Violinist  Vincent  P.  Skowronski

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Vincent P. Skowronski


Violinist, recording artist and producer

Born Jan. 22, 1944, Kenosha (WI), U.S.

Education: Bachelor of Music, 1966, Master of Music, 1968, Northwestern University, Evanston (IL).

Career: instructor (violin), Northwestern University, 1969-71; assistant prof. (violin), University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1971-72; in Evanston - vice president, Eberley - Skowronski, Inc., intern, rare instruments broker, Strings & Things, 1973-92, intern, director of marketing and public relations, EB-SKO Productions, 1978-92, and Vincent Skowronski: Producer of Classical Recordings, 1993 -, media communications director, E-S Management, 1985-92; private violin teacher.

Author: solo violinist debut, Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago, 1959; artist, producer, annotator: classical recordings, Separate But Equal, 1976, All Brahms, 1977, Gentleman Gypsy, 1978, Skowronski: Strauss and Szymanowski, 1979, Skowronski: One Sonata Each - Franck and Szymanowski, 1982, Skowronski Alone, 1993, and others; numerous solo concerts and recitals in Europe and Americas; numerous radio and TV appearances.

Member of: board of directors member, 1973-77, vice president, 1974-77, Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago; mayor's foundation committee member, Evanston Arts Council, 1974-75; adjudicator, ice skating shows and competitions, Wilmette (IL), 1985-89; sponsor, Harvard Club of Chicago, 1989; International Platform Association.

Honors: Sigma Nu; Roy Harris scholarship, Inter - American University, San German (PR), 1960; award, American Federation of Musicians, 1961; scholarship, McCormick Foundation, 1965; laureate, IV International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), 1970; Most Admired Man of the Decade, American Biographical Institute, 1992; listed in: Who's Who in America, 2000 Notable American Men, The International Directory of Distinguished Leadership, Personalities of the Americas, Men of Achievement, International Man of the Year 1992-93, Five Hundred Leaders of Influence.

Language: English.

Home: 1726 Sherman Avenue, Evanston, IL 60201.

(Text) From: "Who's Who in Polish America" 1st Edition 1996-1997, Boleslaw Wierzbianski editor; Bicentennial Publishing Corporation, New York, NY, 1996.

==  Photo from another source  

Vince and I have known each other for many years, and it was my pleasure to have played his recordings on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  In the fall of 1993 we got together in his apartment (which doubled as the office for his business Strings & Things) for a formal interview.  He was about to give the North American premiere of the Rhapsody Pathetique by Richard Nanes, along with the Classical Symphony Orchestra and the Protégé Philharmonic.  These are two accomplished and respected youth orchestras, who perform in various locations in Chicago, and also have toured and performed several times in Beijing, China.

Portions of the conversation were used to promote these concerts, and now the entire chat is presented on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   You’re a violinist who is making it on your own in a different way than many concert violinists.  Is this good, or bad, or just different?

Vincent P. Skowronski:   It depends on what day you ask me.

BD:   Let’s pretend this is a good day.  Tell me the good aspects of being a violinist, and teacher, and owner of a string store.

VPS:   The magical word is
independent.  That’s what I’ve cherished the most in the twenty years that I’ve been at this.  I really don’t have to answer to anyone, good, bad, or indifferent, except to myself.  If I do good work, it’s because I have done that good work.  You’ve known me for years, so you’re well aware of the quality product that we put out on the recordings, etc., and yet there’s a lot of envy from people who don’t seem to think that a musician, or an artist has the wherewithal or the common-sense to do something that millions of people do every day around the world!  They run cleaning establishments, and grocery stores, and major corporations.  Granted, they have a bit more training that we have because they go to school for this, but don’t forget, we’ve been going to school for this ever since we’ve been kids.  We’ve been performing in an arena where businessmen have not been performing until they get into their mid-twenties or early thirties, because they’re in school learning how to perform.  We learned how to perform when we were five or six years old.  Our mothers or teachers throw us out on stage, and we must perform.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Were you thrown out on stage when you were five or six?

VPS:   Yes, much to my chagrin as a matter of fact.  I was one of those kids that did not want to take violin lessons.  I wanted to play baseball and football, and somehow I managed to do that and get a reasonable knowledge of the sports’ world.  Yet I still had to practice.  But I’m from a different era.  Today, kids are being handled a bit more leniently.  Back in the old days, if your old man or your old lady told you to do something, there were no two ways about it.

