An interview with Steven Isserlis, cello, Internet Cello Society, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, playing piano, Steven Isserlis, Tim Janof, What pianists can learn from string players, word press,

What pianists can learn from string players

Piano students have a lot to learn from string players who have direct contact with their sound source by strokes of a bow. As pianists, we are physically separated from the strings as hammers must be activated by our key depressions, but by listening to the swells of a violin, cello, or viola, hearing shades of color and nuance, we can try to emulate a vast range of tonal possibilities. As a first step, we must imagine what we want to hear and find the means to achieve it.

What about searching the literature of interviews with string players to get the very inside analysis of how they feel about their expressive medium and apply it to the piano.

I found one such exchange on the Internet between the distinguished cellist, *Steven Isserlis and UK music commentator, Tim Janof. (Quotes were extracted from two separate meetings, one transpiring in 1998, and the other, in 2004.)

Tim Janof: You studied with Jane Cowan. Can you describe her teaching method? I understand that she used a total immersion technique with her students.

Steven Isserlis: That’s true. The last two years I studied with her, I lived in her house in Scotland three times a year, eight weeks each stay.

Her principles were very holistic. For instance, she would have us listen to Goethe’s “Faust” because she thought it would help us play Beethoven better. She also made us read Racine so that we were familiar with the sound of the French language when playing the music of composers like Debussy, Couperin, or Faure. She was always looking for connections between music and the world around us.

My comment: a universe-expanding experience that would benefit piano students.

She had us analyze the harmonies in the pieces we played, but not in a dry way, which can be intimidating or tedious. It felt as if she were taking us into a new world with each composer, or even each piece. Her approach was very organic.

Everything we did was connected to the music. She never taught technique purely for technique’s sake. She spent a lot of time on technical issues, but it was always presented in the context of helping us to accomplish specific musical goals. We never followed a method mindlessly or played scales just to improve the left hand. Technical discussions always had a musical context.

My comment: I could think of no better way to frame technique as applies to the piano.

TJ: In your master class at the Manchester Cello Festival, when discussing the Beethoven A Major and Schubert Arpeggione Sonatas, you often discussed the mood of musical phrases, and asked the students whether a phrase was a “question” or an “answer.” Did this come from Jane Cowan?

SI: “She certainly encouraged us to think in terms of speech, stories, or visual images.”

TJ: Do you use this approach in Baroque music as well?

SI: Of course. Music means something, no matter what period it comes from.

My comment: So true, regardless of instrument.

TJ: Do you think that Bach had meaning in mind when he composed? In one of my past interviews, the cellist felt that we may inject too much meaning in Bach. For instance, he felt that Paul Tortelier had “found” so many layers of meaning in the Sarabande from the C Minor Suite that Bach was somehow lost. After all, Bach probably wrote it in four minutes.

SI: Schumann wrote his cello concerto in four days. I’m told the earth was created in six. Whether he wrote it in four minutes or four years is completely irrelevant. It’s one of the great pieces of music and is incredibly moving.

Certainly Bach’s music had meaning. I don’t mean to say that you can necessarily fit words or specific pictures to his music, but it has meaning, whether or not that meaning can be described in words.

Of course, it can’t really be described, because, if it could, we wouldn’t need music!

All music, except perhaps for some experimental contemporary music, has phrasing, so all music has meaning as far as I’m concerned. All the music that I play consists of phrases or clauses in which there are main notes, to which other notes lead, or from which they come away, the same as with words in sentences.

TJ: Is there a danger that the music will sound too fussy or too wavy, when one is constantly going towards and away from a main note in phrase after phrase?

SI: Absolutely not. We must not play all notes with equal strength or value, otherwise the music will become monotonous. A lot of people play in a monotone fashion without realizing it because they don’t use the bow to shape the phrases. People would sound very strange if they talked with equal stress on every word — only computers do that. Computers, although they have many great qualities, are not known for the beauty of their musical phrasing.

… I’m just saying that music must have a sense of motion. The music is boring if you don’t shape it. No matter how slow, or how still or calm, music must be phrased.

My comment: This is so pivotal to beautiful piano playing along with the breath and its flow….

TJ: You said something interesting in your master class, “One should not do things to the music, music should do things to you.” If you believe this, then what does the act of interpretation involve?

SI: You can’t truly “interpret” a piece until you know it extremely well. You have to know the function of every note, where each one is going, where each fits in its phrase, and how each phrase fits in the overall piece. Once you figure this out, you become like a bird flying over the land, seeing the land as it really is, watching different parts come and go, and seeing what came before and what’s coming next. This is a very different view than what you see if you are on the ground, where you can only see a short distance behind and ahead of you, and where you are overwhelmed by little details instead of the big picture.

Ideally, you get to the stage when you know the piece so well that you can just sit down and listen to what the piece is telling you, which is what I think of as true “interpretation.” Then it will come out differently every time you perform. But this will not happen if you don’t really know where everything fits in the overall picture, which is when you begin to play musical clichés, and you start doing the same things over and over again.

