Interview by Tim Janof
British cellist Robert Cohen is firmly established as one of the world’s leading soloists. His career takes him on major tours of the USA, Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the UK, performing with conductors such as Abbado, Jansons, Marriner, Masur, Muti, Rattle, and Sinopoli.
Cohen made his concert debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall playing a Boccherini concerto at the age of 12. His prodigy was nurtured by the great pedagogue William Pleeth. He also took part in classes with Jacqueline du Pré, André Navarra, and Mstislav Rostropovich. At the age of 19, after winning several major international competitions, he made his recording debut — Elgar’s cello concerto with Del Mar and the London Philharmonic — which received several awards and has now sold more than ¼ million discs in the UK alone. Cohen has made many recordings for EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Collins; from the Bach Solo Suites through the major cello concertos to the Morton Feldman concerto. Rave reviews have accompanied the recent release on BIS of Sally Beamish’s concerto ‘River’ — written especially for Cohen and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Due out soon is Britten Cello Symphony with the London Philharmonic and Roger Norrington on Decca. This is coupled with the Britten cello and piano sonata with pianist Peter Donohoe.
Cohen has been seen on TV in many countries and is heard on radio frequently. In the UK and Europe, he has brought inspiration to chamber orchestras both in concertos directed from the cello and as a conductor. He has also performed with many leading players around the world, enjoying especially close relations with artists such as the Amadeus Quartet, composer HK Gruber, and the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. In 1989, Cohen established festival in the south of England; Charleston Manor Festival is a unique chamber music festival that reflects Cohen’s personal approach to presenting music.
Established as a committed and inspired teacher, Cohen has given highly successful masterclasses throughout the USA, Europe, Scandinavia and Australia. He is a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in September 2000 he launched a new ‘Superior’ cello class for the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, in Lugano.
Cohen is frequently invited to mastermind special events; for the year 2000, Cohen created three series of concerts for three festivals: “Turning Points” was a creation for the Bath International Music Festival illustrating music at the turn of the centuries and the extraordinary music of the war years. “Hungarian and Czech Mates” was the theme for the Charleston Manor Festival, and “Paris in the 1920’s” was the setting for Cohen’s creation for the City of London Festival, in which he used chamber music, songs, poetry, art, film and literature to reveal the enigmatic characters of the composers who became known as ‘Les Six.’
TJ: How did you meet William Pleeth, who is perhaps now best known as the primary teacher of Jacqueline du Pré?
RC: I was 5 years old when I started lessons with a local cello teacher. Not long after, I discovered that she had been a pupil of William Pleeth, which didn’t mean too much to me at the time, naturally. When I was 10 years old, the moment came when my parents and I needed to make a decision about my future cello teacher and my future schooling. I needed enough time each day to concentrate on the cello and to fulfill my musical potential, and normal schools wouldn’t allow me that time — at least not without a reduction in academic studies — so we considered the option of a specialist music school. I visited the Purcell School, which is one of the two main specialist music schools in England, and it seemed to be an ideal solution; I would get a good general education and lots of time to work on the cello and general musical studies.
Around that time I went to see a public master class given by William Pleeth, which turned out to be an earth-shattering experience for me. I was completely taken with his extraordinary personality and the way he approached music, the cello, and his students, and I knew immediately that I would absolutely adore having lessons with him. A time was arranged and I went very nervously to play for him at his house. I played Saint-Saëns concerto, Bach, and various other repertoire. Because William Pleeth had no other student of my age, I was particularly surprised and thrilled that he then accepted me as a student. It was certainly an unusual situation, but one that proved to be a major turning point in my young life. I adored the whole way he worked and the way he so warmly supported me.
TJ: You once described his teaching methods as “pioneering.” Why?
RC: Most teachers I have observed or have heard about make a pretty clear separation between technique and music in their discussions with their students. William Pleeth’s system was completely integrated and much more flexible.
TJ: Would you say that he struck a good balance between musical and technical discussions?
RC: No, his method was not about maintaining a “balance.” That was what was so extraordinary. He believed that separating technique from music inherently limits them both. He would describe even the slightest inflection of the cello’s voice as a deeply musical entity, and then he would help me to achieve it in subtle technical ways, discovering techniques that one would not come across if one only thought about a passage from a technical standpoint.
