R. Todd Ehle, Violin Teacher
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Video Inspiration

Using Videos for Inspiration and Education

By R. Todd Ehle


Back in the mid 1980's, my violin teacher gave me a catalog from a well-known mail order company that sells stringed instruments, bows, etc.  One thing that immediately caught my attention was a section devoted to performance videos of the elite string players.  Even though the videos were expensive, especially for a young teenager, I started collecting the videos as money allowed.  I still have many of these old tapes, some even on Sony Beta (an early competitor to VHS tape).  Watching these great artists did not give me the ability to perform like them, obviously, but it did open my eyes to a new world.  I’d already been collecting records and audio cassette tapes, but seeing these performers inspired me on a whole new level, and made me more determined to reach my own potential.  In short, they were a driving motivational force in my development as a musician.

I'll admit that as a young child, I was not especially motivated to practice.  I was a much more interested in the Dallas Cowboys.  I did practice - some, but only because it was expected of me, and I invested very little of myself in the
process.  I was taking weekly lessons with a fine teacher, and was also exposed to other students, but still had no idea what could be accomplished through sincere dedication and also pure effort.  My first glimpse at a larger reality
came, like a tidal wave, when I heard David Oistrakh perform the Tschaikovsky Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  Even now, thinking about it stirs excitement and I want to pull out that old record.  I had been playing the violin for several years, but in my mind I became a violinist on that day - even though I couldn't begin to replicate what I heard.  
Needless to say, when my parents purchased a video of the great Oistrakh, and I saw him performing the third movement of the Sibelius concerto, it was enough to send me into the stratosphere!  It was like every birthday wrapped into one incredible moment. I was hooked forever.

Many of us have defining moments, where inspiration and desire help set us on a specific path.  For me, watching a video of Jascha Heifetz perform the Bach Chaconne was like an emotional booster rocket, launching my mind into orbit even though my hands were not capable of even attempting such a feat.  As I have previously mentioned, I had never been one to invest in my practice routine, but the tide was turning and I could feel it.  Sustaining a level of excitement and creativity in my practice became the goal, and this is where my growing video collection came into play. I decided that the hardest part of practicing was actually taking the violin out of the case.  So, I started watching videos right
before I would practice, then become terribly excited and get to work.  After about an hour, I would make a glass of iced tea, sit down to watch another video, then get back to my practice.

In time, small successes created the desire for larger success, and the need to find an external motivating source became less necessary.  However, I had become obsessed with the art of the violin, and I wanted to learn how each artist plied their craft.  Little details became my hobby.  It seemed there were endless variations to any specific technique, and I wanted to know every one of them (which in the end is impossible). I'll freely admit that just because I know something on a cerebral level, does not give me the ability to execute it, especially under pressure.  However, having multiple approaches to say, vibrato, or staccato became very helpful when I started teaching, and gave me confidence in my ability to help others.

The world is a much smaller place now than it used to be.  Technology has changed my sense of community.  The people I used to know all lived within a bicycle ride of my home.  Now I can chat with friends in Iran, or Australia.  The need for a VCR no longer exists (although I still use mine), and every artist that was ever recorded seems to be represented on Youtube.  I'd like to think that if I were
once again a young student, I'd still be using videos of the great artists for motivation.  I do recognize that while the world feels smaller and more connected, the reality of the competition is much greater.  I can easily
find thousands of videos of all of the great musicians of the world with just a few clicks of the mouse.  In that way, my sense of the world has become much larger, daunting, and overwhelming.  However, my love for music is undiminished by this and I press forward.  I'm thrilled to live in a world with so much beauty and with so many new avenues for the musician.  Also, if I can get my students to look online for a piece of music, not just to learn the notes, but to learn ten different approaches to a single phrase, or to learn the difference between staccato and spiccato, or to hear David Oistrakh perform, I believe I’ll have have made a difference.