Interview by Tim Janof
Laurence Lesser, president emeritus of the New England Conservatory (NEC) has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as a concert artist, teacher and arts administrator. He served as president of NEC for 13 years, from 1983 to 1996. He was a top prizewinner in the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and a participant in the historic Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts and recordings. He has been soloist with many orchestras including the Boston Symphony, London Philharmonic, and the New Japan Philharmonic. He has performed under the batons of Ozawa, Rostropovich, and Tilson Thomas, among others. He was the first to record the Schoenberg Cello Concerto, and in 1966 was the first to perform it with orchestra since its 1938 introduction by Emanuel Feuermann.
As a chamber musician Laurence Lesser has participated at the Casals, Marlboro, Spoleto, and Santa Fe festivals; in the last decade he has been a regular contributor to the artistic life of the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.
Mr. Lesser attended Harvard where he studied mathematics and graduated with honors. Upon his return to music he was greeted by Pablo Casals at the Zermatt Master Classes with the words, “Thank God, who has given you such talent!” At the end of a Fulbright year studying music in Germany, he won first prize in the Cassadó Competition in Siena, Italy. His New York debut recital in 1969 was greeted as “triumphant.”
In a life filled with successful concerts, Mr. Lesser has always been passionate about teaching. He came to the New England Conservatory in 1974 as a member of the faculty after being a teaching assistant of Gregor Piatigorsky at the University of Southern California and spending four years at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He currently teaches an international class of highly gifted cellists at NEC, and was the subject of the cover story in the July/August 1997 issue of “Strings” magazine.
Mr. Lesser plays a 1622 cello made by the brothers Amati in Cremona, Italy. He has recorded on the RCA, Columbia, Melodyia and CRI labels.
TJ: When did you start playing the cello?
LL: In 1944, I received a cello for my sixth birthday in my hometown of Los Angeles. Los Angeles was a remarkable place at that time, musically speaking, because it was the home of the Hollywood motion picture industry. Every studio had a full-time, full-sized contract symphony orchestra, and many of the musicians were wonderfully trained Europeans who had come to the United States because of the Holocaust. Since their studio jobs weren’t that demanding or artistically satisfying, many chose to teach on the side or to play in chamber music concerts. The musical life in Los Angeles, particularly in the 1940’s and well into the 1950’s, was remarkably rich.
My first teacher of any length of time was a man named Gregory Aller, whose daughter was Eleanor Aller, cellist in the Hollywood String Quartet. Gregory Aller, whose born name was actually Altschuler, was a cousin of a famous Russian, also a cellist, named Modest, who came to New York in the first part of the 20th century and conducted a Russian-émigrés orchestra. The name “Aller” came about because Gregory didn’t want to have the same name as his famous cousin, so he took the first 2 letters and the last 3 letters of “Altschuler” and compressed them. That’s where Eleanor Aller got her name.
I studied with Gregory Aller for over 4 years, when he was in his late 70’s. By that time, when I was 12 or 13 years old I underwent what many kids do at that age; I rebelled against being told to practice by my parents. My teacher wasn’t sure what to do with me.
Gregory Aller was an amateur chess player and he used to play at a chess club where Piatigorsky’s wife, Jacqueline, was a regular. Jacqueline Piatigorsky, by the way, now 89 years old, was one of the great chess players in the United States, at one time ranked Number 2 among US women, and a great supporter of all things chess. In any case, Mr. Piatigorsky used to go to the club and kibbitz, even though he wasn’t much of a chess player. One day Gregory Aller ran into Piatigorsky at the club and asked him if he would listen to me play, which he agreed to do. So the meeting was arranged, not that I was too happy about it.
When we met, it became very apparent to Piatigorsky that I was there under protest. When Piatigorsky asked my parents why I seemed so unhappy, they explained that my impression was that playing for him was tantamount to being “sentenced” to becoming a professional cellist. In other words, if I played for him, I would have to become a cellist. Piatigorsky, in my first encounter with him as a great psychologist, looked at me and said, “Well, what makes you think, Larry, that you could become a professional cellist?” His challenge pretty much sealed my doom!
Piatigorsky suggested that I change teachers, even though he liked Gregory Aller, because he thought that a new teacher might stimulate me. At that time Gabor Rejto, who then taught at the Eastman School of Music, also taught at the Santa Barbara Music Academy in the summers. So in the summer of 1953 I attended the Music Academy at age 14.
After studying with Gabor Rejto for a summer, it became clear that I shouldn’t go back to Aller, so it was arranged for me to study with Kurt Reher, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and former pupil of Feuermann. Kurt and his violist brother, Sven, were the ones for whom Hindemith wrote his duo for viola and cello. I ended up studying with Kurt Reher for a year.
