In honor and in memory of George Neikrug we are pleased to share with you the following interview by Tim Janof.


Tim Janof: You studied with Diran Alexanian for a year. What was he like as a teacher?

George Neikrug: He was brilliant, musically speaking. He particularly stressed the harmonies of pieces we worked on. No matter what was being played, he would accompany me on his cello, playing all the correct harmonies and explaining how the tension and relaxation influenced the interpretation of the music.

When it came to technique, however, he got me into such trouble that, even though he had given me a personal scholarship, I left him without a word. I had played a recital after studying with him for a year and my friends asked what had happened to my playing. My sound had disappeared because he had asked me to do incredibly unnatural things, including contorted bow holds. Oddly, he claimed that he based his ideas on what Casals did, and yet Casals had a very free bow arm, while Alexanian’s was very stiff. Even though I had much to learn from him musically, I simply had to leave. It took me a year to undo the damage of my time with him.


TJ: You also studied with Joseph Schuster, former principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic.

GN: Schuster was an excellent craftsman on the cello. He was Russian, but he had studied in Germany, where he became friends with Feuermann. We would play through the Duport etudes and he would tell me if something were out of tune or rhythmically incorrect, without analyzing the root causes of my problems. He thought I was musically talented but he was disappointed with my technique.


TJ: How long did you study with Emanuel Feuermann?

GN: I studied with him for about three years. He used to live in Scarsdale, which is a suburb of New York, my hometown. In the summertime he would go to Santa Monica, California, and I’d follow him there to continue my lessons.

He held me to the same incredibly high standards to which he held himself, so he would indulge his passion for fine musical details when discussing my playing. He would insist that subtle bursts of vibrato coincide with each bow change so that the articulation was clear and the energy level of the performance was maintained. For a virtuoso, he was a little more analytical than most about his own playing, but he still wasn’t completely aware of how he did certain things. At that time I wasn’t as technically developed, so I came away from each lesson feeling that he was untouchably great and I was hopeless.


TJ: I believe Bernard Greenhouse had a similar reaction.

GN: Yes, Greenhouse and I took some lessons together, but he didn’t continue his studies with Feuermann for long. He was more of a Casals fan at that time.


TJ: When listening to Feuermann’s recordings it doesn’t sound like he obsessed on minutia, since his playing doesn’t sound “fussy.” His phrasing is so naturally shaped.

GN: Because I studied with him I could see and hear all the details quite clearly; I knew what he was striving for throughout a given piece. The great thing about him was that he provided such a marvelous example in concerts for his students. He definitely practiced what he preached.

He was an incredible talent. I turned pages for him during his recording sessions for the Chopin works and the short pieces for Victor. He would drive in from Scarsdale at 9 o’clock in the morning, take his cello out, put a cigarette in his mouth, and start recording without warming up. This is all the more remarkable because he did this in the days when there was no splicing, so the takes had to be perfect. Remarkably, he would manage to record a piece in at most two takes. The entire time during the session he was always laughing and joking around, making light of everything. I suspect that his clownish behavior was meant to cover up how incredibly serious he actually was as a person.


TJ: Did Feuermann run you through a rash of scales and etudes?

GN: No, he believed that technique could be developed just as well through the study of music. The first piece I studied with him was the Schumann Concerto. When I struggled with a passage, he would take the cello out of my hands and knock it off flawlessly while standing up, which was incredibly demoralizing. He seemed to be able to play anything perfectly in any body position, including walking around with the cello’s neck squeezed under his chin. This kind of negates all our theories about the importance of proper sitting.

Virtuosi like Feuermann, who were child prodigies, often play by instinct, so it’s very difficult for them to analyze their own playing and therefore to teach others. But he did have insight into a few things that he was very adamant about. For example, he hated the old habit of cellists making a crescendo on every bow change. In fact, he hated it so much that I ended up sort of playing forte-piano on every bow change. He was also very much interested in clarity and articulation, so he talked about bow changes and how the left fingers approach the fingerboard. His passion for details was great if you had the technical equipment to keep up with him, but who did? The most valuable part of the lessons was watching him play with his unsurpassable elegance, as if the cello were just an oversized violin.


TJ: Feuermann was a great admirer of the violinist, Jascha Heifetz.

GN: I had always imagined that some cellist would come along and be the same kind of glamorous romantic virtuoso as Heifetz, so the first time I heard Feuermann play I was shocked. Feuermann was the very manifestation of my dream, the ‘Heifetz’ of the cello. In fact, I was so stunned that I couldn’t touch my cello for three months after that concert.


TJ: I’ve heard that he could be quite sarcastic in lessons.

GN: He was what you would call a “regular guy” away from the cello, very approachable and very funny. But as soon as I started to play, I had to watch out, because a different side of him emerged. He had a great talent for making his students feel inadequate through sarcasm and gentle irony, not to mention his nonchalant miraculous demonstrations.

