ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!
Recitals have taken him to major cities each season: he regularly performs in London, New York, and Boston. As a member of the Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio he has recorded and toured extensively for twenty years and recently formed the new group Sequenza. He is a frequent visitor at international chamber music festivals worldwide and has often appeared as a guest with the Guarneri and Emerson String Quartets and at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
His solo recording of the unaccompanied cello works of Kodály, Britten, Crumb, and Schuller received an industry award in the US. His recording, "Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello," performed live at Boston's Jordan Hall (GM Recordings), has been highly acclaimed, and the Brahms Sonatas (Arabesque) were released in November 2000. He was also the soloist in the Elgar Cello Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic on a BBC Music Magazine cover CD.
Colin Carr is the winner of many prestigious international awards, including First Prize in the Naumburg Competition, the Gregor Piatigorsky Memorial Award, and Second Prize in the Rostropovich International Cello Competition.
He first played the cello at the age of five; three years later he went to the Yehudi Menuhin School, where he studied with Maurice Gendron and later with William Pleeth. He was made a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in 1998 after having been on the faculty of the New England Conservatory in Boston for 16 years; in 1998, St. John's College, Oxford created the post of "Musician in Residence" for him, and in September 2002 he became a professor at Stony Brook University in New York.
Mr. Carr plays on a Matteo Gofriller cello made in Venice in 1730.
TJ: You studied with the great French cellist, Maurice Gendron, at the Menuhin School.
CC: Actually, Gendron came to the school quite infrequently, at most once a month for a day or two, and sometimes there were three or four months between visits. One of his former students taught us twice a week in his absence, but I'm afraid these lessons were dull.
Before studying with Gendron, I had played whatever I felt like, usually pieces that were too difficult for me. He reformed me using the same system that he used with his students at the Paris Conservatoire -- Franchomme, Duport, Servais, Feuillard Daily Exercises, scales -- and had me playing Romberg and Davidoff Concertos.
Menuhin brought Gendron to the School because of their long-standing professional relationship; they had played together for decades. But Gendron was a terrifying and tyrannical teacher. He was extremely demanding, impatient, intolerant, and not used to dealing with children; I was ten years old.
He would often yell, raising his voice to a pitch that was quite scary for child, and he was physically violent at times. I remember him deliberately knocking the bow out of my hand with his bow. By the time I left the school at age 16, people realized that, although Gendron was a wonderful cellist, he was not suited to teach young children; they phased him out.
TJ: Do you recall any of his guiding principles?
CC: His main theme was, "Play the way I do." The idea that I should try to understand a composer's thoughts didn't occur to me until much later. He demonstrated frequently in lessons and highly recommended his own recordings for further study.
He made us do unusual things too. He insisted that his students have razor blades, the purpose of which was to erase printed slurs. He wanted us to use his bowings, but it wasn't enough to just pencil in a slur; no, musical history had to be erased. A slur that Brahms wrote, for example, had to be completely obliterated. My old music actually has holes in the paper where I had tried to scrape off the printed slurs with the razorblade. I occasionally pressed too hard and went right through, resulting in some missing notes on the back side of the page.
He wanted us to use three colors when marking our music -- red, blue, and green. One color was for fingerings, another for bowings, and another for expressive markings. There was hell to pay if a down bow was written in blue instead of red.
TJ: Did you go to William Pleeth directly after Gendron?
CC: No. I was 16, and not too wise. I decided that I didn't want to go to Conservatory or University. I thought I had a career since I had won some small competitions and was playing a few concerts. I shared a house in London with my girlfriend -- yes, I was still 16 -- imagining that my solo career to be on an unstoppable path to greatness!
I did have the occasional private lesson with Pleeth. My parents wanted me to have weekly lessons with him, but it didn't work out that way. Over the next year or two my lessons became less and less frequent until, by the time I was 18 years old, I wasn't having any lessons at all.
Basically, I was a terrible student and a bad listener. Whatever it was that my teachers had to offer me, I was not ready to receive it. I was unteachable.
TJ: What did you glean from your limited time with William Pleeth?