The following summer I drove up to Santa Barbara for lessons with Gabor Rejto, who soon after moved to Los Angeles and joined the faculty of the University of Southern California (USC). I then studied with him full-time until I graduated from high school in 1956.
At that point I was also very interested in mathematics. I almost went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but I decided that I wanted a school with a stronger music program (MIT is much stronger in the humanities now than it was back then), so I ended up going to Harvard. In my first year I had lessons about once a month with Maurice Eisenberg at the Longy School. Eisenberg was a protégé of Casals and the author of Cello Playing of Today. I was introduced to Eisenberg through Wolfe Wolfinsohn, former leader of the Stradivarius String Quartet and uncle of a pianist I often played chamber music with in Los Angeles.
At that time I was very confused about whether I would pursue a career in math or music, so I decided to take a year off from college in order to give myself some time to sort things out. I went back to Los Angeles and enrolled at USC so that I could again study with Gabor Rejto. I had two important realizations during that semester: first was that I missed the high quality education I was getting at Harvard, and second was that my family didn’t have the money and they couldn’t afford to keep me in school.
While thinking about my predicament, I got a job playing in a New York based pops orchestra called the “Manhattan Concerts Orchestra” which, in 7 weeks, traveled 12,000 miles by chartered bus and played 53 concerts. We left from New York City, snaked our way down the eastern seaboard, and went as far west as Roswell, New Mexico, before meandering back to New York City. At that point it became clear to me that I wanted to go back to Harvard, which, with the help of the money I had earned and from student loans, my parents could now afford. Soon after my return to Harvard I made up my mind that I wanted to pursue music as a career. During my three remaining years at Harvard, I had occasional lessons with Leonard Rose in New York City before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in 1961.
I then applied for a Fulbright grant to go to Germany. I wanted to go to Germany because I’m Jewish and I wanted to understand how a country that had created so much of our most revered classical music could also perpetrate some of the most horrific acts in human history. I was given the scholarship and I indicated that I wanted to go to a major cultural center like Berlin, Munich, or Hamburg. The scholarship committee told me that I should go to Cologne because the most interesting person teaching in Germany at the time was Gaspar Cassadó. I told them that I didn’t want to go to such a provincial town, but they indicated that it was either Cologne or no Fulbright. I had some thinking to do.
I had long talks with Piatigorsky about my situation. He was not my teacher but he had been very supportive of me throughout my teen years. He remembered Cassadó from the 1920’s when they were both in Berlin, which had been the music capital of Europe at that time. He told me of the time he wandered into a theater because he had seen a poster of a cellist and a tenor who were sharing a recital there. The cellist was Cassadó and the tenor was Benjamino Gigli, perhaps the greatest tenor of the 20th century. He said the concert was extraordinary. Anyway, Piatigorsky encouraged me to go to Cologne. So after attending Casals’ master classes in Zermatt, I went to Cologne and studied with Cassadó for a year.
After the year with Cassadó I had to return home because my draft deferment was running out. The draft board had reluctantly granted me a deferment because of my Fulbright scholarship, which was strange because one branch of government was offering me this fabulous opportunity to study abroad while another branch didn’t want me to take it. You’d think they’d get their stories straight. Unfortunately I returned home just after the Cuban missile crisis, so it was a very scary time and I was certain that I would have to join the Army. I didn’t want to join the military, so I tried to get a job as a mathematician with the idea that it was an Essential Industry and the draft board would give me a working deferment. I was offered a half-time job at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, as a mathematical assistant to an astronomer, and I approached the draft board with my case. They said “no” because it wasn’t a full-time job.
I then talked with Piatigorsky about my situation. He had started teaching full-time at USC in January of 1962, so he said, “Why don’t you come and study with me?” I did and the University gave me a student deferment. I started with Piatigorsky in January of 1963 and in the fall of the same year he asked me to become his assistant, which I did until I left in 1970. I then joined the faculty of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where I stayed for four years. Then I joined the faculty of New England Conservatory in Boston, where I have been ever since.
TJ: You mentioned at the last National Cello Congress that Piatigorsky wanted you to pursue a performing career before you started teaching. He said, “Only somebody who is rich can give something away.” You ended up joining the faculty at Peabody after your time with him. In retrospect, do you feel like you made the right decision?
LL: In my Los Angeles and Baltimore years I was very active as a performer. I had a lot of concerto dates because of the Tchaikovsky Competition prize and I played regularly at the New York Chamber Music Society. Teaching was not only something I always loved, but it was a way to earn a living. It’s hard, by the way, to think of more than a couple cellists who haven’t combined teaching with concert life. Just think of the importance of Piatigorsky, Rose and Rostropovich as teachers! And, I still am active as a performer, although I travel somewhat less than I used to.
