Interview by Tim Janof
Hans Jørgen Jensen is currently Professor of Cello at Northwestern University and a faculty member of both Meadowmount School of Music and The National Arts Center’s Young Artist Program.
Mr. Jensen received a Soloist Diploma from the Royal Academy of Music in Denmark as a student of Asger Lund Christiansen and studied with Leonard Rose and Channing Robbins at the Juilliard School. In addition, he studied with Pierre Fournier in Geneva, Switzerland. At Juilliard he studied chamber music with Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss. From 1979 to 1987 he was Professor of Cello at the School of Music at the University of Houston. He has been a guest professor at the School of Music at the University of Southern California, the Tokyo College of Music, and the Musashino Academy of Music in Japan.
Mr. Jensen has performed as a soloist and recitalist in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, including solo appearances with the Danish Radio Orchestra, the Basel Symphony Orchestra, the Copenhagen Symphony, and the Irish Radio Orchestra. He has given numerous workshops and master classes across the United States, Canada, and Japan including those at the University of Cincinnati, the Royal College of Music in Calgary, the Music Bridge Festival in Calgary, the Glenn Gould Professional School in Toronto, the University of British Columbia, the International Banff Center, Southern Methodist University School of Music, the University of Arizona, the University of Denver, the University of New Mexico, the Texas Music Festival, the University of Colorado, the National Suzuki Convention, the Midwest Orchestra and Band Convention, and Indiana University School of Music.
His former students are members of major orchestras throughout the United States and Canada. His students are first prize winners in the MTNA National Competition, the ASTA National Competition, the Sphinx Competition, the Stulberg International Competition, the Madison Symphony Young Artist Competition, the Corpus Christi International Competition, the Chicago Symphony Young Artist Competition, and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. They are also prize winners in the WAMSO Young Artist Competition, the Klein International Competition, and the Lutoslavski International Cello Competition.
Mr. Jensen was awarded the Copenhagen Music Critics Prize, the Jacob Gades Prize, the Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs Grant for Musicians, and was the winner of the Artist International Competition that resulted in three New York recitals. In 1998 he was named the outstanding teacher of the year at Northwestern University and in 1999, the outstanding studio teacher of the year by Illinois ASTA. In 2001 he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Scholar Teacher Recognition Award by the U.S. Department of Education.
E.C. Shirmer, Boston, publishes his transcription of the Galamian Scale System for cello and Shar Products Company publishes his cello method book, Fun in Thumb Position.
HJJ: My parents were both violinists, so I come from a musical family. My father was concertmaster of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark. One night my parents were playing string quartets at home with friends and I couldn’t take my eyes off the cello. I just fell in love with it. I then started listening to recordings and I heard Rostropovich’s electrifying Haydn C Major Concerto in a radio broadcast. Those two moments ignited a fire within me and I immediately knew that I wanted to be a cellist. I had played the violin for many years to please my parents, but I often felt somewhat rebellious when it came to music. This sense of rebellion was what led me to switch instruments and to play the cello instead. I had some catching up to do since I started playing the cello when I was 16 years old.
Your first cello professor was Asger Lund Christiansen.
Yes, he was a wonderful musician, cellist, and teacher. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus and was the cellist in the Copenhagen String Quartet. I had only played the cello for a year before I met him so I consider him to be my first major teacher.
You also studied with Pierre Fournier.
I took private lessons with him in Geneva and participated in his master class in Zurich. He was incredibly inspiring when it came to the refinement of sound and textures. He mostly discussed music with me, but he also stressed the importance of practicing arpeggios daily.
Then you studied with Leonard Rose at Juilliard.
Leonard Rose was a wonderful cellist and teacher. When he went on concert tours his assistant Channing Robbins taught in his absence. They worked very well together. I had expected rigorous technical training when I came to the US, but most of my time was spent on refining and learning new repertoire. I was 24 at the time and had already started concertizing, so perhaps my technique was already well developed.
