Interview by Tim Janof
Having been named “Young Artist to Watch” by Musical America and the youngest recipient of the Pro Musicis International Award, celebrated cellist Shauna Rolston is considered to be one of the most compelling musicians of her generation. She has been praised for the ease and naturalness of her technique, her pure intonation, sheer fearlessness, and her ability to produce a huge tone and to play with great delicacy. According to Classic CD Magazine “ her recording of Elgar’s cello concerto is worthy to stand alongside Jacqueline du Pré’s classic account. This could be the most remarkable performance of the last 20 years.”
Following her formative studies at the renowned Banff Centre, Shauna earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History from Yale University and a Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music. At Yale, she studied with the distinguished cellist and pedagogue, Aldo Parisot; she also served as his teaching assistant.
Since her New York City Town Hall debut at the age of 16, Shauna continues to perform regularly in major concert venues and festivals around the world. She has collaborated with conductors Krzysztof Penderecki, Mario Bernardi, Bramwell Tovey, William Eddins, Hans Graf, Andrew Davis, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Marin Alsop, Pavel Kogan, Andreas Delfs, Keith Lockhart, Kenneth Jean, Uri Meyer, Peter Bay, Sam Wong, George Hansen, Andrey Boreyko, Alexander Rudin and Yoav Talmi, among others.
Gifted prodigy turned masterful innovator, Shauna is an enthusiastic advocate for and performer of the music of our time. She has given the world premiere of an astounding number of works -many written for her. For example, her CD “This is the Colour of My Dreams” which won Best Classical CD at the 2002 West Coast Music Awards, is dedicated to concerti and concert pieces for cello and orchestra written for her by Heather Schmidt, Christos Hatzis, Chan Ka Nin, and Kelly-Marie Murphy. A prolific recording artist, her discography includes releases of the Elgar, Saint-Saëns and Bliss concerti, and Fauré and Frank sonatas. Both CDs are included on a list of 13 “Cello Recordings to Please Discriminating Audiophiles” (Benjamin Ivry, the audiophile voice). Her latest CD “Shauna and Friends,” features arrangements of popular favorites by Claude Kenneson for solo cello and an ensemble of 12 cellists, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson.
As a chamber musician, Shauna has performed and recorded with many pre-eminent artists and ensembles including the Gallois Quintet, and pianist Menahem Pressler. Her most recent artistic partnership is with pianist and composer Heather Schmidt. This collaboration began with critically acclaimed duo recitals at the Winnipeg New Music Festival in 2002, and developed with performances as part of the Governor General of Canada’s state delegation visit to Finland and Iceland and a tour of the Maritime Provinces through Debut Atlantic. Current and upcoming performances include recitals in Ottawa (National Arts Centre), Winnipeg, Vancouver, Victoria, Dallas, Shreveport and Boston (the Harvard Musical Association), as well as two benefit concerts in Grand Cayman and a tour of Quebec (Piano Plus).
Shauna’s artistic interests extend beyond solo and concerto performances. Her latest video “A Pairing of Swans” with prima ballerina Evelyn Hart (directed by Veronica Tennant) was premiered at the 2004 International Moving Pictures Festival and was recently nominated for a Gemeni award. Two of Shauna’s previous videos “smokin f-holes” with Squeezplay, and “Words Fail” with dancer and choreographer, Peggy Baker, are featured regularly on BRAVO. Future projects include several recordings, a profile interview for BIOGRAPHY, an in-depth interview for the Internet Cello Society, and a full-length film (RedStar films for BRAVO) “Synchronicity” featuring Shauna and Heather Schmidt. She is also featured in “The Great Cellists” by Margaret Campbell and the soon to be released “The Popular Guide to Women in Classical Music” by Anne Gray.
In addition to her busy concert and recording career, Shauna is a passionate and devoted educator. Much in demand as a guest master class instructor, Shauna is also a Professor of Cello and Co-Head of the String Department at the University of Toronto and a Visiting Artist for the Music and Sound Programs at The Banff Centre.
Shauna Rolston is represented by Michael Dufresne President, Michael Gerard Management Group
TJ: Your parents are professional musicians.
