Chances are that many of you will already have heard of Eta Cohen. Perhaps you, like me, studied from student violin books in your childhood. Or perhaps your children are studying from them even today.
My introduction to the entity ‘Eta Cohen’ began one afternoon when I was seven or eight. My violin teacher Prof. Carlos Costa asked us to buy the book from the only music shop in Panjim then, Pedro Fernandes.
I had no idea who Eta Cohen was, or even if it was a man or woman, although the name sounded feminine. It’s not the sort of thing one discussed at violin class at the time. One just opened the book to where one was meant to play, and got on with it. It was a name unlike any I had encountered before.
The first time I met another Cohen was much later, in 1990, if memory serves correctly. The great violinist Raymond Cohen (1919-2011) played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and I was in the violin section for that concert.
He also gave a duo recital with his wife, the pianist Anthyea Rael, at which the work that today sticks most in my memory is his encore piece, Jascha Heifetz’s virtuoso arrangement of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, the popular song from Gershwin’s opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. It was the first time I heard the tune, or indeed about the opera, so it was my entry point to so much more in music.
A few years later, I was in London, and met Cohens galore, socially, among work colleagues and patients, and musician friends in orchestra and chamber ensembles I played in around the UK. One of my hospital postings (Northwick Park) very early on took me to the vicinity of Golders Green in London, which has a prominent Jewish community. At some point around then, the penny dropped that Cohen was a Jewish surname.
Cohen (or Kohen) is Hebrew for ‘priest’, and bearing the surname is thought to often indicate that one’s patrilineal ancestors were priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. Variants of the surname include Coen, Cohn, Kahn, Kohn, Kagan, Kogan, among others.
Another famous Cohen, also associated with music, that I came across in my London years, and who passed away recently, was Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016).
He was told in his childhood that he was a descendant of the Biblical prophet and High Priest Aaron.
I recently finished reading the most gripping book by yet another Cohen. ‘The Girl from Human Street: A Jewish Family Odyssey’ by author, journalist and columnist for the New York Times Roger Cohen is a painfully graphic account of his own history, “a Jewish story of the twentieth century,” bearing upon “migration and displacement and suicide and persecution and assimilation.”
It pulls no punches, both in describing the horrors of the pogroms, the mass executions in Lithuanian village squares and woods by Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators, the Holocaust that followed; and his criticism of the discriminatory policies of the state of Israel against the Palestinians, which he strongly feels are self-defeating in the long run. As he puts it: “No people has more ethical reason to resist the inebriation of domination than the Jews, most of whose history has involved exclusion imposed by the powerful.”
Another fact became clear to me: all the last three Cohens I’ve mentioned (Eta, Leonard and Roger) have their ancestral roots traced back to Lithuania, and all their family migrations are a tale of flight from anti-Semitic pogroms in the Pale of Settlement around the turn of the twentieth century.
Eta Cohen (1916-2012) was born in Sunderland to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. She studied the violin locally, and began teaching the instrument at sixteen, after leaving school. A year later, she was to teach at the local education authority. Unable to find satisfactory teaching material, she began to write out lessons for her students, which became the foundation for her own Eta Cohen Violin Method. This evolved into a series of bestselling student books, the first of which (‘Miss Cohen’s tutorial for beginners’) was published in 1940.
In 1945, she married cloth merchant Ephraim Smith, whose parents were also Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. During the war years, she taught at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and other schools, and took violin lessons from two great violin pedagogues, Carl Flesch and Max Rostal.
In her teaching career spanning seven decades and lecture tours of the UK, US Australia and Europe, she published a total of six volumes (the last published by Novello in the year of her death at 96, in 2012) as well as repertoire books, duets and rounds, and contributed articles on string teaching and playing in leading journals. She had also been presented the European String Teachers Association (ESTA) Lifetime Achievement Award months before her death.
James Murphy, director of the Southbank Sinfonia, described the Eta Cohen Violin Method as “the Delia Smith of violin methods … the much-imitated, indispensable original”.
Her daughter Hazel Smith wrote a moving tribute in The Guardian: “Her great insight was that teaching the violin would be most successful if taught incrementally: the opposite of her own first lesson in which, as she often related, her teacher’s only instructions were, ‘Here’s the violin, here’s the bow. Now play!’ As a rebuttal to this ‘deep-end’ approach to learning, she taught one new idea at a time. Her ability to break down difficult technical tasks and reconstruct them in easy to manage stages is a hallmark of the books.”
Eta Cohen’s Foreword in her Student’s Book 1 has several pieces of advice to teachers which are still worth remembering:
“Remember quality is more important than speed.” There is an obsession among the teaching fraternity with zipping through teaching material, with scant attention to getting the basic fundamentals right. The result is the illusion of ‘progress’, but with poor tone, insecure intonation, and very little if any phrasing, or feeling for the piece being played. This is sadly quite pervasive.
“Encourage pupils to sing the music.” This also happens less and less in contemporary teaching. My generation was brought up with having to first learn and sing solfeggio, so singing our music was de rigeur for us.
“Only when the pupil is accustomed to using every inch of the hair should they go on to play with various lengths and speeds of bow.” Too many more modern ‘methods’ disregard this, with the result that the eloquence of the bow, the ‘lung’ of the instrument, is underused.
As new, flashy, gimmicky methods vie for attention like latest fashions, it is well worth thinking of the “much-imitated, indispensible, original” Eta Cohen Violin Method.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)