Janos Starker – One Student's Reflections

by John Cloer

The following article is an autobiographical description of study with the world- renowned cellist and pedagogue Janos Starker. Currently in his eighty-fourth year, Professor Starker still maintains a full a full studio at the world-renowned Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, teaching both fall and spring semesters as well as through the summer sessions. Even though he proclaimed a concert at the 2005 World Cello Congress as being his final public performance, he still continues to circumnavigate the globe teaching master classes in cello and chamber music, initiating and supporting foundations, honoring colleagues for their contributions, and standing as a bastion of strength and support for any and all who are driven to strive for knowledge, improvement and perfection. His litany of former students includes instrumentalists in many of the major orchestras and institutions of higher learning throughout the world. He is also acknowledged and respected by generations of colleagues as being one of the few artists of all time equally gifted and successful at both performing and teaching. One would, in fact, be hard-pressed to find a classically trained musician anywhere for which his name would not elicit a strong response.

Much of Starker's teaching career has been centered in Bloomington, Indiana. Indeed, the school's musical infrastructure is due in large part to his, and a few of his closest colleagues, influence. Along with such artists as Josef Gingold and György Sebok, Starker worked tirelessly to build an environment where young musicians, whether their interests be solo, collaborative or orchestral, could amass the most complete body of information and experiences for every possible aspect of music making. Students who recognized and took advantage of the unique possibilities found three distinctly different artists and personalities, coming from three completely different directions, who were united in their determination that the celebration of these collective differences would produce students that…"not only could do but would know" (Starker, personal communication, 2006). In the early 80's I became one of these students and for me the recognition of this extraordinary opportunity was almost immediate and completely total. Along with hundreds of like-minded string players and pianists, my week consisted of long hours in the practice room interspersed with the Monday night chamber class of Sebok, the Tuesday night violin class of Gingold, the Saturday afternoon cello class of Starker, my individual lessons, and numerous chamber ensemble rehearsals. This intensity and immersion led to a body of information, experience and knowledge that even twenty-two years later I have not yet come close to exhausting.

The inspiration and motivation for this article was in fact born during my graduate study at Indiana. I had chosen Indiana after taking auditions at what was a litany of the best schools on the East Coast and with some of the most prominent artist/teachers known. At each school I had asked the artist/teacher for a lesson after the audition and, with one exception, all were eager to comply. The consensus after my auditions seemed to be what those of us in the profession have come to know as the standard selling pitch of every artist eager to attract a full and diverse studio. I was collectively told that I was talented, accomplished, and well on my way to a successful performing career. My study with them at their respective schools would inevitably be the impetus toward achieving my goals. At all of the schools, I received substantial scholarships and was somewhat gratified by the words of encouragement and acknowledgment that I had heard.

My audition at Indiana was the last in my circuit and took place on a Saturday in March of 1980 in Janos Starker's studio at the School of Music, MA-155. In a prior telephone conversation when I inquired about the possibility of receiving a lesson, Starker had informed me that there would be a cello class during the afternoon of my audition. According to him, I could observe his teaching there and, after the cello class, we "could talk." Four other faculty members were present during my audition. I later came to know that they were Fritz Magg, Helga Winold, Gary Hoffman, and Walter Gödde, who was at that time Starker's assistant. I played portions of the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto, the second movement of the Haydn D Major Concerto, Bach's d minor Suite for Solo Cello and Boccherini's A Major Sonata. Starker asked briefly about my undergraduate study, the repertoire I had worked on, and asked me to play excerpts from this repertoire. After giving me directions to the room where the cello class would occur, he dismissed me by saying, "You are done."

The master class took place in MA-405, a room designed to seat a maximum of seventy-five persons and, by the time I arrived, there was standing room only. It remained so for the first two hours of the four-hour class yet I do not remember being tired of standing, even after the intensity of the audition. It was not until the third hour that I managed to find a seat. What followed was eight thirty-minute lessons whereby each student played either one movement of a concerto, one movement of a duo sonata, etudes, or movements of solo suites or sonatas. The final lesson was the first movement of Schubert's B flat piano trio. Although the language spoken throughout the class was primarily English, much of what was discussed was completely unfamiliar to me. It was also obvious to me that everyone else seemed completely familiar and at ease with the information being given. What remains imprinted on my brain however, was the fact that I could clearly see and hear the distinct improvement of each and every student, even though my comprehension of exactly why they improved remained elusive. Although I had performed in and attended master many classes throughout my student career, I had never witnessed anything even remotely comparable to the information that was disseminated. The overriding thought that I remember from the experience was the sobering realization that I could never possibly consider myself a professional musician without understanding the concepts being discussed. This fact somewhat overwhelmed me.

