The following interview was published in the book "With The Artists" in 1955. To my knowledge it is the only documented interview with Dounis ever made and probably occurred in the early 1950s in New York City.
Interview with D.C. Dounis
Dr. Dounis divides his teaching time between his studio in New York City and classes at various universities, as well as conducting master classes in Europe.
He very much enjoys discussion of technical problems. As he talks, he walks back and forth erectly, one hand in his jacket pocket , the other freely in motion to express his point with emphasis. His keen eyes sparkle behind their glasses. Short and rather stocky, with soldierly bearing, he exudes dynamism. He dresses distinctively well.
We began with an analysis of left hand problems. “To my mind,” Dr. Dounis said, “left hand technique is based on three things, in this order: A correctly produced vibrato, correct shifting and articulation of the fingers.”
“In mentioning vibrato first, you refer to vibrato not merely as a means of expression, but in definite relationship to left hand technique?”
“Yes, definitely!” Dr. Dounis replied. “The vibrato is the basis of the left hand technique. It is not merely an added achievement, purely for expression. Unfortunately the opposite has been stressed. When one hears a violinist with some deficiency in the left hand, the cause is, most of the time, an incorrectly produced vibrato.”
“You feel then, that incorrectly produced vibrato affects shifting and finger articulation?”
“That, most certainly! In order for one to have a correctly produced vibrato on any string with any finger, or any combination of fingers, or in any position, the hand must be in good working order. Many players have good vibratos on single notes. The moment, though, they play thirds or tenths, or in the very high positions, their vibrato becomes tense, affecting the suppleness of the entire left hand.”
I asked Dr. Dounis if he preferred a wrist vibrato, and his reply was, “Only with the wrist, never with the arm. The forearm moves, but the impulse is at the fingertips, which activates the wrist. The arm follows sympathetically.”
I pointed out that more stress should be placed on equalizing the vibrato with the various fingers, and he concurred. “That is a very important goal,” he agreed. “Many violinists vibrate well with the first and third fingers, but not with the second and the fourth. The easiest finger to vibrato with,” he added, “is the third finger, not the first, but we must equalize all of the fingers. This will help us to acquire the feeling of balance in the hand , which is all important for a free technique.”
“What,” I wanted to know, “do you suggest to equalize the vibrato in the various fingers?”
He replied, “There should not be a decidedly different sound in vibrato of the first finger, and let us say, the fourth. There is not enough stress, I fear, on the equalization of the vibrato of the various fingers. There should not be any more pressure of the finger on the string than is necessary to stabilize the finger on a definite note in order to produce the vibrato. In other words, only the playing finger should have any pressure on the strings. If other preceding fingers remain down they should have absolutely no pressure at all (except in double stops or chords, where other fingers are being used).
“The hand should feel it is poised or balanced on the playing finger. The transfer of this feeling or balance from one finger to another constitutes the basis for a correctly produced vibrato. This results in a feeling of lightness and freedom in the left hand at all times.
“Allow me to offer the following suggestions,” he said. “Vibrate on one string with the first and second fingers, both remaining down, on long notes. Then place the second and third fingers down on the string, vibrating with both of them together. Then vibrate with the third and fourth fingers together. Then play various skips, skipping from the first and second fingers to the third and fourth.
“It is understood from the foregoing,” he added, “that it is an exercise to acquire the ability to be able to transfer the balance of the hand from one finger to another.”
He gave the following as another valuable exercise: “Alternately lift one finger in the following manner: Vibrate with the second finger and while doing so, place the first finger lightly on the string, without stopping the vibrato of the second finger. Then lift the first finger, while vibrating with the second: and then, while vibrating with the first, lift the second finger many times.
“In this way,” Dr. Dounis declared, “we develop a vibrato which will give continuity, as well as a vibrato legato. The same exercise is to be done with the second and third fingers, then with the third and fourth. First do them on the same string,” he recommended, “then on adjacent strings.
