Monthly Archives: October 2010

Watch this–a touching, inspiring short film

Everyone should watch this.  A beautiful short film about the power of music, working its magic in the life of the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor.  Or maybe it’s the power of love expressing itself through this woman and enlivening the music. Share it with as many people as you can.  They’ll be glad you did.  (My thanks to Vic Sazer who shared it at CelloChat.)

“I never hate, I never hate.  Hatred only brings hatred!”

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If You Were a Fly on the Wall of Janos Starker’s Teaching Studio

If you were a fly on the wall of Janos Starker’s teaching studio, what would you want to know?  Right now, I get to be that fly, and maybe I can help you out.

I’m on a full-year sabbatical from DePauw.  Just over an hour away from my house is the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where the legendary Janos Starker, 86, still teaches four afternoons a week.  At one point in my life I wanted to study with him.  But when I was going off to college, my then-teacher was opposed to it.  (Back in the 1970s, Starker was a particularly polarizing figure in the cello world and, to some, a deeply frightening human being.  This has nothing to do with why I wanted to study with him, or why my teacher wanted me not to, but I remember hearing about 20 years ago about another teacher who forbid her students from listening to Starker’s recordings and told the parents that they should only listen to Rostropovich and a few select others.)

Since I’ve lived in Indiana, I’ve attended a number of his Saturday-afternoon masterclasses (which he is no longer giving). During this sabbatical, I’m rethinking a lot of my teaching approaches, and Mr. Starker very graciously and and generously is allowing me to sit in as many lessons as I can–which is most of them–and it’s a fascinating experience.  I’m filling in a lot of gaps regarding my understanding of the cellistic and musical principles he teaches and how he applies them, and as a teacher it’s fascinating to see how he teaches–what he chooses to address, how he addresses it, and what he chooses not to address. (I’m also reading everything about him I can find, listening to interviews, etc. This includes John Cloer’s 2009 Columbia University dissertation Janos Starker: An Organized Method of Cello Teaching, which can be ordered by clicking here and then searching using “Cloer” and “Starker” in the appropriate fields.)

I’ve taking in a lot, and doing a lot of experimenting with my own playing.  At some point I’ll be writing a good bit about what I’ve learned and my personal experience learning it.

Meanwhile, if you’re a cellist (or just interested in what and how Starker teaches), what would you want to know if you were the fly on the wall in Starker’s teaching studio, or could ask him a question?

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Practicing: Longitude, Latitude, and Calm Slow Motion

Just finished today’s first practice session (I have time today for two or possibly three).

Warmed up with one-finger scales, broken thirds, octaves, etc.  I love playing with one (left) finger as a warm-up activity.  Physically, it is very gentle and helps get the blood flowing.  More than that, when I’m sliding around on the fingerboard with just one finger, aural (auditory) control is essential–you just can’t play without it.  One finger “stuff”–another way to put it is glissando exercises–is a very effective way to establish the the internal-hearing-directing-physical-movement brain circuitry.

I’m very big on position exercises, too.  The one-finger slurping around led into some double-stop exercises in particular positions, all inspired by the exercises in Starker’s An Organized Method of String Playing.  The exercises in that book are designed to develop awareness of and skill in playing in each position.

Position exercises are the way we learn the various latitudes of the the fingerboard;  one-finger shifting exercises develop skill in navigating the longitudes.  (Hey, I can’t be the first person to use a latitude/longitude metaphor for learning the fingerboard, but a quick Google search doesn’t show anyone using it for bowed-string instrument pedagogy.)

I’ve been doing these exercises for years, and they still help. No matter what our playing level and years of experience, the circuits in our brain (and whatever literal muscle memories may actually exist) need reinforcement to be maintained. And we can still grow new ones.  I’m just about finished listening to the audiobook version of The Talent Code, in which Daniel Coyle links brain research to successful practice/training methods, and it’s absolutely fascinating.  More about it in a future post.  What has impressed me so much is how the research explains why/how certain practice techniques work so well.  It all has to do with developing neural connections wrapped in myelin.

One of the exciting things is that even though it becomes a slower process as we age, we can still develop new brain circuits at any age, and hence develop new skills. I’ve certainly been finding that to be the case;  in the last few years, my comfort in the high-ends of the fingerboard has increased a lot as I’ve done various exercises, particularly position exercises, up there.

Since I’m familiar with the exercises I was doing, I was also able to give intermittent attention to the fluidity of my bow arm and the “straightness” of my bow stroke.

Then I went into some very slow, very calm practicing of the third movement of the Schumann Concerto, which I am relearning.  When I first started it, my mind was filled with “IT’S SO F***ING HARD” sorts of thoughts.  Long ago I was taught that we have to let go of those thoughts, or a piece will remain “f***ing hard” forever.  Slow, easy, without worry.  Hearing the sounds and visualizing the motions first.  Calmly correcting errors, then repeating correctly.  Lots and lots, in my case, of releasing anxiety.  And, of course, as I develop a solid aural concept, visualization of the motions, mental calmness, and practice correction, even the most seemingly awkward passages become controllable.  Confidence moves in where the fear used to be.

A productive session.

(It’s been forever and a day since I last posted, so no promises regarding future consistency. )

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