CONVERSATION WITH PAMELA FRAME

by TIM JANOF


Pamela Frame is Associate Professor of Cello at the Eastman School of Music. She has toured with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has appeared at the Marlboro Festival, Festival Casals, and the Skaneateles Festival. In the summer, she teaches at Interlochen and The Quartet Program. During the '95-'96 season, she will present "a cellist," a series of recitals in New York City. The second concert of this series, featuring music by Clarke, Beach, and Brahms, will be on January 14, 2pm, in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall.


TJ: You studied with Rostropovich. How long did you study with him?

PF: It was over a period of about seven years. I first met him when he came to Eastman to play the Dvorak concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic. I was about 18 years old at the time. I asked the man at the hotel front desk if he knew when Rostropovich was arriving, which he didn't. He said, "Maybe it's that guy getting out of the cab with the big case." And sure enough, it was him. I was standing in the hallway as he got out of the cab. I just looked at him as he walked by. He came over and said hello to me and I said hello back. Not two seconds later he turned and said, "I think you're a cellist." I don't know how he knew; I must have turned pale when I saw him.

So to make a long story short, he was only in Rochester for about 24 hours. He said, "I think you're a serious cellist and I'd like to hear you play." I said, "Oh, I couldn't possibly, I'd be too nervous." Thankfully, I reconsidered my answer later.

TJ: I was hoping you did.

PF: I realized what I'd done and tracked him down the next morning as he was leaving. I said, "I really want to play for you. When can I do it?" He said, "Well, my plane is leaving in an hour. I'll be in Toronto in a month." So I drove up to Toronto, found him, and played the Schumann Concerto for him. After that he said I could have a lesson anytime I wanted. I had to find ways of being in the right city at the right time for lessons, which I did for quite a number of years.

TJ: What was he like as a teacher?

PF: Ferocious! He was incredibly demanding and incredibly inspiring. He accepted no limitations, and absolutely believed that I could do anything and expected me to, which was wonderful. I remember when I stayed in Puerto Rico an extra two weeks after the Festival Casals to study with him. I was on my way to the beach and I ran into him. He said, "You have a lesson in 15 minutes."

TJ: That IS ferocious!

PF: Yes. After that I made sure I warmed up just before I left for the beach, just in case I got lucky and ran into him again!

TJ: What is his approach in teaching?

PF: He doesn't like to demonstrate too much on the cello. He's more likely to play on the piano with you. He talks about the music passionately and shows you how to do it only if he has to. He makes hysterical characterizations of the way you've just played if it's not working. He was also very funny and entertaining, though always to the point. His character is so colorful and so passionate, and is reflected in his teaching. If there's a teaching style, it's his whole style of living and performing.

TJ: You played in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for a few years, known for performing without a conductor. What was that like?

PF: It was a very interesting experience. I like to compare it to a democracy. It's not that each person has one vote and then you count the votes and the decision is made. There are senators and representatives and the voting public, and perhaps even a president. Some of our business is conducted just within our own section, and some of our business is conducted through an emissary who acts as a go-between with another section. And some of it is conducted out in the open all at once, where we'll have a whole string meeting. During the rehearsals there is some quiet discussion within sections, as there is in any orchestra, and there's some discussion that's going on between principals of the sections, and there's some open discussion that comes up from the ranks of the sections. But when we hit a rough spot or a snag, we rely on the principals to smooth it out, though it's not an open shouting match when there are several opinions. The performances were very exciting. There was a lot of spontaneity, and the rehearsals were fascinating because they were such working experiences. It was hard work, but it was really fun. The whole system works incredibly well, but it's been developed over a long time and it's fascinating to be part of it.

TJ: In a master class you conducted recently, you said something very interesting. You said, "Emotion is not Art." What did you mean by that?