“Practicing various double stops,” Dounis suggested, “is also very important, particularly unisons, thirds, octaves and tenths.”
“How” I asked, “would you suggest practicing them in the upper positions?”
“Let me recommend the following plan,” he offered. “Let us start on the D string and play the E and F with the first and second fingers. Then play all the Es and Fs you can find on the violin with the first and second fingers, on all strings.
“The object is to cover the entire fingerboard. The next day, use the same two fingers, but play F and G wherever they are found, on every string, throughout the entire fingerboard. It is not pedantic that way. The pupil then covers the remaining notes with the same two fingers. Then he does the whole thing over again with the second and third, then with the third and fourth fingers.”
I asked if he liked the vibrato practiced slowly, and he was emphatic in his answer. “No! One loses the real impulse! The reason is that the vibrato should be a feeling of pulsation, such as an open string when it is plucked and we cannot at will control the speed of the oscillation. The only thing we can control is the duration of the oscillation depending upon the force with which it is plucked.”
“At the very beginning, when one is attempting the vibrato?”
“No, especially not then,” he replied, “because the important thing at the beginning is to acquire a feeling of pulsation which is impossible when it is broken down to eighth or even sixteenth notes. We can limit the duration in the early stage, but we should not try to limit the speed of the oscillation.”
He stressed, “The important thing is to listen carefully, so as to keep the same amount of oscillations al of the time, so that it is rhythmically even. Later on, one may use judgment as to the speed depending upon the style of the composition, or the mood of the phrase.”
“Do you feel that the vibrato should never go above the note?”
“Yes. The vibrato must sound like a flatting, not a sharping, of the note. We have the center,” he said, “and then a flatting. Musically, it is bad to sharp the note even a slight bit.”
We discussed shifting. He said, “Too often we hear shifts which sound rigid or jerky, with a lack of suppleness when the shift is made. The question of shifting is all important in slow playing. In fast playing, there should not be any feeling of shifting at all; the fingers merely crawl up and down the fingerboard. The feeling of shifting should exist only when the tempo allows the player to vibrate on the two notes.
“That, of course,” he went on, “assumes we are playing in a rather slow tempo. During the shift, even if it is a half tone shift, the finger must be in contact with the string, with of course, no pressure on the string. Whatever pressure there is, must be released during the shift.”
“What about the left thumb?” I questioned.
He answered cryptically, “The thumb must not exist. The important thing is to realize that regardless of what fingers we use, there must be an impulse in the wrist towards the note we are going to. In other words, if we are going to a higher note, the impulse in the wrist must be towards the direction of the note before the shift actually is made. The reverse is true when going to a lower note.
“Let me be more explicit about the thumb. In an upward shift, the thumb must be ignored and be allowed to follow the hand. In a downward shift the thumb at the moment of shifting should feel that it detaches itself from the neck of the violin without preceding the hand. In this way the feeling of balance in the hand is not disturbed.
“Another interesting thing about this thought,” he continued, “is that this little impulse also has a tendency to release the pressure of the finger on the string. A sort of a double action, as it were. This impulse is natural with humans. To jump, one bends the knees automatically. No? How gracefully can one walk with stiff legs? That is why we have joints in our bodies.
“And going up and down the fingerboard is like walking. Many times the wrist joint is not used enough in shifting. This wrist joint must also be flexible because it must also be asociated with the vibrato. Stiff shifting has a tendency to create bad intonation.
“The two ways of shifting are well–known. Either we shift with the finger used last, or with the finger we are going to play. What I should like to add is, that in order to promote the balance of the hand properly, and to thoroughly master the art of shifting, all awkward shifts should be practiced in both ways.
“As to which of the two ways of shifting should be used in performance, depends entirely on the style and character of the music, as well as on the taste of the performer. In a general way, in classical music, we should use the first way. In the romantic or gypsy music, the second way should be used.”
“What if we cross or skip strings while we are shifting?”