My comment: This has everything to do with the layered learning process at the piano, and mindful, stepwise practicing.

TJ: Do you therefore have a sort of detached view of the music when you play?

SI: I don’t think of it as detached. It’s more as if an actor is being taken over by the character he or she is playing. But, in order for that to happen, the actor has to understand the character thoroughly, to know about every aspect of him or her.

We don’t have to impose our will upon a piece. We need to step out of its way and let it speak through us. Otherwise, we are closing ourselves off from its message.

TJ:It seems like you have both an intellectual and inspirational approach when you play a piece. How did you find this delicate balance between your head and heart?

SI: I don’t consider the head and heart to be opposing forces within myself. They are in league with each other. The more you get to know a composer, or a piece, the more you can relax and be yourself with them, just as you can relax with trusted friends. Likewise, until you really know a score, which involves a lot of thought, you can’t relax with a piece and make it a part of yourself. You have to become friends with it.

My comment: Pianists should take this to heart.

TJ: You must still make some conscious decisions about how you are going to play a piece.

How do you hit notes out of the blue?

The trick is to not think about it. If you worry about hitting notes, odds are you will miss a lot of them. So much of technique is about confidence. I like to think that I can miss notes with ease!

Do you think more about technique in your practice sessions?

I do a lot of slow playing for intonation work, but I don’t do a lot of technical analysis because it can do more harm than good. As I said before, too much thought about technique separated from music will result in one feeling inhibited and tense. Relaxation and confidence go together. And technique is the ability to express the meaning of the music.

When you are in your practice sessions, do you experiment with different tempos, or do you just go with your intuition while playing?

I don’t consciously decide to play different ways, though as I find out more about a piece, I’m sure that I do play it differently. The more I find out about how themes relate to each other, how they contrast and what they have in common, the more ideas occur to me. And the more I look at the score, the more spontaneous I feel I can be. I realize this may sound paradoxical, but it’s absolutely true. If you’re stuck in some cliché you’ve heard somebody else do, there’s no freedom at all. But if you study the score of some great piece of music, it will always tell you new things.

Do you believe that the necessary technique will emerge if you feel the music strongly enough, i.e. if you can feel it, you can do it?

Not necessarily. If that were true, there would be many more great players around. There are lots of people who feel very strongly about music, and yet are frustrated because their fingers are not trained to do what they want them to do — and because they themselves haven’t been taught to look INSIDE the work, to understand it fully.

Do you consciously try to play with minimal tension?

Yes, this is important. I was taught to play in a very relaxed fashion by my teacher, Jane Cowan, who provided a great foundation for my playing. This doesn’t mean I don’t get tense, because I do, but my tension is usually the result of worries about memory lapses, not technical matters. I’m talking, of course, about tension unrelated to the content of the music. A lot of music demands great physical effort.

Do you find that you’re able to be more creative musically when you play with less tension?

Definitely. Negative tension is a big enemy of music-making. You must be able to listen, and you can’t listen if you’re tense.

My comment: Pearly words of wisdom as applies to playing the piano.

TJ: When you practice, do you work on carefully sculpting a phrase so that it leads towards and away from musical peaks?

I do most of my analysis while at the piano, not with a cello in hand. I spend a lot of time getting to know the harmonic and melodic structure of a work, and familiarizing myself with the score, and a piece’s overall shape. I don’t decide to shape a phrase a certain way before I play because I would be imposing my will on the piece. My goal is to have the technique to be able to listen to what the music is saying and let it lead me.

My comment: What truth-resonating statements!

TJ: What is the process you go through when you are studying a new piece?

SI: I always start at the piano and do some basic analysis. I don’t analyze every chord, but I do study the main themes, how they relate to each other, and how they are developed. Of course, each piece has its own rules and must be analyzed in a different way. I’m not a trained analyst, but I have to do this in order to understand what the piece means to me. After this analysis, and after six or seven performances, I sometimes start to feel at home with a work.

Do you believe that having some background in music theory is important?

It’s essential. Not in a dry academic sense — but you have at least to understand the basic tonal journey of a piece, or you really haven’t understood what the piece is ‘about.’ I could use here the simile of a portrait painter, who has to understand the structure of his subject, in order to convey the subject’s character — as the artist sees it — in the painting. On the other hand, I do think that there can be a danger that too much theoretical thinking can turn the musician into a doctor, who analyzes the patient’s internal workings so thoroughly that, in the end, he can’t see the beauty at all!

TJ: Do you try to do something different when you repeat?

SI: I try not to “try” anything with the music. I try to let the music try something with me. A repeat always feels different anyway. That’s why taking a repeat always feels so right to me

TJ: It seems like you have both an intellectual and inspirational approach when you play a piece. How did you find this delicate balance between your head and heart?

