Interview by Tim Janof
Orlando Cole, now 94 years old, has helped produce a generation of cellists which includes Lynn Harrell, David Cole, Ron Leonard, Owen Carman, Daniel Lee, Lorne Munroe, Marcie Rosen, as well as principal cellists in a dozen leading orchestras. In 1927 he was a founding member of the Curtis String Quartet with whom he performed extensively throughout America and Europe for 50 years. He has also held master classes in the United States, Europe, and the Far East. Mr. Cole has been a faculty member of Curtis since graduating from the class of Felix Salmond in 1934. In 1986 he received an honorary “Doctor of Music” from Curtis, and in 1990 was honored by the American String Teacher’s Association as “Teacher of the Year.” Mr. Cole has also been honored by the Philadelphia Art Alliance and the venerable Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. In 1999 he was given the first award by the Curtis alumni. He continues his seventy-five-year teaching career at Temple, Curtis, and the summers at Cleveland Institute’s “Encore.” Orlando Cole and Lynn Harrell are featured in two highly acclaimed videos titled “Exploring the Bow Arm,” which is available through Shar.
TJ: You studied with Felix Salmond, who, among others, taught Leonard Rose, Frank Miller, Samuel Mayes, and Bernard Greenhouse. How would you describe Salmond’s playing?
OC: He didn’t have a virtuoso technique but he had a very beautiful modern sound. Almost everybody who studied with him inherited his approach to the instrument, which was very relaxed. None of us were plagued by physical problems that result from too much tension. I don’t mean to imply that he was a dull player — far from it. He produced a big sound and had a fiery temperament. He had what I call “intensity without tension.”
He stressed the importance of singing on the instrument and made sure that we didn’t force the sound. Over-pressing results in a nasal timbre, which was common in the older generation cellists of the day. The difference can be heard in “Recorded Cellists,” the anthology on the Pearl label. The older generation cellists on the recording have a dry sound, while the younger ones have a warm and rich tone. I think it was Casals who opened cellists’ ears to the difference.
Salmond taught at Juilliard and Curtis at the same time, so a whole generation of the most talented cellists in the country passed through his studio. He was a very rough teacher to work with — terribly harsh and critical — but he had a very perceptive ear and he expected his students to develop it too. Salmond set a very high standard of musicianship.
TJ: Would you say that he wanted pretty much every note to have a beautiful tone?
TJ: I assume he acknowledged that there are times when one wants to be a little more aggressive.
OC: Of course, but he stressed that a big aggressive sound could still have a beautiful tone. Just listen to recordings of Feuermann and Casals and you’ll see that it’s possible.
TJ: Was he the one who came up with the notion of the paintbrush technique? Leonard Rose was a strong advocate for this.
OC: No, Rose got that from Galamian while teaching at Meadowmount.
I remember when Lynn Harrell came to me after studying with Rose. I mentioned that he didn’t seem to be using Rose’s ideas on bow changes. Lynn, who has a very simple and beautiful change of bow, replied, “Oh, I don’t go for that junk.”
Salmond advocated very little motion during bow changes. He believed that the motion should be simple, and the paintbrush idea is far from simple. Just watch videos of Casals and you’ll see how simple his bow motion is, and how difficult it is to discern bow changes. Our goal should be to minimize motion in both hands.
Salmond also believed that the right thumb should be bent when exerting pressure between the thumb and first finger. There should be upward pressure from the thumb and downward pressure from the first finger in order to sustain the sound.
TJ: Should the thumb be bent even when playing at the tip?
OC: Oh yes, especially at the tip. That’s where you need it the most. Anybody can play loudly at the frog by just using the weight of the arm and shoulder, but when the contact point moves away from the frog, what’s going to produce the sound? You have to sustain the sound with the pressure of the thumb. The only caveat is that the pressure must be released as you return to the frog, otherwise the hand will cramp.
TJ: Gerhard Mantel, author of Cello Technique, believes that the thumb should be straightened as one approaches the tip because it’s easier to maintain the pressure.
OC: I don’t agree. It doesn’t take enormous pressure to play the cello, even at the tip, so this is unnecessary. Subtle control is lost in the right hand if the thumb is straightened. If the thumb is curved, one can modulate the amount of pressure to very fine gradations, even while at the tip. You need to have subtle control over every aspect of your playing in order to sustain the sound or crescendo towards the tip.
This is a difficult subject to talk about without showing you, which is why Lynn Harrell and I made the two videos, “Exploring the Bow Arm.”
TJ: Did you study with anybody else after Salmond?
OC: No. I went straight to being a teacher at Curtis. I started at Curtis as a student in 1924, when the school first opened, and I have been there ever since.
