On December 31st 2018, the string world received the sad news that Kato Havas had passed away. Kato was an inspiration to many generations of violinists, leaving behind a legacy of knowledge and wisdom with regards to string playing that can be handed down to future generations. But who was Kato and why was she such an important figure in the world of string teaching?  

Kato Havas was born on the 5th November 1920 in the tiny village Târgu Secuiesc, Transylvania among the Carpathian Mountains, on the Romanian Hungarian border. Having been introduced to the instrument at the age of five, she soon showed an immense natural talent for the instrument. Havas learnt to read music before she could read words, her first teacher making her sing every piece with note names whilst clapping the pulse before playing it (much later she realised that she had been taught the Kodály system). By the age of seven, she had already given her first professional recital. This recital, in Kolozsvár (Cluj), included Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Franz Schubert of Dresden’s The Bee, Op 13.

The Hungarian style

Kato had a strong affinity with the Hungarian gypsy violin style. In her words, this began ‘before I could even talk.’  She often told the tale of how, aged 9, while staying with friends, she dressed as a gypsy child, begging the guests to allow her to play a few tunes, telling them that her family were sick and dependent on her to provide for them. Later she owned up to the deception, but when she tried to return the money she had collected, the guests had enjoyed her playing so much they refused to take the money back. Kato often described this as her first professional fee.

The violinist Emil Telmányi heard her play and was so impressed that he arranged for her to study with Imre Waldbauer at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Imre was the first violinist of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet and gave Kato the traditional virtuoso violin training of the period. Whilst a student, Kato was fortunate enough to meet Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi.  All three composers turned up to watch her first recital at the Academy. It was during her time at the Academy that the pressure of performances began to affect her playing physically.

The roots of the ‘New Approach’

When, aged seventeen, Kato gave her Carnegie Hall debut in New York, she became acutely aware of the link between the mental state and performance quality of a performer. ‘My violin went into a sulk and so did my left hand,’ she recalled of her time in America. Luckily the Hungarian–American conductor Eugene Ormandy introduced her to the violinist David Mendoza, who in turn introduced her to the natural left-hand motion. This, along with the playing style of the Hungarian gypsy violinists had a profound influence on her the development of the ‘New Approach’.

Most child prodigies find a period out of the public eye essential if they are to achieve maturity as an artist, but for Kato Havas, this happened quite naturally.  She married at eighteen and while concentrating on bringing up her three daughters, her professional life naturally ceased. It was during this period of enforced removal that she evolved her revolutionary method of teaching.

The Teacher

A magnetic teacher, Havas found herself lecturing at Oxford University, gave talks and demonstrations on television, and travelled the world delivering as a series of lecture demonstrations.  Kato was also the founder and director of the Purbeck Music Festival in Dorset, the Roehampton Music Festival in London and the International Festival in her adopted home town of Oxford.


Kato Havas received many accolades. In 1992, the American String Teachers Association’s International Award in recognition of her “unparalleled achievements”; in 2002, the Order of the British Empire for services to music; finally, in 2013, the European Teachers’ Association presented Kato Havas with its Award “in celebration of a life-long contribution to music”.


Kato Havas’ biggest legacy to the world of string playing is her ‘New Approach’. In this, she explores problems inherent in string playing, demonstrating ways of dealing with them based on the theory of understanding ‘inward-to-outward energy impulses’.  In it, she emphasises a sense of well-being, in both physical balance and mental attitude. Through active rhythmic pulse and the sensation of having no violin or bow “hold,’’ players experience a newfound sense of freedom. ‘Two right arm motions or swings encompass all “bow strokes,” and balanced and dancing left-hand movements responsible for tone quality, intonation, vibrato, free string players from anxiety about shifts, double-stops, and string crossings’. The New Approach is a highly organised system, preventing and eliminating tensions and anxieties whilst highlighting the physical, mental and social aspects of performance with special reference to violin playing, although these principles can be applied equally to any other instrument.  The approach concentrates on unifying mind, body and spirit; coordinating the natural balance of the body into a powerful and effortless whole.

Kato Havas’ books have long been translated into Chinese, German, Spanish, Swedish, Czech, Hungarian, Japanese, Italian and Dutch.

Kato Havas was a strong supporter of ESTA UK and a great advocate for the correct training of those wanting to embark upon a career in string teaching. If you are interested in a career in string teaching, why not look to ESTA UK to see what training options are available to maximise your potential in the profession. Visit www.estastrings.org.uk or www.estaeducation.co.uk for more details.