CONVERSATION WITH RON LEONARD
by TIM JANOF
Leonard is well known as a soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. He has
been Principal Cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1975, and is
the Gregor Piatigorsky Professor of Cello at the University of Southern
California. He has performed concertos with Zubin Mehta, Michael Tilson-Thomas,
Carlo Maria Giulini, Andre Previn, Simon Rattle, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
He has appeared as guest artist with the Juilliard, Guarneri, Angeles, Mendelssohn,
Borremeo, Chilingarian, and American Quartets.
TJ: You studied with Orlando Cole and Leonard Rose at the Curtis Institute.
How did their teaching methods compare?
RL: I studied with them at the same time, believe it or not. They were two
very different musical personalities. They approached the instrument, both
technically and musically, from quite different viewpoints, and their bow
arms were very different. Leonard Rose had a suave bow arm with which he
created a very big sound. Orlando Cole was much more interested in a refined
or Viennese sound. He worked a lot on shifting and had me do a lot of Sevcik
TJ: Studying with them simultaneously must have been confusing, not knowing
whose direction to follow. Did you play differently for each teacher?
RL: Leonard Rose was away on tour a lot of the time. When he wasn't there,
Orlando Cole took over his class. Though their teachings differed, neither
criticized the other's ideas.
TJ: Would you say you benefited from this experience, since you were exposed
to different, though equally valid, viewpoints?
RL: Definitely. I learned a valuable lesson from this experience, that there
is more than one way of doing things.
TJ: In the book, The Great Cellists, by Margaret Campbell, Stephen Kates
describes Leonard Rose as somebody who believed in having his students imitate
him. Is this something you experienced?
TJ: Did you resent this at the time, or did you find it to be a good learning
RL: I didn't resent it. Imitation is a good teaching device up to a point,
though a student must eventually break from the teacher and find his or
her own voice. But it's not always the teacher's doing either. Students
often fall into the trap of trying to imitate their teacher if the teacher
has a very strong personality. I observed this in students of Heifetz and
Piatigorsky, and I found myself doing it with Leonard Rose. One day I woke
up and realized, "Hey, I'm starting to sound just like Leonard Rose
and I wonder if that's a good thing." You have to take the concepts
from your teacher and work from there to discover your own musical personality.
TJ: Not that there's anything wrong with sounding like Leonard Rose, of
RL: Not at all. We should all be so lucky. Or Piatigorsky, or Heifetz, or
TJ: Did Leonard Rose teach you his way of playing by telling you to go listen
to his recordings, or did he demonstrate in lessons?
RL: He played a great deal in lessons. He not only demonstrated the sonata
and concerto literature, but etudes as well. He was trying teach me a very
specific kind of bow sound, and a certain kind of vibrato, so there was
a lot of imitation. But there was also a lot of detailed technical work,
since he was after specific motions with the fingers and hands.
TJ: Such as his ubiquitous "paintbrush technique" for the bow.
RL: Yes. I'm one of those too.
TJ: What are the advantages of the "paintbrush" versus, say, the
bow technique of someone like Janos Starker, who uses more of a simple hand
motion when bowing?
RL: I've always felt that many of Leonard Rose's students have a very solid
bow technique compared to other cellists. The "paintbrush" gives
you a lot of flexibility. It produces a more connected sound and gives you
more of a sense of control and contact with the string.
TJ: Would you say that Leonard Rose was somebody who planned every detail
in his performance, or was he one to go with the spirit of the moment?
RL: No, I think he planned a lot. He didn't believe in taking chances. He
planned and was a very, very hard working musician. He just never stopped
practicing and was incredibly conscientious. If he played something in a
lesson and happened to miss something, which wasn't very often, he'd sit
there and practice it until he got it right, all the while swearing and
screaming at himself. He was real perfectionist.
He sounded so natural to me as a player, but I don't think it came all that
naturally to him. He had to work very, very hard for everything he achieved,
which is something I've always respected.
TJ: It certainly paid off for him. You have taught throughout your career.