CC: He made me feel like I could do anything. He always told me that I played wonderfully, no matter what. If I went into a lesson feeling that I wasn't up to it, I'd come out with all doubts dispelled. Often students go into a lesson with doubt and leave with even more doubt because teachers prey upon their students' eroding self-esteem. Pleeth understood that we all play better when we are feeling good about ourselves and he rescued many from their downward spiral of self-doubt.
TJ: Did he ever discuss technique with you?
CC: I can't remember him saying a single thing about it. His book, Cello, is very representative of his teaching method; there's not much technical discussion. My time with him felt like a continuation of my experience at the Menuhin School -- not counting Gendron, who was an anomaly there -- since the School's music director, Peter Norris, had similar ideas.
Pleeth had passionate feelings about teaching and playing music; he believed that if you have total conviction and commitment to the music, then technique will follow. In other words, if you feel the music strongly enough, you will be able to play it. This was a truth for me for a long time, long after I had finished studying, and I took his principles to my first professional teaching position. Soon afterwards I realized that it doesn't always work.
TJ: Why not?
CC: Everybody feels music strongly, but it's too big a leap from that to the ability to express those feelings through our instrument. We need tools, which means we need to focus on purely technical matters too.
I realize that I am saying two conflicting things. On the one hand, there's the Pleeth/Norris idea, if you feel it, you do it, and in order to do it, you need to feel it. On the other hand, there are the millions of us who do feel it, but are unable to do it because there are too many things getting in the way. I've seen this in students throughout my teaching life.
TJ: What musical principles did Pleeth emphasize?
CC: Communication was paramount. As long as you were speaking and singing he was happy. He empowered his students to do just that.
He believed in the use of physical gestures as an aid to expression. We use our body in different ways, depending on what we are saying. For example, when you stroke a cat, or you see somebody that you dearly love, you use your body, including facial expressions, to reinforce the feeling. When you say, "Oh, what a beautiful baby," there's a physical sincerity without which the words do not make sense. The same thing must happen in music. You involve your whole being in its message and your body will behave accordingly. Although this is an obvious idea, many musicians don't do it!
TJ: Let's say you're playing the second theme in the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto (see Example 1). How would you apply this idea to this passage?
CC: That's a theme we all agonize over. But if we just remember the simple beauty of it, we can bypass a lot of troubles. According to Pleeth and Norris, think of its tenderness and simplicity, and then allow your whole being to behave accordingly.
But there is an obstacle. Let's say you change the bow between the f# and e, which is common enough. The challenge is that you've been on a long down bow on the first two notes (A and F#) and then three eighth notes follow on the up bow. What usually happens is that the energy of the faster bow for the three eighth notes makes them sound too heavy, when they should fall away instead. This can be dealt with so easily by lightening the bow on the change, but first we must recognize the tendency, which we often don't.
This is a universal problem for all of us musicians: we don't listen to ourselves keenly enough. Sure, we feel the music strongly, but these feelings often cloud our perception of our own playing. Clearly, feelings are not enough.
TJ: How does one attain this ability to listen to oneself objectively?
CC: I suspect that we don't listen to ourselves because we don't like what we hear when we do; moreover, if we needed to fix every blemish we heard it could feel quite overwhelming! Enjoying our emotional response to the music is much more pleasant. However, the key is to listen, no matter how unpleasant, so that problems can be noticed, analyzed, and solved. Otherwise, progress will be much slower.
It's also important to minimize tension when playing. We cannot hear ourselves objectively when we are physically tense. Tension also hampers our expressive ability, so we must learn to breathe when we play, to relax the stomach, the jaw, the neck, and all those other places that we often don't think about. Only then are we able to hear if we are offending.
TJ: As you indicated earlier, you didn't have much formal training. How did you achieve the tremendous technique that you have today?
CC: I practiced six or seven hours per day in the long distant past. During that time I did a lot of technical work and had fun designing exercises when I had difficulties with any specific aspect of playing. For a while I played scales in harmonics, not to mention 4ths, 5ths and wild bow patterns. My children have put an end to all that now.
I had a lot of concerts in those days too, up to ninety per year, so I had a lot of music to learn and I felt I needed to put in that kind of time just to stay afloat. Back when I was at the Menuhin School, I would learn a couple of pieces and play them all year long. After I left I had a lot of catching up to do. Even now my repertoire is quite small compared with some of my colleagues.
