Interview by Tim Janof
American cellist Gary Hoffman was born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1956. At 15 he made his London recital debut in Wigmore Hall; his New York recital debut occurred in 1979. At the age of 22 he became the youngest faculty appointee in the history of Indiana University School of Music, where he remained for eight years. Mr. Hoffman, who is frequently invited to hold master classes, has coached cellists at numerous institutions and festivals, including Aspen, the Gregor Piatigorsky Seminar at the University of Southern California, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, the Casals Festival in Prades, the Eastman School of Music, Schleswig-Holstein, Verbier, Ravinia, etc. He achieved international renown following his victory at the Rostropovich International Competition in Paris in 1986. He has appeared as soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including those of London, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra and the English and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras. His major recitals have included appearances in Alice Tully Hall, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Thtre des Champs-Elysees, Thatre du Chatelet, Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Teatro Pergola in Florence, the Tivoli in Copenhagen, the Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the St. Lawrence Center in Toronto, and McGill University in Montreal. A much sought-after performer at summer festivals, he has been a guest at Ravinia, Aspen, Bath, Marlboro, Mstislav Rostropovich’s International Music Festival of Evian, the Casals Festival in Prades, La Roque d’Anthron or LaGrange de Meslay, Helsinki, and the Mostly Mozart Series. Gary Hoffman records for BMG (RCA), Sony, EMI, and Harmonia Mundi.
TJ: You studied with the late Karl Fruh in Chicago prior to studying with Janos Starker. Did Starker have to undo a lot of Mr. Fruh’s teachings?
GH: No, it was more a matter of becoming completely aware of what I was doing. Karl Fruh was a fantastic teacher and had many good students. He was an outstanding cellist himself, and was often referred to as the “Midwestern Leonard Rose.” He established a solid foundation in his students, both musically and cellistically, and taught us the fundamentals of good instrumental playing and music making. He did this in a non-idiosyncratic way, which was a great way to start off, since we didn’t bring much “baggage” with us to our next teachers.
When studying with János Starker, I didn’t so much undo my previous training as work on becoming more self-aware. For awhile I felt like I had lost my bearings because I was questioning everything about my playing. I played in a much less instinctive way during this period and felt at times like I was becoming overly self-conscious. Obviously this was part of an important internal process that had to take place in order for me to attain and maintain a professional playing level, for which I am now very grateful.
TJ: We all know that Starker spends a lot of time developing his students’ technique. Did he also discuss musical matters?
GH: He discussed both. There are some teachers who are thought of as only talking about music, and there are other teachers who are thought of as only discussing technique. Starker doesn’t fit either of these descriptions, since he integrates both in his teaching.
It is very important to him, however, that his students understand the principles of good cello playing, so there is a heavy accent on the technical side. He firmly believes that musical ideas can’t truly come through until you have freed yourself of technical limitations, so he considers it of the utmost importance that you can actually play the cello. As he likes to say, “One of the twenty things you need to be able to do in order to be a successful cellist is to play the cello well.”
This is a reflection of the way he feels about himself and his own development. He has said many times that he had reached a point many years ago where he felt like a bird who didn’t know how he flew and yet he needed to know how he did it. This realization has carried through to his teaching, because he feels that his students need to know how they fly, if in fact they are flying.
TJ: Some think of Starker as a “cold” player. Do you agree with description?
GH: No. A cold player is somebody who doesn’t express any true emotions or feelings. His playing is full of genuine emotion. He certainly doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve and he’s definitely not an extrovert, but he is an emotional person, though he holds his emotions in check. I’ve heard him play with great enthusiasm and freedom and with obvious emotional involvement, and I’ve heard him play in a more reserved manner. It just depends on the circumstances of the performance and the piece. Some days one feels energetic and inspired, other days one doesn’t. This is true of any artist.
TJ: Do you think that it is disadvantageous for an aspiring musician to be an introvert?
GH: Not necessarily. It may take the general public a little bit longer to appreciate what the musician has to offer because his or her message may not be so obvious at first hearing. In some ways it may actually be an advantage, since the audience’s curiosity may be aroused and they may want to come back to discover more about the player and his ideas. As they say, “Still waters run deep.” Those who go for the big impression can bore an audience because there’s nothing left to discover and nothing to go back to.
