Posts filed under:  Teaching ‘N Learning

The Breath of Life, Through Lynn Harrell’s Cello

Cellist extraordinaire Lynn Harrell teaching Samuel Walter in a memorable masterclass at Haverford College

Cellist Lynn Harrell plays with such ease, it’s as if the bow he holds in his right hand is a natural extension of his body.  I’ve seen only two or three other artists play with this same degree of relaxed command. In a concert and masterclass he gave last fall at Haverford College, he revealed his secrets to that physical ease, and to his approach to music.

One of the keys to his playing stems from a sense of timing tied to breath. In his playing of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C, he achieved a mixture of sonic plushness and suspense, in phrasing that was completely unpredictable, yet utterly inevitable. Listening to him play Bach is like being in conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with, and they’re about to tell you something fascinating and brand-new. After hearing Lynn Harrell’s Bach, I’ve decided that Bach should always be played with that kind of freedom. In the Debussy Cello Sonata that followed, in which he was admirably joined by the impressive and sensitive pianist Pauline Yang, he achieved a huge array of color and a sense of un-boxed-in release that left his audience enchanted.

Over dinner after the concert, he attributed his sense of breath and timing to his father, the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died when Lynn was only 15, but from whom he still draws inspiration. During a masterclass Lynn gave immediately afterward, he reiterated the importance of breathing, of singing, when playing an instrument, so:

“I knew that man once,” he sang, to demonstrate a phrase from the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, for a student group. “I KNEW that man once,” he said, emphasizing a different part of the sentence — and then, with a sense of resolution: “He was a lovely man.”

Equally important to timing is knowing how to handle sound production.

Forte does not mean loud,” he said. “It means strong. It has nothing to do with volume, but more with a feeling of effort. In fact, piano and forte dynamics are quite close together in volume, but different in texture.

Piano is soft in texture, like the fur muff that Mimi’s friend Musetta brings to her in the final act of La Bohème. ‘O, piano, piano,’ Mimi sings.

Mezzo-piano is a little more muscular. Forte-piano, fp, means a normal volume of communication. Poco forte is Brahms’ invention, and the abbreviation, pf, means full-bodied and singing. When you see pp, pianissimo, don’t play less loud necessarily, play more voluptuously and use more bow.”

“Because of the thickness of the parts in Brahms’ early writing, you have to bring out some voices and back off in others. For instance, when the second viola plays off-beats in the first movement, compact the rosin granules in the bow, play a little more detached and accentuated. It should sound like a burr or a thorn in your side, against the sweet and charming melody.

“And where there is an important melody to be heard, even if it’s marked ‘p‘, the listener needs to hear it — go to it, be a bull in a China shop.

Lynn complimented student Samuel Walter in his performance of the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but had plenty to offer; first, “sculpt out the strings” to give the opening statement more bite and definition, but in the lyrical second theme, “release the pressure, as if you are cuddling or petting a kitten. In virtuoso passages, be pointed rhythmically, and use an intense and faster vibrato, with feeling.

“The climax of the concerto comes on the big diminished chord — but then, be like Alfred Hitchock — don’t let ‘em go, don’t let ‘em go — then wait for a BIG silence, which makes the orchestra respond more ferociously.”

In considering Samuel’s precise nature, Lynn suggested, “Don’t be cool, calm and collected. Don’t ritardando too evenly. Have a huge variety of vibrato speeds. Be a bass singer. Then be a soprano. A singer has to manipulate his or her vocal cords for ever single note.”

In the Kodály Duo that Samuel and fellow student Dora von Trentini (violin) played, Lynn suggested, “Make it more ferocious. Feel the rhythm like a dancer, and draw back for your punch.”

Lynn gave general practice suggestions: to achieve stamina for extended big passages, “Be in that ff realm when you practice. Practice again and again and again. Change your bow grip to accommodate different tones you want. Think about thumb placement, and how far your forearm is from the hair of the bow. Sometimes more relaxed fingers on the bow is not the way to go — for instance, when you want precision in Bach.”

The secret to his playing with utter physical ease? He relaxes the upper arm, forearm, and uses the muscles of his back as if he’s playing tug-of-war. “It’s tricky sometimes because there are not as many nerve endings in the large muscle groups. It makes a difference where the energy is coming from. Have the ideal of strength, with freedom from any constriction.”

The secret to his freedom of expression? His understanding that “music represents every emotion in life, even when we’re murderously angry.”

The secret to making everything sound unpredictable and new, as if you’re having a conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with? “In repeated performances of a piece, if I do a passage successfully, I have to let it go. I have to make it fresh each time, and original.”