SR: Yes, my dad is a violinist and my mom is a pianist. This meant that I was completely immersed in music as a child and that music was an essential part of my family experience. I started playing trios with my parents when I was three or four years old.
TJ: Your first cello teacher was Claude Kenneson, author of several books, including A Cellist’s Guide to the New Approach.
SR: He was my teacher from the age of two to twelve. He’s a wonderful cellist, teacher, and author, as well as a prolific arranger. I have a CD coming out in the next few months which features all of his arrangements for solo cello and cello ensemble. I am really excited about this recording.
My parents played in a trio with him when we lived in Edmonton, Canada, so he was also a part of my family. Claude was the perfect teacher for me because he kept the learning process alive by giving me fun exercises and games that were both challenging and educational. He also liberated my curiosity by encouraging me to explore wherever my imagination led me instead of forcing me to stick to a rigid curriculum.
My time with Claude was extremely important because he set the tone for the rest of my life. He taught me to ask questions and to seek my own answers. He also provided an environment in which I felt safe to try out different ways of doing things. He taught me to trust my own learning process.
My family moved to Banff when I was 12 and my parents started the Banff Center, which they eventually developed into an all-year program. There was no regular cello teacher in Banff, so I didn’t have formal instruction from age 12 to 18 or 19. Instead, I played for various musicians who came through the residency program. This meant that my influences in my teen years had less to do with the cello, specifically. Instead, I enjoyed more of a general musical education, and I played lots of chamber music and collaborated with several composers. In the summertime, cellists would come for several weeks and I was very fortunate to work with great cellists such as Pierre Fournier, William Pleeth, Janos Starker, Aldo Parisot, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, and Zara Nelsova. Because I didn’t have a long term teacher, I felt free to experiment with various ideas from these great cellists.
I worked with Janos Starker and Aldo Parisot on a regular basis in the summertime from when I was 11 or 12. I worked with Zara Nelsova quite a bit too. Zoltan Szekely had a residency in Banff, so the Hungarian Quartet came often, which meant that I also worked with Gabriel Magyar. Magyar was very systematic in his approach to the fingerboard and he used fingerings that are typically used by violinists, like using lots of extended positions and using the fourth finger in the higher positions. He took me beyond traditional cello technique.
I remember thinking while Magyar was showing me how to use the fourth finger up high, “Why can’t I use my fourth finger in thumb position? Who created that rule?” We tend to get stuck in Cello Land, where there are things that cellists aren’t supposed to do. Instead, we should approach the cello with the notion that we can do anything, or at least try anything! Because of my non-traditional training, it was perfectly normal for me to experiment. I don’t mean in a reckless way, where one ignores the score, but more in terms of doing whatever it takes to communicate through the instrument. There’s another world of technique that goes beyond the traditional system that is so personal and gratifying.
TJ: Would you say that Starker and Parisot have similar approaches to technique.
SR: Absolutely. They both emphasize fluidity, timing, balance, resistance, speed of gesture, and breathing. They have very different temperaments, of course, but they’re both very analytical. I’ve had very focused technical discussions with both of them and they are of a like mind in terms of how one should play the cello.
TJ: What is the Banff program about?
SR: My dad started it as a summer festival in the 1960’s. I believe it was 1979 when my parents developed it into a year-round program, called “Music and Sound,” which is still its focus. It’s hugely successful and musicians from all over the world come for weeks or months to work on specific projects. In addition to visiting artists, it has a fairly intimate group of fifty or sixty musicians, as well as artists from other disciplines. Just imagine the daily inspiration I had while growing up in such an environment!
My childhood was pretty amazing. My dad likes to say that when I turned left, I had my Banff high school experience, where I enjoyed the idyllic Banff mountain life of skiing, hiking, and friends. When I turned right, my life was about the Arts and the Banff Center.
TJ: Your bio mentions that you were considered a child prodigy.
SR: That term was applied to me early on, which opened a lot of doors. The media took notice of me and I did a number of television appearances. My parents were never pushy, however, and there was never any discussion about how to engineer my career. I played purely for the love of music and the love of performing. I never felt that I would be some sort of failure if I ended up doing something else. I was very fortunate to have such a healthy upbringing.