TJ: Were you students alongside Leonard Rose and Frank Miller?
OC: No, they were at least ten years younger than I. They happened to be cousins, by the way.
TJ: Could you tell there was something special about Leonard Rose in his student days?
OC: Definitely. He played very beautifully and I thought very highly of him, though I didn’t know whether he would have a solo career. Even Feuermann had a hard time in those days, having only twelve engagements the year he died. Piatigorsky was also struggling to get his career going.
TJ: Did you ever hear Casals perform live?
OC: I heard Casals play in Philadelphia from 1925 to 1929. At that time he was only in his early 50’s and at the height of his career. The recordings from the Prades Festival, made when he was in his 80’s, don’t do him justice, since they sound a bit labored. But the earlier RCA recordings of the 1920’s demonstrate supremely polished and beautiful playing. His recording of the Bach Suites, made in the 1930’s, is wonderful too. In person he had a sound that seemed effortless as it carried above the orchestra. The energy and sincerity of his playing was memorable.
TJ: Did you hear Feuermann perform?
OC: Yes. He taught at Curtis during the last year of his life, where he played a recital that was truly unforgettable. He also performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra several times. I saw him play the Haydn D Major and Brahms Double concerti.
TJ: How would you describe his playing? Did you get the sense that he was playing with abandon? Or was it very controlled?
OC: His playing was controlled, but it was always musically very beautiful. Every sound was perfect and scratchless, and he never seemed to be forcing the instrument whatsoever. He was the greatest string player I have ever heard in that it was always beautiful and seemingly effortless, and, of course, he had an astonishing virtuosity.
TJ: Was he easy to get along with?
OC: Not really. He was always sarcastic and rather bitter with his pupils. I used to know his accompanist, Franz Rupp. Rupp told me that he didn’t particularly like Feuermann as a person, and yet he played and recorded with him for years!
TJ: Did you ever see Feuermann teach?
OC: No, I didn’t, though I’ve heard that he could be very sarcastic and rather cruel to his students, which was the old-fashioned way of teaching. A lot of teachers used to holler and carry on back then, even Felix Salmond when I first went to him. Many of the old-timers taught by intimidating their students, which is certainly not necessary, since it creates a terrible environment in which to make music, where one is scared to death. Many young cellists didn’t like studying with Salmond and didn’t have any real affection for him, but I was with him long enough for him to finally cool off.
TJ: Piatigorsky also taught at Curtis.
OC: He lived in Philadelphia for about 10 years and taught at Curtis when he had time. He was great fun.
TJ: Would you consider him to be a refined player?
OC: Definitely. He didn’t force his instrument, and he didn’t have a big sound, which might surprise some people. He had a particular flair with light, fast-fingered playing, having more of a violinistic approach to the cello. “Grisha,” as he was called, was also a very gifted transcriber and left us some very valuable program works.
TJ: I heard that you obtained an alternative (ossia) for the double stops in last movement of the Barber Concerto. What’s the story behind this?
OC: Samuel Barber asked me why there weren’t more cellists performing his concerto. This disturbed him because he considered it to be one of his best works. I told him that people probably stayed away from it because of the thirds in the first movement, which are particularly difficult. So he took my piano part and marked it on the spot, making the suggestions that are shown below, which are tracings of Barber’s actual handwriting. Rather than re-write the cello part, he just gave those parts to the orchestra, the trumpet in most cases.
TJ: Barber wrote his famous string quartet for the Curtis Quartet, in which you were the cellist for 50 years.
OC: Yes. I recently donated a letter to Curtis in which he said that the slow movement (the famous Barber Adagio) is a “knockout!” He knew he had a hit. I also premiered his cello sonata in New York with him at the piano. We performed his sonata together many times.
TJ: Lynn Harrell is one of your better-known former students. Was it easy to work with him?
OC: Yes, he was very receptive and a fine person. His father had died a few years before he came to study with me. Then his mother was killed in an automobile accident. He lived with my family and we had a great time together. I got to supervise his practicing, not that he really needed it.
TJ: Lynn Harrell mentioned that one of your great strengths as a teacher is that you encourage your students to have their own ideas.
OC: Absolutely, as long as the ideas are valid. If my students do something inappropriate or musically bad, I’ll jump on them right away. But a teacher shouldn’t try to mold students into his or her own image. This may have been one of the flaws in Casals’ teaching style; he would play a phrase and expect his students to imitate it. He once told me, “Why would they come to me for a lesson if they didn’t want to play like me?” On the other extreme, Rostropovich never plays for students, saying that their ideas are more important than his own. He wants his students to develop their own feelings and knowledge of a work. I prefer a more balanced approach.
