Interview by Tim Janof, International Cello Society
TJ: You studied with Nell Novak for 10 years until your studies with Rostropovich. Did she basically establish the technique that you have today?
WW: Yes, though not using traditional methods. She didn't emphasize the study of scales or etudes, like Popper, Piatti, or other standard technical exercises, though they were used occasionally. For the most part, she taught technique through progressively more difficult pieces -- Haydn C, Boccherini, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, and so forth.
This reminds me of my audition at Curtis when I was 17. I knew they might ask me to play a scale, and I didn’t know any, so I spent more time practicing scales than practicing my pieces! Fortunately, they let me choose which scale to play; I chose a two-octave C major, starting on the C string.
TJ: Did she trick you into practicing scales by having you practice measure 30 and 31 of the Schumann Concerto, for instance (see Example 1)?
Example 1 - Schumann Concerto -- First Movement
WW: I suppose so. When a technical problem came up, we would stop and discuss why the particular passage was difficult and then share ideas on how to fix it. Just understanding why something is difficult can be half the battle.
TJ: How can one gain familiarity with the fingerboard's geography without practicing scales (including thirds, sixths, double stops, arpeggios, etc.)? Did you just learn your music note by note, not worrying about the spatial relationship between different notes on the fingerboard?
WW: I think I learned to recognize finger patterns and note groupings. The key is to find fingerings that fit the patterns in the music and that accomplish your musical goals. You must also listen objectively to how you sound so that you can fix things that aren't quite right.
I'm not sure I believe in working on technique separate from the music. After all, if the whole point of all technical work is to play music, why not just master the music instead of cold exercises, learning technique in the context of the music instead? I do not suggest that people stop practicing scales, but, for whatever reason, I survived just fine without them, though it is possible that I could have learned my music more quickly if I had studied them. Besides, being able to play scales well doesn't necessarily mean that you have a solid technique; it only means that you can play scales well. Though playing them certainly can't hurt, even they wouldn't be of much help in certain passages, like in the Barber Concerto.
TJ: Let's say that you are playing E with your first finger on the A string ("fourth" position) and that you need to shift an octave higher to play E with the third finger. How do you mentally prepare yourself for this shift? Do you just play it repeatedly in practice sessions until you master it? Do you note that your thumb will be on B when you play the upper E?
WW: I try not to think about how I do something technically. I freeze up if get too analytical, particularly in performance. Having said this, part of the secret is to have fast ears, not fast fingers. You have to hear the note before you actually play it. Athletes use this visualization technique too.
I also find that the placement of the bow can affect the execution of the shift, so I make sure that my bow is where I need it. For instance, in the Dvorak Concerto, when one shifts from B to G (see Example 2), the shift becomes more risky if you are too close to the tip and you shift too slowly. In this case, the bow has to be more concentrated and slow so that the shift occurs earlier in the bow stroke.
Example 2 - Dvorak Concerto, First Movement -- Five measures after Number 5 (International Edition)
If there is a stubborn technical problem, you need to stop and ask yourself why the passage is difficult, like I mentioned earlier. In the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto (see Example 3), for instance, those sixths are not hard because of the sixths at all. They're hard because of the sevenths, which are difficult to hear accurately. Stopping to think about why something is difficult will save you lots of time.
Example 3 - Dvorak Concerto, First Movement -- 10 measures after #11 (International Edition)
It is also very helpful to practice passages in your mind, away from the cello. This works well because you are preparing your mind ahead of time for the coming task without the distractions of the physical aspects of cello playing. If you don't, you have to figure out too many things at the same time -- what the notes are, what fingerings to use, what bowings to use, what sound you want, how you want to phrase, and then how to put all this together. Sorting out some of these issues in your mind ahead of time allows you to focus your energy on the ones that are more difficult or more engaging when it's time to pick up the cello. Visualizing your musical goal and how it would feel if it were easy is a great learning tool.
Perhaps the most important thing is to find a musical solution to a technical problem. Let the music show you what to do. You could practice a passage over and over again and never get it right, unless you have a clear concept of how you want the music to sound, like how you want to shape the phrase. Technical details can become so overwhelming that one's musical concept is buried by the frustration of obsessive practicing. Taking a step back and "visualizing" the music can release the tension to the point that the problem solves itself.
TJ: Getting back to Nell Novak, is she fairly non-mannered in her musical approach?
