Interview by Tim Janof
Eleonore Schoenfeld earned her Artist Diploma at the famed Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, Germany. An internationally known cellist, she has concertized in four continents as soloist with leading Philharmonic and Radio Orchestras, in recitals, and in a violin-cello duo with her sister, Alice Schoenfeld, known as the “Schoenfeld Duo.” She has made numerous recordings of the solo and chamber literature for major TV and radio stations in Europe and the USA. Among them are works specifically written for the Schoenfeld Duo, which has recorded for Everest and Orion Master Recordings. She has been the Director of the international Gregor Piatigorsky Seminar for Cellists in Los Angeles since 1979. A renowned pedagogue, she is Professor at the University of Southern California (USC), where she has been the chairperson of its music school for eight years. She is also master teacher at the R.D. Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, and on the faculty of the Arts Academy in Idyllwild, California. Professor Schoenfeld was the recipient of the prestigious USC Ramo Music Faculty Award in 1990, the Eva Janzer Memorial Award “Grande Dame du Violoncelle” from the University of Indiana in 1993, and the National “Distinguished Service Award” from the American String Teachers’ Association in 1996. Her students have won first and top prizes in several competitions, such as the Tchaikovsky, Casals, and Hammer-Rostropovich. Her students have performed as soloists with top orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Georgian Chamber Orchestra (USSR), and Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Germany), are members of prestigious orchestras, and hold university positions in the United States and Europe. She has frequently served as a chairperson or American juror in national and international solo and chamber music competitions, including the Leonard Rose, Piatigorsky Prize (USA), Karl Klingler String Quartet, ARD (Munich/Germany), and Antonio Janigro (Croatia) competitions.
TJ: You had a diverse artistic experience in Berlin before you began studying the cello.
ES: Yes, I feel very fortunate. I played the violin and piano before starting my cello studies. I was also a dancer for seven years, until age 11, in the Berlin State Opera. My dance experience greatly heightened my awareness of body motion and balance, and has been of great help in diagnosing my cello students’ technical problems.
I performed as a dancer in 15 different operas, which was an absolutely fabulous way to be involved with music, since I stood next to some of the world’s greatest singers. The experience of listening to their wonderful voices and experiencing the operatic atmosphere was incredibly stimulating. The intense training and preparation for the performances had an enormous influence on my young being.
TJ: Who did you study the cello with?
ES: I studied with Professor Karl Niedermeyer, my first cello teacher, from 11 to 14 years old. He was the star pupil of Hugo Becker and later the principal cellist of the Staatstheater in Berlin. He was known as a marvelous cellist who had a gorgeous tone and a fabulous technical command. I particularly remember his beautiful, fluent bow technique. He advanced me so quickly that by age 14 I entered the prestigious Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, 18 being the traditional age of entry. I studied with him for another year before changing to Professor Adolph Steiner, who was a highly acclaimed soloist. He is not widely known in the United States because he mainly concertized in Europe.
TJ: When did you come to the United States?
ES: I came to Los Angeles in 1952 with my parents and my sister, Alice, a concert violinist. In 1959, my sister and I were invited by the Dean of the Music Department of the University of Southern California (USC) to join the faculty. At first we only taught there on a part-time basis because we were so busy concertizing and touring. After awhile, we attracted so many students that we accepted positions as full-time professors.
TJ: Were you on the faculty with Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz?
ES: Yes. I didn’t have much contact with Mr. Heifetz except during examinations, but I met Mr. Piatigorsky more frequently; Piatigorsky was a wonderful colleague. He was a very charismatic artist and personality and was a superb teacher, which is documented by the number of his students who have been successful in the music profession — Nathaniel Rosen, Lawrence Lesser, Stephen Kates and Jeffrey Solow, to name a few. Mr. Piatigorsky and I shared many ideas on teaching.
TJ: Let’s discuss your teaching philosophy. Do you have a standard progression of studies that you use with your students?