Leonard Rose spent a lot of time with me on refining musical details. I’ll never forget the way he demonstrated certain passages; his sound was just wonderful - big, warm, and incredibly beautiful. He was very particular about controlling vibrato and tone colors and making sure that the vibrato and bow speed fit together. For example, when playing with a light and faster bow speed, the vibrato should narrow. Conversely, it should widen and become more intense when playing loud and strong. An example in the repertoire is the opening theme of the Elgar Concerto, for which Mr. Rose advocated a very minimal use of vibrato together with a light flowing bow stroke. I suspect that Rose was inspired by Isaac Stern, who controlled his own tone with incredible nuance.
Channing Robbins was particularly wonderful when discussing technical issues. I remember coming to him for help with my sautillé. I had already performed Elfentanz and Rococo Variations many times but I still struggled with that stroke. He recognized immediately that I used too much wrist and that I needed to use more of my forearm. After he explained what I needed to do in just a few sentences, I suddenly had a good sautillé. He was uniquely gifted when it came to understanding intricate technical matters.
You are a well-known pedagoque, so let’s talk about teaching. If a new student walks in your studio and you notice that he or she is particularly tall or particularly short. Do you teach him or her differently than a person of more average height?
It’s very important for me as a teacher to adapt my approach and teaching method to each student. I have to help students find the most natural and comfortable way for them to play. The goal is that basic biomechanical principles fit with each student’s unique physiology.
For example, I frequently have shorter students turn the cello to the left a little bit, counterclockwise. This positioning helps the shorter arm get to the tip more easily. Most would guess that the opposite is better, that the cello should be rotated slightly to the right, clockwise. The problem with turning the cello to the right is that the student has to reach out even further when playing at the tip. The challenge is to find the optimal balance between the placement of the cello and left rotation so that the left hand is still comfortable.
A tall cellist with very long arms has different problems. I’ve had students that could get to the tip of the bow on the A string while barely extending the forearm. A long arm can create problems, however, since the use of the forearm is crucial in so many different strokes. A longer or bent endpin can help tall students.
Do you encourage tall students to use a higher chair?
The funny thing is that some people are tall from the waist down and some are tall from the waste up. Those who are tall from the waist down have long legs and should try to sit on a higher chair or add a cushion. The additional height allows the knees to be slightly lower than the hips.
Cellists who are tall from the waist up usually have to tilt their heads to avoid touching the pegs. In this case, it’s often beneficial to use removable pegs. Standard pegs can get in the way of where the neck needs to be, which forces the cellist to bend away from the scroll. Removable pegs alleviate the tension that this awkward position creates in the neck.
Ideally all musicians’ chairs would be adjustable in height so that each person could sit in the most balanced and comfortable position. Since this is not usually the case, cellists have to be able to play in chairs of different heights. One never knows what type of chair will be provided in different concert venues.
What do you do with students who have large versus small hands?
There is no single hand position that fits everybody. A student with long fingers needs to slant the hand backwards so that the fingers have room to move, whereas a student with shorter fingers can use a more square hand position. The important thing is to find a hand position that allows the left hand to be balanced.
Do you recommend that students of different hand sizes use different fingerings, like less extended position for students with smaller hands?
Yes, it is important for each player to develop their own system of fingerings that best suits their hand. I stress, however, the importance of trying to use weaker fingers in order to develop all fingers equally. For example, if a student avoids using a weak fourth finger, or a student with a bad third finger vibrato in thumb position always uses the second finger instead, he or she will progress more slowly because these fingers will remain weak. In a stressful situation, like practicing for a concert or competition in one or two weeks, I tell students to use their stronger fingers. In general, however, I encourage them to not take the easy way out in their long term daily practice.
Do you give students fingerings?
Yes, but I don’t think students learn how to devise good fingerings if they are always written down for them or if they copy their teachers’ fingerings. It is my job to try to inspire the students to think creatively and to become independent. Therefore, I encourage students to come up with their own fingerings. It creates more work for me as a teacher because I have to spend more time correcting and discussing their choice of fingerings, but it’s the only method that allows students the chance to learn and think about their choice of fingerings.
