Alban's Blog

“Go home and take a shower!”

1988/89 I spent studying in Cincinnati, OH. My cello teacher turned out to be rather lame, so I focused a bit on playing quartet and taking lessons with the quartets in residence there, the LaSalle- and the Tokyo-Quartet. I had the time of my life, living together with two German guys in a one-bedroom flat, getting up every morning at 6 am to the sounds of either the beginning of Tosca or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, (the part, where the violins go crazy – God, I am so bad with names, I even forgot what that part is called) in order to start practicing at the practice floor of the Conservatory at 7 am.Why am I writing about this right now? Well, after one of the lesser succesfull quartet recitals of our quartet, Henry Mayer, the second violinist of the LaSalle-Quartet, an Auschwitz survivor with the driest sense of humour, didn’t congratulate us, he only said: “Go home and take a shower!” This was so wonderfully prosaic that we used this saying at many occasions, describing a bit the indifference one tends to feel after having finished or accomplished something, and afterwards, when there wasn’t much else to do, you could just go home and pour some water over yourself, forgetting about the success or the lack of success one just had – it all passes anyway.

Well, it’s a bit the feeling I am having right now, sitting at another airport lounge, this time Dubai, on my trip back home, after having done this little tour with the New Zealand Symphony with the last two concerts having taken place in the beautiful townhall of Auckland. Besides the fact that I was completely exhausted after the last concert (too much practicing other stuff at the side…) I had enjoyed myself very much and had to realize, that my energy is not infinite. Oh, almost forgot: I also did some teaching. They had arranged for a masterclass with four young students (not bad at all), then the principal bass player and cellist of the orchestra wished to play for me (that had never happened before, I was rather nervous because they are colleagues, no students), and after the last concert a 13-year-old boy played some Paganini and Saint-Saens for me, putting me in the awkward position having to deal with a technically highly developped player with not much sense for music.

If the technical talent surpasses the musicality it is very difficult to develop the musical side, because technically it all comes so easy, that they don’t really have to work the other, more important aspects of playing the cello. Talent can be a curse, since many people are so easily impressed by sheer acrobatic efforts – one of the reason why I stopped playing Paganini caprices about 10 years ago ๐Ÿ™‚ I am mentioning all that because after my concert in Hamilton where I had previously given the masterclass, I had a very interesting discussion with the students in front of my dressing room; we talked about interpretations and me being annoyed with realizing that most young players don’t manage to come up with anything on their own but just being far too heavily influenced by the known recordings. At some point I dared to trash one specific recording of one of the greatest cellists ever, just because I felt what he did there had nothing to do with what the piece was actually about. One of the students then said the truth: “You are so opinionated” – yes, I am probably far too opinionated, but as I went on reflecting on that, I thought that might almost be a good thing being a musician, because you have to musically believe in something, otherwise it is not really worth going out there and repeating the same old story over and over again.

And yes, I have very strong opinions about music – not really how to play things, but rather how not to play them ๐Ÿ™‚ I react very sensitively if I feel that players are using patterns and tricks instead of having ideas on their own, what it is they want to do with the piece and then subsequently listen to what they play and if these ideas are actually coming out and make any sense…

Another comment also made me think: I told them that I don’t listen to recordings at all anymore, and very rarely to other cellists, just because I don’t have much chance to hear them – yes, I love going to concerts, but very rarely I have the chance to hear a fellow cellist. And one student asked me if I thought that I wasn’t being a bit closed-minded. She believed I should listen to other cellists to know what is going on, to maybe get inspired, new ideas etc. She had a very good point, I thought, and actually whenever I heard somebody, I took something from it, either how to do or how not to do it. But at the end of the day you can learn that from any performer, and for a cellist I think it is m ore inspiring to listen to singers, or, at the end of the day, just a great musician, never mind the instrument. And to listen to the great musician not to copy what he is doing, but to understand what and why he is doing it – which I find easier with music I am not playing.

