In the 1990’s when I wrote 23 newsletters for my students and their parents about learning to play an instrument, I began each newsletter with a brief “Dear Readers” letter. Here is a selection of some of these, many years later, which may be of general interest:
February, 1995 Dear Readers:
Cello lessons are usually spent focusing on the assignment of the week. The time flies by dealing with Stringbuilders or Feuillard, and the multitude of mechanical and musical skills which go into playing the instrument. One regret I’ve had is that it’s not often possible for me to spend much time talking with parents. I see the parents of my students as a tremendously dedicated and hard-working bunch of people, doing a wonderful job by their children. Music lessons demand a great investment in money, time and effort on the part of parents – and it’s not easy, as I can also attest from my experience as a parent of two children taking music lessons.
My goal in writing this newsletter is to create that extra time with parents and students, to begin a larger dialogue which will be interesting and helpful as well as provocative. I’m looking forward to your feedback, ideas, questions, and observations.
March, 1995 Dear Readers:
Learning to play the cello is a voyage of discovery. We travel into our own minds and see the processes which enable us to learn, and with time and discipline, seek to master a host of skills. But, in order to grow, whether as cellists or anything else, we also have to survey and come to terms with the landscape of our personality. Here is where performing, and the stage fright that goes with it, offer such opportunities – to see the sides of ourselves which are usually in the shade and come away with greater insight and strength.
April, 1995 Dear Readers:
Recently I saw a family tree of modern cellists, their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, etc. which went back in time all the way to the first famous cello teacher, Francesco Alborea, who was born three hundred years ago in Naples. Alborea, who was known as Franciscello, was so renowned as a cellist and teacher, that he was given credit for teaching people he never even met, some who were born after he died! Now that’s a great teacher!
In a real way, teachers are our musical parents. Their ideas shape our ways of thinking, their values become internalized in us, and their flaws can afflict us. The student-teacher relationship is extremely important, but unlike our parents, we do have a choice about who our teachers will be. So – some discussions on the subject of teachers and students!
October, 1995 Dear Readers:
In July, as you may know, I spent two very full weeks in Germany as part of the “Bach to Germany” tour by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
Entering the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach’s workplace for twenty-three years, was moving beyond words. This man, never particularly esteemed during his lifetime and dead for almost two hundred and fifty years, made a contribution to humanity, dedicated to the glory of God, which will live as long as there are people to hear and play.
What a privilege it is to be able to play the music of Bach! From my vantage point of middle age, I can appreciate and give thanks for my parents and teachers whose nurturing made this possible.
And, parents, since it may be many years before you hear much in the way of gratitude coming from your children, I assure you that your efforts to enable your children to develop musically will bear fruit – in growth, competence, and best of all, love for music which will enrich your childrens’ lives.
November, 1995 Dear Readers:
Many years ago I took a class to learn to scuba dive and I remember how the teacher discussed the need to have a grip on one’s fear underwater if something was going wrong. When a diver panics, he or she uses oxygen at a much faster rate, which can make a bad situation life-threatening.
Clearly, a person’s mental state affects his or her capacity deal with any situation effectively.
Musicians live a complicated emotional life, much of which is hidden from view. Certain feelings may be openly discussed while others are not. Stage fright, for example, is not denied or discounted and most teachers will attempt to help their students deal with it.
On the other hand, the most sensitive part of the emotional anatomy, the ego, is nearly universally swept under the rug. This discussion is an attempt to open the way for further thought and feedback on the subject.
December, 1995 Dear Readers:
Thanksgiving has come and gone, with its accustomed trimmings and doings. Unfortunately, it also brought tragedy into our midst with the sudden death of X, the 19-year-old son of Y.
I played at X’s memorial service on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, a service filled to overflowing with grief and love. At such a time, words fall away and only music can speak.
February, 1996 Dear Readers:
Our winter got off to an exceptional start with the Blizzard of ’96! Well, you think that was bad! Let me tell you about the winter of ’75 when I was working in Reykjavik, Iceland!
Iceland is not especially snowy, but it receives the final thrashings of all the awful storms which travel up the Gulf Stream. I never knew what Wind (with a capital W) was before I lived in Iceland!
