Conversations with Steven Doane

by Tim Janof

Mr. Doane is on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music.

TJ: At what point did you decide that you would dedicate your life to music?

SD: When I was in my second year in high school, I told my parents that I wanted to train to be a professional cellist. They asked my cello teacher if he thought I would be able to make it. He said, "I don't know if he'll be another Piatigorsky, but he should be able to make a living." Of course I was disappointed that he didn't say I was going to be another Piatigorsky, but my parents were reassured.

I ended up studying with Richard Kapuscinski at Oberlin. Then I went to Stony Brook for a couple of years to study with Bernard Greenhouse. Then I had a fellowship from the Watson Foundation to go overseas. The terms of my fellowship were that I was to meet cello teachers all over Europe and to find out what they emphasized. I met Tortelier. I worked with Starker for a few weeks in Switzerland, and then I worked with Jane Cowan.

TJ: What did your teacher at Oberlin, Richard Kapuscinski, emphasize?

SD: He was a pupil of Salmond and Leonard Rose. He had played in the Boston Symphony for years. He was an absolute genius when talking about musical articulation. He never played an uninflected phrase in his life and he would never accept anything that didn't have musical direction. His technical emphases were very much influenced by Dounis, a doctor and an amateur fiddle player who was fascinated by the role of the fingers as shock absorbers during bow changes.

Kapuscinski also was an incredible human being, while I was a little bit of a cello nerd. I practiced for hours every day, ignoring what was going on in the world around me. He would drag me out of the practice room because there were peace demonstrations going on outside. He felt I needed to get involved with real life outside. Soon I felt that music was too divorced from the real world, and I thought about leaving music. So he encouraged me to take a biology course. But I soon discovered that biology was not a strong area for me and I returned to music.

TJ: Then you went to study with Bernard Greenhouse.

SD: He was mostly a great model for me. I would listen to him play and I would try to absorb it by osmosis. He was an excellent teacher, but I was mostly influenced by his sound and by watching him play. At the time he was often on tour with the Beaux Arts Trio so I had to grab him between tours. I couldn't make the sound he made, but I sure tried to figure out how he did it. He emphasized the notion of walking from finger to finger in the left hand.

TJ: And then Starker.

SD: He certainly showed me what was wrong. He made it very clear what the issues were in string playing and how I had to solve them. It was very interesting having him for that three week period where we had master classes everyday. He made me play a lot, everyday for 15 or 20 minutes. It was terrifying and I became more and more nervous as the classes wore on. I carried away from that encounter an agenda for my own study, and I knew that the rest of the year had to be spent dealing with it.

Then I met Steven Isserlis. He was 17 years old at the time and was an incredible player even then. I was fascinated by his style because it was so different from anything I had heard before. He invited me to stay with his family and took me to his teacher, Jane Cowan. She ran the International Cello Center in Scotland. I think that it was started by Maurice Eisenberg and that Casals was the honorary president. She had studied with Feuermann and was a friend of Casals. I had the great fortune of experiencing the amazing musical heritage she embodied..

She taught from her home in the Scottish Borders. There were about eight of us studying with her on an intensive basis for two months at a time. We didn't just have cello lessons, though. She had to teach enough subjects so that the younger students would be prepared to take the university entrance exams. Her husband, who is a wonderful organist, taught math, theory, and piano while she taught European history, languages, and cello. It was a totally absorbing environment and a little eccentric. At that time, I was a slightly disillusioned American graduate student looking for a different approach. I certainly found it there.

TJ: Who were your cello idols when you were growing up?

SD: I was a huge fan of Casals. I bought as many recordings as I could get. I was also very much influenced by Rostropovich. He was the amazing emerging talent at the time. And of course there was Starker, Rose, and Fournier.

I listened to a lot of records when I was young. I tried to steal fingerings off the records, which you can do if you listen hard enough, except with Feuermann. Feuermann was so technically clean and quick that it was difficult to discern his fingerings. But Casals did us a favor in a way by recording when he was older. He slowed down a bit so you could hear the finger connections and therefore his fingerings.

TJ: Early in your career, you entered competitions such as the Tchaikovsky competition in 1974. What did you have to play?