You've taught at Eastman, and now you're at USC. Do you have any themes
in your own teaching?
RL: Well, of course I use a lot of Leonard Rose's techniques in my teaching.
But if I were to say there's one thing that I'm most interested in, I would
say "sound," how to produce a beautiful sound. I think that without
sound it doesn't matter how fast or loud you can play. People won't want
to listen to you if you have an ugly sound.
TJ: The definition of what is a beautiful sound is open to a lot of interpretation.
It depends on musical context. So when you say this, you're not implying
that a "juicy" vibrato sound is something that we should strive
for at all times?
RL: No, but you should be able to vary your sound by controlling your vibrato
at a number of speeds and widths so that it is not always the same.
TJ: In other words, there is no single beautiful sound.
RL: Right. There are people who I think have beautiful sounds that have
a very fast vibrato, and there are people who have beautiful sounds that
have a slow vibrato.
TJ: What else do you emphasize in your teaching?
RL: I'm a very firm believer in using a metronome for practice, because
I think we all manage to fool ourselves about how good our rhythm is. At
first I have my students play straight like a machine. And then, when they
get that right, I complain about their sounding like a machine. That's the
problem with the metronome. If you're too good with it, then you don't sound
musical. And yet without the rhythmical sense, you're in big trouble.
Rhythm is one of the really important things in symphony auditions. I would
say that rhythm is the thing that does most people in. It can be a simple
matter of leaving out a rest, or playing notes a little bit too long so
that they don't make musical sense. It all relates back to rhythm.
TJ: Do you find yourself demonstrating a lot and saying, "Play like
this?" Or do you give the student room for their own ideas?
RL: I play little sections of pieces, but I rarely play an entire movement.
I'll play little sections to demonstrate how I think the student should
move the bow, what part of the bow should be used, whether near the bridge
or at the tip, whether they should have flat hairs or tilt the bow, or what
each hand should be doing. I do demonstrate these things, but a lot of the
time I do it more to convey a technical approach, rather than for them to
play the way I do. As a matter of fact, I very often demonstrate a phrase
two or three different ways. I'll tell a student I like plan A, but if he
or she likes plan C, that's fine with me, but he or she is going to have
to convince me. I will ask him or her to work at it those two or three ways
anyway. I worry about teachers who demonstrate for an hour.
TJ: There is a lot of competition for relatively few jobs in the music business.
Do you discuss this with your students?
RL: I think one thing that has changed in the last twenty years is that
a lot of people have realized that it's not smart to be unrealistic about
their possibilities. Only a very few will ever make it as soloists. It's
also very difficult to find a chamber group. Student applications often
list one of their aims as to play in a wonderful chamber music group, which
is great. But it's not particularly realistic, because there aren't too
many opportunities. The job that most can look forward to is in an orchestra,
which is a wonderful experience.
Orchestras have changed their attitudes towards their players over the years,
which can be seen by the fact that many orchestras have their own chamber
music series. They've realized that it's important for the players to have
a way of expressing themselves a little more individualistically than they
possibly can in the orchestra. I work with my students on orchestral repertoire,
though not at great length because there isn't that much time. But I try
to tell them realistically what goes on in the orchestra, at least from
my vantage point. I think it's a pretty nice way to spend a life.
TJ: Should one listen to recordings when studying a piece?
RL: No. I can often tell if a student is listening to recordings, because
they will play strangely in lessons. I'll ask them to explain why they are
playing a certain way, why they are distorting a certain rhythm, what notes
they are playing, or what key are they are in, and they can't answer me.
They've listened to a recording from some terrific cellist, and all they're
doing is imitating the recording. Now that can be okay, but when you don't
know what you're doing, and you're just playing by ear, I don't think it's
a help. Not that I didn't do a certain amount of that myself!
TJ: We all did.
