I am thrilled to present to you the first in a three article series interview series with Jeffrey Solow. Mr. Solow is a past president of ASTA, current president of the New York Cello Society, soloist, chamber musician, college professor and teacher, a prolific writer and an avid scuba diver. In this first part Mr. Solow shares his teaching philosophy and important pedagogical concepts with us.
String Visions: I am delighted to have this chance to visit with you during your visit here to Chicago. I have always been very impressed with all the various projects that you are able to handle. How do you manage keeping so many projects going at the same time?
Jeffrey Solow: I guess when there is a really important deadline I make sure that I keep track of the things that have to be done.
String Visions: That sounds like a good idea but can you be a more specific?
Jeffrey Solow: Well, of course the deadlines that I really need to keep track of are my performances. For those, I make a list of all the repertoire that I either have to learn or keep fresh, and I make sure that I keep that list handy so I don’t forget about it. Sometimes I even tape it to the music stand.
String Visions: Really?
Jeffrey Solow: Yes, tape it with Scotch tape to the bottom of the music stand, just hanging there… so I can make sure that all these pieces aren’t getting neglected.
String Visions: Keeping up a lot of repertory is often very difficult for students—they seem to get lost in the details or spend too much time on one work or movement. What is your secret?
Jeffrey Solow: Just as a conductor manages time at rehearsals, I make sure not to let anything fall by the wayside.
String Visions: Do you spend time with your students on this aspect?
Jeffrey Solow: Certainly some have problems with that, and I’m not so great at helping students stay organized in that particular way. However, I find that in a way this is the most important function of juries…
String Visions: Yes that’s true.
Jeffrey Solow: …juries make people really get things in hand.
String Visions: Yes it’s amazing how people usually figure it all out when there is a major deadline and expectation such as that.
Jeffrey Solow: Yes, it’s like the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson once said about how knowing that one is to be hanged in the morning clarifies the mind wonderfully. [Laughs]
String Visions: That is a great metaphor to keep in mind for anybody because time is an incredibly valuable asset that we all too often take for granted.
Jeffrey Solow: Right.
String Visions: Are there certain aspects that you stress more than others when working with your students?
Jeffrey Solow: I mostly teach students who are in college. If they are hoping to be professional players and they have problems on the instrument, with being technically organized—I guess you could call it being one with the instrument physically—then this is essentially their last chance, while they are still in college. So, to me the most important thing for a student is to make sure that they are really playing the cello correctly. I think that’s much more important than working on repertoire because they have their whole lives to learn repertoire. But, if you have basic problems on the cello, like with bow changes or vibrato, by the time you’re in college it’s your last chance to fix issues like these. And, I find that most of the students I come into contact with do have some kind of very basic problems that need to be fixed. It’s very frequently the case with players who are in many ways at a very high-level that if there is some little problem in their playing they think it is an issue with a specific piece, rather than a fundamental problem in their playing.
String Visions: That’s true. Yes, I totally agree with that.
Jeffrey Solow: Very often it has things to do with holding the bow too tight or other things that can be at the most basic level. Do you remember the Seymour Itzkoff biography of Feuermann, the first Feuermann biography from 1979?
String Visions: Yes, I read that book some years ago
Jeffrey Solow: At the end there’s an appendix that had English translations of writings that he had done in notebooks. Even though Annette Morreau’s new biography of Feuermann is very, very complete, it doesn’t have that information in it. I think that Itzkoff had all of it translated.
There’s one really interesting part where Feuermann is writing a letter to a hypothetical student who came to play for him and he says: “You’re like someone who takes their car to the mechanic for a little tune up, maybe the spark plugs, ” and the mechanic tells him he needs to take the engine out and do a complete overhaul. He says, “When you played for me you were expecting a few little finishing touches and I told you that you have to go back to the very beginning and figure out things that you were doing wrong on the cello.” It’s really fascinating that he said this because I find that it’s very often the case. It might be different depending on what school you’re teaching in.
String Visions: I think it’s always the same
Jeffrey Solow: The two main schools that I have taught in were the University of Michigan and now at Temple University, but I also spent a year teaching at Peabody and I didn’t find it to be any different there. And every so often I have taught a few lessons to cellists who were at Curtis, as well as some lessons to students who were at Juilliard when I was living in New York. I found, as you said, that it was the same; even very good players often have basic issues that they need to fix.
String Visions: I think most performers even including the best can have one, two or more aspects in there playing that they’re not happy with and that they keep trying to improve on. Observing great performers it often seems like everything is so easy. That is, of course, big talent but also the result of many, many years of intelligent practicing and performing.
Jeffrey Solow: Yes—so when you asked if there is anything I focus on, playing the instrument in the right way is the number one thing. If you’re not one with your instrument, you might as well forget about being a professional, because that’s what is most important. And these days the level of professional entry into the field is so amazing.