In general, anyway, I think one must be very careful about pigeon-holing people. You can’t say that Feuermann was just a technician any more than you can say Szigeti was just a musical player. The same holds true with performers – and whether they are “chamber music artists” or “soloists.”
TJ: Let’s talk in more detail about some of the people you mentioned. Let’s start with Gabor Rejto. I’ve heard that he emphasized music more than technique in his teaching.
LL: I think every teacher tries to teach technique in some way or other, and he certainly discussed it with me. But he was preoccupied with issues of interpretation and musical values. He was a very musical man and played in a very musical way, so we played a lot of the standard repertoire — Bach, the “Arpeggione” Sonata, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on. I didn’t work on virtuoso pieces like Popper’s Spinning Song, since he was much more interested in music than flashy virtuosity.
TJ: What about Maurice Eisenberg?
LL: I saw him only 8 or 9 times in the entire year, so I wouldn’t do him justice. We also didn’t quite hit it off.
TJ: So from whom did you get the notion of taking advantage of gravity when bowing and fingering? Was it Leonard Rose?
LL: No, that didn’t come until later. Leonard Rose was very keen on good intonation and the “paintbrush technique” for bowing. He also used the Galamian method for scale work. He was a rich hued kind of player with a beautiful sound, which he tried to develop in me too. I only had a few lessons with him, however.
TJ: Then came Cassadó.
LL: Cassadó was, in some ways, a child-like person. When I first went to him, his old rivalry with Piatigorsky was somewhat re-awakened. Even though Piatigorsky had not yet been my teacher, Cassadó felt that Piatigorsky had sent me to him.
In the 1920’s there were three young Turks in the cello world — Piatigorsky, Feuermann, and Cassadó. They knew that each was a great player and they were a bit jealous of each other’s successes. Cassadó’s career in the United States was largely unfulfilled, so I think he was jealous of Piatigorsky’s success here. He wanted to prove himself to me – that he was the best of the lot.
There were a few things that were very characteristic of his playing. First of all, he was at the very highest technical level on the instrument of anybody I have ever encountered. I never heard Feuermann live, but I think that in a great many ways Cassadó was his equal. In the cello profession we generally speak about Feuermann as the ne plus ultra, instrumentally speaking, and I’m not going to dispute that, but Cassadó was quite exceptional. He had strong hands that were shaped something like Casals’, though they were bigger. He used an extraordinarily strong and clear articulation in the left hand, which he achieved by hammering the string, like Casals did. Studying with him resulted in my left hand becoming much stronger and more definite and precise. My hand also took on a more structured, arched shape.
When he first met me, Cassadó told me that he had been known as the “Kreisler of the Cello” as a young man because of his liberal use of portamenti (audible slides). He said that he didn’t play that way anymore because he had come to the conclusion that “if an oboe can play beautifully without a glissando, we should be able to too.” He therefore had completely renounced portamenti in his playing. The downside of his new approach was that a lot of his students had a very stiff and jerky shifting technique. I objected to this, saying, “Maestro, when I watch you shift you move in a supple fashion. Why do you teach your students to do otherwise?” Cassadó was not able to explain things technically but his example was very enlightening.
Cassadó is well known for the various contraptions on his cello and bow. He played with a big cork sleeve on the frog of his bow — about an inch and a half in diameter — so that when he gripped the bow he didn’t touch the frog at all. He was trying to maximize his power and the cork gave him more leverage. Unfortunately, I feel this resulted in his tone sounding somewhat choked.
He had played on a Strad cello when he was younger but at this point in his life he had a Vuillaume. He had installed an extra strong bass bar and an adjustable fingerboard with an element like a skate key in the neck, so that he could raise or lower the fingerboard without ever having to change the bridge. This was a boon for people who traveled throughout the world and couldn’t find good luthiers to work on their instruments. If he was in a place that was very humid, he could raise the fingerboard to compensate for the expanding bridge; if it was very dry, he could lower it.
He also had a contraption in place of the tailpiece that consisted of a steel frame to which were attached four three-eighths to half-inch diameter springs of different lengths so that each string could have an adjustable pressure. He believed that he could get more sound out of the instrument because the strings were allowed to vibrate more freely. Someone had persuaded him that ordinary strings just strung over a bridge and attached to a tailpiece wouldn’t do the job.
