An Internet Cello Society Exclusive Interview!

Cellist Irene Sharp has been acclaimed internationally for her teaching. She has given master classes for the American String Teachers Association (ASTA), the European String Teachers Association, the Australian String Teachers Association, and the Suzuki Association of America. Although based in Northern California, Ms. Sharp has worked with students in cities such as New York, London, Salzburg, Hamburg, Sydney, Tokyo, and Taipei. Currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music, she has also served on the faculty of the Meadowmount School for Strings, the Bowdoin (Maine) Summer Music Festival, and Indiana University's String Academy. Ms. Sharp is Artistic Director of California Summer Music, a festival for young string players, pianists, and composers ages 12 to 23 held at Pebble Beach, California. She has been an invited speaker at the national meetings of the Music Teachers' National Association and the Music Educators' National Conference, and has given numerous teacher workshops worldwide. In l992, Ms. Sharp received an award for her teaching from ASTA. She collaborated with the late Margaret Rowell, and performed in Pablo Casals' master class in Berkeley, California. In mid June 1998, Ms. Sharp will conduct the Irene Sharp Cello Seminar at Mannes College of Music.

TJ: Do you think that it's crucial that a teacher be a good cellist in order to be good at teaching the cello?

IS: That depends on how you define "good." The most effective teaching is done by someone who is herself actively playing, because that's the way one learns. Technique isn't something that one can just learn and finish. It keeps growing as you use it over the years. I do think it's crucial that a teacher continues to practice and perform.

TJ: Does one need to be a virtuoso in order to be a great teacher?

IS: No, but teachers need to know the technical and musical principles that create a virtuoso. You don't develop this understanding unless you're both an active musician and teacher of all levels of students.

TJ: Do you think that there is such thing as a student with no talent for an instrument?

IS: No. If a student is able to speak and also has a desire to make music with a cello, that's all he or she needs. The ability to speak a language proves that students can already use their ear in a certain way.

TJ: Do you think that there's such thing as a person with no sense of pulse?

IS: No. Pulse is a core part of our being. We all have a heartbeat, which we can sense going faster when we need more oxygen and going slower when we need less. We all live rhythmically, so I just build on that idea. I think that rhythm is more a matter of raising the student's awareness, rather than having talent. Everybody has an innate sense of pulse, whether they know it or not. Playing a musically independent part with another instrument from the earliest stages develops this skill.

TJ: Let's say somebody comes to you who seems to struggle rhythmically. What do you do to help them? Are there exercises for this?

IS: There are many ways to go about it. I often discuss the mathematics of the rhythm so that they get an intellectual grasp of the note patterns, and I encourage students to listen to a recording of the piece so that they get a feel for the music. I also accompany students at the piano, which raises their awareness of the beat and helps them to control their rhythmic impulses. Music is the best teacher available. The best exercise isn't going to give you the variety of rhythms that real pieces of music do. I think it's a matter of turning the student's ear on and ascertaining whether the student knows about note values. A sense of rhythm is a skill that can definitely be taught.

TJ: Do you recommend any method books or do you have your own system?

IS: I usually start with an out-of-print book called "Pathways for Young Cellists," by Olga Stuart. It's similar to a beginning piano book in that there is very little information on each page, giving the student a sense of rapid progress. Then I go through a number of method and etude books: Feuillard Method for the Young Cellist, Kummer Method, Sevcik Opus 3 Bowing Exercises, Popper High School of Cello Playing, and Piatti Caprices.

TJ: What do you like about the Feuillard?

IS: Feuillard shows the student a new position or technical problem and then provides a wonderful piece of music with which to practice it. This method book teaches everything from open strings to thumb position. It takes students a year or two to get through this book, after which they are familiar with the entire instrument. Because Feuillard uses musical examples, the students develop their musicality along with their technique.

TJ: What do you like about the Kummer method?

IS: Kummer is similar to Feuillard; however, he uses his own pleasant music with varied keys, rhythms, and bowings to enhance playing and sight-reading skills. Students enjoy it because it is musical and the examples are short. Kummer doesn't take an idea and run it into the ground.

