Alban's Blog

Too Much Different Repertoire

For me the most difficult task is to be constantly playing different repertoire. As a musician I believe it is rather healthy not to be playing always the same pieces – it keeps you fresh, keeps you on your toes and keeps you working. But the situation I am experiencing these days isn’t ideal either. Concertos aren’t even the problem, they are rather short (Shostakovich No.1 yesterday took about 25 minutes, I guess), I have played most of them often enough, so this isn’t my main concern.

It is the recitals I am suffering by, especially since many organizers have their own needs for repertoire, have their favourites and don’t want the same pieces twice within three years. And then my poor pianists whom I can’t force to play whatever is convenient for me, because their job is even harder – more notes, far bigger repertoire, and since I am playing with pianists who are soloists themselves they can’t dedicate all their time to learning new cello repertoire all the time.

My big problem is solely self-created: I absolutely love to play by heart, and I believe that I can make better music when I memorize the pieces I am performing on stage. But while in a concerto this is rather easy to do so since I have the main line, in sonata repertoire it is often accompaniment the cellist has to play. On top of it the length of a program: When I play with orchestra, I am playing most of the times just one concerto, while in a recital at least three pieces worth 75 minutes of music. To stick that into your head is sometimes really gruelling.

Three days ago concerto in Glasgow, next day rehearsals in Hanover (after 7 hour travel via Amsterdam), last night recital with Markus Becker, one day off, then travel and concert in South of Germany with partly different repertoire – and tons of practising in between. Why don’t I plan it better? Yes, I should, but when my managers call me about an interesting concert (last night’s concert took place in an Orangerie of a castle, and a young poet was reading is poetry in between us playing a recital) I always say yes without thinking if it might ever be too much for me. If I can physically get somewhere in time, and I like to go there, I agree. I never realize how much time the travelling takes and I forget about the different repertoire…

The day I had to perform the the Shostakovich Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony and young, wonderful conductor Stefan Solyom, I couldn’t relax and just focus on Shostakovich, but I had to learn the the different recital programs for the next two weeks:

Shostakovich No.1, Sonatas by Reger (F-Major with piano, G-Major solo), Strauss (and Romance), Prokofiev, Beethoven A, Shostakovich, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Ligeti, Kodaly (solo), Piazzollas Grand Tango, Janacek Tales, all Bachsuites.

Absolutely right, it makes me more vulnerable – last night I had a two bar memory slip in the Reger Sonata (as if anybody would care…) – but I avoid automatically any kind of routine, since every concert starts from scratch again. Once on a tour I had to play 6 times in a row Saint-Saens Concerto, and I must admit, by the 5th time I was getting worried that I was running out of ideas how to keep the performance fresh and free of pre-planned routine. When I was younger, I used to pin-point every musical detail, to write in my part exactly what I was going to do and what the meaning of different phrases were; nowadays, my parts don’t even have a single bowing or fingering in it – I leave it up my the moment, leave room for improvisation, as far as it is possible with written-down music.

Right now I am in the train going back home to Berlin for two nights. I got up as early as I possibly could (after 5 hours of sleep) in order to be home at around 10am for practising as quickly and efficiently as possible – to be able to spend time with my little family…. 🙂


  • Tonya

    Alban, I envy you your ability to memorize so much music. When I was younger I participated in a strange orchestra which was named “The Strolling Strings”. Each member of the orchestra would play their concert music while walking through the audience and serenading various members of the audience. Yes, even the cellist were required to “stroll”… would would quite literally hang our cellos onto our necks by the tuning pegs.

    I found it quite difficult to memorize only 35 minutes of non-solo music – especially since it had to be PERFECT since I would be playing right next to members of the audience, and there would be no hiding behind the sound of the rest of the orchestra should I forget any notes, or play some incorrectly.

    I commend you for your dedication to the memorization of your music. I remember it being one of the most impressive things about you when I saw you perform in San Diego.

    I hope you can find your balance between too much repertoire and still performing many interesting concerts in many different places.

    Best wishes,
    Tonya – San Diego, CA – USA

  • Samuel

    This is beautifully written, clear, and honest – like your musicmaking. Thank you for sharing this with the world, as well as articulating the struggle that we all seem to face.


  • Judy

    And to think it’s taken me three months to memorize the first Bach Suite… How on earth do you do it?

    I agree that music seems more “free” when the performer has it memorized – whether the sheet music is present or not, having the music in one’s head makes it easier to concentrate on the interpretation, not just the notes. Kudos to you for sticking with it even when things are piling on all at once.

