The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Violinist and master teacher Eugene Purdue offers tips and his “secrets” about learning, practicing and performing through music education.

December 6, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

I knew the Madison-based violinist and violin teacher Eugene Purdue only by name and reputation – several years ago, he was one of the few Americans ever to perform in North Korea during a Quaker festival. But I had never met him in person until very recently.

Over dinner with other musicians, we discussed some aspects of teaching and performing. His thoughtful and original, yet common sensical and practical, advice persuaded me to ask him if he would consider doing an email Q&A for this blog. I was sure many music students, and many listeners and parents alike, would appreciate his insights as much as I did.

Gene, who with his violist wife was a founding member of the Thouvenel String Quartet in Midland, Texas, consented.

The resulting email interview (illustrated blow with photos by Thomas C. Stringfellow) is highly informative and helpful, and speaks to the quality of both the music students and the music teachers that the Madison area is fortunate to have.

Should you want to contact Gene Purdue (below) for yourself, you can do so through the Independent String Teachers of Madison. Here is a link:

Can you give us a capsule summary with highlights and turning points of your own career in studying performing and teaching? 

I started my career as the first violinist of the Thouvenel String Quartet (below). We had a residency in Texas and did a lot of touring. We played in most of the major venues in the US as well as touring internationally. Highlights would be playing the major chamber music venues in New York as well as the Kennedy Center, a four-concert series in Vienna and a highly successful European tour that included playing in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Also, we were one of the first classical groups to tour China giving “western” style concerts in 1985. A second tour of China included a concert in Lhasa, Tibet for Jimmy Carter and the Panchen Lama, which was pretty cool. That was the most Secret Service that I have played for.

(For a highly positive review of a Carnegie Hall performance by the Thouvenel Quartet from The New York Times, visit:

Was there an Aha! Moment – perhaps a performer or a piece – when you knew you wanted to play the violin professionally.

 My “Aha! Moment” was when I heard the Oklahoma City Symphony at a children’s concert when I was in the 5th grade. Another turning point was when I went to Indiana University to study. I was very fortunate to be there at a great time when I could study with legendary teachers and have unbelievable colleagues. Another turning point for me was when my wife, Sally Chisholm, and I decided to move to Madison so that she could become the violist of the Pro Arte Quartet. That was when I became a full-time teacher.

How does a parent know when it’s the right age for a child to start music lessons? How and when did you start?

The sooner, the better. The Suzuki programs, for instance, specialize in preschoolers. I don’t think you can predict which kid will take to it; you just give them the chance and see if they respond. If they don’t, wait a while and try again. One thing to keep in mind is that learning to play a string instrument is very difficult in the beginning. It usually takes a while for the student to get comfortable with it, so persevere and be patient.

There are a lot of concerto competitions for young people in Madison – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerts and Final Forte, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Youth Concerto Competition, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras competition and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Neale Silva Young Artists Competition. You have trained a lot of the participants and winners. Can you remind us of their names?  

My students that have been winners of the competitions that you mentioned are to the best of my recollection: Eric Nowlin, Rebekah Wolkstein, Nathaniel Wolkstein, Derek Powell, Vicki Powell, Krista Stewart, Alice Huang, Leslie Huang, Ben Seeger, Beth Larson, Lydia Sewell, Megan Whip, Paul Sekulski (seen below performing with WYSO last spring), Valerie Sanders and Tony Oliva. I apologize if I left someone out.

How does that speak to the quality of music students and music teachers in the Madison area in your experience?

Of course most of your readers are aware of what a culturally active community Madison is. But I think we sometimes overlook the quality of what’s happening on the high school and younger levels here. Madison music students who have won national and even international competitions haven’t gotten a lot of attention. Of course I’m sure that is also true of academics. It seems that sports get much more attention — and that’s coming from a sports fan (Go Bucky! Go Packers!).

The WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, below) program, for instance, I think can compete with similar programs in much bigger cities. Also, there have been a couple of very interesting concerts given by our private teacher group, The Independent String Teachers of Madison (IST). It is a “showcase” concert where we feature the entire spectrum of Madison string students. You can really see how much interest there is and what good teaching there is on every level here.

What do you tell your young music students about performing in public in general and competing in competitions in particular? What is your advice about overcoming stage fright and nerves? 

Concerning stage fright, for me the No. 1 secret is to perform as often as possible. The more you do it, the easier it is; and the less you do it, the harder it is. In my studio I try to have two recitals a month, so that my students have ample opportunity to perform.

Another important point is breathing. To be in control, you must use abdominal breathing. If not, you can spiral out of control. Also, your technique needs to be solid and of course, you need to know your piece really well. My basic feeling about nerves is that nerves don’t cause problems; they reveal problems.

In preparing for a performance, I recommend that you include in your daily practice, something that I call performing practice. This is where you imagine that you are performing in an actual performing venue with an imaginary audience.

It is good to make it as specific as you can. If you know the place that you’ll be performing, then imagine it. For instance, if a student is preparing for a competition with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, I tell them to imagine they are playing in Overture Hall and are accompanied by the Madison Symphony with an imaginary audience. If you don’t know the venue, then imagine yourself in a venue that you know.

How healthy are competitions and performing for students?

Concerning competitions, I think the first thing is to understand and accept what they are. They are a judged event for which there is no set criteria. It means that it is up to each judge to set their own criteria. So, you can’t predict what criteria will win. I think in many competitions that if you change the judges, you change the outcome.

So for me, you can’t make winning the goal. For me the goal is to use the competition as stimulus to improve and to play a good performance at the competition. These are goals that you can control. It is easier said than done, but it is what I try to teach my students (and myself).

How has teaching music, and violin or strings in particular, changed since you were a young student or first started teaching?

I think the teaching of technique has improved. One thing my generation has brought to pedagogy is how to use the body better by applying things like Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, for example.

Another thing I have tried to do is to streamline things so that you can accomplish more in less time. I would point out that most of the standard violin exercises were written at a time when you were expected to practice 6 or more hours a day. Today, very few high school kids could spend that kind of time.

I do have one worry, though, and that is that we have lost some musical understanding that our predecessors had.

Posted in Classical music

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