The #1 Violinist in the World

This is a conversation I had with a good friend some years back:

"Kevin, who's the #1 violinist in the world?"

Startled, I laughed a little awkwardly.

"What?  It's a serious question," he said.

"That's...that's not how it works," I sputtered.

It was his turn to be surprised.  "Isn't there some kind of a ranking system?"

"No, man, there isn't anything like that.  It’s not like tennis or another professional sport!"

"Really?  But there must be a general understanding about who the #1 violinist is, or maybe some kind of metric to determine it.  I'd think it would be important to establish something like this."

I went through a series of reactions.  At first, I was just confused.  Nobody had ever asked me this question before, and it was so far from my conception of music that it had never occurred to me to think of the subject.  Then I was disappointed. Did my friend really have so little understanding of art, of self-expression, that he'd equate it to tennis rankings?  Finally, I became curious.  My friend was an intelligent person, and people generally considered him a sensitive and likable guy.  He was also a well-regarded physician and had a wide variety of interests.  What was going on in his head, and why would he have this question?

So I asked him.  "Can you tell me why you're asking?"

"Well, I don't know much about classical music, but I'm finding that I like listening to it.  Especially the violin!  You know I don't have a lot of spare time, so I figured that if I were going to spend those precious moments listening to violin music, I should listen to the #1 player.  Why waste time on lower ranked violinists?"

Even though so many things about his answer bothered me, I could see how it was perfectly logical to him.  "What do you like about the violin?"

He became thoughtful.  "I think it's the sound.  There's something very moving and...well, soul-stirring about it.  When I hear someone playing such soaring music, I feel like part of me is also flying free.  I know it’s cheesy."

That's not at all what I was expecting.  "Let me think about this for a sec," I said aloud.

He looked me in the eye.  "Kevin, you think I asked an ignorant question, don’t you?"

Crap.  I cursed my face, which betrays me all the time.   "Look, there's just a huge disconnect between your original question and what you like about the violin, but you’re not seeing it.  Just give me a moment to think this through."  He nodded equably.

I'll mention that at this point in time, I hadn't been active as a violinist for a while.  I had an injury that made me believe my playing days were permanently over.  So I had no skin in the game and a healthy distance from it all.  I felt I could be objective about the topic.

Objectivity...that was one of the things that bothered me about the #1 violinist question.  He believed there was an objective, comprehensive measure that could be applied to the performance of music.  Something very deep within started to stir and become outraged. There was a mercenary quality about the whole conversation, but my friend’s earnest manner convinced me he was serious about the subject, so I replied in kind.

“Other musicians might feel very differently from me.  They might believe a ranking system is possible, maybe even desirable.  But the idea is completely anti-music to me.  Let’s talk this through together.  Would you agree that a ranking system means that you have to establish a set of values as criteria?”

“Of course!  That’s obviously implied.”

“Ok right, then what form would those values take?  Popularity?  Number of concerts performed per year, number of albums sold, attendance, price charged per concert, income earned?” I asked.

“Hmm,” he thought aloud.  “I could see how those things could be correlated with quality.  But being prolific doesn’t necessarily equate with quality.  And there could be reasons for popularity that aren’t completely connected with talent or ability.  That would also apply to fee and income.”

Thank God.  It’s a completely pervasive attitude, especially in the entertainment industry:  “So and so has sold x million albums.”  Whenever someone quotes album sales to introduce an artist, I scoff with appropriate and righteous elitist superiority.  I joke, but it’s pretty revolting.  As if lots of people buying something is an indicator of quality.  On the other hand, those who consider themselves cognoscenti inherently distrust anyone who is wildly popular and commercially successful. They feel there must already have been an internal, artistic compromise somewhere in the musician’s life to achieve such widespread success.  I personally don’t think fame is an automatic reason to discount what someone has to offer. 

“Awards?” I continued.

“I’m not stupid, Kevin.  Don’t patronize me.  That’s obviously not a usable metric.”

“I’m not being patronizing!  I honestly don’t know what you think is valuable.  Look, you could try evaluating violinists on technique.”

“Yes, now we’re talking!  How in tune they play, how fast, that kind of thing.”