BD:   This was all here in Chicago?

VPS:   Yes, I’m basically a Chicago kid.

BD:   Do you regret not being the third baseman for a world champion team?

VPS:   If it were the cubs, yes, I would regret that.  But fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that because we’ve been
waiting till next year for so many years.  [Much laughter]  But I enjoy what I’m doing.  I haven’t done a lot of private teaching in the last twenty years, but I find that the kids today are not as disciplined as we were when we were kids.  When we were told to do something, we did it whether we liked it or not.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is this really true, or are you just getting old and crotchety?

VPS:   No, no, no, no, no, no!  Sometimes when we didn’t like it, and we talked back, we paid the consequences for it.  But now, kids can do this, and they can do that.  If they want to practice, then they can practice.  But if they don’t want to practice, nobody seems to care.

BD:   Among your students, are there some that really shine and will go far in their career?

VPS:   It depends on the motivational factor at home and from the teacher.  A lot of times, there’s no motivation from the teacher.  That’s why I’m getting more and more into private teaching, because I find there a lot of people out there who call themselves teachers, that should not be in the business at all.  I remember when I was going through school, one of the professors, who was at that time an assistant dean, said, “If all else fails, you can always teach.”  I remember thinking that’s really self-deprecating.  I’m getting this marvelous degree, and he was saying that if I fail, I can always go out there and teach.

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  But isn’t it more realistic to know that of all the people who study violin, even those who are very good, just a very few will make it as concert artists?

VPS:   Oh sure.  I agree with that.  I’m not saying that’s not the truth.  It’s just that when you go to do something, I was always told that if you’re going to do it, do it right or don’t do it at all.

BD:   But a lot of it is getting the right breaks.

VPS:   That’s right.

BD:   Have you had your share of right breaks?

VPS:   Yes, early in my career, but the good are always the enemy of the best, and when you start to get out there, and you compete on a global scale, there are people who say, “Our agency is pushing this guy, so you may cause us competition,
and the last thing people want is competition.  I have had some very nice breaks, but it’s not really luck, it’s how hard you work.

BD:   Now, as you’re approaching this big round birthday of 50, are you working harder?

VPS:   I’m working smarter!  [Both laugh]  But there’s one thing I always try to impart to my students...  it’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice, and the concentration that’s involved.

BD:   Is that something that can be taught, or is that something you just have to discover?

VPS:   There are practice techniques.  I find a lot of people who have come to me have studied with some of the big names here in the mid-West, and yet they say, “I’ve got problems,” which are really quite severe.  Then you find out that they are very slow learners because they weren’t taught how to learn quickly.  The discipline factor is involved, and most of them have no idea how to practice.  When you go to baseball spring training, they teach you the fundamentals of how to play the game.  It seems in the arts world, they just let you go, and you’re supposed to glean all these things by osmosis.  There is a learning process.
BD:   Should there be a little league for orchestral players?

VPS:   I think that’s evident.  When you see organizations like the Classical Symphony Orchestra and the Protégé Philharmonic, and the Civic orchestra, and the Youth Orchestra of Chicago, these are your training groups.

BD:   That’s your minor league for young professionals.  I’m talking about little league for the kids.

VPS:   For the kids?  They have junior high youth orchestras, but I don’t really know how valuable that is, because kids at that age are really into too much.

BD:   Too many different things?

VPS:   Too many different things.  If you put the onus on them and they’ve got to sit there every Sunday night, or Monday night for three hours and rehearse, they’re not ready for that.

BD:   Should we go to the animators of Beavis and Butt-Head and get them to put into their cartoons the ideas that you should practice the violin, and the cello, and the oboe?

VPS:   I don’t know if we’re going to get that dressed-up, but I see your point.  All through these cartoons, and everywhere in Hollywood, there’s always something that’s at the core, but when you get involved in the arts in general, and classical music in particular, it’s always the last thing on the list.  It’s run without any kind of publicity in mind, or any way that will help sell itself.

BD:   How important should the arts be in our society, as we’re living now in the early 1990s?