You wrote the book, Fun in Thumb Position. What inspired it?
I grew tired of students not being comfortable in thumb position, even college students. Many young cellists spend a lot of time in the lower positions before exploring thumb position. The problem with this method is that after two or three years students begin to fear the higher positions and they tend to tense up as they go higher, which is counterproductive. I saw the need for a fun book for younger students that focuses on the higher positions. I hope to encourage students to play in thumb position early.
As an experiment, I started some beginning students only in thumb position right away. I drilled them for awhile and then took them to first position. I found that they had more trouble in the lower positions because the lower positions are where the hand is stretched the widest. First position is actually the most difficult position of all because of the wider finger spread and because the arm is closer to the body, which tends to crowd the left hand. In contrast, thumb position allows the left arm to be comfortably out-stretched and the fingers to spread apart naturally. I now start students in both lower and higher positions early so that they are mentally and physiologically comfortable with both areas of the cello. The goal of my book is to promote this teaching philosophy.
You used the word “stretching,” which has become a bit of a dirty word in string playing, since it can imply unhealthy tension.
That’s true. I’m referring to a momentary stretching or extension that is immediately released in order to minimize tension.
How do you teach a student to internalize the idea of releasing momentary tension and not stretching and pressing all the time?
It varies from student to student. Some students have a very natural way of playing and understand these concepts intuitively, while others are more awkward. When teaching students who need extra help with tension, I have them do things away from the instrument that illustrate a certain concept. For example, if you put your hand on a table and roll it from left to right and then from right to left, you automatically release the fingers. The same motion should occur with the left hand when playing the cello. I also have them pick up objects so that they understand how their arm and hand should move as they play up and down the fingerboard. The more students realize that the motions required to play the cello are the same as other activities in life, the more naturally they play. The basic movements of playing the cello can be found in everyday activities.
You told a student at the last National Cello Congress to release more with each note when playing Bach. You mentioned that you got this from Pablo Casals.
I don’t recall in which of the many books on him he discussed this, but Casals once said that it’s extremely important to use every opportunity we have to find moments of release. For example, if we are moving from the C-string to the A-string, the time of transition between strings is a moment during which we can release tension. Similarly, if we are playing a series of chords, it is important to release the weight slightly in the left hand between each chord. Casals’ statement opened my eyes to the constant interplay between tension and release as we play. However, the person that has most influenced the way in which I now think about anticipation and release is Janos Starker. Over the years I have observed many of his wonderful performances and masterclasses. I am always very impressed with his ability to pinpoint the exact cause of unnecessary tension in students.
How does one play octaves in tune?
Three aspects are important when practicing octaves:
- The ear
- The hand shape
- The ability to constantly adjust
The ultimate goal should be to play octaves in tune and in a very natural, intuitive way without thinking about it. Let me explain the role of each of these three components in relation to octaves in more depth.
- The ear (the inner ear) — No music can take place without hearing it first in the inner ear of your mind, which certainly applies to playing octaves. When visualizing octaves it can be very helpful to experiment hearing the octave passage at various volumes and with various voicings. It is helpful to visualize the octaves with the top note louder or with the bottom note louder. Musicians have to utilize the mind’s incredible ability to visualize when developing any technique. Great performers do it intuitively, but it can be practiced and developed by anybody.
- The hand shape — Practicing or playing octaves with an unbalanced hand shape makes it very difficult if not impossible to play in tune. The hand should move for octaves the way it does when closing into a fist and then opening all the way. The motion of the fingers when opening the hand should be the same as during a big shift from a high octave two octaves above the open strings down to an octave in first position. In the beginning it is easier to keep a good hand shape while shifting from a higher position to a lower position. It is also important to feel the hand as a unit instead of individual fingers. Visualize having a magical apple or small orange inside the hand that gets smaller and bigger as the hand expands or contracts.
