Interview by Tim Janof
Swedish cellist Frans Helmerson studied with Guido Vecchi in Göteborg, Guiseppe Selmi in Rome, and William Pleeth in London. Other important musical influences came through contact with conductor Sergiu Celibidache, with whom he worked as principal cellist in the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970’s, as well as significant guidance and support from Rostropovich.
Frans Helmerson has performed with many of today’s finest conductors and orchestras, touring throughout Europe, the USA, South America, Asia, and Australia since the late 1970’s. His love for chamber music led him to take the position of Artistic Director of the Korsholm Chamber Music Festival in Finland as well as appearing at many other renowned festivals.
Since 1992 Frans Helmerson has held a Professorship at the Musikhochschüle in Cologne and has held similar positions in Oslo, Stockholm, and Madrid. During the current season he is touring as both cellist and conductor throughout Europe, Brazil, and Korea.
His recordings include the Dvorak and Shostakovich concertos, the Brahms Double Concerto with Mihaela Martin, and a recent release of the Bach Solo Cello Suites.
TJ: Your first major cello teacher was Guido Vecchi, whom you studied with from 12 to 18 years old. You said that he “opened your ears to musical color and nuance.” Does this mean that he didn’t teach technique?
FH: Naturally, he also taught technique, but my lasting impression of him is his sound. I first heard him play when I was eight or nine years old when he came to my small town in Sweden and played a concerto with the local amateur orchestra. As an encore, he played a movement of Bach, which I have never forgotten. I still strive to reproduce his sound in my own playing.
TJ: You joined the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at age 22, conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. You said that he gave you “musical curiosity.” How?
FH: Prior to my time with him, my approach to music was more intuitive, so watching him work was eye-opening. He would delve very deeply into the music before making any interpretive decisions. He studied the harmonies and other compositional aspects in great detail, so he knew what he wanted to do with each note, phrase, movement, and piece. He was one of the great maestros of his day.
TJ: If you were playing professionally, you must have pretty much developed your technique.
FH: Not at all! I didn’t start delving into technique in any serious manner until I was 28 years old, which is too late according to conventional wisdom.
Having taken a couple of summer courses in Sienna, I had always wanted to study in Italy, since I loved the language, the food, and the Italian way of life. I found Guiseppe Selmi, a well-known Italian pedagogue, through some contacts, and I spent the next few years primarily on left hand technique. He was a very methodical teacher who had written some wonderful cello method books. We worked on scales, the Popper Etudes, and the Piatti Caprices, which I had not spent much time with previously. He was exactly what I needed at the time.
I must say that my deepest study of technique came after I began teaching others. I have recordings from my early days and I can hear that I knew how to play the cello, but I didn’t know how I did it. When I started to teach, I had to figure out exactly how I did certain things so that I could explain to my students how to do them too. Teaching is a fantastic learning tool.
TJ: You also studied with William Pleeth, the teacher of Jacqueline du Pré.
FH: I had finished my studies in Rome and I wanted to study with Rostropovich. I went home to Sweden for a year and played with various orchestras while I searched for a way to get to Moscow. Jacqueline du Pré was scheduled to play a concert in Stockholm during this time, so I arranged a meeting with her through her manager—who later became my manager as well—with the idea that I could talk to her about Rostropovich, with whom she had just spent six months studying.
We met and I played for her and Daniel Barenboim. She recommended that I study with William Pleeth in London instead of going to Moscow. Rostropovich was on tour much of the time, so lessons, though fantastic, were few and far between. This was in 1967, before his troubles with the Soviet government had begun, and before his travels to the West were restricted. She warned that I would end up studying with his assistants most of the time, which wasn’t what I needed, according to her.
Three or four weeks later, in November or December, I received a message from du Pré that on January 10, William Pleeth was expecting me for a lesson at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and that I would have a room available at Anna Shuttleworth’s place when I arrived in London. du Pré had arranged everything for me without me asking for her help, which was incredibly generous.