His methods established in me a fundamental principle that is the basis of my work and teaching today.
TJ: Let’s say one is playing those nasty descending sixths in the first movement of the Dvorak concerto, for example (see Example 1). How would you apply his approach to this passage?
TJ: So his approach worked well in the “hard parts” too, not just when playing singing lines.
RC: Definitely. Whether playing singing lines or “technical” passages, each note still has musical context, so the same musical principles apply. Music should not take a back seat to technique just because the passage is difficult. His methods led one to a comprehensive knowledge of how to play and communicate every passage. In other words, the more you understand, the better you can play anything, however complicated.
William Pleeth talked a lot about articulation and “speaking” the music through the instrument so that every single consonant and every single vowel is heard as “words” through the music, which is something that I believe in very strongly too. He didn’t believe in just trying to make a nice line, or just creating a beautiful sound. He believed that profound music-making is about much more than that; it’s about what you are trying to say.
He emphasized that no line is simply a line. Every note within a line must have direction, a shape, and a certain articulation. Even the smoothest passage, like the beginning of the Beethoven A Major Sonata, is not just a smooth line by any means; every note must have a life of its own that is connected with the other notes, though not necessarily on the same level. Therefore, the finest details; the finest control of vibrato, the finest enunciation of each note, with different timbres and a different sense of energy and relaxation, must be clear, while fitting into an overall context. A musical line is made up of so many different qualities and intentions and little details of enunciation, and these must be brought out.
This is the sort of thing that you actually hear in the playing of Pablo Casals, although Pleeth wasn’t an enormous fan of his, ironically. The more I look back upon what William Pleeth said to me, and the more I mesh his profound words with my own thoughts, the more I feel there are a lot of connections to what Casals did. My love of Casals’ playing has grown enormously over the years. His care, devotion, and insight into every note, the communication of his deepest feelings, and perhaps most of all his extraordinary integrity affects me more and more.
TJ: You talk about a musical line being made up of “many different qualities and intentions and little details of enunciation.” Isn’t there a danger of becoming so overly detailed in your approach that your playing sounds disjointed and overly mannered? How do you balance your detailed awareness with the need to produce a cohesive and connected result?
RC: Every line of music — whether it be a phrase or a group of phrases — must have an “intention” which relates to its context. Thus one can build the architecture of an entire piece. An “intention” is the communication of a message, a mood, or an emotion. The fascinating and stimulating process of interpreting the composer’s intentions demonstrates the many different ways to “tell the story.” In preparation for a performance, one must come to a decision about those intentions. In performance — through the actual communication of the music and the flow of adrenaline — a higher level of awareness is reached, allowing one to fly to greater heights, using all preparations as a springboard. The lessons learned in performance constantly extend the horizons of our understanding of the music. Music is once again proved to be a living entity, fulfilled only by our genuine integrity.
A line of music must be carefully enunciated — as a sentence of speech — with the overall intention being clearly conveyed by different qualities and details. Our study of the music must cover every possible area with a constant focus on the fact that we have to communicate it all through the medium of sound. The greater one’s knowledge of every detail within the music and the techniques to achieve one’s aims, the greater one’s freedom to communicate on a higher level. I draw an analogy: a 100-meter sprint runner must understand every aspect of how to use and develop his body to achieve the fastest times; the conscious knowledge of energy, strength, relaxation, tension, movement, balance, and state of mind. However, were he to take this comprehensive analysis on to the track for the race, he would surely fall at the first step. It is his ability to place this knowledge into his subconscious and to concentrate on the purpose of the run that gets him to the finish line in his best time. During the race, he may wish to draw to conscious thought any number of knowledge elements that might at that moment enhance his performance. A similar thing should happen when playing music.
TJ: I have heard you talk about “vowels” and “consonants” in music. What do you mean by this?
RC: I was referring to the different kinds of attacks that we use to start and stop each note, which varies along a wide spectrum between sharp attacks and seamlessness. When we play music, we are speaking the musical language of the composer. One therefore has to vary articulations — how one starts and finishes a note — colors, and flavors, depending on the composer. The musical language of Bartok, for instance, has a different set of vowels and consonants from the music of Britten.
