Alban's Blog

Being or at least acting important

Gosh, I need a break – recording one program, performing a full recital with another one with no time in between, wears the most resilient musician down. Last night Markus Becker and me played the opening of the Reger-Festival in Weiden (near Nuremberg), and if somebody would have listened to our rehearsals, he or she wouldn’t have believed that we were attempting to play that repertoire in concert the same day. We had good excuses for not being ready though; both of us just came out of tough recording projects, him doing Reger-Bach arrangements for Hyperion, I did the two very difficult Prokofiev Concertos. But at the end of the day, the audience in Weiden didn’t know about this and deserved a good concert.With the last amounts of concentration left, after working hard all day (again I must have played the cello for at least 8 hours including the concert) we pulled off the miracle and played actually really well. I was especially nervous because it was the first time since about 17 years that I was playing a recital with the music in front of me. I had spoilt myself by always knowing the sonatas I was performing by heart, which gave me another authority and view over the piece, at least this is the feeling I have while playing. But for yesterday’s concert there was no chance to re-memorize the Sonatas by Strauss and Reger in half a day, even though I knew them a year ago. The 5th Bachsuite I had to play by memory since the music is all packed in some moving boxes, but the rest of the concert I had to endure looking at the music once in a while. I survived and the concert is history 🙂

Markus and me had some very interesting conversations at breakfast/lunch/dinner and I wanted to write it down for me to make some sense of it (or maybe some comments of you helping me understand):
We are considered nice people, very easy-going, no attitude, no diva-esque behaviour, if somebody asks as a question via phone/mail/text message we tend to respond immediately, we talk to other people as equals, we just don’t feel that we are more special than others. We are only aware how lucky we are to have such a wonderful profession which lets us live well by playing music – and eternally grateful. Obviously we had to sacrifice a lot for being able to do what we do throughout our entire life and we might have worked hard in order to be so “lucky”, but this is a different story. Fact is we don’t take ourselves very important, and we were wondering if sometimes it would be useful to at least pretend to be more important.

We know of musicians who behave the opposite way and who are highly succesful like that; they are incredibly hard to be reached, they pretend to be incredibly busy (even though in our musician’s life there is so much empty time during travels, and since we often play similar repertoire, we do not have to practise all day) and they have this air of superiority around them which makes other people do anything for them. Not only do the attitude-people get their way, but they are respected for that. It’s almost like playing games it seems, playing “hard to get” in the first stages of a relationship…

The other day I ran into a webdesigner who is doing a page for a colleague of mine, and he told me that this cellist was so incredibly busy and important that he didn’t have the time to personally get involved with his own website, which I knew was a lie because I know how much time the guy spends on his website – he doesn’t have family, doesn’t play as many concerts as me for example, so obviously there is lot of spare time. Why can’t we admit that we have time? Do we have to pretend we are so busy just to prove to the rest of the world (and maybe also ourselves) how immensely succesfull we are? Are we still in the stone-ages where they had to swing their big bat to frigthen or impress the competitors?

By responding late (or not at all) to e-mails (or have your manager take care of that, even e-mails to fellow musicians) it creates this air of untouchability around them, but it is so fake. I do have a friend who is so succesful and busy that he hardly has any time to breathe, but he never makes much fuss about it – no, not a musician, he’s in the big business, and he really has meetings more or less non-stop the whole day spread over the whole world. He receives about 200 e-mails per day (no junk) which he HAS to respond to, so sometimes the private mail-responses take him a while, but with him I know it is genuine. With most other people I know it’s either a show or just plain inefficiency.

Whenever I am in Berlin I have indeed hardly any time – but not because of career or the cello, but because I love to spend the spare time I have in being with my child, doing household things, seeing my brothers and sisters, going to a soccer game, the theater or the opera, or just reading a book. I don’t like to “waste” my time with meeting people I don’t really care that much – but I don’t pretend that this is because I am succesfull or important.