PF: When my seven-year-old has a tantrum, that's not Art. That's what I often tell my students, anyway. An artist is someone who can express his emotions in a way that creates that emotion or suggests that emotion to someone else in a very clear and organized way. It takes organization and discipline in order to create something called Art. You can't throw the paint at the canvas and say that's Art. You can dump a paint bucket on the floor in a fit of anger and say that expresses anger. But it isn't Art.

One of the biggest struggles for a teacher is to help a student find the balance between emotion and discipline. This applies to most musicians actually. I think that all of us, when we are under pressure, tend to go toward one or the other. It's interesting to see that some of my students will gravitate toward emotion and some of them will gravitate toward discipline, but very few people naturally keep it in balance.

Discipline is not natural to begin with, you have to learn it, unlike emotion. Which one a student gravitates toward may have been learned in the younger years of the students' education. He may have learned wonderful discipline and work habits and may have learned terrific cello technique. If he has, it makes it all the easier for the teacher. But you still have to teach him to balance the two. And when he is under stress, I need to know which way he is going to react, so I can coach him through that process until he can find the balance between the two.

I think this is one of the most fascinating parts of teaching. If you just talk about the emotional content or the character of the music, without addressing the technique necessary to accomplish your goals, you will not get the strongest results. If you address technique alone, the result will be a wonderful technician, a terrific typist, but not an artist. Finding that balance between emotion and technique is a fascinating process. Making a student aware of what happens to him or her under stress, noting that she moves toward technique or emotion, can be a big help to the student.

TJ: There are teachers who teach the cello to their students and remain distant when it comes to the student's emotional state and personal being, and then there are those who try to teach the whole person, trying to get involved in the student's psyche. Where do you fall into that camp?

PF: I try to fill in all the gaps. I wish we had the equivalent of a sports psychologist: a music psychologist that each student could work with. A lot of Olympic level athletes use a sports psychologist. There's no reason that musicians shouldn't do the same thing. I certainly address aspects of it in teaching. I tell my students when I think they're discouraged or when they need to listen in a different way, rather than saying, "Here are my fingerings and bowings. Do it my way, practice harder because you play out of tune in fourth position. I'll see you next week." I may tell a student that their practice habits don't seem to be working, and why. This type of teaching has a deep affect on them. It's hard work, and I often feel like I'm flying "by the seat of my pants."

Six of my students gave a recital last night. One of the younger students played for me a couple of days ago and I didn't think that I should put her on the recital because she wasn't ready. I said, "I'm afraid that it's too much pressure on you and I'm not sure how you will react. On the other hand, you work very hard and efficiently." Her response was that she felt she could get it ready in two days. I agreed to let her try. In a way, I took some of the pressure off her, because I didn't think it was enough time to expect her to accomplish what she needed to do. On the other hand, it was a gentle challenge. She played absolutely beautifully. She astonished us with a beautifully formed performance -- wonderful character, sound and control. A very convincing performance! I was glad that I was candid with her and that she met a challenge with grace and determination. It's very important to be honest with students so that they have the opportunity to respond and grow according to their own abilities and goals.

TJ: Do you have any themes in your own teaching?

PF: Students ignore their bow arm. I don't think it's taught as much as left hand technique. One of the reasons for this is that we can't put it on paper. You can write fingerings and bowings, and you can take a picture of a bow grip, but what really happens with a bow grip isn't so much about the picture of it, the static view of a bow hand or a bow arm. It's a dynamic process. I am constantly reminding my students about the balance between weight and speed, and that the relationship is not static, ever.

When you're playing legato, if you maintain weight and pressure all the way through the bow stroke and all the way back, you get a very dull sound. It may sound steady, but I wouldn't really call it legato. When you analyze the playing of something that sounds beautiful, if you analyze what's going on with the bow, you find that the bow is very often articulating the beginning of a note and then actually releasing a little, then growing a little, and then at the very end making a small release. It's not that every note should die on the way to the next note. But how you create something that sounds natural is a pretty complicated process. We're having to create more of a tradition for teaching the bow arm. It's always a struggle to create and maintain a tradition of teaching the bow arm, because it's difficult to write down.

