Alban's Blog

Teaching and Performing

My father is one of the most dedicated teachers I have ever come across. Since more or less 50 years he has tought the violin, starting at the tender age of 17, and now, after retiring from playing in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 43 years, he will still have his students at the UdK in Berlin as well as his work with the German Youth Orchestra to make a smooth transition into full retirement (as if this would ever happen…). His dedication and enthusiasm for teaching has made a very big impression on me with a very funny affect: I love to teach, and I grab any possibility of a masterclass to teach – nevertheless because of my father’s dedication I refuse to take a teaching position. I would not be able to fulfill it with the same responsability and care he has shown and which I am convinced is necessary; students seek and need a lot of attention and help, and with me travelling extensively and trying to be as dedicated a father as I can be, I know some of the three things (family, playing, teaching) if not all three would suffer.

This said it might explain why I agreed to accept to teach two masterclasses and play two concerts in two rather different cities within 34 hours this passed weekend: on Saturday I tought four (highly gifted) cellists from the New World Symphony from 11am-2pm in Miami Beach, played  the same evening the second concert of our Haydn D Major, flew Sunday very early (after a delightful late-night party with the young players of this highly inspiring orchestra – their Brahms IV had great passion and emotion in a way of a youth orchestra, but with the perfection of a professional group) to Montreal, rehearsed with Cecile Licad and played an afternoon recital, attended the reception afterwards and then tought 4 students of Matt Haimowitz from 7-9pm.

To be honest I feel rather inadequate at teaching; I know that I can analyze technical problems very well, and because of the excellent teachers I had (especially Markus Nyikos in Berlin) I can also explain and solve them. But as soon as it comes to music I feel much less able to help the players. Different reasons: first of all I don’t really like any kind of pretentious talk about music – using metaphors and images which sound good in theory and might make the teacher look good don’t really help the student much, at least in my experience. Well, let me rephrase it: I have heard numerous times empty musical comments from teachers, conductors and musicians in my life that I have become a bit allergic against meaningless images. But there are some who are masters in using them, and I have greatest respect when somebody manages to put a musical thought into words in a way, that a gifted student (or orchestra musician) can actually change the way he or her plays a certain phrase.

Carlos Kleiber was brilliant in talking to his orchestras, at least what I saw in one video of him rehearsing “Die Fledermaus” (“you have to play as if you are a bit drunk, not too much though, you still have to be able to drive a car” or “play with nicotin”), and also recently Andris Nelsons used some very vivid and clear images to describe to the City of Birmingham Orchestra the introduction of the Dvorak Concerto. I am not so good with words, and often I find myself taking the students instrument and trying to show them different ways of playing a certain phrase which I am really not so happy with; by showing them what I’d do I might limit their creativity to come up with their own ideas. As much as I don’t want them to copy some recordings, I also don’t want them to copy me. Yesterday for example there was a young woman playing the first movement of the Chopin Sonata. She played very well, but for my taste it lacked a bit imagination and freedom. Oh, I tried my best to explain what I was looking for, and I felt incredibly lame and unable to bring my point across.

Finally I took her cello and played a bit with her pianist – but I was not happy with myself, I should have managed to use rather strong images á la Carlos Kleiber instead of week playing. Music is language without words – and it is a great art to use words to describe it, much easier to just play it (if you speak the language… :)). Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I LOVED teaching these really lovely, open and talented students, I just wished I could have done more for them. It is also tough to have so little time to say something meaningful. You have to be incredibly precise, no beating around the bush for too long, put the finger where it hurts as gentle as possible and then fix it in 20 minutes. Impossible? No, nothing is impossible, but a challenge for sure. The nice (and a bit cowardish) thing is, that the next morning I leave town and don’t carry any responsibility for what I have said the night before. One day I might not have the energy to jump back and fourth like a maniac anymore, ready to settle down – but right now I have my hands full with giving justice to raising a little boy.

