Category Archives: Ghosts


At my first Lyric Opera rehearsal I met Lois Bickel Colburn, a cellist in her late 60s or early 70s. She had been my predecessor Shirley Tabachnick’s teacher, and had four former students in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. She gave the Chicago premiere of the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, and was a member of the first string quartet to perform all the Bartók quartets in the American Midwest.

She must have viewed me with a certain disdain and suspicion when I arrogantly announced that I would play the Tosca solo better than anybody had in the history of Chicago. I did eventually win her over when Tosca came up early in the season, but she told me not to break my arm patting myself on the back. This was only one of her many tangy phrases. She said about one of our conductors, “What he knows about music you can put in your eye and see better.” About the cello section, minus the two of us, she offered the comment, “They add up to a big round zero without the rim.” Years later when Bruno Bartoletti conducted the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s El Amour Brujo, her response was “Jesus wept.” Whenever it looked like I might get myself into trouble, she advised, “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat.”

She had emphysema, caused by a lifetime of smoking, and had shoulder problems. Since the best defense is a good offense, she had something bad to say about everybody, and she did it in grand style. She would call the younger players “junior geniuses,” and some of the older colleagues who talked too much were “IN-sufferable!” When Joe Saunders, my stand partner, asked her to listen to him play and criticize it, she said there was a lot to criticize. I’m sure that once was enough for Joe. On the other hand, she really liked me, and encouraged me to play as loud as I could and let them know what I could do, but also encouraged me to go back and study with Leonard Rose because he was “Mister Big.” There wasn’t anything exceptionally dramatic about our friendship, but we shared our time together every day in a spirit of love and appreciation, and I treasure the memory of my time with her.

There were two things that really stuck with me over the last five decades since Lois came into my life. “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat and don’t borrow trouble.” How many times in my life has the ghost of Lois Colburn come down just at the right moment to tell me not to borrow trouble or to tip my hat for the devil, when my instincts would have been to do the exact opposite.

Lois desperately wanted me to have her Testore cello and was terribly disappointed when it did not suit me. In a way, I would’ve liked to have had her cello to be able to hold on to a tangible part of her. I’ve often wondered why I had so much trouble connecting with so many of this generation who were 40 years younger than me, since I had such a good and fluid relationship with Lois, who was 40 years older than me.

Jerry Beal

The ghost of the past who haunts and inspires me continually is the ghost of Jerry Beal.

Gerald Beal had been a famous child prodigy who toured the world under Columbia Artists Management with his identical twin brother Wilfred, playing the Bach Double Concerto and other works for two violins. Jerry had a tendency to make things up, so I tried to stay out of his way during the tour, but one day between matinee and an evening performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, I heard him play an extraordinary performance of the Bach C Major Fugue.

Jerry was a long-time student of Ivan Galamian, and he had also studied privately with Jascha Heifetz. Because of this, my wife asked him to give her a lesson on how to practice scales. I was interested as well, so I listened to the lesson, and then I asked Jerry to show me a few things. I was so impressed with what he taught me that I spent the rest of the tour and the next five years studying with him.

It is said when the student is ready, the teacher appears. This was absolutely true for me at that time. I was playing well, but I was doing so with a great amount of physical tension. The first thing that Beal did was to give me a series of very clever exercises to re-sensitize me to the cello. The object was often to see how little pressure was required in either hand to create a sound, and to work up from there. Beal taught me to listen to myself. He would have me play through slow movements, making sure I would vibrate on every note. If I happened to play a single note without vibrato, I would have to start again at the beginning. I felt like Sisyphus.

Beal reduced technique down to a few basic elements, and could organize the execution of any melody or passage around a few simple principles. He reminded me that every note has a beginning, which is an attack of some sort; a middle, which is a development of the sound; and an end, which is either a tapering off or a connection to another note. He had me practice this by playing scales and arpeggios, one note to a bow, in order to develop a complete command of balance and vibrato. To Beal, the trick was to create the greatest amount of beauty on the longest note of a phrase, and organize the rest of the notes in a particular phrase around it.

He taught me about the way silence connects to sound, the infinite variety of sound once created, and how that sound could join either to silence or to another sound. Jerry taught me to organize my playing in terms of attack and release, and after I learned to manage the release part, I found I had a great deal of control.

Jerry worked tirelessly with me when I had important solos to play (before my first rehearsal at the Lyric Opera, he took me through the entire cello part of Salome. It took eight hours a day for three days to get through it all, but in the end I could play it like a concerto, and lots of it by memory). He understood the importance of making a stunning and permanent impression, and over the next five years he gave me as many lessons as he thought I needed, covering solo and chamber music repertoire as well as orchestral solos. Jerry knew that he had an unsavory reputation, which may be the reason he encouraged me not to mention him as one of my teachers. He assured me that the name of Leonard Rose would carry a great deal more weight, and would cast me in a more positive light.

Jerry pounded his concept of rhythm into me, hour after hour, at every lesson. He would sing and conduct and click out rhythmic subdivisions while I played in order to create a framework for attacking and releasing. He taught me that as long as the interval between pulses is predictable, anything done in between pulses would be plausible. He taught me that the challenge is to keep the pulses as far apart as possible. If I take a melody and pulse it by the quarter note, and then I pulse the same melody (in the same tempo) by the half note, by the measure, by two measures, by four measures, or by eight measures, each statement of the melody would be correct, but the amount of freedom offered by the longer interval between pulses makes it possible to bring imagination to bear.

I was always told that you should never make a musical virtue out of a technical vice, and that you should work out your problems. When I proposed this notion to Jerry Beal, he would laugh in my face, and say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try something else.” For Jerry, any plausible way of organizing a group of notes was perfectly good, so picking one that featured your strengths, rather than your weaknesses, seemed the obvious choice. Comfort and security were more important to Jerry than conjuring up the most transcendental phrase imaginable.

Jerry Beal taught me that every phrase must make a point that cannot be missed. The best non-musical example of a point that cannot be missed can be described by the way the colorblind test works. The colorblind test is a picture made of red and green dots, with the red dots spelling out the number two, and the green dots providing the background. A person with normal vision will see the red number two clearly stand out against a green background, but a person who is colorblind will only see a field of gray. He taught me to apply the figurative colorblind test to every phrase I play.

Jerry was fond of telling me that while I was smart, my medulla oblongata (the reptilian part of my brain) was dumb. Since most of playing has to do with conditioned reflexes, it is necessary to program the reptilian part of the brain. In order to build trust with the reptilian brain, it’s important to play entire movements or pieces many, many times. By doing so even the most difficult moves eventually become internalized. Before my Alice Tully Hall debut he had me play my entire recital program for him two or three times in a row. Eventually as soon as I played the first note of any piece, the whole piece seemed to set itself in my brain, and all the technical issues melded into the musical concept. Technique to Jerry was ultimately the physical choreography of a musical idea.

He also taught me how to internalize a phrase, and always insisted that I practice as much as possible in context. He encouraged me to hire pianists to make tapes of piano accompaniments, and he taught me the importance of playing along with recordings in order to physically feel the flow of a piece.

He taught me to use the very flow of the phrase itself to make a difficult maneuver, like a difficult shift, simply happen in the context of the trajectory (this works particularly well in the Schubert “Arpeggione” Sonata).

He created for me a vista of unlimited possibilities. Through his unique method of teaching, I was able to play it at a level unimagined for me at that time. His primary method was to sing and clap out subdivisions while I was playing, changing my experience of playing from action to reaction.

Two examples: