An Interview with Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler Director, Peter Rosen

Image Credit: PBS

 American Masters Series Presents the National Broadcast Premiere of: 
Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler April 16 and 17 on PBS (check local listings)


 “Heifetz is thrilling to watch, even if you rarely listen to classical music,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters. “His technique was just astounding and he was revered around the world. What makes Peter Rosen’s film so compelling is the way that it takes a deeply personal look at the struggle of an artist to realize greatness.”


NAfME had the privilege of asking Director Peter Rosen, Jascha Heifetz biographers, and even former students about the upcoming documentary, and about what they learned from “God’s Fiddler.”  


  1. What was it about Jascha Heifetz that made you want to create a documentary on his life, rather than Arthur Rubinstein or Gregor Piatigorsky? What was it about Heifetz that inspired you the most?

 “I’ve made previous documentaries about great figures in the arts, and there’s always a debate on who was the greatest conductor, who was the greatest pianist, who was the greatest tenor or soprano. But in making this film, I found no debate in music circles on who was the greatest violinist: Jascha Heifetz.”


  1. What did you discover about Mr. Heifetz’s relationship with his teacher, Leopold Auer? How did Auer influence his artistic development, especially at such a young age?

From John A. Maltese, Heifetz biographer:

Heifetz came to him with his technique basically perfected. Heifetz had already created a sensation playing for thousands of people at outdoor concerts in Odessa and had even made recordings before coming to Auer. Zimbalist, who heard Heifetz before he began studying with Auer, said that Auer changed nothing fundamental about Heifetz’s playing, adding drolly: “He knew when to let well enough alone.”  Instead, Auer focused mostly on interpretation. Richard Burgin, who attended Auer’s class when Heifetz joined it (and who later served as Auer’s assistant as Christiana, Norway when Heifetz studied there in 1916), was even more dismissive of Auer’s influence on Heifetz, saying that “he did not even teach him. He just derived great pleasure from listening to him.”

Auer focused on interpretation rather than the basics of technique, although Heifetz credited him with teaching him “the true art of bowing,” which involved  “absolute relaxation” of the bow arm and wrist. Auer suggested, for example, that students should play Bach’s Air on the G String in a slow, drawn-out manner with many counts to each note, avoiding any rigidity of the arm by holding the right elbow very high in order to let the lower arm move freely. That high elbow became a Heifetz staple.

Auer also encouraged individuality. Thus, his students all play differently. Heifetz also encouraged this individuality when teaching his own students. If they tried to imitate his playing, he would brush them aside and call them “copy cat.” 

Heifetz had great affection for Auer (as evidenced in the clip of them together in God’s Fiddler).

Heifetz said in 1918 that Auer “is a wonderful and an incomparable teacher; I do not believe there is one in the world who can possibly approach him. Do not ask me just how he does it, for I would not know how to tell you. But he is different with each pupil—perhaps that is one reason he is so great a teacher.”  “Half an hour with Auer,” Heifetz added in a 1925 interview, “is always to me a great emotional and intellectual stimulus. He has a remarkable mind, a remarkable wit, a remarkable nervous system, a remarkable magnetism.”  Heifetz continued to seek Auer’s coaching until his death in 1930, playing entire recital programs for his old master.

 One thing that Auer was staunchly opposed to was the use of continuous vibrato. Luckily, Heifetz and Auer’s other great students did not listen.


From Arthur Vered, biographer:

Auer’s influence on Heifetz was part of a larger shift in the young violinist’s life which began at the age of 9 with his move to the large and impressive metropolis of St. Petersburg. In Auer’s class Heifetz was able to listen to other talented classmates and also enjoy the undivided attention of Auer – sometimes in private lessons in the latter’s home. Pedagogically, Auer did not have to address young Heifetz’s already established technical wizardry (if anyone did, it was Auer’s assistant, Ioannes Nalbandian). Instead the teacher focused on repertoire and instilled the qualities that all his pupils became famous for: the purity of tone, the phrasing line, the attention to details and to the composer’s intentions, and possibly above all the insistence on honest, hard work. He made his auditions difficult and the bi-annual conservatory exams were equally hard (overseen by the rector/composer A. Glazunov). Auer had  set the artistic bar extremely high and he was a  difficult teacher to please, the logic being that if a pupil can overcome those obsticles, he’d more likely be prepared for a musical career. Many of these basic tenets can be discerned in Heifetz’s teaching more than half a century later.