“Do you know how many people can play really fast and really in tune?  What’s next?  How many times someone vibrates per second?  Would you analyze the frequencies and timbre of each individual note for purity?  The brainwaves of the musician as she or he makes music?  What pheromones they give off while playing?  Can they fart and play successfully at the same time?”

“Sarcasm sucks.  But what about competitions?  Don’t they rank players?”

“Yeah, they do.  People disagree with judges all the time, because we’re all listening for different things.  Does it really matter if someone misses one less note out of a gazillion than the next violinist?  Is speed really so important?  At a certain point, we’re not evaluating violinists on their technique any more.  We’re beyond that.  And some of the most highly esteemed violinists neither entered nor won competitions or auditions.  It begs the question, what makes a violinist special?  You could start to evaluate them on their musical interpretation.  So let’s say two people play the same piece.  One has an extremely well thought out, beautifully balanced and structured approach.  The other is more impassioned, instinctual, improvised.  Holy alliteration.  Which would you say is better?”

“Well, the one that moves me more.”

“Aha!!  Tell me how you measure that.  Heart rate fluctuations?  Chemical changes?  Can you measure how someone directly communicates with you?  On top of that, we’re all so different from each other.  What moves one person might not be the same for another.  You’ve hit on it.  The real beauty of music happens when we stop bothering about judgment and start feeling.”

“This is starting to sound mystical and religious.  And kind of lazy.  Why can’t those things be measured?  Almost everything in the universe can be measured.”

“Because maybe it is a little mystical.  It’s mysterious.  Your response to something might be surprising to me.  I might weep at something that leaves you stone-faced.  Or maybe we’re really responding to small but expressive imperfections, the utterly human quality of a performance.  How do you measure that? And no, for god’s sake, you can’t measure a person’s soul!  What the hell?!

Look, music isn’t something you ‘win.’  Music is like dancing with someone.  Do you compete against your partner?  Is that the point of dancing together?  It’s not about measuring things, damn it.  Your question is like asking, ‘Why did you fall in love?’  Why can’t you measure that and then rank it?  Is that how you married your wife?  Did you measure her, rank her, and then choose her?”

“No, of course not!  Ok, calm down and stop it.  You’re making it personal.”

“Yes, it’s fu!#$%* personal!  It was my life, and I don’t just consider music something that I did or just listen to; it’s the way that I live!  It’s actually about not caring or judging if something is better than something else.  It’s about connecting and communing.  It’s about expressing yourself, not because what you have to say is more important, smarter, better than what someone else has to say.  It’s about what’s uniquely me, and also about what we all have in common, about the spark of life we all have, about the beauty, the terror, the joy, the holiness of the human condition.  It’s about baring your soul to others so that they’re forced to look, and just maybe they’ll let down their guard and be vulnerable, too.  It’s about a passion for creating beauty and sharing it and elevating everyone’s consciousness, not about being better than the next guy!!  It’s about going beyond logic into unknown spaces so that you feel connected to something greater than yourself!”

“God, you’re such a hippy,” he laughed and punched my arm.  As I took a deep breath to scream at him incoherently, he stopped me with a placating gesture. “Ok, ok, I’m starting to see why I touched such a nerve.  To you, music is about much more than hearing a pretty melody or even about good violin playing.  You think I was trivializing it by saying violinists should be ranked.  Interesting…I wouldn’t have made a certain connection until we had this conversation.  Sometimes when I’m with patients and things are serious, I witness such beautiful, heart-warming and heart-breaking responses to both tragedy and healing.  That soaring feeling I described to you when I hear the violin, it’s very similar to how I feel in those situations.  I’m completely humbled, and suddenly I feel like I’m very close to something incredible and huge that’s underlying reality.  It’s very liberating.  You probably felt that all the time,” he observed, peering at me.

I was only partially mollified.  “Well, that was the goal at least.  And thanks so much for reminding me about what I’m missing.”

He laughed again.  “Sounds like you’re still living it.  Thanks for taking the time to explain it, even with all the yelling.”

