Artist Blog—Julian Schwarz: I Play the Cello. Should my Teacher?

By Julian Schwarz

Since I was a child, I have studied cello with cellists. Makes sense, right? A cello teacher knows how to best hold a cello and a cello bow, place his or her fingers on the fingerboard, play in thumb position . . . the list goes on and on. The technical expertise of a cello teacher is undeniable, but what about the music?

In addition to the great lessons I have received from cellists throughout the course of my musical education, I have also been consistently challenged by players of other instruments. Growing up I had musicians at my disposal. I would play for my father [trumpet player and conductor Gerard Schwarz]. I would play for my mother. They would offer musical insight beyond my maturity. They would listen to my playing from a musical perspective, not a cellistic one. This would be incredibly frustrating.

My father would ask, “Why are you making that nuance?” I would reply that it was because of some technical consideration. He would not be satisfied with that reply. He would continue, explaining that if a certain technical consideration yields a musically uninspired result, then the technical consideration should be overcome another way. As a child who often spoke back, I would exclaim, “Dad, you just don’t get it.” I was unwilling to take on a huge technical burden for a seemingly minute musical improvement.

Boy, was I wrong.


As I matured, I started to realize that I was consistently challenged most often by non-cellists. Cellists would understand why I would not vibrate the note before a shift. They would understand why I made an unnatural crescendo to the frog. They would often show me the easy way to play a passage. As I grew, I started to see beyond these accommodations. Though it was nice to have someone listening to me that would accept some rocky intonation because he or she “knows how nasty the passage is,” I started to seek out those who wouldn’t accept it—those who wouldn’t understand.

Two violists come straight to mind. I had the great fortune to learn from two distinguished professors of viola during my time as a student. They began as chamber-music coaches. They were consistently demanding— to my great joy and admiration. I started to play for them alone. They would see and hear things I had not. They would ask me why I had made a musical decision, regardless of technique. Taking a lot of the technical considerations out of the equation was the absolute best learning experience I could have had. The lessons were about music, and only music.

Of course it is undeniable that a certain technical level should be achieved prior to taking lessons from teachers of other instruments, yet many of the technical advances one can make will only come to fruition if certain musical nuances are demanded. I remember many a time when one of my viola gurus would ask me to play a phrase a certain way. I would have trouble. That trouble would nudge my rear end to the practice room, where I would solve the technical issue that prohibited my expressivity. How incredible that I had that opportunity.

Though the two violists with whom I studied greatly inspired me musically and, as a result, technically, I did not stop there. I started to play for whoever would listen—but no cellists.


Conductors are a fantastic resource, as their musicianship is never (or should never be) confined to one instrument or one family of instruments. Pianists are also interesting, as they aim to create a large range of color on an instrument rather limited in this respect. Wind players and vocalists can educate string players about the sense of breathing that is inherent in all music.

There is also an important element of a teacher-student relationship one can omit by bringing music to teachers of other instruments: ego. Even though many teachers try to avoid direct competition with their students, there is an element of competition that is unavoidable if a teacher and student play the same instrument. Enough said. Playing for other instrumentalists will avoid this issue, or at least reduce its impact on the teaching itself.

Repertoire plays no part in this exploration. I would not bring only the Schumann Fantasy Pieces to a clarinetist (the fantasy pieces are clarinet works commonly played on the cello since Friedrich Greutzmacher made a transcription in the 19th century). Quite the contrary. I would not bring the Schumann Fantasy Pieces to a clarinetist because I would be looking for a musician’s take on my repertoire, therefore avoiding established traditions and opinions in my pursuit of musical integrity.


In the end, technique should never impede musical considerations—and without specific knowledge of a piece’s mechanics, a non-cellist will best judge your musicality. There is no such thing as a bowing that cannot be achieved on the cello, just players who don’t care enough to put in the extra effort. I have been asked often by cellists about one of my fingering or bowing choices that they consider unnecessarily difficult. Musical intention always comes before difficulty.

If it sounded the same I would do it the easy way, but it almost never does.

Cellist Julian Schwarz made his orchestral debut at the age of 11 playing the Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 1 with the Seattle Symphony with his father, Gerard Schwarz, on the podium. He has performed with symphonies and in chamber-music festivals throughout the United States and internationally. He was awarded first prize in the professional cello division of the inaugural Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition in Hong Kong, and received his bachelor of music degree from Juilliard, where he studied with Joel Krosnick. He is pursuing his master of music degree, also at Juilliard. Schwarz performs on a cello made by Gennaro Gagliano in 1743.