 On a personal level Heifetz became very attached to Auer and in his youth Jascha rather idolised him. Later in life Heifetz realised the immense influence the tutor had exercised and that in many ways Auer became like a second father figure: he introduced the young violinist to the music world, coached him in manners and etiquette and above all organised his European debuts in several capitals and music centers.

Heifetz remained all his life deeply grateful to his teacher and faithfully carried on the Auer legacy. 


  1. The documentary quotes Heifetz saying, “The audience should never feel that the artist is struggling to achieve anything,” followed by a clip of Jascha playing etudes and exercises in his studio. Were etudes a component of lessons, or were lessons solely focused on repertoire?

 They were indeed. Students were usually requested to play some “warming up” scales during lesson and they were expected to master them at all times, in all keys, including fingered octaves. As to etudes, students were equally expected to to play from memory any Paganini Caprice or Bach solo sonata/partita.

From John A. Maltese, Heifetz biographer:

Heifetz’s practice routine always began with scales. He also did not believe in practicing too much, confining his practice to an hour or so of scales in the morning and an hour or so of selected parts of repertoire in the afternoon. We have a long section in the book on this, too, based on those who heard him practice when he was growing up.

From Sherry Kloss, former student:

 In order to answer this question with a full comprehension of w hat the class truly was like, one HAS to read my book, “Jascha Heifetz Through My Eyes”. It will take an hour or so to read and will completely illuminate the personal dynamics and requirements which Mr. Heifetz imprinted on each and every one of the carefully chosen members of the class.

Yes, scales, etudes, repertoire, sonatas, concerti, Bach and surprises were our regular diet…we even had to go to the piano and of course, play viola in chamber music. Sometimes etudes were assigned. We were responsible at any time for all Bach Unaccompanied and approximately 13 of the 24 Caprices of Paganini, and scales in ALL combinations starting on various degrees of the scale pattern… memory.  

  1. What challenges did Jascha Heifetz offer students during lessons? Can his students offer any specific examples of how lessons were typically conducted?

From John A. Maltese, Heifetz biographer:

Heifetz intentionally challenged students in class. As he once said, “If they can survive me, they can survive anything.” He might, for example, challenge a student to learn a difficult concerto in a week, or would take away their music while they were playing to see if they could continue without it. If a student came prepared to play one thing, Heifetz would likely ask them to play something else.

If a student’s violin went out of tune, he insisted that they continue playing. If they said they could not, he would put his violin radically out of tune, and play something — adjusting perfectly to show that it could be done. “You can’t stop and tune the violin in the middle a concerto,” he would say. He tended, though, to challenge his best students the most. He was very tender and caring with auditors. He would even explain things to them. He did not think a true artist needed explanation — they should be able to figure things out for themselves.


  1. Many have heard his rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Besides Gershwin, were there other American-composed pieces that Heifetz arranged for violin?  Were there other American composers from his era that he enjoyed or respected – (such as Aaron Copland?)


Other transcriptions:

 – Deep River by an unknown african american composer

– Stephen Foster: Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair

– Robert Russell Bennett: Hexapoda

– clarence White: Levee dance


From John A. Maltese, Heifetz biographer:

 Heifetz went to some lengths to program American music — usually short selections. He transcribed the Negro Spiritual “Deep River” in 1938, Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” in 1939, Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” in 1942 and the selections from “Porgy and Bess” in 1944, and he programmed and recorded works such as William Kroll’s “Banjo and Fiddle” and Samuel Gardner’s “From the Canebreak.” He also recorded and performed Robert Russell Bennett’s suite “Hexapoda (Five Studies in Jitteroptera)” which included movement with titles such as “Jim Jives.” 


  1. Were there other famous musicians like Bing Crosby who performed Heifetz’s music composed under the pseudonym of “Jim Hoyl?” Did Bing Crosby ever know that Jim Hoyl was Heifetz?

In addition to Bing Crosby, Helen Ward and Margaret Whiting recorded it (among others) and it was used in the soundtrack of the film about a boxer called “The Set-Up” starring Robert Ryan and directed by Robert Wise. Yes, Crosby at least eventually knew it was Heifetz. Heifetz and Crosby recorded a couple of duets.


  1. After Itzhak Perlman successfully passed his audition and was accepted into Heifetz’s studio, what other tricks did Heifetz have up his sleeve during lessons? More scales and etudes, or mainly repertoire?