Oh, I almost forgot to say something about the recital in Montreal, organized by the LMMC, the ladies musical morning club, founded in 1892! They treated us really well, if just every concert could be so nicely organized and cared for. The ladies of the board provided us with delicious cheese, sweets and and all kinds of drinks backstage, and just the care and love leading up to the concert were really inspiring to give all on stage in front of a wonderfully attentive and quiet audience. After a first half of all Beethoven (g minor and A Major) we played Janaceks Pohadka and for the first time the Prokofiev Sonata together, and I must admit, this was by far the best version of that piece I have ever played. Cecile, whom I had just heard doing Prokofievs 3rd Pianoconcerto in the Philippines, played the piano part with so much subtle sarcasm, bittersweet irony and great drama that I almost forgot about the rather fulfilling Beethoven in the first half.

I adore playing with my two so very different pianists Cecile and Steven, and it pains me how few recitals we get to play. Now it would have been great to do the same program a couple of times, but no, I had to fly back to Germany instead, preparing for my Boccherini Concerti next week in Frankfurt and Giessen… Lining up several recitals is becoming harder and harder, since there are fewer and fewer recital series around; the smaller presenters prefer the personal contact with the artist, but unfortunately I am a very poor networker, never staying in touch with anybody and thus not pushing for concerts whatsoever. Whatever I play is arranged by my managers – if it wasn’t for them, I would be sitting home, doing nothing. Thanks, my dear managers! 🙂


  • Dr Charles Barber

    Thanks for this mention of CK. I knew and studied with him from 1989 to the end, and the (two) rehearsal films of him that exist barely do the remotest justice. His command of language, pulse, metaphor, concept and phrase and baton — this was all the stuff of genius.

    I’ve written a bio of him, coming out at Rowman & Littlefield in summer 2010. It draws on the 200 letters, postcards, faxes, cartoons, musical examples he sent over the years. I think you’ll be amazed. I came to realize that he heard differently, and that much of what he could do will remain forever inexplicable.

    Thx again for yours.

    Charles Barber
    City Opera Vancouver

    PS: You might enjoy this BBC Radio 3 piece we recently did about Carlos:

  • Jeff Delson

    There is a great story in Arnold Steinhardt’s book Violin Dreams where he goes to a renowned violinist to learn the secret of Bach’s famous d minor partita and the violinist then proceeds to dance the partita for him. I wish I had the book in front of me so I could get the details right but it expressed the same frustration Mr. Steinhardt had with being able to adequately “explain” how to play the music.
    I admire the honesty of your blog, Mr. Gerhardt. Bravo to you and Ms. Licad on an absolutely sublime performance in Montreal. I feel very lucky to have been there to hear it.

  • Alban

    Thanks for your input, Mr.Delson, I adore Arnold Steinhardt and will get his book as soon as possible, as his son Alexej, the creator of my website, has told me already about it with great praise.
    Same thanks to you, Mr.Barber, for writing and now recommending this book about Carlos Kleiber to us – too many people say they love him without trying to truly understand where he came from and what he was doing. Why do I think so? Because he was such an incredibly subtile musician, no grand gestures (musically speaking) and exaggerations, just music making to the core, and nobody is even trying to follow his lead – the fashion goes into the most obvious and the least subtile, and I find this very frustrating. Just yesterday I read a review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about this new Carmen interpretation, and the young lady, who is singing Carmen, couldn’t have done a more clichée job than that (I watched excerpts on youtube): loud and rather vulgar, piano passages didn’t exist. Pity…

  • Brian in Montreal

    I am glad you enjoyed the LMMC reception in Montreal! I was one of the quiet and attentive audience you mentioned – and am glad what I found to be the many ‘coughers’ didn’t bother you. But I have a question – what was that beautiful piano duet you played with Ms. Licad as the second encore? I have heard it many times before – but confess I do not know from whence it comes. Thank-you for a memorable concert and please come again to Montreal and the LMMC

