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Yo-Yo Ma on Intonation, Practice, and the Role of Music in Our Lives

3 hours 23 min ago

Reprinted from Strings Magazine, September 17 2015

By Martin Steinberg:

A cellist walks on a beach and picks up a bottle. A genie pops out and says, “I give you two wishes.” 

The cellist says: “Wow, I’d like to have world peace.” 

The genie thinks for a second and says, 

“That’s too hard! What’s your second wish?”

The cellist says, “Well, I’m turning 60 and I want to play in tune.” 

The genie thinks for a second and says, “What was your first wish again?” 

Musicians, take heart. That joke was told by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma during an interview ahead of his 60th birthday on Oct. 7. After 55 years of playing, yes, even Yo-Yo Ma needs to practice.

“What all string players have in common is that if we don’t play for awhile, we actually start from ground zero,” Ma says. Ma was four when he started the cello.

At seven, he was performing with his big sister for an audience that included two US presidents. Now nearing his milestone birthday, he’s ever youthful, always learning, asking questions, constantly building bridges.

And striving for perfection.

Despite all his achievements—more than 100 CDs, 18 Grammy Awards, and other honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts—he’s going full tilt toward more accomplishments.

In the weeks before his birthday, Ma’s agenda was packed. At Tanglewood, his scheduled performances included all three Brahms trios with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos and the six Beethoven cello sonatas with Ax. That was followed by a six-country European tour with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, featuring Strauss Don Quixote in advance of next year’s 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death. At the London Proms, he was scheduled to play all six Bach Cello Suites in one night. In September, his new album, Songs from the Arc of Life (Sony Masterworks), with long-time accompanist Kathryn Stott on piano, was to be released, as was a documentary focusing on musicians in his Silk Road Ensemble—a collective of musicians, composers, visual artists, and more that explores Eurasian culture.

The journey began in 1955 in Paris, where Ma was born to immigrant Chinese musician parents. His sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma—a violinist, pianist, medical doctor, and children’s orchestra administrator—remembers that their father started Yo-Yo on the violin at age two and a half, then piano, but he didn’t like them.

“He didn’t want to do something that I already did because he could see that I already knew how to play,” Yeou-Cheng Ma says. “He was a very smart kid, very intuitive . . . and a charmer, even at a young age.”

So he didn’t play any instrument for the next year and a half, during which time the family moved to New York. One day, he saw a newsreel about a New Orleans jazz band and noticed the double bass. “He was thrilled,” his sister recalls. “He said, ‘That one! The big one! That’s what I want!’” But since he was so little, he was given the second-biggest one, a cello. Their father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, taught him the Bach Suites, measure by measure. At age seven, Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng performed Breval’s Concertino No. 3 at a fundraiser for the Kennedy Center. The audience included President John F. Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower.

Ma went on the study with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School, but dropped out and entered Harvard at age 16, majoring in the history of science. Since then, he has been on a magic cello ride around the world, figuratively and literally. As he approaches the start of his seventh decade, Ma says he is swimming and walking, watching what he eats, and assessing his goals—“What’s worth really, really trying hard for?”

About the genie joke. You don’t have intonation problems. What are you talking about?

Mark Salzman wrote this wonderful book about a cellist (The Soloist) . . . seeking perfection. Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyz

ed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Family. I love my family. They’re great people, and I’m just so, so lucky to have them. That’s by far.

In your career?

To have been part of these children’s television shows Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, [and] Arthur, because what happens when you go on a child’s show is that they’re not a guest in my world, but I’m the guest in their world. If they accept you, it’s permanent, it’s theirs. And that is so important because to me that is the basis of all cultural understanding, or any artistic understanding, which is you have to stand on the inside. So if you’re accepted into a child’s world, that’s the greatest gift of all.

I’ve had the great luxury of meeting kids who saw [me] many years ago, and I see them as teenagers, 20 year olds, 30 year olds, and they can tell me, “This did this to me at that time and therefore I did this at that time.” And that’s incredibly rewarding.

I didn’t expect that answer. You never fail to surprise.

I think that, and probably being part of building the Music Garden in Toronto [as part of Ma’s “Inspired by Bach” series]. There’s a music garden that Julie Moir Messervy based on the First Bach Suite. Because that’s another symbol of what culture means to me . . . . Culture is kind of like a living seed and it can grow in places that are not fertile . . . . Gardens are not just existent in nature, but somehow there’s a human element of tending it, caring for, of enriching, of selecting.

And then, of course, the garden is there to be enjoyed, to be used, to be part of people’s lives in different times and seasons. To me, it is the ultimate metaphor for culture. And for culture, I would say, what we tend in our human garden is probably things like the arts, the sciences, and philosophy.

I’ve been thinking of these things because I’ve always wondered, what is music for? And lately, a lot of musicians are interested in music and health. What is it that actually becomes a passion? Is it the sound, is it the activity, is it what state of mind you get to, where you are actually in the activity of teaching music, of playing music and joining with others into creating music? What part of the brain does it use? How does it affect your state of mind? How does it affect the other things? And so whether you’re a child or an adult [or] a retired person, what do these things do to your brain?