Some of the most painful times for me were when he praised me, ironically, since his compliments felt like gentle digs, as if I was finally able to do things that he considered to be basic maneuvers. One time I played the Schumann for him and a couple of other students. I had finally mastered a certain trill, so he said, “Look how talented he is. Do you hear that? He’s really gifted.” His words made me feel awful because I felt like I was the complete idiot who was finally able to do something that he tossed off effortlessly. But as soon as the lesson was over, he was genuinely nice.


TJ: Why did you stop your studies with him?

GN: I had a violist friend who was studying with William Primrose at the time. He said that Primrose had raved to him about a couple of lessons he had had with Demetrious Dounis, who was originally trained as a medical doctor and was kind of a mysterious figure in New York at that time. My friend decided he might as well go to Dounis too, rather than hear what he had to say second-hand from Primrose. When my friend later told me about his lessons with Dounis, I was struck by how Dounis’ ideas sounded very much like the way Feuermann looked to me as he played, so I asked my friend to see if Dounis would take me as a cello student, which he did after some prodding.

Any claim I have to success in music is due to my lessons with Dounis. In twenty or thirty minutes I could tell you all the salient points Diran Alexanian and Joseph Schuster taught me. If you were to ask me what I learned from Dounis, I’d probably need a year or two to get it all down. When I started taking lessons from him, I was struck right away by the feeling that it was Feuermann, instead of Dounis, telling me exactly how he played everything. He could answer any question one might have about technique or musicality and how the two work together. Before my time with him, I had a concept of what I wanted to sound like but I couldn’t do it, so I was envious of those around me who had a seemingly natural technique. Thanks to Dounis I eventually developed this same kind of technique.

I used to be referred to cavalierly as “a good musician,” which often translates as “He doesn’t play too well, but he knows a lot.” I desperately wanted to escape that label so I worked extremely hard with Dounis. I soon gave a Town Hall recital, where I believe I was the first person to successfully play the Kodaly Unaccompanied Sonata in New York. There was one disastrous performance before mine by Beatrice Harrison, but I don’t know of any others. In the second half of the recital I played a Paganini Caprice and “Round of the Goblins” by Bazzini, which I had programmed to prove that I should now be considered a virtuoso. Unfortunately, as was the custom in those days, the critics only stayed for the first half, so all the reviews once again said that I was a “very good musician,” the very label that I was desperately trying to escape.

I only had enough money for one more concert, so I asked Dounis what the most difficult piece was for the violin. He mentioned the Paganini Concerto with the Sauret Cadenza. I immediately declared that I would work on this piece and play it in New York, and put it in the second half of the concert. This time the critics would have to stay for the entire concert because they couldn’t just write, “… and he played a Paganini Violin Concerto in the second half” without providing any further details. And I was right. This time they stayed, saying that I had a wonderful technique but that the composition was “musically worthless.” Sometimes you just can’t win.

After that concert I acquired the reputation as being kind of a technical wizard. I must admit that I became enamored with technique. I was probably quite obnoxious to my colleagues because I would constantly show off in orchestra rehearsals, pretending that I was just practicing for myself. Eventually I got through that period and went back to trying to be as expressive with my playing as possible.


TJ: Before we launch into a detailed discussion about Dounis’ teachings, let’s discuss some of the other historic figures you’ve encountered. How did you meet the legendary conductor, Bruno Walter?

GN: I was the principal cellist of the Columbia Symphony in Los Angeles, which recorded most of the symphonies conducted by him. Columbia Records saved a lot of money by recording us in a gymnasium with a lot of echo, which allowed them to cut the orchestra down to four cellos, even in Brahms and Mahler symphonies. We felt pretty exposed in those recording conditions, so we had to really know our parts.

I learned a lot about music from him, and a lot about expression. He was particularly good with the music of Mozart, in which he stressed a certain Romanticism, as well as Early Beethoven, and Schubert. He was Mahler’s assistant so his views on the Mahler Symphonies were always eye-opening.


TJ: His recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony is certainly lush, and perhaps more weighty than is heard today.

GN: I didn’t get that feeling at all. On the contrary, I thought it was kind of light. He made everything seem so easy. Sometimes I’d wonder if we played certain pieces a little slowly, but then I would go to the control room with him to listen to the playback and it always sounded wonderful. His musicianship was beautiful and gracious; he’d bring us in with a smile. He also stressed what he called “Viennese” accents, where the string is stroked gently and lyrically, as opposed to the usual sharp accents. These same accents are often misinterpreted today by people who think of them as swells. When playing with him, we couldn’t help but approach our strings in the same lyrical way that he moved his hands.


TJ: Was he dictatorial in his approach to the musicians?

GN: Not at all. He achieved discipline without ever being tyrannical. If he wanted us to stop talking, he’d simply say, “Gentleman, please,” and we’d stop immediately. He had a way of getting respect without having to demand it.


TJ: You also recorded Schelomo with Stokowski.

