By Anthony Arnone | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
So many great cello teachers were never formally taught to be educators. Teaching the cello, and the literature that comes with it, is an art form that is still largely passed on verbally from teacher to student—every cellist a branch of a cello “family tree” nurtured with information passed down from previous generations.
It dawned on me years ago, as people like Janos Starker and Bernard Greenhouse passed away, that many of their stories and lessons might be lost with them. This became even clearer one night, when my former teacher Bonnie Hampton was visiting as a guest for my yearly Cello Dayz event in Iowa City, where I am a professor at the University of Iowa. We were sitting up one night “talking cello,” and Bonnie started talking about her time studying with the great Pablo Casals. I remember thinking to myself that I should be recording this conversation, as these stories were not only fascinating, but also valuable to any musician.
A seed was planted that night.
From there I couldn’t seem to shake the idea of writing a book of interviews with great cello teachers. I had three goals. My first was to document what they learned from their teachers—the “greats” of cello playing. People like Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, Andre Navarra, Maurice Gendron, and others who shaped the way our current generation of teachers plays and teaches the cello. I wanted to gather these stories before they were lost.
Equally important to me, as a cello teacher for the last 20 years, was to learn how they developed their own style. How do they teach? How do they listen? What is important to them? What do they look for in students? What is the hardest thing to teach? How do they practice? How do they motivate students?
And lastly, I wanted to preserve this time in history and have a way to collectively compare and understand how cello playing and teaching has been approached by my generation.
So I put together a list of teachers that were largely my idols when I was in school. The list included Richard Aaron, Colin Carr, Steven Doane, Timothy Eddy, Stephen Geber, Bonnie Hampton, Gary Hoffman, Hans Jensen, Paul Katz, Ronald Leonard, Lawrence Lesser, Raphael Wallfisch, and Helga Winold. I reached out to many of my music friends and asked them what they would love to know about these people and came up with a detailed list of questions that I would ask.
Then the real adventure started. Over the next two years, I was able to travel around the country and spend hours face to face with these incredible cellists. I asked them questions about cello playing and teaching, spent time watching them work with students, and just enjoyed getting to know them as individuals. There were often meals together, and Steven Doane even took me sailing on his boat. I learned that each of these cellists came from a different background, had different goals and expectations, and found a path in a completely unique way.
However, I did discover common themes in the myriad careers and approaches: curiosity, humility, and compassion.
All of these cellists have an insatiable curiosity for music. I think it drives them almost as much as their love of music. And they are not only curious about music—they love to learn about everything. Bonnie Hampton is a voracious reader on all kinds of subjects. In fact, I got the impression that curiosity has been more important than talent in their own quests for cello mastery. Paul Katz claims he wasn’t the most talented kid in school, but he worked hard and wanted to learn. I learned from these cellists that curiosity is sort of the catalyst that turns talent and hard work into success.
Curiosity acknowledges there is always something new to learn, so perhaps the universal sense of humility I found among them was a natural extension of this. Of course, it takes a certain amount of confidence to be onstage playing the thousands of concerts that these cellists have played, but they all embrace continuing to learn. When I asked Larry Lesser what was still on his bucket list, he told me, “I still want to learn to play in tune!” All of them still practice scales.
And that allows them the flexibility to be great teachers: they aren’t rigidly invested in teaching any one “right” way to play something. The goal of this whole music thing, after all, is to perform so convincingly that people can’t help but be inspired. And there are many different ways to get there. One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Timothy Eddy, who describes a lesson with Bernard Greenhouse, who was one of his teachers. After Eddy played something for him, Greenhouse said, “It was skillfully done and very conscientiously learned. It was musical, but I’m no better off now than I was before you started playing.”
And finally, I was often reminded how important compassion is when you are a teacher. For example, when I asked Steven Doane about his teaching philosophy, he said, “The first thing is to have the students feel like you are supporting them, that you believe in their potential and that you’re trying to support them both emotionally and musically. The second thing is to feed them useful information.”
I feel so lucky to have been able to learn from all of these cellists. Their insights into music and listening taught and inspired me so much as a cellist and teacher. I’m also thankful to have gotten to know these giants as human beings. Cellists are the nicest people—although I may be biased.
Anthony Arnone’s book, The Art of Listening: Conversations with Cellists, was published by Peter Lang, Inc., in October 2020 and includes interviews with 13 renowned cellist-teachers.