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Franz Slaboch

Violin

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Franz Slaboch, left-handed violinist

Photo: Martin Köppl

Franz Slaboch, born in Nuremberg in 1959, began playing the violin at the age of fifteen, was a member of the Bavarian State Youth Orchestra and studied with Prof. Otto Büchner at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich.

Since 1985 he has been a permanent member of the second violins in the Bad Reichenhall Philharmonic Orchestra.

For many years he was a member of various quartets and chamber music formations. At present he can be heard increasingly as a guitarist who performs regularly with the singer Maria Bodensteiner, among others.

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Interview conducted by Sophia Klinke

Conversation of November 13, 2021

Do you see yourself as right-handed or left-handed?

I am left-handed, very distinctive... I was allowed by my parents to express it freely. Unfortunately, I was forced to write with my right hand at school...

What was your beginning on the violin and your approach to music in general?

My father had violins from the Czech Republic that were lying idle in the attic. He used to play them for Christmas. He could play Christmas carols, but not really more than that. That was my first contact with the violin. I started playing late, when I was fifteen.

 

Two things had really been decisive: One was Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne". There are such wonderful violins in it. They fascinated me so much. I wasn't a classicist at all, really. 

I had played guitar before - a little bit of chords - so not classical, but just like you do with "Blowing in the wind". Everyone in the class sang along. I was always the music man - the wine man and the music man... :)

 

"So long, Marianne" was one of the deciding factors and then I had a record from my sister: Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, "West Meets East". I even still have the record. Totally scratched, but I should still have it.

Then first I tuned the guitar so that it sounded like a sitar, with drone and so on, and then played ragas on one string. I played that in front of my class and they were thrilled. I thought, "Wow, that's totally super".

Once, on a class trip, I started playing the raga for ages in the evening - we were all already in our bunk beds.... They were all shaken by my raga, postitv shaken!

 

So these two components: Menuhin and Ravi Shankar's record ,,West Meets East" and Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne".

So I thought, "I'll get the violins from upstairs and see what I can do with them." Because I could already play a little guitar, I had a little more access. The bow, of course, I had first touched quite somehow funny. :) But I brought out tones and found that already crazy cool.

But those were right-handed violins up there in the attic, weren't they? 

Yes, yes, yes. But I always took them the other way around and played them. I just had the low string at the bottom and the high string at the top. So, as a left-handed violin, it was strung the wrong way around. I did take the bow in my left hand and played it that way, but the violin was quite conventionally right-handed. All that mattered to me was the sound. That I was trying out something...

I had a little bit of access to classical music before. A few pieces were just totally important to me, but not so much in general. "Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven. I played it when I was ten. My mother showed me how to do it with the fingerings. We continued to play a bit every day. Until I played it for her on her class recital, or whatever you call it. I didn't know any notes then. I didn't learn the notes until I was fifteen.

Your mother was a piano teacher?

Yes, exactly. Piano and singing teacher, but mainly piano. Piano until the end. So until forever. Until 60, 65 or so, I don't know.

Please continue to tell about your approach on the violin.

I wanted to experiment with sounds. It was also the time when I was thinking about what I wanted to do professionally. Then I thought to myself: "Sitting in an office would be brutal." My mother always said I should become a teacher. And I always thought: "No - music somehow... something with music, that would be totally cool." Those were always the two things. My mom: "Be a teacher for sure, that's where you get your salary. That's when you have vacation. You can do whatever you want in the meantime. You have endless freedom. Be a teacher, by all means." And I thought: "Teacher? I don't know. If I had me as a student as a teacher, that wouldn't be bearable. If I already pissed off teachers like that and then demanded something from my future students. That would be kind of all weird and stuff." :) 

And then my thinking was - this was all when I was fifteen - "Yeah, now you already have the violin." And so I thought to myself: "Violin? Maybe you can have professional opportunities, for example, in an orchestra." 

Back then, it wasn't as hard as it is today. Today it's insane, the competition is unbelievable. I couldn't have done that nowadays - impossible. And then I thought to myself: "Wow. Yes, then you try it with the violin. Let's see how far you get." I told my dad and he was totally enthusiastic: "My son, violin, finally something clever!" I remember he gave me five German marks because he thought it was so great that I was starting to play the violin.

 

At school there was an external music teacher who was there from time to time, and to her I said: "Hello, I want to learn the violin." 

At first she looked at me very stupidly. Fifteen years - and then left-hand violin" and so on... But she was a real sweetheart. I actually talked with her more than taking lessons. :) And then I went there and first played like before with the left arm bowing on a conventional righty violin. But then the teacher said: "This cannot go any further: Switch the strings around." 

