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Burning heart, cool head

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What classical music taught violinist Ryu Goto.


WORDS NICKKY FAUSTINE P. DE GUZMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY AYAKO YAMAMOTO

The single-mindedness of classical musicians is legendary. Harriette Brower, in the early 1900s, documented the habits of artists at the pinnacle of their careers in books such as Piano Mastery. Ignace Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist and composer, could lose hours when he was sitting at the keys. A student interviewed by Brower recalls: “Paderewski instructs, as he does everything else, with magnificent generosity. He takes no account of time. I would come to him for the stipulated half-hour, but the lesson would continue indefinitely, until we were both forced to stop from sheer exhaustion.”

Japanese-American violinist Ryu Goto, who has been playing professionally since he was seven, probably wouldn’t have thrived under the tutelage of someone like Paderewski. “It’s absolute bullshit when people say ‘I love practicing.’ I think that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “You hate it. You know it, and you hate it.” Proclaiming to love everything about the violin, he continued, is “sheer insanity,” “obsession,” and plain old “crazy.”

Japanese-American violinist Ryu Goto

The outspoken 30-year-old was in the country for a concert with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra held this November at the Manila Cathedral. While he concedes that music is a huge part of who he is, it’s not all he is: Mr. Goto has a physics degree from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a black belt in karate; and a business to help run as a partner of an investment firm based in Ghana. “I’ve never really thought of myself as being defined only by music,” he said.




To balance his interests, Mr. Goto—unlike Paderewski—guards his time, always tracing the shortest route between where he is and what he wants to accomplish. He asks himself: “How can I cut off all the excess stuff and then get there in the most efficient way?” The hours squirreled away are then used for leisure—“to hang out and do stuff,” as the violinist put it. “I think that’s the key to success and the key to having an enjoyable life. You have so much more time to yourself.”

Being a true child of the Internet, he sees YouTube—and similar online resources—as a gold mine that “allow us to get better at things so quickly.” There is no need to wait for your teachers to appear. They are already there, one search string away from you. Knowledge awaits those who know how to Google and, more important, how to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to sources. Brower’s books are online. As are Frederick H. Martens, who, inspired by Brower’s work, compiled Violin Mastery. In Martens’ book, we meet Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), hailed as one of the greatest violinists of all time. Heifetz and Mr. Goto are of similar mind when it comes to practice: “In the first place I have never believed in practicing too much—it is just as bad as practicing too little! And then there are so many other things I like to do. … I have never believed in grinding,” says Heifetz in Violin Mastery. Unwilling to read? There’s medici.tv, which has the largest catalog of classical music videos in high definition. Unwilling to pay the subscription fee? Warner Classics uploaded Maxim Vengerov’s violin masterclass on YouTube.

Do not mistake Mr. Goto’s cavalier attitude for laxness. When he’s on, he’s on. As the great violin teacher Leopold Auer (1845–1930) said: “It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without.”

According to Mr. Goto, anyone with the desire to succeed in the wonderful world of classical music as he has must first ask: “What do I have that’s different from anybody else?” The question is meant to be answered seriously. “It means thinking rationally and figuring out how to get to where you want to get,” he said. “Whether it’s in sports, or music, or anything, your heart has to burn. You have to have a fire in your heart. But your head has to be super cool. It has to be, like, ice cold.”

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