And what are educational systems based on? Where did our high school subjects come from? Our studies are from 1910, so [do] we need to reboot that? How does art fit into that, how does that fit into arts funding and science funding? What are we educating our children for? Is it a transactional thing? Do you pay that money in order to get better jobs or is there something about education that is different?

I think those are serious questions that the nation’s considering. Not just this nation but every nation. “Oh, we’re falling behind in the sciences! Oh, we have to do STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]!” But wait a minute? Do we have common philosophy? Is it e pluribus unum, which is on every quarter, or is it “all for one and one for all?” Or is it just for me? Because is what’s good for me good for everybody?

So these are the questions and when we think about them it affects the sounds that we make. And I think for Strings, and the edition of Strings that you are writing for, I think that’s something—yes, strings are like vocal cords and how we use our voice, whether we use it to alert, warn, soothe, pacify, communicate, what are we communicating, who are we communicating to, what’s the purpose of the communication? Is it to join, is it to separate, is it to point to something larger, is it to something in the micro world, in the macro world?

I think those are incredibly interesting things that I would like to continue to consider after turning 60, because by many standards, I’m old. I’m part of AARP [laughing] and I can get a discount on the bus. So is my contribution less now that I’m old, or what is it that I can contribute for certain? Whatever I do is becoming less interesting than what other people do . . . . I’m less at the center of my world than when I was 20, when I was trying to say: I can do this, I want to do this.

This seems to be fodder for a very important book on society.

No, just musings of a middle-aged person going through what everybody goes through. I’d like to be able to think about these things, but also be able to try and play in tune. But while I’m playing in tune, not to obsess over intonation, but the obsession of trying to play in tune because transcending technique allows me then to communicate the content.

Do you still practice a lot?

I actually enjoy practicing more and more . . .  as a child, I practiced because I had to practice and you didn’t want to mess up. But that’s not a good thing. You want to please your teacher, you want to please your parents, you want to please your peers. And now I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something.

I think that part of practicing is great because it unites what you want to do in engineering, as in technically, where do you put your arms and your fingers and your body—micro movements—with that desire and the feeling of what it needs to be. That’s a wonderful process because it’s a constant of going toward something bigger than the notes and yourself, and very lovingly so.

Whenever I catch myself playing something that sounds mechanical but dead, it’s because either I’m not paying attention or it’s something difficult that I haven’t solved. Sort of like a physicality issue that, you know, sudden tension, so I freeze up and become more internalized, so I can’t love it. Loving something implies going outside yourself and fear means retreating into yourself. I’m scared. Well, go back into yourself. That’s a metaphor for societal fears when a whole people are scared of something that they can’t control and sort of hits them, what do they do? It becomes more tight, they will make much, much more conservative decisions. The counteracting of that is culture. Hey, wait a minute, I want to know what that fear is. I’m going to research that fear. What exactly is that fear? Is it exactly what I think it is? Is that what I feel or can I analyze it? What’s the truth behind the fear? So you kind of have to look at that—that’s a key in performance. When someone performs, you want that person to be open and not to have any barriers. Any barriers that are set up between the performer and the audience actually impedes the communication of what needs to be.

I often tell people the world needs more Yo-Yo Mas, and this is a perfect example. Just these ideas alone, if people could hear them, everything that’s headed in the wrong direction can turn around.

I don’t know. We’re so invested in thinking, in trying not to screw up. Basically, I have your back. We don’t want to make obvious mistakes, so we cover up. But actually, to really create trust, you have to trust that it’s OK to make a mistake, and you’re not going to be punished for it. We acknowledge and do better the next time. It’s one of the hardest things to do because we don’t want to look like fools. [New York Times writer] David Brooks has been talking lately about what we work for: our CVs or do we work for our eulogies? There are different things that you work for, curriculum vitae, and people talk about a person differently in the eulogy. There you talk more about character—this and that—and so which one are we working for? That’s a kind of philosophical question, isn’t it? That comes with a philosophical part of culture. What are we as a society working toward? So what are we working for in a community, what are we working for in a political party, what are we working for in classical music?

You’re about to perform the Elgar Concerto, and have done so many times. How much time must you devote to it at this point?

The thing is, you know, there is engineering, neuromuscular finger work, and there’s head work. So for anybody who’s really really passionate, basically it’s whatever it takes and it’s also head work. It’s kind of all the time. It’s sort of like you’re downloading a program in your computer, it’s in your brain. When I go on to do the Elgar, I start thinking about it, on and off, all the time. So I’m thinking, “Huh, how about trying it this way?” So you’re always in some ways trying to hear something a certain way, solving a problem a certain way, and rethinking it and thinking there’s a better way to build this mousetrap. So you want to align your physical self and your mental self into the state of mind that is required of that piece.

Do you ever envision your life after cello?

Like après-ski, hot chocolate by the fireplace, with pizza?

You’re not going to lose any weight like that. 

You’re right. Maybe a cup of herbal tea and some nuts. Well, I’ve always been interested in people and culture and arts and sciences and philosophy and typology, so I think I’m always going to be thinking about it, and the older I get, the more I’ll get interested in young people because that’s another form of culture.

The young people’s world—we may occupy the same space, but they will think differently and have many different reasons to do what they do and I’m deeply curious about that. I like to think of it in K through 12 and beyond and how people learn—why they learn—and so I will always be thinking about these things.

