Interview by Tim Janof
Stephen Kates studied with Gregor Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, Claus Adam, Laszlo Varga, and Marie Roemaet-Rosanoff. He was awarded the Silver Medal at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966 in Moscow, where he returned as the American juror in 1986. He has made solo appearances with the world’s greatest orchestras in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore, Leningrad, and Los Angeles. He is a former President of the Violoncello Society in New York. For seven summers he was a member of the faculty of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and has taught at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore for almost 30 years. He has recorded for the RCA, Denon, Melodiya, Orion, CRI, and Bainbridge labels.
TJ: You come from a family of cellists.
SK: Yes. My great uncle, maternal uncle, and maternal grandfather were all professional cellists.
My grandfather studied at the Liszt Academy in the late 1800’s while David Popper was the director of the conservatory. I don’t believe he took any lessons with Popper, but he had every piece that Popper ever wrote in his library, marked with his fingerings — perhaps in Popper’s own hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if Popper influenced him greatly. Popper did sign his graduation certificate.
My very first cello lesson was with my great-uncle, Paul Turkisher. The arrangement in the family was that he would start me out and then my grandfather would take over once I reached a certain level. My grandfather didn’t have a lot of patience for beginners, especially a grandson, so it was deemed best for me to wait a few years before he would take over my teaching. I think he may have heard me during my first or second year of study, but he made it clear that I wasn’t ready for him. Unfortunately, he died when I was twelve years old, which prevented him from ever really knowing me as a cellist. This has always been one of my greatest disappointments.
My grandfather was probably my most profound influence in my early cello life. He always played for me when I visited. I would sit under his legs and look up in awe at his instrument while he played the Bach Suites, The Swan, and the Popper Gavotte, which was a piece that really made me come alive. Those early years, when I was four to six years old, were when the idea was implanted in my soul that the cello was something for me, probably thanks to him. I also loved, admired, and revered him tremendously. His love for the cello was obviously infectious.
TJ: You then studied with Marie Roemaet-Rosanoff.
SK: After studying with my uncle for two or three years I went to Mrs. Rosanoff, who had studied alongside my grandfather in Wilhelm Willeke’s class at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, and then later with Casals in Spain. I studied with her for ten years, from when I was around eight years old until I graduated from high school.
She was a wonderful cellist and demonstrated frequently in lessons. She also played the piano beautifully. She was the cellist of the Musical Art String Quartet, which was a forerunner of the Juilliard String Quartet. I was told that she could play every part of every Beethoven quartet on the cello, including the violin and viola parts. She was simply an incredibly gifted musician, and set a musical example that I still strive for.
She was a very loving and nurturing teacher. I wasn’t terribly disciplined at that time, so she must have had the patience of a saint! No matter how discouraged I became about my playing, she would always say, “Oh, no no no, you play so beautifully. You’re doing so well!” I was on the verge of giving up many times when she would give me a reason to think that there was hope. She was such a wonderful person, and she took me under her wing, even though the first few years must have been pretty difficult for her.
When I was around 15 years old I started to really take off cellistically and to become very interested and disciplined about my practicing. A great thing about her teaching was that she was always able to meet the challenge and to provide the information I needed, which is why I studied with her for as long as I did.
TJ: Did she share any of Casals’ teachings with you?
SK: Absolutely, between her and her husband, Leif Rosanoff, every other sentence was about how Casals did this and how Casals did that. Mr. Rosanoff was a contemporary of Casals and had studied with Casals in Spain. He had first heard Casals play in St. Petersburg when Casals was around twenty years old; that would have been in 1896! Mr. Rosanoff eventually became a world famous pedagogue in his own right and taught at Mannes College and Vassar College. In the 1950’s Lief taught a young Puerto Rican cellist at Mannes whose first name was Martha. At a certain point he felt it was imperative for her to work with Casals, so she went back home to Puerto Rico to finish her studies with Casals. To make a long story short, that very Martha was destined to become Casals’ wife. She is now Martha Istomin, the President of the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. Leif Rosanoff was quite a force in his day.
Casals walked on water as far as the Rosanoffs were concerned. Everything he did was the perfect example to emulate. His bow arm, his left-hand clarity, his tone, and his interpretations served as the ultimate role models. Naturally, I listened to a lot of Casals’ recordings at that time, which, for the audiophiles that are reading this, were on 78’s. I tried to collect everything he’d ever recorded.
I remember being terribly disappointed when, while studying the Grützmacher version of the Boccherini B-flat Major Concerto, I went to a record store and was told that there was no such recording by Casals. I was devastated. How will I know what Casals did? Casals played the piece frequently, but by that time, in the mid-1950’s, he hadn’t recorded it. So I bought Janos Starker’s recording instead, which was the first Starker recording I ever owned. I treasured it then and I still do to this day. As a matter of fact, Starker’s recording helped me to realize that there was life after Casals, even though I never stopped admiring his mastery and the profound influence that he had on every cellist that followed, in and out of his footsteps.
I studied with the Rosanoffs for two summers in Wilton, Connecticut (in 1958 and 1959), where they took twenty-five or so of their students to their summer cello school. The students would stay in the homes of local residents for the summer, and, in addition to ensemble work, the students would have lessons once or twice a week with either Mr. or Mrs. Rosanoff, though usually with Mr. Rosanoff, since he was the teaching workhorse. Mrs. Rosanoff would mainly coach chamber music and conduct cello ensembles. One summer I actually studied with both of them, which was really difficult because, despite the fact that they believed in the same principles, he was much more of a disciplinarian. I wasn’t able to get away with any of the things that I did with Mrs. Rosanoff.
I remember when I shocked Mr. Rosanoff with my musical taste (or lack of it) at that time. I told him that I’d much rather play Popper’s Spinning Song than Bach’s D Major Prelude because the Spinning Song is much better music. He almost threw me out of the room, bodily. “How could you say that? What’s wrong with you? You don’t know anything!”
TJ: Leonard Rose was your next teacher.
SK: Leonard Rose and my father, who was the Associate Principal violist in the New York Philharmonic, sat only a few feet from each other for ten years when Rose was the orchestra’s Principal Cellist. Rose and my father were close friends, so it was a forgone conclusion that, if I ever attained any level as a cellist, I was destined to study with him.
When I was a freshman in high school, Rose heard me play for the first time in a school musical talent contest at WQXR Radio in New York. Rose was the judge in the final round of the cellists, along with the WQXR staff. He was very complimentary of my playing and mentioned that he knew my dad. But that was it. I was obviously not ready for him nor was he willing to accept me. I was simply too young and not advanced enough. I remember playing a Menuet by Debussy in that competition. Obviously my posture left a great deal to be desired. As I played on, I distinctly remember my left ear lobe getting stuck under my fingers as I had the habit of playing with my head close to the fingerboard. That note was muted and I let out a small scream of pain. I looked at Rose and I could tell that he was holding back a smile. Such was my introduction to Leonard Rose.
Four years later, upon graduation from high school, I played for him again, privately this time, hoping that he would accept me in his class at Juilliard, which he did. I then studied with him for two years, alongside Lynn Harrell, Toby Saks, Einar Holm, and a host of other stellar talents. I was in The Big Time. I also studied with him at Meadowmount for two summers. During that time I also had the great privilege of working under Josef Gingold, who taught chamber music at Meadowmount. His warm and personable attention had a lasting affect on me as a cellist. I revere the hours we spent shaping my growing love for music and the cello. He was one of my heroes and always will be.
TJ: Did Rose focus on tone production?
SK: Definitely. He wanted to tighten my vibrato, since mine was pretty loose at the time. He probably had the greatest influence on me in the area of sound-color to that point, because he really forced me to listen to myself in ways that I was not used to.
TJ: Did he demonstrate in lessons?
SK: He loved to take his cello out and show his students how to play. When he simply couldn’t describe how to do something, he would grab his cello and say, “No, this is how it goes.” The great thing about his approach was that his students could see how he did something, and how his hands and body moved, which might reveal an immediate answer to the problem, or at least make the problem seem solvable. He gave his students a perfectly beautiful example to go home with. He would say, “Now see if you can make it sound like that someday.” Studying with him was incredibly inspiring at that time in my life. He was a man of few words but of great action as a teacher.
When not demonstrating, he would sit in an armchair and almost always have a lit cigarette in a tall ashtray that was never far from reach. How I wish he had never smoked, he might still be with us.
TJ: You once said that he loved everything that was “simple and direct.” What is this in contrast to?
SK: He didn’t want us to cloud our musical presentation with mannerisms, both musically and visually. I guess I was very descriptive with my facial expressions and body movement at that time. A lot of this was the result of leftover bad habits and tension that I was still wrestling with.
He used to say something like, “The music comes first. Then we’ll talk about the faces.” If you concentrate on the music, all the other stuff will become peripheral and time-wasting, and can be a real turn-off to the audience. The people you really want to play for aren’t the ones that come to watch you play, but the ones who come to listen to you play.
TJ: Rostropovich was an early influence of yours too. What was it about him that affected you so much?
SK: Rostropovich’s presence on the musical scene in New York in the late 50’s and early 60’s was akin to a cellistic bombshell. He influenced everything that his light shone upon. He had an incredible charisma that created this sense of colossal communication between him and the audience. I especially remember one of his performances in Carnegie Hall in 1958 or 1959, which was the first time I ever heard him play. He opened with the Brahms F Major Sonata. The electricity that was generated between him, the pianist, and the audience was astounding. My hair was smoking as he entered the second movement. Then he played the Bach Fifth Suite, a Hindemith Sonata, and some Russian works. The entire program must have lasted over two hours. As if that wasn’t enough, he then played no fewer than ten encores! Every time he came out, the audience would simply not let him go. They just kept clapping. Finally, at 11:30pm the manager of the hall came out and closed the piano. He got booed! Even after that, there were still diehard people standing in the front asking for more. I was one of them.
With that kind of charismatic brilliance I was like a gasoline-soaked rag and Rostropovich a lit match. It didn’t take much for him to inflame me with inspiration, wonderment, and commitment. It was the kind of experience that made it clear that my destiny was to become a professional cellist. There was no room for discussion. He lit the torch for me, which has continued to burn for many, many years.