I’m sure that Starker realized a long time ago that he was not the kind of person who was going to make a big splash and then be thrown onto the heap of used musicians a year later. My feeling is that as a very serious musician who’s dedicated to having a long career and evolving as a person and having something to say at 70, and not just at 25, probably sees the long haul as the most satisfying path. This is something that I have come to value as I’ve made my way in my own career. There’s a great comfort and a great deal to be said for this approach. We are fortunate in that we can bring more and more to our craft as we get older, unlike athletes, whose careers are often over at 30. I suspect that this notion has always been with Janos Starker, whether spoken or not.
Fads come and go in classical music regarding the degree of romanticism that is appropriate and how much media attention one should garner. Throughout the changes in popular values over the years, he has maintained his sense about who he is, what he teaches, and what he stands for. I must say that I find that extremely refreshing.
TJ: I would like to ask you some questions about cello technique. These come from notes taken at two of your master classes, one in Bloomington and another in Seattle. How do you suggest that one work on the fourth finger (left hand) so that one isn’t afraid to use it.
GH: The first thing you should do is determine where in the music you would use it naturally if you weren’t concerned about its relative disadvantages. The fourth finger is shorter and thinner than the other fingers, so it is natural to want to avoid it. But you should just use it, no matter how it may sound or feel. If you don’t use it, you won’t develop it.
There are many exercises that you can use to train the fourth finger. One is to practice tenths with the thumb and the fourth finger up high on the instrument, where the reach isn’t too wide. The trick with this exercise is to learn how to apply power in a healthy manner, since the strings are much higher off the fingerboard in the upper registers. Obviously I’m not suggesting that you play three hours of tenths every day with the fourth finger because that could cause some damage.
Another exercise is to play double stops using the fourth finger, like thirds and sixths. Another is to play fingered octaves. And yet another is to go up and down the cello in sixths by half steps (1-3-2-4, 1-3-2-4, etc.), which is a good exercise since it helps to establish the feeling of support that one needs from the rest of the hand when using the fourth finger. It’s important that you not play with a collapsed fourth finger in any of these exercises. It may be tough going at first, but eventually the muscles get trained appropriately, and the mind becomes better at detecting when the fourth finger regresses to old habits.
TJ: You suggested to a student that he not lift his fingers too high while playing the fast sextuplets in the Lalo Concerto.
GH: I wouldn’t necessarily generalize this statement to all fast passages. It applied to the particular player in the class. I noticed that he wasn’t seeing the passage in terms of note groupings; instead he was playing the notes as a series of individual vertical actions. I suggested that he not lift his fingers so high so that he would be able to feel the passage in terms of blocks of notes within each position. If you don’t, you will find it much more difficult to play fast passages up to speed and with clarity.
There are other circumstances in which one may not want to over-lift the finger besides fast passages, like in legato passages, for example. People often talk about the bow when playing legato lines, but I like to discuss the left hand too. How one lifts one’s fingers and how one attacks notes with the left hand can add or detract from the sense of connection between the notes. In other words, how one lifts one’s fingers is just as important as how one puts them down.
TJ: Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to lift your fingers higher?
GH: If the fingers are not being lifted equally high, an unevenness in sound can result. This can often be attributed to the fact that our fingers are of different lengths. In this case, we may need to increase the height that we raise individual fingers in order to even out the sound. Another case is when somebody plays so close to the string that there isn’t enough articulation in the individual notes, resulting in a lack of clarity. He or she may need to lift the fingers higher in order to enunciate more clearly.
TJ: You encouraged a student to not neglect the vibrato on the “small” notes. Do you believe cellists should play with a continuous vibrato on each note?
GH: No, I don’t believe in continuous vibrato, but I do believe that you should be able to vibrate whenever the music needs it. You need to develop your technique such that there are no notes that are too fast to vibrate. Even in the fastest passages, it’s possible to have a slight feeling of vibrato in the arm, which can carry to the notes if you want.
The type and amount of vibrato one uses depends on the needs of the musical passage, of course. You may want a slight feeling of vibrato in groups of moderately fast notes, but you may want something very different in a lyrical passage, perhaps some notes without vibrato and others with a lot. You need to be able to stop and start vibrato at will and be able to alter its speed, width, and angle, depending on what color you are looking for on a particular note. There are times when vibrato may obscure the pitch if you are overly expressive, in which case you may not want to vibrate them at all or very little. There aren’t any hard and fast rules. Ultimately one should be able to do whatever the musical demands, and not be forced to do something else because of technical limitations.
