A legacy of learning
Hideko Udagawa is a champion of the benefits of studying with a great artist. ‘Whenever I meet a promising young violinist, I ask “Who is your teacher?” The answer tells you a lot about them.’
As a young girl, Hideko studied with one of Japan’s finest violinists Toshiya Eto, himself a protégé of Efrem Zimbalist, one of the finest exponents of the Russian school of violin playing, which combines technical rigour and expressive power .
In her early twenties, Hideko took the brave step of moving to London to build her international career in a city famed for its world-class teaching. At first, she found herself in the hands of a well-known teacher with little experience of performing and few musical insights. ‘I was so disappointed,’ she recalls. ‘After studying with Eto in Japan, the bar was set high and I didn’t want to lower my standards. So I immediately started searching for the best teacher available. It wasn’t easy!’
She decided the only way to reach her potential was to study with a great performer. As it happened, one of the most celebrated musicians of his day, the great Russian violinist Nathan Milstein, was living in London. ‘I tried to meet him to ask if he would teach me, but everyone told me this would be impossible. Milstein had a reputation for not teaching, so why should he teach me?’
As fate would have it, Milstein was giving a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and Hideko was in a determined mood. ‘I wouldn’t give up, so after Milstein’s performance, I went backstage. I didn’t ask him for a lesson, but I did ask if he would listen to me play – just once. And he said yes!’
The teacher-pupil chemistry was apparent from the outset. ‘I was so attracted by Milstein’s aristocratic bearing, his inventive technique and his incredible taste in his musicianship. He never went for cheap effects – even the most virtuosic playing was always done tastefully. He didn’t have a vulgar bone in his body’
Milstein’s qualities as a teacher were an excellent fit for Hideko: ‘As a young woman starting on a career as a musician, having the right teacher made all the difference. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes of myself, but he said, “You’ve got to do it – you’ve got the talent!”.’
Milstein was Hideko’s only teacher after she moved from Japan to the West. It was a relationship that endured until his death in 1992. As much as teaching instrumental skills and musicianship, one of the most important aspects of his role in Hideko’s career development was as a mentor and a guide: ‘Because he believed in me, he was able to teach me to believe in myself – a fundamental aspect of every teacher’s role.’
Milstein’s Russian heritage has provided another important strand in Hideko’s own approach to teaching. ‘The Russian school of violin playing is a legacy that’s absolutely ingrained in me, and is at the core of what I have to offer as a teacher. It’s a philosophy that doesn’t just emphasise great technique for its own sake. It says that solid technique is the basis of being able to fully express yourself as a musician and as a musical personality. That’s what makes you stand out from the crowd.
‘Another thing I learnt from Milstein is that if certain passages aren’t coming off well, you shouldn’t just repeat them endlessly. Stop playing and think about why things aren’t going well, then try some different approaches. You have to find a way that works for you and communicates your personal vision for the piece you’re playing.’
This focus on individuality is core to Hideko’s strengths, both as a performer and teacher: ‘It is very important to let a musician’s individuality develop. Nobody will be interested if you play like everybody else. Milstein, as a teacher, had clear ideas and strong tastes, but in the end, he would always say to me, “If you don’t like what I’m telling you, then don’t do it!”. Luckily, I can’t remember anything that I didn’t like about his approach to music! But when it comes to my own students, this freedom to choose is paramount. I do of course suggest how I feel things should be played. But I never force it.’