After that I never missed any of his concerts, if I could humanly get to them. I remember going to visit him in his dressing room after being given a letter of introduction. Earlier that year, in 1963, I’d gone to Budapest, Hungary, to compete in the Casals International Cello Competition. One of the judges at that time was supposed to be Rostropovich, but for some reason he had to cancel his participation. That was a major disappointment as one of my primary goals in life was to play for him and I had prepared for the competition with him in mind. The Russian judge that was sent in his place was Dr. Lev Ginsburg, whom I found to be extraordinarily pleasant and congenial when I met him at a reception. His English was impeccable too. Little did I know that three years later the very same Dr. Ginsburg would play a pivotal role in my future in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Competition. I asked Dr. Ginsburg if he would write a letter of introduction to Rostropovich for me, which he did. He then sealed it and asked me to swear that it would only be opened when I saw Rostropovich.
With the letter in hand later that year, I went backstage in Woolsey Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, where Rostropovich had just played the “new” Shostakovich First Concerto and Rococo Variations in the same concert. I was the only person waiting for him when he came backstage after his performance because there was still a symphony to be played. But I could not wait to congratulate him and meet him in person. I handed him my letter, which had been written in Russian. He opened it up, still sweating profusely from his performance and obviously drained, and he immediately offered me his chair. “Oh, you must sit down,” he said in broken English, using more sign language than verbal. He then gave me the traditional wet kiss (ugh) and welcomed me into the inner circle of acceptance as a fellow cellist. Obviously the letter was good enough to get his attention, though to this day I don’t know a word of its contents.
That letter opened the lines of communication between us to the point that Rostropovich was even willing to accept my invitation to come to our family’s home for dinner a few weeks later. My mother was a terrific cook and the word had reached him somehow. He might also have been curious to see if Ginsburg was really telling the truth or if I was a hack. He spent the entire evening with us, from six o’clock to midnight, where he ate, drank (a considerable amount of Russian Vodka), talked, and told countless stories.
After dinner I played for him and he gave me an incredibly inspiring cello lesson. Pianist Gilbert Kalish, who lived in our building, came down from his apartment, and he and I played a Brahms cello sonata and lots of other pieces for Rostropovich. Several Russian-speaking friends of my family were also there and served as interpreters, since Rostropovich’s English at that point was virtually non-existent. I still have a tape of that lesson somewhere, which I’ve listened to many times in the following years. It is an evening that is etched in my soul for life.
TJ: What did Rostropovich say in the lesson?
SK: Lots of things to be sure. But the most important thing he said was that I needed to find a great teacher. The best teacher in the world was the only solution to fulfilling my promise as a cellist. I don’t know what his relationship to Leonard Rose was at the time, though I know they became very close in later years. I had studied with Rose at Juilliard for two years by the time I met Rostropovich. I can vividly recall these giants when Rose played a great recital at the First Cello Congress and summoned Rostropovitch to the stage (yes, summoned) to accompany him at the piano in the Fauré Elegie. I believe they dedicated their performance to the memory of Pablo Casals. What a moment that was.
In the lesson, Rostropovich also talked a lot about my use of portamento, which obviously displeased him and needed some major attention. He called them “kielbasa,” little sausages. He stressed that I should concentrate on learning how to better connect the musical line with a more continuous bow pressure, using the left hand for coloration instead of relying on the intermittent use of bow pressure, which creates swells between notes. This was only one of many, many great suggestions.
He gave me some great hints in Elfentanz. He said that the most difficult thing about this piece is fatigue, because the piece is comprised of a seemingly endless number of fast notes, a moto perpetuo. When he plays it (which he does incredibly), he alternates between different types of bow strokes — spiccato, sautillé, on the string — so that he never uses the same muscle group for too long. This is a great tip because, by the time you reach the recapitulation on the sixth thousandth page (or so it seems), the horses don’t always reach the barn. Before that lesson, I always huffed and puffed by the time I reached the end, but I’ve never tired out since I’ve used his trick.
He sat at the piano most of the time and accompanied me from memory in most of the pieces. He made it very clear that a piece is much more than just the cello part; one must look at the whole score. When tackling a new piece, the last thing one should do is look at the cello part. One should get to know what the composer wants on a grand scale, whether it’s a sonata or a concerto. In a concerto, the soloist is just another member of a very large team that’s running alongside him or her. Rostropovich instilled in me incredibly high-level musical goals that I’ve never forgotten.
I think he may have regretted telling me these things because, three years later at the Tchaikovsky Competition, I ended up doing a lot of damage to many Soviet cellists. I was armed with a host of ideas that he had so generously shared with me that evening. I would have flown to Moscow the next day to be in his class, but this was virtually impossible because the USA and the Soviet Union had no formal cultural exchange program at the time. I sometimes wonder how different the course of my life might have been had I been able to work with him in Moscow or Leningrad. That will remain a mystery.
The evening went well past midnight. I walked him to a taxi in the cold November morning, feeling that he had given me a truly wonderful gift, which I cherish to this day. That evening endeared me to him so that he was always very personable whenever he saw me after that. I often went backstage after his concerts and asked him to autograph programs. He was always curious about my progress. He has always thought of me fondly and I continue to admire all that he has done to encourage cellists through his incredible playing and devoted teaching.
TJ: You studied with Laszlo Varga.
SK: I studied with Laszlo Varga for two summers, in 1960 and 1963, at the Chautauqua Festival, where he taught and served as Principal Cellist of the Chautauqua Symphony and was cellist in the Mischakoff String Quartet. As a leader in all venues, I found him to be an inspiring role model. Lest we forget, he was also Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic at that time. He gave some magnificent performances that summer, especially one of the Death and the Maiden, that I will never forget.
The lessons were very exciting and were held in tiny wooden practice rooms that got terribly hot in the summer sun. We were forced to sweat in those practice shacks because teaching or practicing were strictly forbidden in homes. And they were way on the other end of the institution! Who had a car?
I remember Varga and I tackled my first bout with Rococo and a follow-up on the Dvorak Concerto, which I had studied with Mrs. Rosanoff in earlier years. He introduced me to a form of rhythmic discipline and left-hand technique that I was completely unaware of, as I was so Casals-ized at the time. Any logical representation of rhythm was reasonably foreign to me. I think he was intrigued with my drive and absolute passion for the instrument, but he was somewhat frustrated with my limited technical equipment. In essence, he kept the ball moving and gave me some real food for thought, but he was supremely wise to not upset the apple cart by giving me too much information and confusing me to death, which is a mistake so many have experienced at eight-week summer programs.
As I was still an official Rosanoff student during the summer of 1960 — I was on loan — working with Varga was quite a change, since he was pretty analytical for my taste. He was quite interested in offering me technical information that was new to me. I played 99% by instinct at that time and did not have a clue as to how things “worked.” He explained things to me in a way that made sense, despite my limited working understanding. Just as important, he and his lovely wife, Lillian, welcomed me into their family. I spent not hours, but weeks in their home that summer, and I ate regularly with them and their guests. I recall some of the best times I’ve ever had visiting them that summer. I remember downing thousands of salami and peanut butter sandwiches, compliments of the Vargas. As a growing 17-year-old who could ask for anything more? Here was a great cellist/teacher, family unit, musical environment, and free food! Raya Garbousova and her husband, Kurt, once came to visit and I was right there; that was quite a thrill.
During that summer he gave a stunning performance of the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto with Walter Hendl conducting. As there was no piano reduction in print, he actually made his own when preparing for the performance, which is a testament to his thoroughness in learning the work (in addition to playing the cello magnificently, he is a fine pianist). I believe this was the first time this work was performed in the USA after Rostropovich introduced it, which is a little known fact that should not be dismissed.
In 1963 (I was all grown up at twenty years of age), I had a totally different reason for going to study with Varga. I was no longer working with Leonard Rose, having left Juilliard and Meadowmount, and I found myself in deep preparation for the Casals Competition in Budapest, Hungary. Since a majority of the required repertoire was Hungarian — Bartok Violin Rhapsody No. 1, Kodaly Solo Sonata, Op. 8, a new work by Lajos Papp and, yes, the infamous Popper Elfentanz — I felt that “Laci” would be the best guide I could ever find, which was a given after the first lesson in 1960.
As an aside, I never got on a first name basis with any teacher after that, except with Leonard Rose, who towards the end of his life could not tolerate the sheer formality. One day, after I greeted him as “Mr. Rose” at a chance meeting at Jacques Francais’ shop, he said, without the slightest hesitation, “Stephen please call me ‘Leonard’ from now on. After all, we are colleagues.” I almost fainted. What an amazing moment that was for me. I try to pass this courtesy on to my students (after earning it) once they hit 30. However, if Mr. Piatigorsky were alive today, I doubt he would do me the honor of allowing me call him by his first name. His was a different generation and it would have been impossible to imagine calling him “Gregor,” much less “Grisha.” I would rather die than do that.
Anyway, I also had to prepare the Brahms F Major sonata, Frescobaldi Toccata, and the Dvorak Concerto for the Casals Competition. Varga and I worked very hard to cover this vast amount of repertoire, much of which was totally new to me. He prepared me assiduously and by the end of the summer I was ready to go off to Budapest and compete with world class cellists, some of whom were 10 years my elder.
The result was not stellar. I made it to the semi-finals and got eliminated for the final round. I felt terrible about not getting to the finals, though I thought I played the best I could in the second round. The judges were not of the same mind as me (Lev Ginsburg, Imre Hartmann, Ede Bande, Maurice Eisenberg, and Radu Adelescu are some names I recall). They all told me how impressed they were with my talent at various receptions after the contest, but they made it abundantly clear that I was “not ready for prime time.” Maurice Eisenberg, one of Casals’ protegées, almost skinned me alive for the way I played the Bach c minor Suite. I can still hear his voice ringing in my ears, “You can’t do that!” And to think that I was brought up on Casals! Something had gone wrong somewhere. I needed discipline, and I was the one who was least aware of it. Thank God Piatigorsky came along two months later.