Funny – it really helps writing this down. Before I really thought I should adapt some of these tricks to earn some more respect (for example yesterday we had a tiny problem with the piano tuner: he arrived earlier than our rehearsals was finished and for him it was more convenient to start tuning earlier than later – we accomodated to his needs and moved to another hall to finish. With a bit of attitude we could have shut him up easily, but actually I felt bad for him – it was Sunday, he had travelled 100 km to tune and wanted to get back home, so out of compassion we did what we did), but now, after writing these thoughts into my laptop here in the train back home to Berlin, I realize that I am not going to change for some silly “respect”. For a musician it is important to keep humility and humanity as high up as possible, and just because we play our instruments well does not make us better or more important people. And if this will make people take me less serious or respect me less, see if I care! 🙂


  • Stephen

    Hi Alban,

    your story about the piano tuner reminds me of Glenn Gould: His piano tuner (he only used one ) once stated in an interview that Gould would make appointments with him at least a month in advance, but that this respectful treatment and consideration was by no means the norm. What he didn´t mention but I think goes without saying, is that of course many of the less considerate persons were hardly in Gould´s caliber -and I think Gould´s “eccentricities ” are pretty well known. I always found this anecdote refreshing, and I think that a lot of people do try to make themselves self-important by being stand-offish. I think everyone , regardless of what one´s profession is, appreciates it when someone who without question is busy, nonetheless doesn´t make a big deal about it or turn it into some sort´ve ego platform.
    Hats off to you for your attitude!

  • David Nice

    Yes, you are a very good case in point: after our talk, I made it a point of honour (and genuine enthusiasm) to reply to all the main folk involved. Suffice it to say I only heard, via this website, from you – and our presenter has yet to respond. Holidays may be an explanation, but then surely it’s professional to have what my American e-mail supplier calls a ‘vacation reply’ up and running.

    Indeed, people say ‘you shouldn’t expect a reply by e-mail’ and ‘you know, other folk are incredibly busy’. But how long, once you’ve received the message, does it take to reply ‘And thank you too?’ About five seconds.

    Anyway, I hope you didn’t mind me putting up that picture of we three on the blog. We, at least, look jolly.

    Looking forward to the Prokofiev disc – and have now, inspired by your snippets, got copies of the Reger – haunting indeed – Enescu, Shostakovich/Schnittke and Bridge discs. Also had, from Chandos, the disc of concertos by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The Fantasy for cello and orchestra might interest you: written, like the Symphony-Concerto, in the dark time of 1951-2 and getting round the necessary simplicity on its own striking terms. The main first-movement theme is a winner.

  • joel

    Your attitude is refreshing, but also realistic.

    Though some artists may be tempted to strike the poses that worked so well for virtuosi since Liszt, we would all do well to remember the humility it took for dear old Haydn to move among the shadows of the Esterhazy, laboring down the years as their virtual servant.

    True genius needs no pose to reach the sun.

    May you continue to enjoy great success.

  • Judy

    May I just say, Alban, that as a member of the audience at one of your concerts, I was very appreciative of how down-to-earth you were afterwards, taking the time to chat with me as you were signing autographs. I’ve met many soloists before and after concerts – although most of them were quite friendly, few were as personable as you. It’s definitely something to keep; I think most people will respect you far more than any of those “divas.”

  • Alban

    Thank you all very much for the encouragement, I appreciate the fact that you believe I might get some respect being more or less myself also – even though I know for a fact that being difficult makes you also more interesting; but since I am not really difficult, I am not starting to put on a show, because that is the least convincing and won’t help much either. And who cares if people take me for granted? I am for granted 🙂
    Thanks for the advice, David, will have a listen to the Weinberg which I might actually have on cd with Rostropovich. I am honoured that you got my cd’s, and I pray that you won’t be disappointed by my Prokofiev. Didn’t come easy indeed, and I know it will be quite different to the recording you quoted in our interview. Better? I don’t know, but different for sure!
    Have to get some sleep before flying to Canada tommorrow morning,
    best wishes,

  • David Nice

    Curiously, I don’t think Slava played that little Fantasy – no-one even seems to know for whom it was written – there’s another concerto on ‘Rostropovich: the Russian Years’.

    Just heard the snippet of the Kodaly – what amazing music! Have I missed the CD or was that one from your special collection? These little clips include such a feast of repertoire about which one immediately thinks – I must go out and get that immediately.

    All best,


  • ABC

    This comment is very late (a year after!) but I have to be honest in that I’ve only heard of you when you came to play here in the Philippines just a few days ago. It was a wonderful experience and I believe your personality also played a big part in that. After the performances, seeing you focus only on the person you were currently talking to (part of the audience) until they were finished, engaging in real meaningful conversation and not making them feel like they have to cut it short because you have somewhere else to go to was refreshing to say the least — that kind of attitude/approach surely gets respect and admiration, at least in my book.

    The air of superiority will probably work the first time for some but most people will eventually tire of putting up with it.


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