- The ability to constantly adjust — When playing or practicing octaves, it’s important to have the feeling of constant motion. Cello students often play one octave and then feel like they have to jump to the next one. They don’t realize that connecting the two octaves should be one continuous motion that requires constant movement and adjustment. To help create this feeling, it is helpful to practice first with big audible slides while focusing and playing louder on the thumb. Focusing and listening more to the thumb makes playing octaves much easier.There are two reasons for focusing on the thumb: a) Since the thumb is always lower on the fingerboard in octaves, the distance between the half steps are larger. b) Playing louder on the lower note creates a better blend of the sound because the overtones of the lower note reinforce the sound of the higher note. It is the same as in chamber music when a cellist plays a uniform passage with the violins one octave above: in that situation the cello with the lower note should lead and be slightly louder.
To help get a feeling of continuously adjusting in octaves it can be very helpful to practice scales with artificial fourth harmonics while sliding between the notes. This is a highly recommended method of practicing since the artificial fourths are the same distance as octaves.
You’ve written on scales and scales are certainly emphasized in your teaching. Was there somebody in your own background that instilled your enthusiasm for scales?
No, it was actually the opposite. I never had a teacher that insisted on consistent technical training independent from the repertoire and I always missed working on the basics. I think it is extremely important for students to really know their basic technique, which can only happen if they practice scales, arpeggios, and double stops on a daily basis. The focus on fundamentals really helps to build a solid technical foundation. The challenge when teaching technique is to make sure that there is a specific goal in mind. Too often students practice technique without knowing exactly what they are trying to accomplish. One of the goals should be to master the scales, arpeggios, etc., at a high performance level with a specific sound and tempo in mind as the end result. I also stress the importance of performing a technical exercise as if were a concerto or sonata.
In your book on double stops, you recommend practicing double stops with a light touch of the left hand and a pianissimo dynamic with the bow. Why?
I recommend this method because it helps a student achieve independence between the two hands. Most people play double stops too loudly and they overpress with both hands. When playing loudly with the bow the natural instinct is to press with the left hand too; this tendency is completely unnecessary and frequently harmful. Practicing while playing softly with a light left hand gets the habit into a student’s system. Later, when projecting a big sound into a hall, he or she will be more aware of being light in the left hand and will only apply the necessary weight.
Earlier in my teaching career, I spent too much time telling students to play with a big, full sound before they had acquired healthy playing habits. Now I think it’s more important to first learn to be very comfortable with the instrument and to not worry about making it sound great right away. Once the student is comfortable, he or she can add other goals, such as making it sound wonderful.
I remember watching Ruggiero Ricci play in a dress rehearsal. He had just flown in from Europe and I could tell that he hadn’t warmed up that day. He looked absolutely relaxed, but it wasn’t perfect playing. After fifteen or twenty minutes he was warmed up and he sounded fantastic, but he looked the same as when he started. Most people tend to worry about making something sound great when they aren’t warmed up and they compensate by doing things that aren’t physically comfortable. I now believe that the player’s first priority should be to play in a manner that is physically comfortable and to guide the sound in a natural way instead of forcing it.
You mention lifting and dropping motion of the fingers in your first scale book. How does this relate to finger articulation?
It’s important to understand that one must lift something before it can fall. Many students focus on the downward motion of the fingers, which can result in audible hammering and using more energy than is needed.
Most young people have plenty of power and they use too much of it. Instead, when playing very fast, for example, one should play very lightly. Clear articulation in fast playing can be achieved by playing more on the fingertips and with a lighter touch. One doesn’t need to hammer the fingers to achieve clarity.
Put your left palm flat on the fingerboard and move the fingers really fast. The motion should be similar to what one does when one taps fingers nervously on a table. You’ll notice that the fingers are very loose. There should be a slight rotation in the hand, wrist, and arm, all done instinctively. Notice that it can be done for a long time without tiring. This is a good example of the amount of energy one should expend when playing fast. It doesn’t take much.
