Interview - Ernie Gurner
September 2007: Ernie Gurner (Vol.3 No.9)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 20/07/07
fiddle players manage to shift easily and competently between folk
styles as Ernie. I first came across Ernie when he took a fiddle
workshop at the Maleny Folk Festival Queensland in 1996. He led a mixed
group of fiddle players of various abilities in a call and response
method of learning. Within an hour the group had picked up a Klezmer
tune with all the twists, turns and touches that this music requires.
Other students were taught the chordal accompaniment that provided the
chunky pulse that drove the melody forward. Soon the group had brought a
Klezmer dance tune to life. All this was achieved in less than one hour
and had quickly proved to me Ernie's skill as a fiddle teacher and
These days it is hard to find a Folk festival at which
Ernie isn't performing. He plays in bands ranging from the jazz and
comedy of Jugularity, to the Jewish and Middle Eastern sounds of
Klezmeristis and Yalla!, to improvising music in Playback Theatre. Other
bands include Greek and Sephardic influences (Melisma and Soleluna) and
the Klezmer Trio, while Bohemian Nights and Flirting Mazurkas include
Latin as well as European and Eastern influences .On the Classical side,
Ernie led the Monash string Quartet for over ten years. He is active as
a violin teacher or more often as a fiddle teacher, introducing
violinists to folk and improvised music styles.
Just before he
was about to leave for a musical tour of New Zealand with accordionist
Phil Carroll, I spent a morning with Ernie interviewing him at his
Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?
remember having lessons in Primary school with a teacher who was within
walking distance of the school in Murrembeena Victoria. He was I guess
what you would call a solid old style classical violin teacher. He had
played in pit orchestras and had done everything and he had been
teaching grade. I don't remember his name, that is a terrible thing but
he was a nice guy. He got me to a certain stage but I think my
grandmother actually might have intervened and said its time to move on
Q. Did you enjoy practising?
A. I did. I practised a
fair bit but I also remember using practise as a way to escape doing
the dishes and things like that. There was one year I didn't learn at
High school but I remember getting into Melbourne High which was very
lucky because otherwise I would have stayed in a State school where
there was no music at all. Music was seen to be a thing dickheads did.
But at Melbourne High I was lucky because they had an orchestra, they
had teachers…the teacher I had for a couple of years was someone who
could do string arrangements, he was very good. I would go to New
Zealand every couple of years and my Grandmother who lived there would
basically 'sus' out how I was going.
Q. Tell us about your grandmother.
had come from this orthodox school of teaching. She was born in Poland
but trained at the Vienna Conservatorium and she did the Bach Chaconne
as her exit piece. This is three or four pages of double stops and every
little devil's trick you can do and she had to learn that by heart, the
whole thing. She was learning to be a violinist in an orchestra but she
also was learning to be a teacher. That was the way they did it in
those days. She went back to Poland and ended up being the first woman
to play there in a professional orchestra so she was a pretty big
influence on me, by influencing teachers. She recommended or got me to
learn from Christopher Martin who was at the Melbourne University
Conservatorium I think. I went to him as a private student for about
four years and he was terrific, a fantastic teacher. Really warm,
friendly and just loved the violin. That's the biggest thing. One thing
was just to encourage a love of the instrument. Occasionally he would
stop playing and he would talk about the wood or the sound post or
Q. In which direction did classical lessons take you?
Martin then said, "What would be good for you now is to learn a bit
more technique." He got me into having lessons with Nathan Gutman who
was a legendary classical violin teacher. He was Polish and an
ex-lawyer. He had a mind like a vice. His ability to analyze was the
most inspirational thing for me. He was able to plan lessons several
months ahead. He had been doing it for so long at such a high level, he
was teaching six, six and a half days a week in his seventies, he didn't
need to do that, but he was in such demand because he was able to
achieve such results. He started the year saying, "Well, what do you
want to do?" I said I really liked Bach so that really was the focus of
the year, playing Bach sonatas with a bit of other stuff thrown in but a
hell of a lot of scales, arpeggios and technical stuff that I am ever
grateful for. I was going through phases of practicing six or seven
hours. I think that sort of thing is useful later on. You can choose to
use it or not to use it.