After the class, I and at least a dozen others followed Starker back to his studio where he proceeded to schedule lessons for the next week. After everyone had left, Starker turned to me and, in words that due to his inimitably precise and calculated brevity are still imprinted on my brain, he said, "Look. You obviously feel the music and you have good hands but you are basically fighting the instrument. It is the type of playing I detest because it is so unnecessary. You are accepted to study at Indiana but you would be better off if you went some place where they would make you feel good about yourself. Here you will have to start over with the basics……from scratch. I should tell you though, if you do not start over, you will never know what you don't know. You will also never be successful. Do you have any questions?" Even though my head was awash with questions from the class, my embarrassment at my ignorance and the shock of his words effectively rendered me speechless and I simply shook my head negatively. He then said, "No? Then good-bye and good luck."

The next month was spent trying to reach a decision regarding my future study. More than twenty-five years later, these deliberations are still palpable. At that time, I had so needed and wanted to believe the positive attestations and affirmations that I had received from the other artist/teachers. In contrast to this was Starker's terse assessment paralleling my own realization of my lack of knowledge, awareness, and experience upon observing the master class. With the discrepancy between Starker and all the others, I had to acknowledge the possibility that these other artist/teachers simply needed to strengthen their respective studios. Consequently, their words to me might be somewhat circumspect. On the other hand, from the number of students in the class and around him, Starker obviously neither needed nor wanted more students. He therefore had no apparent logical reason to so directly address me other than honest appraisal. Especially after watching the class, I felt instinctively that he was correct in his assessment. Consequently, after much thought, I decided to attend Indiana University and study with Starker.

Thus began what developed into a two-fold learning experience that continues even today. I embarked on an in-depth study and collection of all the information regarding exactly how to play the cello. As well, although I was initially unconscious of what I was doing, I began to organize the information and principles espoused by Starker into a method of learning how to properly teach one to play the cello. When this process became conscious and intentional, I realized that Starker was attempting to make everyone aware that the basic principles regarding playing any instrument are the same. If one deliberately studies the implementation and execution of these principles, one will inevitably become not only a better cellist and musician but will become a more effective teacher. It was at this point that I realized that all my prior experiences teaching cello, from the beginning to college level, were done simply by copying the teaching methods, right or wrong, of my previous teachers. Starker's process showed me, and still continues to show me that there are always better, logical, more efficient ways.

No description of study with Starker would be complete without relating the experience of that initial first lesson. I had spent the entire summer prior to this lesson perfecting two Popper études, one Piatti Caprice, the first movement of the Haydn D major concerto and the fifth suite of J. S. Bach. My preparations included long hours of practice and performing for anyone and everyone who would listen to me. I had heard the stories regarding students that had been "fired" from his studio for lack of preparation, attention to detail, or simply for not following instructions. Indeed, his reputation for direct cold-hearted brutal assessment and commentary was as infamous as his stunning performances and recordings. I was therefore determined that every note of every piece would be perfectly in place and worked tirelessly to make it so.

The final weeks and days prior to the lesson were ones of mounting tension and anxiety. Despite my previous preparations I began to question everything I was doing. At that time there were nearly one hundred cello majors in residence at Indiana and it seemed that no matter which building I practiced in, these cellists were everywhere working like maniacs. With my mindset, every one of them soon began to sound better than me and a strong sense of impostorship began to pervade what little sense of security I had remaining. It also seemed to me that with each day of practice my playing deteriorated to the point that I became dissatisfied with almost everything I did and if I was dissatisfied, then I could only imagine what Starker would think. Only years later would I realize how conducive such an atmosphere was to the abject introspection needed for my development; at the time I could only see that my fate as a cellist hinged singularly on that one lesson.

The final night was rather sleepless and interspersed with frequent trips to the toilet to accommodate my ever-deteriorating intestinal tract. On the morning of my 9:30 am lesson, I was in the practice room by 7:00 am so that I would be "completely warmed up" for the lesson. Near the appointed hour, I packed my cello and began the trek from the music practice building to the music annex where my lesson would take place. It seemed to me that all my previous years of study and my past recitals and performances had done little to prepare me for this event. Even though I knew I was allowing myself to succumb to my anxieties, I felt powerless to prevent these feelings. My last thought before entering the building was something to the effect that at least it would only be Starker and me; no one else would be there to witness the debacle that would be my first (and possibly last) lesson with Starker. This fact gave me at least some small measure of comfort. Unfortunately this comfort was short-lived.