Someone came up to me after a concert when I was in my early 20's and said, "I admire you so much for your sheer will power." I don't think it was a compliment, but I thought about it and realized that it was right on the mark. I had made it through the first third of my cello life through stubborn determination. I had been practicing six or seven hours a day for years and the consequence was that I was tense and hurting in my right arm, shoulder, and fingers. I was virtually a cello cripple, but I was in denial and kept on playing through the pain, squeezing everything with incredible intensity. I suppose some people found it gripping, but I can't imagine that it was all that pleasant. Then, around the time we got married in 1993, my wife, Caroline, said, "You've got to do something about this," and I always do what she tells me.
TJ: How did you figure out how to play with less tension?
CC: I'm still working on it. It's a daily challenge for me.
TJ: One of your former students said that you encouraged him to give up having a life while in school if he wanted to become a professional cellist.
CC: That's something I might have said a while back. Now I would say, "If you want to have a life, give up being a cellist!" I have had students who have tried both! I did have one no-hoper who decided to forego a life of fun and he locked himself up in a practice room for three years in school. Now he has a career, a family, and a life, and he's very happy. I think he's the exception.
TJ: Some of your former students at New England Conservatory (NEC) recall you practicing scales and Popper Etudes every morning. Do you still do this?
CC: Not as much as I used to. Scales were a religion for me for almost twenty years; I still love them. It's true that I was always up bright and early at NEC and once had a bucket of cold water dumped on my head when I entered my usual room at 6am -- somebody's idea of a joke ... or punishment. I always want to practice before my day gets going, no matter when the first lesson or rehearsal is, or what time the plane is to leave ... it centers me. I find my head and heart aren't in my practicing as much if I wait until the end of the day.
I encourage everybody to play tons of scales if they so desire, but, for goodness sake, not just for intonation. It's essential to be aware of many things so that scales aren't merely mechanical exercises, but more of a study of the "raw materials" of music -- Peter Norris' expression. One must be in love with intervals, chords, melodic shapes, and cadences. Every note has its tonal and harmonic place in the scale, as well as its obvious melodic position. If every note of our scales is played with love, care, and intention, all will be well with the rest of our practice.
TJ: Do you have any general principles on the use of vibrato?
CC: I get tired of arguments about whether to vibrate or not, as if those are the only two ways to use vibrato, yes or no; rather it is in a constant state of flux. The job of vibrato is usually to reinforce whatever the bow is doing, so if the bow follows a melodic line up and down, the vibrato would do the same thing in a subtle way. Vibrato must obey the same laws of musical language as the bow. Dissonance can make you vibrate more or less, but generally dissonance would require more musical tension -- tighter vibrato -- which then relaxes as the music resolves.
TJ: You played the Bach C Major Suite at the last RNCM Manchester Festival. You seemed to have more of a violinistic approach to bow technique, and seemed to use more of the upper half of the bow.
CC: If I did, it was not a conscious choice. It's funny you should say this because I often feel that violinists use the upper half too much in Bach, and that they have this strange idea that separate notes should be martelé. I've never liked this approach because the bow stays glued to the strings. If anything, I would like to think that I play in the lower half and middle and take the bow off the strings so that the sound rings more freely. I like to use a lot of bow in Bach in order to have a freedom of sound.
I was very much in an Anna Magdalena phase at the time of that performance. I was greatly influenced by Anner Bylsma's book, Bach, the Fencing Master, in which Anna Magdalena is a goddess who writes nothing but the Truth. The irregular bowings may have resulted in me playing in the "wrong" part of the bow at times.
TJ: One of the nice things about your performance was that it seemed neither overly Romantic nor like a Modern cellist masquerading as an "authentic" player.
CC: I'm glad to hear that. But the two worlds are not as far apart as all that. I love beautiful baroque style, but I play on a modern cello with steel strings and so on. It would sound all wrong if I were to attempt to imitate this way of playing, but there's something about the way baroque players use their bows that is so free and physically beautiful. Pardon my romanticism, but their bow arm motions are more curvaceous and produce such voluptuous sounds. That's the way to play on a Modern cello.