SD: In the first round we had to play Popper Etude #33, a Bach Suite (4,5, or 6), and a contemporary piece by a composer of our country of origin. The second round was more Sonata oriented. We also had to play Tchaikovsky Pezzo Capricioso and a set piece that we could choose from two options; I chose one by Kabalevsky. The final round required two concertos with orchestra. I chose the Dvorak and Rococo Variations. Between the two concertos we were given only two minutes to get a drink of water. The whole thing happened in front of a live audience and was televised from beginning to end. It was a bit terrifying, like suddenly finding oneself in the middle of the Olympics.

I originally went on a dare from my friends. My friends wanted me to have a goal and they encouraged me to do it. So I prepared the first two rounds as well as I could, figuring I would never make it to the finals. When I got to the final round, I had only three days to get my concertos in shape. I really blew it. I should have been playing them all along.

TJ: Who was on the jury?

SD: Leonard Rose and Daniel Shafran were the two big names. Leonard Rose was very gracious. Unfortunately, it was the only time I was to have any contact with him.

The Russian cellists knew that we Americans had all been influenced by Rostropovich, who had defected to the West just a few years before. One of them took me to a mural which had a picture of the last competition. There was a picture of the table of jurists and you could just see their heads. There was a little bald head and he told me that this was the biggest picture you could find of Rostropovich in a Russian conservatory. It was his way of saying that he was banished from Russia.

TJ: Have you been a juror for competitions?

SD: No. And I don't have an ambition to either.

TJ: Why not?

SD: Competitions, if entered in the wrong spirit, can have a terribly destructive affect. If I enter a student in a competition I make a very big point that he or she is only doing this for the experience. Even if you play beautifully, it doesn't mean you will get a prize. The jury can be biased. Or a player might win a competition largely because he doesn't offend anybody.

Sometimes the greatest talents don't come through in the top prizes. I'll never forget Andras Schiff getting fifth prize in that competition. The audience was crazy about him. And in the final concert they wouldn't let him off stage. He had to play five encores, playing one Scarlatti sonata after another, each one more beautiful than the previous. And he only received fifth prize!

TJ: Do you have themes in your own teaching?

SD: I want my students to be healthy cellists first and foremost. Then I want them to be thinking musicians. I am more interested in a student that comes with something to say musically but is terribly awkward technically. I far prefer to teach somebody with a musical instinct than somebody who is a glib instrumentalist and has nothing to say. There are too many of those out there anyway. Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle, but I'm intrigued by trying to help people make the physical process easier.

TJ: Can musicality be taught?

SD: Musicality can't be taught but it can be developed. You can teach a student to play intelligently, but if somebody doesn't have music in their soul, you can't insert it surgically.

TJ: What are some common problems of students?

SD: There is a tendency in modern string playing and in students to not recognize the difference between legato and portato. An awful lot of students don't play legato and don't understand what it sounds like or feels like to really create a legato line. One has to teach facility, but one also has to teach how to make a musical line.

TJ: So you use technique to serve the music.

SD: I would hope so. When most students get to school, they're manic about getting technical command of the cello. In a lot of instances, I have to spend the first two years getting technical issues sorted out. But in the third year, I start expanding from that foundation. Then the biggest job is to teach them musical responsibility, that they have to make choices that are actually going to make sense, and that they have to be accountable for these choices. It's very dangerous to say "Here are the fingerings and bowings. Now go practice them and come back next week." You have to cut them loose from that and let them make their own mistakes.

I have a couple of students who I must insist that they not play a note until they figure out exactly where they want the phrase to go. I do this because very often the musical shape determines the technical solution. If you use only a technical formula to solve a problem, the audience can always hear it. Jane Cowan used to talk about the transcendental technique, the technique that isn't noticed because you're just listening to music. I can't know how to teach that perfectly, but I'm certainly trying.

A good technique is one that is infinitely flexible as well. The basics have to be in place and then you have to take them, just like primary colors, and be able to make any effect you like. For instance, if you have really fluid bow technique, you should be able to make any sound the ear demands.

TJ: When you're studying a piece should you listen to recordings?

