In 2011, declaring that "our art is passed from one generation to the next, not by books but by mentoring," NEC faculty member Paul Katz launched CelloBello, a website designed to connect cellists of all ages and performance levels. Among the site's resources are "Cello Lessons," consisting of footage filmed in Katz's studio with NEC students; "Legacy" videos from Katz's own mentors; and the blog streamed through this page, and coauthored by more than a dozen prominent cellists.

Curtis on Tour is Stalled by Airline Refusal To Take Cello


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.








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

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
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
Any performance by this legendary piano trio is of interest.

Guarneri String Quartet Beethoven ( – YouTube
Guarneri playing Beethoven Opus 95 (“Serioso”)

Brahms Klavierquartett nr 1 op 25 Mikhail Rudy, Guarneri Quartet.avi – YouTube
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
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?

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.


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.


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

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.

100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 21: Alexanian Exercises

Today’s Blog is devoted to some thumb position exercises by Diran Alexanian that my teacher in Freiburg, Spanish cellist Marcal Cervera, gave to me in 1972. These exercises are not in included in Alexanian’s seminal book on cello technique, Traite Theorique et Pratique du Violoncelle  (Theoretical and practical treatise of the violoncello).Alexanian’s book includes several pages of other thumb position exercises (pages 125 ff.) which are well worth practicing, but I believe that these 13 exercises have never actually been published.  I do not know how Cervera got these exercises, but I copied them from his notebook, and studied them with him.  I find them to be very useful.

Alexanian was born in Armenia in 1881. He became Casals’ assistant at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. His treatise was endorsed by Casals (on the cover it says “compiled in complete accord with Pablo Casals”), and in the preface Casals writes:

“When Alexanian submitted to me a well elaborated plan for the analysis of the theory of violoncello playing, based on principals that I myself accept, I recognized that I had before me a serious effort towards the casting off of the shackles of the superannuated prejudices with which the above mentioned works were replete…I would therefore recommend to all those who play or who wish to play the violoncello to imbue themselves thoroughly with the contents of this treatise”.

Alexanian’s students included Bernard Greenhouse, David Soyer, George Ricci, Raya Garbousova, David Wells, and Mischa Schneider in the US, and Gabriel Cusson, Maurice Eisenberg, Antonio Janigro, Gregor Piatigorsky, Hidayat Inayat Khan, Pierre Fournier, and Emmanuel Feuermann in Paris.

For more information about Alexanian, you can go to these websites:

These following 13 exercises all deal with opening up the hand in thumb position, and as such, they would be useful only after the basic thumb position formation (discussed in Blogs #19 and #20) is secure.