Our problem is that steel strings are tight, which makes us tight, especially on the a string. I clench my teeth when I play on the a string! I hear tension in the a string sound of many students too. Their bodies tighten up because they just don't like the sound of it, and things get increasingly worse as they play higher up the cello.
TJ: How should one counteract this?
CC: It gets back to our discussion about listening. If you don't like the sound, do something about it!
It helps to remember to breathe and to let things happen instead of forcing them. Try to imagine that all your pipes are open and that blood and air are flowing through you. Also make sure that your joints aren't too angular and motions are more circular, particularly bowing.
Circular bowing is one of the greatest discoveries of instrumental playing. Bowing should not be a simple back-and-forth motion, because the bow and arm have to come to a full stop before the bow changes direction. This causes a break in the sound and creates tension in the arm and shoulder. Instead, the bow hand should travel in various permutations of a circle or oval or figure-8, even on one string, depending on the musical passage.
TJ: One of your former students noticed a difference between you and his next teacher. He felt that you strove more for a ringing and lighter approach, while his next teacher dug more into the string, perhaps playing closer to the bridge. Does this sound accurate?
CC: Partly, yes. Who likes listening to cello playing near the bridge at all times with a sound that constantly projects and pierces? Certainly there's a time for playing near the bridge, but I prefer to play with more variety, changing the sounding point between the fingerboard and bridge as often as the music calls for it.
When I play Bach, I get into the string, but I do so away from the bridge. This produces a sound that I think best replicates the gut string timbre of a baroque instrument. This technique produces a richness and depth in the sound, but without tightness.
What I often notice myself telling students is that they need to get into the string before they play a note, and then to make sure that they get out of the string after the note has started. This goes back to what we were discussing about Bach, about letting the strings ring. It's as if you are putting your bow hand inside your cello and then throwing the sound out.
I like to use a tennis stroke as a good analogy for the bow. In tennis, we need to anticipate where we need to be before the ball comes. We need to be in the right place before it's time and have something of a back swing already initiated so that, when the ball comes, we are set to hit the ball in a controlled and less tense manner. Then we swing through the contact, though there is a moment at the point of contact when there is a special energy. Similarly in cello playing, we need to anticipate the coming note or notes, and do preparatory movements so that, when the note arrives, we can play it with minimal tension but much energy.
One of my favorite images in music is the bouncing ball (this is the best image for a succession of sixteenth notes in separate bows, all generated by one impulse). This is an image for rhythm, not for a bouncing bow. It can be used on or off the string or a combination of the two. The bow must be allowed to replicate the ball, i.e. less bow with each successive note but a slight increase in speed (i.e. less height with each ball bounce and consequently faster). The bow isn't necessarily bouncing, however. It works well in Bach Preludes, like the 3rd with a detaché and even the 4th, whose bow stroke I can't describe in words. And the contact doesn't become less (after all, the weight of the ball remains constant). The point is that the notes get closer together as they progress and less bow is used as they progress. The great thing about this approach is that it gets us away from literal rhythm (often square and lifeless) and towards more of a gestural rhythm. Music is comprised of gestures that are created by impulses and their consequences.
Another image I like for bowing is wheels. Imagine pushing something on wheels and then letting go. It needs energy to get going but then it continues under its own momentum. This can be experienced on a bicycle, for example. The pedaling is the pulse that produces the motion of the music; uphill there is more resistance and friction, downhill less.
Rowing is a similar image that can help with bowing. The oar stroke occurs at the beginning. You feel the resistance, then your oar is out of the water and even though you do nothing, you are moving. Then the friction of the boat in the water slows you down until the next stroke.
Resistance is a key concept. It is the feeling of more or less resistance under the bow which generates more or less tension in the music, but this resistance is created in a particular way depending on the angle of the bow to the string as it draws the sound. This is difficult to articulate in words, but essentially in a down bow, if you keep the bow close to the string above the one on which you are playing, and stay in the string, you will create resistance. In the up bow, if you keep the bow close to the string below the one on which you are playing, you will maintain this resistance as well. This results in the basic circular bow stroke for a full sound that sustains, though it needs some speed at the beginning of each stroke to get the sound going.