ES: Yes, more or less, according to the needs of the student. I draw among others from the following books: Feuillard Daily Exercises, Cossman, Bunting, Sevcik-Cole Changing the Positions, Dounis-Schoenfeld, Franchomme, Duport, Grutzmacher, Popper, Piatti, and Sevcik. Etudes are very important because they establish a foundation for technical vocabulary and style.
TJ: You recommend the study of the Sevcik 40 Variations. Why?
ES: The 40 Variations, originally written for violin, are difficult exercises for the bow and concentrate on refining style and artistic shape. Even if the student follows Sevcik’s very specific instructions, the studies should be demonstrated by a knowledgeable teacher who can connect the execution with the right sound, and can point out the musical application in our literature. The Variations require quick changes in the muscle actions ranging from strength to flexibility of the right arm, as well as in the wrist and fingers.
TJ: Why do you recommend the use of the Popper Etudes?
ES: They are very important studies for advanced cellists. They not only provide technical challenges for both hands, they teach musicianship. A student must grasp the vocabulary he or she finds in each etude in order to make the connection with the cello literature.
The etudes include studies of shifts, intervals (also across strings), and double stops, which thoroughly familiarizes the left hand with the road map of the fingerboard. The etudes also emphasize bow studies and playing with a sense of style. They are great exercises for learning about legato playing, bow distribution — sometimes forcing you to play 25 notes to a bow — and for string crossings. If you master the Popper etudes, your technique has come a long way.
TJ: In a recent lecture you indicated that it’s important to not let technical flaws pass without correcting them on the spot. Do your lessons have a lot of starts and stops in them, or do you let your students play through pieces?
ES: I let the student play either a whole movement or a good portion of it. Then I bring the good points and the flaws to their attention and we discuss interpretative ideas. In returning to the beginning of the piece, I correct on the spot so that a mistake does not become ingrained. I give advice about what needs to be corrected and I demonstrate how to practice effectively for best results.
TJ: What recommendations do you have for practicing effectively?
ES: Practicing should be done in a state of relaxed concentration, not with thoughtless repetition. I teach students how to listen, how to recognize a mistake or what needs to be improved technically and musically, and then how to do it correctly or better. The player must first have a specific task in mind and be able to visualize the sound and action necessary to accomplish it. Then he or she tries to do it and evaluates the result. If satisfied, it should be repeated often enough to establish a feeling for the improved version. If not satisfied, another approach or remedy must be found. The player practically lives in three time zones — past, present and future. For advanced players, this threefold process takes place almost simultaneously; as they hear the error, they realize what caused the error and know how to fix it.
Let’s take a shift, for example. You first must decide what kind of shift you want to play. Is it an expressive shift, or is it a “transportation” shift, just going from note to note? If it is a transportation shift, you must examine in careful detail how you are going to avoid an audible glide. If you want an expressive shift, a subtle portamento is appropriate, which would also have to be examined in great detail in order to be within the bounds of musical taste. Once the type of shift is determined, you give yourself a message about how to accomplish it and how you want it to sound. Then you play the shift and evaluate the result. If you are able to successfully play a shift, say, 9 out of 10 times during your practicing, you are less likely to miss it; it has become a natural process.
This process of relaxed concentration works very well, though it takes considerable patience and dedication. The payoff of such a practice method is that it gives you great confidence and lessens the effects of stage fright. After one has practiced in a detailed manner, one must also practice the work in larger sections and as a whole, so that one can get a sense of the continuity of the work. The visualization technique still applies, but now with a wider view of the composition in mind. This type of preparation gives my students the confidence to perform well.
TJ: Do you use a supportive and encouraging teaching style, or do you spend a lot of time telling a student what isn’t working?
ES: I am very supportive in my teaching style. I spend most of the instruction time on the elements that will work and on the things that will give the student confidence. I also set clear expectations. Needless to say, I make the student aware of unconstructive efforts, so that he or she doesn’t waste energy and time. I also teach students to think for themselves. The student-teacher relationship is a two-way street and both parties have great responsibilities.