 

 

Opening the Beethoven A Major Cello Sonata: Obsessing Over the First Five Bars

Wed, 2016-06-15 15:22

By Brian Hodges:

The five Beethoven Cello Sonatas are iconic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they’re some of the first pieces to include the cello in a true duo partnership, something the violin had been enjoying for a long time.

While the first two sonatas (Op. 5, 1 and 2) are actually listed as Sonata for Piano and Violoncello, things have changed by the third sonata, Op. 69 in A Major, with the cello now getting top billing. The sonata was written during Beethoven’s middle period and immediately one can sense his expansive creativity at work in full force.

The opening is one of the more notorious openings in all of the cello literature. It starts with the famous melody played by the cello alone, like a soliloquy.

1

What looks simple contains a host of difficulties and issues to work out.

Tempo

As seen from the example above, Beethoven indicates Allegro ma non tanto for the tempo indication. ‘Tanto’ means “not so much”, so the implication is fast, but not overly so.

Whatever your exact tempo is, securing a consistent and correct tempo at the onset is quite difficult given that Beethoven starts with two half notes and a dotted half. It’s tricky to feel just exactly where the pulse is. Generally, players tend to take the first three notes in one tempo, then when the quarters start, they blend into a different tempo altogether. Next, in bar 4, and the end of bar 5, there’s a strong temptation to slow down. So, with all that, we’ve now had roughly 4 different tempos in the first six measures.

The key is to subdivide. Put the metronome at either a quarter pulse, or even an eighth pulse. Feel the smaller divisions in the half notes and dotted half, which will then transition smoothly into the quarters without changing the tempo. Even in performance, always think subdivisions. This will keep you honest and give a clearer sense of the opening melody, not to mention giving your pianist something to grab onto.

Despite keeping a steady pulse through the first five bars, many cellists slow down a tiny bit before the low E in measure 6. Their rationale is that it’s the end of the phrase, so it’s appropriate to set the downbeat of the sixth measure. But, in actual fact, it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning, and the cello part neatly hands off the melody to the piano. By slowing down, you’re making it difficult for the pianist to come in with any stability, especially since they’re coming in on the fourth beat.

Fingerings

While fingerings are entirely personal, there is a general consensus that one plays the majority of the opening theme on the G string. Many players start in first position, then shift up to fourth position by the second note. Some performers, however, play the opening A in fourth position on the C string, preferring to cross over a string rather than shift. The thing to keep in mind about whatever fingering you decide to use is to keep it simple. Keep the shifts silent, and string crossings as smooth as possible. Listen to when the piano has the theme in measure 13. Emulate the sound of the piano, in order to keep it as straightforward and pure as possible.

Assuming you are using the common fingering of starting in first position on the A and shifting up to fourth position for the E, make sure you prepare your left arm for the impending shift. During the last third of the A, your left arm should be starting the shifting motion and initiating the shift. Your second finger (as well as the rest of the hand) can start to open up once the arm starts to move and take over the shift, once you leave your first finger. Practice this slowly and keep the movements as efficient and smooth as possible.

Vibrato

Many cellists forgo vibrato on the opening theme to create a more “pure” tone. As is well documented, vibrato did not have the ubiquitous presence it has now in string playing, serving as more of an ornament than a constant. Of course, this is a personal choice, but a little vibrato can be nice and shouldn’t disrupt the line too much.

The real advantage to using vibrato is that it can mask the wolf-tone that can crop up on the F# on the G string (third note of the theme). It’s a real let-down for that beautiful theme to be corrupted by a stuttering wolf-tone.

Bowings

Beethoven’s slur markings, if taken at face value, can be very impractical. They can often stretch over entire phrases, leaving one to think he wants the entire passage slurred. Generally speaking, those long slurs are more phrase markings than actual specific slur markings.

2

 

From the manuscript, we see that the first bar is slurred, and the next two bars are slurred. If we were to follow that exactly, you’d need to get way out to the tip for the second bar, if you’re starting down bow. Beethoven’s slur doesn’t work the best in that scenario, so many players break the slurs up.

An interesting alternative is to start up bow. Change to down bow on the second bar and keep Beethoven’s original slur intact all the way to the fourth bar. I find that it supports the phrasing quite nicely.

Of course, there are numerous solutions and possibilities, and it’s inevitable that you’ll change your mind, as I have, many times. Whatever your decide, it should support the phrasing.

Phrasing

For something so simple, this opening theme can be very frustrating; a fair amount details to keep track of in just five measures. Like the fingerings and bowings, there are a variety of ways to shape this passage.

The general shape of the phrase shows the notes moving up, gradually working their way down, a little coda, before finally setting on the low, pedal E. My advice is to get out of the way of the notes—go with the shape. We can very easily over-phrase it making it incomprehensible. Beethoven has done most of the work for you; allow the notes to go where they want to. Use your bow speed and variances in arm weight to define the shape as you want it.

It is very possible to obsess over these five bars and turn it into something that it’s not, when, in reality, it’s a simple, catchy tune. While keeping track of the details, don’t forget to step back and see the bigger picture, and enjoy this gift that Beethoven has given us cellists.