String Visions: With your students that have a number of problems, do you have a specific order that you follow?
Jeffrey Solow: [Laughs] Why I’m laughing is that Helen Kwalwasser, who taught violin at Temple for 48 years, studied with Galamian and once asked him: “How do you decide what to work on first with a student?”
String Visions: Yes
Jeffrey Solow: And he said, “I work on the thing that I can’t stand the most.”
String Visions: [Laughs] That’s a very good approach. I mean, that’s really a true, pure way of looking at it.
Jeffrey Solow: I guess the most common problems that I find are bowing problems—changing the bow and actually just putting the bow on the string. Piatigorsky used to say that cellists often don’t know how to lift the bow off the string, but I find that they actually don’t know how to put the bow on the string and they don’t really understand the difference between what it’s like to hold the bow in the air and the way you hold the bow when you play the cello. The way I think of it is this: when I’m holding the bow in the air I’m really holding the bow, but when I put the bow on the string I stop holding the bow and I let the bow rest on the string and my hand is pretty much resting on top of the bow. I feel that difference as soon as the bow hair touches the string—I kind of let go of the bow for just a hundredth of a second, maybe, so I can feel the weight of the bow on the string before my arm weight goes through it. Cellists are so often taught to control the bow between the fourth finger, the first finger and the thumb in sort of a triangle…
String Visions: Yes, I used to teach like that years ago until I realized that when we move any objects we really don’t hold on to things very hard but very often use ballistic motions and let gravity do its work.
Jeffrey Solow: Yes, they hold it like that in the air and they hold it like that on the string; they are always holding it and they don’t relax. What you just said is kind of counter-intuitive. I feel like that you have to hold the bow firmer when you’re not playing—when you’re holding the bow in the air—and hold it much more relaxed when you’re playing, when you put it on the string.
String Visions: That is great to hear.
Jeffrey Solow: So that’s the number one thing I find that many students don’t understand but really need to know.
String Visions: It’s true. I think even our terminology “bow hold” is the wrong word because that creates an image of holding the bow all the time the same way and that creates a lot of tension in the right arm and hand.
Jeffrey Solow: Even the word “bow grip” also creates the wrong image.
String Visions: Yes
Jeffrey Solow: How to handle the bow is very important, and I also think vibrato is incredibly important for a string player; I don’t want to listen to someone who doesn’t have a beautiful tone.
String Visions: That is right, the quality of sound is so important.
Jeffrey Solow: I think that that is of utmost importance. I hear many people who play really, really well technically but without a beautiful tone: either the vibrato is a little bit too tight, too fast for its width, or too wide. And especially these days, ‘too wide’ is the thing, because I feel like vibratos have been getting wider and wider and wider…
String Visions: That’s true. Maybe it has to do with playing in bigger and bigger concert halls, because a wider vibrato helps projecting out in the hall.
Jeffrey Solow: I think some of it is just style, because when you listen to recordings made at the beginning of the 20th century, everybody had much narrower, faster vibrato.
String Visions: That’s true.
Jeffrey Solow: The example that I often use to show the change in style is to go on YouTube and look up a song from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Listen to the style of singing from the 1930s and then listen to a Disney movie now with say, Amy Adams, who sings beautifully, but it’s a completely different style of vibrato. When you listen to Kreisler or Thibaud the vibrato was so much more narrow and fast.
String Visions: That’s true.
Jeffrey Solow: On the cello I feel that the two people who really changed vibrato in my lifetime were Rostropovich and Lynn Harrell.
Rostropovich’s vibrato was a lot wider than Piatigorsky, Feuermann and Casals and he was the most influential cellist of the second half of the 20th century. Lynn Harrell, who has a really different take on vibrato, has been a very active teacher and also has had a huge impact on the style of cello playing.
String Visions: That’s true. Rostropich changed the image of how a cello could and should sound. I am sure many performers after Rostropovich would not have sounded the way they do if it was not for his influence. Rostropovich had a larger than life persona and I think a lot of that rubbed off on the image of what a cello is and can be. The cello nowadays is such a sexy and popular instrument. Of course, Yo Yo Ma has had an incredible influence in making the cello so accessible to many people. But from my perspective Leonard Rose had an incredible influence on cellists, especially in the US.
Jeffrey Solow: Yes, that is right, and yet I don’t find Yo-Yo—who is such a dominant figure in cello playing—has had the same impact on students and on the style of playing because he has never really taught in a school even though he has a student here and there and gives wonderful master classes. Yo-Yo has not ever really taken a large number of students to be able to have that same kind of regular and consistent influence on a school of students in the same way as Lynn Harrell, who has always been a very dedicated teacher. Harrell’s ideas on sound have influenced many players.
String Visions: Yes, I’ll never forget the first time when I heard Lynn Harrell as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. His sound was very big and projected out in Avery Fisher Hall with incredible ease.