GN: That was a remarkable opportunity. I had been in California with Feuermann twenty years before when he received the first pressings of his recording of Schelomo, also recorded with Stokowski. When I was asked to record the same piece with the same conductor, I feared that I couldn’t possibly follow in my idol’s footsteps, so I worked feverishly on the piece and did everything I could to learn every single note. Once I was ready, I looked forward to working with Stokowski and to discovering how he achieved that incredible sound.

The first rehearsal was complete chaos. Stokowski kept coming in early in the opening section. I agonized over how I was going to remedy the situation because one certainly couldn’t tell him anything, but I had to do something, because we were going to perform it in Carnegie Hall and then record it. Eventually I went up to him and said, “Maestro, am I coming in too soon here?” I could see that he realized he was supposed to come in later, but, rather than admit his error, he said, “Yes, yes.” As if this wasn’t enough, he would have the orchestra do all sorts of crazy things, like play a tremolo at the musical climaxes, or, as if he had just received a vision from God, ask the violins to play con sordino. I was becoming extremely agitated when, all of a sudden, as if by magic, the group sounded like the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra. There was nothing he did that one could point to that would explain this sudden transformation, it just happened as if through ESP. I believe Gunther Schuller wrote about this once too, saying something like, “All of a sudden, even though this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing, we sounded like the Philadelphia.” It was an amazing phenomenon.


TJ: Let’s get back to Dounis and his teachings. What were some of Dounis’ guiding principles?

GN: He taught what he called “expressive technique.” He defined technique as the ability to reproduce on the instrument any sounds that occurred in the musical brain. This included both slow and fast passages. His goal was to give his students the knowledge of how to physically reproduce anything that they liked about other performers on any stringed instrument.

The basic philosophy of Dounis’ teaching is that we are all born with many of the instincts for fine playing, but that these instincts are lost as we develop our intellect and become more self-conscious. This is the secret to the amazing feats of child prodigies. Their natural instincts are retained a lot longer than anybody else’s, which may have something to do with the fact that many of them have musical parents who recognize their child’s talents early on and do their best to nurture them. Dounis understood this, so he created exercises that would help his students to re-discover their instincts.

Dounis believed that technique is essentially based on “evenness,” the goal being to give the impression that everything is on the same string. One should be able to get the same vibrato with every finger in any position on any string, the same tone with the bow on every string, and to make unnoticed string changes. Any deviation from this evenness would then be for musical reasons, not due to technical deficiencies.

He had superhuman powers of observation, both aural and visual. He could look at a player and easily find thirty things to improve upon, which reminds me of a story. My first wife was a cellist, and was much better known than I was when we married. She was a child prodigy with an incredibly natural technique and she had won some competitions. She had also played the Haydn D Major Concerto with the New York Philharmonic at age 17. I remember struggling with the first fast G minor arpeggio in the Schumann Concerto [see Example 1], which she could toss off without a problem. For years, I would get in front of a mirror with her and she would play it and then I would play it, in the hopes that I could mimic her motions and suddenly be able to play it as well as she did. But I just couldn’t figure out how she did it. I was studying with Dounis at the time and I told him about my struggles, so he suggested that I bring my wife in for a lesson. At the next lesson, we took out our cellos, and he said to her, “Why don’t you play that run,” which she did, flawlessly as usual. Then he turned and asked me to play the same thing. He immediately told me what the difference was and then I could play that passage for the rest of my life.

Example 1 – Schumann Concerto — First Movement
The secret had to do with what she did with her thumb to get to the D harmonic. Her thumb was limp, like the hair of a brush. She also slightly propelled her hand upward with the finger used just before the thumb, which allowed her thumb to relax and go to the harmonic more cleanly.

This same idea is used in fast playing, where you want to sound like you’ve got sixteen fingers, and you don’t want anybody to discern your fingerings. The trick is to use fast, tiny finger movements without the use of any pressure to connect the positions. If the musical passage were played right after doing this exercise, the passage would sound perfectly clean, with no audible slides or shifts. This is the one thing that is common in all great virtuoso playing of string instruments; it sounds as if everything is being played in one position, even when going up and down the same string.

Dounis believed that technique should not be noticed by the listener. His goal was to enable his students to reproduce effortlessly anything they could hear inside their musical minds, without technique getting in the way. To achieve this he stressed that everything was based on mastery of the fundamentals, like how to press the strings down with the fingers, how to hold the bow, string crossings, and so on. When these things are mastered, playing will eventually become a purely musical experience.

He would also say, “Your body is a beautiful machine with many movable parts. If any part is made immobile, it affects the efficiency of the whole machine.” Then he would go through every joint to see that each one was oiled and flexible. With the unlocking of each joint, another dimension of beauty would emerge in my playing.

In addition to Dounis’ thoughts on technique, he had great ideas about every possible performance situation, like how to keep from getting stale and to continue improving if you’ve over-trained for a concert tour, or how to learn something in a hurry if you only have a few days. He prepared me for every possible circumstance.


TJ: How do you keep your performance from becoming stale when you’ve over-prepared?