SD: Dangerous. A lot of people listen to one recording and try to imitate it. And when they come into the studio I say, "Now you're distorting a distortion." Because everybody's performance is filtered through their own personality, it could be regarded as a distortion of the text. If you take another person's interpretation as a model, it's bad. You should start from the source again, from the score, and come up with your own reading.

I hate this business of "what record did you listen to." A piece like the Dvorak is so pulled out of shape these days that people don't think about Dvorak, but how so and so played it, which is rubbish. How do you come up with your own interpretation if you do that? It's like the game called "telephone" where one person says something and passes it on the next person, who in turn passes it on to the next person, and so on. At the end of the circle, the message is completely distorted. That's what can happen to music if you use only recordings as your model.

TJ: What is your own practice routine?

SD: I have certain basic exercises I have to do everyday to stay in shape. Scales, flexibility exercises, a bowing routine, etc. I have a big handout that I give all my students that has different warm-ups. I also try to talk to them about intelligent use of practice time. You've got to have a good warm-up routine to maintain your flexibility and to keep you in touch with your intonation and your sound. Then I follow that with work on passages that I find tricky for technical work. After a break, I work on phrasing problems that I am trying to solve. I also work away from the instrument, using musical imagination by taking the music into the library where it's nice and quiet and looking at the whole score, or going to the piano and studying the piece at the keyboard, or just sitting somewhere and just thinking through the piece. I believe a lot of practicing takes place unconsciously between practice sessions, especially musical assimilation or "internalization."

TJ: The music business has become so saturated today that it is becoming more and more difficult to get a job in music. And yet the music schools continue to pump out musicians like a factory. Does this make sense?

SD: The good side of this is that it's going to raise the level of the orchestras in this country. It's going to hopefully raise the level of music teaching and music playing as well. But unless the students are trained to be very flexible and to have a number of different career paths possible to them, and maybe be willing to pursue two or three of them at once, they're going to be very hungry. It's really important for us to stress diversification.

The big job right now is to build an audience because there's a whole generation that has lost the message of classical music. We must get into the schools and involve kids at an early age with music. I think everybody that's involved with an instrument is going to have to be involved in teaching. We must be responsible musical citizens. This doesn't mean you have to spend all your time doing it, but there has to be some teaching or some outreach activity.

TJ: Is there such thing as a wrong interpretation?

SD: I would say the only interpretation you could say was wrong is one where there is a blatant disregard of the text. If somebody ignores tempo markings, articulation indications, and dynamic markings, showing a real carelessness for these elements, and if it's obvious that the performer comes first and the composer comes second, then his or her interpretation shouldn't even be dignified by the term "interpretation."

Of course, there can still be many beautiful and valid interpretations that are very different from each other. If there is a sincere attempt on the musician's part to recreate a piece as closely as what he or she feels is the spirit of the text, then that's great, and any differences are honest and sincere. I just hate carelessness. If a student plays for me and is obviously thinking about playing the cello and hasn't thought about the composer, then he or she gets a lecture.

TJ: Do you have any general principles when you play the Bach Suites?

SD: Use an edition as close to the manuscript as you can. The Magdalena manuscript has its flaws because of the haste in which is was made, but it's still the best we've got. The violinists are lucky because they have the autograph for their Bach solo works.

It has become a really complicated issue to work on the Bach Suites. Some of the students come in with a very romanticized idea of how to play them. I don't want to take away the feeling that they're bringing to them, but I do want them to hear it with different ears, with sort of 18th century ears. This is hard sometimes, and there's a tremendous amount of resistance to do that. But some of the early music performing that's going on today is so vital and so vibrant that we can't ignore it. It would be silly to not pay attention to it; we can't be ostriches.

I always want Bach to be red-blooded, not just scholarly. Scholarly information, if used with imagination and insight, can contribute to an incredibly exciting performance. There's a wealth of information about articulation; how to handle cadences, and how to make phrasing using articulation for emphasis instead of just trying to do a melodic or "romantic" phrase. I think that because of what's going on in the early music movement, my own ideas are constantly evolving, which is really exciting. We can't take anything for granted anymore.


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