Then there are endless variations, of course. If the circular motion were counter-clockwise instead clockwise in a down bow/up bow cycle, with the bow not in the string, a sound is produced with hardly any resistance at all, but it's no less valid if used appropriately. This all has great implications for bow changes, some of which must be seamless and others that require a consonant at the beginning of the word/note and therefore more resistance; try saying a consonant without any resistance! A firm understanding of these mechanics will greatly increase the possibility of a sound that has "clarity and depth," which is another of my slogans.
Be sure to have active fingers on the bow too, especially in faster notes and when there are lots of separate bows. The ultimate in fast separate bows would be a tremolo, which would only be executed with the fingers.
TJ: I remember one of your students playing the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto in a master class at the last RNCM Manchester Cello Festival. She maintained the energy and tempo throughout the entire movement, which I actually found to be rather exciting, even though Dvorak indicates that the second theme should be slower. Do you play the piece in a similar manner, or do you use more tempo fluctuations throughout the first movement?
CC: I don't know that I would play it so straight, but how I play a piece varies, depending on with whom I am performing. In the Dvorak, the conductor establishes the character of the first movement in the long opening tutti before we play a single note; I view the Dvorak as a huge collaboration between soloist, conductor, and orchestra. As a result, I find myself playing the piece quite differently from year to year.
I don't think I would enjoy listening to a metronomic performance of the Dvorak, however. He gave tempo markings -- 116 for the opening, 100 for the second theme -- which are not far enough apart for most people, I know! The second theme doesn't want to be put in a straitjacket, so stubbornly sticking to 100 just because Dvorak indicated it often does not feel natural. The tempo may ebb and flow as the musical tension builds and subsides.
I always try to be truthful and sincere about what I believe are a composer's intentions. But if I feel like I am compromising to the point that I'm not being true myself, I allow myself the freedom to try something different. We all draw lines in different places.
TJ: I found your recording of the Kodály Solo Sonata to be wonderfully passionate. Did Starker's recordings influence you at all?
CC: I recorded the Kodály nearly twenty years ago, and I'm sure that I play it differently now. I think the first couple of movements lose their way in my recording -- although I haven't listened to it for a good 15 years! Anybody who makes a recording of the Kodály would have to listen to Starker at least once, but I don't think I used him as a model.
I approach the Kodály a little bit like the Bach Suites. The freedom and improvisatory nature of both is obvious, yet both also have a formal structure that should not be messed with.
TJ: Are there any musical mistakes that you find yourself correcting in student after student?
CC: One day I'm going to write a book about this. When students bring in a new piece, more often than not, they play the same wrong notes. And I'm not talking about notes that are in doubt, like in some of the Bach Suites. There are five or six notes, for instance, that I always have to point out to my students in the first Shostakovich Concerto:
There are also some unfortunate bowings that have become standard because everybody uses the same bad editions. Leonard Rose, for all his great artistry, has a lot to answer for here. His editions are widely used, particularly in the United States. In many cases, the original musical gestures of the composers have been obliterated. The Dvorak and Schumann Concertos and the Arpeggione Sonata are innocent victims, as are the Brahms sonatas.
Then there are many examples of a bowing becoming so common that we forget the original. The Brahms F Major Sonata is a victim here. For instance, in measure 4 (see Example 11), people often break the slur between the c and b-flat, therefore avoiding would have been a subtle release and replacing it with a hefty up bow.
And worse, in measure 8 (see Example 12), many break the slur from g down to c in order to play the c as loudly as possible. Instead, the c should fall from the g.
In measure 20 (see Example 13), students -- not just students -- usually change the bow on the high g's, even though Brahms indicated long slurs over entire bars. When the slur is broken at the g's an unequivocal hemiola is created, which I don't think is what Brahms had in mind. He preferred ambiguity. He could have easily placed the slur the way everybody does it, but he didn't. Brahms had it right to begin with; the two g's are going to be heard no matter what you do.
TJ: The preceding notes lead to the g, so doesn't changing the bow at the g clarify where the musical peak is within the measure?
CC: Absolutely! But just because the g is the musical peak doesn't mean you have bow it that way. I think the music becomes too black and white, too obvious.