GN: Your performance can become stale when you are fully prepared to play too soon before the concert. The following are some of the methods he used to overcome this situation:

  • Perform the music in many different ways, always with full expression. For example: play only with the bow on the corresponding open strings of the piece, striving to bring out the original expression with the right hand only.
  • Play only with the left hand, mentally singing all the different vibrato speeds and widths, making the left hand carry out the expression.
  • Play the piece with a separate bow for every note, trying to project the original bowing and phrasing.
  • Reverse all the bowings, so that they are the opposite of the original ones. Strive to get the same expression.
  • Hold the bow at the balance point, playing with full expression.
  • Reverse the bow and hold it at the point, so that the frog becomes the point and the point becomes the frog. When the normal hold is resumed, the bow will feel weightless.
  • Try to play all fast passages twice as fast, pianissimo.
  • Play all the slow parts twice as slow, with the original bowing and expression.

These are just a few of many ways to practice.


TJ: How do you prepare something in a hurry?

GN: Memory and interpretation come first in his method, not instrumental execution. Take a phrase and sing it with a lot of expression while looking away from the music. Then do the same thing with the next phrase, and so on. Do this until you get to the point where, if somebody were to give you the first note of each phrase, you could sing the rest of it. Always sing so that you think of it as a recording that you’re listening to; don’t try to imagine the notes on the page. Once this is mastered, try playing it on the cello. You’ll find that you don’t have to practice it much after that. Memory and interpretation come first in this process, not the instrumental aspects, which saves a lot of time. Basically, you’re learning the piece by ear, which is a very powerful tool. Try playing a violin piece by ear and you’ll notice a freedom that isn’t felt when the eyes are glued to the page.


TJ: Is there is a difference in technique between slow and fast playing?

GN: They are totally different, like the difference between walking and running. When walking, your balance shifts from foot to foot. When running, you stay at the tip of your toes and your balance doesn’t change. Similarly, when playing slowly, one’s hand position is re-adjusted to enable the best vibrato for each finger being used, and one can play more on the pads of the fingers. In other words, there is time to roll the hand back and forth to optimize the hand position for each finger and to use the fleshy part of the fingertips. When playing fast in the lower positions, the hand stays in the position that allows the best vibrato for the fourth finger, since there isn’t time to adjust the hand’s orientation, and one plays more on the fingertips. For fast playing in thumb position, the hand stays in the position that serves the third finger’s vibrato best instead of the fourth. Economy of motion is key in fast playing, but the optimal arm position must also be found in order to succeed.

Another secret to fast playing is that the fingers shouldn’t press the strings down. The speed and momentum of the fingers are sufficient to clearly articulate the notes. This is analogous to running; the feet aren’t stamped down, they feel light, as if the lifting muscles are at work, not the downward pressing ones.

Hovering over the notes works best when playing fast too, because there isn’t time to use the lifting muscles in the fingers like one can in slower playing. The goal is to use a minimum amount of motion, which is something that I saw in Feuermann. I remember certain runs in the Schumann concerto, where my hand would roll back and forth awkwardly. When Feuermann played the same passages, there was no rotation in his hand whatsoever. He could’ve held a cup of coffee on his wrist without spilling it as he flew up the fingerboard, his wrist was so steady. His fingers just scampered up the fingerboard effortlessly. At the time I didn’t really understand this, but after studying with Dounis I was finally able to understand what Feuermann was doing and not doing, even if he couldn’t explain it himself. Having a picture of how Feuermann played in my mind, however, was extremely helpful when I studied with Dounis.

Dounis used the basic philosophy of yin/yang, that everything in movement is either active or passive. If something goes down, you let it happen; if it goes up, you make it happen. This applies to bowing too, a down bow is more of a passive motion since gravity may be used, while an upbow, which uses the lifting muscles, requires more participation from the player. Agility comes from being able to lift fast and relax immediately.


TJ: How should one lift the fingers.

GN: The fingers are similar to our legs. The first joint is the ankle, the second, the knee, and the knuckle joint is the thigh muscle. We lift from our knuckle joint in a backwards motion, rather than straight up, so that the fingers retain the same curve that they had on the string. The lifting should be a sudden motion with an immediate release, so that the finger drops halfway back to the string.

Another way to visualize this is to put your relaxed, curved fingers under the neck of a cello and knock your knuckles against it. You’ll see that the fingers immediately releases. The idea behind all of this is that you will never get tense because every impulse is continually being released.

Holding onto an impulse instead of letting go of it is what creates tension. This can be readily experienced in singing; we naturally sing “do-re-mi” in a very simple manner when asked, not “dohhhhhhh-reeeeeeeee-miiiiiiiii,” as if we’re hanging on to each note for dear life, which can be very exhausting. This is why a string player’s ability to sustain a note can be problematic.

Our playing should be more naturally vocal, where articulations are continually being varied. When singing, our hands do not influence us, since our musical mind may work with little distraction. But as soon as an instrument is placed in our hands, we often lose the full connection with our musical mind, which is when tension starts to build up.


