- “I’ll stop teaching when I stop learning.”
- “The best thing a musician can possibly do after he has acquired a great deal of experience is to pass it on to younger musicians. So many people are now gone — Kreisler, Toscanini, Rachmaninoff — who never had students. This is a great loss, and we must not repeat the mistake.”
by ROBERT BATTEY
(active Washington DC area cellist, teacher and writer)
Piatigorsky was a very tall man, well over six feet, and he handled his Stradivarius like a toy. He would stride briskly onstage through the orchestra, holding the instrument horizontally with one hand, like a lance. He often closed his eyes and turned his handsome face to his right as he played, giving a regal bearing to his performing profile. Due to his size, all the basic playing actions were simple for him; he had a huge sound, and drew full bows with same effort and extension that a smaller player like Casals needed for only half the bow. He could produce the widest spectrum of colors, from any spot on the bow. He delighted in quick changes of articulation, even if just for a few notes. Most dazzling of all was his staccato stroke, which is wonderfully showcased in a Kultur video entitled “Heifetz/Piatigorsky.” There, in an arrangement he made of some Schubert Variations, he displays both a down- and up- bow staccato that is almost beyond belief, along with many other signature effects. His own set of variations on the famous 24th Caprice of Paganini is a minefield of specialized bowing challenges; no one has been able to play it with his ease and flair, though many have tried. His left hand too was a law unto itself; reaching 1-4 octaves in the lower positions was easy and natural for him, and he ambled nimbly and effortlessly around the fingerboard. Trills were, again, “electric,” and he drew incomparable richness from the lower strings. However, not all listeners were taken with his vibrato. Given his size, he apparently had trouble controlling the full-arm motion that most cellists learn, and was more comfortable producing the vibrato from a wrist motion alone. This gave the sound a nasal quality at times. And, since he had to work less hard to produce the vibrato, he did not always attend to it with the care that someone with more ordinary gifts would, and some passages in his recordings grate on listeners brought up on the buttery sounds of Rose or Fournier. In his later years, this technique also began to effect his intonation. On balance, though, his playing displays a combination of stylishness, verve, and humanity that no one has ever matched.
To read more about Piatigorsky’s life, performance career and teaching, turn to Terry King’s biography of Piatigorsky: Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist (McFarland & Co., 2010).
The following quotes illuminate Piatigorsky’s unique ways of communicating with, challenging and inspiring his students.
“Many people are too small to teach, but no one is too big.”
“It is not the job of the teacher to make an adoring audience of his students.”
“Of all the titles applied to me, I like “teacher” best of all.”
“For me, the most important part of music is what I call an “overall balance”: 1. Head – intellect; 2. Heart – emotions, feelings; 3. Technical skills – ability to communicate ideas.
“The first thing I impress is the need of a thorough understanding of the musical thought to be conveyed: that the work should be memorized and performed mentally. It should be sung. CPE Bach wrote that you must sing; you never sing as unmusical as you play.”
“The structure of the composition should be studied and understood, and each phrase weighed as to its meaning in the whole. Allow it to inspire you. Spend much time with it in your thoughts.”
“Ours is a single-note instrument, so we have to play well one note at a time; every note must be good. You must imagine that you are in an auction, and every single note has to be so good that you can sell it without any argument! Every note must have quality, as if all by itself it is some kind of melody.”
“Forget about modesty; be a show-off. There has never been written a modest symphony, a humble rhapsody. You must be able to say with great feeling, ‘I hate you’ or ‘I love you.’ Once you are able to say that, you will find you can play the cello.”
“It’s very important not to play very ‘importantly.’ If you begin to play a fairly easy, gay and amusing piece with great importance, then the piece becomes less important than the player. If the piece is simple and gay, then the cellist must be simple and gay.”