RL: Sure. I remember listening to specific pieces when I was a kid, like
the Kodaly Sonata with Janos Starker. I played that record until I wore
it out. I also listened to Piatigorsky and Casals recordings. I certainly
tried to imitate them. But in a way it's healthy if you're imitating a lot
of different people, because then you're experimenting with different kinds
of sounds and colors. That's quite different from listening to cellist A
and basing all of your musical judgments on what he or she does. When I'm
learning a piece myself, I never listen to a recording. I try to work it
out myself by studying the score in addition to the cello part.
TJ: Well, getting back to orchestral playing, what defines a great orchestral
RL: I think that people who play chamber music well will most likely be
good orchestral players. I look at orchestral playing as a big chamber ensemble.
If you're not tuned into everything that's going on around you, you're not
going to be a good player. There are tons of people who can play their own
parts, but when you play that part you must have an awareness of what's
going on around you in the orchestra.
TJ: In an audition, where somebody is playing by themselves, how would you
identify this as one of their traits?
RL: There's no such thing as an audition that's going to tell you everything.
There's no way you can know some of these things until you've dealt with
people in reality, in the section.
TJ: If a player were to make some obvious timbre change or a sudden change
in dynamic because they are aware of an oboe entrance that occurs in the
piece, for example, would this be something you look for?
RL: Well, that's awfully subtle. At an audition we don't have the time to
ask somebody what's happening in the orchestra at each excerpt? This is
something I frequently ask my students about when they're playing a concerto.
I'm constantly asking them about what's going on in the orchestra while
they are playing a certain passage. We have started something with the L.A.
Philharmonic that I think a lot of orchestras do now with auditions, where
we ask people to read chamber music with members of the orchestra. This
can give us somewhat of an indication of the kind of an orchestral player
each person might be.
TJ: But when you're judging an audition, you're listening for rhythm and
RL: And for a sense of style of the piece.
TJ: Is it important for an orchestral musician to have artistry, or is that
left to the conductor?
RL: If somebody has an incredible personality, sometimes a conductor will
say that he's a terrific player, but he doesn't think he's going to fit
into the section. Or if somebody has a weird vibrato who might be a fantastic
player otherwise, the same thing applies. It's difficult, because you want
to show your personality, and yet, if it's too flamboyant, it can get you
into trouble. It's hard to get towards that middle of the road.
I remember that George Szell seemed to have a knack for picking "middle
of the road" players in auditions. Many said he was more likely to
take the person who played everything as close to what he considered "correct,"
though it may not have been in the most interesting way imaginable, If the
rhythm was right, the sound was right, and if he didn't feel the musician
was going to go off on his own and let his own personal musical ideas take
over, then he was interested. He wanted to have control over your musicianship.
And it worked. He had a great orchestra.
TJ: Would you say that the average level of an orchestral player has changed
in the last twenty years? With all the competition today, you'd think it'd
be getting higher and higher.
RL: Yes. There are some wonderful players and the competition is very strong.
One often hears about auditions where there are two hundred players vying
for one position. But I find that, out of those two hundred players, it's
not difficult to narrow it down to a pretty small number. When we get down
to the last ten players, it's not always easy to say which is the best.
In a way it's the draw of the cards. There are many good players I know
who have taken auditions but just haven't quite clicked. It used to be that
the smaller orchestras were depositories of the players who couldn't make
it in the big orchestras, and I guess that's still true. But the difference
now is that there are many players in those smaller orchestras who are very,
very much deserving of being in the bigger orchestras. So those communities
are lucky. The overall level is certainly higher.
TJ: Many say that musical performances have become too homogenized today.
Do you agree with this assessment?
RL: I remember as a student how I thought that people like Piatigorsky,
Casals, Leonard Rose, Heifetz and Elman had such distinct personalities.
One can think of some orchestras as having distinct personalities too, like
the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. I think that orchestras
in particular tend to sound somewhat the same. But that's up to the conductor,
who must have an imaginative set of musical colors within to create something
unique. The orchestras are all so good now, they can all play very, very
TJ: Is it necessarily a good thing to have a strong personality like Casals?
Or does such as personality interfere with the music?