 

Footnotes

1 Ludwig van Beethoven Werke, Serie 13: Fur Pianoforte und Violoncell, Nr. 107, (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, n.d. [1863], 65-94. Public doman.

2 Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in A Major, Op. 69, scan of manuscript facsimile, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn.

 

Cellist, Brian Hodges is an active soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. With his wife, Betsi Hodges, he has given recitals across the US, Canada and Italy. Brian is Associate Professor of Cello and Coordinator of Chamber Music at Boise State University and is principal of the Boise Baroque Orchestra. He performa regularly with Classical Revolution: Boise, which has been featured at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and on Radio Boise. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, he soloed with the San Antonio Symphony as a winner of the Young Artists Competition. He went on to study at the Eastman School of music earning his Bachelor of Music degree in cello performance and stayed on to complete his Master of Music degree in cello performance where he was the teaching assistant to Marcy Rosen. He recieved his Doctoral Musical Arts in cello performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he was a member of the graduate piano trio in residence. He has been on the faculties at the Townsend School of Music at Mercer University in Georgia, as well as Spring Arbor College and Albion University and has served as co-director of the Jackson Symphony String Academy in Jackson, MI. During the summers, he has been on faculty at the Green Valley Chamber Music Festival in Las Vegas, the Summer Music Institute in San Antonio, TX, and the String Camp of Rochester.

Petition to Change British Airway’s Instrument Baggage Policy

Fri, 2016-06-10 00:31

Reprinted from The Violin Channel on 6-11-2016

A change.org petition has been launched today calling for British Airways to change their instrument baggage policy – following a June 4th incident at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where Dunedin Consort Concertmaster, Cecilia Bernardini was refused entry inflight with her 18th Century violin and case.

‘This is unacceptable behavior by the BA staff,” the petition reads, “ … while of course we musicians understand the many stresses associated with working at an airport desk, we believe that BA needs to understand that the instruments we carry around are not just the tools of our trade but also priceless works of art.’

“I call on BA to institute a policy to clearly allow musical instruments to be carried on as hand luggage – otherwise musicians will be forced to go to other carriers which allow us to carry our instruments,” petition founder, London-based violinist Paula Muldoon has said.

Currently almost 1200 signatures have been collected.

The Violin Channel’s October 2nd, 2014 coverage of Air Canada’s inconsistent viola policy received over 4000 social media shares, 200,000 page views and 33,000 Facebook likes –leading to the airline promptly readdressing their stance.

The Violin Channel’s February 3rd, 2016 coverage of Norwegian Air’s instrument cabin policy received over 5000 social media shares, 360,000 page views and 40,000 Facebook likes – leading to the airline also promptly readdressing their stance.

Some Hassles of International Cello Travel

Thu, 2016-06-02 00:51

By Zachary Mowitz:

Curtis Institute cello student Zachary Mowitz tells the story of his recent travel to Europe, and the stress and aggravation caused by inconsistent cello policies between airlines, and untrained and uninformed airline personnel.

As a student cellist I’ve had several occasions to travel by plane with my cello, both domestically and internationally. This is the first journey where I’ve had any difficulty at all– every time I’ve traveled before, I’ve always been let on (I even traveled to Europe with Lufthansa a couple years ago, and they were one of the most helpful back then), with at most a look of incredulity at my bringing a big guitar on board.

In fact, everything looked all right, at first, for this flight. Lufthansa let me check in (at Philly for a flight to Valencia, Spain, with a layover in Frankfurt) without any real difficulty. It wasn’t until we reached our gate that the same woman who had checked us in met us to inform me that I could not be let on board because the cello ticket was not “associated”; correctly and consequently was not registered as having been paid for. After about two hours of calling everybody we could think of– all of which amounted to our travel agents saying the tickets were definitely paid for and booked correctly while the gate agent kept insisting it wasn’t associated correctly, without explaining what that meant– the gates were shut and our tour manager and I were left to find a new flight (the rest of our group continued without us).

We were lucky enough to find a flight through United just a couple hours later, with a connection in London through British Airways. Their employees were among the most helpful I’ve ever encountered. In London, however, the ticket again wasn’t showing up correctly, but after about 20 minutes, they fixed the booking and explained that every airline has a different policy for these things. We ended up arriving in Barcelona, driving down Spain’s stunning Mediterranean for four hours to arrive in Valencia about 23 hours after we first showed up at the Philly airport. When we flew out about a week later from Valencia to Berlin with Swiss Air, we ran into yet another issue, which was that my cello’s ticket was not showing up at all. The clerk said that it must have been cancelled because we didn’t get on our initial flight in the itinerary for the tour (although my personal ticket and the tour manager’s ticket were just fine). We rebooked all three tickets (mine, my cello, and the tour manager’s) and ran into the same problem, which they couldn’t explain, so we just proceeded to the gate hoping that there would be an extra seat and the flight attendants would be accommodating. Everything turned out fine and we learned during our layover in Zurich that the additional seat did not show up because Swiss Air’s policy was to book one ticket and then have an extra seat with no name. The clerk there knew this instantly, whereas nobody ever figured this out in Valencia.