But the competition was a triumph of sorts for the following reason. Having not gotten a prize or even to the finals (I was dying to play Kodaly Solo Sonata in Budapest), I swore off competitions from that point FOREVER. Two years later, when the aura of the Third International Tchaikovsky loomed in front of me, I found that I had nursed my wounded ego to the point that I was ready and eager to try my hand once again. I now had two years with Piatigorsky in his master class, where I gained much more performing experience. I was much more advanced technically and musically than I was for Budapest, and I was hungry once again to prove what I could do on the international stage. In addition, my colleagues Laurence Lesser and Nathaniel Rosen (who was seventeen years old at the time) were gunning for Moscow. Piatigorsky had cleverly pitted us against each other to spur on the learning curve. It was sheer genius! And why not? The Russians had been doing the same thing for four years in anticipation of this same competition. By May 1966 I could not wait to get on the plane and fly to Moscow.
Returning to Laszlo Varga, I like to think back on how instrumental he was in my total development, and again how lucky I was that he came along in my life at exactly the right moments. He was fearless in his approach of new works as well as his devotion to creating various transcriptions, which he has made in great numbers for any number of combinations of cellos. He tried to initiate me into thinking and acting the same way. He stirred my curiosity about contemporary music and was a pivotal influence in opening up my nineteenth-century brain to a new way of thinking. I am eternally grateful to him for his support and belief in me in those early years. To this day we have a warm and caring friendship and I continue to have an untold respect for him.
Years later I played the first performance of the Shostakovich Concerto #1 in 1966 with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood with Leinsdorf conducting. There must have been some Varga in me that evening. I recall that Zara Nelsova was in the audience and remember her wonderfully encouraging visit backstage. I will miss her greatly, as she has just passed away.
TJ: You studied with Piatigorsky at USC.
SK: That was an amazing time, not only because of Piatigorsky, but because William Primrose and Jascha Heifetz taught there too. During one of my first lessons with Piatigorsky, Heifetz dropped by. That was the first time I had ever seen Heifetz in the flesh. I can remember the room starting to spin as he walked in. He was real!
TJ: Did Piatigorsky emphasize certain technical principles?
SK: Piatigorsky did not just dwell on technical elements. He had a great deal to say in other areas and the technical things were usually dealt with on other levels. After all, we had eight or more students to observe in each class. We were often able to solve technical problems by observation and inquiry. We bounced off each other like ping-pong balls.
He took his teaching very seriously. He also did a fair share of demonstrating. Simply watching his incredibly natural bow arm was an education in itself, not to mention the way he produced sound. His sound seemed to come from everywhere and virtually fill the room to the bursting point. Both Mischa Schneider and Jascha Bernstein, who were with him in Leipzig as students with Klengel, thought that he was the most natural cello talent they had ever known.
Watching him answered lots of my questions at the time and I am often told by people that I look a lot like him when I play. What a compliment! His cello students normally studied with him in a master class format, but I found myself at his house for five or six hours every week for private lessons. I’d come over at ten in the morning and leave at four in the afternoon. We’d play duets, take walks on the beach in Santa Monica, or go outside and pick plums and oranges from his garden. When not discussing music, he’d talk a lot about his philosophies and his feelings about the world and life and what I needed to be aware of as I built a career in music. In other words, he gave me an education, not just a cello lesson.
His approach to teaching was absolutely unique and he was exactly the right teacher for me at the time. He provided a rare combination. I was musically and technically ready to meet him head-on and he poured his heart and soul into me as though I were his own son. (He did this with all of his students, so I was no exception). He was an extremely devoted teacher and I believe that he exerted the greatest influence on me, as I think back on all the teachers I’ve had. It certainly took me years to get out from under his shadow, which is a must for those of us who have been highly influenced by one person or another, if we are ever to discover who we are.
In some ways he was not the greatest stickler for details. After I left California, I went back to Juilliard to complete my degree, where I studied with Claus Adam. Claus was the cellist of the Juilliard Quartet at the time and his influence on me as a chamber musician was profound. Claus immediately expressed concern about how I held the bow. Note that this was after I had won the Silver Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition and had already soloed with the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic. Claus noticed that I played in such a way that the third finger and the thumb were virtually opposite each other when I held the bow. He wanted me to be more conscious of the center of contact being between my first and second fingers and my thumb. I then went back to an old photograph that had been taken during a performance at a Young People’s Concert in 1967 with Leonard Bernstein conducting. The photographer had shot a close-up of my bow-hand, which showed the bow being held between my third finger and thumb. After some thoughtful consideration and an obvious improvement in control, I adopted the “new” bow position.
A year or two later I was talking to Piatigorsky about how Claus Adam had made a radical change in my bow hold, that my second finger and thumb were now pretty much opposite each other. He looked at me and said, “What do you mean? You’ve always held the bow like that.” I then showed him the photograph, which had been taken when I was still studying with him, and there it was, 1 against 3. He looked at me in shock and a little embarrassment and said, “I never realized it. How was it possible that you held the bow like that? It’s all wrong!” That was the way he was. Obviously as long as you had the agility and were able to produce a sound he approved of, he didn’t care how it was done. He was more interested in other things that were not done to his satisfaction and focused his attention on them instead. He clearly did not deem that my bow grip was injurious to my being able to bounce, sustain, or cross strings, so it was a non-issue. And yet Claus saw it in the first lesson and brought it to my attention; that was one of his specialties. I have never regretted changing. We must always be willing to accept new ideas in order to grow and improve.
Piatigorsky wasn’t obsessed with technical details. Instead, he was obsessed with making music, communicating, and creating tonal variety, as well as opening his students up to their inner selves and to the music being performed. This was his real specialty as a teacher. He was also very concerned about rhythm and shifting without unintended slides. Despite the fact that he was known for his incredible slides, he wouldn’t allow his students the luxury of audible shifts unless they could justify them musically. He was the only teacher in my training who discussed the difference between a slide and a shift and turned it into an art form. He would say that a slide is a decoration and a shift is a motion that gets you from point A to point B. If you don’t consider adjusting the pressure when done on a continuous bow, the shift will be audible, and you will be responsible for the result if it has nothing to do with the music.
Because of Piatigorsky, I became a fanatic about the need for clean shifts, much to the later displeasure of many of my students, many who are now wonderful cellists. I raked them over the coals every time they made a left hand motion that I could hear when they couldn’t justify it from a musical standpoint. Carter Brey (Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic) and David Hardy (Principal Cellist of the National Symphony), who studied with me at the same time, went absolutely crazy because I wouldn’t let them get away with the least unnecessary audible connection. They confessed their struggles to me many years later. I don’t think it hurt them in the least.
TJ: You once said that Piatigorsky believed in keeping things simple, musically speaking.
SK: I always had a tendency to complicate things. He would often say, “Just play simple. Be simple. Go directly for the meaning of something. Don’t look for answers in high places.”
In a sense, he streamlined my playing tremendously and was extraordinarily successful in getting me to cut to the chase when I’d play. My temperament often got in my way because I would become so emotionally involved in a piece that I would not notice how I actually sounded. I became too much of a participant in the performance, which I got from observing Rostropovich as a kid. I didn’t have a clue as to how Rostropovich did it, but I caught the essence of his communication; his flame burned white-hot in his performances. He wore a suit of asbestos that I did not have in my wardrobe at the time. Piatigorsky taught me how to insulate myself from my own flames and to not self-destruct technically in my own fire. Piatigorsky was my custom asbestos tailor. Is that not teaching technique?
Piatigorsky helped put this into perspective for me. He said that I should use my temperament to enhance the power and delivery of my concepts, but that I should take care to not get lost in it. At that time, if I were in a boxing match, I would have been the guy that punched himself out because I flailed around so much. The opponent wouldn’t have to do a thing. Piatigorsky taught me to look directly into the eye of the music and to become physically unencumbered by emotional considerations, though without eliminating a drop of emotion, which is a neat Zen-like trick that took years to master. This is a classic amateur mistake: musicians who become artistically crippled because they feel so much that they become victims of their own emotions.
Singers have to be wary of this since their voice can break if they become too wrapped up in their emotions. You can’t talk when crying, and you can’t sing either. When trying to evoke tears, great musicians or actors do so by making the audience cry, not by crying themselves. In a sense, the performer sets the parameters in such a way that he or she becomes a conduit between the composer and the listener.
TJ: Was Piatigorsky striving to build a community of cellists? There are many former students of Piatigorsky that have maintained contact with each other, creating what the late Dimitry Markevitch, also a former Piatigorsky student, once facetiously referred to as the “Piatigorsky Mafia.”
SK: Perhaps. When Piatigorsky stepped down from the active performer role that he had played for so many years, he re-directed his energy into preparing another generation of high-level cellists. He took his role as a teacher very seriously in that he wanted to prepare his students for the future. Instead of spending hours on planes and trains and on stage, he spent hours in the teaching studio and in his home, giving us every conceivable piece of information that would help us to climb to the top of the ladder of cellistic excellence. In essence, we benefited from his hard-earned experience in the field. But it was his genuine love for his students and the cello that forged a common bond between us, whether one studied with him in Europe before World War II, as did Lev Aaronson and Markevitch, or later at USC in the 70’s, as did Nathaniel Rosen, Laurence Lesser, and Raphael Wallfisch, and I. I don’t view this as a mafia but as a brotherhood. I think Mr. Markevitch would agree if he were alive today. To this day, his former students are connected by a common bond that is undeniable.
TJ: Did he help his students in their careers?
SK: Not as much as some cello teachers I’ve known. He wasn’t the kind of guy that picked up the telephone and opened doors for his students. He didn’t feel that that was his role. But he would give us “advices” (as he would call them) as to what lay in front of us in terms of dealing with management and conductors and the problems that face all musicians, whether orchestral, solo, and so on. He was extraordinarily conscientious about telling us what the pitfalls were when dealing with the music business, how easy it is to fall into certain traps, and how to avoid them.