Turning into the corridor that led to Starker's studio, I ran into him face to face. As he passed me he said curtly, "If you are the 9:30, the door is open and you already have an audience." Although I was not completely sure what he meant about having an audience, this statement and his demeanor led me to the double realization that there was indeed no God and that I now knew the exact medical definition and description of acute irritable bowel syndrome. His facial expressions and mannerisms seemed devoid of any and all emotion and he made no effort to acknowledge what he must have known of the newness of this situation for me and the resulting anxiety and nervousness. I sensed he truly didn't care.

Upon my arrival to the studio, I found four people sitting quietly; one was an older woman and the other three were obviously students. With their presence and Starker's comment about an "audience" I understood that my own worst fears were now realized. They were there to watch. I nodded to them, took out my cello and climbed the podium to where my chair was waiting for me, all the while trying to interpret the expressions on their faces when I had greeted them. These expressions seemed to be a strange mixture of pity, admiration and envy. Much later, when I was in their situation observing my own colleagues' lessons, my understanding of their collective attitude would be complete. Starker returned shortly with two cups of coffee from the vending machines, handed one cup to the older woman and said in French, "It is really terrible but at least it is hot." When I heard the words "très miserable," I grimaced inwardly, feeling that this might not be the last time we all heard these words in the next hour.

Starker began by asking me to remind him of my name (which helped immensely to boost my confidence) and he then stated curtly, "There are no 'private' lessons in this studio. You are here to learn, not to show how well you play. It is probably accurate to say that whatever problems or needs you have with the instrument, others might also benefit by our experimentation. Consequently the door is always open to all." Acknowledging the older woman, Starker added, "This is one of my colleagues from France and the other three are your colleagues from her studio in Paris. Now, what are you playing today?"

Strangely enough, Starker's demeanor, his clipped matter-of-fact voice, and the content of what he said had a somewhat calming effect on me. I knew that I needed to learn as much as possible. I also knew that his ability to teach was undeniably renowned. I realized that I was, despite my unease and discomfort, in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing for myself. I sensed that no games would be played in this room and there would be no wasting of time. I also somehow knew that, no matter how I played, I would be better at the end of the lesson. I was still extremely nervous and tense but the collective sense of purpose defined by him gave me direction. Although I still wanted to impress Starker and have him like me, I had the feeling that he could have cared less who or what I was and would never like me. Again this was in a strange way some measure of comfort. I was there to improve and he was there to give me the information needed. I felt instinctively that if I could just keep a balance between the inevitable anxieties and my goals, I had everything to gain.

My memory regarding how well or badly I played in this first lesson thankfully escapes me. I do remember as if it was yesterday those determined explanations of balance, posture, release of excess tension, and preparation. Starker manipulated my hands and arms as he spoke and adjusted my posture and balance as I played, stopping at times to explain in French to our audience what he was attempting to teach me. My own comments were basically limited to replying "yes" or "no" when he asked whether I understood or could feel any difference. Even though all of the pieces I played were from different technical, musical and historical contexts, Starker still inevitably returned to these same basic concepts. He also demonstrated every concept within the varying contexts. His ability to pick up the cello, mimic my every action perfectly, then demonstrate the same passage as it should be played was as incredibly effective a teaching tool as it was inspiring. I was being made to see, hear, feel, and verbally understand my mistakes at precisely the same time. His explanations were completely of a pedagogical nature so I was also unknowingly being led to an understanding of just how one should later deal with such mistakes in students. Before I knew it the hour had passed and a new entourage was entering the studio. As I packed my cello, Starker's last comment to me was something to the effect of, "Don't practice to cement everything that you play. Even your mistakes are embedded in concrete. The effort is admirable but self-defeating. If you practice these concepts [that we talked about today] with the same determination you will eventually improve, but you should know that you will become much worse before you become better." When I thanked him he nodded his head slightly, then turned and immediately started his discussion with the next student. He was finished with me and I was dismissed.