Since this conversation, I’ve had countless interactions (mostly no yelling) with people who have misconceptions about “ranking” violinists, if on a smaller scale.  This takes many forms.  They might be wowed by a mediocre performance by a great, established violinist and meh’d by a stunning performance from a relative unknown, merely because of reputation.  Or their high regard for someone’s “position,” for example a recognized soloist or concertmaster, might favorably color any unfortunate noises they might hear out of that person’s instrument.   They might assume someone playing 1st violin in an ensemble is “better” than someone playing 2nd violin.  I’m clearly of the opinion that everyone has something truly wonderful to offer.  That of course doesn’t excuse bad intonation, thoughtless technique, and sloppy interpretation.  But here is some free advice: just listen, and forget about ranking.  Listen to any musicians you encounter with a completely open mind.  You might have a deeply meaningful and powerful experience at any time.  There are so many incredible violinists, not to mention musicians in general; that means there are just as many opportunities for a beautiful experience. 

Do you think that every fantastic violinist wants a big career?  Some don’t care for the solitude and constant travel of a soloist’s life.  Some are addicted to the intimacy of chamber music.  Some revel in being part of a large organism like an orchestra.  Some like the challenge of sight-reading and contributing to different media, like film scores.  Some need to pay the bills and do whatever comes their way.

Some of the most serious fiddle players I know try to erase any traces of themselves and feel that they are merely a channel, an empty instrument that music flows through.  What do they care for “position” or “ranking”?  Some opt to play 2nd violin in a quartet because harmony and color intrigues them more than melody.

Do you think that a concertmaster is necessarily the “best” violinist in any orchestra?  That they must have earned the position relative to the other players in the section?  Obviously, in major orchestras a concertmaster will be a formidable violinist.  But sometimes the position is already taken, and an equally outstanding violinist will audition for whatever open spot is available.  I know some incredible musicians who are content to play deep in the 2nd violin section of orchestras, finding an ambition for greater glory unnatural.  One’s seat in an orchestra isn’t always an indicator of ability.

At any studio session here in Los Angeles, one might sit next to all kinds of amazing people: competition winners, soloists with major orchestras, concertmasters.  But generally everyone works together with a healthy respect for each other’s ability and a common love for our instrument and craft.  

Just listen, and forget about ranking.   I’ve had some beautiful experiences with music when amateurs were playing.  Look, I’m even brought to tears when my toddler starts singing improvised twelve-tone songs in his sweet little baby angel voice.  Sometimes I’m left speechless at an exquisitely played phrase by a student. 

Great music is beyond stupid rankings.  You’ve probably never heard of the violinist I love to listen to most:  Georges Enescu.  My God, the man turns everything into pure poetry and truly approaches the fiddle in a unique and startlingly personal way.  Listen to his Handel Sonata, his Poeme by Chausson, his Wagner.  But would I say he’s ranked higher than Fritz Kreisler playing, well, almost anything?  I’ve gorged my ears for years on Kreisler’s sound, not to mention his phrasing.  Or is Heifetz, also playing damn near anything, ranked higher?  He is equal parts swashbuckling hero, sensitive aesthete, and man of hidden depths on the violin.  I’m unhealthily obsessed with Isabelle Faust’s artistry.  Listen to the level of awareness she brings to anything she interprets, especially her Beethoven Sonatas with Alexander Melnikov (there’s an exquisite video of #10 online).  I know I’ll enjoy Janine Jansen’s approach to any major concerto.  Why would I even think to rank her higher than Leonidas Kavakos, or vice versa? Even though the man can play anything, I adore listening to Kavakos play Mozart Concerti.  I’ve probably left out your favorite violinist because of space, and I could name others you’ve never heard of who have equal claim on my heart.  I could write pages about quartet violinists. 

Go online, and you’ll see YouTube comments stating the superiority of one violinist over another with undeniable conviction.  In contrast, there’s a wonderful video clip of Itzhak Perlman, one of the greats, in a documentary called “The Art of the Violin,” in which he describes having been obsessed with a different violinist every few months and attempting to mimic them during that period.

The world is big enough for us to forget about competition in music.  It’s not a notion worthy of such a precious human resource.  If I want to buy a fridge, I’ll see what’s ranked the highest.  But ranking musicians is like ranking humans simply for being alive.  Can the reason for making music be measured or quantified?  When there is an infinite variety of beauty to be shared, does ranking have meaning?  I’m not saying all violinists are created equal.  But “better” isn’t the right word to use in this context.