I don’t care for the word, “prodigy,” actually. As many now understand, the term doesn’t always have a positive connotation, since prodigies are often carted around like circus acts and many miss out on their childhoods. That label takes its toll on those who carry it.
Performing was a purely joyous experience for me until I was known as a prodigy. I remember my frustration as a young performer hearing at age 10, “Wow, she’s great for 10. We can’t wait until she’s 15!” Then when I was 15, I’d hear, “Wow, she’s great for 15. Just imagine what she’ll do when she’s 20!”
I remember giving an interview when I was 14 for a national newspaper in Canada, saying in frustration, “I know what I know now. This is who I am right now. This is what I feel. Never mind what’s going to happen next week!” It was such a frustrating time because everybody was always comparing me to a future me.
Then when the so-called prodigy reaches adulthood, people see him or her differently. Suddenly, he or she isn’t as fascinating or as much of a curiosity. “If only she were 25 again .” Then everybody shifts their attention to the next up and coming prodigy and the former prodigy has to fend for him or herself.
When someone is very young and is doing something with a certain level of discipline and achievement, and with feeling and power, it’s hard to accept the child for what they are in the moment. It’s too easy to project on the child the hope that he or she will be the next Zara Nelsova or Pablo Casals. Kids want to be appreciated for who they are, not who they might be someday.
TJ: Do you think you had a certain affinity for the cello in the beginning?
SR: Yes, I believe I did. I was given my first cello on my second birthday. Even though I thought of it as a fabulous toy, I knew there was something special about it. It felt comfortable right away and it felt as if it were meant for me.
My parents were very laid back about my cello playing from the beginning. Instead of launching me right away into a regimented practice program, I was given the freedom to experiment with it and find ways to communicate through it. The cello was a source of great fascination and joy for me.
TJ: What did you do during the six years between age 12 and college when you had no cello teacher?
SR: I played chamber music with my parents and traveled a lot, playing concertos and recitals. I also made some recordings. I was so busy performing that it would have been difficult for me to have any sort of normal weekly lessons. It was the only life I knew, so I didn’t think of it as particularly unusual. It was only later in life when I realized that other people had a very different experience. It seemed perfectly fine with me at the time and I was quite happy to freely experiment on my own.
I had actually planned on studying with Leonard Rose at Juilliard. He had invited me to work with him when I was eleven or twelve, but it was just at that point that my family had decided to move to Banff. I remember calling him and saying, “I’m just so freaked out, Mr. Rose, because we’re moving to Banff, and it’s like paradise there. I want to study with you but I think I need to be there.” He was so great about it and very supportive of my decision. I ended up working with Aldo Parisot and Janos Starker in the summers when they came to Banff. I had planned to work with Rose after I finished high school, but he passed away before I had the chance.
After high school I toured quite a bit. It was during my second year of traveling on my own that I found myself in El Paso to solo with its orchestra. It was a surreal time because the normally dry and hot El Paso had a tiny dusting of snow, which caused the entire city to shut down. My concert was supposed to be canceled that night. Having grown up in the mountains where there is real snow, I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, I was lying in bed in my hotel room and I started thinking about my life’s direction. I certainly enjoyed my performing career, but I thought that someday I might want to do something else with my life. I also realized that the longer I waited, the less inclined I would be to go to college, so I decided that it was time for me to add another dimension to my life.
I was scheduled to play a recital at Yale a few days later and while there I ran my plans by Yale’s cello professor, Aldo Parisot. He agreed that I should study at Yale, but there was an application process to deal with. The problem was that I hadn’t taken any SAT’s or achievement tests and the application deadline was only a few days later. I walked into the admissions office that day and said that I wanted to have an interview. The woman at the front desk gave me this look like, “Who do you think you are?” I explained that I was playing a recital at Yale and I wanted to become a student. I told her that I needed to have an interview right then and there because I was leaving town the next day. I didn’t mean to be arrogant. I just figured that I was in town and I wanted to chat with someone about Yale.
Once she got over her shock, she asked where I was from. When I told her that I was from Banff, she asked “What’s a ‘Banff’?” After we got through the Banff question, that it was in Canada and that Canada has provinces, not states, she asked which prep school I had attended. When I told her Banff Community High School she had an incredulous look and said, “And you want to go to Yale?” I said, “Yeah, I really do, and I’d really to talk with somebody besides you.”