Lynn Harrell, American original, does just that. And we listeners can’t help but fall in love.









Where Music Shines Bright

Daniel with his working Braille copy of the Chopin Etudes from the Lighthouse Music School

I’ve taught many wonderful students over the years, but one in particular stands out — Daniel Gillen, who is a physics major at Haverford College, and a lyrical pianist with a strong artistic voice. That Daniel has been blind since infancy doesn’t seem to hinder him much. Part of his confidence stems from the remarkable education he’s received from a place he often speaks about, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.

Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, a dancer and choreographer, invited me to visit the school when I was in Manhattan recently. We met in the sunny lobby of the Lighthouse Guild Headquarters on East 59th Street, where people were hurrying in from the wind and cold. Designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, the building has an open feel that seems to draw people in and up, with purpose. Here a person who is visually impaired can receive eye care, vision rehabilitation, academic and practical training. At first glance, the only clue that patrons here might have special needs are the elevator buttons, which are large and colorful. Mignon and I rode up to the fourth floor music school. There we were welcomed by Executive Director Dr. Leslie Jones; Dr. Lisa Johnson, the director of administration, and Daniel’s longtime piano teacher and Director of Musical Studies, Dr. Dalia Sakas.

For the next hour or so, I had a chance to absorb a world of music within this small space, where every square inch is needed; besides desks for staff and Leslie’s office, there are teaching studios for individual music instruction, and a library that houses an extensive collection of large-print and Braille music scores. Because the school accommodates many types of vision loss, it makes available many types of scores. Dalia showed me a music score in which a single measure of very large noteheads took up an entire 8.5 X 11 page. “That’s for an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration who wanted to play the piano again.”

When a student needs a piece of music that doesn’t exist in the library, there are a few options: a request to the Library of Congress, a commission to Dancing Dots, a company in Pennyslvania that specializes in creating scores for the visually impaired. Or, as Dalia told me, “I make it.”

If needed, Dalia can generate print-on-demand large-print or Braille music scores with computer software on-site. (Keep in mind that Braille music must be learned at a relatively young age, when the fingertips are sensitive enough to feel the tiny raised dots that comprise the system of notation.) Now Lighthouse students are creating their own scores. One room of the school is devoted to music technology, with a MIDI keyboard/computer lab, and the capacity to teach MIDI sequencing, recording, as well as notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, Lime Light (to produce large-print scores) and Goodfeel (to produce Braille scores).

Specialization for vision loss aside, what the Music School at the Lighthouse Guild offers its students, who range in age from pre-school to ninety, is a multi-faceted music education. They can study theory, ear-training, and solfege, receive private instrumental lessons, and participate in vocal ensemble, jazz improv, pop/rock ensemble, choir (directed by Dalia) and dance. Students perform in recitals, performathons, and in an annual concert co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration that has successfully run for eighteen years. Not long ago, in an extraordinary effort, the school put on a professionally staged version of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which received high praise from Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, who only lamented that there hadn’t been enough funding for a longer run.

The staff and teachers at the Lighthouse Guild Music School work with the kind of devotion and creativity that can’t be measured in hours or dollars. They’ve built a model that is both unique and dynamic, and believe the community music school is where the future of music will thrive. To get the message out, they’ve invited music education majors from local universities to serve as interns at the school. They also give talks to share their vision. Anyone who meets Dalia and Leslie will realize that the future of music is bright. Their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit reflect their joy in music-making, and their determination to give their students a rich, undimmed future.

An inspiring day with extraordinary women Leslie Jones (left) and Dalia Sakas (right)

How Can I Keep From Singing? A Glorious (and Fun!) Tribute

Willliam Appling, positive and powerful teacher, mentor, musician

Last weekend, I played and sang in a second celebration for my late teacher, pianist and choral conductor William Appling. It was one of the most joyful musical afternoons of my grown-up life, just as being at his summer music camp as a teenager meant absolute happiness.

Bill, whom I met when I was fourteen, and whom I called “Mr.Appling” for decades (he was the rare type of teacher who kept up with you, and whom you were always excited to hear from) — was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. No matter whether you were young or old, girl or boy, rich or poor, nice or mean, he immediately “got” you, and appreciated your strengths. He cared about the loveable and the un-loveable. He was a great musician whose seriousness of purpose never got in the way of kindness and fun. For those who were lucky enough to come under the influence of his presence and his smile, one memorial service, held four years ago, wasn’t enough.

There was a practical need for the second one, held last Saturday in the light-filled, beautiful Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. A group of us have been raising money to finish his last project, the complete recordings of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Before prostate cancer took him five years ago, Bill was able to record all of Joplin’s oeuvre, but the recordings are still in incomplete takes, and will require extensive editing to stitch them together in commercially viable form.

So, we decided to hold a party, a musical one — the best kind, I think. I participated like when I was a teen, by performing a wide range of things: chamber music (Brahms and Britten, with my dear friend, violist Sarah Adams) as well as solo pieces (Joplin.) Really harking back to old days, I also sang in the choir. The 25 voices were culled from the major stages of Bill’s teaching career: the great elder (though not elderly) statesmen came from the Men’s Glee Club of Case Western Reserve University; the middle-agers came from his choirs at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio and his summer music camp there; the talented younger group came from his days at Vassar College. The youngest singers were children of his students, including my daughter Lexi.

We were directed by the charismatic Matt Oltman (director emeritus of Chanticleer — I’d expected anyone “emeritus” to be grizzled and gray, but Matt was quite the opposite.) It was a blast. The array of speakers and soloists included a famous author, some professional musicians, as well as gifted amateurs who’d continued to devote themselves to music. Just as inspiring were the conversations I had afterward, catching up with people. One old friend said he was now running a company that helps businesses solve their problems using — I think this is right — custom-designed computer technology. That seemed a far way from graphic design and women’s studies, which is what he studied in college.

My friend laughed. “I used to complain to Mr. Appling that I was interested in too many things. He said, ‘But Art, you could be good at all of them. Just do it!”

When someone extraordinary has such belief in you, one needs no better affirmation. It makes one think, as in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”

For more information on the William Appling/Scott Joplin project, visit:




Meeting Christoph Wolff: aka “Mr. Bach”

Lunch with Christoph Wolff, renowned Bach scholar

One of the most endearing things about my father is that, at age 82, he remains a culture hound, just like me. Having retired to Orlando, Florida, he still sniffs out interesting cultural events within driving distance, and sets out to explore. When I visited him and my mom in February, we took in the HD simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We also met, quite unexpectedly, one of my heroes of modern musical scholarship, Christoph Wolff.

Wolff’s tome on the life and work of J.S. Bach, Bach: The Learned Musician, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and one of the best books on classical music ever written. Impeccably researched, it reveals a portrait of Bach the teacher, the performer, the father, and husband that complete our understanding of Bach the genius. I have read passages from Wolff’s book aloud to my own husband that I knew would interest him, such as the fact that Bach’s salary often included kegs of beer.

A native of Heidelburg, Christoph Wolff is a professor at Harvard and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, Germany. That I met him while visiting the Land of the Mouse is due entirely to my father’s interest in the Bach Festival held at Winter Park, Florida at Rollins College each year. For the Bach Festival Society’s 75th anniversary, Christoph Wolff was visiting scholar and guest of honor, and it so happened that the opening weekend of the festival coincided with my visit to Central Florida.

My parents and I set off for Rollins College to attend the festival’s Sunday morning service at the campus chapel. I was charmed to see that Professor Wolff, who commented on the Bach Cantata that the college choir sang (“Was Gott tut is wohlgetan” — “What God does is well done”) was unpretentiously dressed, in rumpled khakis and navy blazer.  Later, at the informal Lunch and Learn session, he kindly acceded to sitting with this boisterous fan (me) and talked about his work —  he likes to take care of office matters, e-mails, and correspondence in the morning, and then settles down to write, often late into the night. The book he just finished is about Mozart’s last years, and discusses how the increasing complexity of Mozart’s work was abruptly cut short by his untimely death.

Following lunch, Wolff answered questions off-the-cuff in a panel discussion, joined by John Sinclair, artistic director of the festival, and emceed by the eloquent Terry Teachout, playwright, critic, biographer, and blogger. A more congenial group of three discussing a more fabled musician cannot be imagined. (A full transcript I made of their talk may be posted later on this blog.)

In the meantime, here are a few details from their conversation that taught me new things about Bach:

• Contrary to his reputation nowadays as being somewhat resistant to newer styles, Bach was well-versed in the latest instrument technology of his day — the modern organ, the early pianoforte. His close friend and colleague at the St. Thomas School, Johann Winckler, was involved with electrical experiments. Bach felt that understanding technology and science helped him to understand God.

• He did like to show off at the keyboard. For instance, the harpsichord cadenza of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is way out-of-proportion to the rest of the piece. It’s a 72-measure cadenza! (A normal long cadenza would have been 15 measures.)

• Out of Bach’s 20 chldren, only 9 survived. (Women had 1 child a year back then: Mozart’s wife had 6 children, and only 2 survived.) Child mortality was great, and people experienced the heights of joy juxtaposed with sorrow all the time. Bach knew sorrow early on (he lost his own parents when he was 10.) He was one of the few who could translate this deep feeling into great art.