TJ: Are there any other common pitfalls you see students falling into?

PF: Yes! Cellists need to take advantage of gravity more. Many hold their left arm up in the air and press their fingers down instead of resting the arm on the finger board, letting the fingers support it. This applies to the right arm too. Players hold their arm up in the air and then push down with the bow to make a sound. Why work if you don't have to? It's tiring enough. So I work a lot with my students on using the weight of their left arm to keep the string down. When they do, their vibrato is a lot freer because they are not squeezing with the left thumb and playing finger.

Many times when I hear someone play who has a very narrow, nervous vibrato, I ask them to vibrate wider, which they can't for one of two reasons. Either they're holding their arm up and pushing their finger down to play, such that their arm is so tight that the same muscles that are supposed to be free when they vibrate are already busy doing isometrics. Or they know instinctively that their finger is going to be knocked off the center of the pitch if they vibrate wider because their hand isn't anchored enough on the finger board. They don't want to vibrate wider because it's going to sound unfocused. Unless they learn to anchor it better, usually by just letting the weight down on the fingerboard, they will never be able to produce a beautiful vibrato.

Another thing that I see a lot in the left hand is using the fingers completely isolated from the left arm. If you see someone's hand completely static with just the fingers moving, it's a very tiring and weak use of the left hand. It's possible to sort of throw your arm into it. You can put your fourth finger down, for instance, by just dropping your arm into position, hardly moving your fourth finger.

You can use your arm for all the fingers. My elbow ends up in a different position for first finger than it does for the other fingers. It drops down as I go through second, third, fourth finger a little bit. And when I do that, I find that my hand doesn't tire and that my pitch is better.

When you look at your hand, the fingers are all different lengths, and then you look at the finger board and think, wait a minute, the half steps are all regularly spaced in diminishing intervals. How am I supposed to arrange that, since my fingers are different lengths and when I curve them they go crooked at funny angles? And why my second finger is never in tune when I put my hand square to the cello, second and third just don't go in the right places? You can counteract this with a tiny bit of an angle to the finger board, a little tilt of your hand, and then using your arm to drop the fingers into place rather than flailing away with your fingers. It's very beautiful to see when a student understands it. It looks very elegant and takes care of a lot of pitch troubles. Their fingers kind of drop into place, in the right distances, because their hand is so much more flexible than when they're operating their fingers just from the base joint.

TJ: Do you encourage students to listen to recordings?

PF: Oh yes, the more the merrier. They will do it anyway.

TJ: That's true.

PF: Students have tremendous recording collections these days. As a matter of a fact, I'm getting to the point where they're suggesting repertoire to me from their vast holdings of CD's. I was looking for a certain piece of repertoire, and two of my Eastman students called me up with suggestions from their CD collection.

I think the idea that listening to recordings stifles your creativity is baffling. Since going to a concert doesn't stifle your creativity, I don't understand why listening to recordings would stifle it either. A broader musical experience is preferable. I do think it's a shame if they're just listening to cello recordings and they've never heard a Verdi opera. But I encourage them to study music using recordings as a resource. I think it's a great way to study a score. It's dreaming to think that everybody can look at a score and hear a score in their ears, particularly the younger ones. There's no way they're going to be able to hear a score when they study it, even if they can pick out some of it on the piano. Actually, I ask them to follow the piano score exclusively and keep their eyes off the cello line. Then one time they follow the cello line with the score, and then sometimes listen to the recording with their part in front of them, and not the score. Listening to it these different ways is active listening. I don't think it's a good idea to put on a CD of a piece that you're learning and just play it all day long in your apartment while you're studying your homework or writing a paper. That's not the kind of listening that I encourage them to do. They need to be critical, active listeners.

TJ: When you teach a student a piece, when it comes to interpretation, do you give them as much "rope" as they want?

