On Cello Teaching – Past and Present

A number of years ago I was hired to teach at a very prestigious summer program. Many of the young cellists were between ages 10 and 13, and most of them were capable of doing a fairly decent job on the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. I was very impressed at first. I thought that a whole new generation of young Emanuel Feuermanns was emerging before my very eyes. Although they were technically competent, I was not impressed with the musical interpretations they gave of this extremely delightful piece of music. I started asking myself why a ten-year-old child should be able to play the Rococo Variations? I wondered what would happen to these children fifteen to twenty years from now, when there will be still fewer jobs and even more competent players.

Perhaps this was a form of child abuse. How much practicing between ages five and ten did it take for these children to get to this point? Given the dismal prospects for children playing Rococo Variations, it seemed to me that the sacrifice of one’s childhood and, along with it, the ability to develop an authentic sense of self was, in some cases, a very bad bargain.

Cellists who want to enter into the Preparatory Division of the Juilliard School are required to play three-octave scales and arpeggios in every key, the first movement of either the Dvorak or the Lalo Concerto, and difficult etudes by Piatti, Popper, and Duport. I asked one of my colleagues who taught at the Juilliard School, “who on the faculty could audition their way into the Prep Division?” He laughed and said “we often joke about that.”  I don’t think it’s a joke.

I started studying the cello at the urging of my cousin Michael Grebanier (who is the principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony) when I was 11 years old. Michael’s studied with Carl Zeigler, so I studied with him too. Mr. Zeigler had been a member of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and a member of the New York City Ballet orchestra.

At my first lesson, Mr. Zeigler assigned me a small section of the Frescobaldi Toccata and an easy Duport etude. I was at the very early stages of cello development and had not even advanced to thumb position, but both of these pieces had the thumb sitting on a harmonic D-natural. I could put my thumb down and wiggle my fingers without having to press the thumb down on the strings.

Mr. Zeigler never played for me. I cannot recall him ever actually picking up his cello to show me anything. What he did do was assign me repertoire that was very slightly more advanced than what I was playing. Each week I would come in and play it for him, and he would either tell me to bring it back next week or assign me another piece.

He did not show me how to sit properly at the cello, hold the bow, or do anything relating to correct cello playing. I never played one scale or arpeggio for Mr. Zeigler, but he took me through several Duport etudes and various Goltermann concertos, starting with the fourth (which was very easy), then going to the third (which was considerably harder), and finally on to Romberg No. 2. Along with this, he assigned me Beethoven sonatas No. 2 in G minor and No. 3 in A major and eventually the Brahms Sonata in E minor. I did not acquire good cello habits, but I did acquire a considerable amount of cellistic DNA, and a great love for music which was unabashedly romantic, fun to play, and which connected me with my expressive instincts. In a way, he enabled me to learn to play the cello from the masters that wrote the music that he assigned me to play.

When I was 14 years old, Mr. Zeigler caught me admiring myself in the mirror of his studio while I was playing the Boccherini Concerto. In a fury, he lashed out at me and said “I see you’re admiring yourself in the mirror, but if you opened your ears instead of your eyes you’d find a lot less to admire.” This comment shocked me out of my complacency, and I decided to go home and practice for four hours. Why four hours? Because it had been widely reported to me that my cousin Michael practiced four hours a day (something he denies). The next day, I practiced for another four hours, and in a very short time, my improvement was dramatic. Mr. Zeigler then assigned me much more difficult repertoire, including all of the Piatti Caprices, the Lalo and Saint-Saens Concertos, and the fiendishly difficult Locatelli Sonata.

A great influence on me during that time was my mother’s primary mentor and teacher Madame Vera Press. I recently found out that Madame Press, who was born in 1876, played for Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, and many other important Russian composers. Additionally, she studied with Busoni and had quite a career playing for many of the crowned heads of Europe in the very late 19th century and early 20th. In fact, she played on several occasions with Leopold Auer, including performances of the Beethoven Kreutzer, and also played with Auer’s quartet. She appeared as a soloist under Artur Nikisch, Bruno Walter, and Richard Strauss. She had a trio with her husband and brother-in-law that was quite famous in its day, and her husband Michael Press, in addition to having a stupendous career, was one of the teachers of Dorothy DeLay. On more than one occasion, Leonard Rose told me that of all his students who had mothers that played the piano, my mother was the only real artist among them. Whenever she came to accompany me to a lesson with Mr. Rose, I got to play very little since he delighted in demonstrating for the entire hour with my mother accompanying him. The thing that struck me about all of this was that hearing my mother play from birth sort of put me in a line that goes all the way back to Anton Rubinstein.

In September of 1956, my mother sent me to Madame Press in the hopes that maybe she could teach me how to play the piano. It became quickly apparent that this was never going to happen. So Madame Press suggested that I bring my cello to these piano lessons, and one of her students would accompany me in some of the major literature, particularly the Brahms E Minor Sonata and the Beethoven A Major and G Minor Sonatas. Two things that I remember pointedly from these sessions, was the keen interest Madame Press took in all my doings. She particularly was interested in the courses I was taking in high school, and would also tell me some of the things that she experienced in the cold winters in Russia. When it came to my playing, Madame Press worked to get me to play the longest phrases possible, and with the most color and interest. Her piano student as well. She never played for me, but I’ll never forget her playing the first two notes of the Chopin E Flat Major Nocturne. Even though it is physically impossible she connected those two notes like a slide on a string instrument. I would add that at this time Madame Press was 80.

