The Solo Traveller's View


David Garrett’s Strength and Weakness

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 8

Particularly interesting is David Garrett’s description of what it meant to get his first Stradivari at age eleven, and the difficult position it put him in when he realised that its peculiar sound was not suited to his needs. This tells us how finely tuned his hearing must have been already in those early years; and that, at least in part, must have something to do with why he played so well from the beginning. Although they do not draw attention to themselves, those neat, unobtrusive ears of his are very important, because they are the gateway to David’s great strength: a remarkably subtle and accurate sense of hearing.

2011 Wetten, dass ... sharpened

He gave proof of it most notably on the programme ‘Wetten, dass…?’ on German TV in 2011, when he accepted a challenge to identify at least four out of five violins by their sound, as well as naming the corresponding violinist and conductor of each particular recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto (Op. 61). David knew this to be difficult, but was prepared to try it anyway. Four recordings were then played in turn, having been picked from a row of about 30, and David closed his eyes to listen with utter concentration. The audience listened too, but – needless to say – did not hear what he heard.

He did not need that fifth guess. It never took David long to identify the sound and to name the instrument, adding the year in which it was built for good measure. Regrettably, the camera does not always show his face at the exact moment when he becomes certain of which instrument he is hearing, though surely that is the point of interest.

86 Wetten dass 2011

That David Garrett was able to identify each violin and recording correctly seems all but impossible to us predominantly visual types. We are quite ready to suspect that it must be a hoax, a setup – were it not for the assurance of the host that they would never do such a thing, and for the fact that David’s manner is consistent with the challenge. His hands are cold with nervous tension and he voices uncertainty as to whether accepting this bet has been a good idea. After all, he could really make a fool of himself. Yet he goes on to prove beyond the shadows of doubt that his sense of hearing, as well as his knowledge of violins and Beethoven recordings, is advanced to a level few will reach.

Look at it like this: We are able to identify people we know by the sound of their voice, and it calls to mind what else we know about them, such as their age and who they like to hang out with. David Garrett just happens to be acquainted not only with people, but with an impressive number of violins as well, especially Stradivaris. He recognises their voice, their timbre, and knows them well enough to fill in their particulars.

Asked by an interviewer about being a soloist in a classical concert, David’s unexpected reply is that it begins with listening. Listening to the specific way the orchestra is playing that night, listening to the music, listening to the emotions the sound carries … He does listen a lot, and he listens very closely: to his own daily practice, to the playing of others, to all the words and sounds and songs that make up his world.

But if David Garrett’s sense of hearing is his strength, his visual sense is his weakness. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Not those stunning eyes, surely? There is so much light in them, such a lively look, and he expresses his views in such a clear-sighted way. One just assumes that his eyes must be as perfect as the rest of him. But this is not the case. Little asides in various interviews reveal that David’s eyesight has always been weak. It is a family trait: his father, brother and sister all wear glasses. Despite his blurry vision, David often refused to wear the chunky spectacles he was given as a child. These days he wears contact lenses because he has no faith in laser surgery and would rather not risk his already poor eyesight in an operation.

Furthermore, David’s eyes do not distinguish colour well, and that is why he prefers to wear black, white and grey. But he has stated in an interview that his favourite colour is blue, and a helpful chart (click link) illustrates the range of shades seen with his particular type of colour-blindness, referred to as RGB Achromatomaly, showing that blue and purple are in fact the only tones that come close to the original colours. Green and brown hold a pale middle ground, but the warm and vibrant tones of red, pink, orange and yellow are missing.

So David Garrett lives in a visually dimmed world. What we see as the shades of the rainbow, he must hear as the shades of sound; and so the weakness of one sense feeds the strength of the other. But, in recompense for being deprived of a colourful world, David has been gifted with incredible eyelashes. What a consolation prize! The spiky shadow they cast under the glare of the stage lights is as the cherry on top of an ensemble that already seems much too good to be true.

162 Air - Bach 2011

There is another point to consider: David’s poor eyesight would explain the problems with spelling he mentions in another interview, where he supposes that he might be dyslexic. There is room for doubt, because correct spelling is a skill that relies first and foremost on a strong visual memory, and this in turn relies on good vision.

Almost all children with a pronounced visual orientation connect easily with those little code signs we call letters, and this easy connection results in a good understanding of how (often illogical) combinations of letters relate to the sounds of language. In a way, faultless spelling could be seen as an approximate visual equivalent to David Garrett’s aural feat of identifying violins by the colour of their sound alone, for few achieve it. Case in point: Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s name is misspelt on the TV screen, seen above. Did you notice?


Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.