In my early career the newspapers criticized me for not playing everything the same way, in some sort of pre-defined “Robert Cohen” style. I deliberately changed the language I used from one piece to another, which made me difficult to pigeonhole. Actually, I took this as a compliment because it confirmed that, at my recitals, you were served more than one flavor of music. Bartok didn’t sound like Britten in my recitals. How boring it would be if everything were to sound similar!
I believe very strongly that this is an important part of one’s mission as a performer, to enter the “sound world” of each composer. We musicians owe it to the composers to really promote their particular language. We need to bow to the composer’s voice and we must try to find the best possible way to genuinely convey it clearly and expressively to the audience. It’s crucial that we don’t put ourselves above the composer. I often say to my students, “take great care of the composer’s wishes and your own personality will emerge naturally.”
TJ: Getting back to William Pleeth, you are quoted in a book on Elizabeth Wilson’s book on Jacqueline du Pré as saying that he encouraged his students to make their own musical decisions. Do 10-year-olds, for instance, have the necessary experience to make these kinds of decisions? Perhaps the process is more important than the actual decision.
RC: Let me first say that my situation was quite different to most 10-year-olds. I had the good fortune to have a musical maturity beyond my years!
The way William Pleeth taught constantly demonstrated the extraordinary number of ways that one can play any phrase, within the context, structure and meaning of the music. He promoted the view that you don’t just learn how to play a phrase nicely and then you’re done. He would say, “That was very good. Now show me another way that is equally convincing?” He was constantly challenging me to find other ways of expressing a phrase. He would put forward many different viewpoints within every piece of music, so I soon discovered that there were no single right answers. It opened up a world with a myriad of possibilities for me. After we had gone through this process, he would often leave the final decision up to me, but, at that point, he had led me to realize that it was not about making final decisions, only temporary decisions. It was this constant exploration that resulted in no two Pleeth students sounding the same, though they each play in a convincing personal style. He didn’t believe in creating ‘carbon copied’ students.
This ‘open philosophy’ is a part of my own teaching, and although I am aware that some of my students are initially a little daunted by learning to play in such a multi-leveled way, they soon discover that it promotes greater security and a higher degree of facility.
I also continue to benefit from this approach in my own playing because I continue to search and challenge myself. I find that this process is one of the most thrilling things about playing music. One must keep on learning and relearning music, trying to find other and hopefully more meaningful ways to play even a simple phrase.
I remember somebody telling me a story about a violinist who stayed at Pablo Casals’ house in Puerto Rico. Casals was practicing Bach at 8 o’clock in the morning. The violinist left and returned a few hours later, and Casals was still practicing the same opening of a particular suite, which sounded sublime. He asked Casals, “Why are you still practicing that single phrase?” Casals replied, “I’m still searching.”
TJ: William Pleeth talked about “rebound time” in rallentandos and accelerandos. What does this mean?
RC: He often used the image of a bouncing ball as an analogy for how one should execute these musical devices. He liked to connect the movement of music to the movement of a bouncing ball. For example, if you drop a ball, the height to which it bounces and the time between bounces becomes less and less, in essence bouncing faster and faster. So this visual analogy refers to how naturally things get faster. Accelerandos and rallentandos should have this same natural feeling.
TJ: You talk in past writings about being consumed with the music and yet still remaining detached. Is there something wrong with getting involved with the music?
RC: No. One’s personal involvement is an essential part of communication with the audience. You simply cannot play music if you don’t have a sense of the depth of the music and you’re not very, very involved in it. On the other hand, the physical requirements of playing something extremely musically demand that you are at the same time able to take a step back from what you are doing. You must make sure that your personal reaction to the music does not block the flow of the music to the audience.
The importance of this objectivity has been demonstrated when I play repeated concerts on tour, or play three or four concerts in the same concert hall. My wife, who knows my playing intimately, sometimes goes on tour with me. We talk about each concert afterwards and we come to certain conclusions about how each one went. Feeling good about the first concert, I might enthuse about how involved I felt with the music. The following night I’d play the same program. I would know what to do, how to make the cello sing, and how to recreate the music, but perhaps I felt less personal involvement in what I was doing, for whatever reason. Typically I would apologize to my wife afterwards, saying, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t as good as last night. I didn’t feel into it as much.” She would often reply, “Don’t apologize. It was better!”