He also had the tailpiece, or at least what replaced the tailpiece, raised off the face of the cello so that the strings were the same distance from the face of the cello at the tailpiece-end as they were at the nut at top of the neck. He did this because the pressure of the strings would go more straight down into the instrument through the bridge. Again, he felt that this would increase the sound he got out of his cello. He had all these crazy contraptions and many of his students did the same thing to their instruments. I didn’t use any of them.
But I must also say that there were moments in his playing that were sublimely beautiful. He was a very special artist.
TJ: Then you studied with Piatigorsky. In your profile in Strings you describe him as an “intuitively natural player.” Is this a diplomatic way of saying that he wasn’t a very good teacher?
LL: Absolutely not! Piatigorsky wasa major influence on my ideas about technique and music-making. He constantly spoke about the cello as being a one-note instrument. In order to play one note well on the cello you needed a lot of technique, whereas anybody could play one note on the piano. No, he wasn’t the type of teacher who would tell you how to move each finger, but he was a profound psychological teacher who had a deep philosophical influence on his students. He had a remarkable ability to get to the core internal issues that were impeding our progress. He had a lot of students who went on to have successful careers, so he must have been doing something right.
My statement was referring more to his playing, not his teaching. Of all the teachers I had studied with, with the possible exception of Cassadó, Piatigorsky was the most natural player. He would hold a cello in his hands and it wouldn’t cross your mind that he actually had struggled to learn how to play it because he was so beautiful to watch. If you look at those old films of him playing, it seems like he was born to play the cello.
People who accomplish great instrumental mastery at very early ages often don’t think about how they do it because they don’t have to. They just learn how to play and they take the process for granted. Fortunately for us, Piatigorsky was a man of great curiosity and he tried very hard to figure out how to get his students to do what he thought was right. By the time I came to him, he rarely performed, so teaching was very important to him.
He taught in a masterclass format all day Thursdays and all day Sundays in a classroom in the Clark House at USC. We would arrive at 9:30 in the morning and we kept going until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We didn’t take lunch breaks, so we’d eat our lunches while watching others play. He did, too. He also invited one or two of us each week for a private lesson at his home when he felt we needed some extra help.
He thought that time was short to attain mastery, so it was imperative that we learn as much as we could as quickly as we could. As a result, he expected us to at least be on the road to being able to play any piece that any other student was studying, which meant that we had to work on other students’ pieces as well as our own. This was a tremendous time saver for him and us, since, when combined with his master class teaching format, it meant that we were all learning several pieces at the same time. He didn’t have to repeat himself over and over again as each student took on a piece that had already been discussed in class.
He hated the idea of giving bowings and fingerings because he wanted us to think for ourselves and to explore our own musical ideas. He would never ask us to copy him. If he didn’t like something we did, he would use it as a topic for discussion as to why it wasn’t good. The great benefit of this approach was that no two students of his sounded the same, which is something he was very proud of.
He did have some specific ideas about the left hand. One was he believed that every finger should be able to play any note anywhere on the cello and the sound shouldn’t vary with different fingers. He had a finger replacement exercise for this that I still give my own students. As an example, play D on the A-string with the second finger, using vibrato and a long slow bow. Then change to any other finger or the thumb, but do it without being able to hear the fingers change. There should be no break or change in the sound of the D. In order to do this the fingers must replace one another in a very subtle way, and you need to take advantage of vibrato and some bow technique in order to help disguise the change. No, he didn’t tell us precisely how to do it, but he did demonstrate it for us, which is ultimately all any teacher does. Somehow we all learned how to do it.
He did not emphasize scale patterns and arpeggios in his teaching. He believed that when you learn a scale with a set fingering you are stuck with just one possibility. In “real” music, when the rhythm of the notes is different from the patterns you have been practicing, your predetermined scale fingering will be of little use.. He therefore liked the idea of playing scales with ever-changing fingerings, which were modified according to the rhythms being practiced.
As for the bow, he believed that one stroked the strings with the bow, which was similar to Leonard Rose’s paintbrush technique, though it wasn’t as explicitly stated. His basic notion was that the strings are made to vibrate from side to side, so one should push and pull the strings to the side instead of pressing them down with the bow. Again, Piatigorsky may never have explained it in these words, but somehow his students learned how to do it.
TJ: I recently read an interview with Yosif Feigelson. He said, Piatigorsky “was never so close to technical perfection as Rostropovich. There’s no question that he was a charming player, but I don’t think he was a very strong technician on the cello.” What do you think about this statement?
LL: I’m not sure that it’s fair. Each of us has a different technical profile and everybody finds a technique that expresses what he or she is able to do. As for “charm,” no doubt he had more of it when it was appropriate than a great many other players, but his overall musicality was direct and profound. If, for example, you listen to his recording of the Schumann Concerto, it is both simple and deep. As for the technique itself, there are some extraordinary early recordings of Piatigorsky in which you’d say “My God, how does he do that?”