TJ: What are the proper motions for shifting?

GN: It depends. There’s a big difference between an expressive and a hidden shift. The expressive shift has four parts. For simplicity, let’s talk about shifting with the same finger. The first step is to vibrate the note before the shift. Next, the finger is lifted slightly so that the finger is almost a harmonic. Then, go to the second note with a light finger, retaining the harmonic-like contact. Finally, fall down on the note and vibrate. Of course, the goal is to combine all these steps into one integrated motion.

Another aspect in shifting is to bend the wrist toward the next note. In going from a higher to a lower note, pull towards the next note by arching your wrist in that direction. When jumping, the knees are inclined in the direction that you want to go, and the degree of inclination determines the distance of the jump. If the jump didn’t go the right distance, the upward thrust and inclination of the knees are adjusted before the next attempt. A similar thing happens in shifting; how much the wrist is inclined before the shift determines how far the shift will go. The corollary to this is that a missed shift should never be blamed on the arrival note, the problem is in the way you leave the note before the shift.

During the transition between the notes, the shifting finger should follow the string like a railing. The finger is in a released state, so it straightens out a little during the shift. When the second note is reached, the finger rounds a bit. The motion should be similar to what one does when feeling for the ripeness of a bunch of tomatoes. You feel the first tomato between your thumb and finger, release it, and then move your hand to the next tomato, and feel it in a similar manner. The key is to release both the left hand and the bow pressure, otherwise the shift sounds like an elevator.


TJ: What does the thumb do during the shift?

GN: It should remain limp, following behind the hand in a totally released manner.


TJ: What should the thumb be doing ordinarily? Do you squeeze with the thumb?

GN: No. I never squeeze my thumb because I want to press the strings down using gravity only. Dounis had me practice a lot without my thumb to reinforce this. The thumb should never be a master, it should be the servant to the other fingers. This is particularly important for vibrato, because the thumb can pull the other fingers off balance.


TJ: How is a non-expressive, or “hidden,” shift done?

GN: Let’s talk about long shifts. A good way to get the feeling for this type of shift is to jump in the air and come down on the next note, using an arc-like motion instead of a straight motion, though still lightly along the string. Let’s say you’re shifting from middle C on the A string to C an octave higher. Place your hand at the second C, stay there, and then without moving your arm, stretch your hand all the way back (towards the scroll), no matter how crazy it is. If you relax your hand, it will go back to the original position. This is the momentary intermediate position during the shift from the lower C. In other words, the pull towards the next note is meant to feel like a rebound towards the next note, so that the shift is a release, not an active function.


TJ: You use a chromatic exercise in which you shift 0-1-1-2-2-3-3-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-0. What is the point of this? [See the Example 2]

Example 2 – Chromatic Exercise
GN: It’s meant to show the player that each finger can move independently of the others, at least between small intervals, which is tremendously helpful in fast playing. In other words, a finger should be able to move sideways without affecting the others when shifting between half-steps. In this exercise, the finger makes a quick but small impulse without the need to move the entire hand. Notice how it can be done relatively independently of the thumb. This can be also practiced by shifting two fingers by half-steps in opposite directions, moving back and forth between two sets of notes, without engaging the thumb. This will help to create the feeling of a much freer hand. Otherwise, if the thumb were to move, the arm must participate too, which really slows things down. The feeling you should have is that the hand is what moves from place to place, while the arm merely follows its lead.

The above exercise is meant to develop the sideways motion of the fingers. It is extremely important for the independence of the fingers and enables one to form different finger settings without involving large movements of the wrist. Practice the above exercise slowly at first with a loose vibrato. Each finger should hold onto the note (lightly) after the shift so that it will be in tune on the way down. Then play fast and light with very little pressure on the string. Practice it with an extremely flat wrist, which helps to isolate the fingers. Be sure to practice this on all strings.


TJ: In your Strad interview, Jeffrey Solow’s impression was that your arm leads the hand, not the other way around.

GN: It may have looked that way, but I assure you that all the impulses start from my hands, not my arms. Feuermann did the same thing. He used to point at various parts of his body and say, “Not here, not here, not here….” And then he would finally point to his hands and say, “Here. This is where your impulses should start.” When I teach I sometimes ask my students to imagine that the hands are little dogs that are attached to their owner by weightless ropes (i.e. the arms). The hands should be free to move around. The owner shouldn’t pull them around so that they’re not free to move. In other words, the arm follows the hand somewhat passively.


TJ: You don’t believe in Janos Starker’s principle that motions should generally start from the largest muscle groups possible and then work their way to the small ones?

GN: I believe that the impulse always starts in the hand and fingers, and not in the arm. Arm movements are sympathetic, passive movements.