  • charles sage

    Do you have the same problem in trying to keep the Bach suites fresh when played a half dozen times in a row? I am curious. (Next to silence, I like Bach the most.) Most music pieces, classical or popular, have a strong astingent tension, very exciting and interesting but as so, are more toward demanding upon and stimulating rather than soothing to the soul of the performer and listener.

    That said, imagine if Bach had gone gaga over some young cellist and wrote 66 suites for the cellist instead of his six? And your concerting situation asked you to focus on their performance? I imagine then, what would be needed, would be to ballance the 66 out with some more mordern, edgy pieces, a small amount, for the audience’s sake as well.

    Or… in your present situation, you as the cellist could play, practice or listen to music (in your time off) which ballances the type of music you are repeatedly playing, in your example the Saint-Saens.

    It has been suggested by the writer-teacher Stuart Wilde, that we are best when we listen to 80% soothing, uplifting music and 20% negative or astringent music. All the more so for someone immersed in the playing of the music.

    Here’s where it gets interesting… Mr. Wilde adds in that in our modern day of demanding workloads and travel (hey, that’s you), there’s already so much negative astringency in the everyday that we need more soothing influences to ballance our selves.

    Also interesting is the way we become addicted to astringency, to a coffeed up lifestyle. To slow down feels unnatural and boring. Yes, it’s fun. Al Gore is talking on the phone(s) while engrosed in reading three (very large) computers with three pages on each and watching the news on the tele. My pre-teen son is either playing two games simultaniously, computer and wii or xbox (often with unrealted music playing on) or he’s playing a game and researching on the computer or he’s into a computer game and aural lesssons both on computer. It’s dizzy-ing just to READ that sentence. Oh, yes, and the while he’s also on the phone, about half the time, talking a mile a minute. I can go on about myself, my wife… but you get the point. We are thrilled to be thrilled. We want to fit in 20 concerts next month, we want to do more, more, more.

    And as our lives become more stimulating and challenging, we need a break even more than we need alternative, soothing music to be refreshed. Perhaps what is needed is not to find a way to play the Saint-Saens in a fresh way, but to realize that one is compressing too much Saint-Saens and compatriots into one’s little weeks.

    Everyone says they like music. You can find two people who don’t like chocolate, but everyone will tell you they like music. I like music. I know because I like silence. The constant buzz of muzak assaults when one is out and about in my city.

    Two days ago, I took my son to his cello lesson in Brooklyn and treated him at an upscale cookie/gellato shop afterwards. The silence there was very nice. Then the waitress (who happens to be a cellist and, if I may indulge in the sin of name-dropping this once in my life, a realtive of Pierre Fournier) appologied for having to ipod-and-speakers on Billly Joel rather than the Bach or Mahler she assumed I prefered like her. (The owner had asked her to dj less classical stuff.) What I missed was the silence.

    Music is an expression of our inner self. When we allow our selfs to be overly demanded upon, we are changed. We become overscheduled, overburdened individuals. Our music will then reflect this even if we don’t notice or the coffeed up audience notice. But something will be missing.

  • Alban

    Sorry for not writing nor answering for a while, but I was just diving through all that stuff I had to do – now only Rococo-Variations left, so I have a minute to answer some question:

    Well, first of all, to memorize music has become a second nature to me, since I am doing it from the very beginning on, so it is not so challenging by itself. Just when it becomes too much, I start feeling overwhelmed. But I survived, nothing bad happened…

    Thanks, Charles, for this really very insightful comment of yours! I completely agree – I love silence more than anything, and as much as I enjoyed playing the concerts in the past few days (at the St.Magnus-Festival, Orkney-Islands, great venues, wonderful audience), I absolutely need the break from music. I will somehow get through the next weeks, hopefully undamaged, but then I am looking forward to playing only one single concert between July 17 and September 3! In between I will go sailing in Sweden, visit my parents summerhouse, and then, three weeks of pure holidays in Mauritius, no cello, just wife and kid, lots of diving, surfing, snorcheling, tennis, reading, and most of all, just being lazy!

    Your comments about multi-tasking are very good, I will write about this in the next blog, thanks for the cue!
    Best wishes,


  • George

    WOW!! this is a late response to this blog..June 07 has been a very busy month for me…how timely to see your blog on this topic..during June I had to write cello parts to 5 songs with memorization for a recording session, this was followed immediately for a different artist with learning 8 songs for a live performance…I too accept gigs or “opportunities” without really thinking through what is required at times…I must admit that the week prior to the performance I found myself musing “Why in the heck do I do this to myself?” memorization is truly the way to go if at all possible as I agree it frees you up to be more expressive and participatory in live performance. You just know the stuff better…I cannot touch the cello for a few days after these events…Best of luck to you the rigors of your concert and performance demands!!


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