SI: I don’t consider the head and heart to be opposing forces within myself. They are in league with each other. The more you get to know a composer, or a piece, the more you can relax and be yourself with them, just as you can relax with trusted friends. Likewise, until you really know a score, which involves a lot of thought, you can’t relax with a piece and make it a part of yourself. You have to become friends with it.

I don’t dryly think “first subject second subject” as I play. I think about the first subject and try to understand its character, color, or mood. Then I think about the second subject in the same way, and also how it relates to the first subject. Understanding the architecture of a piece is just the first step in befriending a work.

TJ: Do you think that there’s such a thing as a wrong interpretation?

SI: Yes. When a composer’s wishes are ignored or manipulated, or when somebody distorts a piece for their own purposes, I think it’s wrong.

TJ: Do you ever have imagery in mind when you perform, like when you play Beethoven, for instance?

SI: It depends on the composer and the piece. It’s often difficult to conjure up specific images in Beethoven. I think of the story of the Passion when I play Bach’s Fifth Suite, and the Resurrection when I play the Sixth, at least in the beginning, which sounds like bells pealing. There is very strong imagery in Janacek’s Pohadka, of course. And I like to think of the sea at the beginning of Brahms F major sonata, with those ceaseless rhythmic waves in the piano part.

TJ: How about in Debussy?

SI: There’s definitely some sort of story being told, but I don’t think the audience should know about it, because Debussy didn’t want that. When somebody wanted to put a printed version of the story in the program for the first performance, Debussy was furious. He wanted the audience members to make up their own stories.

Music should be interactive. There are an infinite number of ways for both performers and listeners to understand any piece. My job is to convey as clearly and as honestly as I can the music as I see or hear it. Then I just hope that the message comes across.

5/2/98 and 2004

Copyright © 1998 Internet Cello Society

RELATED: Steven Isserliss, Bio

9 thoughts on “What pianists can learn from string players”

  1. He thinks about music the way I do. As someone who plays both cello and piano, I feel there is a synergy between them. The cello (or any melody-line instrument, really) teaches you how to shape a line; with the piano, it’s easy to fall into simply playing mechanically. What I always found frustrating about playing the cello is that you can only control your (usually one) line — for the rest, you are at the mercy of your accompanist or group. With the piano, you are the boss, but there’s a lot more to manage.


  2. Thanks for sharing. Yes, I like the word “synergy” as you applied it. I studied the violin for six years simultaneous to the piano, and I must say that the enveloping “singing tone” was always basic and applicable to the piano. Isserliss, in fact, in his master classes, is always “singing” to give guidance to phrase shaping. I wish he had mentioned “singing” in these set of interviews, but I’m sure he’s been quoted elsewhere in this regard.

    You are so perceptive about the string player’s subservience in a way to the accompanist or ensemble. Being an orchestra and chamber music player, I also enjoyed the richness of the “group” but wished I could stand alone at times without needing harmonic support, so In time, I veered toward the piano because I had the resources of an orchestra at my fingertips.

    I’m glad you are studying piano.

    The cello, of all string instruments, is the most powerfully beautiful and I’m thinking of the Brahms Bb piano concerto no. 2 and that haunting cello solo in the slow movement. Surely, all cellists must learn it.


  3. Oh oh oh! Thank you for sharing that, it was a really insightful and thoughtful interview and, as someone just learning the technique to allow the music to really speak, the emphasis on organic, intimate understanding of the piece’s ‘story’ was SO helpful. Wise words indeed!

    Your own comments about separating out the narrative voices in a piece is definitely right in line with this and also incredibly useful to someone like me who wants to play *beautifully*, that is, to play emotively and with well developed phrasing. So much piano focus these days is on the technical, which is hugely important, but the why’s and how’s of translating technical mastery into expressive thought through sound is often assumed (or completely overlooked!).

    Fabulous interview, thanks for sharing!


  4. Thanks again for sharing. I like your insights as they apply to your musical journey.

    Today I Skyped a lesson that I am about to post, and even with the handicap of this kind of transmission one can still nurture scale shaping and phrasing. Technique feeds in and out of repertoire..and I guess I think of it as fundamental to playing beautifully and knowing the geography of the piano with its infinite possibilities.


  5. Thank you for sharing that interview. It is so full of insight about the necessity of true phrasing and musicality. I love how he talks about interpreting a piece by knowing it so well that you sit down, and listen to what it is telling you. And also the analogy to acting. This one makes perfect sense to me…of course, when you are acting a role, you know the character so well, you wouldn’t give the same performance each time, but each one would be a different version of how the character might say the lines…letting the character of the piece speak through us. Then, of course, with Debussy, letting the performer and the listener both interpret the piece as they will, without explanation.

    Clearly, I enjoyed this interview quite a bit. I may have to quote it back in my blog, which is still new, after I’ve gotten past the basics.

    Fantastic website. I can’t stop reading and watching!



  6. This is why I read your blog………for the wonderful thoughts on music which are of great interest. Thank you for this post, and I will find the time to read some of the much older ones.


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