“The correct way to shift is diagonally. It is a diagonal process. It is the only musical way to accomplish the shift. The finger that is doing the shifting first, and the finger we are about to play next, must be close together. This skill of finger contraction,” Dr. Dounis stated, “is a very important one. Both fingers enter into this shift. This finger contraction principle is just as difficult and just as important as finger extension,” he added emphatically.
We went on to the matter of velocity, left hand velocity. “I should like your suggestions to help violinists to more easily play left hand passages, to play them more cleanly and better-articulated.”
“This can only be done,” he offered, “when the violinist develops the proper conception of what left hand finger action is. Let us,” he added, “clear up the misconception that finger action is downward and upward. It is not that, but is forward and backward. The forward movement of the finger is a reflex of the backward movement, and is passive. The backward is the active, snapping-back movement that requires certain willpower.
“From the very start,” he went on, “the student must try to get the feeling in his hands that he snaps the fingers from the string instead of hitting the string with the fingers. He must not follow the often-heard advice that one should feel that his fingers are like little hammers. In practicing, snap back as far as possible,” he advised, “to develop the muscles, but always remember that when the finger is back as far as it can go, to maintain the same curved position of the finger as when it is on the string.
“This,” he cautioned, “is of the utmost importance. Changing the curve affects intonation, because when the finger comes down again it will have to be directed to the same spot.”
“The development of velocity, Dr. Dounis, is such an intriguing matter, so important, I should like to discuss it with you. A great deal of a violinist’s time is spent developing velocity, yet in many cased, results are unsatisfactory. Suppose,” I offered, “we start by analyzing the technique for slow playing. Then the technique for fast playing. Perhaps some misconceptions will be cleared up.”
Dr. Dounis assented. “First, let me say, right at the outset, there is a misconception in the minds of many. I must assure them there is a technique for slow playing and for fast playing, each entirely independent from the other. One cannot,” Dounis pointed out, “develop the fast from the slow. In slow technique, which develops the muscles in the hand, there are three things which we must pay careful attention to. First, the player must snap the finger back as much as possible, and let it return to the string by reflex action.
“Secondly,” Dr Dounis went on, “the moment the finger touches the string, there must be a free vibrato. Thirdly, all preceding fingers must remain on the string without any pressure. The only pressure should be in the playing finger. The whole hand is poised on the playing finger, and we want the other fingers to remain on the string to build the imprint of the hand on the fingerboard.”
“The same principle as pianists have,” I observed.
“Yes, there is such a thing as the balance of the left hand, and when I say the whole hand is poised on the playing finger I might give this illustration. If one plays with the third finger, the other fingers feel an affinity to the playing finger. The other fingers must also be ready for instant action. A tactile sense of the finger.” he elucidated.
“And as far as the vibrato is concerned, in slow playing,” he added, “we can have a vibrato is concerned, in slow playing,” he added “we can have a vibrato on practically every note. If it is too fast to have vibrato on every note, that should be considered fast technique. In fast playing, you disregard all these points. We must first practice a passage slowly to learn the notes and to understand the fingering. The moment the passage is learned, we waste time by continuing to practice it slowly,” Dr. Dounis pointed out. “It must from then on be practiced in the required tempo.”
I asked him for a specific case, and suggested to him the first run in the fourth measure of the Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen) by Sarasate. “You feel that once a person knows the notes and the fingerings, he should from then on practice it quickly?”
“Another factor must also be considered,” he answered. “There is a rhythmic impulse in each passage which must be carefully worked out, or to be more specific, each passage should be skillfully divided into even groups and the rhythmic accent should fall at all times on the first note of each one of these groups. I do not mean an accent which is caused by the bow, but a rhythmic impulse created through finger action.
“In all fast passages, the rhythmic impulse is determined by the metric beat. In most passages we must feel the last note of the run as though it were a down beat. Not that we should accent this last note, but we must feel rhythmically that it is a down beat.”
“Then the problem is to skillfully divide the run so that the last note comes as the first beat of a measure? You mean specifically those runs which are not rhythmically divided by the composer?”