And then I re-strung it and really got started with the first notes, etudes, pieces.... And of course I wanted to step on the gas. Because I thought: "I'm fifteen now. The others all start earlier." 

I didn't step on the gas too much, but I did a little bit. Because the goal was actually, "Gee, I could have a job with this." That was my thought. I would have played the violin a little bit anyway, but the fact that I took it in hand like that, played so intensively, was certainly also because I thought: "Maybe there's a chance to do something for the rest of my life that's not quite so grueling, which is to be able to play the violin professionally."

Then came the Abitur, and for a while I couldn't practice as much. After that I was in the military and there in the music corps. They also had a string orchestra in Regensburg. I practiced ear training and stuff like that with my buddies to prepare for the entrance exam at the conservatory. 

And then I heard my mother again: "Do teacher!" and I thought I wasn't good enough for the violin, but that I could try and who knows? In the end, I took both entrance exams: The one for teachers and the one for violin. Both worked out.

And violin is what you did.

Exactly. And I suddenly had such a vision of inspiration. Suddenly I knew: "I can't be a teacher." I knew it! :) That was suddenly clear. I used to go back and forth about it, but during the exam I suddenly knew: "I can't be a teacher." 

When in doubt, I still thought that if I wasn't that good on the violin, they'd just put me in teaching because they thought, "This is some mediocre violinist, he'd better become a teacher." I had this fear that they might consider something like that. And at the same time I knew within myself: "I'm trying hard and I want to be a violinist!"

 

That was suddenly so clear. And then I just muddled through like that... And then somehow the technique wasn't quite right again. My teacher wasn't really a technique guy, he was more of an expression guy and everything. So I had a lot of problems with the technique: "How do you actually do that?" and so on. That was a real odyssey. 

But at that time in the military there were also people from the State Youth Orchestra and they said, "Why don't you join the State Youth Orchestra?" And then, when I was nineteen, I became a member of the State Youth orchestra. And then later I graduated and always tried to play quite well. :)

What strange experiences have you had with your left-handed playing style? 

When I had my audition here for the Bad Reichenhall orchestra: I think they discussed for over an hour whether or not they could tolerate a left-handed player. That went on forever. Apart from that, people from the audience come to me almost every night and want to know why and how I do it and so on. So that's absolutely a rarity for them.

People still come to you every day? 

Well, every day is an exaggeration, but quite a number. They also ask others: "The left-handed guy, how does he do it?" and so on. So there is a lot of interest. I have heard that even in Salzburg or somewhere else further away, people are always saying: "Bad Reichenhall Philharmonic Orchestra? That's the orchestra with the left-handed player." That's such a trademark. :)

Right, a violinist from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra told me about it: "There's a guy in Bad Reichenhall who plays to the left."  :)

Yes, yes, yes. Funny. Exactly. I knew I was an exotic. But, now I just remembered: It was sometimes the older colleagues like that. The orchestra was quite old when I came in in 1985. They were all post-war people who played there. And there were some who said: "Why doesn't he just learn the other way around?" or something like that. "What's the point of playing like that?" "It works the same the other way." "You need left and right," and so on. So I had heard this more around the corner, or someone told me, that it was not quite so accepted or understood.

Nowadays, maybe there's whispering behind me too, may well be, I don't know. But I don't hear it anymore, and I've been in this orchestra for so long now: That's taken for granted. And, as I said, it is also one of the orchestra's trademarks. I don't think that anyone still sees my lefty way of playing with suspicion or almost with hostility or anything like that - I don't think so.

What I love about your approach at that time is that it was clear to you from the beginning that the main expression happens in the bow arm, in your case, as a left-handed person, in the left one.

Yes, I felt that... That it has to flow... The bow carries the sound to the outside. The vibrato of the fingering hand, in my case the right hand, is also a means of expression, definitely! But I think the shaping of the tone and so, that's what the bow does on the violin! That is tonal painting! Also in the orchestral works: Every part has its character, its very own sound. And we try to express that. On the piano, you can also do tone painting to a certain degree, but it's not nearly as extensive and intense as on the violin.

What was it like to play left-handed at the entrance examination to the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich? Do you remember anything about that?

I don't recall anything, no.

Did you have prior contact with your professor, with whom you subsequently studied, or did you go to the entrance exam on the off chance?

I had contact with a teacher who knew my violin teacher. I had auditioned for him beforehand.

Do you see any advantages in playing "the other way round"?

I started playing left-handed because I was already fifteen and knew the fingering hand somewhat from the guitar - although the guitar and violin fingering hand do have their differences. But a certain fluency was already there because of the guitar playing and I thought to myself: If I now change the fingering hand from the right to the left, and also have to bow with the right arm against my feeling, then I'll never make it.