TJ: Why do you use the Popper Etudes?

IS: Popper was a genius! He composed just at the turn of the century when music was beginning to lose a clear sense of key. His etudes are so chromatic that even a person with a fantastic ear cannot sight-read them. They serve as a valuable bridge for the study of contemporary music. The etudes really force you to learn where the notes are on the cello, and are wonderful ear training studies for cellists. You can not rely solely on your musical memory to teach you the pitch patterns in the music, you must also figure out the intervals. The etudes engage the students' mind in a way that other etudes do not. I teach around 30 of the 40 etudes, since some are not as musically satisfying as others. When I assign an etude for the next lesson, I make a video or audio recording for the student on the spot, so that they will have an idea how the etude sounds, which will save them from incorrect learning. This seems to work very well, since many of my students learn the etudes by the time they are 12 or 13 years old.

TJ: You place a lot of emphasis upon repertoire in your teaching. Do you also encourage the students to play scales and other rote exercises?

IS: My students do a lot of scale work, using a myriad of bowings and styles that they will find in the repertoire. I have them playing three octave scales within the first six months of playing the cello, because I want them to deal with the whole cello instead of just staying in the lower positions, fearing the upper positions. I vary the bowings each week, adding arpeggios, thirds, and sixths after the first year or so. After four or five years, I ask my students to promise that they'll do scales every day, even though I may not hear them each week.

TJ: What do you think of the method books commonly used in schools?

IS: I don't use them because I feel they are not geared to the needs of the cello. Cellists and violinists have different problems to solve. Although I think class teaching in schools motivates many students to play instruments, I also think that it takes individual work geared to the individual talents of the student to develop players who will enjoy music for a lifetime.

TJ: What do you think of the Suzukimethod?

IS: I think it's great, if it is taught well. The principle of learning through one's ear is invaluable, especially for young children. My students always record their lessons and listen to great cellists playing their repertoire. Suzuki developed steps that allow a violinist to play progressive pieces of the violinists' repertoire. Although I certainly use the Suzuki principles, I do not use the repertoire as it is prescribed in the Suzuki method. I concentrate on educating the brain-ear and teach the reading of music from the earliest lessons.

TJ: Some students learn quicker with an analytical approach, while others are more suited to a holistic approach. How do you adjust to these different learning styles?

IS: A teacher has to learn how to approach a problem from manydirections, since each student is unique. Some learn well visually and some aurally, and still others learn kinesthetically. It's part of the teacher's learning process to discover the strengths and weaknesses of each student and how best to help them as individuals.

TJ: You are a vital link to the teachings of the great cello teacher, Margaret Rowell. She was known for using pictures of animals which illustrated certain key concepts of cello playing in her teaching. Do you have a picture of an eagle in your studio too?

IS: I definitely have my share of pictures and other objects, including a bird that has wings that flap by pulling a string. I also have a little toy bicycle that I carry around wherever I go to demonstrate how to set a string into motion.

TJ: How does this work?

IS: Well, if you turn the bicycle upside down, you can spin the wheels with your finger. You use the fleshy part of the first finger of your right hand to make the wheel go "down bow," and your fingernail to make the wheel go "up bow." This helps give the student the feeling that they are moving the string at the actual point of bow contact, which helps focus their sound.

The bicycle analogy helps focus a student's attention on the key role of the fingers in setting the string in motion. There's a subtle finger motion in every bow stroke of a fine player, whether long or short bows, fast or slow bows, which is often neglected by players and teachers. If you only use your arm to set the bow in motion, you are using a very coarse motion, lacking in fine control, analogous to trying to write with a pencil that is tied to your elbow. Most students are conscious of their contact with the wood of the bow, since that's what they are touching when they hold it, but they are less aware of how they are contacting the string with the bow hair. Many dwell upon their arm motion or arm weight, but lose sight of the fact that the bow is merely a tool to set the string in motion. Sometimes I have a student bow while holding the hair (which I wrap in a Kleenex so that it doesn't get oily) itself rather than the wood, so that they experience how the hair actually interacts with the string.

