Calvin Sieb


The Development of a Violinist

©Photo by Lois Siegel
The Early Years

When I was four-years-old the famous Wall Street crash of 1929 occurred and devastated the U.S. economy for the next decade until the Second World War began to inject some blood (literally) into the economic fortunes of the capitalist world.  My father’s electrical contracting business, as with every other business during “The Great Depression,” was bringing almost no money into the household, so my mother, who in school had taken, as all middle class girls did, a secretarial course, learning shorthand, typing and how to “keep books,” found a daily 9 - 5 job in an insurance brokers’ office as a secretary. 

Calvin, Age 4, with his mother

When I was five-years-old, my mother took me to a well-known music studio run by a Russian couple: a pianist and a violinist. I was to start piano lessons with Mrs. Svet. They tested my ear by playing a note and asking me to sing the same note. I did and then when they stared to play the next note, I saw which key they were going to play, and I sang the note before they struck the key. The husband, Mr. Mandel Svet said,This boy has a wonderful ear and has perfect pitch...he should take violin with me.

So I came happily home swinging a violin case.  Actually it was shortsighted on the part of both those teachers and my mother. I should have started both violin and piano lessons.  I later regretted not having also learned the piano. For very little extra effort at the time, especially with my mother being a pianist, I could have easily been "bi-lingual” in both violin and piano.

I was basically a healthy boy with very quick reflexes and a very quick but lazy mind. I was able to maneuver the intricacies of that most awkward but most beautiful instrument without problems, and without any undo or excessive work.  Efficiency is described as achieving the most with the least effort.  I was exceedingly efficient.

I would come home from school at 3:30 p.m., run out to play with my friends, and when I knew that my mother was about to arrive home at 5:15, I would run upstairs, take my violin and would be practicing when she came in the door. I would then lay my violin down and pretend to be fatigued from “all that practicing” and then would waste time until dinner. After dinner I did some homework, and then I went to bed.

At the time I found street football more interesting and more fun than practicing the violin, so I practiced more hours throwing passes with a football at a circle painted on the inside wall of our garage than I did with throwing  ‘passes’ with the bow ‘at’ the violin!

Calvin with his Grandmother
Graduation, 1938

I had a talent for the violin and was also talented in being able to do the least amount of school work while still managing to pass. Of course, I did “work” the sympathy angle with the teachers…telling them that I had to practice a lot and telling my violin teacher that I had a lot of school homework - playing one against the other. They were each always very sympathetic to my overwhelming practicing and schoolwork ‘burdens,’ but I think that, in part, all those physical activities have contributed to the superb physical condition that I enjoy today. So perhaps all was not lost in the days that I should have been practicing my violin and didn’t.

Unfortunately, by being blessed with a quick and analytical mind, I was able to “squeeze” by, both in school and in violin, with the minimum amount of effort - a loss of time and potential development that I only realized later.

A great deal of my potential was mostly unrealized, but I am thankful that at least I was given the chance to do something with my musical abilities.

I have accomplished as much as I could, in spite of the limitations of my early development as a violinist.

High School

I was concertmaster of the Columbia High School Orchestra in Maplewood, New Jersey and played local concerts in schools and churches. Also, I quickly learned how to play (by ear) the Bell Lyre.

This instrument is basically a xylophone with a range of approximately one octave and a half. It is held in a harness in front of the player who holds it steady with one hand while playing the notes (tuned, metal bars) with the other hand. Since it can be played while walking, it is uniquely used in marching bands. By playing this instrument, I was automatically a member of the school band. This meant I could go to all the football home and out of town games as well as other sporting events as part of the band.

I liked playing any instrument. Bells were louder than anything else. You wouldn't hear a violin in a band. And I got to wear a uniform.

High School Graduation 1943

The Juilliard School and The War

After some years, my mother felt that I was not making enough progress with Mr. Svet, and she phoned the Juilliard School inquiring about a different teacher. They suggested Mr. Hans Letz, a Juilliard Professor who lived in New Jersey, and I immediately started private lessons with him, and he began to prepare me for the Graduate School Audition at Juilliard.

The Juilliard School in New York City and The Curtis School in Philadelphia were the most famous advanced music schools in the Eastern U.S. at the time, and the Juilliard Graduate School, which was only attainable by winning an audition, was considered one of the best in the world. Because my home in New Jersey was closer to New York, it was decided that Juilliard was best for me.  I passed the examination and was awarded a full Fellowship.


Since the U.S. had entered the war against Hitler’s Germany, I was headed for some role in that conflict. I had always wanted to fly and did not want to be drafted into the infantry.  I enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Air Force and one month later began my basic training.  By the middle of 1944, the war began to unwind with the imminent collapse of Germany. As a result, all the pilot training programs slowed down and ultimately ended. I was discharged as an Aviation Cadet, in 1945. I had stopped playing my violin completely while I was a cadet, but on returning home, it didn't take more than five minutes to feel in control again.

After the war, I immediately started school studying violin at the Juilliard Graduate School with an elderly German teacher, Hans Letz. His old- fashioned teaching and technique soon clashed with what I observed being taught by another Juilliard professor, Ivan Galamian who was teaching a newer version of the Russian School of technique.  

The Opposing Techniques of Hans Letz and Ivan Galamian

I asked Galamian if I could study with him, and he said I would be welcome in his class, but it would be unethical and thus impossible to switch teachers in the middle of the year. He would accept me in the following school year. I did not want to wait, so I gave up my Fellowship and left Juilliard.

Emanuel Vardi

This was a good decision because I went to a dynamic teacher, Emanuel Vardi, who played the way Galamian taught. He held the Principal Viola Chair at the American Broadcasting Company Studio Orchestra in New York City.  He was young, sort of a swinger, and he played beautifully with a Russian School technique and a fat, sensual vibrato. He played the way I wanted to play. Vardi was what I was looking for, so it was the right decision at the time. I continued studying with him until I left for France on a scholarship in 1950 to study with Nadya Boulanger and Jacques Thibaud.

Jacques Thibaud

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