VPS:   We’re going towards the turn of the century, and people are going to have more, and more, and more spare time.  We’re already talking about cutting the work-week, and cutting the hours that you work each day.  Here in Evanston, if you go just three blocks to the lake, there are masses of people out on the weekends bicycling, and skateboarding.  Everybody’s out there doing something.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Instead of practicing???

VPS:   [Laughs]  Instead of practicing.  Those are healthy activities, but I have a feeling that if they ever got involved in what classical art is all about, it wouldn’t turn people off.  Twenty or twenty-five years ago, opera singers were laughed at, and scoffed at because they were overweight, and not necessarily good-looking.

BD:   [Quietly repeating the old phrase]  It
ain’t over till the fat lady sings!

VPS:   That’s right!

BD:   Television changed all that.  Some of the opera singers started to see themselves, and began a physical fitness regimen.  Is the same thing happening to violinists?  We seem to be in the age of instrumentalists who try to make a pop-type impression.

VPS:   Absolutely, because this sells.  You may not necessarily have to be the greatest artist in the world, but if you’re cute and have décolletage, this will make you sell.  Fortunately, ninety per cent of the people who are out there can play, and do have some artistic integrity.

BD:   As an artist here in Chicago, are you competing against all of the glitz?

VPS:   I’m way ahead of my time.  I was performing in sport coats and turtle necks back in the 1960s.  I was chastised for that.  When I do my next concert coming up in February, I am not going out on stage in tails.  I’m going to dress casually and comfortably, yet respectfully.

BD:   [Facetiously]  Will you have spiky hair?

VPS:   No, I don’t have enough hair to spike! [Gales of laughter]  I wish I did, but I don’t!  No, I will go out in a cardigan sweater, and a shirt and a tie, and be comfortable.

BD:   Are you trying to in-formalize the whole concert business?

VPS:   No, I’m just trying to go out and be comfortable playing, and get myself across to the audience.

BD:   If you are comfortable playing, does that make the audience more comfortable listening?

VPS:   I believe it does because it’s a visual thing.  I’m not going there to create an event.  I’m going there because this man who was nice enough to say, “Would you come and play this work for us?”

BD:   What is the event?  Is it the music?  Is it the social gathering?  Is it the artistic achievement, or is it just playing the violin?

VPS:   It’s the whole theater of it.  These people who will come to listen will have to leave their house a long time before they even hear the first note of the piece, and then it will be very late by the time they get home.  So, it’s going to be an event for them.  I don’t want to make them feel that they’re coming to something that they cannot participate in, and if they walk in with a sport coat and maybe a cardigan sweater or maybe blue jeans
let’s face it, that’s the fashion code these daysand I walk out in archaic uniform, that immediately turns them off because they see something that they cannot identify with.

BD:   [Carrying the idea to ridiculous lengths]  But they don’t want to see you looking like some guy who’s come to put up wallpaper...

VPS:   [Laughing]  Well, I didn’t say I was going to go in my dungarees.  I said I was going to dress respectfully.  But I want to be comfortable.

BD:   Are you’re saying the idea of respect for the audience and the music is evolving?

VPS:   I hope so, and I want to be a part of that.  I want to be part of that vanguard that gets the point across to the audience that I’m having fun.  Then I ask them to join me in that fun.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned that the audience will have to leave their houses and come out to the concert.  Has this been helped or hurt by the idea that you can, at the same time or at different times, pull out a piece of plastic and put it into their machine, and play the music at home without leaving?
VPS:   It does hurt.  If you’re involved in the experience for mass appeal, it does hurt because I know myself.  I used to go to the Chicago Bears games [NFL, professional football] on a very frequent basis, but I don’t do that anymore because it’s a hassle for me.  I don’t like to sit there and freeze.  But if you ask me if I would rather see a professional football game in person, as opposed to on television, with all the conveniences, and instant replays, and fourteen people telling you what’s going on, I would say the only way to see a football game is to go out there and see it, and freeze, and get cold, and go home with pneumonia.

BD:   Be on the 50-yard line, or back in the end zone?

VPS:   That’s right.  That’s the only way to see a football game.

BD:   Does that translate the same way into concerts
that the only way to enjoy a concert is to go and be there when it’s being done?

VPS:   Absolutely!  But unfortunately, now we’re making it a little bit too easy for the people.  But that’s okay.  I’d rather have it a little bit too easy than a little bit too hard for them to come out.  Through the publicity we will launch, we’ll see whether we will have a full house or not, and whether people will be interested enough to hear this premiere.