WW: She is completely non-mannered and open-minded. She doesn't have preconceived notions about how things should be played, so she is comfortable with allowing each of her students to develop their own personality and musical style. She constantly sings in lessons with her beautiful voice and does so with such natural phrasing. I'm so grateful to have had her as a teacher. I don't think I could have studied with Rostropovich if I hadn't studied with her first. Rostropovich is so imposing in his musical ideas, expecting you to play everything exactly the way he wants it, that I'm not sure that I would have been able to develop my own personality.
TJ: Speaking of Rostropovich, he almost always teaches from the piano in master classes. Does he do the same thing in private lessons?
WW: He's exactly the same in private lessons.
TJ: Did he ever demonstrate on the cello how to do something technically?
WW: The only technical issue I remember him discussing was something about sustaining all the way to the tip, though he didn't tell me how to do it. He just mentioned that I needed to do it and then it was up to me to figure out how.
He doesn't like to teach technique, and he doesn't believe in imposing his technical habits on his students, which is why he almost always teaches from the piano. He's particularly sensitive about this issue because of his frustrations with his own father's teaching style (his father was a professional cellist), which was fairly dictatorial, technically speaking. He doesn't want his students to merely imitate him.
TJ: Was this a source of frustration for you, or had you already established your technique by the time you studied with him?
WW: My technique was pretty solid at that point, so I went to him for musical ideas, not technical help. I should also mention that I studied with Glenn Garlick, Associate Principal cellist of the National Symphony, while Rostropovich was away on tour. I only had 10 or so lessons per year with Rostropovich from age 16 to 22, so Glenn coached me during Rostropovich's absence. Glenn would sit in the lessons with Rostropovich and I and take notes. Then we'd discuss the lessons afterward.
TJ: Did Glenn Garlick merely attempt to convey Rostropovich's teachings or did he interject his own ideas as well?
WW: Once in awhile he would. He certainly has a wonderful imagination, which really came through when I played Britten and Lutoslawski for him. Perhaps he could have shared more of his own ideas, but I think he may have felt that it was his responsibility to act more as a conduit between Rostropovich and I, rather than as my teacher.
TJ: Did Rostropovich encourage you to play to the audience when performing, or was it alright to lose yourself in the music?
WW: He definitely wanted me to be aware of drawing the audience into the performance. He didn't necessarily talk about it in terms of playing loudly, since you can draw the audience while playing softly too. You just have to make the audience wait for you and make them want to listen.
He also said that sometimes it's more effective to play for yourself. He thinks of the Bach d minor Sarabande, for instance, as a private prayer. He finds that the audience can be drawn in with this soulful movement just as effectively as when he is playing in an extroverted and expressive manner.
TJ: Rostropovich's recorded d minor Sarabande lasts over six minutes (longer than most other recorded versions by at least one minute), while Baroque players' version, like Anner Bylsma's, lasts between three and four minutes. Is it possible that the "prayer-like" aspects of this movement are exaggerated?
WW: Some people consider Rostropovich's Bach to be on the slow side at times.
TJ: How slow is appropriate? Is it acceptable to play the Sarabande so slowly that one hears the music in six (eighth notes) instead of in three (quarter notes)?
WW: If you feel it with the utmost conviction, then sure. The way he talked about Bach in his 1995 EMI videotapes was so beautiful and so heartfelt that I couldn't help but be swept up by his ideas; I learned so much from them. Whatever he does sounds so convincing that it's hard to disagree with him, at least while he's playing or talking. Yes, his Allemande from the Sixth Suite is on the slow side, but when you watch him sit down and play it on the pipe organ, and you see where he gets his concept from, it sounds so beautiful and makes so much sense. After seeing that tape, I could imagine playing Bach his way.
TJ: Rostropovich is known for his "big sound." Do you try to emulate this?
WW: People used to say that they could tell I was a Rostropovich student because they could hear his influence on my sound. This used to bother me because I was quite sure that my concept differed from his, though of course I love his sound. You can't really tell a student what their sound needs to be like, since everybody has their own voice. The best you can do is help to bring out what is already inside the student.
From a young age, long before I studied with him, I had my own idea of what sound I wanted to create with my cello. I don't know that I can define it, but I'm sure I've had it for many years. I think I developed it when I realized that I could really sing through my cello. With the cello, there is a direct translation between how I sing in my head and how I use my bow and left hand. I am also a pianist, but I have found that I can't sing with it as naturally.