TJ: Do you place much emphasis upon arm weight in your teaching?

IS: Not really. I don't talk about arm weight because I think the bow arm is for transportation, like legs are for walking. The legs feel light when you walk; the arms should feel light when you play the cello. This is where the analogy of the bird wings comes in to play, because it conjures up the image of lightness.
Instead of arm weight, I emphasize taking advantage of the various points of tension on a string. A string's tension varies depending upon which one is played, how close to the bridge it is bowed, and how high the left hand plays on the fingerboard. If the bow is closer to the fingerboard, the string doesn't have as much tension, so the sound has less projection. But if the bow is closer to the bridge, the string has more tension in it and the sound projects well.
Projection can also depend on the pitch of the note and the speed of the bow. For instance, for low-pitched notes to project, you can play close to the bridge with a slow bow. For high-pitched notes to project when your left hand is up high on the fingerboard, play close to the bridge with a fast bow.
So ultimately, one varies dynamics by changing the points of tension in the string. More tension can be created by using a "scooping" motion, like scooping ice cream. If one pushes down on the ice cream, which is what most people do to the cello, one can push with all one's might, but end up without much ice cream. A scooping motion that is shaped like a big smile, will result in more ice cream. When playing the cello, the player should not be pushing down on the string. In actuality, it is better to make it bulge down towards the cello top without directly pushing down on the string. For instance, on a down bow, you make a smiling (arc) shape to your right. Deeper arcs give you more sound and shallower ones give you less.

TJ: Does this "scoop" (arc) manifest itself in the bow moving down towards the bridge and then coming back up?

IS: No. It is used to coax the string to vibrate.

TJ: How is the "scoop" (arc) created, by using more pressure?

IS: No. "Pressure" is a dangerous word. The trouble with pressure is that the downward pressure exerted by the player actually inhibits the string's vibration.

TJ: Is the "scoop" visible?

IS: No, it's not. To the listener it will look as if a straight bow was drawn, but to the player it is a tactilesensation. It's hard to explain without showing it on the cello, but my approach takes advantage of the energy that is already present in the string, since it is already under tension by virtue of being strung up on the cello. For example, when you play close to the bridge, you hardly have to exert any energy to make a sound. The idea is to tap into the inherent properties of the string, matching the bow speed with the string's natural vibration, which varies depending on the tension point of the string.

TJ: Does the left hand play a key role in sound production?

IS: It plays a very important role. Depending on one's left hand technique, the player can either deaden the string vibration and therefore the sound quality, or allow the string to vibrate more freely therefore increasing projection. If the left hand allows the string to vibrate freely, the bow can more easily do its job. As with the bow, most people do the seemingly logical thing, which is to push the string down on the fingerboard. Unfortunately, this dulls the sound and locks the finger joints. If you push the string down you have neither flexibility nor speed, because you have to stiffen your joints. My left hand approaches the "right side" of the string as if I were going to cling to a monkey bar. I pull the string to the fingerboard and towards the center of my body. My finger joints remain flexible even though I have the string down. If one does this efficiently, the string can vibrate freely and therefore enhance projection.

TJ: How do you teach vibrato? Many teachers struggle with this.

IS: Vibrato is the proof that the left hand is working properly. If the fingers cling to the string and the arm is light and can move easily, the vibrato will be artistic. My beginners do imaginary shifting all over the fingerboard. This is a vibrato exercise in disguise. I find if I can achieve a flexible left hand, then I really don't have to actively teach the vibrato, because it develops as a result of a balanced hand and arm. The left arm is in charge of shifting and vibrato (moving the fingers where they can operate). The fingers do not shift and conversely the arm does not hold the string down.

TJ: Victor Sazer, author of New Directions in Cello Playing, advocates a way to hold the cello that is very different from the famous "bear hug" position advocated by Margaret Rowell and yourself, where the cellist must be able to hug the cello when sitting. The bear hug aligns the cello more with center of the body, whereas Victor Sazer advocates placing the cello significantly to the left. What do you think about his idea?