TJ: You mentioned that one should approach the fingerboard from above, not below. What does this mean?
GH: I didn’t sense a feeling of openness between the forearm and upper arm, as if the student was clenching his elbow. I was trying to convey the concept of raising the arm away from the body, bringing it over the fingerboard, and then down, rather than having the arm at one side, folding your forearm up, then raising your arm to the cello. When starting with the feeling of an open position, one’s muscles and technique tend to be much freer, which results in much more musical freedom.
TJ: You recommend that one keep an open posture and not hunch over the cello when playing the cello, otherwise the flow of energy and natural power will be cut off. How do you follow this principle when playing in the high thumb positions? Do you need to lean over the cello in these upper positions?
GH: There’s a way of leaning where one does not cut off the energy flow to the fingerboard. Instead of your body following your arm as you move up the fingerboard, you need to maintain a feeling of lightness while producing the necessary resistance on the cello with your arm and fingers. You need to master this so that you are able to produce the necessary power and maximize your expressive resources at the top of the fingerboard. If you are crouched over and collapsing your left arm, you are basically asking the smallest muscles in your hand to do all the work, thus breaking the so-called “line of power.” It’s difficult to explain, but it’s something that athletes are taught as well. A boxer will produce a greater impact in his punch if his body is more upright and his arm is going more at a right angle to his body. If you lunge with your punch, you will have less power upon impact. The same notion applies whether you are hitting a tennis ball, baseball, or golf ball.
TJ: You also said that the only difference between the lower positions and thumb position is that the thumb is up. Does your hand position remain basically the same no matter where you are along the fingerboard?
GH: Pretty much, yes, except for special cases where an angle change is desirable for expressive reasons. It is certainly my goal to maintain the same angle of approach with the fingers no matter where I am on the cello. If you can achieve this, thumb position will truly just be a matter of bringing the thumb up in the upper registers.
Sometimes when playing in the upper positions, I put the thumb under the fingerboard because it’s better in certain circumstances, like when I’m alternating with open strings. Rather than keeping it up in the air or continually placing it back down again, it’s just easier to put it under the fingerboard. At times I do this when playing high on the G and C strings too, since I’m able to use a fleshier part of my playing finger and achieve a more satisfying sound on these thicker strings.
TJ: In the opening of the Dvorak Concerto, you cautioned against attacking the chords with a vertical bow. Why?
GH: I think there always has to be a horizontal aspect to the attack. If not, you will either produce a crunch or just a dead thud, since the vibration of the strings will be dampened. There may be a certain loudness with this technique, but it will probably be a dull loudness. I’m not a huge fan of thuddy cello playing.
TJ: You said, “One of the most difficult parts of playing is to actually listen to one’s own playing. One must be disturbed by one’s own bad intonation before it can be fixed.” How do you develop this awareness?
GH: A teacher isn’t with you in your practice sessions, which is where you spend most of your time playing, so it’s vital that you develop this awareness. There is a three-step process you should use when playing: first you hear a sound in your head, then you play it, then you listen to it and evaluate the result. Most people are pretty good at the first two steps, but they neglect the third step. You must train yourself to concentrate and actually listen to what is coming out of the instrument, not what you feel or hear inside yourself.
Everything must be also be evaluated in relation to the larger context of the music. Music is much more than just a bunch of individually strung notes or phrases, there is an overall shape and structure that must be taken into account. So you must always evaluate what you do with this wider view in mind. This means that you must spend a lot of time thinking about what’s coming up next, as well as what happened previously.
TJ: How do you find the balance between the need to articulate each note and the desire to shape phrases? How do you play such that your performance doesn’t sound mannered and exaggerated?
GH: Whenever I have any concern about this, the first thing I do, even today, is sing the phrase. This usually takes care of it. If it doesn’t, then I need to take a closer look at the music and figure out why the phrase is so unusual.
Any good musician, even with a bad voice, will be able to sing a phrase in a way that will somehow illuminate its shape. You may have to try it several times until you find the most natural way for a group of notes to go, but you will get it. And then when you listen to yourself play, you will hear what you are or aren’t doing, and you can usually find a way to correct any problem.
