A Cure for Popper Indigestion

Many colleagues have asserted that the daily practice of Popper Etudes will keep you in shape for life. Since I’m always interested in maintaining and improving my technique, I thought I would listen to all 40 of them with the idea of investigating the possibility that this might work for me. With that in mind, I bought a recording of somebody who, in his search for fame and fortune, released them. As I listened to them, I was reminded of how difficult and unappealing they mostly are. In fairness 5 or 6 of them are very useful and are still in my fingers, but there are sequences of ugliness found no place else in nature proving that while beauty may be skin deep, ugly goes straight down to the bone. I started to think that practicing Popper could easily do more harm than good, since nothing in those etudes would in any way help you play a Beethoven or Brahms sonata better. This last assertion of mine carries over across the board to just about every piece of significant cello repertoire.

Fortunately, I found a cure for Popper Indigestion. It started early on in my career when I started touring with the American Ballet Theatre and later on the American National Opera Company. In those situations, we had many long bus trips and little time to practice. I was able to maintain my technique well enough to play solos from Swan Lake and Tosca consistently well with only a small amount of practicing on the slow movement of the Locatelli Sonata and the Servais Caprice No. 2. Eventually I added all of the Locatelli, the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. These works kept me in shape to play practically anything else for the next 40 years.

One of the things that occurred to me is there were other composers who wrote virtuoso cello music that is far more appealing than Popper Etudes and covers the same general territory. Two of them come to mind right away, Davidoff Concertos No. 1 and 2. These works go to the heart of what cello playing really is, with beautiful melodies and interesting passages. These works use everything in the arsenal of a virtuoso cellist, scales of all kinds, arpeggios, passages in thirds, octaves, and sixths, and additionally have compelling and beautiful melodies which would make one really want to play. One assertion that I have heard many times is that the Popper Etudes are the Bible of cello playing. In my opinion, that doesn’t really hold up. In my career I played enumerable passages by Strauss, Wagner, and Berg. When I played Pierrot Lunaire, it took me a month to learn it well enough so that I could nail it at the Metropolitan Opera House. If I needed any instruction in hearing strange intervals and playing them in tune Pierrot Lunaire did the job better than even the most difficult Popper Etude.

While I still had illusions that Popper Etudes had great value, I sent one of my students to Meadowmount and decided that I would learn two of the most difficult ones along with this student. They were No. 29 and No. 33. I can definitely say that I did not master these two etudes, but I did get a case of tennis elbow that required a shot of cortisone and several weeks of physical therapy to fix up. Maybe I practiced them the wrong way, but at that time I was a highly experienced cellist and knew all about thirds, octaves, and arpeggios. Even if I had mastered these etudes what good would it have done me?

For me, the best of the cello repertoire consists of pieces that everybody will enjoy hearing. I’ve often heard people say, “Well, I don’t want to play what everybody else plays.” My response to that is, why not? After all, most audiences are not that familiar with the Beethoven A Major Sonata, the Brahms F Major, or the Rococo Variations. In my time as a concertizing cellist very few people mentioned that they had heard any other performances of these pieces. Of course, an audience of cellists would know immediately that this was the cream of the repertoire, but I wasn’t playing for other cellists. In fact, my career was advanced entirely by conductors, colleagues of other instruments, critics, and publishers. I’m not sure that the recording I got of all 40 Popper Etudes turned out to be a big seller. Maybe it did, but it was only cellists interested in buying them.

Perhaps my complaint has to do with the fact that putting oneself in a position of overcoming difficulties that will not be found later on is a big waste of time and can do physical damage. We all have to choose what we live by and who is our muse. I’ve always been totally taken by the beauty of Leonard Rose’s sound. Mr. Rose was a big fan of Popper Etudes, and I got through No. 1-28 with him. But I don’t think that even Rose could convince me that any work on them past the teenaged years is going to get one anywhere. Perhaps because my career was based on playing beautiful solos in the opera and ballet I developed a theory that as a cellist you’re as good as you sound playing The Swan.