He was not a door-opener because he knew that a career would take off anyway if it were justifiable. He did not want to afford his students premature success because he felt that success had to be earned through time and grade and hard work. As a matter of fact, he was somewhat critical of success as he saw it in certain young “artists.” He felt that success, if it came at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, would be a curse. As a result, he was extremely guarded with the use of his personal power to promote even the people that he loved and believed in. He desperately wanted all of us to find personal fulfillment in our lives and in music from which professional success would usually follow.
TJ: You mentioned Jascha Heifetz earlier. Did you observe his violin students’ lessons?
SK: I took every opportunity I could to watch him teach. I would often stand at his door, hoping to be let in. When he saw me he would often look troubled as I asked, “May I sit in your class today, Mr. Heifetz?” I did it so often that it got to the point that he would look at me and ask, “Don’t you have anything better to do than to come here and listen to violinists play?” I’d reply that, no, there really was nothing better to do. So I, along with many of his violin students, such as Pierre Amoyal, Paul Rosenthal, and Varoujan Kodian became something of a fixture in Heifetz’s classes. As you might imagine, the chance to hear him demonstrate in lessons was well worth the time I could have been using for studying. Can you imagine being so close to that genius on a weekly basis? What luck!
TJ: What sorts of things did Heifetz say in his lessons?
SK: If you’ve ever seen those videos of his master classes, he was exactly the same in lessons. He demanded absolute perfection in rhythm and intonation. He was not interested in any histrionics or excessive motion. The music came first, and absolutely everything else was second, including the feelings of his students. He would tell his students anything and everything that was wrong with their playing, picking on one or two elements that caught his attention at the time. His students generally didn’t play very well in front of him because they were usually terrified. Who wouldn’t be? It was a harrowing experience just to get through a movement, since he stopped his students as soon as anything went wrong. He never missed anything and they knew it.
TJ: You played chamber music with Heifetz while studying at USC.
SK: I did that a lot. He would call upon Piatigorsky’s class to round out chamber music sessions with his students. He would never play the first violin part in these sessions; he would often play the viola. He would always give the first violin part to his students so that he was not leading the group, at least theoretically. As you might guess, watching him sixteen inches away from my bow and playing lines with him was pretty much the thrill of a lifetime. You could compare the experience to playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods or having batting practice with Sammy Sosa. He was always demanding and always in control of the situation. He knew exactly what was going to be performed or studied and he prepared himself scrupulously, while the rest of us basically walked in cold, having no idea what music was going to be placed in front of us. That was what I call “Sight Reading 101” or perhaps better named “Fright Reading 101.” After a session with Heifetz, one could read anything, and I mean anything.
He would, however, always play the first violin part when we played at his home for his friends. I’ll never forget one time when the evening had pretty much wrapped up and I boldly asked if we might play a movement of the Schubert B-flat Major Piano Trio. Itzhak Perlman, who was then sixteen years old, and I had studied it with Josef Gingold at Meadowmount one or two summers before, so I felt that I could really ace it on a moment’s notice. I walked up to Mr. Heifetz, who was putting his Del Gesu back in its case, and asked, “Mr. Heifetz, do you think we could possibly read a movement of the Schubert B-flat Trio?” Believe me, this took a lot of courage on my part. He looked at me with those “gefilte fish eyes” (Piatigorsky’s description) and simply said “No.” Case closed! And so the violin case closed. It wasn’t on the agenda for the evening. I was terribly disappointed, of course, but I gained a real insight into Mr. Heifetz’s character in that one second that I’ve never forgotten.
TJ: I heard a story about you asking him whether he was going to start upbow or downbow in a work. What happened?
SK: That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. There were four cellists present that evening, and each of us was designated to play one movement from the Brahms f minor Piano Quintet after dinner. I was assigned the first movement. As you might imagine, I didn’t spend much time at the dinner table. The event was a gala dinner party for a select number of distinguished friends. Even Mr. Primrose was there, though he did not play, since the evening was for the students. I didn’t know the piece at all except for having heard it played by others, so I wanted at least half an hour’s preparation. I excused myself very suddenly from supper and took out my cello in a back room and poured over the piano part. I noticed for the first time that the opening statement is played in unison with the first violin, piano, and cello. I was petrified at this realization and kept looking for trouble spots since f minor was not a favorite key of mine — no open a or d string.
Then we all assembled for the reading. Before we started he looked at everyone and simply asked, “Any questions?” Like the idiot that I was, I said, “Yes, Mr. Heifetz, I was wondering, do you start up bow or down bow.” BIG MISTAKE!!! But I desperately wanted to match him.
He replied, very simply, “That’s a very good question. If I tell you that I will start up bow, I may decide to start down bow. And, if I tell you that I’m going to start down bow, at the last second, it may occur to me that I want to start up bow. So I won’t tell you anything.” You can imagine the perspiration streaming from my brow at that point, partly due to my embarrassment and partly due to the adrenaline coursing through my veins as I waited to see what he was going to do. He then put his bow at the tip and I thought to myself, “I’ve got him!” But suddenly, without provocation, and flawlessly, he moved the bow to the frog and immediately started playing. I feebly attempted to start with him but I was a fraction of a second late. The ensemble suffered slightly but much less than my shattered confidence for having opened my mouth at the wrong moment. I now think some 40 years later that his response was somewhat cruel — he knew he had a captive audience — but what an idiotic thing it was for me to have posed such a question at that moment.
Thus began a life-long lesson on how not to open one’s mouth at the wrong moment and the realization, which came much later, that if one really knows how to play one’s instrument, the choice of an up bow or down bow in that phrase is determined by many technical and musical factors, none of which are the least concern of an in-house audience anxiously awaiting a vintage Heifetz chamber music evening. I prefer to think that I learned a valuable lesson that evening that has helped me over the years, now that my ruffled feathers have long been dry.
TJ: Did you have much interaction with William Primrose?
SK: Primrose was a frequent member of the many soirées that Heifetz and Piatigorsky hosted at their homes. I always made a point of sitting next to him so that I could ask him any number of questions. He would captivate me with wonderfully descriptive stories of his experiences. Being in his presence was like being in front of the Sphinx or in front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. He was a wonderful person and possessed a talent and genius that we will probably have to wait a long time to ever see again. I also used to accompany my dear friend, Alan De Veritch, to his lessons with Primrose in Santa Barbara. They were so informative and inspiring. I guess I made the most out of my time in California, as I think back on how fortunate I was to be in such a musically fertile place.
TJ: After Piatigorsky, you studied with Claus Adam. What kinds of things did you learn from him?
SK: Claus Adam taught me a great deal, the least of which was how to contemplate in the role of a teacher. He taught me how to analyze and verbalize problems, how to see what was wrong, how to understand what was physically wrong with a process, and how to fix it. Claus was a student of D.C. Dounis and Feuermann, which was another world that intrigued me and one that I knew could supply solutions to problems yet unanswered. I was twenty-five years old and had never taught a minute in my life. I was far from being able to think on my own at that point.
Claus Adam taught me how to pinpoint problems in shifting, bow technique, bow speed, bow contact point, and a few million other areas. He opened my eyes and ears in a different way from Rosanoff, Rose, or Piatigorsky. He was just the right person for me at that time, as I was on the threshold of a teaching career, though I did not know it at the time. I did not have a clue as to how to conceive of teaching until after I had worked with Claus.
In the summer of 1968, I studied with him in Aspen and worked on the Haydn D major Concerto for the entire eight weeks. By the end of the summer I could play it in my sleep and performed it with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra with John Nelson conducting. The concert was during a rainstorm that produced snow in the higher elevations. I don’t know if the audience heard a single note with all the noise of the fierce rain pelting the tent. But I felt I had successfully emerged at the conclusion from a trial by fire, with the Feuermann Cadenzas no less, which were mandatory with Claus.
I also got to know Claus personally. He was one of the kindest and most supportive people I have ever met in my life, and I treasured our friendship to the day he died. In the time I spent at his apartment, where he preferred to teach (lessons took up an entire Sunday), I was often invited to stay for dinner. Mrs. Adam cooked like Heifetz played the violin, and, being a starving student, I eagerly accepted. I left his home each time with a full mind and stomach. How many people can claim such rewards from a teacher?
I also had the great honor of commissioning a Cello Concerto from Claus in 1972 (published by G. Schirmer), which is one of the most difficult yet fascinating works I have ever performed. To my knowledge no other cellist to date has undertaken to learn and perform it in public. I encourage any serious cellist to do this. As the person who asked him to create the work, I am terribly disappointed that it has never been adopted by our cello community. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, though I don’t think it’s any more impossible than many works I’ve heard before or since. I feel it’s a very worthy and yet totally neglected work. I recorded it shortly after the premiere with the Louisville Orchestra, conducted by Jorge Mester. I would love to hear it played by perhaps one other cellist in my lifetime. If somebody starts now it could be done in honor of its 35th anniversary in 2007, which is plenty of time.
TJ: While studying with Piatigorsky you won the Silver Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966.
SK: That was like landing on the moon for the United States. For an American in 1966 to get that far in a competition in the Soviet Union was a great accomplishment in itself. There was a Cold War raging at the time. It was also an extraordinary opportunity for me to realize who and what I was at that particular moment in my life. I realized as I walked out on stage for the first round at the tender age of 23, seeing the faces of Fournier, Cassado, Shafran, Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, Sadlo, Kozolupova, and several others, that that was my moment to present myself on my own terms to those historic musicians. The great thing is that I got to play for them all at the same time. Otherwise, it would have taken me twenty-five years to get each one into various hotel rooms in order to play for them.
Part of my mental preparation for the competition was to imagine them sitting in front of me, listening to me play. I imagined myself walking out in front of twelve people that I idolized to the point of hero-worship, who had, in a sense, molded me as I was growing up through their performances, master classes, recordings, and legendary performances. Now I had the chance to show them who I was, and what in essence they had helped to create. As intimidating as it was, I didn’t let it get to me the way playing with Heifetz did; playing with and for Heifetz was great preparation for competitions. I simply went for it.