TJ: You said in a recent speech that “desire is talent in its purest form.” What does this mean?
ES: If you desire something very badly, you can overcome many obstacles. If you can visualize a goal and the steps that will take you there, you are more likely to practice very diligently. However, desire has to be fortified. Enthusiasm and eagerness are wonderful, but they do you no good if you aren’t willing to study intelligently and diligently. This determination may be the most important “talent” in your life. When the great violinist Joseph Joachim was asked, “What does it take to become a successful musician?” he answered, “Ideally, it takes three ingredients: one-third talent, one-third character, and one-third health.” I believe that desire, determination, and willingness to work fit under “character.”
I learned about dedication and discipline in my early years at the State Opera. I have been reaping the benefits of this approach throughout my life. I learned to face demanding concert schedules, traveling, rehearsing, teaching schedules, and have enjoyed every aspect of my professional activities. Because of my rich artistic experiences as a soloist with orchestras, in recitals, in chamber music concerts, and in concerts with my sister as the Schoenfeld Duo, I know I can inspire my students to strive for excellence and professionalism in their performances. My former students can be found in fine orchestras in Europe and the USA, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, some are enjoying successful concert careers, and others have positions as pedagogues in universities around the world.
TJ: Students usually have areas in which they are strong and others in which they are weak. Do you leave the things in which they excel alone and concentrate your efforts on the things that need improvement? Or do you try to build from their strengths?
ES: I look at the complete player and continue to build their strengths and as well as address their weaknesses. For example, some people have a shorter or weaker fourth finger. To sustain a musical phrase, one must be able to use the fourth finger with the same articulation and vibrato as the other fingers. I suggest trill studies for strengthening the fourth finger, which will also improve the quality of its vibrato.
The weakness of the fourth finger may actually be conditioned by the fact that the other fingers, especially the longer second finger, articulate too strongly, so the other fingers must be addressed as well. I must admit that, in a lyrical passage, it might be more desirable to choose fingers that are stronger and can better project the desired expressiveness and variety of vibrato; the fourth finger may not always be the best choice.
TJ: How do you change a student’s habit of over-articulating with the fingers?
ES: I teach my students to listen to themselves and to detect the differences in their finger action. Once they hear what they are doing, they fix it.
TJ: Do you use the concept of controlled arm weight when discussing fingering technique, where the fingers take turns bearing the weight of the arm on the fingerboard?
ES: Yes. But the weight must not be so heavy that it stiffens the fingers or interferes with the use of the vibrato, which requires flexibility in the finger joints.
TJ: Do you use the concept arm weight when discussing bowing as well?
ES: Yes. Arm weight should be directed through the fingers, over the bow, and onto the string. The first finger is used for adding weight and the third and fourth fingers are used for releasing it. A fine player subtly changes the balance of the hand throughout the bow stroke in order to achieve a good sustained sound and as needed to create different tone qualities, dynamics and colors. In any type of bowing, tone production depends on the right combination of the point of contact, speed, and weight. I give great care to the development of a good sound in my teaching .
TJ: At what point do you suggest a student study the Dvorak concerto? Some believe it should be saved until the end, since it is so difficult, while others believe in letting their students struggle with it, even though it may be way beyond their technique.
ES: I prefer not to assign a piece if it’s way beyond the student’s technique. Exercises, etudes, and other literature should be carefully chosen to prepare the player for this demanding work, which, as Rostropovich says, is the “Crown” in our repertoire. A work like the Dvorak Concerto will be studied several times on different levels. Ultimately, the teacher has to decide when the student is ready for the “first time.”
I prefer that students work on pieces they are ready for. If they try to tackle a piece that is way beyond their abilities, their lack of progress may greatly discourage them. It takes a long time before one can manage the lengthy Dvorak Concerto, which is why a shorter piece of similar difficulty can be just as rewarding. A teacher might consider assigning some of the other fine concerti that are very rewarding for less advanced students, like the Romberg, Goltermann, and Davidoff, which teach technique and musicianship. Otherwise, one might occasionally assign a couple of playable lines from the Dvorak, just to give the student a taste of what’s ahead.