One reasonably calm day after a rehearsal, I was walking down a broad boulevard with a Norwegian cellist when a gust of wind lifted us with our cellos and carried us up over the street! I remember that unbelievable sensation of flying… My legs were running like a cartoon character’s in mid-air, and I came down, still running and holding my cello, in the field on the other side of the boulevard! My friend had more of a crash-landing than I did, but he was also okay and our cellos were unharmed!
I knew many things about the cello before I went to Iceland, but I did not know that a cello is also a sail. I never flew in that way with my cello again, thankfully, but when the wind blows, I remember that experience and wonder if there have been any other cellists (aside from the Norwegian and myself) who could say they have literally been lifted into the heavens with their cellos!
April, 1996 Dear Readers:
I haven’t watched Sesame Street in years, but something I always liked about it were the enthusiasms of the various characters, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, the Count, and so on. Each of them was brimming with passion, whether for a bottle cap collection, a rubber ducky, cookies, trash, counting or whatever.
Sesame Street is a model of people happily “following their bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it.
In my view, too few people in our society have a bliss to call their own and are looking for bliss in all the wrong places.
One of the prerequisites to having one’s own bliss is first to have a self, to appreciate one’s uniqueness, not to apologize, minimize or compromise on what one is like inside. I see this as the beginning of healthy motivation, the beginning of a good life and the beginning of artistry as well.
May, 1996 Dear Readers:
A professional musician’s work can swing wildly between the painfully easy and the phenomenally hard. This is actually one reason for the enormous stress level of the full-time symphony player, a job which, in point of fact, just about heads the list of stressful occupations.
You thought it was stressful to be a police officer in the drug-infested inner city? Hah! Just try playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with a conductor who is making one error after another in the conducting patterns!
I’ll bet you thought classical musicians were a sensitive, cultured lot. Wrong again! They are an ugly lynch mob waiting for the conductor backstage. Actually, that’s against union rules, so the conductor is safe. Nobody said life was fair.
October, 1996 Dear Readers:
Welcome to my xeroxed home page! This is where I talk about musical matters beyond the wood and strings of the cello.
Dealing with this musical hardware is an important part of my job as a cellist and teacher, but there is a greater purpose to this work which is never far from my mind.
I see the cello as a vehicle, an avenue – perhaps a vehicle on an avenue leading to a sacred place. I wouldn’t expect my students to see it this way, but I think the larger purpose of studying the cello is to open the way to the transcendent, the Spirit of Music which has belonged to all people in all times.
On a more prosaic level, studying the cello (or any other instrument, to be fair) is some of the most complex physical and mental training which exists. Flying the space shuttle would probably not feel too difficult after mastering the process of playing an instrument.
Happy Fall to everyone! Looking forward to another interesting and rewarding season of learning.
November, 1996 Dear Readers:
Master classes or group lessons are an integral part of a good musical education. What can a student expect to get out of attending and playing in master classes? To become a musician in the truest sense- to learn to use one’s ears and musical imagination.
I attended my first regular master classes in high school and have many vivid memories of them. In those classes, Mr. Klein put us on notice that we were expected to think, to have ideas, opinions to offer, reactions and so on. He went around the class asking what each of us thought about various aspects of a performance. Naturally, I began to listen a lot harder.
In college I attended a weekly ensemble class given by Robert Bloom, the great oboist. Mr. Bloom had the patience of a saint and consequently the class sometimes moved at about the speed of grass growing. He would spend any amount of time working with a student so that he or she would feel the direction of the musical line and hear the relationships of the notes.
I remember his relentless insistence on a particular student’s playing of two notes, an upbeat followed by a downbeat until the student made them sound like they belonged together, that they were a unit, not just two notes one after the other. What a triumph when the student succeeded at last! (And what a relief!)
Mr. Bloom’s teaching profoundly affected how I hear music. His was not a very exciting class, however. He spent much of the time pursuing small details which were eluding the students completely.
His great gift was the energy and passion to direct his students’ ears until they opened and they, too, heard. He also managed to do this kindly. Mr. Bloom certainly showed how God is in the details.
So, in this month of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloom of so many years ago, and for all the teachers who worked so hard to impart their own hard-won truths.
December, 1996 Dear Readers:
Last winter, in a reasonably successful bid to impress everyone, I described how it is that I claim a remarkable distinction – I am one of only two cellists in the history of the world to have flown through the air with my cello, somewhat in the style of Mary Poppins but with my legs running in midair, up and over four lanes of a major Icelandic boulevard, coming down for a landing, still running, in a field on the other side.