TJ: Lynn Harrell, when discussing how your teaching style differed from Leonard Rose’s, said he got the sense that music was about competition with Leonard Rose, while with you it wasn’t about winning at all, it was about making music and enjoying it.
OC: That may be. Leonard Rose prepared a lot of students for competitions, so he was probably more focused on the competitive aspects of music than I.
TJ: Whose idea was it to do the video, “Exploring the Bow Arm”?
OC: It was my idea. It’s terribly difficult to write about bow technique in a way that will have any meaning to the average reader. How can one adequately describe in words a certain sound, color, or character of a bow stroke? How can one describe how to do spiccato? A video is infinitely more useful than written material.
I’d been using the Sevcik Forty Variations for teaching bow technique for decades, and it occurred to me that they would provide a great structure for discussing the various aspects of the bow. The Variations require a huge arsenal of bow strokes that one needs when playing chamber music. A cellist needs to have a bow arm that is as flexible and as musical as a violinist’s.
TJ: You seemed to be marveling at Lynn Harrell’s technique throughout the video.
OC: He’s certainly a phenomenal cellist.
TJ: There seemed to be times when you two didn’t agree.
OC: The video was unrehearsed, so neither of us had any idea what was going to happen. That’s part of what made the video fun to make. The tape was honest. We didn’t excerpt or splice anything.
We had worked through the Sevcik exercises when he was a kid, which was many years ago, so naturally he’s developed his own ideas since then. I wouldn’t expect that we’d agree on every point.
TJ: Is it your experience that most students’ bow arms lag behind their left hand?
OC: Very much so. I’ve listened to hundreds of auditions in my life, and I find time and time again that students often have very fine left hands, but they have virtually no training in the use of the bow arm. I’m not sure why their teachers allow this to occur. The bow arm requires much more careful analysis than the left hand in string playing.
TJ: You recommend raising the arm a little as one bows toward the tip.
OC: It helps smooth out the bow change while sustaining the sound at the tip. Raising the bow arm helps direct the arm weight in a manner that maintains the bow contact. It also helps to keep the bow straight while at the tip. Some people advocate bowing in figure-8’s in order to achieve smooth bow changes, but I’ve never been comfortable doing anything so intricate. I believe in bowing perpendicular to the string, unlike Leonard Rose. If you don’t play with a straight bow, you’re bowing against the vibrations of the string. The affect on the sound can be easily heard and felt when the bow isn’t straight.
I do not vary bow pressure during string changes except to accommodate the subtle change of string thickness or a change in dynamics. Alternations between two strings at moderate or quick tempo — as in the Bach G Major Prelude or the first movement of the Brahms F Major Sonata — will require the use of some wrist. As always, the ear and the goal of minimum motion should be the guides.
TJ: You recommend not dipping the wrist when bowing at the tip.
OC: The wrist should stay pretty much fixed throughout the bow stroke. This ensures that the strength is maintained while at the tip. In order to achieve this, you have to be “over the stick,” as I call it, with your hand. Dipping the wrist weakens the stroke.
TJ: You tell students to not be afraid of bowing near the fingerboard.
OC: I’m not saying that cellists should bow there all the time, but playing near the fingerboard produces a color that better suits only certain musical moments. A lot of teachers encourage their students to play near the bridge all the time so that they produce more sound. But this limits a student’s color palette and makes it more difficult to play certain bow strokes, like spiccato or marcato.
The ear is the ultimate guide. If something doesn’t sound beautiful, do something about it! There’s a quality of sound that comes from inside us. But unless you have a conception of the kind of sound you want to produce, you’re not going to get it. You can’t do it mechanically. It’s far too subtle for that.
TJ: You said, “Technically we should play from habit. Musically, hopefully not.” What does this mean?
OC: Technique must become sort of unconscious and just flow. Then, when performing, one’s attention can be directed toward musical issues, like sustaining or building a phrase, creating certain dynamics, and so on. We don’t want to worry about missing a shift or whether one should be playing nearer to the bridge. Technique has to become automatic.
TJ: Do you advocate spreading the fingers in order to achieve power with the bow?
OC: No, this lessens the power, since it strains the hand. Try spreading your fingers in the air without the bow and notice how tiring it becomes after a very short time. Neither Casals nor Feuermann did this. There was very little change in their bow hand no matter what they played. As usual, simplicity of motion should be our goal.
TJ: Do you find that cellists tend to play dotted notes in an overly scratchy manner?