TJ: Do you dictate how much a student should practice?
ES: The recommended amount of time spent practicing the cello depends on the age of the student, on their level of accomplishment, on their repertoire, and on their available time, considering their amount of homework and other commitments. There is no formula. Also, some students have the talent to accomplish more in their practice time than others and therefore can achieve higher goals. It is not how many hours a student spends practicing, but what he or she accomplishes during that time. The ambitious and intelligent student can cover more repertoire and prepare for extra projects like competitions and concerts. Young students may have to be assigned a certain length of practice time in order to become mentally prepared for the fact that learning takes time, like going to school. The advanced student is motivated by his or her own ambition for future goals and by the teacher’s expectations.
I do give advice on how much time my students should spend on technical studies, like scales, arpeggios, and etudes. My students know that I expect the assignments for the lessons to be prepared to the best of their ability. At the beginning of the semester, we discuss the repertoire that should be covered, as well as the repertoire for upcoming recitals and competitions.
TJ: Do you tend to dictate interpretations to your students or do you let your students come up with their own ideas, and perhaps make mistakes?
ES: I like to give guidelines. At the same time, creativity must be allowed to flow. I am interested in their thinking and the mistakes they might make. It gives me the opportunity to explain why certain things can or cannot be done technically or musically.
TJ: Students have unique personalities. Some may be more analytical or inhibited in their approach, while others may be more emotional and outgoing. How do you vary your approach with the different personalities?
ES: This is a challenge for any teacher. I try to analyze the qualities and shortcomings of the student so that I am able to determine which approach works best. With the more inhibited students I demonstrate several ways in which a phrase or passage can be played and interpreted in an attempt to stimulate their imagination. Also, I discuss my thoughts about how to shape a phrase, or reasons for using different fingerings and bowings. Some students might imitate me — much can be learned by imitation — until they find their own expressiveness.
TJ: What do you do with students who play with “too much” emotion, who you have to tone down?
ES: To play with emotion and to have the desire to communicate the music is very desirable. If the interpretation tends to be too emotional and arrhythmic, my first suggestion would be to practice with the metronome. Also, students sometimes “enjoy” their own part to the extent that they do not pay enough attention to the piano or orchestral parts. They miss the information contained in the score, which would have given them the total musical picture. Once the student has objectively compared his or her “interpretation” with the score, it may bring awareness and better direction to his or her studies. The step from the sublime to the ridiculous is a very small one.
I encourage my students to sing, which taps into their inner voice. Most people don’t hear what their inner voice is trying to say while they play. When they put the bow on the string, it’s already too late. I will often ask a student, “Is this really what you want to hear? Are you speaking with your desired inflection and with the appropriate feeling, or are you going overboard with a whimsical idea?” If they are still having difficulty hearing themselves objectively when they play, I encourage them to use a tape recorder. Once they compare how they actually play with how they want to play, they tend to bring more discipline to their performance.
Chamber music playing is an excellent way to learn musicianship, to acquire good listening habits, and to develop the inner ear, as well as peripheral hearing ability. I am fortunate to have received extensive chamber music training with Professor Karl Klingler, leader of the eminent Klingler String Quartet in Germany. I was also principal cellist in the Berlin Chamber Orchestra for a number of years.
Many people play faster than they can hear, which is a huge problem. They play fast notes without training their inner ear first. One must be aware of so many things while playing that only slow practice gives one time to process and integrate all this information. We need to anticipate the harmonic structure, intervals, speed, expressiveness, tone, and so many other details.