It was not until I had exited the buildings and returned to the sunshine that I became aware my clothes were completely soaked and my hair was wet. I was acutely and singularly aware of all the sounds, smells, and visual stimuli around me, yet my mind was a strange mixture of numbness, exhaustion, and elation. I had previously studied with many wonderful cellists and musicians but I had never experienced such a lesson. Not a second had been wasted and at no time had we been focused on anything other than the physical, technical and mechanical imperfections of my playing and exactly how to correct them. Starker was not interested in who or what I was and he had no desire to discuss my persona or any other trivialities that might occur to someone else. He also was not there to discuss his own life and career or to "commune" with the dead composers of the pieces that I was performing, one great "artiste" to another. The issue at hand was my inability to play on the best level attainable for me; anything else not only distracted our attention but wasted invaluable time that neither he nor I had. Several times during the lesson I had looked up to find him watching me with an intensity that should have been frightening; other times I could only feel him intently scrutinizing me. I knew that he was looking for anything and everything wrong with me and my playing yet I somehow didn't feel threatened. Each time he spoke it was prefaced by "This was incorrect" or "That is not what I am talking about" or "You obviously did not understand me" in his own blunt, direct and matter-of-fact way. Yet he always followed with such statements as "This is what you did and it should be done this way. Here is how you go about fixing it." His assessment of where I was in my development, where I should be, and how to traverse the distance between, was always the only issue at hand. The circumstances in each and every subsequent lesson I had with him were nearly exactly the same.

I cannot speak with any certainty about chronological or sequential events associated with my improvement during the next two years of study with Starker. I can only say that it was an intense period of extreme frustration, introspection, and a somewhat self-imposed musical isolation as I discovered a completely new way of playing. I had come this far in my professional development without learning the basics of the mechanics and physics of motion on the cello. I had always been an incredibly determined and industrious student and my musical ear and soul had been extremely well nurtured in my previous study. Consequently, through sheer effort and a hit-or-miss approach, I was able to literally push past any physical or mechanical deficiencies and create a product that, while technically imperfect, was at least communicative and impelling. One previous teacher was fond of calling me his "bull in a china shop" as I performed with such utter brute force. Starker however would stand for none of this. He was interested only in a pure balance between motion, effort, intensity, and musical output, with an absolute minimum of theatrics. I therefore faced the prospect of stripping away years of incorrectly formed habits that had become "my way of playing" before I could begin the process of building a solid technical foundation based on the principles of ease, fluidity, and purity. For someone involved in a creative endeavor such as music, this is akin to the athlete who has learned to crawl, walk, run and jump successfully only by using his hands; after achieving a certain level of maturity and proficiency, this athlete is then shown that these actual processes of movement should have been done and would be even more dexterous on foot. Once turned "right side up" a whole new world of motion and perspective is thus opened. The resulting problem is that the student is often overwhelmed by the realization of how much he does not know and cannot do. In short, he is transformed from one who is blissfully ignorant into one who is painfully aware of exactly how ignorant his previous existence has been. Such was the case with me. I was temporarily unable to play even the works that I had previously been so successful with.

Starker's true artistry as a teacher is in creating this awareness and rectifying the resulting paralysis that, like mine, can occur when one is faced with learning a completely new language. His approach always has been one of total organization of concepts into categories such as physical, mechanical, technical, cognitive, communicative and musical. He has an incredibly thorough analytical approach to everything that I have ever seen him do. Combined with his decades of teaching students of all abilities, his mastery of what has become the standard literature, his unparalleled technical and musical artistry on the cello and this analytical mind, he possesses the knowledge that allows him to give any student the exact information needed to create this transformative awareness and to initiate navigable concrete progress on the instrument. The only thing required is that the student be able to withstand the scrutiny (both teacher-directed and self-directed) and be willing to submit to change for the better. I was able to do this because in each and every lesson I could physically touch my progress. Nevertheless, I have witnessed fine musicians who were unable to do so. Either they became too incapacitated by their anxieties or they resorted to an intense anger, even hatred toward Starker as if he deliberately and maliciously attacked them without reason. Nothing could be further from the truth as he is only searching for the path to improvement. Giving a great master's stamp or seal of approval is not part of his psyche; the opening of a student's mind, awareness, and ability is his complete focus.

Starker has always been interested primarily in having students understand why one thing works and another doesn't; he is also interested in instilling and developing critical thinking skills so that once the student leaves his sphere of influence the student is able to teach himself. In the two years that I was with him, and in the twenty-five years subsequent, I have watched him cover the same fundamentals in hundreds of differing circumstances. In individual lessons, master classes, lectures, videos and conversations he has never ceased his efforts to encourage the world of string players, pianists, conductors, indeed any musician alike to continually question all aspects of music making and to strive for perfection as he himself has done. He is not prone to praise or even to acknowledging progress, as this takes time from other issues that need to be addressed. Once in a lesson I inquired about some aspect of playing that he had been working on with me. I had spent numerous hours in the practice room with said issue and truly wanted him to reinforce my progress. When I asked whether 'it' was better, he literally bristled and snapped at me vehemently saying something to the effect of: "Did I speak about this issue today? If it had not been better then you would have heard from me on this subject. Are you here to receive praise from me or to get better? If you are here to receive praise from me then you are in the wrong place. Furthermore, the real gauge of progress is not whether I think you improved but whether you know that you improved. Anything else is a waste of our time." At the time, I was extremely embarrassed, hurt, and angered by his response. Twenty-five years later, when I have had to use every ounce of knowledge and skill that he imparted in order to sustain my life and family, I am unbelievably grateful that he kept such intense pressure on me. I also now understand that he was not deliberately withholding positive reinforcement; he had simply long since left the previous problem for more pressing issues and could not stand the fact that I had not.