The head of admissions came and I explained my situation to her. She asked, “Where else have you applied?” I said, “Nowhere. I want to go here. I don’t have a Plan B.” She told me that I had to take the SAT and other achievement tests. I said, “Fine. When and where do I take them?” She said, “Tomorrow in Calgary.” Yikes!
I had a recital that night, so I played the concert and drove all night to Calgary and took the tests the next day. In Canada, it’s taken for granted that good students get into the university, so it wasn’t until I did some research that I realized how difficult it was to get into Yale. Then it hit me that I had no Plan B and I freaked out. What was I thinking?! Fortunately, Yale accepted me, and I made the most of my time there.
I entered Yale as a freshman in Art History while also studying with Mr. Parisot. Mr. Parisot soon asked me to teach other freshman cellists. I ended up getting a Bachelor’s in Art History and a Master’s in Music five years later. As if this wasn’t enough, I was still touring.
I was taken aback when Mr. Parisot first asked me to be his assistant. I felt humbled and yet affirmed that he felt he could trust me with his students. Then after I had gotten into the rhythm of things with the undergrads, he asked me to take over his graduate student class whenever he was away on tour, which included teaching master classes. This was too much and I stammered, “Mr. Parisot, you’re so kind to me and I’m honored and flattered that you would ask me to do this, but this doesn’t seem appropriate.” He looked at me through his dark glasses and asked, “Do you care about music?” Yes. “Do you think about music?” Yes. “Are you able to articulate your thoughts?” Yes. “So what’s the problem?” I guess there wasn’t a problem and I told him to have a great trip!
TJ: Given that you didn’t have much formal training, I would imagine it was a challenge to teach.
SR: Teaching is a tremendous challenge whatever one’s background. My lack of formal training had its advantages, though. My musical upbringing had forced me to ask myself lots of questions, starting at a very young age, which meant that I was used to thinking for myself and coming up with my own solutions. I found this helpful when teaching others because I was constantly challenging my students to think for themselves too. I was also used to exercising my imagination because I had collaborated with so many composers on their new works. The collaborative process puts a performer in the position of in essence creating something from nothing since there are no recordings to refer to. I found that teaching really suited me because I felt connected to the whole process of being freely creative and experimental and yet being very systematic and working through various challenges. I felt my job as a teacher was to cultivate in my students a similar sensibility that didn’t depend on dogma from others.
My background had forced me to come up with my own answers. I was exposed to many musicians and they’d ask me why I did various things. This forced me to analyze my own process and to figure out what I was doing naturally so that I could have an answer the next time I was asked the same questions. Since it wasn’t possible for me to have a regular teacher, I was forced to be more self reliant.
It was fascinating to teach students who were my exact age and who had taken a more traditional route. This dynamic allowed me to view lessons as more of an exchange of ideas. I wasn’t claiming to know more than they did, I just had a different experience.
TJ: Did you find it difficult to do things once you started thinking about them to the degree of detail that enabled you to teach others?
That never happened to me. It must have been the perfect time for me to start teaching when I entered Yale. I had been doing my own quiet research during my teens, plus I had learned so much from all my performing. Things just fell into place for me. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel.
SR: When you don’t have a teacher keeping an eye on you week after week, it’s easy to develop habits that get in the way later. Are there things you had to unlearn?
There were probably things I changed my mind on as I learned more, but I don’t think of cello playing in that way. It’s my job to figure out a way to precisely express what I believe the composer intended. If this means I have to twist my arm in an unorthodox way or rotate my cello in another, so be it. The notion of what can be considered a “bad habit” becomes much less clear when musical expression becomes the priority.
TJ: What was it like studying with William Pleeth?
I worked with him a little at the Britain Peers School for one summer. I don’t recall anything specific, but I do recall that he had tremendous energy and was very good at explaining things. At that time I was enamored with Jacqueline du Pré, so I enjoyed the sense of connection with her through him.
SR: I imagine his approach meshed well with yours, since he encouraged his students to find the technique necessary for expression.