OC: Yes. One should be able to play any note with a beautiful tone, no matter what type of articulation is used. In order to make a note speak, the French approach is to add a little pressure just before drawing the bow, and then, at the instant the bow moves, to release the pressure and move the bow fast across the string. In other words, the string is gripped ahead of time to make sure that the note speaks, then the pressure is released so that it’s allowed to speak freely, and then the bow is moved quickly so that the sound is produced with just enough pressure to keep the bow on the string. This is difficult to do in a fast tempo but it can be done with practice. It becomes a matter of coordination and timing. Fritz Kreisler, who was trained in Paris, did this all the time; his clear articulation and pure tone are unbelievable in his recordings.
TJ: You once said, “The essence of string playing is in the fingers.” How so?
OC: Bow technique is in the sensitivity of the fingers, their timing, and their feeling. As we draw a bow, we start out downbow using the weight of our arm. We don’t use all the weight because a horrible sound would result. The amount of weight and pressure is regulated by the ever-changing feeling in the fingers. As the bow is drawn and the hand moves away from the cello, pressure has to be applied in order to sustain the sound, again measured and controlled by the fingers. The pressure applied varies as the bow speed changes, as the left hand moves around the fingerboard, and as the dynamics vary. As you can see, all the expression is in our right hand, except for vibrato.
This tremendous sensitivity and control of pressure, speed, and place has to be constantly monitored and finely adjusted by the fingers. If you change one of these elements, you have to change the other two in order to maintain a good sound. But if you tried to think about it all the time you’d go crazy, so you have to learn to do it instinctively. The student must train his ear to hear the difference and adjust the fingers accordingly.
TJ: Let’s say you’re playing the second movement of the Elgar Concerto — a fast moto perpetuo. How does one play this without getting tired?
OC: Before I answer your question, I want to say that I believe spiccato should be used in this movement. Many cellists play it on the string, but that’s not the character of the music. The sparkle and brilliance is lost.
Anyway, in order to minimize fatigue, the upper arm and shoulder should never be involved. If the whole arm were used, the stroke would have to slow way down because of the mass of the arm, not to mention that the delicacy would be lost. The key to developing a quick spiccato is to use the correct wrist motion and to release the pressure on the string. The wrist motion should be sort of diagonal, in which the bow is both drawn and lifted at the same time. Most cellists press too much or use just a horizontal motion, which prevents a decent spiccato. Others try just bouncing up and down, but this doesn’t work either. The key is the diagonal motion, which I demonstrate in the video.
TJ: If you were to make a video about the left hand, what would you discuss?
OC: I would talk about several things:
- The importance of playing with the elbow, wrist, and hand in one line. The elbow and wrist shouldn’t droop below the hand. This is a common problem.
- The placement of the left hand should be simple and natural, not contorted or strained.
- When extending back for the B-flat on the A string, the other fingers shouldn’t be disturbed, since the backwards extension is just a function of the first finger, not the entire hand. The hand shouldn’t roll back and forth when playing in an extended position either.
- The fingers should always be over the string being played, not out in the air.
- The importance of minimizing extraneous motion. One of the most noticeable things about Lynn Harrell’s left-hand technique is that it is extremely quiet. There’s not a lot of motion in his hand, so his technique is very relaxed.
TJ: You mentioned the fingers being over the string being played. Does this mean that the fingers are held over the notes? Or can the hand relax and call upon fingers as needed?
OC: It depends on the passage. If I’m using vibrato and the music is slow, I use one finger at a time. Otherwise, I keep the fingers on the strings as much as possible, though without tension. They can be placed without pressing them down all the way. Only the finger that’s being used presses down 100%, but the others are ready. If the passage is very rapid, the fingers above the playing finger (the fingers closer to the scroll) should be pressing all the time, otherwise there’s no time to place them while lifting the playing finger out of the way. I don’t believe in different fingers going up and down unnecessarily at the same time.
TJ: You don’t believe in the “typing” motion for faster passages?
TJ: Do you think of the fingerboard in terms of blocks of notes? Or do you see the notes more as individual entities?
OC: In a fast passage, there’s no time to think of notes individually. There should be a feeling of groups of notes and the hand should be shaped to anticipate them. For example, if the notes require extended position, I shift directly into a stretched position. Again, this is for fast passages. For slow passages, there’s more time to step around the cello one note at a time.
TJ: What is the left thumb doing when you’re playing in the lower positions?
OC: My thumb touches the neck only very lightly, except that it comes off when I need to stretch the hand for a large interval. I never press with the left thumb, otherwise it will cramp. All the pressure and weight should come from above the fingerboard, never from squeezing between the thumb and fingers. This can be readily experienced by placing the second finger down hard, making sure the elbow is elevated, and removing the thumb; the pressure on the string shouldn’t be affected at all. The thumb merely serves as a guide.