Q. Was this classical technical work much use to you as a fiddler?
it turned out I don't use much of it because my preference for years
has been towards folk music, world music or jazz if you like, not
classical music which demands a much higher level of technique. It's not
that folk musicians don't need technique, they need a specialist
technique. Coming from classical playing to folk music you have to be a
lot more aware of the culture and the history and because you are
usually playing with other people, just listening and being able to
adapt and being able to improvise.
Q. Tell us about your study of improvisation with Klezmer violin.
I finally went to New York to study with Alicia Svigals I was having
one on one lessons with her every day for nearly two weeks. I asked her
about improvising in Klezmer and she said, "In traditional styles, you
didn't do it." It certainly wasn't like the jazz thing that you hear
now. Ninety percent of the bands you hear are doing these whacko things.
What you did was have small variations on the melody and/or alter the
ornamentation or the tune a bit. In my understanding of other styles of
music, Celtic, Turkish or Arabic styles of music, you know the tune but
you don't actually go off on tangents on the chords. But you will vary
the ornamentation or the tune a bit.
That is one of the biggest
challenges to the folk musician. Instead of picking up a copy of
'Begged, Borrowed and Stolen' and playing a polka the same way every
time, a traditional player might vary the ornamentation and tune so that
it is never quite the same. That is another thing I am convinced about
is the importance of folk musicians going from and aural tradition
rather than a written tradition. With classical music you really do have
to read the dots and you have to pay attention to the way the composer
has written it out, that's the way it is. With folk music there is a bit
more flexibility but you just can't write down the dots. You can tell
people who have picked up a piece of sheet music and who have learnt it
straight, whereas with a traditional musicians, often the notes are
slightly swung or there are little slides or bends. It is the rhythm
which is usually the trickiest to get.
Q. What got you into Klezmer music?
Klezmer bug infected me during a band rehearsal looking for more
repertoire heading towards the 1991 Port fairy Folk festival. The band
was Zingara led by John Norton. Accordionist Audrey Klein gave me a tape
labeled Klezmer and said she thought I'd like it. I kept learning
Klezmer slowly by myself, playing tunes from books and listening to
recordings but got the biggest push when a Yiddish festival was held in
Melbourne and I went to all talks and workshops by invited American
guest fiddler/player/historian/dance teacher Michael Alpert.
also sat in with the only band playing a mix of Klezmer and Jewish music
then, the Klezmer Trio. I ended up playing on and off with them, then
became a member. Soon after, I formed Klezmeritis to focus on the
instrumental music. Alpert's playing was the last straw for me, showing I
needed to go overseas to study Klezmer style and that learning from
sheet music and recordings was not necessarily a good idea. In 1998 I
travelled and studied overseas for three months. Two weeks of intensive
lessons with Alicia Svigals (Klezmatics) was inspirational, then
participating in weeklong Klezmer camps in Poland and San Francisco, and
visiting players and teachers in Budapest, Berlin etc. Playing Klezmer
in Cracow Poland (where my father had lived) was a highlight.
Q. What advice would you give to someone taking up the fiddle for the first time?
you, I know many people who have succeeded. I actually think a
motivated adult has got a better chance of getting where they want to
get to. Their aims are realistic, and they know why they are doing it. I
think a lot of kids are being told they must practice. One of the
problems I have with classical education is it's trying to turn out
players who want to be soloists or want to be in orchestras. The dice
are against you and it's not fair. Too many of those people are just not
going to make it. There is not enough there, it doesn't make sense.
There were the places fifty years ago when there were radio orchestras
and things like that. You can still play in amateur orchestras and
chamber music groups. On the other hand, if you are a fiddle player and
you are interested in playing with your friends or maybe getting to the
stage where you get to playing in a bush band or a little jazz band or
whatever, you can do it. No one is going to say "No." If you are really
keen you can take it further than that. Advice to an adult is
definitely, go for it.
Q. What is your favorite instrument?
No, come on, the violin. It is the 'King of Instruments.' It's the most
flexible; it's the most versatile. It has got the biggest range of tone
and technical possibilities. So many countries and cultures have
violin-based music. There is so much you can do. I'm a sucker for the