BD:   Is that a measure of success
whether you sell out all the tickets?

VPS:   Unfortunately yes.  I hate to say it, but as a business man, when you look at the bottom line, if you don’t sell enough tickets it’s awfully hard to pay your bills.  We also know that even with full houses or almost full houses, you still don’t pay your bills from ticket sales.  It’s as simple as that.  But it’s very nice for the performer to walk out and see a thousand little shiny orbs looking at him, saying we’re here to hear you, instead of walking out to a vacant hall.

BD:   Would you rather walk out to 8,000 people and be playing in a huge arena, or to 1,200 and be in a much more intimate setting?

VPS:   I prefer intimacy, I really do.  On my first trip to Europe years and years and years ago, I thought that La Scala and the Vienna State Opera were huge edifices and grand theaters.  But when you walk into La Scala, it’s almost like a music box.  The audience is virtually on stage.  They’re looking down at you.  It’s a small box of a hall.  I forget the statistics, but the Vienna State Opera stage is actually four times larger than the hall itself.  So I appreciate the intimacy of it all.  When I won the Chicagoland Music Festival, I gave a concert at the old Arie Crown Theater.  I played there before it burned down, [much laughter] but it was enormous.  It sat over 6,000 people.  You couldn’t even see the back of the hall.  They put me up on a platform, and it was just ridiculous.

BD:   Did you adjust your sound for that?

VPS:   You can’t!  All you can do is try to crank out as much sound as you can.  But then, as you well know, you lose the nuance of what you’re doing.

BD:   Did you find yourself putting more pressure with your right arm onto the bow?

VPS:   Absolutely, because when the sound went out, I had no idea where it was going.  I couldn’t hear it come back, and that’s an awful feeling.  It’s like yelling in the Grand Canyon.  There’s no echo, so you feel that something is wrong.  In Rome I went to the Baths of Caracalla to see Aïda, and I didn’t know what was going on there.  Fourteen camels and thirteen elephants, and 52,000 people, and it was just ridiculous.

BD:   And some little tenor was trying to sing his heart out.

VPS:   [More laughter]  That’s right, and the soprano singing Aïda was like a speck.  She was about two inches tall, if I remember.  But those were the old days...

BD:   Are the new days any better?

VPS:   [Thinks a moment]  They’re trying to cut down the size of the halls.  Even eight hundred is a lot of people when you think about it.

BD:   That’s eight hundred people who have decided to come out to hear you.

VPS:   Yes.

BD:   Are they coming to hear you, or are they coming to hear the music, or are they coming just to be out for a night on the town?

VPS:   It’s a combination of all of that, but at the pinnacle of this would be that they’re coming to see the artist.  For instance, when the kids are going to see the Grateful Dead, they’re not interested in the hall.  They’re going there for that specific reason.

BD:   Of course, but that kind of a concert is much more of a participatory event, with all the screaming and shouting.

VPS:   But they permit that.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you went Orchestra Hall, and after the cadenza of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, everyone would yell and scream and say that’s terrific?

BD:   Not actually having been to a Grateful Dead concert, I’m assuming that they don’t wait until after the song is over.  They’re participating while the music is on.

VPS:   But part of the whole idea of rock music is that this is permitted.  That’s part of the deal.  In classical music, you don’t dare say anything or do anything until it’s over.  Young people might wonder why they have to wait until it’s over before they can express themselves.  That’s just the classical structure of the deal.  You don’t applaud.  There’s that famous story when they threw Pablo Casals out of a recital hall.  The pianist was doing so well, that after the first movement he started to clap.  So, they grabbed him and threw him out.  They thought he was a boor.

BD:   In your concert, if all of a sudden you hit a wonderful harmonic, and it resounded in the hall, would you appreciate it if there’s cheering and shouting even before you went to the next phrase?
VPS:   Sure!  But I hear it when someone gasps.  You’ll turn a phrase, or you’ll do something special, and you’ll hear [makes a gasp].  I don’t know whether the guy is having a stroke, or heart attack, or whether I’m doing well, but you hear these things, and that’s marvelous.  When you’re performing you feed off of that, instead of looking into all these vacant faces and not getting any feedback.