Of course, speed has to be practiced as well. When practicing for speed, fast passages should be broken into small segments so that the hear can easily recognize the correctness or any flaws; one should not play more notes than one can evaluate. To give a simple explanation: practice four notes plus one additional note, call this Unit #1, repeatedly in a fast tempo so that it becomes one “message.” The ear can now recognize the five notes as a single unit. Then practice the next pattern of four notes, Unit #2, plus one note. The fifth note from Unit #1 is now the first note of Unit #2, and so on. Then try Unit #1 + Unit #2 plus one note (which would be the 9th note), then try Unit #2 + Unit #3 plus one note (which would be the 13th note), and so on. Now try Unit #1 + Unit #2 + Unit #3 plus one note. (The added last note would always be the connecting note from the previous Unit and the beginning note of the next Unit). After practicing in this manner, the ear will have learned to recognize the correctness of the segment(s), not only by single notes, but by units or multiple units. This process can be compared to reading: the fingers do not “spell” anymore, but play “words”, and “sentences.” Very importantly, the ear has learned to listen faster and to share and supervise the learning process of playing at a high rate of speed. This method of practicing in segments can be broken up into more sophisticated possibilities for each unit (not necessarily always four notes): by position, by units on the same string, or by units of musical sequences, etc.
TJ: How do you teach a student to play with disciplined freedom?
ES: One has to have discipline in rhythm before one can think of freedom. In order to heighten musical expression and give the impression of freedom, one can, for instance, draw more bow on specific notes or add more vibrato. This might give the feeling of extra length but the value of the notes should actually remain the same. These nuances are contained in the rhythmic structure of the phrase and in the structure of the melody and harmony. I often ask my students to sing the phrase or to speak with rhythmical inflection to find out which note or notes deserve this special attention.
TJ: When do you teach rubato?
ES: Rubato is appropriate when the composer indicates or implies rubato in the music. This gives one the opportunity to explore a new dimension of music making — to play with noticeable rhythmic and emotional freedom within the phrase.
One must be careful not to distort the music, however. Musicians who breathe naturally with the music seem to have a natural feel for the right proportion of rubato. As Hugo Becker said: “Rubato is like re-arranging a room full of furniture. You may move the furniture around, but you don’t take anything in or out.”
TJ: Do you encourage students to play in an orchestra while they’re studying the cello?
ES: Yes. Orchestral playing is an important part of every student’s development, and will help to prepare them for a possible future career as a professional musician. It is an extended form of chamber music playing, since one must be aware of multiple voices and be able to integrate one’s own part into the whole. Learning the great symphonic literature also adds to their knowledge and enjoyment of great music. I am very supportive of my students’ orchestral studies and assist them later on in their preparation for auditions.
TJ: Do you believe in the concept of expressive intonation?
ES: Tempered pitch is usually the norm, particularly in ensemble playing. If slightly shrinking or widening an interval provides musical tension, I would consider using it.
TJ: Do you have any general principles on the use of vibrato?
ES: Vibrato is a very personal matter, like handwriting, but it should not be an automatic shake like a Wurlitzer organ. Both a basically narrow or a wide vibrato can be beautiful, resembling the timbre of singers. Vibrato is the greatest expressive means we have in our left hand and it should be studied very carefully in different speeds and widths — from nothing to violent — and be applied according to the artistic demands of the composition.
TJ: Do you think of musical articulation in terms of consonants and vowels?
ES: Yes. Music is like a language, consisting of vowels and consonants, with variations of sonority and articulation. It has a sense of rise and fall, which can vary with the background of the composer. In Beethoven’s Romance, for instance, the last three notes in the solo part, repeated twice by the orchestra, express “lebe wohl,” which means “farewell” in German. German composers often composed their music with specific words, feelings, and poetry in mind, so understanding German is particularly useful in German music. This applies to music from any culture, of course. In my teaching, I will often put words to the music my students play so that they can feel the musical inflection of a phrase.
It is my goal to teach my students a solid technical background, a beautiful sound, control of the rhythmic contents of the music, and combine these with knowledge and a healthily developed instinct for creativity. These will lead toward a fulfilling life as a professional musician.