We seemed to have similar goals. I enjoyed my time with him and learned a lot. I have always been interested in cultivating technique on a personal level. I don’t believe that there is a generic technique that you can somehow turn on a switch and suddenly create magic. Music and technique are intertwined.
TJ: You also worked with Pierre Fournier.
SR: I worked with him in Geneva one summer and then again in England the following summer. He was such a noble and dignified man. His presence was magical. He was peaceful and serene and yet strong and sincere. I remember thinking he was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. He was so gentle and caring.
I remember marveling at his fingerings. I was used to going up and down the fingerboard while there were times when he chose fingering that went straight across. I didn’t think it was possible to be expressive with that sort of fingering, but of course he was able to do it. He also helped me think of the thumb as an expressive finger that can be vibrated rather than just a balance point or pivot for the left hand. His playing was simple and yet so elegant and beautiful.
TJ: You’ve certainly worked with some amazing musicians.
SR: They were all part of a very formative time in my life. Zara Nelsova, Janos Starker, Gabriel Magyar, Leonard Rose, and Aldo Parisot could not be more different from each other. I spent less time with some, but my connection with them was still meaningful.
It’s fascinating to try to understand how each of their minds work and how their process translates into their particular artistry. What is the source of their spark? What drives them? How do they tap into their innermost thoughts and feelings? I would ask them lots of questions to try to understand where they were coming from. Whether or not I liked a particular bowing or fingering didn’t matter, it was understanding the deeper meaning behind their decisions that was so inspiring. When great artists believe in something so passionately and with such clarity, one can’t help but love what they do, even if one feels things differently.
I’d also like to add Ruggiero Ricci to the list of influences. I remember as a little girl sitting on the floor as he played the Paganini Caprices at a house concert. I was parked right under his bow arm and I watched it go up and down, doing the most amazing things. It was like watching a great gymnast at the Olympics. According to my parents, the next day I was suddenly able to do some great things with my own bow. I was flying high with pure inspiration.
I’ve had lots of experiences with people like Ricci that I can’t explain, but know that they deeply affected me. With Pleeth, for instance, it wasn’t anything he said in particular, but something about our time together triggered something within me that made me suddenly able to do something I hadn’t done before.
TJ: I get the impression that you initially process things on more of an emotional level before analyzing them.
SR: I react to the world very strongly and I feel passionate about things around me. I don’t mean in a hysterical way, of course, but I feel a certain energy when I’m connecting with another person, a piece, an instrument, a sound, or a painting. I love the cello and everything about it, but I also love connecting with people and communicating with them. Though I can be very analytical in my practicing when I’m trying to apply the staples of technique as we know it, I’m always trying to expand on this foundation and to remain true to my feelings about the music.
TJ: How do you balance your internal experience and need for personal expression with how the music actually sounds as you play? Which do you prioritize, your feelings and emotional impulses or the end product?
SR: That’s an interesting question. Of course my first task is to do my best to determine what the composer had in mind. But beyond that, I also notice how the music speaks to me. Playing music is about telling a story and creating in the moment. I think of it as more of a spontaneous dialog, though not reckless. I strive to do justice to the composer, but I also want the performance to feel as if the music were being spun out in a creative flurry and being played for the very first time, as if the composer had written it just for me. I don’t mean this in an egotistical way, I just mean that the performance has to be fresh, which is something that can be easily lost when playing pieces that we’ve played many times. After awhile, the process become not just about what the composer wanted, but also about what the music means to me. My challenge as an interpreter is to bring to life what I know and feel.
This is why I love working with composers; the music is by definition fresh. A composer will ask me if I’m able to create some sound or effect and I often have to develop a new technique to realize his or her vision. Then when I go back to Elgar, Dvorak, or some other traditional piece, I realize that I’ve learned something from the process of creating new music. There may be some new sound or bow technique that I find useful or helpful in the standard repertoire. After awhile, whether playing new or old music, I find that it all comes from the same creative place and that the tools I’ve developed can be applied in contexts I’ve never imagined.
I’m always telling my students to try and make a sound they’ve never made before. I encourage them to experience something musically new every day in the practice room, and to do so without judgment. I don’t want them to think to themselves, “A cello is not supposed to sound like that,” because that awful sound may be incredibly beautiful and meaningful in a context they have yet to discover.