I should emphasize that it’s a bit dangerous to talk only about the fingers because the finger motion usually involves support from the arm, wrist, and hand. Try the same exercise while holding your left hand still with your other hand and you’ll find that your left hand tires out pretty quickly. No motion should be isolated to a single body part.
I recall you demonstrating the tennis ball trick at the last National Cello Congress. Is this what you use when teaching vibrato?
I use all the tricks of the trade. Tennis balls, grains of rice in matchboxes that are taped to the back of the hand, sliding napkins, and so on.
The tennis ball method is fantastic for many reasons. It’s a large object that’s feels very comfortable in the hand, so everybody feels relaxed when holding it. Students often struggle with vibrato in the beginning because their fingers are still weak. The fingers aren’t able to support the arm weight, which causes everything to subconsciously tense up and results in a tight vibrato. The tennis ball takes the weak fingers out of the equation so that the correct arm motion can be learned. Once a good vibrato is mastered with the tennis ball, the student will usually do it correctly when the ball is taken away.
What do you do when a student has a tight and nervous vibrato?
The first thing I do is have them play without vibrato for a week or two. If a student is doing vibrato with the wrong biomechanics, he or she has to forget everything and learn new feelings and functions. I don’t want them to relate their new vibrato to what they did before.
Bad vibrato can have more than one cause. They may be using too much wrist rotation or perhaps their bicep is too tight. Every student is different. Some learn how to do it properly after half an hour, while others may take six months. I had one student who finally figured it out after we worked on it for thirty minutes in every lesson for two years! We both needed a lot of patience.
Does vibrato change depending which string you are on?
This is a very interesting question. In my opinion, it is more important to adapt vibrato to the dynamics of the bow and character of the music than the particular string being played. However, vibrato and tone colors are very subjective topics; many cellists have different personal tastes that often change with time. The most important consideration is for string players to play their instruments in natural and intuitive ways, which allows them to adjust their sound throughout a particular piece. This ability is ultimately more important than thinking about specific theories, etc. In my teaching I use my ears and instincts more than any theory to judge what sounds good.
Are there any more objective guidelines that govern the use of vibrato?
From a scientific point of view, vibrato is controlled by 1) the bow (so it has to adapt to the factors that govern sound production such as speed, pressure and contact point) and 2) placement of the left-hand fingers on the string (size of the finger, the amount of the padded part of the finger used, the degree the hand slants or is perpendicular to the string, placement directly on top or inside the string, the weight applied with the left hand, etc.). In addition to all these factors, there are an infinite number of speed and amplitude choices for vibrato. As a result, it is very complicated to measure scientifically. In the end, the best way is still to use the ear and one’s natural instincts. I could talk in great detail about the interplay and importance of all the above factors, but it would be too long and detailed for this interview.
As I said before, the use of vibrato has more to do with personal taste, style, and the character of the music. However, since the A-string is much thinner and vibrates much faster than the thicker, slower vibrating C-string, it is clear to me that the vibrato and the use of the bow can’t be the same on the two strings. The C-string takes much more energy to get into vibration with the bow than the thinner A-string.
If we play a soft note on the A-string with a fast and narrow vibrato, it can have a nice and sweet quality. If we keep the vibrato the same and change the dynamic to f it sounds very thin and the sound does not work. In order to adjust to the louder dynamic, the vibrato has to intensify and get wider along with the louder dynamic. On the C-string, however, to get a very loud and energetic sound the vibrato has to be fast but more narrow than the vibrato used when playing loud on the A-string. It also requires a bit more weight from the left arm and hand to get it going. The reason for this difference is that the C-string is thicker and vibrates more slowly and has a slower reaction time, so a fast and wide vibrato on the C-string distorts the tone. For a softer, calm sound on the C-string, it usually works to vibrate slower and wider than on the A-string. For a softer dynamic the C-string can better handle the slower, wider vibrato. The same dynamic and vibrato on the A-string sounds totally out of focus and out of balance.