PF: I'm willing to listen. If it doesn't convince me, I'll tell them I don't like it. I'm just another listener at that point. I will sometimes tell them that it's not the way I would do it, but that's okay with me. Bach is a good example. When my students are working on a Bach suite, I do not give them all the bowings and fingerings. I'll work through it with them, from their score, but I won't hand them my bowings and fingerings and say this is the way it's done. Because, first of all, the way I did it the last time I played that suite will not necessarily be the same as the next time I do it. Where it's just impossible to negotiate tricky fingerings, then I give them some help. I certainly don't say you must to do it my way. I'm not that kind of player. I don't always follow my own "rules."

TJ: Speaking of the Bach Suites, do you have any sort of general principles when you play Bach?

PF: I hope so! It would be embarrassing not to!

TJ: True. I'll give you an example. When I was taught them, my teacher would say, "In the beginning, there was rhythm...."

PF: My playing of Bach has changed since I was a student. Some of the fingerings and bowings that are in my music wouldn't work for me today. But I think one of the things that has changed for me over the years is that I tend to like bowings that line up more with the measure. Even though the phrase may very consistently overlap the first beat of the next bar, I don't mind the bow changing on the bar line, while the phrase continues over to the next note. It used to be that I would line up the bowings with the phrase. But I think that's more of a Romantic approach. I find that this approach doesn't work as well in the Baroque style.

I have a deeply ingrained sense of articulation from Alexander Schneider, when he used to scream at us, "Arti-coo-late!" so much that we didn't even know what he was talking about for the longest time. We just knew that when he said that we'd better really look like we were concentrating. We didn't know how to articulate when he said that, but we'd better look like we were paying attention. I finally figured out what it meant one day. I was principal cellist and I had to work hard at it. When I understood that he wanted us to grab the string with the bow, I could interpret it for the rest of my section. We started to make some progress at that point. I'm really fussy about it with my students. Articulation is a big part of my teaching.

TJ: How about just playing music in general? Do you have some sort of theme musically?

PF: No, not about playing music in general, but I think there's an aspect of performing that I am very interested in, which I also articulate to my students as a part of the learning process. When we play, we have to remember to listen. It's difficult to do. We input information and keep producing the sounds, but don't actually listen. And usually when I explain this process to my students, I see the light bulbs going on. When they begin to listen, if they hear something going wrong, they know what they need to do to fix it, instead of passively relying on a shopping list of items.

That's a big theme in my teaching and in my playing. I remember a performance when it suddenly occurred to me to listen to the sound out in front of me, rather than thinking down through the cello when I play. I listened to it as it was leaving, on the way to the audience. It was a strange experience. As I heard the sound, I thought, "Does that match what I mean? How will the audience hear that? Will they interpret that the way that I intended it?" And it was a very startling experience to listen that way. I do listen more that way now.

TJ: That may be one reason why Yo Yo Ma sits back, away from his cello, when he plays.

PF: Maybe. Perhaps he is trying not to think only of the instrument all the time, or that he doesn't need to think of the instrument anymore. We should ask him!

TJ: He hears what he's playing more objectively.

PF: Yes. On the other hand, there are also people who just seem to be experiencing the emotion of the music exclusively, and aren't doing the work that it takes to make the instrument bring this out clearly. That's the idea of emotion without discipline, without technique. Without the craft it doesn't really happen. You can see the cellist just experiencing all the emotions, but when you close your eyes the real force isn't there. That person has to listen to make sure that the sound that they're producing is really indicating those ideas that they have. And that's the part of the process that is missing.

TJ: The music business is very competitive. What do you tell your students about this? A lot of them are probably coming to school fantasizing that they're going to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or they're going to be playing in the Boston Symphony.