  • Alban

    Hi Brian,

    oops, I didn’t hear the many coughers – speaks for the good acoustics of the hall, that you can hear me, but I can’t hear you 🙂 Or maybe my ear plugs are really that excellent that I can hear my piano partner, but not the coughers. It felt very attentive though…
    The encore was on of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, op.72 book 1 (?) No.10 in e-minor, yes beautiful piece!
    Best wishes,

  • Donald Pistolesi

    In 1965, my teacher went on a 12-week Russian tour with the Cleveland Orchestra, leaving me alone with the d’Albert concerto. I made a valiant try but just couldn’t get it into my fingers. Forty years later, I came across your recording with Edinburgh. It inspired me to make another attempt. Now I feel better.

    I was happy to read your positive comments as a performer at the “Ladies Morning” concert series. Attendance is always good, and the audience most respectful and attentive. In December, practically everyone in Montreal has a cough. When you started in on the SECOND repeat in the first movement of Beethoven g, I feared I would not survive to the end without exploding. But it is a phenomenon of mass concentration – the power a large number of people intent on the same thing.

    I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw your fingering for measure 2 of Beethoven g: 1 – 2 – 4 – 2 – 1 (and again two measures later). Not even the Navarre fingerings are that idiosyncratic. But I tried it at home, and it does work. Also playing the third note of Beethoven A with the third finger. Not because the fourth finger is weak, but because the hand is better balanced to vibrate? I guess I will have to rethink everything yet again.

    My students were thrilled with your Prokoffiev. I played in a ballet orchestra for twenty-eight years, and it brought back my happiest evenings in the pit – haunting melodious waltzes alternating with gruff and grotesque drive.

    Donald Pistolesi

  • Alban

    Dear Donald, thank you very much for your most flattering entry – it will help me to get over the next three hours trying to learn the two Boccherini Concerti for next week…
    And I thought I did in measure 2 of Beethoven g: 1 – 3 – 4 – 2, then 1 – 2 – 4 – 2 (I had tried it out, since I didn’t like the legato or rather the lack of it when I did it before) – glad you like it. A propos Beethoven A: my fourth finger (it’s the pinky, but cellists can’t count, and we say: thumb, and then fingers 1-4) is very short and very week. I do use it occasionally, but whenever there is a way I try not to. It is also much less fleshy than the the third, so the sound tends to be a bit richer when I do play particularly a long note with it. Oh, I love the Prokofiev, and with all the character Cecile put into it it was definitely the best version I have ever been part of 🙂
    Thanks for coming and bringing your students, best wishes,
    Sincerely Yours Alban Gerhardt

  • cellist at Mcgill

    Dear Mr. Gerhardt,

    I am a Mcgill student who attended your masterclass on Sunday evening. It is difficult for me to explain here the reasons behind the exaltation I felt after watching you for these few moments.

    You inspired me not only as an amazing cellist (I learned so much just from the few notes you played in your demonstrations), an exceptional artist, a caring teacher but mostly, as a well-rounded human being, a true role model. I have become one of your dedicated fan and I can only hope to play for you at some point and receive more of your precious insights. For now, I will listen to your CDs, enjoy your blog and watch YouTube videos of your interviews, so thank you for keeping these up!

    I am simply thankful to have made your discovery and wanted to share my appreciation.

    cellist at Mcgill

  • Matan Mintz

    Hello Mr Gerhardt,
    I’ve enjoyed this blog off and on for a few years now, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is evident from your blog posts how busy you are but when you have a few moments would it be possible to tell me your preferred fingering for the tricky passage at the end of the Ligeti sonata (after the fermata, the alternating accented f-f#’s, and then do you repeat the same fingering an octave up?)? I really like how you play it on the youtube video, so I’m just curious if I have the same fingering and simply have to practice it a lot more. Since you express generosity of spirit to young cellists in this blog post it seemed like a good opportunity to bother you 🙂
    Matan Mintz


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