This reminds me of a demonstration I often do in master classes. I say to the class, “Suppose I don’t know how to walk. You’re all virtuoso walkers, so give me instructions on how to walk from here to there, and I’ll do everything you say, exactly.” Naturally, they can’t do it. Even if what they tell me isn’t exactly wrong, it’s almost impossible to tell somebody how to walk without becoming confused. This is one of the things that Dounis emphasized; just because you know how to do something doesn’t mean you can teach someone else how to do it too, just like being healthy does not qualify you to be a doctor. In order to teach others, one must completely understand the entire process of how something works. And Dounis was that kind of teacher. Going to him was like going to a doctor, he could see his students’ individual faults and prescribe exercises that would remedy them.


TJ: How should the fingers approach the fingerboard? Perpendicular to the floor or to the fingerboard?

GN: Generally speaking, they should be somewhat perpendicular to the fingerboard, as if the cello is a piano keyboard. The faster the notes, the more perpendicular the fingers should become. But the guiding criteria for finger placement should not be what I say, but what position allows the freest vibrato at any given moment. Vibrato is a great indicator of proper technique since, when optimized, it implies that a good combination of strength and flexibility is being used. Dounis used to say that, if a passage can be played with a beautiful vibrato on every note, it will be easier to play even faster.


TJ: Should the fingers stay over their respective notes at all times?

GN: When practicing fast passages slowly, yes; otherwise, no. The hand stays in the formation of the key that is being played. When going to the next finger, the old finger lifts so that it plays a harmonic. The hand should be shaped to the notes under the hand in a given key, even if the other notes are never played. Pianists do the same thing, since it’s easier for them to land on a chord from mid-air than to hit individual notes. Fast passages will become much easier if they are practiced with this idea in mind.


TJ: Doesn’t holding the fingers over their notes increase the tension in the left hand?

GN: Not at all, since I make sure that the fingers are absolutely limp. To test this, lift and drop each finger to make sure that the vibrato remains constant with each finger change. Of course, it’s not absolutely vital that one play in this way, but its advantage is that the cello becomes more like a keyboard instrument, which improves one’s intonation and fluidity.


TJ: Do you recommend percussively hitting the strings with the fingers in order to achieve clear articulation?

GN: No, the left hand is not supposed to give a xylophone performance. When playing fast, the speed of the fingers hitting the strings is more than enough for the needed articulation. No additional pressure is necessary. People who play with great clarity usually believe they’re achieving this through additional finger pressure, but they really aren’t.


TJ: Do you have any advice on how to use the first finger comfortably in thumb position? It can be a bit awkward.

GN: There’s a big difference in the shape of the first finger when vibrating on it, depending on whether we’re talking about slow or fast playing. In slow playing, the first finger should be straight, leaning backwards toward the scroll with the fingernail facing the bridge and the finger contacting the string on its fleshiest part. In fast playing, the finger should be very curved and contact the string on its inside, near the fingernail, pressing the string as if you wanted to make a left-hand pizzicato. Your finger has to go into this shape so that you can be ready to use your second and third fingers. When you want to reach any other finger from your first, the index finger must go into this interim shape before another finger is used.

In fast playing, the first finger will always sound, with almost no pressure. In general, in thumb position, the freest vibrato with any finger is created when the finger is straighter rather than curved.


TJ: What did Dounis say about the bow?

GN: He talked a lot about how the bow should be an extension of the body, a seemingly weightless part of the right hand; you should feel just as free with the bow as without it. To help me achieve this feeling he gave me a lot of exercises that develop a balanced bow hold. He would start by having me hold the bow in my right hand at the balance point between the second finger and thumb, which is where the bow feels the most weightless. He didn’t start at the frog because he wanted to demonstrate that we almost always instinctively pick up objects at their middle, not their ends. The trouble with the bow is that we are told to hold it at its end, which makes us want to tightly grip the bow to prevent the tip from falling. Then he would say something like, “Suppose I took two bows and tied them end to end, with the frogs together. Where is the balance point?” Of course, the balance point is at the middle, at the frogs. Then he said, “Now suppose I take the second bow away, but imagine it’s still there. Feel as if you’re still balancing the weight instead of gripping it.” Eventually I developed a balanced and tension-free bow hold.


TJ: What did he say about the motion of bow hand’s fingers?

GN: He used the analogy of a paintbrush, where the hand is the handle of a brush and the fingers are the hairs, which is how Feuermann played. The hand is active, but the fingers are passive. As soon as this is mastered, all the tension disappears from the bow arm, including the shoulder, and it feels like everything is being played with the hands instead of the arms, even though the arms are certainly moving.


TJ: Where should the right elbow be when bowing? Should it be somewhat elevated or more horizontal?

GN: The worst thing a teacher can do is tell a student that his or her elbow is too low or too high, because this will result in something self-conscious and unnatural. Dounis believed that there was a natural position for the elbow and he, of course, had several exercises to help me find it. One was to pizzicato the A string with my first finger. Wherever the elbow happens to be when this is done is the natural position for bowing. Another exercise is to take the bow and, without looking, put the frog an inch above the A string. These work every time. These exercises should be applied to every string.