This has been demonstrated time and time again to be the case. There comes a point where too much personal involvement gets in the way of the music. Once you understand the depths of the music, and once you understand how to communicate it and how and what everything means, if you are then overly emotionally involved, you tend to absorb it into yourself and it isn’t transmitted to the audience. But if you step back a little, all of a sudden the music will fly from the stage to the audience. This is one of the most difficult things to master, even with years of experience.
TJ: Is it true that William Pleeth, if he noticed that his students were getting too involved in the music, would have them stare out the window as they played?
RC: Yes. That was also one of the tricks he used to stop his students from getting completely distracted by the technical problems of cello playing. You can get so involved in how to make a note sound right or how to shape a phrase that you absorb it rather than communicate it. Looking out the window can be very freeing.
TJ: You once said, “Pleeth taught us to control the bow and vibrato so that you can achieve the same effects on the A and D strings.” How does one achieve this?
RC: It all depends on your intention. You can either make strings sound different deliberately, like in Bach, where you allow strings to sound different in order to help with the different voices in the music, or you can deliberately make the strings sound very similar. William Pleeth’s attitude was that strings sound different only because you choose to play them that way. One can make the A string sound inward and the D string sound bright. It’s up to the player, not the cello.
You do this by being infinitely flexible with what you do with the bow and the left hand. How much weight you put into the string, how close to the bridge and how fast you bow, how much weight you put into the left hand, the nature of the vibrato, and a myriad of other subtle factors all determine the sound quality. If you want to make the D string sound brighter, for example, you might play nearer the bridge, use less bow, use more weight in the left hand, and use a less warm vibrato. (It’s difficult to describe what one needs to do precisely, when there are so many factors involved). The key is to first imagine what you want to hear and then listen to how you actually sound. Then you must experiment with the many variables until you discover a good combination.
TJ: Let’s move on to André Navarra. You studied with him for a summer in Sienna when you were 17 years old. Was it difficult working with someone other than William Pleeth? I’ve heard that Navarra used a lot of purely technical exercises in his teaching, which seems to go against Pleeth’s teaching philosophy.
RC: It was not difficult for me to work with another teacher as I was always open to different approaches.
Perhaps because of the large number of students Navarra taught, he had unfortunately devised a system of teaching that he applied to all his students, no matter what level or individual needs they had. Consequently, it was rare to hear an especially enlightening comment! Because of his incredibly natural and brilliant bow technique (I always said he was born with a bow in his hand), cellists from around the world came to study ‘how he did it.’ He developed hundreds of different exercises for the right hand to feed the hungry. It was interesting to witness how, in an attempt to exactly copy his bow-hold, many cellists moved further and further away from what worked best for their own particular physique! They learned how to do the exercises, but they found no improvement in techniques they could apply to the music.
TJ: You were also in a master class with Rostropovich, who focuses most of his attention on the music when teaching. I would think that his approach felt a bit more like Pleeth’s.
RC: Yes, but in those classes, I believe he preferred to make the musical decisions himself.
TJ: And then there was Jacqueline du Pré. You began your studies with her when you were 16 years old. She would have been 30 years old at the time, when her illness (multiple sclerosis) was still in its early stages.
RC: Yes. Her husband, Daniel Barenboim, had suggested she give some master classes because he realized that she needed to find other ways to communicate music, now that she was unable to play. It was around that time that I went to play for her. She realized that she might enjoy teaching on a regular basis, so she took me on as her first regular student. This was an extraordinary experience for me because we both had started our studies with William Pleeth when we were 10 years old. We were both curious to see the similarities and differences in the way he taught each of us.
TJ: What sort of things did you note as being different from your own experience with William Pleeth?
RC: Jackie’s tendency was towards playing everything in a passionate, romantic style. So Pleeth gave emphasis in his teaching towards refining the classical, emotionally controlled styles that you would find in Beethoven, for example.