Cello is the most beautiful instrument indeed, but I don’t think it is the most important instrument – it is just what it is, an instrument, an instrument to make music, not to “do cello”. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t want to teach on a regular basis; I would find it too tiring having to explain to the students that in a Dvorak Concerto there is so much more than just our cello line, and that by doing the antics cellists love to do, we really, really harm this most beautiful of all concertos. On the other hand it is important for a young player to master his instrument in order to make music. But one never must loose the perspective of what the goal is: To make music with the help of your instrument which happens to be a cello, and not to use the music to show what brilliant cellist you are ๐Ÿ™‚

Good, finally my flight is being called, so I won’t bore you with more of that cellist-stuff – just had to relieve my poor opinionated, small-minded conscience, and yes, I will start to listen to more cellists now. I am able to learn as well, I hope…


  • Stephen

    Hi Alban,

    ah yes the days at CCM ; ) funny, your reasons and mine for leaving were similar…
    anyhow , aside from the nostalgia I enjoyed, I felt compelled to comment:
    Absolutely right my man! I totally agree with you in terms of “one being opinionated”- in fact I often get more (perhaps) brash and say that I donร‚ยดt think anyone has any business playing classical music if they donร‚ยดt have a strong opinion and hence their own ideas- i mean what would the point be otherwise? We might as well go to a concert hall with a great soundsystem and listen to rostropovich (or fill in the blank with any name) -or for that matter stay at home and do this.
    As much as technique is obviously important, I think however, so many musicians (atleast this is what one hears) forget that it is suppose to be a means to an end- if there is no idea to begin with, then all the technique in the world is only going to deliver a note perfect rendition without any understanding. As much good playing as there is out there, it seems there is 10 times more really boring playing going on…sterile and simply technique.
    Anyway, i will get off my soapbox! I really just wanted to say hi and agree with you, i often read your blogs, but this one somehow urged me to respond.
    – i love it! ” Go home and take a shower” : ) -das ist aber einfach klasse! Sagt alles.
    ; )
    liebe Grรƒยผรƒลธe

  • Tinger...

    Dear Alban – may we suggest you should listent o Nicolas Altstaedt ? – great cellist…..! Tinger Do

  • Alban

    Thanks for agreeing with me, Stephen, even though I am still not quite convinced by how good it is to be opinionated. For example I wrote in another entry that Haydn is sometimes empty virtuosity, but while playing it last week for the 4th time in NZ I realized that it is virtuosic stuff, but it is definitely not empty at all but very beautiful and inredibly well crafted – a real masterpiece. I was just upset that I missed some notes… and blamed it on the piece, great job, Mr. Gerhardt!

    Thanks for the advice, Tinger, I know the name of Nicolas, met him once backstage, and I heard very good things about him. But again, as you say: “great cellist” – it’s exactly the point I was making; maybe he is the most wonderful musician as well, but just “great cellist” is of no interest for me, since there are at least 100 “great cellists” right now, mastering the instrument beautifully, good sound, perfect intonation, good charisma, but what counts at the end for me is if something original is happening. If that is the case with him, I’ll definitely will try to catch him in performance!
    Best wishes,

  • Asni

    Hi Alban,

    opinionated, huh? Well, personally I always thought it’s better to have an opinion (and be prepared to speak up on it) than having no opinion at all, but I have run into nothing but trouble with that attitude especially since I moved to NZ. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The saying goes that New Zealanders are so laid back they’re horizontal… although I suspect a lot of people here have a secret admiration for people with opinions. They’re so rare. ๐Ÿ˜›

    I couldn’t agree more with what you say about listening to – and learning from – any sort of music, not just your own instrument. I never liked to listen to harp music much – still don’t – and I actually ended up studying with people who played lute and harpsichord and organ, and learning at least as much from them as I did from my official teacher – in fact, some of the things I learned from that guy I would rather not have learned, but that was more in respect of life in general rather than music in particular. On the other hand, can you really keep the two apart? I really do think that anything and everything one learns in life eventually gets projected into the performance in one way or other. Which is also why it is hard for someone who is very young to be a truly mature performer. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Right. My 2 cents. In one thing I must disagree though: cello is only the second most beautiful instrument there is. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Have a good time at home,

    cheers, Asni

    PS you know about that Haydn concerto in Wellington you’re so upset about? I heard like, a little squeal in like, the first couple of bars. I probably only noticed that because I know what it’s like to perform. It takes a listener – well, me as a listener anyhow – some time to get into a piece. It’s only fair to assume that it can take the player a few bars to get into a piece. I think the rest of the performance vastly made up for any squeals or missed notes there might have been. I really do think any critics or such who get hung up about stuff like a couple of wrong notes need to go and get a life. ๐Ÿ˜€

    That was pretty opinionated, right?

  • Thomas Walter

    Hi Alban!

    I read your article and it was intresting what you said about cellists. Isn’t it a bit hard to say
    that yong cellists with a great technique are unintresting if they don’t have own musical ideas? For cellists who play in concerts I would admit, but if they’re so young and maybe are still studying… How did you personally feel when you were so young? I’m going to study music too ( I hope :-)) and I always have the feeling that technique is harder than the music itself. But maybe its only because I don’t realize how hard the music is? Don’t know…
    Maybe the quetion is a bit strange to an article about music making a not doing cello, but I’d like to know in which transcription you played the Paganini Caprices? I never heard there are any printed scores all 24 for cello.