BD:   Are we making progress in this direction?

VPS:   I don’t do enough live performing, or go to enough performances myself, but you can see it through the media.  TV is beginning to get more and more of these people on the air, and there is a big splash with some of the big names.  But it’s cyclical, and you never know how it goes because there’s no feedback from the classical end of the business.  You always know what’s going on in rock and pop because the numbers are greater.  You can have a Grammy Award winning record from one of the great orchestras, and then two weeks later it’s over, as if the piece was never done.  It’s that consistency which we lack in this business.

BD:   Well, are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

VPS:   I would say just from visceral reaction, no!

BD:   Should we all just pack up and go home?  [Both laugh]  [Feigning dejection]  What do we do while we’re waiting for the end?

VPS:   We have to really get back to what classical music is all about.  It’s an art form.  We’re getting too many people involved in this business who are mechanics.  They are little machines.  They go out and they play, and they play marvelously.  I wish I had the techniques some of these kids have.  They play every note exactly right, and they’re scary.  They’re spooky performers because they don’t miss, but after five minutes of listening to them, you start asking yourself if there isn’t anything more that you’ve got coming out of that box than just notes?

BD:   Then where is the balance, or where should the balance be between the artistic achievement and this incredible technique?

VPS:   Is
balance the right word?  Are we equating marvelous technique with a God-given gift?  I always tell my students that I can teach an orangutan to play the violin, but I can’t teach anybody what God has not given to them, and that’s the ability to make music, to turn a phrase, to take the skeleton called the musical score and make something really different.

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re a musical orangutan?

VPS:   I did when I was a kid, because I was always told that there’s only one way to do this.  I was always inventive.  I never had a great technique because I never practiced.  I was the typical kid, and yet I would listen to violinists, and even my peers, the kids I was growing up with, and anyone could tell that they were eons ahead of me technically.  But when I would listen to them practice, or listen to them perform in recital, it always sounded the same.  Every time I pick up a fiddle, it’s always different.

BD:   What do you do to make every performance, or even over a practice session, different?

VPS:   Eighty per cent of the time I don’t know.  All I know is that when I listen to something, I surprise myself.

BD:   Should you know this, or is it something that you shouldn’t know?  Should it be in the mysterious ether?

VPS:   That’s it.  It’s the same equation in sports.  Is a great hitter born, or is he taught to hit?  There are a lot of guys out there that you can teach to hit, but Ted Williams was never taught to hit.  Ernie Banks was never taught to hit.  They were born with that gift, and it manifested itself.  Sometimes, when we take someone with a gift like that and constrict it, then they really have problems.

BD:   So, you should set it free?

VPS:   That’s it.  Some of the greatest artists of all times were some of the worst technicians, but they really made something happen.

BD:   Without mentioning any names, in your studio teaching do you ever find a spark of this God-given gift?

VPS:   Oh sure!  But a lot of times it’s been suppressed, because growing up in this age, and maybe even in our own age of many years ago, it was not cultivated that we should show our emotions.

BD:   Guys can’t cry.
VPS:   That’s right, guys can’t cry, or ask why we are getting married, and that’s a shame.

BD:   Do you feel that communicating with an audience is at all like communicating with a spouse?

VPS:   Absolutely.  You have to make love to your audience, otherwise they’re not going to respond.  Sometimes you’ll go out and emote your little heart out, and you’ll be looking at a sea of faces that just don’t get it.  They’re not on the same page.

BD:   Do you still make sure that it’s enjoyable for you at least?

VPS:   If it’s not enjoyable for me, then there is no reason for me to be doing this at all.  That’s why I have not performed with orchestras in over twenty-five years.  It’s always been in a chamber music situation.  This is what’s unusual about doing this premiere, because it is the first time in twenty-five or thirty years that I have consented to perform with an orchestra.  I’ve had horrible experiences with orchestras.

BD:   Have you consciously turned down offers?

VPS:   Absolutely, because I don’t want to get into that situation of having to fight with people.  I cannot fight with ninety-five people.

BD:   Wouldn’t you only be fighting with one, the guy with the stick?

VPS:   Yes, who controls the ninety-five people.  E
ven if the conductor gives what you may ask for, if the ninety-five people are not with him, there’s no way you can do it.  I cannot outplay a brass section.