What I took away from all this is that, as they said in London, it’s different for every airline– but not just every airline, every airport. The policy is there and seems pretty clear for every airline, but not all clerks at every airport are trained well enough to find it. Valencia is a relatively small airport, so they probably don’t run into as many cellists as Zurich or London. Philly is not small, but as one of the Lufthansa employees very earnestly told us as we were figuring out our new ticket with United, their airline has relatively few flights out of Philly and this likely contributed to the problem.

Born and raised in Princeton, NJ, Cellist Zachary Mowitz currently studies at the Curtis Institute with Carter Brey and Peter Wiley.  Previously he worked with Lynne Beiler, Efe Baltacigil, Dane Johansen and Priscilla Lee. Zachary has performed as a soloist with several orchestras in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and has attended summer programs at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill and Taos School of Music, where he co-founded the St. Bernard Trio.  He served as Principal Cello of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and was featured in Curtis on Tour in Spain and Germany during the Spring of 2016. Zachary plays on a cello generously loaned to him by the Carlsen Cello Foundation.

Curtis on Tour is Stalled by Airline Refusal To Take Cello

Sat, 2016-05-21 17:42

Reprinted from Slipped Disc May 21, 2016

Students from the Curtis Institute were boarding a plane at Philadelphia this weekend at the start of a tour of Spain when a Lufthansa official refused to take a cello on board.

The cellist, Zach, had to take another plane – American Airlines, no problem with cello – but he could only get a flight to London and spent many hours trying to connect up with the others in Valencia.

The first Curtis on Tour performance is May 18 in Alicante.

Curtis have confirmed that ‘there were indeed difficulties with a cello’ and are looking into the incident.

Lufthansa have offered no excuses, yet.

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE:

Apparently, at Philadelphia airport, Lufthansa staff gave a variety of reasons why the cello ticket could not be issued to the group. First that a boarding pass could not be printed in their system, then that the ticket was not paid for.

Despite a confirmation from Curtis’s travel agent that the ticket was paid for and a ticket number, Lufthansa was unable to resolve the problem within 2 hours, and the flight departed without the cello or cellist on board. The flight was booked through a an experienced classical-music travel agent who has booked many cello tickets down the years. She has never seen anything like this before.

Lufthansa owe Curtis an apology.

Great Chamber Music Reading and Watching

Sat, 2016-05-07 13:01

Besides enormously enhancing listening skills, chamber music study also develops a players’ ability to sight-read, note read and watch. These are skills that are vital in orchestral situations as well. However, this is not about that kind of reading and watching! This is about books, movies and videos that will also greatly enhance the skills of anyone playing chamber music.

READING: There are some great books out there about chamber music. None of these are long (300 pages or less) and are relatively quick and easy reading. I hope this will spur the interest of those reading this article to check some of them out.

Con Brio: Four Russians Called The Budapest String Quartet by Nat Brandt
The Budapest Quartet was perhaps the greatest quartet ever…or certainly one of the most important. They existed for nearly 50 years, and their influence lasted far beyond their last concert in 1967. In particular, their legendary second violinist, Sasha Schneider coached many of the players in the next several generations of great quartets…including many who are still active today. The book is a fascinating look into the history of the quartet, the dynamics between its members, and many stories of their travels as what was really the first full-time professional string quartet. Their career paved the way for the many that followed. Nat Brant, son-in- law to the quartet’s violist Boris Kroyt, who played in the quartet for thirty years, writes the book with personal insight.

Indivisible by Four – A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony by Arnold Steinhardt.
This is a beautifully written book by the great first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet. There are passages that accurately and beautifully describe the thought processes that occur during a performance, as well as many stories about the germination and growth of the amazing career of the Guarneri String Quartet. The quartet played together for 45 years, (from 1964-2009). The only personnel change occurred in 2001 when cellist David Sawyer was no longer able to maintain the touring schedule of the group. Its early years were strongly influenced by members of the Budapest Quartet, and in many ways, their career took off where the Budapest Quartet’s career ended. This is a wonderful book from any perspective….from the most knowledgeable professional chamber musicians to those who know next to nothing about music.

Stormy Applause – Making Music in a Workers State by Rostislav Dubinsky
This fascinating book was written in 1989 by the amazing musician who was founding member and first violinist of the world-renowned Borodin Quartet that was formed in 1946 and existed for many years behind the “iron curtain” of communist Stalin-era and post-Stalin Soviet Union. Not only did the quartet have enormous political hurdles to overcome caused by official disapproval of their work, but also anti-Semitism. For those with memories of the Soviet Union, this book will be a reminder of those times. For younger readers, some of the stories may seem nearly unbelievable. Dubinsky immigrated to the USA in 1976 where he became head of the chamber music department at the Indiana University School of Music. In the words of the great American violinist Isaac Stern: “For anyone interested in the societal development in the Soviet Union in the years before Gorbachev, this book once begun will not be put down, even at the cost of sleep. Well written and colloquial, it evokes the core of the life of the Soviet musician from the death of Stalin to the time of Mr. Dubinsky’s departure from the Soviet Union. Every page has an authentic sound and smell to it. The author is extraordinarily sensitive both to the forces governing his political life and to the historical power of musical inquiry that drives a thinking musician. One reads, cries a little, sometimes giggles, and learns.”