TJ: What was Pleeth like as a teacher? His image is one of being open to multiple interpretations, who encouraged his students to come up with several convincing ways to play the same passage. And yet, in his recently released master class videos, he comes across as someone with very strong opinions.
FH: Pleeth would give me a palette of alternatives, but, like any teacher, even a very liberal-minded one like him, he certainly nudged me in certain directions.
What was so amazing about his lessons was his capacity to improvise. A lesson was never something sterile, and never proceeded according to some pre-formed model. He was so alive and spiritually present in lessons that you never knew what to expect, which made each lesson an adventure. He refused to let himself fall into a rut, which can easily happen after teaching for so many years. He took his inspiration from the moment.
TJ: Did he ever engage in purely technical discussions, or was everything discussed with a musical point in mind?
FH: Music was always the driving force in his discussions, which is the way it should be, though in my own teaching, I discuss technique in more concrete terms than he did with me. I came to him as a well-trained cellist, so he probably didn’t need to focus on technical issues. Perhaps he treated others differently, though. What I gained from him was a sense of liberation from the mechanics of cello playing so that I could focus my energy on the music.
TJ: After Pleeth you participated in a master class with Rostropovich.
FH: Yes, I was 31 years old, and it ended up being the one and only master class I have ever participated in as a student. I had first met Rostropovich when he came to Stockholm. I played for him and he immediately said that he would help me. He invited me to his summer master class, which was only three months later.
TJ: You once said that he made you reach for “fifth gear.” How so?
FH: Before my time with him, I was driving a car in which I thought there were only four gears, to continue the analogy. With him I discovered that there is a fifth gear, which I didn’t even know existed.
TJ: I assume you are talking musically, not technically. He is not known to talk about technique.
FH: I don’t recall him ever giving any technical advice during those five weeks, but several students played the cello much better by the end of the summer.
TJ: What was his secret?
FH: I think it had to do with his insistence on intense focus. You had to direct one hundred percent of your attention to expression. When your concentration is not going in a multiple directions it’s amazing what you can accomplish. You don’t have to worry about how somebody played a piece in this or that recording, and you don’t have to worry about so-called “technical rules.” The only thing you think about is what you want to say with the music. If you do this, you will be amazed at how your technique will improve, since you gain a much subtler control over the nuances of intonation and sound, among other things.
His insistence on focus was incredibly beneficial because he wanted us to clear our minds of all the informational noise that could distract us from our musical goals. Many young people today go to master class after master class and they are bombarded with such an incredible amount of information, often conflicting, that they become overwhelmed and confused by what they’ve heard. The best thing you can do is concentrate on your own problems because, in the end, it is you who must solve them through mindful practicing, not by watching others.
TJ: I’d like to touch upon some of the ideas you’ve discussed in past master classes. Let’s start with some technical issues. What do you do with students who consistently play out of tune?
FH: Instead of just telling them that they are out of tune and that they need to fix it, I try to figure out what may be causing their intonation problems. Sort of like a doctor, I give them a check-up, looking at how they are sitting, the position of their hands, arms, joints, and so on.
TJ: So you think that playing out of tune is a symptom of bad posture?
FH: Yes, bad posture and unnecessary tension often result in poor intonation. Good intonation does not come from being able to accurately measure millimeters along the fingerboard, it comes from the ear, and how direct the line is between your ear and your fingers. If you have tension, which often results from bad posture or faulty position, your intonation will suffer, since you are blocking your body’s instinctive connection between your brain and your fingers. This is why I don’t automatically assume that students are merely being careless when they play out of tune.
TJ: You said, “Always anticipate the next bow. You will play it much better.” How do you do this?
FH: While you are playing a down bow, for example, you should already be aware of how the up bow is going to feel. It may be that you will need to change the speed, point of contact, dynamics, or sound color on the up bow, or it may be that you don’t need to change anything at all. What’s important is that you plan for what’s coming, which means you must decide what you are going to do before it must happen. Otherwise, when it’s time to play the up bow, you won’t be prepared for it and you won’t achieve the result you desire. If you practice using this process, things will become automatic after awhile and you can turn your attention to other issues.