TJ: Did he succeed in getting his message across to her?
RC: Yes. From my discussions with her, it was clear that she very much understood what he’d said, but it wasn’t until her time with Barenboim that she truly put those ideas to use.
In comparison, with me, William Pleeth spent more time on the baroque styles, helping me to find a certain freedom and brilliance in the baroque repertoire. He was passionate about baroque music and he was captivated by his own baroque cello. This was long before the popular baroque resurgence. He was a strong influence on his son, Anthony, of course, who has since gone even further in the Early Music field. William Pleeth was fantastically enlightening and inspiring about baroque music.
TJ: Getting back to Jacqueline du Pré, in Elizabeth Wilson’s book, you are quoted as saying, “Living for every single note was something I already knew about from Pleeth, but I had never experienced it to such a degree as when I was with Jackie.”
RC: That’s right. The big message I got from Jackie was that nothing could be wasted to any degree. Because of her approach, I chose to study the Romantic repertoire with her, which suited her style perfectly.
TJ: You also said, “She believed that every note should be placed in context and played to its emotional limits.” Do you believe that every note should be played to its “emotional limits?”
RC: Everyone’s limits are different, but I think that one is always striving to stretch the boundaries of communication in music. To put it in more broad terms, as a listener, I feel that the concert experience should be something that can stay with you, possibly for the rest of your life. It shouldn’t be an experience that thrills you in the moment, like a circus act, and then is quickly forgotten. My great wish as a performer and as an audience member is that the music will have such a profound effect that it will be remembered forever.
These life-changing concerts are rare but they do occur. For instance, I still remember every note of David Oistrakh’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in London, back when I was 12 years old. It has stayed with me because each note seemed to be played to its emotional limits, which I think can only happen if the emotions are genuine. A performance should be something that makes you as an audience member feel your own deep emotions, emotions that you may not experience in everyday life.
TJ: You said that du Pré’s musicianship was not as spontaneous as we might imagine, that she carefully prepared and thought out what she wanted to do with the music.
RC: Most definitely. Her recordings from her teenage years aren’t as convincing as the recordings she made starting in her early 20’s, when she really began to develop an understanding of what she was doing. I found that she had a fantastic knowledge of how and why she did certain things. There was no way that she could have, quite so strongly, suggested that every note be played to its emotional limits if she didn’t already understand, in her way, where those emotional limits were and how she could reach them.
TJ: How did she articulate her ideas in lessons? Was she pretty detailed in her approach? Did she describe the emotions of certain passages?
RC: It was an extraordinary experience in various ways because there were some lessons when she literally couldn’t talk because of her illness, so she would just nod and gesture. Fortunately, we found ways to understand each other and we grew closer because of it.
Other times, she spent a lot of time talking about phrasing, finding the key points of arrival, how much they should be emphasized, how to arrive at them, how much intensity is required, and how each note must build or decay to the next to make the phrase work, all very detailed. She was very intent on making sure that everything worked musically.
She clearly had a very detailed knowledge of the music and how she played. What was remarkable was that, despite the fact that she couldn’t play anymore, she had a brilliant memory for exactly how she did things when she could play. She literally remembered every fingering that she had ever thought of, how she approached certain problems and how she solved them, how to be expressive using different techniques, and on and on. It was absolutely all there in her head, and she didn’t need a cello to remind her. This was incontrovertible proof that there was much more to her than her persona of pure spontaneity.
TJ: What did you think of the controversial book, Genius in the Family, which was co-written by her brother and sister?
RC: The book does not paint a picture of the Jacqueline du Pré that I knew and respected. I knew her during that controversial period in her life and I picked up on certain things at the time, but there is much in the book that seems totally at odds with what I saw and heard. The book also doesn’t address certain events that occurred during the early part of her illness that seriously affected her emotional state. Fortunately, I have my own wonderful memories to look back upon.
TJ: Let’s switch gears then. I would like to briefly touch upon the article you wrote for The Strad (March 1992) on the first movement of the Brahms E minor Sonata. You say you have new ideas about the movement since writing the article. Can you tell me about these ideas?