I was extraordinarily fortunate to have a jury of that prestige to whom I could show my wares. As I progressed from the first to the second to the third rounds, my success with them, as well as with the audience, became evident and my self-confidence grew and grew. So did my performances. People started noting when my performances were and made a point of coming. Obviously I scored a direct hit with the audience and their reaction pushed me to do better and to perform on a higher level than I thought possible. Russian audiences are nothing like you could imagine, they are incredibly demonstrative. When they like you it shows, but when they take you into their hearts you really know it.
For years and years after that competition I would meet people who would come backstage and say, “I was in the audience when you played in Moscow in 1966 and I still remember it as if it were yesterday .” Not long ago I received a letter from a former Soviet cellist which said that he remembered my playing and had always wanted to thank me but was never able to. Now, 35 years later, the Tchaikovsky Competition remains one of the shining moments of my professional career.
TJ: Did you get the sense that the competition was rigged? A Soviet cellist at the time, Karine Georgian, was awarded the Gold Medal.
SK: The thought occurred to me as I was handed the shared Silver Medal along with my colleague, Arto Noras. The majority of judges were from Eastern Bloc countries. There were only four Western judges out of eighteen: Piatigorsky, Cassado, Fournier, and a Finnish judge. But we were in the throes of the Cold War at that time, so I realized that a second prize under such conditions was a great accomplishment. In a way, I considered it to be a Gold Medal. Leslie Parnas had won the Silver Medal four years before me, and knowing his wonderful playing, I felt good about getting the same honor as he. No non-Russian had ever won Gold at that point in the Tchaikovsky Competition except for Van Cliburn. It took another twelve years before that glass ceiling was broken again by Nathaniel Rosen in 1978. I wouldn’t say it was “rigged,” it was just the climate of the times. I might add that Karine is a great cellist and played incredibly well in Moscow. We are old friends and mutual admirers to this day.
After the final round, I had a wonderful exchange with Pierre Fournier, which created a bond between us that lasted until his death. While all other competitors played Rococo Variations (which was required) and the Dvorak Concerto, I played Rococo and the Schumann Concerto. One day I met him in the hallway of the conservatory on my way to a rehearsal. His kind words are still ringing in my ears, “I want to tell you, young man, that we on the jury know the difficulties you conquered in the Schumann that your colleagues never dreamed of in Dvorak. All of us on the jury recognize that your task was in many ways a greater one than those who chose the Dvorak.” That unsolicited compliment was one of the most wonderful moments of the competition and opened the door to a lasting friendship. After that, I visited him frequently at his home in Switzerland and we had a wonderful correspondence for many years. I think it was basically the Schumann Concerto that did it. The road I chose that for the final round was not easy, but it was laden with hidden rewards that I have reaped for years.
TJ: Reviewing the incredible line-up of cellists on the jury makes me wonder if the level of artistry has changed since those glory days.
SK: The members of that jury are for the most part gone, with the exception of Rostropovich, and a generation of a certain way of thinking and playing went with them. We now live in a world of conformity. You go to a McDonald’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or a McDonald’s in Bangor, Maine, and the food tastes exactly the same. An Acura looks like a Honda and a Mercedes looks like an Infiniti. I think the world has become accustomed to a certain sameness, which doesn’t do art justice. This way of living certainly has affected the way we perceive art and we judge it in meaningless competitions that remind me of planes taking off at rush-hour at La Guardia or O’Hare — one after the other. There are so many competitions today that they no longer have any real significance, except as an event at that very moment. I think a competition is more of a social event for the jury than a musical statement for the competitors.
What the juries are looking for is also questionable, since missing a note can have the consequences of being sent to Siberia. Winners today are usually technically perfect but that’s about it. I hear this complaint over and over from judges and competitors alike. Perhaps we are creating generations of perfectionists, as if perfection is the ultimate quest. But is that what music is all about?
I remember talking to Anner Bylsma about how artistry has changed. When discussing the older generation of cellists — Casals, Fournier, Cassado, Piatigorsky, Feuermann, Garbousova, Nelsova, etc. — he believed that one could tell who was playing from his or her first note. This is impossible for me with today’s younger generation of cellists. He attributed this to the elder cellists’ use of gut strings in their formative years, because gut strings demand a certain approach that becomes a highly individual process. When steel strings were first introduced, the older cellists that had spent their early years on gut strings retained their tonal personalities if they switched to steel.
I played on a gut d, g, and c when I was a kid. I used a steel a because gut a‘s were almost impossible to find and they were too squeaky for my taste. I’m sure that my early experiences with gut strings shaped my approach to sound production on the lower strings. Perhaps it helped me to shape the sound I eventually developed.
Steel strings have greatly contributed to the uniformity and reliability of sound production and response, which I believe has also had a profound effect on the individuality of tone. Those who grew up on steel strings tend to have similar tonal qualities, so it’s more difficult to tell them apart in their recordings. But if the personality of the player is not established, the results can be devastating, no matter what strings one uses. That being said, I think young people spend entirely too much time looking for the perfect string and not developing their perfect sound. The string is not the answer. In looking at the cost of strings today, I can only envy the profits generated by the companies that manufacture them.
I was reading your recent interview with Orlando Cole where he said that Felix Salmond would be amazed to see what 15 and 16 year old kids today can do on the cello. A piece like the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto is not a hard piece for gifted kids today. In my day, we wouldn’t dare touch this music unless there was nobody around; we didn’t have the technical equipment to deal with it. Today it’s taken for granted that one will play these difficult pieces.
The technical wizardry of today’s young people is astounding, but it still takes a lot of time for that wizardry to be combined with musical personality and insight. I’m afraid that the majority of our young people can easily stay stuck in the copying stage and not advance to the creative stage. This probably has a lot to do with today’s obsession with technical perfection and the over-abundance of recordings. Copying is essential at an early stage but it is not an answer to the creation of art in its final form. Look at how Beethoven and Mendelssohn developed; they began by imitating the masters that preceded them and eventually found their own voices.
I remember Rostropovich saying in a master class that on any given day one could go to Juilliard or Curtis, open up a practice room, and ask a kid to play a Paganini Caprice that would be more brilliant than Heifetz, Milstein, or Oistrakh. Or one could ask that same kid to play some Bach that he or she had been working on for eight months, six hours per day, and the performance would be more stellar and more perfect than the greatest violinists of the time. But the difference between the performance of that particular student and the Oistrakh’s, Heifetz’s and Elman’s is that the great artists of the past knew exactly what they wanted the moment their bows touched the string, while the student is still looking for the answer. When looking at the overall picture of a player, one can get a sense of whether that person is an artist or a student. I bet I could play Elfentanz faster and cleaner than most cellists when I was 21 years old, but that did not mean I was an “artist.”
TJ: Your sound is particularly gorgeous on your Silver Medal record from the Tchaikovsky Competition. What’s your secret?
SK: Thank you, and, sorry, there are no secrets. You simply have to hear inside your inner ear what you want, and then try to make it come to life. What one strives for usually has something to do with what one has already heard and admires. I’ve listened to Casals’ early recordings since I was three years old, so I have his sound in my ear. For my thirteenth birthday, I was given a copy of Leonard Rose’s recording of Schelomo with Mitropoulis conducting, which I also consider to be a wonderful model. Eventually I assimilated these sounds and many others and decided what I wanted a cello to sound like. Perhaps I was lucky to figure out how to make it all come together.
One might object to this approach as being mere imitation, but this is the same approach we use when learning a language. You hear your parents speak at home and you imitate their speech patterns. If you grow up in a Latvian speaking household, you’re not going to speak Chinese as a child. Those early years are the most impressionable, but they are an important step in one’s development. I grew up listening to Casals, Rose, Heifetz, Kreisler, and so many others, so my early concept of sound was dictated by their examples.
My experience with singing also influenced my concept of sound. I went to a summer camp, called “Kinhaven,” for three or four years. One of the responsibilities of each camper was to sing in the chorus, where we sang Bach chorales, madrigals, beautiful text songs, and transcriptions of choral works. I was a “second soprano” since I still had a high falsetto at eleven years old. Through this experience I learned to hear the note coming from inside my ear as I was singing it. I also had my first not-always-so-successful experience with treble clef.
You might be surprised to know that my first experience on the big stage was not as a cellist, but as a singer. I found myself in the Metropolitan Opera Boys Chorus at the age of eleven, which was not the Metropolitan Opera that Pavarotti and Domingo ever sang in, but the one on 32nd Street, known as the “Golden Horseshoe.” This was “The Met” when I was growing up, since Lincoln Center had not been built yet or even conceived. My very first experience in singing before an audience was the opening night of the Met in Carmen in 1954 with a bunch of other kids. When I walked out onstage and saw 4,000 people sitting in their tuxedos I thought I was going to pass out. We had rehearsed onstage to an empty house, which was impressive enough, but never to a full one, and this was opening night! It so unnerved me that I decided then and there that performing was not for me. What a liar I turned out to be, seeing how I ended up being a person that made his living in front of audiences for so many years.
Boccherini C Major Sonata
TJ: You play a Boccherini C Major Sonata on your Silver Medal recording. I’m not familiar with that one.
SK: That’s another Piatigorsky story. When I was preparing for the Tchaikovsky Competition, I learned the Boccherini A Major Sonata, which was on the list of pieces from which I could choose for the first round. Loccatelli was not for me since I had no real staccato talent in those days. In short, Piatigorsky wasn’t happy about me playing either of them. One day in utter frustration he said, “You know, when I was young, I had this sonata of Boccherini that I played and recorded. I don’t even know if I have a recording of it anymore, I don’t think I do. My pianist used to accompany me from memory, but he is dead, so there’s no piano part. I could play the cello part for you so that you could write it down. Then somebody will have to compose a piano part.” The list for the competition said “Boccherini Sonata in A, C, or D,” but it didn’t say which exact pieces. There is a very boring C Major Sonata by Boccherini that is the kiss of death in competitions, so it was out of the question.