It is entirely possible that Rostropovich affected my sound, but I don't think this was his main influence. More importantly, he helped me to find myself, and he brought out the best in me. He used all of his imaginative powers to inspire me to attempt to transcend the cello and to try to create something really special with the music. He encouraged me to be more than just a good cellist, and he tried to raise me to an entirely different level -- to become a musician.
TJ: In master classes, Rostropovich explains the music through the use of copious amounts of imagery. Do you use this approach when you are performing? Or do you just say to yourself, for example, that you want a passage to be intense, rather than picturing a tax collector knocking on your door, an image he once used for a passage in the Beethoven C Major Sonata.
WW: I wouldn't say I use imagery all that often, though occasionally I write poetry about the music I play. I guess I have a bizarre image for the third movement of the Brahms Double Concerto -- chubby elves dancing (powerful but not overwhelming).
I do take some images with me from my years with Rostropovich. For example, he once spoke for 20 minutes about the first note of Schelomo (see Example 4). He described this beautiful act by Marcel Marceau, the pantomime artist, where he portrayed an infant in the beginning, all crumpled up. Then he grew up into an adult. Then, towards then end of the act, he assumed the position of an infant again, but this time he was near death. This is what the first note of Schelomo should describe -- an entire lifetime. I am still amazed at how this beautiful image came out Rostropovich's mind, almost out of nowhere. I'm not sure if this is how I envision this note anymore, but it inspired me to do my own exploring later.
Example 4 - Schelomo -- Opening
I generally don't experience music in terms of pictures; I experience it more in terms of feelings and tone colors. If an image does come to me, it comes from trying to clarify the feeling of a certain passage, like whether it is joyous, witty, expansive, dark, and so on. I try to determine the emotion of each musical moment and then figure out how I might communicate it with my cello. Because I operate more on this non-verbal level, I find it difficult to even discuss what I do. Words can't do justice to the feelings that are in the music.
I'm not overly analytical, though I'm not sure how much one can separate thinking and feeling to begin with. Yes, I think about how I want to shape phrases and how I want to bring out certain nuances in the music, but I don't dissect a piece to the point that it loses its sense of continuity. I do think it's important to be familiar with the history of pieces I play and to be conscious of the performance-practice issues associated with each era. But, at a certain point, I fall back on what I think the music is trying to say. Intellectualizing music only gets you so far if you aren't able to communicate the soul and fantasy of the music.
TJ: Let's take the opening cello phrase of the Haydn D Major Concerto as an example. I haven't decided what the character of this phrase is. The chromatics give it a tender feeling and yet it also seems very joyous, especially with that opening major tenth. I'm often surprised by how extroverted the piece seems when I hear it performed live. How do you view this phrase? (see Example 5)
Example 5 - Haydn D Major Concerto, First Movement
WW: I like your "tender" idea, but I also think of it as bursting with joy and very witty. Perhaps it's all of these together.
I try to strike a balance when I play the Haydn D. I try to not be overindulgent with it, and I try to phrase with long lines, while still attending to the smaller moments within each phrase. One of the great challenges of this piece is finding a good balance between passion and purity.
TJ: Do you find that you occasionally get carried away with your emotional experience of the music?
WW: I try to keep myself in check. It's impossible not to be affected by the emotions within the music, but you have to maintain some objectivity as a performer. If you become overwhelmed by the beauty of the Haydn D Major Concerto to the point that you start playing it like it's Dvorak, you've probably crossed some line. Losing control of your emotions isn't appropriate if you are a performer, since you rob the audience members of their own experience by distracting them with your own emotional display. If you start crying on stage, you know you've gone way too far.
On the other hand, the Schumann Concerto is a piece that doesn't suffer from an excess of emotion, particularly in the first movement, which is so rhapsodic. You have to find a way to create convincing rubatos in this piece or else it can sound sterile. The rubatos have to be logical and must not detract from the structure of the piece, and they can't sound like they exist unto themselves. The trick is, again, to find the balance between being too self-indulgent and being too straight.
TJ: If you're not overly analytical and you're not visual, and you find it difficult to articulate the feelings you perceive in the music you play, then what do you talk about in master classes?
WW: It depends on the student. If a student clearly needs technical help, I will focus on technique, since talking about the music isn't going to be very helpful until the student has the technique to achieve his or her musical goals. If a student is technically solid, then I spend the time talking about musical issues.