“Exactly. Continuing with the same run of the Gypsy Airs, we find that there are twenty-one notes. Our object is to sub-divide them in rhythmic impulses in such a way that the top C will feel that it is the down beat of a measure, without necessarily accenting it with the bow.
“The best way to sub-divided these,” he suggested, “would be to consider the first four notes as an up-beat, and to play the remaining sixteen notes as though they are groups of four. Better still, perhaps, would be to consider the first four notes as an up-beat and then two groups of eight, or even the whole passage of sixteen notes. The same principle is to be carried out in all similar passages,” Dr. Dounis summed up.
The, in re-stating this, he added, “Any passage or run in order to be effective, must be played with its own rhythmic impulse, and the problem is to discover and be conscious of it.”
It was interesting in connection with this phase of violin technique, in chatting about the literature of the violin with Dr. Dounis to pick out many passages and divide the notes rhythmically according, as Dr. Dounis stresses, to their inherent rhythmic impulse.
Before entering into discussion of the various bowings, I asked Dr. Dounis to mention any salient point about bow grip he felt would be of unusual interest. I have observed the bow grips of hundreds of students throughout the country and have the feeling that many awkward bow arms may be traced to a fundamentally faulty management of the bow.
“The object in the bow grip,” said Dr. Dounis, “is the acquisition of a feeling of proper balance. Now, how can this balance be achieved?” He looked intently at me as he went on “In order to have a feeling of balance, there should be a center point. For our hand the center point, when all fingers are used is the second finger (and naturally with the thumb). If we pick up any object with any two fingers, we instinctively pick it up with the proper balance.
“The way to find the proper hold of the bow in order to acquire the feeling of balance in the hand is to first pick up the bow with the thumb and second finger at the balancing point of the bow, a bit below the middle. After you have established this hold with the two fingers, allow the remaining fingers to drop on the stick naturally, neither in a closed position nor in an extended position.
“Each one,” he said, “has a different natural spacing between the fingers and the way the fingers should be applied on the stick should be by observing this individual, natural spacing.
“When we have done this, we practically have formed the proper feeling for holding the bow. So you see,” he stressed, “the underlying principle for a good bow grip is that there must be a feeling of balance between the thumb and the second finger.” “Assuming,” I said, “that the violinist has acquired this affinity between the thumb and second finger, “I should like to ask you to discuss the relationship between the thumb and remaining fingers.”
“In connection with specific bowings?” “Yes”
“If one plays a detaché stroke, the feeling of movement should be between the thumb and second finger. In the performance of the martelé stroke the necessary bite should be exerted by the thumb and first finger, while the feeling of movement remains between the thumb and second finger. There never,” he pointed out, “should be a feeling that you move the bow with the thumb and first finger. The first finger is used only to apply pressure. Let me add at this moment, that whenever any pressure is applied to the bow, it is essential that the pressure originate in the thumb pressing up against the first finger."
“In the slow or controlled spiccato the feeling in the hand must be one of a see-saw type of balance between the first and fourth or first, third and fourth fingers. This see-saw process must be accomplished with the fingers exclusively and not with the forearm. This feeling in the fingers is required in order to have the bow spring back of its own volition. One should never have a feeling of lifting the bow from the string.
“I should like to add here,” he said, “that the down and up movement of the bow is done with the forearm and the hand as one unit, with no active motion of the wrist when playing in the middle of the bow. As we approach the frog, the wrist becomes increasingly active, so that when we are at the frog, the spiccato is performed entirely with wrist and fingers, and no forearm.
“The reason is that in the middle we must use the natural bounce of the bow. At the frog, though, an artificial bounce has to be created. In the performance of the fast spiccato or sautillé, there is a light pressure between the thumb and first two fingers, and complete relaxation of the third and fourth. With this stroke there is an affinity between the fast spiccato or sautillé and the fast detaché.” “So much for that,” I said. “Let us start with the detaché itself. We know it is the basis of all bowing.”