TJ: You said, “Try speeding up the bow to get more sound before applying pressure.” Why?
FH: I actually prefer to use the term “contact” instead of “pressure” in my teaching since “pressure” has such a negative connotation. Many think that, in order to create a bigger or more open sound, they need to do it by increasing the bow’s contact. Instead, one should always experiment with increasing the bow speed. Your tone will breathe more freely if you do. If you just increase the contact, you will actually kill the sound because you are dampening the cello’s vibrations.
TJ: How do you mesh this with another thing you’ve recommended, which is that you should fall more into the cello when you want to play louder? It seems like this may be referring to increasing the contact instead of increasing bow speed?
FH: This has more to do with playing with less tension, not increasing the contact. In order to play louder you should fight less, and feel more like you are hanging on your instrument, like a sack of potatoes. Perhaps this seems to contradict what I said earlier, but they seem like different issues to me.
It’s important to understand the relationship between the arm and the bow. The transmitter of energy between the two is the hand. The weight we often talk about isn’t the weight of the hand, since it doesn’t weigh very much; it’s the weight of the arm. In order to successfully direct this arm weight into the bow, your bow hand must not be stiff, since tension in your hand will stop the energy flow to the bow. Part of this has to do with keeping your fingers relaxed, which is contrary to our instinct to squeeze the bow when we want to play louder. You should do just the opposite, which is to relax more when you want to play louder.
This reminds me of something I learned from my step-son’s tennis instructor. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, the great tennis players hold their racket no tighter than a 3. One would think the opposite, given the tremendous power in their games. The same is true for cello playing, the more power you want, the more relaxed you must become.
TJ: You said, “It’s not how loud you play, but how loud you feel.” What does this mean?
FH: A “big sound” comes from the intensity of your playing, not from your decibel level or how much you press. Intensity is the result of several factors, including vibrato, the character of your bowing, your attacks, and so on. Look at the videos of Rostropovich, for example, who is known as a “big sound” cellist. The hairs of his bow never touch the stick, so his intensity certainly isn’t the result of him hanging on his cello to almost the breaking point.
TJ: You said, “For better clarity when playing lots of fast notes on the same bow, use less bow and less contact.” How does this work?
FH: The string is under more tension if you have too much contact with the string, which makes it more difficult to change notes quickly and cleanly. By lightening up on the bow, the string is under less tension and is therefore less resistant to the change of notes.
TJ: What about when you play fast notes on separate bows?
FH: The same principle applies but you face the added complexity of having to synchronize the two hands with each other. To solve this problem, you must practice slowly and gradually work up to the final tempo. Anticipation is also the key, since you need to be aware of what is coming with both the bow and the left hand at all times. Slow practice helps to train your mind to anticipate.
TJ: Let’s shift to musical issues. You said, “Play as if you were composing the piece.” How does one do this?
FH: You have to totally convince yourself that you know what the composer had in mind when he or she wrote the piece. Why is there a dynamic change here? Why was this tempo chosen? Why is the structure the way it is between the various voices? If there is a strong melodic line, why is the accompaniment so thin? If the accompaniment is very syncopated, how does this affect the melody? All these sorts of issues contribute to your understanding of a piece, and it is up to you to decide what the answers are. After you have answered these kinds of questions, you have to become so emotionally involved in the piece that the listener believes you must have some special connection with the composer. You even have to do this with works that you don’t think of as first rate. It’s your job to make all pieces seem as if they are the products of geniuses.
TJ: You often talk about “structure” in music. What do you mean by this?
FH: We could probably spend hours on this one question since it is such a complicated issue. But I’ll touch on just a few points.
“Structure” has several connotations in music. First, there is the overall structure of the piece, like the Sonata-Allegro form, in which there are three basic sections — statement, development, and recapitulation. This type of structural concept is more horizontal since it describes how a piece progresses over time. Horizontal structure also pertains to chordal progressions, which is an important element to consider in understanding a piece, since they give the piece a sense of direction, at least in tonal music. One can narrow one’s view and talk about the structure of phrases in a similar manner.