One example that comes to mind is a student who played the Elgar Concerto. The first theme is stated four times and the student played it the same way each time (see Example 6). So we talked about how each statement of the theme could be played. The first time (Number 2) could be played with a sense of yearning and searching. The second time (at Number 6) may be about mourning. The third time (at Number 14) encompasses the previous emotions, though it might have a hint of gradual acceptance. The fourth time (at Number 17) could be about resignation and resolution. Once we established this musical/emotional structure, we discussed how to achieve these characters in terms of colors and various nuances.
Example 6 - Elgar Concerto
TJ: Do you think in terms of masculine and feminine in the music?
WW: Sometimes, yes, like in Brahms Double Concerto. I think of the second movement as the interplay between masculine (cello) and feminine (violin).
TJ: I heard you play in recital about 10 years ago. Your playing has changed remarkably since then. The one memory that has stayed with me from that recital is your use of dynamics. You seemed to have consciously chosen where the quiet parts were and where the loud parts were and you stayed within these dynamics in a way that seemed a little forced. You seem like a much more integrated player now. What has changed?
WW: I have changed since then, and my playing has changed as I have grown as a person. At that time I was dealing with the pressure of being the much-touted former student of Rostropovich and I was struggling with self-confidence. I don't think I ever doubted myself from ages 16 to 21, when I was his student. Suddenly, Rostropovich was no longer around and I really started to question my abilities. I wondered if I could live up to the expectations of the music community and if I would be able to communicate emotionally with my cello. I went from being very extroverted to being more detached and withdrawn, which you must have sensed in my playing during that recital.
Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better for me not to study with Rostropovich, which I know sounds terrible. Being his former student is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, he helped me tremendously. On the other hand, I feel like people are thinking, "Now that you've stopped your studies with Rostropovich, what are you going to do?" The question, "Now what?" used to haunt me. I'm starting to realize that I don't have to listen to these voices and that I can create my own reality. I just have to believe in myself.
Rostropovich brought out the best in me when I was with him. In some ways I feel like I've never played better. He brought the music to life and I felt transformed by him and by the music. My playing reflected my excitement about life, and I was more spontaneous and carefree; I played with wonderful abandon. Now my playing is more reflective.
TJ: Rostropovich stresses the importance of "fantasy" and maximizing the use of one's creative resources when playing. Casals, on the other hand, used to say, "Fantasy as much as you like, but with order." It seems that these two cello giants may differ in how much "fantasy" is appropriate.
WW: Rostropovich used to criticize me for the very things that he used to do. He used to tell me not to play Schelomo so indulgently -- the music has to come first. Then I found this Schelomo recording of his with the "USSR Radio and Television Large Symphony Orchestra" where he is all over the place rhythmically. If I played like that in a lesson, he'd kill me!
TJ: My impression is that this was not an isolated incident. I've heard recordings of his where he distorts the rhythm to the point that he is as noticeable as the music.
WW: This may seem strange, but I think he does this when he feels insecure about the music he's playing. I realize it may be hard to believe that someone as limitless as he would be insecure about anything, but I think I may be onto something. When he plays repertoire about which he doesn't feel totally convinced, I think he exaggerates out of fear that the music can't stand on its own merits. For instance, he told me that he doesn't play the Elgar because he doesn't feel that he can do justice to it. Believe it or not, he doesn't think that it's a good piece or that it's profound music.
TJ: How is your career progressing?
WW: Pretty well. I play about 40 concerts per year, which I hope to boost to about 70. I could probably get more concerts if I were better at networking. I don't want to play much more than 70 concerts because I would like to lead a fairly balanced life. The life of a soloist can be difficult, going from hotel to hotel, often away from home for two months at a time, and not knowing anybody. I want time to practice and to enjoy other aspects of life too.
I am also reconsidering what the phrase "having a career" means. If I judge my success by comparing my career with Yo-Yo Ma's, I would probably never be satisfied with my life, and what kind of life would that be? As you saw in the World Cello Congress, there are many great cellists in the world, but there is only one cellist that has a truly international career -- Yo-Yo. I loved the sense of appreciation that I got from the World Cello Congress, but it's totally different out in the "real world," where the average concertgoer has never heard, nor particularly cares for, the Barber Concerto, and may prefer to hear a piano or violin soloist instead.