TJ: He certainly plays the Haydn Divertimento well.
LL: Yes, he does. He wrote that transcription so that it worked well with his particular technique. I never heard Piatigorsky play Elfentanz, a Rostropovich standard that clearly matches Rostropovich’s own technical talents, so it’s not easy to compare the two. Then again, I’ve never heard anybody with a downbow staccato like Piatigorsky’s. Does this mean that one cellist is better than the other? Who knows? Who cares? They’ve both have earned their place in history. And, anyway, should we just be measuring the importance of a player by his technique? It’s the total artist we care about.
TJ: One of your guiding principles with the left hand is that the fingers should be perpendicular to the floor, not the fingerboard, thus taking advantage of gravity as much as possible. “Perpendicular” in this case refers to the orientation of the plane that is formed by a curved finger relative to the floor, not that one necessarily points the fingertips perpendicular to the floor. Is this something that Piatigorsky discussed?
LL: First of all, I should say that none of my technical “ideas” are used constantly. They are more like guiding principals, to use when useful. As for Piatigorsky, I’m not sure if he ever explicitly stated it, but I’m sure that I got it from him, perhaps by watching him play. Of course he’s not the only one who played or plays this way. Both Feuermann and Piatigorsky did it. Gerhard Mantel devotes a chapter to this idea in his book, Cello Technique.
One of the best ways of learning how to play the cello is to watch how wonderful players play, which is something that I encourage my students to do too. If you look at any fantastic player, from Jascha Heifetz, with whom I played and whom I saw from a distance of three feet many times, to Piatigorsky to Primrose to Casals, you will see that there are many ways in which they resemble each other, technically speaking. Of course there are the usual exceptions, like Joseph Szigeti, who was an extraordinarily great artist, despite the fact that he was an awkward player. But talking physically about the instrument, certain commonalities are apparent in many great players, like playing with fingers that are “perpendicular.”
There are people who play with fingers that are perpendicular to the fingerboard, as if they are playing the cello like it’s a piano. I don’t do this because I think that it’s a waste of energy. You have to expend extra energy to keep your hand from over-rotating if you play this way. With fingers perpendicular to the ground, you can more efficiently channel gravity directly into the string. By the way, since the piano keyboard is horizontal, they also do what I am talking about.
TJ: Where is the thumb when you play like this?
LL: Most kids are taught to put the thumb opposite the second finger. I was, too. I don’t agree with this. Generally speaking, I believe that the thumb should be toward a lower numbered finger than the playing finger, i.e. a little closer to the scroll than the playing finger.
The thumb in the left hand acts like the balancing pole of a tightrope walker. If your left hand is aligned so that its weight is resting on the string, then the thumb helps you to balance your hand on the fingerboard. If the thumb were opposite the playing finger your natural instinct would be to clutch or grip the cello’s neck, which is a waste of energy and will result in a tense and more easily fatigued hand; you get little in return for this extra energy expenditure.
Your vibrato will improve if the thumb isn’t opposite the playing finger. In my opinion, vibrato is most beautiful when it only goes up to the pitch and then retreats from it. Therefore, vibrato should not oscillate symmetrically about the playing finger. This is prevented when one places the thumb closer to a lower-numbered finger than the playing finger so that the vibrato motion then becomes a process of stretching towards the pitch and relaxing back away from it.
TJ: Does the thumb touch the neck?
LL: It touches the neck only lightly on the opposite side of the neck from where your fingers are positioned. For example, if you are playing on the A string, the pad of your thumb should be more towards the C string. Imagine holding a coin between your thumb and middle finger; you hold it on the ends of its diameter. The problem with this analogy is that a coin is planar, which forces your thumb and middle finger to be exactly opposite each other, which is not what I advocate.
A very important point to remember is that your wrist should not cave in. In fact, I believe that both wrists should be flat or just a bit arched upwards. This means that your fingers need to be fairly rounded too. Your hand then forms sort of a rotating cylinder around the neck as you go from string to string. Having a somewhat flat wrist and curved fingers enables one to produce clear left-hand articulation, which Cassadó believed came from the knuckles nearest the hand. He had me work on finger exercises (i.e. 1-2-3-4, 1-3-2-4, 1-4-3-4, etc) that stressed picking the fingers up, not putting them down. His approach really freed up my hand.
TJ: Speaking of knuckles, do you believe that the fingers in the left hand should be flat or somewhat curved? I’m thinking primarily about when playing in thumb position, but I suppose the question could apply to the lower positions as well.