TJ: Let’s say you’re playing the first movement of the Lalo concerto, which is very long with lots of fast, heavy playing. Do you have any advice on how to prevent fatigue?
OC: This movement is also pretty tiring because of the many B-flats in the piece, so the hand spends a lot of time in extended position. The first thing is to be sure to not press with the left thumb. A good exercise to release tension in the left hand is to press down as if you’re playing and then work the elbow up and down without releasing that pressure in the hand. In other words, you don’t rely on tension in your shoulder or upper arm to create the needed pressure on the strings; let the hand do the work. This is similar to the idea of the bow arm, where the strength should come from the hand, not the shoulders. Many don’t realize that it takes a lot of pressure in the left hand to produce a beautiful sound or clean passage. Some people advocate just touching the strings lightly, but you can’t do this and get a real sound.
TJ: Does the average student today have better technique than those of fifty years ago?
OC: The standard of playing has greatly advanced. I have 12 and 13-year-old students who play with a technique that was unimaginable in the old days. If my teacher Felix Salmond were to come back, he’d be absolutely astounded. He’d never heard cello playing like what we have today. Kids now come to Curtis having already covered the major repertoire by the time they’re 15 or 16 years old. And they have incredible technique compared to many cellists of the past.
TJ: How would you compare the musical approach of today’s top performers with those of fifty years ago?
OC: I notice a lot of insincere emotion and theatrics. They have great technique, but they often use it to show off. Many also take too many liberties, both rhythmically and musically. I like to start with what’s actually written first, then add my own individuality, but within a certain bound. Unfortunately, musicians sometimes use music as a vehicle to further their own egos, making themselves the focus instead of the music. Of course, there are a few cellists, like Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, and Lynn Harrell, that are fabulous technicians and musicians.
Feuermann and Casals weren’t show-off’s. They would sit very quietly and play incredibly beautifully in an exciting way. They didn’t try to add a visual element to their performance. Today’s emphasis on showmanship is not a positive development.
TJ: What sort of things do you emphasize when teaching Bach?
OC: My goal isn’t to recreate the baroque performance style, but I do like to use bowings that come close to the manuscripts, though I’m not a slave to them because they differ so much from each other.
Allemandes present the greatest musical problem in the Suites. Those marked “alla breve” should have a pulse of four in a bar. Those without the “alla breve” should be in eight. Some are quicker than others, sometimes due to the time signature and sometimes due to the notation; if there are 32nd notes in the bar, you shouldn’t play them too quickly.
Sarabandes shouldn’t be too slow, with the pulse in 3 not 6, but they should still be very noble and expressive. The Courantes should be very fast; a Courante is a running dance. Gavottes, and Bourrées should have a pulse of two in a bar, as they are marked, and the first and second sections of each should be in the same tempo. The gigues shouldn’t be too fast; they aren’t tarantellas.
The music has so much life in it. Overall the music must have a dance quality and the playing should be very lively and interesting, never dull. Casals did a wonderful job of bringing this out. He does change notes and add chords in his recording, which some people find too Romantic, but his playing is so wonderful to listen to that one can keep coming back to it and never lose interest. Others play Bach beautifully, without a scratch or a note out of tune, but one hearing is enough.
TJ: You were a cellist in the Curtis Quartet for many years, starting in 1928, which was the first American string quartet to tour Europe. How has the chamber music scene changed since then?
OC: In those days, the concert dates were few and far between, so quartets were a rarity. There weren’t many chamber music societies and few colleges had string quartet concerts. At that time there were maybe two or three quartets touring the country, and now there are hundreds. Today’s audiences are much larger and are more appreciative, knowledgeable, and sophisticated. Things are altogether different. I give great credit to recordings.
TJ: Do you have any tips to being a cellist in a quartet?
OC: Cellists have to set the intonation of the quartet with a good bass note and have a very critical ear, as must all four players. The cellist must be sensitive to balance and carefully match his or her vibrato to the others’. Bow strokes must convey the same character on the cello’s thick strings that the others project on their thin strings. This requires special skill. Unlike in orchestral playing, every note must be played with loving care, for it is heard.
Of course, string quartet playing is a most demanding social experience. As it has been said, “It’s four times as hard as being married!” Egos have to be subdued to reach unified musical goals and smooth personal relationships. Three members of my Curtis Quartet were together for 50 years, so I speak from experience.
All in all, I believe chamber music playing, combined with teaching, provides the ideal life in music. If I were granted the chance to re-live my life, I would choose to do it all over again.