Structure has other meanings as well, like how the music is built vertically. In addition to the basic analysis of the chords in a piece, structure has to do with the issues I discussed earlier, like how the accompaniment relates to the melody, both rhythmically and harmonically. This latter concept of structure is often not noticed, since one is focusing on the melody instead of the entire composition. But if you don’t understand all the parts of the music, you don’t truly understand the piece.
TJ: The student who performed the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto in your master class played in a fairly straight-ahead tempo, which made it easier to sense the movement as a whole. Other players slow down significantly when they reach the second theme, which sometimes brings the music to a halt, as if the second theme were a new piece. Does this relate to your concept of structure, being able to step back and perceive the music in larger fragments, like viewing a panorama instead of just a tree in front of you?
FH: Yes, this is an aspect of structure in music, but I’m thinking about something else when I use this term. Take the second theme in the Dvorak, which is a beautiful melodic line. What is the orchestra doing while this theme is being played? It’s just playing chords on the strong beats, which neither hold the cello back nor drive it forward. In this case the structure is very simple. Of course, there are other parts of the Dvorak where the orchestra propels the cello forwards, which means the structure is much more complex. This is a language that all musicians must learn how to interpret.
TJ: You said, “The wrong vibrato can distort the sense of legato.” How?
FH: You want to play with a sound that matches the character of the music. If you don’t, the vibrato becomes more noticeable than the music. If you want the second theme of the Dvorak to sound calm and tender, for example, a slow and wide vibrato will ruin the effect. You might want to use a faster, more sobbing vibrato instead, which has a more fleshy finger contact with the strings.
This idea applies to the bow as well. If you want the music to be light, airy, and flowing, like in the beginning of the Schumann Concerto, you don’t want to play with a heavy, in-the-string bow technique, since it will sound strained, like a singer who is singing out of his or her range. Of course, both the left hand and the bow work together to produce various sounds, so to talk only about one at a time is somewhat misleading.
TJ: You like to hear the character of the different strings. For example, if somebody is playing on the C string, you don’t want the player to match the sound of the G string.
FH: This comment was meant specifically for the girl who played the Dvorak. I wanted her to realize that she has an infinite number of colors available to her and that she was only using a few of them. Of course there are times when we strive for evenness of sound across the instrument, so my advice to her wasn’t meant to be a general rule.
I actually try to make my A string sound like the violin’s G string because I am not fond of the nasal quality that one often hears when playing high up on the A string.
TJ: You said, “Everything is an expression — the dot, the dash, the dynamics, etc.” Is this another way of saying that music is distilled emotion?
FH: I don’t think so. I think “expression” is a better term. For example, when we talk with each other, we use many expressions, but they all aren’t filled with emotion. If I were to say, “The sun is out today,” this isn’t a declaration from the heart; it’s just a statement. Of course, there are times when we say things that are overflowing with emotion too. It just depends on the context.
A similar notion applies to music. Sometimes music is gushing with emotion and sometimes it’s not. Music can have different colors, for example, but they don’t all correspond to certain emotions. Sometimes they’re just statements or expressions.
I do believe that, at least with the great composers, each note, interval, chord, etc. is carefully chosen and we must do our best to understand why they made certain choices instead of others. We must trust that the composer knew what he or she wanted when writing the piece.
TJ: At the last World Cello Congress you said, “We must balance respect for the composer and respect for ourselves. Too much of either is not so good.” How do you prevent yourself from creating too much emotional distance between yourself and the music?
FH: We all balance these too forces within us differently, of course, so there’s no right or wrong approach. What I first try to do is learn as much as I can about a composer, his or her music, and the particular piece I wish to play. At the same time, I take care that my knowledge doesn’t inhibit what I feel I need to express. It’s very important that I allow myself to become very involved in the music on an emotional and spiritual level, otherwise I might as well just read it on the page away from my instrument.