TJ: You’ve made many recordings. I would imagine there are things you would do differently when you listen to them a few years later.
SR: Of course, one is never satisfied. It’s important to realize, however, that when a recording is made, it’s just a snapshot in time that, if we’re lucky, will be representative of who we were at that particular time in our lives. We are all works in process and we need to appreciate what we are doing in the moment. For instance, today I made a recording at 9am. Inevitably, it would have been different if I were to record the same music at 2pm instead. This is what makes music so wonderful. There are so many variables involved in any given performance that we never know how something will turn out. Musicians are privileged to think about these issues for a living.
TJ: I had the good fortune of watching three highly accomplished cellists on stage at the same time — you, Zuill Bailey, and Lynn Harrell. One thing that stands out is how differently each of you move. Lynn Harrell hardly moves at all while you are rather animated. Zuill Bailey is somewhere in the middle.
SR: Lynn Harrell and I were warming up together before a rehearsal and he started noodling around with the first variation of Rococo. There was this tremendous sound emerging from his cello despite the fact that he was stationary as can be. It was as if the music were coming from out of nowhere. I said, to him, “That’s just not fair!” I then demonstrated the same passage and found that I couldn’t play it without a lot of movement. Of course, Lynn Harrell has monstrous hands, so there are things he can do that the rest of us can’t. I remember playing for him in a master class in Banff when I was 14 and he asked me why I shifted so much. I got out of my chair and walked over to him and put my tiny 14-year-old hands in the air next to his and said, “Because of these.”
I think the whole movement question comes down to how individuals express themselves. It’s a personal thing. Once one gets beyond the natural gesture of expression that is inherent when playing the cello, other factors come into play, such as one’s physical size and personality. I just feel very animated when I play and it’s not at all choreographed. My entire body feels highly energized, so it’s as if I’m playing the cello with my entire being.
The movement you see when I play is also the result of my cello technique. I’ve always angled the cello so that the cello’s endpin is to the right of center and the cello’s neck is away from my head. I’ve played like this since I was two years old and I’ve never had any problems with tension or tendonitis. And yet I’ve had others tell me that I need to straighten my cello. I’ve never liked playing that way because it hurts my neck, I feel stuck behind the instrument, and I can’t breathe as freely. If I feel comfortable, why would I want to change? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking myself since I was a teenager.
I’d say I play the cello as much with my legs as my arms. My left leg is used to apply counterpressure; it brings the cello into the bow. My right leg brings my weight forward when I need it, it drives my body. Instead of thinking about the bow, I’m often thinking about what to do with my legs.
Ultimately, it’s very personal how technique becomes translated through one’s body. When I’m teaching, I’m concerned with how my students use their bodies to express themselves. It’s amazing to watch them channel their ideas through their physicality.
TJ: You say in your one of your bios, “My teaching has to do with freedom, creativity, trust, and the science of the physical self as the ultimate expressive instrument.” What does “freedom” mean in this context?
SR: I want my students to be free of dogmatic boundaries. My teaching is not about relaying what is right or wrong. I want my students to start from a creative place, where they use their imagination to come up solutions that work best for them. Of course, if they go too far astray, I’ll nudge them in a more productive direction, but I want my students to feel free to explore once they’ve established a solid foundation.
TJ: What does “trust” refer to?
SR: People trusted me to go through my own process when I was growing up and I want to pass this trust on to my students. I feel very lucky that people trusted me. My parents trusted me to make my own mistakes and to follow my passion. It’s not that they thought I had all the answers, they just gave me the benefit of the doubt and they were always there for support if I stumbled. This kind of trust provided a priceless learning opportunity.
My parents, though very protective in many ways, never seemed to blink an eye when, at age 14, I was dropped off at the airport in Geneva and caught a flight to Rome for a tour. They were like, “Have a great time!” That experience allowed me to experience life without a bunch of protective walls getting in the way. Their trust in me has greatly influenced my trust in my students. I feel strongly about teaching on these terms. Though teaching certainly has a large element of sharing information, I believe that teaching is about pointing a student in a direction and letting them find their own way.