Dounis wanted his students to draw upon the skills we all have in everyday activities and apply them to the cello, so that the cello felt as natural and as familiar as possible. One of the enemies of learning is verbalization because ultimately we’re talking about subtle physical sensations, which are very difficult to convey to another person. This is why Dounis used exercises to get his points across instead of just telling us which joint to move when and where.


TJ: What did he have to say about string crossings?

GN: He said that the arm should lead when going from a lower string to a higher one, and the hand should anticipate the arm in going from a higher to a lower string. Take a cheap bow and play on the wood of the bridge while fingering a piece with the left hand. The bridge will feel like it’s one curved string, which will result in an awareness of the gradual change of angle when going from string to string. Be sure to always go through a double-stop level for a split second when changing strings, so that it doesn’t sound like there are four distinct strings.

This is a great preparatory exercise for the Bach Suites. Before my first New York performances of all six suites, I played each suite on the bridge, because one of the difficult things about Bach is the constant string crossings. Sometimes cellists with very good technique don’t sound as good when playing Bach, even though the Suites are less difficult for the left hand, and that’s because they fumble through the variety of string changes that Bach’s music demands. They may have clear musical ideas, but uncomfortable and awkward string crossings creep into their playing, resulting in false accents and other unintended musical mannerisms.


TJ: What sort of exercises do you recommend for skipping strings, for example, going from the C to the A string?

GN: Take a pencil in your fingertips, as if you were holding a bow, and lift it towards the palm of your hand. Once this is mastered, which should happen fairly quickly, practice the same thing with the bow instead of a pencil, making sure that the entire bow moves parallel to the floor as it goes up and down. This finger motion is what is needed when changing strings. When skipping strings, like from C to A, imagine that the intermediate strings are going to be played next, the D string in this example, which will set your bow arm in motion. At the same time, lift the bow with the fingers, like in the exercise just mentioned, and then place the bow on the A string. Once this technique is mastered, you will be able to go from the C to the A string quickly and seamlessly, and the audience won’t notice the large skip; it will sound as if an adjacent string is being played instead. This is a great skill to have when playing Bach, where one has to skip strings often, in the E-flat Prelude, for instance.


TJ: How do you maintain the sound as you approach the tip?

GN: That’s what the pronation muscles are for. One of Dounis’ exercises was to divide the bow into four equal parts. Play the first quarter at the frog with a feeling that all four fingers are equally balanced on the bow. During the second quarter, lift off the fourth finger. During the third quarter, remove the third finger. For the last quarter, raise the second finger, which leaves only the first finger and thumb on the bow. Then do the opposite with the upbow.

The idea of this exercise is to gain a feeling of rotating the forearm around a curve, instead of just raising the arm. The curve should feel similar to going from the C string to the A string on the down bow and then back to the C string for the upbow. It should feel as if you are following the curve of the bow, while the balance shifts toward the point. On the upbow, it should feel like you are lifting a little bit, as if going to a higher string, which immediately puts more weight on the string. All this should done with minimal motion, since maintaining the sound towards the tip is more about a subtle change of balance than a raising or lowering of the arm.

Another of Dounis’ exercises was to play a downbow and to pizzicato the string with the point of the bow when the tip is reached. This forces the student to play in a curved manner, not straight back and forth. It has to feel like the bow doesn’t exist, that you’re just touching the string with the finger and your balance is comfortably changing from one part of the bow to the other. Bowing becomes a balancing act, instead of an issue of strength. A frail little girl who does this correctly will have a bigger sound than a muscular giant who doesn’t.


TJ: Do you have any tips on how to sit?

GN: One should sit as if there isn’t a cello, and the cello should fit to the body, not the other way around. The body shouldn’t have to distort itself when the cello is brought to the chest, so the sitting stance should be such that the cello can be placed and taken away without requiring a change of position. It’s also important that you sit such that the legs don’t interfere with the cello’s vibrations, which means that the calves should only barely touch the cello’s rim, not its body. A good exercise it to play without the right leg touching the cello and then to eventually bring it back, but only barely touching the rim, keeping the cello free, as if you weren’t holding it at all with the right leg. To make sure that the cello is being allowed to ring freely, occasionally play an open string and push the cello away from your body with the left hand to verify that the cello is ringing just as freely as when it’s resting between your legs.

Another advantage of not squeezing the cello tightly between the legs is that it can be rotated back and forth. This can be particularly useful when playing the outer strings. For example, turning the cello towards the A string makes the C string more accessible, and improves the bass-line tone.

The cello should become an extension of your body. Think of the strings as your vocal chords and the bow as the air column that sets them into motion. If you try to sing with a distorted body position, it won’t come out correctly, especially when trying to sing loudly. The same thing happens when playing the cello, a body position that doesn’t permit freedom of movement will alter the sound. Therefore, imagine you are singing as you play the cello, and your body position should start to free up.


TJ: Do you lean forward when playing?

