Violinist Leopold Auer on Musical Understanding and Style

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Enjoy!

“To understand, and to cause to be understood – these words sum up the end and aim of style.”

Leopold Auer

Leopold Auer (1845–1930) was one of the most renown violin teachers in history. He was guide to many of the biggest and best in the classical violin world.

His students could do anything, technique-wise. He took technique for granted. Playing the notes was a foregone conclusion. He was more concerned with “how” they played the notes.

Auer was against stuffy notions of “traditional” playing. He saw stodgy, monotone renditions of Bach or Mozart as signs of a lazy (or, at best, undeveloped) musical mind. His passion was for passion – and for each player to find their own true individual expression and style.

But by this he didn’t mean it to be a free-for-all. Style had to follow the needs of the music. And this is where understanding comes to bear.

“To understand, and to cause to be understood – these words sum up the end and aim of style.”

The basis of style, according to Auer, is to first understand. But understand what? Everything – the technical demands, sure. But also the musical context of each note and phrase, and the desired musical and emotional outcomes.

By way of a metaphor, consider the question, “What will I wear today?”

Of course it depends on where we’re going and what we’re doing. Do we don our “Sunday best” for an afternoon on the beach? Perhaps, if we’ll be meeting the Queen. But otherwise probably not.

To meet the Queen a six-year-old may want to impress her with his favorite Spider Man t-shirt. A military officer may opt for his formal “mess dress”. And a young lady may choose her best sundress (unless she’s representing a larger organization, which may prompt a smart pant-suit).

A wedding is different than a knighting is different than a pheasant hunt, even if the Queen attends each. The scene also depends on who else in in attendance. The more we know of each attendee and their relationship, the richer and more colorful will be our understanding of the situation.

Our stylistic choices depend on our understanding of the situation, and the desired outcome.

In our music, one of the most powerful questions we can ask is, “What’s going on here?”.

We can first seek to discover where the music is going, and how it means to get there. Then we can start deciding to get louder here or to slow down there.

Until we understand the music, we’ll not succeed at playing it so that others also understand it. With time, we learn more and better ways to communicate musical ideas. We expand our understanding of what is possible, and we find more of the subtle subtexts and interplays within the music.

We develop style layer by layer. We develop understanding piece by piece. And we develop technical facility one focused practice at a time.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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