I went to his house one night and he played and dictated the cello part to me as I wrote it down. There is a published edition of a Boccherini sonata where certain passages are the same, but I would say that ninety percent of it was completely Piatigorsky’s invention! He then swore me to secrecy about the nature of the piece because, if the judges were to find out about it, I could be in hot water.
I then employed a number of wonderful pianists to help set it in a baroque style. By the time I arrived in New York en route to Moscow, the piano part still wasn’t finished, but I was committed to it so I had to press on. A very dear friend of my grandfather’s, who was an arranger and composer, finished the piano part just in time.
We (Samuel Sanders and I ) then went to Moscow with a piece of music that no one had ever heard. It was the first piece I played in the first round. I will never forget Rostropovich’s reaction as I walked on stage. He probably thought, “Why in the world did he pick the Boccherini C major?” As we began to play, Rostropovich was so shocked that he spilled the bottle of carbonated water that was in front of him. He then queried Mr. Piatigorsky, who was sitting directly next to him, “What is this?! Where did this come from?” I remember Piatigorsky looking at him and quietly saying, more with his eyes than his voice, “Listen to the boy. Don’t talk.” Meanwhile the spilled water continued to drip all over. While this was going on I just played, knowing that this was like a spear to the jury’s heart, since they were all sitting bolt upright. “What is this piece?” they were all asking themselves. I had gotten their undivided attention. It was well calculated and it turned out to be a great success. As you can hear from the recording, it’s a charming and beautiful work. It earned me great notoriety, which was a great advantage amongst sixty-nine other competitors.
It also had its downside. The next day Lev Ginsburg (the very same one from Budapest who had given me the letter of introduction to Rostropovich) stopped me in the hallway of the Moscow Conservatory and said, “Stephen, I am most interested in this Boccherini sonata that you played for us. I’d love to see it.”
I replied, “I don’t have the music with me, Dr. Ginsburg. But tomorrow I’ll meet you here at twelve o’clock.” Of course I could not show up. Both parts were written out by hand and he would know immediately that the piece might not be by Boccherini. I was also aware that he was an expert cellist/musicologist and could not be fooled. I was in dangerous waters. After that, he was after me like feathers on a greased pig, “I’d love to see that edition .” I was evasive — “My pianist is not available ” — anything but a showdown. I avoided him like the plague and luckily he never cornered me until the final reception. By then, I had the medal and it would have been impossible to reverse the jury’s ruling.
This was what Mr. Piatigorsky would call a “swindle,” but it was a tremendous success. Because the piece was probably ninety percent Piatigorsky and ten percent Boccherini, I was able to pull the wool over their eyes and escape with minimal damage. I think they were suspicious and were looking for a way to get me out, but they could never pin me down.
TJ: Throughout this interview, you’ve been doing imitations of the people you’re talking about. They’re good!
SK: Doing imitations is one of my favorite pastimes. I think it has a lot to do with being able to play an instrument, since one has to create a variety of tonal colors and articulations when imitating others. Piatigorsky used to say, “The more people you can imitate through the cello (he meant Casals, Fournier, etc.), the more you find yourself as a player.” I try to have fun with it and imitate their way of speaking, which at times is more challenging than copying their cello playing. This skill has probably helped my playing in some way but I’m not sure how. It certainly has been entertaining for both me and the colleagues I entertain from time to time.
I used to spend hours mimicking others, particularly those who speak English with Hungarian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and other accents. I’d board a plane as a Russian and leave as Frenchman, which is something that might land me in jail today. Not smart!
My imitations got me into a lot of trouble on two occasions, once with Piatigorsky and once with Leonard Rose. Piatigorsky was extremely sensitive about his accent, so I never dreamt of doing it in front of him. His Russian accent, as well as his manner of speaking, were extraordinarily thick and exaggerated. For example, he would call a bow “the beeeeuw.” He also did wonders with grammar and double negatives, not to mention his amazing creativity with vocabulary. Despite this, he had an amazing command of the language and could communicate very well.
I learned from my interpreter in Moscow in 1966 that Piatigorsky’s Russian was amazing. Apparently, he spoke in a way that few Soviets knew how to, since it was learned from a pre-Revolutionary era, filled with beautiful poetic symbolism and a forgotten elegance. According to Piatigorsky, Shostakovitch loved to hear him speak because it reminded him of his lost youth.
Anyway, back to the my imitations. One day Piatigorsky, Jeffrey Solow, Nathaniel Rosen, and I were standing outside Piatigorsky’s house after a rehearsal, about to get in our cars, when Piatigorsky suddenly said to me, “Stephen, I hear you do an imitation of me.”
Trying to spare his feelings, I said, “It’s a lie! It’s an out-and-out lie!”
He replied, “Seven people have already told me that you do it. I want to hear it.” I was trapped.
I looked at him and asked, “But if I do it, are you going to be angry with me?
“How could I possibly be angry with you?” he said innocently, with affection in his eyes. The others were holding their breath. I couldn’t resist, the stage was mine.
So I walked up the hill the way he always used to with his hands clasped behind his back and his shoulders stooped. Then I came up to him and patted him on the cheek, which I had never done, and I said, “Grisha,” which was the first (and last) time I ever called him by his nickname, “You know, you vould t’ink dat by now that you vould have mastered the English language.” [Click here for Piatigorsky imitation.]
He looked at me with a face that made me turn to stone and said, “What are you talking about?”
I said, “Vell, dis is the way you talk!”
“I don’t sound like dat!”
“But you do sound like dat!” I insisted, but knew I was done for.
As you might expect, Rosen and Solow were absolutely mortified, half-laughing and half wanting to run like hell to avoid the imminent bloodshed. Piatigorsky was extremely upset with me at that point and walked back into the house without saying goodbye. It was a lonely ride home. “Never again,” I swore.
Years later, I did my imitation for Mrs. Piatigorsky in her living room after the First Piatigorsky Seminar, a year or so after he died. We were alone, no audiences this time. She laughed hard and said, “That’s exactly the way my husband used to sound!” I was vindicated.
Another time I got into hot water because of my imitation of Leonard Rose. One day Rose was at an airport in Salt Lake City, where he called one of his former students, Nina DeVeritch (sister of Alan), who was the principal cellist in the Utah Symphony. She picked up the phone and heard, “Nina, this is Leonard Rose.” [Click here for Leonard Rose imitation.]
Nina replied, “Steve! Where are you?”
Rose said, “No, Nina, this is not Steve, this is Leonard Rose. I’m at the airport. I want to find out how you are.”
“Oh, cut it out, Steve! What’s going on?”
Finally he said, “I’m not going to say this again. This is Mr. Rose!”
Nina went, “Oh my God, it’s Leonard Rose! How are you, Mr. Rose?” The rest is history. I heard about that story from Leonard Rose a few years later. He was not amused!
I also do Rostropovich — “My dear, no, this is so beautiful. I love so much the way you play. It’s just so beauty-full!” [Click here for Rostropovich imitation.]
Here is Casals, “Oh, beautifullll – well, well, well – well!” [Click here for Casals imitation.]
I also do Heifetz. Fortunately I was never caught doing it in front of him. I probably would have been banished to Mars. If only I could play as well as I imitate him.
TJ: You’ve certainly had an amazing musical life.
SK: Let me say this. We are basically a composite of everything that we’ve heard, seen, and experienced in music. As a cellist I am probably the luckiest person on the planet. I was born in 1943, and many of the luminaries that we now only know of through CD’s and photographs were walking, living examples for me in my youth.
Carnegie Hall was just a subway ride away. I attended Fournier recitals. I heard Shafran when he first came to the United States. I heard Rostropovich, Navarra, Gendron, Schuster, and Garbousova. I also heard the great violinists, like Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, Oistrakh, Mischakoff, Kroll, Kogan, not to mention pianists like Horowitz, Gilels and Richter, many in their prime. In chamber music, I heard the Budapest Quartet. I also heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Moscow Philharmonic, because they all came to New York and I knew how to sneak into Carnegie Hall ten different ways. Who had money for tickets? Unfortunately I cannot say this is the situation with youth today. They no longer have live examples of these transcendent figures in history, though they do have others.
In my own studies, I had Rosanoff, Rose, Varga, Piatigorsky, and Claus Adam, not to mention the many others I played for in hotel rooms and in concert halls backstage when an opportune moment presented itself. Often I created these moments, though not always to the immediate thrill of certain artists, who were wondering, “Who is this guy with a cello at my door?”
Occasionally, celestial musical comets would come through to shed amazing light on other areas of my piquing curiosity and opening new doors to what was possible. When I couldn’t get the real thing, because Casals was already too old and not performing in America and Feuermann was dead, I compensated with recordings and stories that I heard from mentors in backstage dressing rooms and hotel lobbies. This mixture of good fortune gave me an incredible opportunity to grow in a climate of truly great artistry.
I like to perhaps compare my particular musical upbringing with the varnish the great Cremonese or Venetian master luthiers. First of all, you have to get the right resins and chemicals with which to start cooking. Even though varnishes changed, probably due to what materials were available at any given time, they were always magnificent. If they couldn’t get that reddish color, a yellow color would be used instead. They probably sought the greatest and best materials available in their day and probably at the greatest expense. Similarly, those particular materials were the great cellists that came into my life — Rose, Garbousova, Starker, Varga, Adam, Shafran, Da Saram, Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, etc. — all of whom left a little piece of themselves on my palette.
Then all the varnish materials have to be cooked, sometimes for days, which stinks and is flammable. If the varnish is cooked on too hot of a flame, it could blow up. If it isn’t cooked hot enough, it coagulates. Similarly, practicing and studying the cello is like this cooking process. It’s the process of maturing with the material that is available — the works of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, etc — and it takes years to master these pieces and to bring to them the influences and ideas that one holds so high.
Then the varnish is applied to the cello. The perfect brush must be found. It has to be applied on a day when it’s not too humid. Then it has to dry for as long as necessary in the right temperature and humidity. This represents the maturation process of coming back to the same sonatas and concertos, and reconsidering what one thinks one already knows and what is yet to be learned. If you think you know how to play the Arpeggione just because you played it once in public, you’re deluding yourself. This piece is going to change every single day you look at it for the rest of your life, just as great varnishes do in various lights.