BD:   Did you consciously turn yourself into kind of a Glenn Gould, who only made recordings?

VPS:   No, I just consciously went into playing in chamber music situations, basically with piano.  If you got together with a fine pianist, an artistic pianist, then you have very few arguments.

BD:   Then the obvious question is what made you turn your thinking around to accept this concert engagement?

VPS:   I like the Music Director.  I believe in what he’s doing with this group, and I’ve known them for quite a number of years.  This is a North American premiere, and it’s a damn good piece.  I like the piece, and he asked me nicely if I would consider doing it.  I considered it because I figured if this guy likes me, and I like him, then there should be a rapport, and we should have no problems.  Unfortunately, when you get into the more professional arena, when you start talking with a conductor, there’s only one person who’s the soloist, and that’s the conductor, and you are the servant.  You are there to follow that stick, and do whatever he wants to do.

BD:   Who should the conductor serve, and who should the soloist serve?

VPS:   The soloist should serve the composer, and the conductor should serve the soloist.  It’s like who came first, the chicken or the egg.  The artist has to be sincere to the score, and do his best to represent what the composer wanted.  The conductor then has to do what the soloist wants to be done.

BD:   Is he to be subservient?

VPS:   Not subservient but he has to be malleable enough to follow the soloist, and not say, “No, I think the tempo should be this!”  I’ve been in that situation too many times.  With a pianist you can say, “What do you think?”

BD:   But wouldn’t you like to find a conductor who could say, “What do you think?”

VPS:   Maybe thirty years ago, but today there’s no time to rehearse.  You can’t talk to the guy.  They come, throw the score on the podium, and you’re off!  I have seen hideous, ghastly performances by major soloists who come into town with lack of rehearsal, and fall flat on their face.  They have played the piece a hundred times, but maybe for the guest conductor it’s his first time through this piece, and he’s got his nose buried in the score, and the poor violinist is wondering, “What the hell is going on around here?”  I remember one famous guy who had a major catastrophe not too many years ago, because he was going one direction and the rest were going the other direction.

BD:   Did they end together?

VPS:   That’s the thing in classical music.  If you start together and end together, that’s all people seem to remember.  [Both laugh]  When there is something in the middle, I would like to remember it.

BD:   Do you strive to make sure that the audience will remember everything you play?

VPS:   I remember everything that I play.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you’re doing it!

VPS:   Yes, but they should be doing it also, and that means listening, not just hearing.  There’s a big difference between hearing and listening.

BD:   We’ve spent a long time developing virtuoso performers.  Should we try to develop virtuoso listeners?

VPS:   You don’t have to be a virtuoso listener.  You just have to have the ability to listen.

BD:   As well as the interest in the music?

VPS:   Yes, the interest, and this just doesn’t stop with Classical music.  It’s in everyday life.  How many times do you have a conversation with someone who is not listening to you?

BD:   [Jokingly]  What did you say?  [Both laugh]
VPS:   Touché!  It’s frustrating when I talk to students and they’re someplace else.

BD:   Let me carry this three steps farther.  Are we beginning to lose that direct communication because we’re interacting now with our computers?  Then, is that going to make us listen more or listen less?

VPS:   Listen less, absolutely, in my humble opinion.
 [The photo at left shows a spontaneous gathering in Evanston of bass-baritone William Powers (left), VPS (center), and BD.]

BD:   Even though we are actually concentrating more on this computer?

VPS:   Yes, because terrible things happen that really blow everyone’s mind when the computer goes down.  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s true.

VPS:   When the computer is down, no matter what vast reams of information you have in this damn thing, you won’t get anything out of it.  So, are we getting to a point now where we’re beginning to destroy ourselves with machines, or can we really harness what these things can do for us, and help us?

BD:   My feeling is that a few of us are harnessing the machines, and the rest are being pulled by them.

VPS:   Going back to this listening idea and practice-techniques, when people practice, do they really listen to what they’re doing, or do they just waste time going through all these motions, and their mind is someplace else?

BD:   They’re back to being technicians?

VPS:   Right.  I actually heard and read major pedagogues, when asked how to master a technical passage, they said, “You have to do it at least a hundred times.”  This just doesn’t make sense.  What if you do it a hundred times wrong?  [Laughs]  You’ve simply learned it wrong.