The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri String Quartet by David Blum
This is another book about the Guarneri Quartet, written 1986. The author was a well-known musician, writer, musicologist and personal friend of the members of the quartet. It is full of stories of the quartet’s history, the individual backgrounds of the members, and their individual ideas on many subjects including teaching, music making and creativity. There also is a detailed discussion of the major aspects of the quartet repertoire and some especially interesting discourse on Beethoven’s amazing Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor. This wonderful book is a little bit more scholarly and “hard-core” than some of the others, and especially interesting for those who know the repertoire or want to learn more about it.

Violin Dreams by Arnold Steinhardt
Arnold Steinhardt’s second book is not specifically about chamber music, but fits in because it is by one of the greatest chamber musicians of all time. It is such a great book about the journey of becoming a musician that I think EVERY STUDENT of any instrument, (and probably their teachers!) should read it. It is expressive, personal, and just plain interesting. His descriptive writing about the Chaconne from the D minor Partita by J.S. Bach is amazing. One very unique feature of this book is that it comes with a CD that has his performance of that Partita he made forty years ago, along with one he made in 2008 specifically for this book. In my opinion, a must read!!

Guide to Chamber Music by Melvin Berger
This is not a book that one reads for pleasure, but is instead a very valuable resource that contains information on most of the chamber music repertoire for strings or strings with piano. Presented in alphabetical order by composer, each chapter begins with biographical information. Works by that composer are then listed in chronological order, with movement titles and descriptive writing that amounts to brief program notes.

WATCHING: Here is some info on great chamber music watching. With the growth of YouTube, there is an amazing amount of material to explore. Many great historic quartet performances are posted on YouTube. However, many are not actually videos, but instead historic audio recordings, often accompanied by historic photographs. Although those are a great resource, they do not compare with actually seeing video of great chamber music performances. Many of that type of video are by young, “up and coming” ensembles. But there are videos of great performances by historically great chamber ensembles that are no longer on the concert touring circuit. .

There are also some documentary films about great quartets, and even some fictional movies about chamber music.

In The Mainstream: The Cleveland Quartet (available on DVD, and also on YouTube)
This is a documentary about the Cleveland String Quartet, one of the greatest quartets for about 20 years in the 1970’s and 80’s. The members have all gone on to very distinguished teaching careers. The film documents about a year of their traveling and performing around the globe in the early 1980’s. The film culminates at the Aspen festival in Colorado with a performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. Close observation of that part of the movie will yield several glimpses of this author both playing in the Octet and at a party scene at Aspen!

High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet (Available on DVD)
Not to be confused with a movie called “High Fidelity” starring Jack Black and John Cusack, this is a documentary of the legendary Guarneri String Quartet made in 1988 with performances of Mozart, Beethoven and others. It also has fascinating footage of their rehearsals, travelling and interpersonal dynamics.

A Late Quartet
This is a recent Hollywood film that in all honestly, I can NOT recommend. The story is ridiculous, convoluted, and not realistic. Many string players find the fake playing by the actors very hard to watch, though the actors certainly must have tried very hard to look like they knew what they are doing. Just the same, there are issues explored that do actually occur in professional quartets, and the music is beautifully played by the Borremeo Quartet. The most redeeming thing about this film is that it might actually inspire people to get to know the late quartets of Beethoven (Opus 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135). These are truly unique, transcendental and complex works of art, known by too few. They were the only major works Beethoven wrote after the Ninth Symphony, and are considered by many the greatest music ever written. These pieces are the reason many musicians want to become quartet players.

Here some interesting YouTube videos.

Schubert String Quartet No 14 D minor Death and the Maiden Alban Berg Quartet – YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlzv1yUFo-A
This is one of the great European Quartets, not often seen or heard in Minnesota.

Schubert Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major D929 Andante – Beaux Arts Trio – YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpheRiBsTvw
Any performance by this legendary piano trio is of interest.

Guarneri String Quartet Beethoven (vaimusic.com) – YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaSAdCvzPgU
Guarneri playing Beethoven Opus 95 (“Serioso”)

Brahms Klavierquartett nr 1 op 25 Mikhail Rudy, Guarneri Quartet.avi – YouTube
https://youtu.be/hDLwT-SO1gQ
The Guarneri again, with pianist Mikhail Rudy in a great performance. Of particular interest is that John Daly (usually 2 nd violin) is playing instead of Arnold Steinhardt. It shows how great a player he was.

Schubert – Quartetto Italiano – Quartetto in re min. D.810 – La morte e la fanciulla – YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpaVFkV1Rlw
Rare footage of one of the most musically interesting, unique and long-lived of the post-WWII European Quartets. Elisa Pegreffi, (2 nd violin) was a groundbreaking female performer and a huge charismatic force in what was at that time, a male dominated quartet world.

 

So Why Is Improvisation So Important?

Thu, 2016-04-14 12:10

Like so many classically trained cellists, improvising was never something that I felt very comfortable trying. And although most of my professional life has been in the world of new music, improvisation was not something that I had explored in depth until a few years ago.