Perlman never had to pass any audition to be accepted in Heifet’z studio. He was invited there directly, as a colleague. The mistaken idea comes from Heifetz having listened to the 14 year old Perlman in Galamian’s New York studio. After playing Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole Perlman wanted to leave but Heifetz stopped him and asked the boy to play a scale – which Perlman did. Coming into Heifetz’s studio happened many years later, when Perlman was a world renown virtuoso already.


From Ayke Agus, biographer:

 In the Heifetz Masterclasses: Students were required to be ready to play at all times:

-Scales in all forms and keys: in single notes, thirds, sixths, octaves (fingered  and not fingered), tenths. 
-Paganini Caprices (one or two) by memory
-A movement or two from an unaccompanied Bach sonata or Partita
– an assigned piece for the lesson of the day
– and to have always ready to play an “Itsy-Bitsy” a short piece with or without piano accompaniments.


During the lesson, the students get challenges from Mr. Heifetz all the time. The first challenge: 

-to play on some one else’s violin during the lesson.
-to play on an out of tune violin, and still be expected to play your assigned piece IN TUNE.
-to continue playing if a string should brake in the middle of playing a piece.
 – to transpose the piece you have prepared for the lesson into another key, from the original key in which the piece was originally written.
-to play instantly a difficult fast passage using a different set of fingerings.
-to go back from the end of the piece about so many bars, and play from that spot.  
-sight reading was a big thing for Mr. H.


All of the above,  Mr. Heifetz’ only purpose was to prepare the students for their life’s musical career’s challenges during performance. Any of the above can suddenly happen, and we must be ready to overcome those challenges, and still perform as if there were no mishaps, and no unexpected situations. 


Since Mr. Heifetz expected all the students in his class to be able to play the piano, he sometimes asked the student to play at the piano, and tried to accompany whow ever was having the lesson. If the student was a beginner piano student Mr. Heifetz would ask the beginner piano student to accompany easy simple accompaniments.

 In chamber music sessions, a favorite pastime of Mr. Heifetz, he would make us sight read all violin parts and the viola part (Mr. Heifetz expected all of the students in the masterclass to be able to read the viola cleff naturally (without transposing them).

However, thank goodness, Mr.Heifetz would allow for a cellist from the outside to come in to play with us during these chamber music sessions (about once a month). We didn’t have to know how to play the cello as well…..thank Goodness!


  1. What advice would you share with young musicians inspired by the work of legendary musicians such as Jascha Heifetz? On the same note, what advice would you share with teachers who desire to inspire and challenge their students in the same fashion?

From John A. Maltese, Heifetz biographer:

 Heifetz really loved music. He loved to play it, he loved to listen to it, he loved to write it, and he enjoyed going to concerts. He didn’t consider music a luxury, he considered it a necessity. I think students should be taught this passion for music. And I’m sure Heifetz would say that they should find their own voice. Honor the masters, but don’t imitate them. Don’t be a copy cat. Be an original.

From Arthur Vered, Heiftez biographer:

 Work hard, work honestly and work intelligently. When practicing, concentrate and liste n to your playing. Do not let errors go by without correcting them. Practice those spots more, if need be. Bad practice and bad habits are difficult to get rid off later on.

 Practice scales even if you don’t like it. It will stand you in good stead.

 epends on age, how advanced (and/or talented) the students are. An advanced student can be challenged to explain why s/he chose such fingerings/bowing, why s/he plays the passage/piece the way she does – and the students need to be clear in their mind and provide an explanation. If they can’t, they can be encouraged to try a different approach and if the latter works better, to explain why it works better.

Do not over elaborate verbally over musical ideas. Obviously words do not/cannot describe music, they have their limit. If possible, demonstrate on the violin. If your pupil doesn’t get a certain genre rhythm – dance it for him.


From Sherry Kloss, former student:

Find the right teacher for YOU, it may not necessarily be one with a famous name, reputation or major city locale. Wherever that mentor may be: go there and learn everything offered.

Advice for teachers: you must have a special message, a mission, the gift to communicate in both words and  by demonstration.

You must be patient and understanding. You must “know your Customers” ( Mr. Heifetz’s words) in order to gain their full belief in what you espouse. Soon it becomes a silent understanding which communicates confidence, and which promotes and nurtures their individual being and style. That was was Mr. Heifetz was all about…few words, but a multitude of messages in learning.

Mr. Heifetz truly gave me a “reason to be,” the highest form of inspiration that one can give to another.


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