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 fÃ¼r 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…..