LL: Before getting into the details, I should say that my basic belief is that, if a certain technique serves you well, it’s good. One can come up with all sorts of theories about why one approach is better than another, but the only thing that really matters is whether or not your technique serves the music and you are able to achieve your artistic vision. And this applies to everything I’ve been saying. If you don’t play well when you apply the things I’ve been saying, then please try something else! One really limits oneself if one maintains a fixed point of view about how to play the instrument. Every student that comes to me has a unique body, personality, and soul. My job as a teacher is to try to understand the individual and then to figure out what might work best for them. Yes, I have some guiding principles that have served me and my students well over the years, but they are not rigid. I don’t want students to just copy me obediently.
So now back to your question about knuckles. The curvature of your fingers should vary depending on the demands of the music. Let’s compare the first solo bar of the Haydn D Major concerto (see Example 1) with the first bar of Schelomo (see Example 2). I would expect the hand to take on a different shape for each passage, even though they are in the same region of the cello. In the Haydn, I would play with a more rounded hand and fingers so that I can produce a very clean, articulate, and yet warm sound that is more appropriate for the Classical style. In the opening of Schelomo, I would play with a flatter and fleshier finger and a flatter hand. The music is what matters, so ideas on technique should not become a rigid ideology.
TJ: You also talk a lot about taking advantage of gravity in the bow arm.
LL: I believe that most cellists have a kind of inferiority complex about how much sound they can produce. Much of the time they are drowned out by orchestras that are too loud or pianists who are insensitive. The seemingly intuitive solution to this problem is to just press harder. Unfortunately, there is a natural limit to how much sound a cello can make, whether it’s a Strad or a soapbox.
If you want an instrument to sound well in a large concert hall, it seems to me that the only hope you have is to create a sound that is resonant. When we perform, we are usually playing inside some kind of resonant box — a practice room, an auditorium, or a concert hall. Cellists don’t do well outdoors without the aid of a microphone, since our frequency range doesn’t carry well there and the limited sound we do create dissipates too quickly; brass bands work well outside because they create an enormous amount of sound. So when a cellist plays inside a resonant box, a sound wave travels through the air, interacts with the acoustics of the space, and travels into the ear of somebody who is sitting inside the box.
If you press down too hard on the string with the bow you will get a sound that doesn’t travel far even though it seems very loud under your ear. Similarly, if you take a rock and throw it directly into water, it will make a lot of commotion at the point of entry but the enormous amount of energy won’t travel a great distance, at least not in any coherent manner. But if you take the same rock and you carefully drop it into the water, it will make concentric rings that travel to “infinity.” Over-pressing ruins one’s projection.
TJ: One of the concerns I’ve heard about this approach is that you eliminate a number of colors from your sound palette, like the more gutsy timbres. One might want a more gritty, in-the-string sound when playing the Shostakovich Piano Trio, for example. You can’t achieve these by using a technique that strives for ideal resonance.
LL: Of course, the demands of the music must always come first. When one delves into musical issues there may be times when you want to produce a sound that is choked or forced, though I think these times are more the exception than the rule. But if you’re talking about basic tone production, I believe that you need to play the instrument in a way that saves your strength and your physicality for when you truly need it, and allows your instrument to sing as freely and as resonantly as possible. To do this you should take advantage of the ever-present gravity. Therefore I recommend playing with left-hand fingers that are perpendicular to the ground and maximizing the use of controlled arm weight when bowing.
TJ: Carter Brey, one of your former students and the current principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, mentioned that you held the bow higher in your hand, more in your fingertips. After watching and listening to Rostropovich, he experimented with a hold that was deeper in his hand. He found that he was able to achieve sounds that he wasn’t able to achieve with your “finger-tip grip.”
LL: I think I play with a rather deep hold on the bow, actually. My approach is certainly different from Rostropovich’s. Rostropovich plays with a low elbow and really drags down on the instrument. Part of this probably has to do with his bent endpin, which raises the cello so that it’s more horizontal.
Carter only studied with me for two years, so I’m not sure that I had the time to get deep enough into some of these issues with him. He had only been playing the cello for three years before he met me, so he had a lot to learn. I am very happy that he found his own satisfying path towards a deeper understanding of the cello and music. He has certainly turned out to be a marvelous cellist.
By the way, though I think that Carter may have left a little early, I am absolutely non-possessive of my students. I do my best to share what I believe is important so that they take something useful with them when they leave. It’s rare for me to teach anybody for more than four years because I think it’s very important for any developing young player to have more than one influence. I also think that they should go and do their own thinking. If after four years they haven’t received from me whatever I have to give, maybe we’ve both been wasting our time.