TJ: You suggest taking a “deep and slow breath” before playing the first note of the piece, saying that it physically prepares you to create a “dark and drawn sound.” Do you not breathe in tempo with the piece, like an upbeat?
RC: The internal pulse of the music does not necessarily have to relate to the way you breathe. If you tried to breathe in tempo with the music, odds are you’d hyperventilate and become dizzy after a phrase or two. The purpose of that first breath is to prepare you for the mood of the music, in addition to preparing you for relaxation and for establishing an appropriate energy level. It does not have to be a breath in tempo.
TJ: Do you take the same sort of slow breath at the beginning of other pieces, like the Haydn D Major Concerto?
RC: It wouldn’t be the same sort of breath as in the Brahms, but it would still be a relaxed breath. The notion of ultimate relaxation is a crucial part of playing well. Like athletes, we have to find a way of relaxing that allows a minimum tension in our body. Obviously we all need a certain tension to be able to hold our body in the correct position and to be able to use our strength when we need it. But if you can avoid using any more tension than is necessary, your playing and health will benefit enormously.
This is something that professional athletes understand very well. Take the 100-meter sprinter for instance. He or she will tell you that this particular race is the one in which you must be the most relaxed. One would imagine that a sprinter is gearing themselves up for 10 seconds of massive power output as they wait at the starting block. But they will tell you that what they are trying to do is concentrate their power only in the areas of their body that will produce ultimate speed. Any other tension is wasted energy.
The same idea holds for cello playing. If you have tension in areas such as your shoulders, legs, foot, elbow, lips, or even your tongue, it drains energy from the places where you need it most. Unnecessary tension also reduces your sensitivity in critical areas like your fingertips, which affects all aspects of playing an instrument (intonation, fluidity, vibrato, bow control, etc.). This tension also steals from the energy reserves you need to get through a demanding concerto like the Dvorak or a full recital.
TJ: When playing physically demanding pieces such as the Dvorak Concerto, do you actually find yourself making more of a conscious effort to relax?
RC: Not more in Dvorak than other pieces. Once you realize that you can relax without experiencing any negative consequences, you will reap the benefits of being able to channel the energy and strength into places where it is most useful. Then you will begin to seek out every possible opportunity for relaxation, trusting that you will play better, whether you are playing The Swan or the Dvorak Concerto.
Even if you’re playing a single slow note, like the opening D in the slow movement of the Dvorak Concerto, (see Example 7) your body can produce incredible tension. The good news is that you have ample opportunity to tell your body to relax, to breathe, and to sense that you have better control when you are relaxed. When you do so, you will be able to feel the intention of that note, its direction, and its beauty.
It’s important to have spaces and silences when we make music, which may be only half-noticed or clearly noticed, depending on the moment. Different types of articulation create these spaces and silences, which clear the sound from the cello so that it is not always vibrating and therefore not continually creating vibrations in the air. The same idea applies to speaking; we don’t speak with a continuous sound. If we did, we’d sound like a robot. Our speech is constantly stopping and starting, but we don’t hear it that way, we just hear somebody speaking to us. The same notion applies to music, which has many parallels to speaking. Articulation and silences in music are absolutely vital.
TJ: Some people like to make a slight break or a reduction in sound between the notes in the opening phrase of the Brahms Sonata so that the piano’s off-beat chords come out more clearly. Do you play this phrase with a more unbroken sound?
RC: Yes, firstly because Brahms does not ask for breaks and secondly because I believe the two instruments must demonstrate their opposing styles of articulation.
In performance, one may well have to make adjustments in articulation and sound production to accommodate the dramatically different acoustics one encounters in different concert halls. One learns that it’s a mistake to make all decisions before you get on the concert platform; one fingering or bowing may work in one hall but not in another, so flexibility is the key. William Pleeth’s system of exploring as many musical and technical ideas as possible has proven to be very useful here. Even when I was little, he used to say, “I want to see six different fingerings for that phrase,” not that I necessarily understood why he wanted me to do this in those early days. I still change fingerings, bowings, and other ideas constantly during performances to suit the situation. I don’t suggest that my students do this at first, but I do let them know that one day they will be able to do it and that it will help them to fulfil their musical goals.