It was quite difficult to manage it anyway. How many musicians are stuck somewhere or doing something they don't like...? And then I thought to myself: "If, then I should use what I already can - the advantages I have." And then with the good hope: "Somehow, some orchestra will accept it and take me as a lefty. It's not completely impossible. If I play well, it should work out." I had also asked people whether it would make any sense at all to go for orchestra auditions? "Well, in the case of an opera orchestra, it might work. It would be a bit tight, but you wouldn't see him down in the pit."

How did you come by your instruments?  

I had the first instrument from my father on the attic. At some point I had changed the strings of this violin to suit a left-handed violin. But it still lacked the bass bar, soundpost and so on to make it a real left-handed violin. Therefore, it did not yet sound as it should. 

My mother had had a rich admirer, an Arab. He said to me that he would buy me a violin. :) From him I got my first left-handed violin, which was custom-built directly to the left. That happened in Bubenreuth near Nuremberg and before I finished my studies.

 

But at some point I realized that I could have even better instruments. I ended up looking for these in Mittenwald. But I had the problem that neither my parents nor the violin teacher from high school at the time had any contacts with any violin makers, and certainly not with left-hand violin makers.

Therefore, I was completely on my own and then as a lefty violinist, you can't just try out "normal" violins. I tried it anyway, but when you play a right-handed violin on the left... it sounds completely different. 

I had a violin modified, once, but was so disappointed afterwards that I had it rebuilt immediately - it was not what I had expected.

It could also be that the old wood was simply so used to its vibration as a right-handed violin that everything sounded different after the conversion.

 

I didn't know where to get a good left-handed violin - there was no internet, nothing.  Then I simply went to where I was told: "He makes quite good violins" and said: "Hello, I want to have my lefty violin like this and like that," so how it should sound and so on, "Can you make me one?" :) Well, it was totally primitive and unfortunately I have never been really happy with the violins there, I have to say that honestly. And on such violins I graduated and so on...

I had two violins made for me. I didn't like the first one, so I went to another violin maker whose violin I didn't like either. 

I don't know, maybe they thought I was just a little pipi violinist and that they could sell me the worst wood or whatever. :) I felt a bit fooled, somehow. Even in my studies I was totally on my own to somehow get a good violin.

When did you find your first good violin?

There was the violin of a professional musician from Bremerhaven, who played in the orchestra there. I didn't consider this violin to be "good" either, but it was good to play! That was a new experience for me. It was responsive and didn't have any squeaky sounds.

What year was that?

That was in my fifth year here with the Bad Reichenhall Philharmonic. It was only then that I first came across this very violin, with which I felt halfway comfortable.

And then the gypsy violin came to us in the orchestra a few years ago through a substitute violinist. It was in terrible condition: cracks, open, everything. It was just... it was like after the war. Everything, everything, was broken. 

Then I went to a luthier around here and asked him, " Hey, is there any way to save it?" First of all, the luthier had put in doubt that this violin was really original built on the left, as I had been told before by the dealer. And whether it was really a French violin, he didn't know for sure either.

But in the end, this was not so important to me, because it was the sound that mattered to me. And for 1000 euros you can't go wrong, and I simply felt comfortable with this violin. In the Wandelhalle, the concert rotunda, I tried out the instrument with a few people and three very good violinists said, "It's a lot better than your old one, the one from Bremen." And I also somehow had the feeling that you could do something with it. It sounds completely different, just finer. The other one was a bit more boxy and loud.

And that's your main violin now, so to speak?

That's my main violin, indeed.

Beautiful. Since when do you have it?

I don't know. Ten years, five years? I don't know how long it's been. I don't have a very good sense of time.

You also play the guitar left-handed, but on a right-handed guitar without changing the strings. How come? Did you originally want to play on a left-handed guitar?

At first I built a small guitar myself. That just appealed to me - it's nothing special, really nothing special! At some point I got a real one - at that time I was suffering from scarlet fever and had a lot of time on my hands. Because back then, if you had scarlet fever, you were out of action for four months. During that time I got the guitar. And of course I learned the first chords E, A, D, G and already played a few songs.

Didn't it feel a bit like "against the feeling" for you to play that way? That is, plucking the bass on the last string with the ring finger or even the little finger? Normally the bass is played on the top string with the thumb.

That was a matter of course for me, because I didn't know it any other way. I never gave it much thought, and it never occurred to me to change the strings. With the violin, on the other hand, it's really vital to restring it at some point. But on the guitar, I've only taught myself this way of playing - like playing the bass with my little finger - in the last ten years. I didn't use to play guitar as regularly as I do now. And with a plectrum it really doesn't matter, I think, which way you string the guitar.

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