RL: I don't know. New personalities are always interesting. When someone
like Jacqueline du Pre comes along, it's a revelation. Another is Gidon
Kremer, who is certainly a personality. He's one of those violinists of
whom I hear one person say he's terrible, while the next person will say
TJ: Then he must be good.
RL: He is good. Vanilla is not good.
TJ: The following is a list of goals that many have to varying degrees when
performing: playing with musicality, playing with personality, clean technique,
playing with "taste," being faithful to the composer, authenticity,
and audience pleasure. Let's say you're a soloist, what do you care about
most? They're all important of course. But are there some that are a higher
priority for you?
RL: The first one would be being heard! It seems to be one of those things
that certain conductors or pianists I know don't take into consideration.
How can one put a value on the items in your list, because it's the composite
that we need.
If you take the idea of being faithful to the composer, I think it's a wonderful
idea, in theory at least. Most of the time, when I play something for a
composer, I'll ask him what he wants. But he'll say, "Let me hear it
a couple ways." Then he'll often go along with what I'm doing. There
are also composers who will say, when you play a piece that they wrote twenty
years ago, "I don't care what you do with that piece. That was a terrible
I think some of the authenticity gets a little bit out of proportion too.
There are markings, for instance, in Beethoven's music or Bach's that are
obviously wrong. But they're there in the original, so some claim that's
the way the composer wanted it. That may be true most of the time, but not
always. So that's where good taste comes into play, except that my good
taste might not be somebody else's good taste. Every once in a while I'll
play a movement of a Bach Suite. If there's a note that's debatable, in
one performance I'll play one note in the first performance and, in the
next performance, I'll play the other note. And if people want to waste
their time arguing about such things, so be it.
TJ: Just tell them they came the wrong night! Do you think there's such
thing as a wrong interpretation?
RL: Oh yes. I definitely think so. If I hear somebody playing Bach the way
I think one should play Stravinsky, it's pretty clear to me that the style
doesn't really fit. I am open to ways of playing Bach that I may not particularly
like, though I would consider them valid. But I think there are wrong ways
TJ: So how do you think the Bach Suites should sound?
RL: Well, these days that's a tough question. When I give master classes,
I'm stuck with my own background in Bach, which probably relates more to
Casals than to anybody else. I approach Bach from a cellistic viewpoint,
and don't consider myself a Baroque expert. When cellists play in a quasi-baroque
manner, I don't know how to deal with it. I don't play with the change of
bow speed and different vibratos that baroque players do. I've tried it
in the Bach, but I feel uncomfortable so I don't think I could do it convincingly.
I also think that one can go too far in the other direction, for example
by playing a Bach Sarabande like a Brahms symphony.
TJ: What if somebody were to play Bach like Casals? Would they be accepted
RL: Unfortunately, they probably wouldn't make it. I've thought about this
a lot, and I've wondered if musicians like Casals or Szigeti could make
it in our era. Beside his musical ideas, I don't think Casals could make
it because he didn't have a big sound. These days, unless you can break
glass with your sound, it seems as though the critics aren't the least bit
impressed. I don't think is a step forward.
TJ: It's actually kind of sad. Do you have hope for music in the coming
century? Classical music seems to be losing its audience.
RL: Everybody's worried about where the audience is going to come from.
There is less and less music in the schools and less music in the homes.
People can get everything they want from a CD, and don't see the need to
hear the music live. Orchestras are trying to approach audiences in as many
interesting ways as they can, but it's not easy with all the cutbacks. The
day we don't have great music will be a very sad day for society. We have
to do more to bring music especially to young people. And that's one of
the things that the L.A. Philharmonic is trying to do.
RL: We're presenting different kinds of concerts. For instance, we have
a series of Saturday afternoon concerts to which we invite kids from the
inner city. These concerts only last an hour, instead of the usual two and
a half hours. This seems to be paying off because I am seeing a lot more
young faces in the audience. We're also planning on doing short chamber
music sessions in grade schools. The kids love it and respond wonderfully
to the music. Hopefully this will nurture their interest and build our audiences
of the future.
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