Very quickly she started to harangue me about studying with Leonard Rose, as far as she was concerned, he was the best cellist in the world and close at hand. Needless to say, my mother was also similarly importuned. Finally, my mother wrote to Leonard Rose. Personally, I objected to this, because I loved my teacher Mr. Ziegler. My cousin Michael studied with Mr. Ziegler until he graduated from high school, and then went to Curtis to study with Mr. Rose. My mother started gently enough by saying, “Wouldn’t you like to study with Leonard Rose?” And I said, “Sure, but after I graduate from high school.” This went on for quite a while, until I finally said, “How do you know that Mr. Rose would take me?” to which my mother replied, “Mr. Rose has already taken you.” Without going into it any further at this point, it was the right move for so many reasons that I could write a book about only that. Among other things, Mr. Rose was really interested in teaching me, and building up a dynasty of which he hoped I would become a part. His playing was never better than it was at that time, and he also was teaching 30 lessons a year to each of his Juilliard students. There’s no doubt that the example of his playing entered my heart, never to leave.

I auditioned for Musical Talent in Our Schools, a program sponsored by the radio station WQXR. Leonard Rose was one of the judges. As a result of my audition, Mr. Rose arranged for me to have a full scholarship to study with him in the Prep Division. Leonard Rose and Luigi Silva taught me how to properly sit at the cello, hold the bow, and organize my left hand.

Along with these experiences, I had extensive and wonderful experiences as a principal cellist when I was at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. My high school orchestra teacher Benjamin S. Chancy had had a certain amount of professional experience and many years of working with extremely talented high school students. When I walked into my first rehearsal as a sophomore the repertoire for the day was Sibelius Second Symphony. I was immediately enchanted and since Sibelius Second stayed in the repertoire for another two months I got to learn it extremely well.

Later that year the New York Philharmonic held a competition for string players to do what would now be called a “side-by-side” performance in a young people’s concert in Carnegie Hall. The repertoire was all Tchaikovsky which included the first piano concerto and the fifth symphony. Mr. Chancy found out about this audition and took the music to Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony out of the Board of Education music library. Because of that I got to know the music quite well, and in my audition, I got to play principal cello with Laszlo Varga who turned pages for me at the concert.

Mr. Chancy took a real interest in me, and programmed as often as possible the William Tell Overture which starts with a nice big cello solo, and the Boccherini Concerto. Besides conducting our orchestra, Mr. Chancy would take out a string quartet with him playing the cello part. In both these cases, it helped me enormously because I got used to sitting in the first chair of an orchestra and playing solos. Perhaps as a result of having performances of the Boccherini Concerto under my belt with orchestra, I was able to win the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s first-string competition and play the Boccherini Concerto with them.

One funny story Mr. Chancy had a stamp which on a piece of paper said, “B.S. Chancy.” Since I had accessed his desk I would often use it to get myself excused from classes, particularly French classes. One day Mr. Chancy came to me and said, “Your French teacher asked me why I had so much use for you during French class.” I told him, “You are vital to our music department, but don’t do it again.” Once after playing the Boccherini Concerto at the Midwood High School spring concert, Mr. Rose told me that a friend of his told him that I gave a brilliant performance at my high school. It turned out the friend was John Corigliano, concert master of the New York Philharmonic, who was a good friend of Mr. Chancy and a great supporter of the Natalie Joan Chancy Foundation.

A number of years later I gave a benefit concert for the Natalie Joan Chancy Foundation in joint recital with Leo Brauwer. Leo went on to become one of the great guitar virtuosos and was managed by Sol Hurok. Additionally he became Cuba’s leading composer and one of the world’s leading composers of guitar music.

In 1971 Mr. Chancy died of a massive heart attack on the stage of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center conducting the All-City High School Orchestra.

In September of 1956, I was appointed principal cello of the All-City High School Orchestra. One of the big pieces on the program was the overture to Le roi d’Ys of Édouard Lalo. Since I couldn’t sight read I was taken downstairs and told exactly where the notes were to the solo, which took about ten minutes, and within five minutes after that it was memorized and played successfully in a rehearsal.

The All-City High School Orchestra met every Saturday from 10-1pm at Brooklyn Technical High School, so I played that solo every week until our performance on April 10 of 1957. Three things stand out about that experience, the first was that when my new teacher Leonard Rose heard that I was playing that solo, he wanted to hear it, and was not impressed with rendition. He then played it for me, and his beauty of sound and absolute conviction stunned me. After he played it for me, he showed me how he played it, what kind of bowings and fingerings he used, and how he practiced the difficult shifts. Three days before the concert I got the flu, and had a fever of 102 to 103, nevertheless I was going to play that concert. So I shook the thermometer down, and my Aunt Gertie was enlisted to drive me to the stage door of Carnegie Hall, and I played that solo. I’ll never forget my first experience with the electric shock of stage fright when my moment came. Nevertheless out of 300 people in the All-City Orchestra and Chorus I was the only one singled out for a good review.

Because of my success with Lalo the orchestra director asked me to find another piece with a big cello solo for the next year’s concert, and Mr. Rose advised me to do the Poet and Peasant Overture of Franz von Suppé.

I can honestly say that in my professional career things were never that different playing principal cello in professional orchestras than they were in Midwood High School or All-City. I had the same ambitious stand partners who tried to discombobulate me, the same conductors, most of whom could be ignored, and the same solos, and the same shots of adrenaline when solos came up.

Obviously, I grew up in a totally different time, where values were quite different than they are today. Nobody was in a hurry to turn me into the next Feuermann. But all the experiences that I had gave me the opportunity to grow at my own pace.

I was 26 when I played the Rococo Variations in public for the very first time. I could still play it at the age of 70, and am pleased to say that it had never frozen into any particular interpretation. I believe that the great gift Carl Zeigler gave to me was that he let me find my own particular voice and develop my own personality on the instrument. I was perfectly able to compensate for the technical deficiencies I had, but I know for sure that there is no compensation for lack of imagination and a lack of a sense of self.

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