One of the stranger aspects of mastering the violin has always been the ubiquitous scale. The underlying cause of failure in this arena by so many is the widespread misunderstanding that the scale is a kind of basic exercise that warms one up for the meatier aspects of playing. In fact, scales are the integration of all skills of playing and are, therefore, not only extremely complex, but something to be analyzed and learnt in a very systematic and careful way. It is not for nothing that Heifetz invariably judged hapless young interviewees not on their performance of Paganini, but their rendition of scales.
For those lucky enough to go to a teacher with the requisite knowledge, scales have never been a problem. Sadly, it has often been the case that a teacher sets ‘A major’ for this week's work with little or no advice and the hapless student has to make the best of whatever scale manual she has been ordered to buy. In recognition of this problem, Simon Fischer published his seminal work, Scales, on how to practice all aspects of scale so that they can finally be a satisfying and enjoyable part of a violinist’s life. After this, one does begin to wonder if another book of, or even about scales is actually necessary?
Bearing this context in mind, I decided to take a look at Mark Rush’s new book Carl Flesch Distilled and see if it genuinely had anything new or worthwhile to offer. Putting aside my perverse pleasure in the title, which makes me think of a nice whiskey, I think the answer is "Yes." Aside from the distillation process, the cover also explains that it is "A User-Friendly Approach to the Flesch Scale System." That piqued my interest...
As far as I am aware, the Flesch was not originally intended to be a comprehensive scale manual for beginners or even intermediate level students. Rather, his real goal was to create a super-efficient means for extremely high level players and professionals to work through a necessary amount of daily technique to "maintain" (of course development is a component) their technique within the strictures of limited time and much repertoire to cover. Somehow this original aim seems to have been changed over time. Perhaps it was because he used the word "students" that somehow caused the book to morph into something it wasn’t really intended to be: a beginner’s scale manual. We have to bear in mind that Flesch's "students" were world-class soloists such as Hassid, Goldberg and Neveu. I think even Mark Rush, who is clearly knowledgeable about the whole thing, also seems to follow this assumption which surprised me a little.
However, what Rush has done is to make the work of Flesch clearly a scale manual that works from a upper-beginner level up to professional level (with some omissions that also exist in the original Flesch.) At the same time, he has successfully retained the important aspects of Flesch’s pedagogy and has added some minor "tweaking" in some places to make this transformation rock-solid. For example, he quite sensibly advises the beginner to start with the key of G rather than C and has proposed that some scales might more practically be started in first position rather than 6th, 7th and so on.
The work itself is a very nicely put together spiral-bound book with beautifully printed pages. Full marks! In his fairly brief introduction, Rush introduces the historical background of the original Flesch, the reasons why it had to be de-cluttered, why he has made certain small (very logical) changes (as above) and offers a few hints on practicing in succinct and easy to understand language.
The practicing advice is really rather limited. Basic things like starting off slowly with separate bows, without and then with vibrato and so on. He does offer the acceleration exercise as an important practice method, which is commendable. I did have a small caveat here. As he describes it, this is the Galamian acceleration exercise with the beginning notes of the scale exactly as he taught it. I am well aware that this system is universal and the Soviet school teaches something similar which has nothing to do with Galamian. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen a small nod to that venerable master in the introduction of this excellent practice method.
So, that’s about it. If you want to self-study using the ideas on intonation handed down through Casals and DeLay and have a slew of study methods and routines applicable to scales at your disposal, then Simon Fischer’s "Scales" is the book for you. However, if you just want a superbly laid out scale manual that preserves the beauty and power of Flesch’s ideas on scales, then this is certainly the book for you. The issues of shifting, intonation and the intricate aspects of playing scales well will have to be entrusted to another resource such as a fine teacher. Nothing wrong with that at all!
In particular, this book will be a huge relief for the many teachers all over the world who teach using the Flesch method and are just exhausted by having to de clutter and rearrange according to the current needs of a beginner or lower-intermediate player. In fact, if you do start out the Flesch System with this book, you will never need to purchase the original Flesch System books. This one is just more user-friendly and will last a life-time.
As such, Rush has done violinists a service by creating a niche scale manual that will make a lot of people’s lives much easier!
("Carl Flesch Distilled" is available by clicking here, and readers of this blog post who wish the purchase the book can get a 20 percent discount by entering this code at the publishers website: VLNcom071109.)
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