One final observation, vibrato is produced on a stringed instrument by changing the pitch. Therefore, as the distance between the notes gets smaller in the higher registers, the vibrato also has to narrow accordingly. However, since composers very often use the high registers of the A-string as the climax of a phrase, the vibrato sometimes does not follow the rule of getting narrower as we go up higher on the string. That rule only applies if we want the sound to stay the same. The rule of getting narrower as we go up the strings applies to all strings.
Are there any specific examples you can give of times in which a performer’s vibrato really struck you as well executed?
I often play recordings for my students so that we may discuss this sort of question. As an example I have compared recordings of the first fifteen bars of the Brahms E minor sonata done by great cellists such as Emanuel Feuermann, Pierre Fournier and Jacqueline du Pré. The opening of the Brahms E minor Sonata is particularly interesting because it first uses the C-string and then the A-string. After listening to various recordings over and over, I noticed that each of the performers employs a unique combination of vibratos. Feuermann uses a fast, quite narrow vibrato on the theme and continues it onto the A-string. As the phrase goes up the A-string and makes a crescendo, Feuermann does not change the speed or width very much. Fournier uses a slightly slower vibrato than Feuermann on the theme, but still keeps it quite narrow. When he goes to the A-string, however, his vibrato gets wider and more intense as he goes up the string. du Pré’s vibrato, on the other hand, is very energetic on the themequite fast, but a tiny bit wider than Feuermann”s. Her dynamic for the theme is also the loudest. When she goes to the A-string she starts out with less vibrato and as she goes up towards the high C the vibrato gets wider, becoming more and more energetic. On the top note she uses the widest and slowest vibrato.
It is clear from this example that Feuermann does not change his vibrato very much from the C-string to the A-string. Fournier and du Pré use a faster, narrower vibrato on the C-string and a wider vibrato on the A-string.
Though you talked a lot about the left hand at the last National Cello Congress, you also discussed the bow arm. One thing you mentioned is that whole bows can be visualized as being done in figure-8’s.
Yes, there are several images that can be helpful, including figure-8’s. Other examples are the image of a flying saucer or an oval shape. As one nears the tip, the elbow raises itself up and the hand traces a counterclockwise path as it changes direction.
Do you give your students a step-by-step explanation of how the bow arm should move during a whole bow?
The easiest way to demonstrate how the arm and hand move during a whole bow is to hold the bow on any string at the tip with the left hand, parallel to the bridge. Now move the right arm back and forth, touching the bow lightly without moving the bow. This should be done on all four strings and three pairs of strings. By tracing the arm and hand in this way, one will experience the most natural and comfortable arm motion. The player with long arms will see that the arm does not extend entirely and the player with the shorter arm will see how the forearm opens all the way. Each player will have a slightly different movement pattern depending on the length of the arm. The shorter the arm the more it will pronate as it moves towards the tip.
How do you train a person to bow without overpressing?
I teach my students to listen to how they actually sound and to watch how the string behaves when played with different tensions. I make sure they notice when the string vibrates the widest and most freely and to notice how it sounds at that moment. Then I tell them to add too much weight so that they can see how the sound changes and how the string vibrates less.
George Neikrug once said in a master class, “Pull the bow downbow. Pull the bow upbow.” I love this explanation because it demonstrates that we should maintain the same relationship with the string no matter which direction we are bowing. It should have the same feeling both ways.
Do you encourage the use of the feet and legs when playing?
Definitely. In order to maintain balance when performing it is important to be aware of the use of the lower body. When talking about how to create a big sound, most people mention the back muscles and natural arm weight, but I also think it’s important that the entire body be used. A ball can be thrown farther if the entire body is engaged as opposed to just the arm. Watch a pitcher in a baseball game and you’ll see that the throw starts in the feet and travels through the entire body, finally ending in the fingertips. Similarly, if one wants to play with a loud sound on the cello, the entire body should be involved. The motion should start in the legs and flow through the body and into the arms, finally being released through the hand, fingers, and bow into the string.