I’m most interested in trying to teach my students how to think for themselves and to be their own people, which is something that I learned to value because of my experience with Piatigorsky. If a student plays with a fingering that I think is either unmusical or impractical, I will correct it, but I will never give a fingering (or bowing) to start with. These “mistakes” give us something to discuss and to learn from. I don’t want my students to sound like me or to sound like one another. And they don’t!
TJ: Getting back to the bow, what do you feel about the term “bow grip.”
LL: I don’t like it, since it at least subconsciously implies that one grabs the bow with tremendous tension. My basic description of the bow hold is that the bow rests on the thumb and the fingers rest on the bow. This varies to a degree from string to string and from frog to point, but I use the idea as a basic starting point. Notice that the connotation of this description is that gravity is the primary source of power, not gripping or pressing.
TJ: One of your former students said you believe that the power in the bow arm should be transmitted to the bow through the middle finger. Is this accurate?
LL: Not exactly. The power should come from your larger muscles, like the ones in your back and forearm, not your fingers. A lot of people bear down with their index finger, perhaps moving it up the stick, in order to gain more leverage. The problem with this approach is that one is essentially depending upon the strength of the index finger to provide the power.
If you place the first finger next to the second finger and pivot your forearm over the thumb, as opposed to pushing the thumb into the side of the stick, you will be able to channel the weight of your arm into the bow. You will also be able to use the large muscles of your arm and back to provide any necessary torque. These muscles are much stronger than the small ones that control your fingers, which are designed for more subtle tasks. Also, reaching out with the 1st finger prevents flexibility in the bow hold.
TJ: What should happen as you bow towards the tip?
LL: No matter where you are on the bow you should feel that everything from your shoulder on down is resting on the string. To achieve this you pivot over the thumb and middle finger in a continually changing fashion. Also, your wrist should remain flat throughout your bow stroke, not twisted. If you play tennis, you don’t hold a tennis racquet with your fingers separated, and you don’t bend your wrist as you hit the ball; you essentially play with a unified motion. A similar thing should happen with bowing.
The fingers need to do a lot of fine-tuning for the ever-changing angles of the bow. As an analogy, if I were to hand you something, your fingers will intuitively take on the shape of whatever they are given. Similarly, your bow hand’s fingers should continually adjust so that the strength of the arm goes into the string when necessary. There are a lot of subtle things that need to happen when bowing, but, once learned, they combine into a beautiful overall motion.
TJ: You mentioned that you performed side by side with Jascha Heifetz many times. Did he seem like a “cold” musician?
LL: Mr. Heifetz believed that a professional player had to achieve masterful control in every respect. But, while his playing was not what one would call self-indulgent or “spontaneous,” it was capable of being extraordinarily sensuous. I don’t call that cold at all.
TJ: In a masterclass at the last National Cello Congress you said, “A sustained sound does not necessarily mean an ‘even’ sound. It’s perfectly fine to have an impulse at the beginning of a note, since it is the impact that we hear as the volume of each tone.” What does this mean?
LL: If you begin a note with a loud accent, you don’t need to continue the intensity of sound after the initial attack, since the intensity will have already been established in the audience’s ear. If you continue the intensity of your bowing after the initial start, your cello will sound like it’s shouting instead of singing powerfully and yet still clearly and beautifully. Therefore you should relax the intensity your bow after the initial attack. Of course there may be times when we want to shout, but these times are exceptions. And there are also as many times when the impulse needs to come in the middle of the bow stroke.
If you play notes that are extremely fast, it’s physically impossible to play them all very loudly, since you will choke the sound. But you can give the impression that they are all very loud by playing the first one or a certain number of them loudly and then backing off until the next appropriate intense moment. Try singing a fast one-octave scale loudly, for example. You will see that you are forced to slow down in order to articulate each note clearly. Now try it by singing the first note loudly, the next few notes much quieter, and then quickly crescendo in the last few notes towards the octave. The scale will sound loud even though the notes between the first and last notes are quieter.
This same phenomenon occurs when bowing fast notes. Experiment with it in the famous arpeggio near the beginning of the Schumann concerto (see Example 3). If you try to play all of those notes loudly and with lots of bow, you will get a mess. Now try it by playing only the first few and the last note with intensity. The arpeggio still sounds loud, even though some notes aren’t actually played loudly. Otherwise, as Piatigorsky used to say, you will “drown in your own sound.”
This “trick” relates to Casals’ life-long mission to get people to play with constant variety. For example, he couldn’t stand it if you played eight eighth-notes exactly the same way in bar from a Haydn string quartet. When you play with a bow, just like when you speak, you should constantly modulate the intensities of the sound. If you don’t, you shouldn’t play, since a machine could do this just as well if not better.