PF: In the first place, the students are not quite in the real world at Eastman because the level is so high. When I was a student I desperately wanted someone to tell me how good I could be and to tell me what I could be when I grew up, but nobody would tell me. I remember trying to pin down one teacher, but he wouldn't tell me. I was furious with him. He said, "It's up to you." I really wanted the support of him saying where I could go, but he wouldn't say it. Now I know he did the right thing.

There's a certain level of responsibility we teachers must accept. We have to be honest about the work that needs to be done. In other words, teachers have to say where you are now and what you need to do to get to where you want to be. But I don't have students walking into my studio saying "I want to be the next Rostropovich." If they believe that, they don't tell me. But they do have very high goals, and it seems to me they're meeting them. I watch them make wonderful progress when they put their minds to it. It's not for me to say where they can go, but it is for me to keep their eyes open about what it's like, what a career is like, and what it takes to succeed.

I'm very straightforward with them about what my career has been like. I don't tell them they will get a job in the Boston Symphony, a job teaching at a conservatory, or a job in a string quartet. But I do tell them lots of details about my career, the bad and the good. I think that they get a real dose of reality from that. But I can't tell them, you do this and you do that. It's impossible. I don't know how far they're going to go. It depends on a lot of different aspects of each person.

I'm trying to get my Eastman students out into the community to perform rather than just playing their recitals at school. For the students who say yes when I ask, "Do you want me to take you out to play for a bunch of Rochester school children next Wednesday?," I'll drive them there. For instance I'm taking a quartet to a public school next week which will play three performances for three consecutive groups of 100 fifth graders. Between performances they'll be critiqued by Robert Kapilow, Robert Weirich, and me. We've had a number of fairly short conversations about working on their program for these kids, and I've explained to them what kind of music background the fifth graders have. I think that they know by my level of interest and enthusiasm, and the fact that I'll actually go with them to do this and observe them, that I feel it's very important.

I show them what the real world is like by the things that I pay attention to and the fact that I'm not only interested in them entering competitions, and playing recitals of romantic cello music within the hallowed halls of the school. These are not the only activities that I really encourage, although they're part of it, of course. I go to their recitals and they play in studio class. But there's lots more out there and I think learning to talk to an audience and communicating about what they do and who they are is vitally important right now. It will be very important to their careers down the line. That's an aspect that I address with all of them. What does it mean to perform? It doesn't just mean giving recitals. I remind them that that's not the basis of many careers, and that nearly all of us who took performance degrees are now teaching. How many people do you know who don't teach?

TJ: Not many.

PF: And yet if you look at the studio teachers at Eastman, and if you look at many schools around the country, the people who are teaching the performance majors don't have education degrees, they have performance degrees. Being a performer is about being an educator, it's the same thing. We must address that aspect of their career and I do that.

TJ: Speaking of community outreach, what did you do on "Prairie Home Companion?"

PF: We played Dvorak Bagatelles at a show at Interlochen. It was a lot of fun. It was really interesting to see Garrison Keillor put the program together. We had one three hour rehearsal that afternoon and then we did the show.

TJ: Wow!

PF: It's live and Garrison surrounds himself with some very talented people who are very quick workers. They are really on the spot and have very little time to put the show together. But they get it right. Garrison is a very talented guy. He really does a new show every week and he's done some writing before the rehearsal, of course. But in the rehearsal, if there's a modulation that he doesn't like, he talks to the violinist and says, "I want that to go to G minor there." The violinist calls out a couple of notes here and there to a couple of people, saying "violist play a G flat there, and don't play this note here." We play it and then Garrison Keillor says, "No, I don't want an extra measure, I want it to happen right here, within that bar. Measure 29, cellos, I want this note and violists I want that note." And then we do it and it's right! His standards are high.

Cellists find themselves developing lots of different aspects of their careers. As a teacher, I believe that it is very important to let my students know that they will need to excel in many different ways and to value and develop their various talents.

I would like to thank the Internet Cello Society for bringing cellists into "the net." I will look forward to following the cello dialogue!

12/9/95



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