How do you help students get the most out of their practice sessions so that they don’t just mindlessly repeat things over and over?
The first thing I do with a new student is teach him or her how to practice. I see a student one hour per week, so it’s important that he or she make the most of the fifteen or twenty hours per week that he or she is alone with the cello.
I teach my students an endless number of practice methods to use in their private practice sessions. Most know about them already, i.e. slow work, metronome work, artistic concept practice, etc., so I won’t list them here. The one strategy that is common to all of them is the importance of setting specific goals. There should be goals for each session, goals for the day, the week, and the longer term. The challenge is to work on many levels at once. It’s too easy to focus only on the short term or the long term, so setting intermediate goals is important too. If you focus only on the short term, you can slow your progress because you either focus too much time on something like mastering a single shift or you fluster yourself with too many details. If you focus too much on the long term goal, you tend to gloss over the detailed work at hand. A balanced approach of short, mid, and long term goals is best.
For example, I have a student who is playing in a competition next week. She also has a recital in six weeks. She then has another competition one month after the recital with different repertoire. She came into her lesson this week having worked only on the items for next week’s competition. I told her to spend twenty to thirty percent of her time preparing for her recital in six weeks, ten to fifteen percent preparing for the later competition, another ten percent on daily technical work, and the rest on next week’s competition. By working on multiple goals at once, she won’t have to panic as each deadline approaches. The result will be better and more consistent performances later.
Do you encourage your students to constantly engage their analytical sides when playing?
If you are referring to technique, no, the ideal way to play an instrument is like a gypsy musician. These people have no formal technical training to speak of, but somehow they are able to do amazing things intuitively. In the end we all need to do less talking and analyzing and to just find the simplicity that is within us all.
How does one attain this? We are trained for decades to be mindful of the smallest details in our technique. How are we to all of a sudden forget all that and just play?
It isn’t easy, but it should be our goal. The more I teach the less I talk about things that don’t need to be mentioned. If a person does the right thing automatically, why discuss it? And when somebody masters and internalizes a new skill, I see no reason to keep bringing it up. Once something works, we should try not to think about it anymore.
If you pick up an object without thinking about it, you use a perfectly natural motion. If you start thinking about which muscles are involved in the motion, it will not be as free and natural. Similarly, once a specific skill is learned it is important to practice performing it without thinking about the muscles involved. I often talk to my students as they play in lessons to help take their attention away from thinking about what they are doing. It frees them up and gives them a chance to spend more of their attention on shaping the music and playing with feeling and expression.
At what point do you start discussing musical issues with your students?
In the beginning I concentrate more on how to use the body and how to get comfortable with the cello. As a student improves technically, I discuss music more and more. It is very different from student to student. Some always need a lot of technical help while others need a lot of musical help.
What do you emphasize when discussing the music?
It depends on the student. Younger students are not interested in spending hours analyzing the harmonies of a Bach Suite. I’ll discuss music theory here and there with them, but mostly in terms of tension and release as well as different emotions and colors. With the younger students I also try to relate it to other things that interest them.
The more advanced a student is, the more I want him or her to understand what is going on intellectually and musically. It is important to understand the style, tonality, harmonic relationships, form, and character of a work. It is also extremely important to study the whole work: in a sonata to really know the piano part and in a concerto the orchestra part. In addition to listening to recordings with a score, I encourage students to practice their sonatas from the piano part so that they are familiar with their role in the piece.
The funny thing is that there are students who have no idea what they are doing, but they seem to have an intuitive understanding of how music should be played. Then there are others who understand the music in painstaking detail but can’t seem to translate their understanding to beautiful music-making. Sometimes it is helpful to make students who are too analytical to feel and think about the music in emotional terms away from the instrument. On the other hand, understanding what they are doing musically makes those who are intuitive play even better.