“Yes, it is a very general term and just means bow change. But its manner of performance is determined by the length and the speed of the note itself. In a fast tempo, and if we only use up to two inches of bow, naturally, we should use only the wrist. That means in any part of the bow.
“The interesting thing about it is that the starting impulse, the motivating or starting force, is actually in the fingers. By the fingers we mean that actual spot holding the bow. The impulse is felt between the thumb and second finger. Naturally, this detaché is used only in rapid passages, and we may refer to this as the eraser stroke because it is the exact imitation of erasing.”
“How,” I asked, “would you describe this process in a slower tempo, even if the same length of bow is used?”
“In that case, the player must change the angle of the hand. Lower the elbow slightly, thus changing the angle of the hand so that the motion for the sautillé must be oblique. The movement of the hand is the same, only the angle is slightly changed.”
“You would say that the hand is lowered slightly towards the next higher string?”
“Yes, that would be a good way to put it.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of all the bowings is the staccato. I asked Dr. Dounis to comment on this stroke and upon its influence on bow technique.
“The staccato is the only means at our command to determine and develop the correctness of the relationship of the bow to the string at any part of the bow,” he declared.
I asked him to elucidate, and he said, “As an example, draw a down bow. At any moment , play a staccato note. If the tone remains pure (resonant) it means that the relationship of the bow to the string is correct. But, if the tone becomes scratchy or edgy because of the attack, then it means that the relationship was wrong.If we had not made that attack, we could not have become aware whether the relationship was correct or not. The staccato discloses all of the flaws in the production of the tone.
“Before we approach any analysis of the staccato proper, we must discuss the attack. That is, the manner in which we produce the attack. The attack is accomplished by pressing up with the thumb against the first finger, and then by a scooping motion of the hand. It must have the feeling of a pinch. No apparent length of bow is used.
“The mechanics of the staccato differ according to the tempo. The slow staccato is nothing else than a succession of martelé notes in one bow, both up and down. That is why it is called staccato martelé or firm staccato. The rapid staccato or so-called nervous staccato is produced by eliminating any feeling of attacks or martelé notes, and by tensing the entire arm from shoulder to fingertips in such a way as to induce a sensation of quivering or trembling. By applying a constant pressure on the string, this trembling feeling is imparted to the bow.”
“Then you mean that the tension must cause the trembling and that you cannot arrive at it by a fast motion of the wrist?”
“Exactly, you see that the fast staccato can never be accomplished by practicing it slowly. Both are different processes. The same analogy which exists between the slow and fast spiccato exists also between the slow and very fast staccato. That is, there is no relationship between the two as far as the way they are produced. The slow spiccato, for example, can never develop a sautillé.
“And here, I would like to explode the myth about the existence of different ‘schools’ of bowing. There are no schools of bowing, such as French, Belgian, Franco-Belgian, German, Russian, et. Bowing serves only in realizing and expressing the musical thought, and the mechanics through which that thought is projected is not a matter of nationality. But, the mechanics of bowing as well as of the left hand are based on certain elemental, physical and physiological laws which, actually, are the same for all stringed instruments played with the bow. Only the application of them varies slightly according to the instrument, violin, cello, doublebass, but not according to the individual player.”
Dr. Dounis added reflectively, “The player should always have in mind that technique is only a means to an important end. That end is “music”, he must always make music. Even the most simple or complex technical exercises must be practiced in such a way as to convey a musical expression. They must be practiced always in a ‘singing’ manner and never mechanically. It is only through this manner of practicing that, later on, when performing a composition he can feel technically free so that the phrasing, which is the all important element in musical interpretation, will not be affected or conditioned by deficiencies of technique or technical mannerisms.
“To sum up, I should like to quote the note which I have written as a Preface to my edition of the Bach Sonatas:
“The ‘raison d’etre’ of the present edition is to promote the cultivation of the musical sense through correct phrasing, without being influenced by technical limitations, instrumental considerations or traditional routine.
This is the only way leading to the realization of an artistic performance, which should be the aspiration and objective of all executants.”