My improvisational journey began literally the day after my final day with the Kronos Quartet when I played a concert at The Stone in New York with John Zorn and several others on one of his monthly improv nights. For those of you who have never been to one, the way that these concerts work is that everyone sits downstairs in the basement and one by one people decide in the moment who plays with whom. It can be duos, trios or quartets – you literally have no idea what you are playing or whom you are playing with until two seconds before walking upstairs. Everyone then comes together at the end to play in one giant improv. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was taking my first step into a new world that, over time, has increasingly become a large part of my performing life.

TALKING AND LISTENING

A few days after the Stone show, Zorn and I grabbed some sushi together. One of the questions he had for me was, being fully aware of my rookie status as an improvisor, how I felt about improvising a few nights before. I responded by saying that I had made an interesting discovery about myself. I had learned that when I improvised with people I didn’t know, my musical behavior was no different than the conversation that I would have had if I were meeting people for the first time. I am much better in smaller groups, but when the groups get larger I tend to listen more than talk. This was exactly what happened when I was improvising.

Some time later I put together a concert as part of VisionIntoArt’s Ferus Festival at the Stone. The group was comprised of Vijay Iyer, Scott Colley and Satoshi Takeshi. These were all individuals that I had long admired and I was thrilled when everyone agreed to play. However, about two weeks before the show, I began to have a bit of a panic. After all, these are some of the best improvisers around. What was I thinking putting myself on stage with these master improvisors?

When we began playing together it sounded…GREAT! At that moment I knew what I needed to do. I would just lay back and let everyone else do they’re thing. They will sound great and I can just ride on their coat tails. What a great plan!

While we were playing, at some point I made a very minute change in what I was doing…immediately the entire group made a shift in the texture. Oh no – they are actually listening to me too! My plan was ruined.

I was literally shocked by the heightened level that Vijay, Scott and Satoshi were listening at. I have spent most of my career as a chamber musician playing at most of the major concert halls around the world. I had never played with musicians that were that closely tuned in to the nuances of everyone’s playing. Without a doubt this level of engagement would tremendously benefit any musician or chamber group regardless of what repertoire they were playing.

Over the years I have found that the best improvisors are also the very best listeners.

MAKE A PLAN. BUT BE FLEXIBLE: PLANS OFTEN CHANGE IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT

Part of the reason why classical musicians don’t want to improvise is that we are conditioned to fear making mistakes. Our job is to develop an interpretation with integrity and then attempt to execute it to perfection whenever we perform. When this works, the performance can be sublime. In our lessons we are told to vibrate on every note, to play the exact same bowings all of the time, not to play the wrong articulation, not to put the accents in the wrong place and to absolutely only play the correct notes. When we improvise, which ones are the correct notes?!

I am not saying that there are no mistakes when you improvise. But I have discovered over the years that often things that may immediately feel like they might be mistakes are actually opportunities to allow the music to evolve.

Several years ago I formed a trio with the German pianist Hauschka and the Finnish drummer Samuli Kosminen. We call ourselves H K Z. I love playing in this group. Hauschka and Samuli are both brilliant musicians and master improvisors. I have learned a great deal working with those two. Whenever we play together we always make a plan. We have yet to actually stick to the plan.

Last Fall we played two concerts in Berlin at Radialsystem V. The shows were packed and went very well. In our sound checks, after we had checked all of our microphones and effects units, we would generally just begin playing together in order to feel each other out. Often these improvisations are the best because you have zero expectations since it isn’t the actual concert. For this reason, it is not uncommon to stumble upon perhaps the most magical moment that you could ever imagine.

But then what do you do next? Do you try to recreate the same magic in the concert? Sounds like a reasonable idea. But I will tell you this, every single time that I have ever tried to recreate a magical moment in a concert it has fallen flat…every…single…time. Why does that happen?

It is just like taking a walk through the woods. You are only following your imagination and then unexpectedly you find a clearing that leads to the most incredible view you had ever seen. The next day you come back and make your way to the same spot. But this time you go more directly because you know where you are going. It is still nice, but the magic of stumbling upon that moment will never be the same. A mentor of mine once told me that “Life never turns out the way you planned. But it always works out.” I have found this definitely to be true.

After several decades of exploring the outer limits of music, I have thoroughly enjoyed returning to my classical roots teaching at Mannes College the New School for Music. My students are very talented and I enjoy exploring the possibilities of the cello with them. After spending so many years drawing outside of the lines, I definitely see the benefits for students to be able to explore this area of playing. It heightens one’s level of listening and teaches one all of the skills of chamber music. It also gives performers the ability to successfully turn any unexpected moment on stage into an opportunity for success.

When I reflect upon my studies, this approach does not actually clash with my training as much as it would seem. Paul Katz taught me a great deal about the cello and musicianship. However, I think the greatest gift that he gave me was the importance of listening. In addition to leading to artistic integrity, it also enables one to engage fully in all levels of music making whether you are an orchestral musician, soloist or chamber musician. When I was studying with Janos Starker he would tell us that we should have several different approaches already mapped out and that we should not stick to only one way of playing. This way whenever you perform you have choices. Listen to yourself and to others. Always make a plan, but be flexible.