BD:   They’re assuming that it’ll be a hundred times right, and that’ll get it into their mechanism.

VPS:   Why would you want to assume that?

BD:   Because I’m an optimist.


VPS:   If the person is asking how to do this, you must assume he does not know how to do it, and that’s why he’s asking.  There are all kinds of ghastly stories like that, but again we have to teach ourselves to listen if only for two or three minutes.  Whenever you listen to something for two or three minutes, you remember it.  I remember hearing Heifetz when I was a kid.  I remember exactly what he was playing, how he played it, what he was wearing, and all this other stuff.  I can’t tell you for the whole hour I was there what was going on, but I remember him walking on stage.  He never smiled.  I remember rosin flying off his violin, and people said he never scratched, and he never made an ugly sound.  But if you sat within ten feet of him, you would want your money back.

BD:   You had to be twenty yards away?

VPS:   That’s right.  I remember that.  I remember lots of things because I was mesmerized by these people, and I listened.

BD:   Do you try to mesmerize your audience?

VPS:   I don’t consciously try to do that, but you can feel when it’s happening.  You can see how quiet the hall gets.  You can just see how people begin to hone in on you because you’re doing something.  You have grabbed their interest, and when you start hearing the Mars bars and the M&Ms start coming out, and the hacking and the wheezing, you know you’ve lost them.

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BD:   Let’s come back to the music.  You have this immense repertoire to choose from.  How do you decide which pieces you’ll play, and which pieces you’ll not play?
VPS:   Over the years, I have cultivated what I call my favorites.

BD:   Is that a top five, or top three hundred?

VPS:   It’s about a top twenty to twenty-five that I like to constantly perform.  I also enjoy discovering works that had been lost.  People have not played these pieces for ages, like the Paderewski Sonata for Violin and Piano.  It’s a gorgeous work, but nobody ever plays it.  There’s also the Reynaldo Hahn Sonata for Violin and Piano.  It’s a marvelous work, but nobody even knows who Reynaldo Hahn is.  [Recording of this work shown at left.]

BD:   Is the violin work as good as his songs?

VPS:   Absolutely!  It’s sensual, it’s wonderful, it’s just gorgeous with the harmonies and the modulations.  It’s a marvelous piece that nobody even knows exists.

BD:   How did you discover it?

VPS:   I saw it listed in the WNIB Program Guide, and I listened to it.  I called up Ron [Ron Ray, the Program Director of WNIB], and he turned me on to who this guy was.  Then there was the process of months trying to get the music.  But once I heard it, I wanted it.  So, along with all the old chestnuts, I like to program things that are not necessarily in the top five or ten, and yet are good works.

BD:   How do you know it’s a good work?  What makes it a good work?

VPS:   Does it have popular appeal?  If you hear it once or twice, will you remember it?  Will you like it, or will you just disregard it and say you never want to hear that thing again?  If I like it, and because I have the mechanics to reproduce this piece of music
if I do it properlyI stand a fifty-fifty chance of maybe getting other people to like it.  If they like it, then they will turn someone else on to it.  And there may even be another violinist in the audience who will feel it’s not such a bad piece, so maybe I should do it.  I have championed the works of Szymanowski for the last twenty years, and now finally people are beginning to play Szymanowski.

BD:   Is this because of your Polish heritage, or just because they are good pieces of music that you happen to stumble on?

VPS:   Both.  All people know about the Poles are Chopin and Wieniawski.  That’s about it.

BD:   So, you try to do Paderewski and Szymanowski, and a few others?

VPS:   Right, because Szymanowski is a viable composer.  I think he’s a good composer.  Will he go on to become as famous as Brahms or Beethoven?  I have no idea.  It’s just that if you never play his music, how are you ever going to know?  Here we sit in Chicago, and we have the largest Polish population next to Warsaw, and rarely do you ever hear anything of Szymanowski.  I’ve championed his works for years and years and years.  In fact, I cornered the market on it!  [Both laugh]  So, you can also see there’s method to my madness.

BD:   Now you’ve made quite a number of recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been released?

VPS:   I am more pleased with some than others.  That’s just the human reaction to things.  I enjoy a couple of albums immensely, and then there are a couple of albums where there were just problems.

BD:   Why did you release them if there were problems?