TJ: You also talked about Maria Callas and how, when studying a new piece, she would first try to sing her part exactly as written before trying out some of her own ideas.
LL: Her expression was that she “straitjacketed the role.” I learned about this from a former student of mine, Emil Miland, who plays in the San Francisco Opera orchestra. I often quote her because I think her process is extremely useful. She tried to understand exactly what was in the score and then did her best first to follow it as literally as possible. Only then, with the certainty of what was in the score and what the composer was trying to say, would she allow herself freedom.
For those of us who started on the cello at a young age, there are lots of pieces we first learn by listening to recordings. When the magical moment comes as a young player when we get to play the pieces we grew up listening to, we seldom look very carefully at the music; we mostly go by what our ear remembers. Combine this with the fact that there are many questionable editions and it’s little wonder that we have no idea what the score actually says. It’s very important to first get the cleanest read possible on what the composer actually wrote before filtering his ideas through your own sensibilities.
You shouldn’t think of this as being imprisoned by the score. On the contrary, you are liberated by it because it gives you a critical first step in your process of discovery of what the piece is about. Without this first step, you are doomed to wander aimlessly, with no fixed star to show you the way back when you lose your way.
TJ: You teach at and were the head of a major music conservatory. With an ever-shrinking and increasingly competitive job market for classical musicians, how do you rationalize in your own mind pumping out more and more highly trained musicians?
LL: I think using the phrase “pumping out” does a great disservice to the music schools of our country. But, to be sure, the concern of flooding a market is often voiced. Although the parallel is perhaps unfair, one never speaks of colleges “pumping out” philosophy majors to a non-existent market. Many responsible educators will argue that an education in music is ideal preparation for life, irrespective of eventual professional activity. But, more to the point, if conservatories and schools of music have done their job well, graduates can not only fill existing jobs, they can create a new world of listeners globally. The problem comes when young players expect to be handed a job upon graduation. The world needs beauty and any person persistent and ambitious enough can find a way to provide it.
TJ: In your interview in Strings, you mention that “communication” is the whole point of playing music. What are we communicating?
LL: If I knew a precise answer to that we might as well not have music. The one thing I definitely don’t want to communicate is indifference.
You and I have spent a lot of time talking about technique. I must say, however, that when I play the cello I don’t think of myself as a cellist; I’m a musician. I’m much more interested in the art of music making than in the instrument I happen to play. The cello has become my voice, which should be end-goal of all our technical struggles. Though technical discussion is terribly important, at a certain point it becomes mere diddling. It’s fascinating but it misses the point, which is that we are trying to communicate something. As Piatigorsky once said, “When you go to a restaurant, you want a good meal. You don’t worry about what the ingredients are; that’s the cook’s job.” We’re like the cooks in the kitchen, we obsess about all these details, but when we’re all done worrying about them, what we want is something that “tastes” good to the listener.
Some people will say that when you communicate a piece of music you are projecting your own ideas and personality onto it. Other people will say that the music has a meaning that is separate from the performer. I know that when I walk on stage my hope is that the people who are listening will have somehow been changed by what I have played. Perhaps the music touched them, stirred them, changed how they think about something in their lives, or maybe just transported them for a couple of hours. I can’t say for sure what music communicates, but I do my best to convey my feelings and ideas to those who are open to its messages.
Every performer has an urge to communicate to the audience. Some want to communicate something special about their instrument, like Piatigorsky, who adored the cello and wanted everybody to know what a cello was. Others are fascinated by the architecture of a Bach fugue and strive for clarity in their delivery. Others are trying to communicate their deepest emotions. Everybody perceives things differently and has different goals in their performances. That’s the way it should be.
TJ: How do you balance one’s awareness of the various styles of composer’s and the period in which they wrote their music with with the desire for individual expression?
LL: You need to learn a language if you want to communicate when you speak it. Otherwise, you are just mouthing sounds. Great music, Bach’s for instance, stands up transliterated to other styles — jazz, for instance. But there is no inconsistency between knowing something of Baroque style and performing in a personal manner. In fact, how can anyone not be personal in performance? My point is simply that a composer writes at a given moment in time and from within a given culture. If his music is deemed of sufficient interest to be played in the first place, at least do him the honor of trying to know “where he comes from.” That can be something as basic as the character of the light of the sky in the land where he lived, or what kind of food he ate. It can be the politics of his time, the inflection of the language he spoke. You don’t have to come from the culture to be able to play the music of a composer from it, but not to try to understand the milieu from which it comes is very limiting. I also try very hard to know something about the other arts of the composer’s time and place. The music is always some kind of message and we must not get caught up in just its notes. Not an easy task, but that’s what we are here for!