Alban's Blog

Trying to teach in Germany…

Ten days ago I gave my first cello lessons in Germany, some kind of mini-masterclasses. Why first? Well, I have never been asked before, only in the US have orchestras set up these “meetings” with local cello students which I always found exciting because for once I get to pick on somebody else but be! Time passes much quicker than practising on my own and it is much easier to motivate yourself since the student is showing up at 9h30 am, so you have to be there.First class was in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, at the “Podiumsfestival”, which was found by an enthusiastic group of youngsters who had met at various festivals and now had the time of their life at their own festival, playing the music they wanted, inviting the players of their choice, and the organization was close to perfect as was the quality of the performances. Unfortunately I had to commute back and fourth between Mainz and Esslingen, “finishing off” my two concerts, but I had enough time to party after my own solo recital with the other musicians (all half my age!) until 5h30 in the morning – it felt like back in youth orchestra, I was soooo happy, even danced for the first time in ages.

I only had 15 hours in Berlin before continuing to my second-ever masterclass in Germany, this time at the Hochschule für Musik in Dresden. My friend and former class-mate Ulf Prelle (we studied together with Boris Pergamenschikow) had already asked me a couple of times to apply for a professor position there, but I couldn’t really charge myself with another huge responsibility. A two-day masterclass should be feasible though, I thought, and did it: 8 hours of teaching each day straight, quite a good exercise for endurance and concentration. Only once I fell asleep for a couple of seconds, and that was on the second day after having spent the one night in between fighting an ugly stomach virus, so I was a bit weakened.

Can I teach? I had good teachers, I have been taught how to play the cello in an efficient way, so yes, I can teach the cello, but teaching music is a completely different subject which I find very difficult. How to inspire a young player, how to show him or her all the possibilities which are out there without convincing them to do what I do. I play for them, sing and dance in front of them, nothing short of making a fool out of myself, but does it really change their approach? I also talk, but I am not good in talking about music, about feelings, metaphors, images, colors -it is an art in itself to inspire with words. The hardest I find to teach somebody who plays technically really well but doesn’t do anything with the music. When a piece of music sounds totally dull in perfect execution. Oh, I tried with the one fellow, but I couldn’t reach him at all, it was rather depressing.

Two students played the last movement of third suite of Max Reger, and both did something very strange in the first variation, in one specific bar where they suddenly stretched a certain note and I didn’t understand at all what they were trying to achieve by doing it. When asked, the first player came up with no real answer although he mentioned that he had listened to my recording, but the second player, a bit more direct, claimed that I was doing the same in my recording. While happy about her honesty I was shocked that I would have recorded something like that. Lucky enough I had my laptop with most of my recordings with me. We listened together to the specific bar, but I had played nothing of what they had done, except maybe having given a bit of extra energy on the high f of a sudden b-flat major arpeggio, but in time and articulated. Both of them had stopped the flow and had played the f just very loud and long, no articulation.

Why am I telling this story here? Because for the first time I had met two people who had tried to imitate a musical mini-tought of mine and had failed rather miserably while believing they did the right thing since they copied a recording they liked. I think many bad traditions and habits are born like that, by people listening to recordings and trying to play the way a “master” plays – but without understanding the intention and feelings behind it will be nothing but a counterfeit. We had a lengthy discussion afterwards, the player claiming she did exactly what I played and the few audience members in the class shaking their heads in disbelief since it was well-played, but completely different to this silly recording.

Maybe I am not making much sense, but when I did a blind-listening two days ago with a journalist who brought various recordings of cellists I was surprised and a bit shocked of how few really original thoughts I feel behind the playing of some rather well-known cellists. No, there is hope, I heard some wonderful music-making with own ideas and feelings, but in general there is this imminent danger of trying to please too many teachers, of playing like a good student who has very clearly in mind what he had been taught, by too many different teachers and too many different recordings. I still feel very lucky that my last teacher, Frans Helmerson, had denied me a last lesson with Shostakovich’s First Concerto with the words I should do it on my own and find my own voice. I was 23 back then and still grateful because until then I thought I had to play for as many people as possible to learn how to play. Wrong – at a certain point we have to start believing in our own imagination and taste, the sooner the better, and rule No.1 should be, not to listen to any recording until you know the piece inside out. Last time I listened to a recording of the Dvorak Concerto? I don’t really remember…

Oops, it is already 9h20 am, my dress rehearsal starts in 70 minutes here in grey and rainy Milan, I’d better leave the breakfast table and run to the Auditorium, playing a truly old-fashioned Dvorak concerto with a very modern conductor; Wayne Marshall’s interpretation of the Dvorak might be very close to the likes of Casals and Feuermann, straight forward and very quick, because I do remember now that a couple of years ago I took out the Casals recording and was amazed of how blazingly fast he went through the entire piece. No stop-and-go, no heart-wrenching, soul-pouring teary ejaculation of over-vibrated notes, just the music, almost as a slight understatement, contrary to anything people would expect from “the Dvorak” today; we’ll see how much we’ll come down in dress rehearsal and concert – because as I am happy to do it “the old way” (which seems pretty modern), I am aware of the expectations of the listeners as well as of my own habits by now that it is quite a challenge to play the piece almost 4 minutes quicker than usually…

Have to run…..