For those not familiar with the environment at Indiana, some explanation of conditions might be helpful. During my course of formal study at Indiana, there were six different cellists with whom one could study. Two of these were teaching assistants to Starker and were already artists in their own right. Three were former students of Starker who, having developed international performing and teaching careers, were awarded positions with the university and consequently maintained their own separate studios. The last was the renowned cellist and pedagogue Fritz Magg whose generations of deciples included my own first teacher and mentor, Luca DiCecco. As well, each summer Indiana University sponsored one world-class cellist that was brought in as a guest professor to teach lessons and master classes. Starker always encouraged his students to take advantage of every opportunity to "glean information." At his suggestion, I took advantage of the summer possibilities and in his absences I also took frequent lessons with both assistants and one of his former students. Few schools of music or conservatories offer such intense and comprehensive learning environments. Even fewer offer a situation whereby an applied teacher would not only permit his students to seek out other avenues of learning but would push them to do so.

In the ensuing twenty-five years, I have continued to take every opportunity to return to Starker to play for him, ask his advice, observe him teach, or just talk with him. Even though he refuses to call these visits "lessons" and always refers to them as "collegial consultations," I have never returned without having what seems to be a newly insurmountable volume of invaluable information to absorb. I have sent my students to study with him and we have discussed these students in such a way that I was able to reassess my own teaching efforts. I take my family to see him and my children call him "Grandpa Starker" as if he lives just "up the street." In visits to his house when other former students have come to call, many of their children also call him "Grandpa" so I know that this is a global phenomenon. I also try to keep up with his performance and teaching schedule so that if he comes near my area, I can go and visit with him. If he comes through my own city, he will call and have dinner with my family or, if time doesn't permit, he and I will just have a drink together at the airport.

On these occasions, I can ask about any of my former colleagues and he will sit up with pride and recite to me what they are doing, how many children they have, or even how often he hears from them. He somehow seems to know everything about all of us and to always be there with a response when needed. Twenty-five years ago on the exact date of our marriage, my wife and I received a congratulatory wire from him. In 2001 when my younger sister was tragically killed in an automobile accident, on the exact date of the funeral I received a phone call from him where he simply acknowledged, "You will be strong enough to take care of everything." In the interim, each time I have written him I have always received a reply, even if it was several weeks later. I marvel at this when I occasionally have trouble remembering the names of some of my own former students, be they so few in comparison.

I have also watched him teach the newer generations of young cellists with almost palpable envy. I wonder if they really know the importance of what he is speaking about. I wonder if they realize the determination of purpose that would keep him, at age eighty-four, traveling around the world teaching and giving of himself when all around him have slipped into easy retirement. I ache when one of these lucky students approaches him after a lesson, as I did in my own lessons, and says "Thank you" as I also did then. "Thank you" means so much more twenty years later that I now cannot bring myself to say it to him privately. In my own way, I have tried to show him my thanks by bringing to him my triumphs and failures and sharing those things that are the most important to me. He has accepted those, often without comment. What he cannot know, and what I would want to tell him if I had the courage, is that I try to instill in my own students some of the values, principles and work ethics that he instilled in all of us. I try to help my students question everything intently (even as I, myself, continue to question) and to always have the courage to speak the truth, whatever the cost. I also try to make my students approach everything they attempt with every ounce of energy and determination they have, whatever their level, and to play as if their life depended on it because, as he so well taught me, it does.

Those of you who read this may conclude that I have a unique personal relationship with Starker and indeed for me it truly is. For Starker however, it is not. I am one of hundreds and he is an intensely private person. In the final analysis it also matters not what I think of him, what he thinks of me, nor how much one loves him. What is important however is the transference of information, attitude, ethics, intensity, and sense of purpose that has taken place. He is a part of me in such a way as to defy description, and I know well that I am not alone in this. Those of my colleagues lucky enough to have shared a part of him would no doubt concur likewise. Life being so transient, and human nature being so fragile, one could wonder what it would be and would have been like without him. Luckily for me though, for as long as I live that is, I will never have to.

John Cloer
Teachers College, Columbia University, 2008




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