I can’t exactly top that, but I want to tell you my second best Iceland wind story.
The hall where the Iceland Symphony rehearsed was the University Movie Theater. To get in, orchestra members had to go down a short flight of stairs to the stage door. Iceland is a stormy country, and as I found out, something about the positioning of the building made that stairwell into a wind tunnel.
One day soon after I arrived, I innocently entered the stairwell with my cello and the wind sucked the cello straight up into the air. Fortunately, I had a good grip on the handle. The cello was flying at arm’s length over my head, straining to break free and fly out to sea.
“HELP!” I cried. I’m sure my voice did go out to sea, but even so, someone hurried over to help me pull the cello down, open the door and escape into the safety of the building.
After that, I had a hearty respect for that stairwell. On windy days, I never ventured into it without a powerful assistant.
When another American cellist joined the orchestra, the first words out of my mouth after saying hello were to warn him about the dangers of the stairwell. But did he listen to me? Noooo. The next windy day, he foolishly entered the stairwell alone and his cello promptly zoomed up and smashed against the side of the building. He had to travel to London to get it repaired.
Maybe now you’ll believe me when I give you advice!
February, 1997 Dear Readers:
I was very sorry to hear that my wonderful teacher, Raya Garbousova, died in the last week of January at the age of 87.
Raya, whom I met in 1970 and with whom I studied for three years, was unlike anyone else I’ve ever known. First of all, she was physically very small, under five feet even with her platform-heeled shoes. In every way but size, however, she was a giant.
She possessed a powerful personality, a forceful, generous, and gregarious nature, but what was most remarkable about her to me was her complete identification with music when she played. I was conscious that the ink of the printed page had disappeared and she was delivering a message straight out of her soul.
Raya was a natural player who thought in a practical way about technical problems but otherwise was not much interested in the purely technical. Her severest criticism was to accuse a performance of being “pedestrian, which I took to mean routine, ordinary and earth-bound.
Raya was slated to be honored at the International Cello Congress in Saint Petersburg Russia this coming July. How I regret her missing that! She just loved a good party! But her many students will keep her alive in their hearts, as I do, and rejoice that she lived to make music in the universe.
March, 1997 Dear Readers:
When my older daughter reached kindergarten, I attended the first elementary school orchestra concert I’d been to since I was in elementary school myself. On the stage there was a respectable contingent of young string players including four proud-looking cellists. I knew the school music teacher to be a particularly good one, enthusiastic, upbeat, filled with energy and vitality, even though she was close to retirement.
What I saw and heard at the concert upset and depressed me. Three of the young cellists were so far off the mark in how they were attempting to play the instrument that I was scandalized. Whoever was teaching them simply had no correct idea how the cello was played – and of course, the person teaching them was that same devoted school music teacher.
As I learned, a few years before, the school system had rid itself of its string teachers in budget cuts and had given six weeks (!) of stringed instrument training to its vocal music teachers as preparation for taking over the duties of the string teachers.
Conscious though she was of the superficiality of her knowledge, this music teacher had little choice but to teach stringed instruments if she still wanted her job. She told me she intended to get any truly interested children to a private teacher as soon as possible.
Since I was new in town and had time on my hands, I decided to volunteer to teach cello at the school to help rectify the situation. The music teacher was delighted and she sat in on the first couple months of lessons I taught. I enjoyed working with the handful of children but began to see that something was missing that I could not supply – family commitment to this learning. The parents had no investment, financial or otherwise, in the success of the venture.
The last straw came at the end of my second year when the mother of a boy who was doing particularly well called and thanked me for my time and informed me that the next year her son was going to “try the drums.”
For me, that was the end of a well-meaning exercise in futility.
I realized that I needed to stay where I belong – my own studio where the students who really mean to learn to play the cello come to me for their lessons, strive for high standards, get better every year and give me the pleasure of being able to make a real difference in their education.
May, 1997 Dear Readers:
A while back I was talking to a friend of mine, a marvelous pianist who makes a living primarily as a piano teacher. She mentioned to me that she had a particular college-age student, not very advanced, who expects to be a “concert pianist.” When it comes to careers, ignorance is not bliss, but even so, it isn’t easy to convey the unwelcome realities of the music profession without sometimes appearing to be a dream-squasher.