I would like to point out that bowings are not always relevant from a musical standpoint, especially in Bach. We argue about what is shown in the manuscripts but I’m not sure it matters. You can play Bach with all separate bows and it still sounds fantastic. It sounds like keyboard music! The Bach Suites speak so fantastically for themselves that any bowing that compliments the natural patterns in the music can be made to sound convincing.
TJ: You wrote in your Brahms article that people too often use pressure to increase volume instead of increasing bow speed or adjusting where they play relative to the bridge.
RC: That’s right. Many people think of the bow as just going back and forth, with changes of weight and speed once in awhile. They think that the hardest part of cello playing is mastering left-hand technique — playing in tune, vibrato, achieving facility for fast passage, etc. Sadly, few students are taught that it is the bow that is primarily responsible for how the cello sounds. Also the right hand has a dramatic effect on how the left hand is used.
One can think of the right and left hands as parts of a balance (i.e. a scale with two suspended pans). When you want to play a passage that is fortissimo, you should use a lot of weight and movement in the bow arm, but you should lighten up the left hand. If you don’t lighten up the left hand in this situation, you will actually produce less sound because you’re dampening the strings’ vibrations rather than allowing them to vibrate as freely as they could. Try this in the opening of the Elgar Concerto, for instance, which is very strong but slow. When you compare the sound you produce using lots of weight in both hands versus using a heavy right hand and a light left hand, you will discover that your sound opens and becomes more resonant in the latter situation. On the other hand, if you are playing pianissimo, you should lighten up the bow and put more weight into the left hand, since the bow is doing less to help lower the string toward the fingerboard and a good left hand contact is necessary for the string to vibrate consistently. This is a critical fundamental skill and a particularly difficult one to master because the balance is constantly changing with the musical and technical demands. Also, our natural tendency is to add or lessen weight with both sides of our body equally. This also relates to our earlier discussion about wasting energy. You will conserve and focus energy if you apply it correctly.
TJ: You also watch out for people who squeeze their cello with their legs.
RC: That’s correct. The cello should literally lie into your body without you doing anything at all. It should be in a position where it just nestles into your body. Then it becomes a part of you, rather than an object that you have to hang onto. It is one of my cello playing “Golden Rules” that one must have good balance, with feet flat on the floor at all times. You shouldn’t adapt your seating position to the cello, the cello should adapt to you, otherwise you will create unnecessary tensions in your body. In other words, you shouldn’t have to twist your torso, lift shoulders, or move your head to the side, in order to hold the cello. Once you’ve mastered this, other issues like the balance between the right and left hands come into play.
Other fundamentals that I believe in are that, first of all, your right hand must produce a beautiful and resonant sound before you apply the left hand. Then the fingers of your left hand should rest on the fingerboard in the form of a nice arch, which holds up the weight of your arm. Then every finger should play totally independently, applying what I call the “Stiletto Effect.” If you want to make an impression on the floor without much effort, you just wear a stiletto heel and your natural weight will make a significant dent in the wood, since all of the force is concentrated in a small area. It’s much more difficult to do the same thing with a shoe that has a wide heel, since the force is distributed throughout a larger area. Similarly, with one finger on the string, it doesn’t take very much weight to make the string touch the fingerboard because the force is concentrated in the area of a single fingertip. Therefore, you should never play with more than one finger down at a time. After you have mastered this, you can apply vibrato, which ultimately comes from your heart, in a sense radiating as warmth from your body.
TJ: Isn’t there a risk of lack of coordination between your left and right hands when you play with one finger at a time? You seem to be suggesting a sort of “typing” motion that requires that you lift the current playing finger at the same time that you place the next one — two simultaneous motions. Wouldn’t this be particularly problematic when playing fast runs, particularly if you have separate bows as well?
RC: Quite the opposite. I’m talking about a technique that pianists use all the time. They play one key at a time unless they are playing a chord. I advocate this same technique on the cello, where every note is articulated separately.