I trust that my students have something to say, even when they don’t trust themselves. When they feel like they’ve hit a wall and they want me to give them the answers, I’ll start asking them questions and challenging them to come up with their own ideas. I want them to get out of student mode, where they rely on me to spoon-feed them. In fact, they usually find that they have more thoughts on a particular subject than they realized. It’s important that my students understand I trust them to come up with their own ideas and that my studio is a safe place to experiment and to sometimes fall down.
TB: Another phrase in your bio talks about your “pure determination to communicate.” Are you trying to reach out to people in the audience as you perform?
SR: The whole point of performing for me is to find a way to communicate and to touch people. An audience member once came up to me after a concert and talked about how music triggers memories. One note can bring back a whole lifetime or a memory of a person, a place, or a loved one. Music has the power to do this to people and I feel lucky that I get the opportunity to affect people in this way.
When I go to a concert I want to feel changed. I’m not particularly interested in the execution since it’s taken for granted that a performer will have a certain technical level. I want to walk down the street afterwards and have the experience still echo within me. I hope this happens to people when they listen to me play.
TJ: Another statement about teaching in your bio is “I try to help them integrate the process of decision making and to trust it enough to share it without compromise.” What does this mean?
SR: The first step is to recognize that we are all part of a process. Life is a process, after all, and we are always in a state of change. When a musician plays a concert, he or she is showing the audience a snapshot of where he or she is at that time.
Students often focus on their end goal to the point that they can’t appreciate and experience where they are in the moment. I encourage my students to stop and take in what they are thinking and feeling so that they don’t miss the fullness of their journey. I try to inspire them to find the confidence, strength, and courage to make a decision and to stand by it in the moment, even if they decide to do something else thirty seconds later. I want them to embrace the decision-making process and to enjoy the learning that comes with being conscious along the way. I encourage them to stand tall and say, “This is who I am right now.” I don’t mean that they should stick to their ideas stubbornly and to not be open to new ways of thinking. I just want them to be totally present and free of doubt in the moment.
Students usually worry about what they can’t or shouldn’t do. “Do I vibrate too much?” “Do I vibrate too little?” “Do I move too much?” They often become self conscious to the point that they can no longer enjoy what they’re doing. Unfortunately, the classical music world tends to encourage this kind of hypercritical thinking, which if taken too far can be more destructive than helpful. I tell my students to forget about all that stuff and to live in a world in which they focus on what they can and want to do.
Students often feel stuck behind the cello. They can’t move properly, they can’t breathe freely, and they’re afraid of being judged. They feel extremely passionate about what they’re doing and yet they’re held back by their own technical limitations and lack of self-confidence. This doesn’t mean that one must become an over-the-top extrovert in order to succeed. It’s more about channeling the passion and inner drive that is already within, which is what gets them out of bed each and every day to practice for several hours.
I’m generally interested in all things creative, and not just music. That’s why I got my art history degree at Yale and why I’m now designing jewelry and having fun with silversmithing and glassblowing. I find doing other things helps me focus better on the cello when I return to it, because I choose to live creatively in many aspects of my life. I encourage my students to do the same thing. Not all my students are going to have a career in music, but I hope I’ve at least helped them to think creatively and to believe in what they have to say.
When I see my students worrying too much, I ask them what they think will happen to them if they do something they don’t like. Is the cello police going to arrest them because they took too much time on that phrase or they vibrated too much? The idea of not caring what other people think can easily be misconstrued as arrogance and hostile defiance, but I see it as the opposite. It’s about trusting and accepting oneself for where one is at that moment. I try to instill this in my students so that they’re not forever terrified when they walk on stage.
I don’t think any artist should walk on stage and worry about what others think. It’s a waste of time and energy because you can’t know what’s going inside their heads anyway. It’s like dancing with shadows and ghosts.
If you were to stop the average person on the street and tell them of your worries as a musician, how something happens when your left pinkie moves a certain way, or how something else happens when you move your toe over there, he or she would think you had gone completely mad! It is for this reason that I try to live my life fully and creatively so that I don’t drown in details that ultimately don’t matter. For music to feel real to me, it has to be experienced in the context of the whole and in the fullness and wonder of life.