Singing is a great technique because it gives you something to strive for musically. Without a clear sense of direction, the music will never gel and will sound like a bunch of individual notes. There must be some impulse to group notes together with some notion of hierarchy so that they form a coherent phrase.
TJ: You talked about “filling in the gaps” in the opening of Lalo concerto. Is this a principle that you try follow in general when phrasing, finding key structural notes and then determining what you do in between them?
GH: In a way, yes. The student wasn’t making music between the notes, so he wasn’t bringing the listener from one note to the next. The notes were like raindrops instead of a flowing stream. Unless a phrase is specifically written to feel static, it will usually have high points and low points, which will define its overall motion and shape, not that every phrase has to have dramatic peaks and valleys. Once the key notes are determined, you transition from point to point, like filling in between the dots on a graph.
TJ: You also encouraged the student, in the beginning of the Lalo, to “come in anywhere but where one expects.” Is this how you approach phrasing in general so that it doesn’t sound too “square?”
GH: It’s certainly one of the techniques one can use when phrasing. Of course there are times when playing in a rhythmically precise manner is desired as well. In the particular case of the Lalo Concerto, the opening is more of a recitative, which implies the need for a certain rhythmic freedom.
The notion of “coloring outside the lines” can be applied in many ways. Starting at a young age, we all learn the conventions of music ö sense of pulse and rhythm, four and eight bar phrases, tonic, dominant ö which are embedded in our psyche. These are things that we have come to expect when listening to music. But one can play with more expression and freedom when one breaks free from these conventions, in a tasteful and an intelligent manner, of course. I think it’s important that you first practice the music in a strict manner, which will help to prevent overly idiosyncratic playing. After you have engrained this “predictable” feeling, you determine which places won’t have the necessary contrasts in character without more freedom. You don’t want to play everything too freely, since there won’t be any “surprises” left, and no sense of contrast. It would be like a comedian who tells only punch-lines, with no set-ups.
TJ: On a related note, you also said, “Don’t be afraid to do things that may surprise you.” Do you use this approach in pieces that you are very familiar with?
GH: Absolutely. Some people may become bored with a piece after they’ve played it a hundred times, like the Dvorak Concerto, feeling that they have nothing new to say with it. I avoid this by trying to remain open and free, not just to things that I see and hear around me, but also to the changes that are happening within me as I go through life. There are many things that simply can’t be discovered in a practice room, and it is these things than can greatly affect your playing, if you are open to them. If it’s important to you that your playing reflect who you are, then I think it’s important that you allow yourself to be surprised. In metaphysical terms, you should nurture the desire to venture into the infinite and the indefinable.
TJ: You said, “‘Sustained’ does not mean playing flatly or evenly; it means ‘to build.'” What does this mean?
GH: A common misconception is that “sustaining” means to be relentless, to never let up on a series of notes. Playing as evenly as possible from note to note is a good starting point, but it’s not sustaining a phrase; it’s just playing everything at the same dynamic level.
The key concept is actually “sustain a phrase,” not just “sustain.” You need to be able to sustain in a way that will make the phrase come alive, which may involve building and releasing to varying degrees across the phrase. It may even involve doing a tremendous amount within a single note, perhaps varying its intensity throughout, or beginning with an accent, or many other things that are hard to define.
TJ: You said, “We must give the illusion of dynamic contrast.” Does this apply more when playing in front of an orchestra?
GH: It applies in any playing situation, whether you are alone, in a chamber group, in an orchestra, or a soloist. The actual change in volume is not that great when you compare our softest and loudest playing. The available dynamic range shrinks even further when playing in a large hall, since you won’t be heard if you play too softly.
There are many ways one can create the illusion of wide dynamic contrast without resorting to actual changes in volume. This is done by varying one’s colors and intensities ö different vibratos, various right and left hand articulations, and so on. Your goal should be to widen your expressive palette as much as you can so that you can draw upon these subtle shades at will.
TJ: You mentioned that you play the Bach Solo Cello Suites with trepidation. Why?
GH: One is so exposed when playing Bach. Every aspect of one’s instrumentalism and music making is there for all to observe, for better or for worse. There’s no hiding in Bach.
I expect a lot of myself in the Bach Suites, as any cellist should, of course. The sheer greatness of these works and the personal meaning that they have for me as a cellist makes them a tremendous challenge, since they are probably the biggest monuments we have in our repertoire. I am simply in awe of this music.