In teaching I had two types of students, early on my students were professional cellists who had studied with some of the most well-known teachers. The second group came 20 years later when I taught at Valparaiso University. Those students had little or no background. In both cases, my teaching material started with the E Major scale as described in my book Practice for Performance and the Boccherini A Major Sonata.

Two of the great talents that I had the privilege of teaching were Eliot Bailen and Walter Preucil. In both cases adhering to my basic principle of sounding as good as you can, anyway you can, and being as comfortable as possible resonated with both of them and gave them a vocabulary of how to approach both melodic passages and technical passages.

In the second case, my work with three students will illustrate how little Popper Etudes would help them achieve success in situations they were facing.

My student Cortney Neese at Valparaiso University, even after mastering the Boccherini A Major and the E Major scale, had a great deal of trouble with her vibrato. It occurred to me after way too long that the reason for this was that her hand was always in an open position while trying to play cantabile passages. The solution was to have her play a D Flat Major Scale holding the hand together and sliding between each of the fingers in a pattern of four notes ascending, four notes descending, and up a tone. The result of this was at the end of a week she had a better vibrato than I did and used it to devastating effect in her rendition of the Faure Elegy with the Valparaiso Orchestra. I can’t think of any Popper Etude that would have helped her achieve anything close to this. In fact, it might have made a bad situation worse.

A young man came to work with me for an orchestra audition as an entering freshman at the University of Michigan. Among other things the repertoire consisted of Beethoven’s 5th slow movement and Strauss’ Zarathustra and other light classics. Most of my work with him consisted of getting a second finger and a down bow on long notes and particularly on B Flats on the D String in fourth position (first half and fourth positions resonate with the marrow of the bones of any cellist). In a word behind a screen this entering freshman got assistant principal over doctoral students. I don’t see how fifteen Popper Etudes would have helped him do better as I’m sure those doctoral students could have played all 40 of them.

When I was teaching at the string academy at the Indiana University my colleague Susan Moses (a most distinguished cello teacher) asked me to work with one of her students for the concerto competition for an hour. Most of the work I did with him was exploiting all of the long notes in the cantabile passages, making a statement on every phrase, and changing a few of the fingers to ones that were considerably more comfortable. He won the competition hands down. No Popper required.

Two students who came to me that I take great pride in having taught were Seth Woods and Colin Ferguson. Seth came to me after having his scholarship revoked at Roosevelt University because his teacher sent him into his exam with the Minuet in G. I immediately started him out on my scale system (the ultimate cure for Popper Indigestion) which can be found in my book Practice for Performance published by Mel Bay. This scale system basically defines the three elements of the left hand. One, holding a position (a disposition of whole and/or half steps), two, making shifts from one position to another, and balancing fingers on long notes, after a year and half of this Seth was able to play the Boccherini Concerto and the Shostakovich Sonata well enough to get a full scholarship to study in New York with Frederick Zlotkin. After those studies he went to Switzerland to work with Thomas Demenga, and eventually got his PhD in England. He has become a doyen in the world of contemporary music and is recognized for his skill and talent worldwide.

Colin Ferguson came to me at age 23 with no rudimentary skills. I couldn’t understand why at that age he had any ambitions at all to become a professional. I was ready to write him off, even though he was the son of a dearly loved colleague and mentioned this to my colleague and former student Walter Preucil. Wally, as he was called, asked me whether I thought in seven years I could make him competitive with other 30-year-olds. We spent one summer on the E major scale and moved on to the Boccherini A Major and to improve his ear I gave him some of the strange scales found in Schelomo Ernest Bloch. It did not take him 7 years to get up to speed. He did it in 3.

My point is that if one truly defines the basics of playing and applies it to music of compelling interest one can gain technique from each specific effort and avoid the pain of dealing with Popper Etudes until the Grim Reaper makes his appearance. Too much Popper might make him a welcome apparition.