For example, understanding the harmony in the Allemande to the Fifth Suite gives the music much more meaning. As in all the Bach Suites, the first half of all the dance movements modulates to the dominant. In all Allemandes in the cello suites (except the fifth suite), Bach indicates very early in the first half of the movement that he is moving towards the dominant. In the 5th suite, Bach instead keeps us in suspense in the first half by including an F minor cadence in bar 9 without any indication that he is moving towards G major (see Figure 1). That compositional strategy helps create a feeling of mystery. All of a sudden four bars before the end of the first half Bach unexpectedly adds the C from the previous bars’ c minor as the 7th in D Major (see Figure 2). Now we finally know that we are modulating to G major. This kind of knowledge helps a performer shape the Allemande with more insight.
The older I get, the more important harmony becomes. It’s very satisfying to have a strong sense of the harmony since it helps our understanding of a composer’s compositional goals.
I recently gave a master class on the fifth Beethoven Sonata. It’s very interesting to notice that the last fifteen bars of the first movement and the last nineteen bars of the slow movement have the same basic harmonic progression. In these two sections Beethoven creates a feeling of suspense and a sense of taking us to another world by using a daring and unusual harmonic progression. In the last fifteen bars of the first movement, he also adds to the sense of suspense by writing simultaneous whole notes for the cello and the right hand of the piano, while the left hand of the piano plays a haunting chromatic pp tremolo in sixteenth notes. In the slow movement, he extends the same harmonic progression by four bars, but makes the suspended tonality even more powerful and otherworldly by slowing down the tempo. For me the most beautiful place in this section and in this sonata is bar 71, where the cello plays F-D-G-F-F-E flat on top of the harmonies of B-flat Major-G Major-c minor and then back to B-flat Major (see Figure 3). It is a moment of the deepest tenderness and beauty. These two extended cadence sections in the end of the first and second movements unify and connect the whole sonata. In both sections Beethoven is going towards D Major, but he uses it in the first movement to finish the sonata in the main key and in the second movement to set up the D major fugue subject of the last movement.
Absolutely. A good rule of thumb is to crescendo if the line goes up and to decrescendo if it goes down. There are exceptions of course, but it’s a good place to start. It’s even better for them to analyze the harmonies and to look at the piece structurally, including whether a phrase is a two-bar, four-bar, or eight-bar phrase. Students play much more musically with this level of understanding.
Do you primarily encourage your older students to do this?
No, I teach some very basic analytical skills to my younger students too, like understanding phrase lengths. One cannot play a phrase well without understanding how it is structured. Even a six year old can grasp this concept.
Your students do very well in competitions. I recall at the last National Cello Congress that your students won most of the top honors at the ASTA Competition that year. How do you do it?
Competitions are very useful teaching tools since they force and inspire students to practice with much more focus than they would otherwise. However, I always emphasize with students that the purpose of the competition is not to win, but to have a practice goal. If they win, great, if they lose, it doesn’t matter. It’s human nature to work harder when competing with other people, and I use this instinct to my students’ advantage.
Musical competitions are actually silly in a certain way and I try to make sure my students understand that one plays music for much more important reasons. Having said this, because competitions are such good motivators, I think they do more good than harm.
What do you do with students who don’t want to enter competitions or maybe aren’t expecting to have a music career?
I only encourage those students who like to compete to enter these events. Not all my students do, so we find other motivating goals, such as preparing for orchestra auditions, auditions for summer festivals, small concerts in churches and retirement homes, recitals, and master classes. Having performance goals is very important for all musicians and performers. It’s important to remember that we are learning and developing our craft to perform and enrich the lives of other people.
As I have said throughout this interview, every student must be treated as an individual. What works for one student may not work for another. My job is to recognize the differences and figure out what I can do to help each one become the best cellist and musician that their talents and desires will allow. This is what makes my work so endlessly fascinating.