I once asked Paul Tortelier after I heard him play a Bach suite, “Why is that you seem to feel so comfortable with this music?” He replied, “Bach was a child of God and we’re all children of God.” In addition to any religious connotations, I interpreted this as describing the feeling that Bach was a human being just like the rest of us, so why should we be afraid of his music? I found this to be quite helpful.
Having said all this, the times that I have felt at One with the music are some of the most satisfying musical experiences that I have ever had. The Bach Suites are so all-encompassing and so direct in their communication and direct in their pure musical expression that, when it goes well and when I am in harmony with the music, I feel an exhilaration that I haven’t felt playing anything else.
TJ: You talked a lot about the Preludes being opportunities for improvisation. Does this apply to the other movements as well?
GH: I was also talking about the origin of the Prelude in music history, that it may have come from the lute players, who would improvise something before a dance suite started.
It’s particularly important in the Preludes to look for moments of subtle freedom and variety, since they are essentially comprised of notes with the same value throughout. This principle will serve you well in the dance movements too, though they should have more of a sense of continuous pulse than in the Preludes, without being rigid. I don’t mean to say that the Preludes shouldn’t have a sense of pulse, it’s just that they allow a little more room for improvisation.
There are times when an improvisatory feel is more appropriate in some of the dance movements too. The D Major Allemande, for example, seems like it could have been written by a composer before Bach, like Corelli. Corelli would have just written a bunch of chords and expected the player to fill in the music between them. Bach chose to write out the figures instead, as was the practice in his day, but it should still be played as if it is being improvised on the spot, while still maintaining a feeling of the main pulse. He departs from the basic feeling of a dance in this movement.
TJ: At the end of the Sixth Suite Prelude, you discuss the importance of “voicing” the chords like a pianist, where certain notes are more emphasized than others within each chord. Recent research has revealed that musicians tended to arpeggiate three and four-note chords instead of trying to play as many notes as possible at the same time. How do you mesh the idea of “voicing” with the practice of arpeggiation?
GH: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. It’s very good to arpeggiate chords, especially in pieces like the Sixth Suite Sarabande, since it prevents an almost stubborn quality that the Sarabande can take on. I often hear players try to maintain as many notes as humanly possible, but I find that this can be counter-productive, since the melody can be drowned out by the harmonies. Arpeggiation helps to prevent this.
If you arpeggiate a 3 or 4-note chord, you may still place more accent or weight on certain notes within each chord. The trick is to voice the chords so that a sense of melody or melodies is maintained, which can be difficult since the melody is not always the top note; the key note can be the bottom note at one moment and one of the middle notes the next moment. Some don’t consider this when playing Bach, as if the top note is always the melody.
TJ: You said, “Just because music is baroque doesn’t mean you should shy away from expression.” Do you find that people are a little too respectful of baroque music?
GH: Less so now. There was a time when baroque music seemed like it was a museum piece instead of living music. The recent research on baroque music and its practice has helped to free us from any restrictive rules on how it must be played. I admire many baroque players and I’ve learned a lot from listening to how they play and from my own investigations into baroque performance practice, though I wouldn’t necessarily choose to play as they do. As with any period in history, different players have different ideas and personalities, so I don’t believe that there was ever only one way to play a certain piece, though I would guess that there were some basic ideas that they all had in common. We are all becoming more informed and therefore have more choices to make, which frees us up, in a way.
TJ: In your performance of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei at János Starker’s 75th birthday celebration, I noticed you used a “sobbing” vibrato? Was this a conscious choice?
GH: No, I don’t consciously choose my vibrato when performing, though I may consider it more carefully when practicing to make sure that I am not working against the phrasing. I try to let the music dictate the nature of the vibrato, and I just do what comes naturally to me. I’m usually more aware of my vibrato when it does not sound right.
I let my vibrato flow in a natural way, like the way your heart beats, which naturally speeds up and slows down, depending on the feeling at the time. We can’t really control our heartbeat rate, it just happens. This is one of my goals when playing expressively, to allow my vibrato to continually change so that it completely reflects and adds to the character of the music at the moment. Vibrato, like everything we do, has to be extremely flexible. One has to be receptive to the messages of the music so that we are prepared to use whatever expressive means are necessary to bring the music to life. After all, the music must come first.