Cellist Joel Krosnick Talks Miracles in Teaching

By Laurence Vittes

There was a moment during Banff International String Quartet Competition‘s world premiere screening of the documentary, Joel Krosnick: What To Play Next?, that especially piqued my interest. Krosnick, a former BISQC juror and now BISQC’s mentor in residence, who played for the Juilliard Quartet from 1974-2016, spoke briefly about “miracles” in connection with his teaching work. It reminded me of something cellist Anner Bylsma had once said to me about teaching—that he waited for miracles to happen during lessons. He went on to acknowledge that miracles often happen outside of lessons. It was exactly what Krosnick would discuss in detail over the course of our conversation after BISQC.  

The day before, Krosnick had coached three young quartets, whose players ages ranged from 11 to young adults, in a public “master class” session. The quartets were participants in this year’s Young Musicians Program: the FourSet from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Chestnut from the Vancouver Academy of Music, and the YYCQT from Alberta. 

Krosnick interacted with the quartet members first with praise, then with questions—and only last with his own suggestions and tips. Even with three young quartets on a rather extraordinary public stage he proceeded with the same full attention that he gives to his own music making. From the moment the youngest quartet put down their bows, he gave them the same full attention. He rarely turned to the audience during the three half-hour lessons. It was a mark of how enthralled he was by the music they were making, and when you have teachers like that you cannot ask for anything more. 

Although there were no obvious miracles, as I learned in my conversation with Krosnick after BISQC, the best miracles can be a long-term thing.


Can you elaborate on what you mean by a “miracle”?

I’ve taught my 15 students at least twice in the first two weeks; you sit there, listening to people who have learned to play the instrument very well. They have something to say and they are saying it very well. But if they’re also in touch with their inner voice or inner heartbeat, and combine that with learning to play ever more urgently in response to that heartbeat, then something pretty hard to describe takes place—and that’s what I call a miracle.


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Can you give an example?

I remember a young man in his fourth year who played brilliantly, and easily, but he was cynical about himself and not terribly engaged. Somehow over that year he got in touch with the fact he had a voice inside, decided that he wanted to be responsible for that voice and that he wanted to express it on the cello.

Was it during a lesson?

I don’t know. Last year he fell in love with the D minor Chaconne by Bach, for violin, and with another student of mine forged a transcription of it for the cello. He spent the year in love with the Chaconne, working on it and pouring everything he had into it. Gradually, as the year wore on, I helped him all I could, and I saw he was heading to some intensely, constantly moving, personal place. Sometime in the Spring there was a playthrough at a lesson—for me alone, there was no one else there—and I remember not wanting it ever to stop. It was just pouring out of him. I sat there knowing, “Yeah, that’s been the point of all this.”

If [a player is] also in touch with their inner voice or inner heartbeat, and combine that with learning to play ever more urgently in response to that heartbeat, then something pretty hard to describe takes place—and that’s what I call a miracle.

How did he do at the Jury Exam?


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I tell my students—although I don’t believe in Jury Exams—I tell them to just go in and get a feeling for why they’re there, and give everything they’ve got. This guy came into his Jury Exam in front of eight faculty members and said, “I’m going to play the Bach Chaconne.” He played with such miraculous passion and just let it rip that when he left the room, several of my colleagues turned to me and said, “What was that?” 

And I said “that” was a year long love affair with a great piece of music by somebody who found his way. What came out was the miracle of this guy’s spirit. The revelation of that deepest connection, his voice coming out through the instrument and through the music, is a very special thing. When it happens it’s a miracle. 

When it then is carried through in the ongoing attitude toward self, as well as in the work and playing after that—that’s really miraculous. This person, now in his fourth year, continues as a more and more serious person and artist. The Bach Chaconne episode was a breakthrough that became more of a life-changing miracle.

Do you have an example of a “miracle” that happened during a lesson?


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I remember a young woman who blew me away with the Saint-Saëns concerto. I’d been talking to my class about playing with real passion, really riding their own voice and just letting the instrument and the piece play them, when this woman came in—and that’s what happened. As I sat there, without noticing, I was rooting for her. I got up to talk, and realized I couldn’t talk; I was in tears. She looked up at me to get my reaction, I started to talk, the tears were streaming down my face, she reprimanded me a little self-consciously, “Aw, give me a break.” 

I said, “It’s your fault, I didn’t do anything. You did.” 

She said, “Yeah?” and thought about it for a second. “OK.” 

Those are the reasons those of us who teach—teach. To see somebody fulfill something that’s pulsating inside of them. And when that happens, it’s a miracle.