Cellist Joshua Roman Talks the Popper Challenge & the Hardest Étude

By Laurence Vittes

In 2006 at the age of 22, cellist Joshua Roman became the youngest principal in Seattle Symphony’s history. Two years later, when he left to pursue a solo career, he found himself with time on his hands and lots of practicing to do. Voila: the Popper Project for which he recorded all of the famed pedagogue’s 40 iconic études and put them on YouTube. 

More than one million views and ten years later, in the midst of a busy performing recording, composing and curating schedule, Roman has issued the Popper Challenge. It is open to cellists of all ages and experience levels who submit video recordings of one or more études. Each month, a panel of teachers, performers, and expert cello lovers will select up to three cellists to participate in a live-streamed masterclass with Joshua Roman. Cellists are encouraged to submit as many of the 40 Popper Études as possible throughout 2019. At the end of the challenge, 40 cellists—no more, hopefully no less—will be selected to have their recordings featured on a recording of the Popper Études produced by the crowd-funding Popper Challenge Community.

I spoke to Roman just after the challenge was launched.


When did the idea of the Popper Challenge come to you?
Up to that point my entire life I had a weekly check-in, whether it was lessons when I was younger or the Seattle Symphony principal job. Almost every week I had something I had to get ready for. Then when this schedule of doing things on a weekly basis stopped, it took me a few months to realize that my practicing had changed because of it. I was starting to practice to prepare for an upcoming set of concerts perhaps three months off, followed immediately by five or six different concerts with different repertoire in the span of a couple of weeks. So I practiced in chunks that looked like my schedule and it was OK, but I couldn’t really tell whether I was getting better at the cello generally. So I decided to do the Popper Project, record them all as a way to be able to have a consistent practice regimen that was really grounded in both the cello and my own self improvement—not just been getting ready for the next concert.

What motivated you to go ahead?
I thought 25 people would watch the Popper Project. Now the channel has 1.2 million views. I wanted other people to experience that, too. It’s the Project’s 10th anniversary this year; the Popper Challenge is me saying, “Hey! I did it—now it’s your turn. What can you do with your own self improvement?” I’ll be there to guide people through the process. And it’s not about doing all 40, although some people have taken that on—which is great—it’s about figuring out ways to monitor and take charge of our own self improvement and do more than what’s just required. To me that’s what an étude is all about. 

And so, throughout the year we will explore various ways of tackling tying études, both literally and philosophically into what we do more generally as musicians. It’s not just about the Popper Études, but about a healthy relationship with technique as a musician.


Are these études as a set comprehensively designed to do everything that a cellist would want to do?
That’s a fun question. I wish I could say that it were true. In fact, I was thinking about using a quote like, “There’s a Popper for Everything,” but it’s just not true. There’s not a Popper for everything. But you really get a lot out of them. There are things that aren’t covered; there’s not one that takes you up and has you do a very high melodic passage like you would do in Shostakovich or even parts of the Dvorak concerto, and especially not like you would do John Tavener Protecting Veil or Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain.

And yet you still chose them.
They’re still the standards. Every cellist I know has done them. You really learn your way around most of the cello in most of the positions. And it’s a lot more dynamic and musically valuable than just practicing scales and arpeggios. Maybe the next challenge will be: Who’s after Popper?


If you played them consecutively, how long would it take?
I timed them the day I decided to record them all. It was at least three hours without break. 

What do you know about the million people who are following you and Popper?
On the YouTube channel I know that a lot of people are cellists looking for Popper Études, but a lot of people who follow me that aren’t cellists. They just like the Popper Études. I met a woman who told me she had watched all of the Project videos—I had posted 20 or 25 at that point—and she told me that she loved them all and thought they were beautiful. 

I guess you have to go practice your Popper now, right? What’s the most difficult one?
The most difficult one. Ooh. I still think number nine. Number nine is still for me. That’s a tough one. A tough one.