Brahms does this sort of thing all the time. In measure 83 of the Trio of the second movement of the Brahms e minor Sonata (see Example 14), cellists almost always change the bow at eachg#, while Brahms groups them less clearly on purpose. I feel like I am getting hit over the head with the g#'s when they start each bow! We are going to hear those g#'s anyway and what's beautiful about them is that every now and then they end up on a change of bow. The music washes over you like waves when bowed as Brahms wrote it, instead of like planks of deadwood.
Getting back to the Brahms F Major Sonata, I have another pet peeve, which occurs at measure 43 (see Example 15). Cellists often divide these measures into two bows, in groups of three notes each. I realize that it is more difficult to play each measure in one bow, but the musical result is better when bowed as Brahms wrote it. The energy is typically at the beginning of any given slur, so when each of the measures are broken into two bows, false energy is created on the f# that is after the second beat, which breaks up the continuity of the phrase. When two groups of three notes are played, one has little choice but to play each group with the same energy because you have to use the same amount of bow for each half of the bar.
If you must break up these measures, I suggest that you group them into two notes and then four notes, using whole bows for each group. This results in a comparable distribution to that if the notes were played in a single bow. There is more energy in the first two notes in a whole down bow than in the remaining four notes that start at the tip; the up bow will be played on a slower up bow, which is less energetic, although the last up bow would need a slight compensatory crescendo!
Another place that bothers me is back in the Brahms e minor Sonata. At measure 83 in the first movement (see Example 16), many play two bows per measure instead of one. But the gestures as written by Brahms are by the bar and the phrases are two bars long; this need not be altered. If it is, the resulting squareness is deplorable -- how loud does this have to be anyway?!
Another is in measure 114 (see Example 17). The music wants to release from the half note to the quarter note. Many disrupt this flow by taking the quarter note on a separate bow because they want to be in a more convenient part of the bow for the eighth note -- and to play louder, of course. But the struggle of the slow bow and the energy to get back for the eighth note conveys exactly the right message. Without it the resistance and tension of the music are lost.
Another is in the development, at measure 118 (see Example 18), the two-octave leap between the f's. How many cellists break the f's into two bows? And why? Because they believe they will be louder, of course. But that motive -- two slurred quarter notes -- is integral to the piece, on or off the main beat; to break up the slurs willfully goes against Brahms' intent. And in the end I don't believe it is any louder anyway. Every student with whom I have discussed this has said, " This feels better musically."
TJ: One of my former teachers had me play the high f and then, on a separate bow, play a triple stop that starts on the low f.
CC: Yeah, I've heard of that one too, and I disagree mightily for the same reasons. I think that Brahms knew what he wanted.
Another passage in the Brahms e minor is just before the coda at the end of the first movement (see Example 19). Brahms wrote a slur over all four bars, which is impossible to do well. But do we have to play one bow per bar, which again ruins the wonderful tension and release of the phrase? Two bars in one bow here is quite manageable.
Another is in the Beethoven A Major Sonata, just before the recap (see Example 20). The slur is over four bars in the manuscript. In this case it's not hard to do, especially if you're playing pianissimo. There's something so hushed and special when there is so little motion in the performer's body. And then the four whole notes come after --very little bow please, just as slow a bow as in the preceding bars! -- and you've got the release of the crescendo and forte-piano in measure 152. If you've been using too fast a bow in the pianissimo the dramatic effect is destroyed.
I am also wary of cheap fingering tricks that are applied with little musical consideration. One such fingering that I dislike is in Brahms F major measure 122 (see Example 21), where people often play the first third on the d and a strings, the second third on the d and a strings -- the c on the d string with an open a string -- and the last third on the g and d strings, thereby playing the three notes of the melody on three different strings! As Schumann said, "Regard it as something abominable to meddle with the pieces of good writers either by alteration, omission, or by the introduction of new-fangled ornaments. This is the greatest indignity you can inflict on art."
Another off-putting left-hand trick is in m. 35 of the 3rd movement, where many play the upper two c's on the c string as harmonics (see Example 22).
Now that I've got all that off my chest.... I suppose that some people do these things because they feel they can't be true to themselves otherwise, but being true to the composer should come first. Besides it's mostly due to laziness. And when these things end up in printed editions, they assume some -- false -- legitimacy.
TJ: How would you summarize your philosophy on music making, assuming a Ten Commandments sort of structure?
CC: I doubt I can limit it to ten, but here are some:
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