VPS:   They weren’t technical problems.  As an artist, you just wonder if we had one more take, would it have been much better, or better than the one we chose?  You could do this ad infinitum.  You could sit there in a recording studio for fifty years, and you finally have to call it quits.  But then there are just magical things, like the Szymanowski Nocturne and Tarantella.  We took one complete take.  It was never edited.  The pianist and I just clicked.  At that point in time, everything just went right, and it was marvelous.  The recording engineer said,
Thank you.  [Much laughter]  Another of my favorites is the Ravel Tzigane.  We just knocked the hell out that.  [Both of these works are on the recording shown below.]  At the time we recorded the Strauss Sonata, Op 18, there was only one other recording in the Schwann catalogue.  Now there’s four or five.  [The Strauss is on the recording shown at the very top of this webpage.]

BD:   Does that please you or disappoint you that there are more?

VPS:   It pleases me.  I remember a critic saying, “Why would anyone waste their time with such salon music?”  I wanted to write him a letter, or call him on the phone, saying, “Get with it, pal.  This is not salon music.  This is hard stuff.  It’s Richard Strauss!”  It’s as close to an orchestral work for solo violin and piano that you’re ever going to come to.  It’s absolutely gorgeous, but again it’s one of those overlooked pieces.

BD:   Do you have any advice for someone who would like to write music either for violin and piano, or violin and orchestra?

VPS:   Yes, please learn the instrument before you write for it!  [More laughter]  Do not ask us to do impossible things because it sounds good on a piano, or a guitar.  Really study the violin, or like Szymanowski or Brahms had, consult a violinist.

BD:   [Noting that he would very soon celebrate his half-century mark]  Are you pleased with where you are at fifty?

VPS:   Yes.  There are some personal things that everyone goes through in their life, but professionally I am pleased.  I gave a quote years ago... “I really don’t care and have never cared, as long as sometime before I go to the great whatever it is in the sky, I can sit down with a beer and know that I have finally gotten to where I wanted to get.”

BD:   Where is it you want to get?

VPS:   I would just like to leave something for ages to come, to leave a part of my work, a part of my soul, a piece of Vincent Skowronski that may be locked up in the Library of Congress, or the University of Chicago’s library, or something like that.  I have no idea where these recordings ultimately wind up.

BD:   The recordings are what you are leaving?

VPS:   Right.  That’s important, because live performance is wonderful, but there’s nothing like having a snapshot of what went on that day, at that particular point in time, when it was for all the marbles.  You did your thing to the best of your ability, and that was it.  That’s why it’s so wonderful listening to recordings I did ten years ago, as I now prepare for future recordings, knowing that the fingers are not moving as fast as they once did.  It’s a little bit more painful to do this, but you look at a piece of music, and you ask yourself as an artist if I know more today about what I’m doing than I did thirty years ago, or twenty years ago.


BD:   And the answer is?

VPS:   The answer is yes.  It’s not experience.  I remember asking someone why we need experience.  They always tell you to go out and get experience, but I say that if I hit myself on the head with a brick two times, that’s all the experience I need to know that it hurts.  There’s a cut-off time for gaining experience, and it seems to be around the age of forty.  Until you reach forty years of age, you really don’t know anything.  You’re still kind of the student, but the minute you turn forty, all of a sudden you know everything, and people come to you.  They want to ask you your opinion about what you think, and what fingering should they use.  I say I’ve been using the same fingering for thirty years.  What the hell is the difference?  But it’s very strange.

BD:   Maybe at forty you finally have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on.

VPS:   Perhaps, but you don’t get to the point that I have gotten to, not knowing what you were doing twenty or thirty years ago.  It just doesn’t happen.  That’s what pleases me a great deal, because now that I’m sincerely, and earnestly, and zealously going at the private teaching, I know these people need me, and I will be more than happy to do whatever I have to do to impart to these people that it is not a technical endeavor that we’re involved in.  It is an artistic endeavor, and I would rather they leave a bushel basket full of notes on stage if they actually send me a message.  That’s what’s important, and I will fight to the death for this.

BD:   Thank you for giving your artistry, and your ideas, and your music to Chicagoland for these many years.

VPS:   Believe me, it was my pleasure.  I hope it was the listeners
pleasure, also.  Thank you for asking me on the program.  I’m very grateful.


© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on October 18, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three months later, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.