If I were to play Bach using a Romantic approach, for example, I would say that this approach comes from a simpler part of myself. It sounds like the approach of a very uneducated person. But who is to say that this is right or wrong? All we can do is become as knowledgeable as possible and then make some choices, which somebody is bound to disagree with.
TJ: What if a “non-Authentic” or an “unschooled” impulse comes to you to while performing Bach? Do you go with it? This could apply to music from any time period, actually.
FH: I don’t do this on stage. I’ve practiced my interpretation and I stick with it. The place for this sort of improvisation and experimentation is in the practice room, not in front of an audience. Of course I remain open to inspiration, an intensified awareness and higher energy level, since a lack of inspiration can get in the way of being freely expressive. When inspiration comes, you have to ride it as if you were surfing a wave.
TJ: You recommend that one try the extremes of interpretation when practicing. This is something that your former student, Truls Mørk, also mentioned. Do you still do this in your own practice sessions?
FH: Yes, though it is a more systematic process than you might think. I try various approaches and consider in a very deliberate manner what works and what doesn’t. Trying extremes is a wonderful interpretative tool because it is through extremes that one gets an idea of the many possibilities that are available in a given passage, whether extremes in dynamics, tempi, or expression. It’s important to know where the limits are so that you will know how close you are to the cliff of poor taste.
TJ: You once told a student that he needed to decide whether he was speaking or singing with the cello in the Brahms e minor Sonata. Does the cello speak in this sonata?
FH: There’s a lot of speaking in Brahms.
TJ: Does the cello speak or sing in the first phrase?
FH: It speaks. If you heard me play it, you’d probably think that I was singing, but I am actually concentrating on speaking. Speaking doesn’t mean that I am trying to play with a dry sound, I am speaking with a voice, which means I try to articulate individual syllables.
TJ: What are you doing differently when you sing on the cello instead of speak?
FH: I play in a more connected, melismatic manner, and I concentrate on playing longer lines.
TJ: If you are speaking in the opening phrase of the Brahms Sonata, do you not think of the opening phrase as having an arch, where it has a beginning, a peak, and an end?
FH: It definitely has an overall arch, but it speaks at the same time. If I were to sing the phrase as a vocalese, having no articulation whatsoever, you wouldn’t like it, even though it would be perfectly correct, since the score does not require us to articulate the individual notes. A spoken arched phrase may have more of a “terraced” feel than a sung arched phrase.
TJ: Does the cello ever sing in this movement?
FH: I don’t think it ever truly sings. The music never quite seems like an Italian aria.
TJ: Can you give me an example of a piece that does sing?
FH: The opening of the Schumann Concerto may sing, but this piece is constantly alternating between speaking and singing, so I hesitate to generalize about this piece.
TJ: I get the feeling that you think of most music as speaking instead of singing.
FH: Most people think that I sing with my cello, but I think I may concentrate more on speaking with it. I like to think that I have a certain talent for singing as well, but perhaps my natural tendency is to speak. I have certainly worked very hard to sing with my cello as well.
It’s good to work on all aspects of one’s musicianship, especially the parts that don’t come as naturally. When I first met Natalia Gutman in the early 1980’s, I asked her what it was like to study with Rostropovich. She said, “He immediately pointed out what I was not so good at and he made it a very strong aspect of my playing.” This is one of the best comments I’ve ever heard about a teacher.
TJ: You once told a student, “You’re studying to become a good student, instead of to become an artist.” What does this mean?
FH: Someone who merely strives to be a good student takes the information given to them and tries to please the teacher by repeating or obeying what he or she is told to do. The information doesn’t become internalized and doesn’t transform into something that comes from his or her own personality. If one doesn’t make this conceptual leap, one will become a better student, not a better artist.
Teaching Truls Mørk during his last year with me was not so easy because he was already becoming an individual artist with his own ideas. I was very pleased that he had found his own voice. I had a feeling that if anybody had a chance of having a brilliant career he did, and he has certainly done well. My goal isn’t to create another Frans Helmerson, after all, it’s to fill the world with musicians who aren’t afraid to be themselves.