Granted, no teacher has a crystal ball to preview any student’s future progress or success. Although the student’s hopes and dreams may be food for the soul, it would be irresponsible for a teacher to allow a student to enter a field where grocery money could become a problem, at least without warnings.
October, 1997 Dear Readers:
It was an eventful summer. I attended the Leonard Rose Cello Competition and Festival at which my teacher, Fritz Magg, 83, suffered a fatal heart attack. Fritz was a man whom I would describe as musically and intellectually fervent. Despite his passionate opinions, he showed his students the respect of allowing them to remain themselves, helping them with real affection to do a better, more polished, and more considered job of playing the cello.
As I wrote to his widow: “Much as I regret Fritz’ passing, I can’t help but believe that he concluded his life in a happy state, still striving to advance the craft and art of the cello as a musician of the highest integrity. I’m sure I speak for all his students when I say that we will always be grateful for the love he showed us through his teaching and the many happy hours we spent with him in the presence of the muse.”
Mid-December, 1997 Dear Readers:
One summer when I was about fourteen years old, my best friend’s mother asked if I would give some cello lessons to one of her sons. I agreed to this, confidently expecting that she would pay me, although I didn’t have the nerve to bring up that little detail.
After six lessons or so, the boy’s IQ had gone down about a hundred points in my estimation (well into the negative numbers) and I felt like I had beaten my head against the wall the whole time. Then his mother thanked me and gave me my “pay” – a book called (something to the effect of) Indian Tribes of the American West.
As a non-musician might put it, my life did not reach a crescendo of gratitude at that moment.
I did learn two things from this experience:
- teaching is harder than it looks and
- one has to talk about money.
I guess the ultimate lesson is that life is always a surprise and what we end up learning may be very different than we expected.
December, 1998 Dear Readers:
The story of pitch on a stringed instrument is one of agony and ecstasy, I’m afraid. In his novel, The Soloist, cellist Mark Salzman portrayed a gifted performer virtually disabled by obsessiveness about his intonation. Needless to say, sensitivity to pitch varies quite a bit from person to person, but it is a characteristic which musicians must cultivate.
A few years ago I purchased a set of tapes which had been heavily advertised in the musicians’ union newspaper purporting to explain “perfect pitch” and give the means by which anyone could achieve perfect pitch. The author claimed that each pitch has a characteristic “color” and that by attempting to hear these colors, one could gradually learn to identify pitches. Just as there are many shades of green, an F sharp, for example, could come in many shades, but it is still an F sharp.
There’s much to say about pitch, relative pitch, perfect pitch, systems of tuning, historic and modern. In this newsletter, I broach the age-old question people ask string players: How do you know where to put your fingers?
By the way, like many musicians without perfect pitch, I can often correctly identify the pitches of notes played on my own instrument, the cello. Perhaps some day I’ll spend the time to develop my latent “perfect pitch.” Right now, I’m busy enough just trying to play in tune.
April, 1999 Dear Readers:
When I was younger I made my living as a symphony cellist. That way of life had a certain simplicity – the music director decided what we would play far in advance, the librarians prepared and distributed the music, we rehearsed, we performed, and we collected our comfortable checks. I went home and I was not in the mood to listen to any more music.
Now I teach a million cello students. Well, maybe not that many, but enough so that I’m beginning to learn some things about learning to play the cello.
Many students remind me of myself. Boy, was I lazy as a kid and boy, are they lazy now! And yet, I see them get better. I see some of them actually becoming musicians, a term I don’t use lightly.
What does it mean to become a musician? It means learning to think musically, to hear, to listen, to count, to feel, to express, to dare. And to do all these things while carrying out the complex physical tasks of playing an instrument.
I feel very moved when a child makes the transformation from student to musician. Tending the pupa until the butterfly is able to emerge and spread its own wings gives a wonderful feeling of fulfillment. I would call it a delicate business, also. Half the battle is just to keep them going through thick and thin, a team effort with parents.
For better of for worse, I’m something of a thinker. I like to make sense out of things. I like clarity. When I teach, I’m searching for understanding, rational methods, procedures, principles and solutions. Perhaps more than anything, I aim to teach my students how to think, how to approach the problems they need to solve, to recognize what those problems involve, and then to focus on what’s beyond those problems.
It’s a fascinating business, often maddening, often frustrating and sometimes sublime.