Then the varnish needs to be polished and cleaned over the years in order to keep it fresh and vital. This is like the process of re-thinking the repertoire throughout a lifetime with fresh ears and eyes, re-considering ideas that were once taken for granted but are now no longer acceptable, if not outrageous. Perhaps the piece will start up bow this time, or maybe two bows will be taken instead of one, or maybe there’s a better fingering or different tempo, maybe a little more forceful, or perhaps a bit less because the hall is so bright. This is the way, in a sense, that the instrument ages, gracefully and with dignity and respect as it gains in years.
If you’ve ever seen a Stradivarius that looks like new — i.e. the Messiah Strad — it’s pretty boring. It looks like it came off the bench yesterday. But put it next to the Soil violin or the Batta cello, both of 1714, you’ll see a most incredible aging process because masters have played on these instruments for 250 years. They have lived alongside history and were a mere forty years old as the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence! There’s a nick here, a scratch there, a little re-touching here, and a polishing there, so that the instrument ages gracefully, just as an interpretation ages gracefully with the player.
The varnish also keeps the moisture out, since it keeps the instruments from cracking and adds to the tone. No violinmaker in the world would say that an instrument “in the white” will sound the same as an instrument that’s been varnished for 250 years. Can you imagine if all the Strads in the world were just wood without varnish? They wouldn’t sound like anything today. They would also have been destroyed by time and wear by now. Raw wood needs to be preserved to survive. Similarly, the varnish is your self-confidence, which keeps out the bad stuff, all that criticism that is so destructive. This is what gives you the will and the drive to keep reaching for greater heights.
I’ve been very lucky. I had very good materials to start with, I was applied properly, and I’ve had all the makings of a great promise that I’ve strived to fulfill. I am extremely fortunate to have been born when I was and to have had the opportunities to mature and to try to get out of the instrument whatever I and my mentors imagined was humanly possible. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is for others to say.
Teaching has also been a part of my own maturation process. No good teacher on the planet would say that they didn’t learn more from teaching than performing. I’ve now devoted almost thirty years at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore to teaching and passing the torch to a few younger generations. It has been a fantastic rejuvenating process for me to pass information on to young people and to watch it settle in and work for them. Teaching has helped me to realize who and what I am at each particular moment.
TJ: I’ve heard that you’re a connoisseur of great instruments.
SK: I think Piatigorsky did that to me. He was a great collector and one who appreciated the finer things in life. He told me about a Montagnana that he had seen thirty years earlier, which was pretty much a clone of his own “Sleeping Beauty” Montagnana. By the way, “Sleeping Beauty” was the nickname that he gave me, but that’s another story. He gave all of us nicknames. It was one of his favorite pastimes. Anyway, the Montagnana’s former owner, G. Allen Hancock, an amateur from Los Angeles, showed it to Piatigorsky after one of his concerts. This is the same Hancock after which Hancock Park was named (where the LA County Art Museum is located) when the family donated the property to the City of Los Angeles.
Hancock was, in addition to many things, a great benefactor to the University of Southern California (USC), which has the Hancock Auditorium and the Hancock Research Foundation. The first time I ever heard Heifetz perform was when he played the Kreutzer Sonata in Hancock Auditorium. USC students would perform there as well. The Hancock name was familiar to me.
Then the moment came, thirty years later, when Mr. Hancock died at the age of 94. Piatigorsky called me after reading the obituary and said, “Your cello is waiting for you. Now we’ve just got to figure out how to get it. But that’s the cello for you.”
TJ: How did you end up getting it?
SK: Piatigorsky said that we had to be very careful. We can’t appear like vultures on the doorstep of his grieving widow, asking about her late husband’s cello. Piatigorsky knew of a lady who was an acquaintance of Mrs. Hancock’s through a mutual association at the Music Academy of the West. He made the contact for me and she and I were given the go-ahead from Mrs. Hancock a month later to drive up to Santa Maria, California, where the Hancock cello collection and home were located. I was given permission to try all eight cellos, including the Montagnana. After ten seconds on the Montagnana there was no room for discussion; that was the cello for me. I was in love. But how to acquire it was the real problem.
Unfortunately, it was too soon. Mrs. Hancock was still grieving, and the will had not been settled. Any attempt to secure the instrument would have probably backfired. At least she now knew that I existed and she was aware of the fact that I was very, very desirous of it. She realized that I was the kind of person that would love, care for, and cherish the instrument, which was very important to her because it was her husband’s favorite cello. She wanted to be sure that it would not become the property of the “wrong” person, but she was not ready to part with it either.
At that point she put out the word that if Mr. Piatigorsky would visit her at her home she might seriously consider parting with the cello. I got on the phone and asked him if he would be so kind as to go with me to visit her and see the cello again. It had been twenty-two years since he had laid eyes or a bow on it. Of course, he agreed to do it, which was no small task, since it was a 350-mile drive from Los Angeles to Santa Maria. Mrs. Piatigorsky cheerfully agreed to do the driving, both ways. What a ride that was. I will never forget it.
A meal was prepared when we arrived, and there was the cello sitting on the sofa. But there was absolutely no discussion about the cello that evening, which drove me absolutely insane. Being young and impatient, I just wanted to put the cello in the car and go home. No such luck!
The next day Mrs. Hancock and Mr. Piatigorsky made contact and things didn’t go too well. Apparently there were some pretty harsh words spoken and Mr. Piatigorsky basically said to me after hanging up with Mrs. Hancock, “If you want the cello, go get it. I’m out of the picture.” I don’t know exactly what happened, but things didn’t get off to a good start and it didn’t end well. Now, not only did I have to convince her that I was the right person for the cello, but now I had to deal with bad feelings between her and Piatigorsky. I was panicked. I contacted her later and offered her everything in the world that I could, which wasn’t enough. She basically said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to dispose of the instrument elsewhere.” I was heartbroken and hung up the phone pretty much thinking that I’d never see the cello again.
Two years later I was on my way to play a preview concert at Sam Barlow’s house with pianist Samuel Sanders. Sam Sanders, my long-time pianist, had played with me at the Tchaikovsky Competition. I was doing a dry run of my Metropolitan Museum debut in New York. Just as I was heading out the door, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Hancock’s representative, calling to say that Mrs. Hancock was hoping I might find a way to purchase the cello. I thought I was going to faint in the hallway. I went to my concert feeling like I was floating on a cloud. I was absolutely euphoric about the possibility that this incredible instrument might come back into my life. I remember telling Claus Adam about it and how his eyes almost came out of his head. He said, “Go for it. I have to see this cello.”
But then I had the task of raising the money, which was not easy. It took me two and a half weeks with no sleep, trying every possibility of borrowing money. I even considered my local bank, and I am NOT talking about a bank loan. Have any of you seen the movie the “Ladykillers”? At that time, I had nothing that would even begin to impress a bank as collateral. In short, I had failed. I was not able to raise the money and I remember just about giving up all hope of ever owning this great cello as I switched the light off that fateful evening. Moral of the story, NEVER GIVE UP.
Then, at what must have been the eleventh hour, a guardian angel looked down upon me. A woman I had met in California mentioned that she was going to have dinner with a wealthy philanthropist who was a personal friend of hers. Soon after, she talked to him about the cello and my desire to buy it and yet how short I had come in realizing my long awaited dream. At the end of the evening he ended up offering me a very substantial gift. The purchase was now in sight and in a few days I was able to reach the final mark.
The next day I secured the instrument by phone. Two weeks later I flew to California after playing Rococo Variations the night before with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Lansing, Michigan. I remember talking with the orchestra’s legendary principal cellist, Frank Miller, at the intermission about how I was going to pick up my Montagnana in California the next day. He was so happy, “Oh, Stephen, that’s wonderful, I’m so happy for you! You’re going to get a great cello and, you know, we’re all thrilled about it.” Two days later I had the cello. Years later Frank Miller heard me play on it and again echoed his approval.
That was my last concert on a borrowed cello, a Gofriller that the Richard Colburn Foundation had lent me, the very one I had played in Moscow two years earlier. My Montagnana was the first cello I had ever owned in my own right. The instruments before were either borrowed or handed down from my grandfather, who didn’t have the money to buy an instrument made by a great master.
Without a doubt in my mind, I believe that my cello is the one of the world’s greatest Montagnanas and that it surpasses just about every instrument I’ve ever played, and I’ve played many of the greatest instruments in the world: Strads, Montagnanas, Guadagninis, Gofrillers, etc. I’ve now had it for 34 years, and it’s as exciting and fresh as the day I first saw it.
TJ: What do you look for in an instrument?
SK: I look for an instrument that has unlimited potential in terms of giving me a platform upon which to express my feelings. That means I look for a range of colors, tonality, volume, sound quality, and also comfort. Comfort should almost be the last consideration because a good cellist should be able to play on anything, but it is a factor that can make a difference in one’s playing, especially as one gets older.
TJ: I’ve heard that you’re a big fan of Feuermann. What is it about his playing that grabs you?
SK: In a sense, Feuermann held the highest torch of all instrumentalists for me as a musician, cellist, and as a light guiding me through the darkness of my own ignorance. He had it all and we can only imagine today how ahead of his time he was and in some ways still is.
I was brought up on two cellists, Casals and Feuermann. When Rosanoff wasn’t looking I’d listen to Feuermann. I used to listen to his recording of Schelomo and Don Quixote and the Dohnanyi Serenade on old 78’s. There was a directness and an honesty in his playing that made me sit up and wonder how was it possible that the instrument could be played with such an honest and effortless fluidity, in which every note belonged to the notes that came before and after. It never seemed to require much work for him either, which is the ultimate goal of any cellist. I didn’t know how he did it, but I knew it was possible. He died a year before I was born, so all I have in my mind are his recordings and that one film of him playing the Popper Spinning Song, which I saw, along with Lynn Harrell, for the first time in the home of Orlando Cole in 1961. There he was, right in front of us, playing like a god. As I watched the movie, I wanted to reach out and touch him.