GN: One should sit up pretty straight, which is how Feuermann played too. Many lean over because it gives them what I consider to be a false sense of security. They do this because they think of thumb position as being more difficult than the lower positions, which it isn’t.

A mental block that many students have is that they think of thumb position as being higher, physically speaking, when actually they are lower to floor. As a result, the higher positions mistakenly seem more difficult, and they meekly creep with a sagging elbow and bent wrist into what I call the “fear positions.” But if you were to ask non-cellists to put their left hand to the cello in the higher positions, they’ll do it using a perfectly natural arm and hand position, so it must be a purely psychological block for us cellists.

I believe that beginners should be taught a melody in first position, and then the same melody an octave higher, but completely in thumb position, using all four strings, not just the A string. Most students only learn thumb position on the A string, so the notes up there on the other strings might as well be in Siberia.

I have an exercise where I ask my students to play a D Major scale across all four strings, starting on the low D [see Examples 3a through 3c]. The stepwise ascent continues until the D two octaves above middle C is reached. Then there is a step-wise descent back to the low D on the C string. This exercise should be played slowly with a loose vibrato, always shaping the fingers to the D Major tetrachords. It is important that the student be aware of the names of the notes being played, especially high on the C and G strings. After a few days, the student should try playing it fast and lightly. Then do the same exercise in other keys. This takes a lot of thought to do well, because it really forces the student to be conscious of the names of the notes being played. After awhile, the notes all the way up on all four strings will feel as familiar as the ones in first position, which opens up numerous fingering possibilities, and is a great help in sight-reading.

Example 3a – D Major Scale Exercise — First Phrase

Example 3b – D Major Scale Exercise — Second Phrase

Example 3c – D Major Scale Exercise — Third and Fourth Phrases
There are a lot of composers, like Romberg, who wrote concertos that require the cellist to play up and down and across all four strings. In fact, some of that music is a lot more difficult than the Haydn D Major Concerto. Somehow this skill has diminished over time. Cellists should know every note in every position, and think of the fingerboard from side to side, not just from top to bottom, as if it is a keyboard.


TJ: What are your thoughts on breathing?

GN: Breathing will occur more naturally if your technique follows the principles we’ve been discussing. Of course, one breathes whether one plays comfortably or not, but unnatural playing will affect one’s breathing adversely. Therefore, improper breathing is a symptom of other problems in one’s playing. That’s why reminding a student to breathe is of little help, since it addresses a symptom, not the root causes.


TJ: How would Dounis relate all this technical discussion to making music?

GN: As I mentioned earlier, Dounis said that he taught expressive technique, not just technique. Mechanical execution is only part of the story. Our goal should be to have the ability to play even highly technical passages with flair. He wanted to bring back what he felt was a kind of playing that he witnessed as a young person, when amazing personalities like Casals and Kreisler reigned. Therefore, he was trying to help his students to play as expressively as possible by eliminating technical limitations.


TJ: How would he teach this?

GN: He didn’t coach musically, but he encouraged his students to find their own expression through singing. Instead of telling his students what to do, he would encourage them to come up with their own musical ideas and then to convey them clearly and convincingly. In other words, he wanted us to consult our own inner musical authority. He’d say, “Can you sing the phrase with more expression?” Then he’d ask us to immediately play the passage again. If there still wasn’t enough expression, he’d ask us to sing it again, and then he’d point out all the things that were different between how we sang and how we played. Sometimes we’d only get through two phrases in an hour. This experience was revelatory for me because it taught me how to look within myself to find the expression I wanted.

There is an exact science on how to play correctly and everybody’s who’s good does it pretty much the same way, with only minor variations on common principles, whether they realize it or not. If I watch other players on television with the sound turned off, I can tell how well they play from their form.

Before I went to Dounis and Feuermann, I imagined that there must be a logical explanation for how to play well. If one person can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to do the same thing? So I went to anybody who claimed to have a theory on technique, including some quacks. I was a good student and I did everything they told me to the point that my natural instincts were practically destroyed. When I found Dounis, he reversed the whole process and put me back in touch my natural instincts. He taught his students how to tap into their innate natural talent.

Just before my New York debut recital, after I had been studying with Dounis for awhile, I played chamber music with Isaac Stern in New York. I told him that I was looking for recommendations and he suggested that I play for Piatigorsky, which he would arrange. So I went to Philadelphia to meet Piatigorsky and I played the Kodaly Solo Sonata and a Paganini caprice for him. He sat silently until I had finished the Paganini. He finally said, “Some people are born to play the cello, and you’re one of the lucky ones.” I immediately called Dounis and we both had a good laugh as we thought back on all the painstaking work we had done to make it look so “easy.”

Dounis also taught us how to observe what other players were doing physically to create different sounds. That way we could re-create them in our own playing, if we chose to. A great skill is to be able to imitate any sound you hear because it increases your flexibility and tonal palette. He demonstrated that there is a direct relationship between what is done physically and what sounds emerge from the instrument. He was able to combine science and art and create a whole body of knowledge that was years ahead of its time.