefully in a different way, absorbing the music without being critical.

GD: Maybe that’s the key to the teaching too, because you don’t listen critically, you are thinking about potential.

JC: Yes, I don’t consciously analyze what I am doing, so it’s good that you ask me these questions… (chuckling)… maybe I need to think about them.

CR: Do you ever think about writing a book, or training others to carry on your work? Is this possible or even desirable?

JC: I don’t know if it’s possible… some students have asked why I don’t write; perhaps because I prefer to deal with people as individuals. And many fine books on playing the violin already exist. I’m more interested in discovering the exercises that they need, or illuminating an aspect of their playing that will make all the difference for them.

CR: There’s a videotaped series of Heifetz Master Classes from the early Sixties, which I’m sure you’ve seen. They’re a fascinating social record as well as being musical and artistic artifacts. Might you use technology to share your work with a wider audience?

JC: I have never really even thought of it.

CR: Apart from helping musicians reach their full potential, do you have any particular dream that you would like to accomplish in coming years?

GD: Apart from meeting Joey Corpus the fighter

JC: Yes, that would be a good one, ask for his autograph. But seriously, most days I try to be better at what I do than the day before. I know it sounds clichéd, but I know I have students that can play much better and I must think about how to make them better. That’s really it; I just want to be better at what I do. It was the goal when I first started as a violinist and it’s my goal now as a teacher.

GD: Well I think this has been a fantastic interview

JC: Thank you, it has been my great pleasure.

A violin technical aside (excerpted from the above interview)

CR: I have experimented with scientific tuning to engineer the tone after completing an instrument, and to my taste, the change is not necessarily an improvement. I’m a native New Yorker, and like a sound with a certain amount of texture and edge, which this scientific tuning seems to eliminate. The violin tends to sound very smooth and boring…

JC: Do you mean a flat sound?

CR: Yes, exactly. A pet theory of mine is that Dominant strings have been popular for so long because they have a similar certain rye-bread quality which fascinates us more than a blander string.

GD: Do they sound lusher?

CR: Not exactly — here is an analogy that works for me. If you like Italian sausages which have a bit of rough-textured chewy-ness to them and you go down to the Pennsylvania Dutch country, eating one of their sausages is like biting into a mashed potato. It’s been milled so fine that it has no character. That’s what some of these new strings sound like to me, some people like them, but they seem to be engineered for perfection rather than fascination.

JC: Do you recommend certain strings?

CR: That’s my question! What counts is what musicians say about strings — you are the ones playing them day after day and getting the truest sense of them. What strings do you like?

JC: It depends on the instrument. My brother, who is also a violinist, suggested a combination of Evah Pirazzi and Larsen, which work very well for for the instrument I’m using, a Brothers Carcassi.

CR: Dominants with a Silver D always are reliable, and lately I have been putting Vision Orchestral Heavy on my violins and Obligato strings on my violas.

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