My parents were close with Feuermann’s pianist/sister, Sophie, who in her youth had played concerts with him for years. She would come to my recitals at Juilliard. After the receptions she would take me into the back room and tell me how “Munio” [Feuermann’s nick-name] would play the same pieces. Munio would do this, Munio would do that. She didn’t necessarily know why he did certain things, but she remembered what he did. She’d say things like, “He used his first finger Munio would always say that the secret is in the first finger for applying pressure. I don’t know what that meant, but the first finger.” I’d immediately go into another room, pull out my cello, and try to figure out what “the first finger” meant. 40 years later, I think I’ve figured it out.
TJ: I’ve heard that you’re developing a new scale system.
SK: Yes and no. I don’t like the word “system.” I prefer to think of it as an “approach,” since it’s not a regimented one-size-fits-all way of thinking about scales. I was never very successful about practicing scales, both as a student and later, I am embarrassed to say, as a professional. I’ve probably done my own students a great disservice by handing them the same tatters of a system that never worked for me. They are probably going through life with the same unanswered questions that I’ve had regarding what scales are all about and how to play them successfully. Perhaps they have found their way out of the mess. I certainly hope so, but I wonder at times.
Like my teachers before me, I’ve told my students to arrive with the first finger on the third octave and to then go up from there. It was like a one-size-fits-all system. As long as one reached the first finger on the tonic of the third octave, one could make it up — but not necessarily down — and end up on the third finger on the top note. This bothered me for many, many years as a teacher because I was unable to offer my students anything better.
I’ve noticed in auditions and juries that most kids, and I mean ninety-eight percent, who didn’t study in countries where scale systems are rigidly enforced from birth, can’t play a scale with eight notes to a bow at a reasonable tempo without a mishap. I’ve always wondered why pianists and violinists are able to play scales in any key while cellists can’t? I think it’s because we’ve been handed inexact tools for scales by our teachers who were always one generation behind. What Rose gave me came from Salmond. What Piatigorsky gave me came from Klengel. What Rosanoff gave me came from Casals. And where did Salmond, Klengel, and Casals get their information? Obviously from those who influenced them the most. And so it goes. But each generation always reaches back fifty years and hands out old ideas to young curious minds. This is not always the best way to move forward.
Many years ago I was playing the two a minor scales in the first movement of the Schumann concerto in a lesson with Piatigorsky, learning the work for the first time, and not doing terribly well (see Example 1). When I reached the last three notes — a, b, and c — I would sometimes end up with my hand on the cello instead of on the fingerboard. Piatigorsky would say, ” If you get a little bit nervous you could easily fall off the fingerboard or you play out of tune, even worse.” Then he said an amazing thing, “I remember Feuermann did something really crazy. He invented a fingering that was very unusual, but I don’t know what it was. It was very successful and worked all the time.” That was that! So I would sit with my cello and ask myself, “What did Feuermann do?” I was clueless and so it remained for years.
A few years ago I was reading Seymour Itzkoff’s biography on Emanuel Feuermann. At the end of the book are Feuermann’s “Notes on Playing the Cello.” One of his key ideas is that scales shouldn’t be fingered in patterns that are dictated by the fact that we happened to have four fingers. He was concerned about the harmonic rhythm of melodies and where the shifts best serve them. If one is going to play triplets, why use all four fingers? That’s four against three, which creates an unintended built-in syncopation. This realization opened a whole new way of thinking for me about scales. A light went off in my mind and it has now evolved into a working theory about how we as cellists might better approach scales in general, as well as how to apply these principles in the repertoire when scales are part of the music we are playing at the moment.
For example, I used to have trouble with the chromatic scale in measures 53 and 54 of the Saint-Saëns Concerto (see Example 2) because I used 1-2-3-4-open, then half position, and so on. I was trying to divide twelve notes by four fingers and open strings and expecting that it would magically come out evenly. Then it occurred to me to try 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 . Twelve chromatic notes divided by three fingers in seven installments (different positions) lets you play the scale flawlessly each time. Sure, there are a few more shifts but it’s so automatic that it can be done practically without thinking. All of a sudden, I could play the passage perfectly because the fingering made so much sense. My task was then to generalize this new understanding to other pieces, and, perhaps more fundamentally, to scales.
Any scale approach that one uses needs to conform to the musical considerations of rhythmic motion, pulse, and so on. Unfortunately the scale system that we are taught as students doesn’t usually follow this concept. Usually, when we play a scale we revert to fingerings that we have learned by rote and we hope they work. If you practice hard you can master just about anything, but look at the time you spend doing so and most of it is swimming against the current. I would like to re-educate cellists in this area and will soon offer my ideas in a publication of some type, perhaps online.
But there is one thing I can almost guarantee. If you accept what I have to say, you will be able to play a 4-octave scale in any major or minor key — up and down the cello and with eight notes to a bow — at a reasonable pace. It will take some hard work but not a lifetime.
On another tack, I don’t believe that scales should be practiced exclusively with any system where you go down one note and then up a note and repeat the top note. If you practice a scale in this manner, you get off to sort of a false start, though I must admit a comfortable one. In the real world, scales aren’t written like this, so why should we practice them in this manner, except for sheer physical exercise? It’s like lifting weights — good for muscle building but not for cutting diamonds. But will this singular approach be truly helpful if you are limited to it? Usually not.
To give you a small idea of what I am getting at, let’s say you’re playing an E Major scale. The classic fingering is to start with the first finger on e on the c string, shift back to a on the g string, then shift back again to d# on the d string in half position. In this case one is moving away from the bridge, when the ultimate destination is high up on the cello, towards the bridge. This is like asking somebody to drive from Florida to New York by driving through Seattle; it’s the most indirect route possible! Instead, I try to avoid all this and get to the top note in one continuous straight line, especially if I’m moving fast and not playing one note per bow. I can assure you that this is not rocket scientist material, it’s just common sense.
These ideas have been floating around in my head for the last three years. Every time I write a new fingering down, I come up with six more possibilities that are all valuable. So what I’m doing is writing down as many useful C Major fingerings as I can, probably around twelve of them, then c minors, and so on, all using these principles. Then I’ll do the same thing in the keys of C#, D, D#, etc., until all bases are covered. Every scale and every piece is an individual situation. One size does not fit all, though at times there are similarities between foreign keys and similarities of principles. You then get to pick the one that’s best for the situation. The speed, rhythm, pulse and even the size of your fingers determine the final choice. But you are the boss and, well, you should be, it’s your reputation at stake!
I think this may have been what Feuermann would have done. If he wasn’t already there, I think he may have been evolving in this direction. His scales in his recordings are effortless and faultless, and I have a feeling he may have used some of these principles, at least subconsciously.
All this stems from Piatigorsky’s recollection of how Feuermann played the second a minor scale in the Schumann Concerto many years ago. What a great mystery! It’s amazing how the little things our teachers tell us that seem so unimportant at the time can come back to either haunt or inspire us years, if not decades, later. I think I’ve figured it out. I now start this passage in 5th position so that I’m already in thumb position by the time I reach the top three notes (see Example 4). Ever since I’ve used this fingering I’ve never missed it in concert or a demonstration, even when not warmed up or in shape for performing.
I don’t believe that a foolproof system exists, since each scale is a unique animal. And you may be able to get up, but you can’t come down as easily. I don’t believe that the fingering or string crossing pattern coming down should ever be the same as going up because you limit yourself to the possibilities of what’s available. Using the same fingering coming down the scale does not usually work very well and it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The scale should be a grand experiment in trying to find ways to get around the instrument that are not necessarily standardized. I guarantee that it will pay off when you have to get out of a tight spot in a contemporary concerto.
I’m not ready to give you a sample fingering because some people might think that I was out of my mind. People need to see the complete approach so that they get a better idea of what I’m striving for. I’m now working on all major and minor scales, including thirds and sixths and other intervals. I’m hoping that when I get all my fingerings written down I can present them to the cello world in such a way that no stone will be left unturned. I hope cellists will at least be curious.
TJ: Looking back, what would you say you’re most proud of in your career? What would you do differently?
SK: I’m most proud to see my students acquire the skills that they need to push themselves forward in their careers and their lives. It’s tremendously satisfying to have somebody come back after ten or fifteen years and tell me what it was that they learned from me that helped them to achieve their goals. A wonderful testament is that I’m now starting to teach the children of my former students. It’s incredibly satisfying to know that something that happened twenty years ago made such a difference in my students’ lives that they would choose to send their children to me.
What would I do differently? I wouldn’t ask Heifetz if I needed to start up bow or down bow! I’ve learned a lot through my own mistakes. But don’t we all? We don’t learn how to ride a bike without falling. When we fall, we pick ourselves up and try to figure out why we fell so that it hopefully doesn’t happen again. If you keep falling get a new bike or stop riding, but learn from the mistake. As cellists I find we often blame ourselves for things that are not always our fault (and immediately go back to the practice room to go over and over the “problem”). But that’s not the solution alone. FIND A BETTER WAY TO DO IT. Perhaps the fault lies with our well-intentioned teachers who hand us damaged goods without realizing it, but who suffered plenty in perfecting these unnecessary things for their own sake.
Simply appreciating the cello as the great instrument that it truly is, learning to realize that on those four strings everything ever written in good conscience is possible, and trying to find out how to make it work is the challenge of a lifetime. We are all extremely beholden to whatever genius it was that first invented the cello and modern bow, which has hardly changed at all for centuries. Sure, we’ve got an endpin now and maybe the fingerboard is five inches longer, and the steel strings, tuners, and pegs are a little different, but basically it’s a wooden box with a post inside and four strings suspended by a bridge, which comes to life with the magic of the bow. The majesty, mystery, and magnitude of this invention has inspired the greatest composers of all time to give it a voice. If it was good enough for Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Franck, Stradivarius, Amati, Montagnana, Tourte, Peccatte, Pajeot, and a host of other geniuses, it’s certainly good enough for me.