 

A Chamber Music Concert is Worth a Thousand Words

Sun, 2016-03-20 12:00

One of the goals of good teaching is assisting students to develop into interesting, compelling and communicative artists. Of course, there are many influences that create artistic musicians and many of them can be discussed and demonstrated in lessons. However, one of the factors that I believe is extremely important is also one that cannot actually happen in a lesson. For it to get done, you must often rely on the parents of your students or, for collegiate students, the student themselves.

That factor is getting students to attend concerts to hear and watch professional and artistic musicians performing “live”.

Imagine the difference it would make to students who love sports if they could not see great athletes performing. It is relatively easy to see a basketball game, baseball game, tennis match, football game, gymnastic or swim meet, etc. All one has to do is turn on the TV! And yet, going to a sporting event makes a much bigger impression and is more fun that sitting on the couch at home, and certainly is a more dynamic experience than listening to a game on the radio. The same is true of music events. Listening to a recording or live radio concert of a great artist, orchestra or chamber ensemble has many rewarding benefits, but seeing it can be even better. In recent years, it has become possible to see some interesting performances on the internet through sites like You Tube. Especially interesting are the concert videos featuring legendary performers who have passed away. But, watching a video just is not the same experience as going to hear a live performance and being part of the audience. And unlike sporting events, concerts on television are relatively few and far between…..especially concerts of chamber music.

Artistry is often necessarily a part of studio teaching that is generally taught to more advanced players. There are so many issues that need to be covered in a lesson that artistry is frequently ignored or at least put on the back burner. However, there is a way to start teaching artistry to even beginning students….Concerts!….getting them to hear and see concerts! Much like a picture is worth a thousand words, so too is concert attendance. The more concerts a student can attend, the more they can learn. Orchestra concerts are fun, exciting and large scale. Many students play in youth symphonies and can benefit greatly by hearing a professional caliber orchestra concert. However, individual artistry is hard to observe and though there is often a soloist who is usually a great player and often a great artist, they most often have to be observed from afar.

On the other hand, chamber music concerts are almost always in more intimate spaces allowing students to observe up close just what artistic playing is all about. Tickets are usually far less expensive than orchestra concerts and some are even free. In addition, many chamber music concerts feature unreserved seating. This means that if you arrive a little bit early, you can get the best seats in the house and sit very close to the artists if you so choose, sometimes even right on the stage with them! You can literally feel the artistic intentions of the musicians and observe how they approach their instrument from a technical point of view. A motivated student can observe each player for many things such as the bow hold, vibrato, use of color in the sound, cueing, breathing and other communication techniques among the performers and sometimes even how they put markings in the music. A good chamber music concert not only has great music as a part of it, but also can cause audience members to feel a direct and personal connection to the artists on stage. There can even be a personal connection made through eye contact during moments of applause. As a bonus, many chamber music concerts also have post-concert receptions where audience members can not only have a delicious snack (a big draw for some younger students!), but also have an extended conversation with some or all of the musicians who just played. All of these things can have a significant and lasting impression on students and significantly affect how they grow artistically and what they strive to do when they perform.

The studio teacher can do many things to encourage concert attendance. Chamber music concerts should perhaps be included more often near the top of the list of concerts students should be encouraged to attend. Usually, it makes a bigger impact if specific recommendations are passed along. This can be done in many ways, and often the best strategy is to employ more than one. For instance, teachers can inform students and/or their parents of concerts via email and Face book, a prepared list printed out on a sheet of paper, flyers for concerts posted at the teaching studio itself and personal verbal reminders. Some teachers may want to consider requiring that their students attend a certain number of concerts each year. This sends a message that the teacher really does feel it is truly important to the development of their students.

To find out what chamber music concerts are going on, the “entertainment” section of newspapers, flyers in violin shops and at universities, magazines, and the web all are excellent sources of information. Most students and their families are very busy with day-to- day events and it is often hard for them to squeeze in yet another music activity. Some have parents who like to go to concerts, have the financial means to do so, and bring their kids along. Others are less into doing that, or simply can’t swing it logistically. For those students, carpools are an often-overlooked possibility. A small group of students can go to a concert together with only one parent as a “chaperone”. Another thing that can make a big impact is a concert “field trip” with the studio teacher. There may be a concert by a particular artist or chamber music ensemble that the teacher wants to attend. This can be a great opportunity to bring their students with them. With some advance planning, group tickets can be purchased if necessary, and students can attend without their parents. It can make a lasting impression on students, especially if the teacher can lead the group after the concert to meet the artists. Then, in subsequent lessons, that particular concert and traits that were observed can be referenced in helping the student to strive for artistic excellence.

There is one final thing that can result from having students attend chamber music concerts. It can give them the desire to play in a chamber music group if they don’t already do so. For those that already do, it can be a tremendous way to learn how to improve their ensemble playing. For all it can help to develop opinions on what styles of playing they desire to emulate, and learn about repertoire they look forward to playing. One of the great benefits of playing a string instrument is having the opportunity to play the enormous and amazing repertoire of chamber music masterpieces. Teachers can really influence the type of ensemble playing they encourage their students to take part in. All are wonderful, but chamber music can push their musical and ensembles skills forward faster than most. Usually, the first step is getting students to the concerts…events that are truly worth a thousand words.


IT'S LIKE AN ACT OF MURDER; YOU PLAY WITH INTENT TO COMMIT SOMETHING. DUKE ELLINGTON