Another advantage is that the section of string between you finger and the top nut will have resonance, like a sympathetic vibration. If you play D on the A string with your fourth finger, for example, and your other fingers are touching the string as well, the lower part of the string doesn’t resonate. But if you keep the non-playing fingers off the string, the top part of the string also resonates to some degree, especially when you play higher on the instrument, where you need all the resonance you can get. The sympathetic vibration of the string is one of the elements that creates harmonics that help notes to sound fuller and more centered. In fast runs, the extra freedom in your hand and the quicker resonating response of the string helps everything.
TJ: Zara Nelsova recommends supporting playing fingers with adjacent fingers, since it’s much easier to control vibrato. It seems like you disagree.
RC: I do disagree. In addition to the reasons I just mentioned (what I call the “stiletto” effect and increased resonance), vibrato is a movement of the arm (parallel to the fingerboard) that is independent of the fingers. This allows continuous vibrato whatever the fingers are doing (and at any speed). Putting down more than one finger blocks the relaxed and free movement of the vibrato. Vibrato then becomes forced and produces destructive tension.
TJ: Do you have any “Golden Rules” for the bow?
RC: I have many. One is that you should hold the bow in a loose and relaxed enough manner so that you can feel the vibrations of the strings in your fingertips. If you don’t, this means you are blocking vibrations in the bow and therefore you will have a smaller range of colors. Of course it’s easiest to feel the vibrations when you are playing on the lower strings where the vibrations are wider, but you should strive for the same thing even when you are playing high up on the A string.
Another Golden Rule is that you should use only the minimum amount of movement necessary for the articulation required. We are often taught the general principle that the way to be relaxed is to have lots of intricate motions in the fingers, knuckles, and so on (i.e. the “Paintbrush Technique”) in order to create smooth bow changes. Now this may be helpful in certain slow passages, but it can be counter-productive in pieces like the Prelude from the Fourth Bach Suite (see Example 8). With so many bow and string changes, having a very “flexible” hand and wrist motion will actually make sound production harder and more tiring.
TJ: You also mention in your Brahms article that you feel people slide around too much with the left hand, and that they are unaware that they do it.
RC: Cellists (and violinists) are often surprised by my left hand technique. Through the influence of William Pleeth and my father, I developed a left hand technique that is based more upon violin technique than traditional cello technique. My father was a very fine violinist and from morning to night he was either practicing or listening to the great violinists on record. We discussed the way in which they moved around the instrument and I started to apply the techniques to my own playing.
In some ways I believe that the cello should be considered as a large violin and that the use of your hands should be extremely flexible, so that you play consecutive notes with a 1-2-3 instead of a 1-2-4 fingering. A lot of my fingerings are based around extensions, sometimes very large extensions. I do this because it clears up my sound, it yields the type of articulation I’m striving for, and it’s more secure due to less shifts. Reducing the number of shifts is also a great benefit because it’s easier to maintain a continuous vibrato when I need it and it prevents the unintentional accents that often occur during shifts. Whenever you shift audibly to a note, that note becomes more important, as if you were making a musical point of that note, whether or not it was intentional. There are two ways to avoid the unintentional “moments”: reduce the number of shifts by using more extensions and shift lightly between semi-tones where possible (another of my Golden Rules). If you follow these simple guidelines, you will be amazed at how much less distortion there is to the musical phrase. Feuermann, perhaps the best cello technician in history, used the same principle to great advantage. Perhaps that is why he was Jascha Heifetz’s favorite cellist and why they matched each other so perfectly.
These are but a few of my Golden Rules. They tend to surface during lessons when I am solving a particular problem, so it’s difficult to just pull them out of the air without any context. I think that one can see that the guiding principles of these rules are that we need to minimize unnecessary energy expenditure and that we need to do what serves the music best.
I think one of the most extraordinary things about music is the physics of it: we create vibrations in the air with the cello — or whichever instrument it happens to be — and these vibrations have a profound effect on us emotionally. We make the string vibrate, which makes the instrument vibrate, which then creates airwaves. The airwaves travel across the hall to the audience and they go, not just through their ears, but through their bodies. And then for some reason people have a strong emotional reaction to what they sense. One moment the audience may feel completely overwhelmed with nostalgia, the next moment they may be excited by the brilliance of a certain vibration, or perhaps aware of the absence of vibration. Somehow, disturbing the airwaves can be a life-enhancing experience.