PART ONE, THE CELLO
To the Student
My dear friend,
It happened as I predicted. You came to me an established cellist. You played all the concerti and chamber music and felt confident of your ability. True, you had some difficulty with intonation and your staccato did not seem very good. In addition you expected some help in the interpretation of the bigger works of our literature. But you had the feeling that these, plus a few other minor problems, could be corrected in just a few lessons.
When your time was over and you left for home, I felt great pity for you. You seemed broken and no longer knew what was right or wrong. This did not happen all at once. When you first came to me, I told you there were others who had come expecting to be helped in a short time, but were instead given the miserable feeling that they would never be able to play again. You were like the man who takes his car to the garage for a paintjob and two new spark plugs, only to be told the whole motor has to be taken out and a new electrical system put in, not only to make the car run better, but to allow her for the first time to take advantage of all her potentialities.
After seeing you leave in that desolate condition, I was more than pleased to read your letter, which shows so much appreciation, understanding, and good will. But it contains so many questions it would be difficult to answer all of them thoroughly without writing a whole book. And gradually this very idea took solid shape, until, finally, I decided to write it. I shall send you a chapter at a time as it is finished and I would appreciate your answering me right away to let me know of things that are unclear to you.
I had put you off balance and everything seemed upside down. You did not dare play a note for fear it would be wrong. You had become uncertain and self-conscious. You remember how surprised you were when, even as you tuned your cello, I made remarks about how I expected you to play in general. And how, in the course of the lessons, more or less for fun, I predicted how you would play certain phrases or how you would finger certain passages.
Why should that be so mysterious to you? Consider the amount of experience I have collected over the years from teaching and giving auditions; consider that my present technique was developed in direct opposition to the way I was taught to play myself; and consider that I am seldom satisfied with my own playing and, if at all, only with parts, never with a whole performance. Then perhaps you will understand that, even if music and some of its great performers are still a mystery to me, there is nothing that can be done on the cello or any other instrument, whether it be improbable or impossible, that will ever surprise me.
However, I would be immodest if I let you believe that I was the only one who knew how badly a stringed instrument can be played. Not long ago, I heard perhaps the best living violinist play the first movement of a Viotti concerto so poorly, with every possible mistake, that, closing my eyes, I could have imagined I was listening to it at a pupil's concert in Kalamazoo.
I realize that in performing, as in all other things, there is a scale from the best to the worst. The question arises automatically, why is it that in all other professions there is an effort made to raise the standard and the average, while in our profession, there is not even the slightest attempt to recognize existing lacks or more especially the need for correction?
Nine times out of ten when I hear cello playing, I cannot but ask myself, does cello playing mean turning off the brain and ear and the connecting muscular system? I shall go so far as to insist that, as absurd as it may sound, brain and ear muscles must have been turned off in order for generation after generation to have produced cellists whose playing is an insult to the ear. Even worse: that it is not generally so perceived that there is an even more shameful reason behind it-one expects nothing special from the average cellist and accepts unquestioningly that the difference between the few really good cellists and the mass of cellists must be so great. Besides, most people are too polite and few are interested enough to perceive the reasons for the difference.