  • Ellen

    Maybe, to help them hear the difference, you could play for your students something from a very early Yo Yo Ma recording and the same piece, or movement, from a much later recording. Then they can hear that although, as a young cellist, Ma played all the right notes, it wasn’t until he was older that he began to play music.

    Most of the best teachers who have taught me say that they continue to learn from their students. Keep at it, Alban; you and the next generation need each other.

  • Alban

    Actually I would be rather opposed to play my students recordings of anybody – I don’t want them to orientate themselves to some preserved interpretation but find their own. Did YoYo Ma become a better musician with the years? Was that even possible? I don’t know, I don’t own any of his recordings – because I don’t own many cellists recordings. He has always been a fine cellist, can’t really tell about his musical journey, because I am not informed enough, but I trust your opinion!
    Do we learn from our students? I don’t know, I never had any, except in masterclasses, but that doesn’t count – I think, the people you are referring to are really teachers with real students, students on a regular basis. I know you can always learn, never mind whom you are listening to, may it be to the birds in the forest or to some first class soloist playing in Carnegie Hall – and everything in between; we can always learn from any art form, even from painters, sculpturists or installationists, and if only how not to do it. If the next generation needs me as a teacher, I am not sure – I rather go and play to kids and schools, I think they need it even more urgently – good cello teachers we have plenty πŸ™‚

  • Thomas

    Dear Alban,
    I honestly have listened as well carefully to your recording of Kodaly Cello sonata and I must say, even though I have heard the sonata a few times in concert, I didn’t have any idea how this piece should sound, when I started it. This was, anyway, a period when I had no teacher, I had just left one and the other was about to start two months later. In this space of 2 months, I decided for myself to learn this Sonata, and of course I needed something to lean on, something to be assured I’m not doing a complete nonsense here. For me it would have been impossible to learn this piece from scratch, without any recording or prejudices, it is far too complicated.
    As far as I remember, the only piece I ever learned from the scores, without any recordings (because I had none, I was in warsaw at that time) was the 6th Bach Suite, and at that time I first recognised how logically and self-explaining Bach mostly is.
    When you say, rule number 1 should be not to listen to any recording, until you know the piece inside out, I think this is much more difficult with the Kodaly sonata, or a Reger Suite and maybe as well with the Dvorak concerto, than with a different type of music, as a Bach Suite or a Haydn concerto for example. I can just remember me, sitting on the 2nd movement of Kodaly with your recording in my ears and sorting all the thousands of wrong notes out I had overlooked. Whatsoever, I also think it is most important to make one’s own interpretation as soon as possible. But something I did: when I barely knew the piece, I bought as many recordings as I could find. And I looked for some fingerings on Youtube as well. This way I got an image from multiple sides, which was of course very helpful. But this is not the point, I’m drifting away. I wanted to point out, you can’t make your own interpretation from a piece, when you’re just about to learn it, this is too risky, as we all are human and need other humans to sort our mistakes out. Interpretation starts, where the learning process stops, I think. And I think as well, this could have been the point, and I might be to sleepy to continue. πŸ™‚
    Thanks, anyway, for a very inspiring lesson! I also tried the trick with ohropax, I feel like I have just started listening to myself!
    best wishes

  • Alban

    Dear Thomas, thanks for your honest opinion and I understand your point – still I can only assure you that when I learnt the Kodaly Solosonata about 21 years ago, I did not listen to a single recording nor have I ever heard a performance of the piece (actually until today) – this way my interpretation might not be a very good, not please everybody, but it is really “mine”, authentically mine, and this is what I am trying to express; never mind if it’s Kodaly, Bach or Pintscher (with modern music we obviously often don’t have a recording to get orientation from ), we should try to find out first, what the composer might want to tell us in the score (and maybe through his biography), and even if you really don’t know what to do, then compose yourself πŸ™‚
    Best wishes,

  • Gabriel

    Hey Alban,

    i’m happy, my advice forced you to dance πŸ™‚


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