IS: The "bear hug" automatically positions the cello in a way that feels comfortable for people of most shapes and sizes. It also gives you a sense of the energy that comes from the back, which one uses for playing.

TJ: Students come in all personality types. Some are more introverted and some are more extroverted. Some are more analytical, and some are more intuitive in their approach. How do you, for example, bring out the personalities of the more introverted or analytical types?

IS: I try to help each student, no matter what personality type, to intuit what the composer had in mind, and by talking about important chords or how moods are created by different note values and dynamics. I discuss the history of a work, like the Elgar concerto, describing what it tries to convey and what the time period was like in which it was written. Whether a person is an extrovert or an introvert, they become a part of the experience of making the piece theirs, and responding to it as they will. The cellist is like an actor who speaks the playwrights' words, presenting the "play" to the best of their ability. Everyone has internal experiences of many different kinds, so a teacher must try to tap into a student's own experience. In the Beethoven A Major Sonata, for instance, which I interpret as a very sunny work, I usually ask the student to visualize beautiful woods with the sun beaming through the trees. A teacher has to excite a student with an experience that they can relate to, regardless of personality type.

TJ: Do you encourage your students to play in an orchestra while studying with you? Or do you think orchestral playing can lead to sloppy habits?

IS: I don't let a student audition for an orchestra until good playing habits are established. Sloppy habits sometimes creep in afterwards, but it is my job to catch and fix them. I enthusiastically encourage my students to play in an orchestra once they have sufficient technique. It's wonderful to be able to play a great symphony and to experience the music as part of a larger instrument, the orchestra. I also greatly encourage them to play chamber music.

TJ: Do you tend to dictate musical interpretations, or do you give your students a lot of latitude?

IS: As a young teacher, I thought that if I taught the person the technical wherewithal to play a piece, they could automatically play it in a musical way. I have since discovered that this is not the case. People often don't listen to enough music, or don't go to enough live concerts, so they don't have enough exposure to the difficult language of music. Now I work through a piece and try to show them, not how to do a phrase, but how to find a high point of a phrase, or how to find the emotional content of a certain section. If I am successful, they take off from there and do their own thing. But most need the initial guidance.

TJ: How do you reveal the emotional depth of a work to a student who may not be able to relate to its emotional content due to lack of life experience or youth? For instance, how do you instill the emotional mood swings of a Beethoven sonata?

IS: Even the most immature student has had a myriad of emotions that they know very well. In fact, the older we get, the more we tend to hide our emotions, so the younger students have an emotional advantage in a way. I think success lies in helping the student access the emotions that are already within them.

TJ: Do you encourage your students to listen to recordings?

IS: Yes. Definitely.

TJ: And you're not concerned about them imitating the recording, rather than developing their own interpretation?

IS: Oh dear, wouldn't it be terrible if somebody came out sounding like Rostropovich or Casals?! We learn many important things in life by imitation. For example, we learn to talk by listening to our parents and imitating them, but we don't put words together just like they do, we formulate our own ideas. Music is a language too, so I think imitation is an important step in the learning process. And why not see how great artists solved the same problems that we face? Besides, I think it's nearly impossible for a child to come out sounding like someone else. In my opinion, this issue is way overblown.

TJ: What do you do when a child is forced to play the cello by their parents?

IS: I won't teach a child in this situation. My students need to demonstrate that they basically like to play the instrument, even though there may be times when they don't want to practice. I'm not looking for four and five year olds that have "talent," since I think everybody has talent. But if I sense that a child just hates playing, then I won't teach him or her. A more difficult problem is when parents want to market their child. I have to treat this situation very carefully, since I see it as my role to nurture a child's pure love of music making, a goal that can conflict with the parents' ambitions.

TJ: Do you encourage students to go into the music profession?

IS: That's not my job. My job is to make the most of the profound gift that parents give their children, the opportunity to learn to play an instrument and to make beautiful music. I hope that my students choose to make music a part of their lives, whether as a professional or as a devoted amateur. If a student wants to become a professional, I think that's great, and if they don't, that's fine too. I just know that music has been a wonderful gift in my life, and that I wouldn't give it up for anything.


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