Category Archives: Janos Starker

The Arvo Pärty

So I’m on sabbatical, as I’ve mentioned before, with various projects. One is what I now realize could be termed “cello pedagogy field research,” which has been taking the form of observing, this fall, many of Janos Starker’s lessons at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.  An amazing experience, which is having a positive impact on the occasional teaching and master classes I do, and which I will write about at length.  My interpretation of what I’m experiencing is being shaped by reading I’m doing.  Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a study on John Wooden’s coaching techniques which Coyle references (there are some striking similarities between aspects of Wooden’s coaching and Starker’s teaching), and John Cloer’s 2009 dissertation Janos Starker: An Organized Method of Cello Teaching.

The other project is designing a course, for DePauw music majors, on entrepreneurial skills and alternative performance of classical music.  To that end I’ll be relocating to New York (“the city”) next semester for another kind of field research. meanwhile,  I’m here on an advance trip, performing improvised (or quasi-improvised) music tomorrow (Friday) evening in a preview performance of Robin Becker’s evening-length dance work (nice piece about it here) Into Sunlight, inspired by a similarly titled book, dealing with the Vietnam War, by David Maraniss.

Meanwhile, I was able to attend the “Arvo Pärty” (celebrating the 75th birthday of  composers Arvo Pärt and Giya Kanchelli) at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) in Greenwich Village last night.  LPR is a fascinating club, in the space formerly occupied by the Village Gate, which presents classical as well as other genres of music, performing, and visual arts in a cool club atmosphere.  “Serving alcohol and art.”  “Alcohol is our patron.”

A former student met me and a group of mutual friends earlier in the evening.  After dinner he and I headed over to Bleecker Street, where we discovered a line stretching from the LPR front door around the block.  That shows the success of LPR’s model and marketing–at least a hundred people lined up for a 10:00 PM Wednesday night concert of contemporary classical music.  Once my daughter, a student at NYU, joined us, we went in and joined the standing-room only crowd.

The performers were pianist Andrei Zlabys and vibraphonist Andrius Pushkarev. The music was exquisite.  Pieces by Pärt (“Für Alina” for solo piano and “Passacglia” for piano and vibraphone) began and ended the program, which also included two woks by Kancheli, two, well, I guess I’d call them transformations of Bach Inventions by Pshlarev, and, in the center of the program, the Bach E Major Keyboard Partita (BWV 830), which was performed brilliantly, with insight, playfulness, structure, and eloquence, by Zlabys.

So how well does art music work in a club serving food and drink?  Quite well.  The audience, shrouded in darkness (except for table lights or candles) perhaps even darker than that in a concert hall, was silent during the performances.  Wait staff almost silently glide among them taking orders.  We had ended up at the bar, where my daughter found the last bar stool, so our sonic landscape included the sounds of drinks being made.  Which I could have done without, for the musical experience.  It would have been much quieter at the tables.

It was wonderful to be part of the “Pärty.”  The collective experience means a lot–all these people jammed in together, celebrating the work of these composers (I confess, this was the first I’d heard of Kanchelli).  My former student, an active sound producer as well as a tenor, was delighted to be introduced to the venue.  My daughter was delighted to be introduced to Pärt’s music.  And me?  Delighted to share this wonderful place and this special experience with them.


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Filed under improvisation, Janos Starker, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, Robin Becker

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. )


Filed under Janos Starker, one-finger exercises, practice techniques