    Yours sincerely


  • Maria

    Hi Alban,

    I was one of the students in that discussion – in fact I believe I was the one who exclaimed “you’re so opinionated!”, haha! Not that I mind at all, it was just unusual to see it from a professional/teacher-esque figure whom we thought might keep a polite distance from us. You were very interesting to talk to and all of us I’m sure, had we the time, would have absolutely cornered you for hours.
    I agree wholeheartedly with you that we all need to tell our own story with our musicmaking. But so many times as students we’re not quite sure of what’s “right”…and I think it’s so sad that competitions are virtually the only way we can have a crack at making a career these days and if one plays with a totally strong personal conviction then they’re often regarded to have stepped “outside of the realms of good taste”.

    …arghh, how does one know what the music TRULY wants to say? Is it all subjective? In which case, who are we to ever judge anyone’s musicality! 0_o So confusing…

  • Alban

    Hi Thomas,
    well, actually I expect from anybody who wants to become a musician that he has some musical ideas. If he doesn’t feel the music I would recommend not to become a musician. There has to be some kind of musical “spirit” which a good teacher then would have a chance to direct and guide, but one thing is for sure: music is much more difficult than technique – anybody can learn anything, even a robot could learn how to play the cello. It’s us, the human, who can make a difference, and we have to make it, never mind how old we are. I don’t expect perfection, but I think even a 10-year-old can have something to say musically, just “the feel” for it.
    Some Italian cellist transcribed them all (the 24 Paganini’s) and I played some of them, but it’s not really worth it. I forgot his name though, and I think I lost the part anyway, sorry…

    Hi Maria, thanks for writing, and again, very good point! Yes, you have to enter competitions and convince the jurors, but I think it would be wrong to focus on trying to please the jurors. Convince yes, but to play what they might want to hear – how boring does that get? No, you are right, we can’t go into extremes, and there is also a good point to certain traditions in playing certain pieces of music, but if I was a juror I want to hear also what the young player has to say and not what kind of recordings he has been listening to. The truth in music lies obviously in ourselves as well as in the text, the score itself. Sometimes it ain’t all that complicated, even though if at the end you play exactly what the text wants you to play, it ain’t enough – you have to fill it with something else, which sometimes might even change the text.
    Oh, I don’t want anybody to step outside of the realms of good taste, rather start stepping inside it again – with too many empty gestures I feel that some musicians have left the realms of good taste a long time ago…
    Thanks for writing,

    best of luck and cheers to the others in New Zealand,

  • Guido

    Hi Alban. Have been eagerly reading your blog for the last few months – really great stuff as always – my favourite music blog on the net (and I read a fair few!).

    I thought it was interesting what you had to say about the Haydn D major. As beautiful as it is, it has never convinced me as a whole – seen in the context of his other late music it is quite an oddball – the movements seem unbalanced with respect to each other, it is somewhat mundane and awkward structurally, and the virtuoso aspects far surpass any of his other concertos. As a another cellist recently pointed out to me – where in any of Haydn’s other music is there a parallel for the structure that this concerto takes? In any of the hundreds of Sonata form movements that he must have written? To me these things tell me that it was written by another, maybe Kraft – his concertos sound very similar to this. I know that there is a manuscript in Hyadn’s own hand, but I remain unconvinced – maybe he orchestrated it as a gift to the court cellist, who knows?

    The C major on the other hand – what a wonder! The most glowing, joyous, vivaceous work in the cello repertoire.

    Also glad to see that you are recording the Prokofiev concertos – the op.58 is actually a rather good work as I’m sure you’re finding out, perhaps not as masterly as the Symphony concerto, but some really good ideas that I think it was ashame to cut in the ‘final version’ of the Symphony Concerto. I look forward to hearding the recording. (It’s been recorded twice before – once by Ivaskin and once by Starker, though Starker cut lots of it out).

    Thanks again

  • George

    Alban, Haven’t tuned in for a while…thanks so much for the following line…”To make music with the help of your instrument which happens to be a cello, and not to use the music to show what brilliant cellist you are” I think there tends to be too much of a competitive thing amongst us cello players to do just that where ever we are and in case someone’s out there..listening with a critical ear..(what a horribly distracting thing…brings bad energy too)…I think if you “make music” as you will acccomplish the latter as a by product..The people who are most brilliant at what they do…do this.

    Best Regards,

    George from California


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