• Bach’s work contains lots of dark points, but they’re always balanced. Modern listeners may only hear the “burial” at the end of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, forgetting that in Bach’s day they were followed on Easter morning with the sound of trumpets announcing the Resurrection.

Mom and Dad and I left Rollins College that afternoon enlightened and happy. We were reminded of the morning’s message at the college chapel, given by the lovely Dean Powers, who said that great art “should not simply envelop us, but reach inside and transform us.”


My dad with Professor Wolff

Playing well with others — a morning with the Ying Quartet

The secret to their success...


These past few weeks I’ve had the pure pleasure of collaborating with other musicians, young and older, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Phillip Glass. As exhilarating as solo work can be, accompanying and playing with other musicians is for me the absolute best. Of course, whenever two or more minds are working out the same piece of music, there are bound to be disagreements, and how you handle them is something I’d like to talk about in this post.

One group that’s successfully finessed the fine art of rehearsing with care and diplomacy is the renowned Ying Quartet, which came to Bryn Mawr College last month for a sold-out Friday night concert, followed by a masterclass Saturday morning. Plenty of technical issues were covered in the masterclass. Violinist Ayano Ninomiya suggested that students practice “hands alone,” (something one hears more often with piano practice.) For violinists, that means working on difficult technical passages with:1. Either the right hand or bow arm practicing on open strings or 2. Just the left hand on the fingerboard without the bow. Both methods reveal holes in the technique.

Another technical pearl came from violinist Janet Ying, who demanded consistency of tone throughout an arpeggio and absolute steadiness in tempo.

In terms of rehearsal technique, all the members of the quartet, including violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying, had some important advice.

“The way you say something during a rehearsal makes all the difference. For instance, let’s say you think somebody in the group is playing too slowly and bogging down the tempo. Instead of saying, ‘you’re dragging,’ say ‘maybe we could flow more at measure so-and-so.’”

Another important idea: “Stay flexible. Don’t become ‘wedded’ to a single way of how to play something. Suppress your ego for the good of the group.

Be open to trying different things. Play it one person’s preferred way at one concert, and do it the other person’s way at the next.”

This advice helped me during my own rehearsals when I caught myself feeling testy over a colleague’s demands for a certain tempo, sound or phrasing idea that differed from my own. I’ll admit, the soloist in me has the tendency to bristle when being told what to do. But this time, remembering the Yings, I relaxed and went with the flow.

After all, as David Ying said, “that’s the beauty of live performance. It’s never the same way twice.”

Like life itself.


A Life Worth Living

Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days

Early in med school, I put myself on a tight schedule so I wouldn’t have to give up playing the piano. I would attend my lectures on biochemistry and physiology until 5, eat a quick dinner with my roommates, run to a campus practice room, practice until 9, dash back to my apartment, and study until midnight. This might sound admirably self-disciplined, but I didn’t do it on my own. I had a mentor to guide me.

Her name was Tung Kwong-Kwong, and she taught piano at the Kent State University School of Music, along with her husband Ma Si-Hon, who was professor of violin. Even before I started studying with her, I knew — from the way she carried herself and from the brief compliment she gave me about one of my performances — there was nothing frivolous about Mrs. Ma. For teaching and performing, she always wore an elegant Westernized cheong-sam, a style one cannot pull off if one possesses an extra ounce of body fat. She always carried a Coach bag, because, she told me, one could send a Coach bag back to the store for refurbishing and repair.

She was exacting at lessons, and a little mysterious. Interspersed with exhortations on phrasing correctly, she told me about growing up in Shanghai, of bicycling through the streets with a gold bar in the basket to buy her first Steinway piano, of leaving China in 1947 before Mao’s takeover, of her father’s long imprisonment by the Communist party. Though she wasn’t a name-dropper, she knew a lot of fascinating people. She and Mr. Ma had been like godparents to Yo-Yo Ma (though no relation,) and they took me backstage to meet him when he performed with the nearby Canton (Ohio) Symphony.

“Debra’s in medical school,” Mrs. Ma said when she introduced me to him.

Yo-Yo told me that his own sister had finished med school and was rotating through Bellevue Hospital for her residency. Even though he was well on his way to world celebrity, I remember his respect toward the Mas; I got the feeling that with them, he felt he could be himself.

Mrs. Ma’s favorite topic ( besides Mr. Ma,) was her own teacher, the great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel. When she was in her twenties, Schnabel accepted her into his class. Summer sessions were held in Italy, at Lake Como. While other students were out boating, sight-seeing or eating out, she would chain herself to a practice room, determined not to play “woodenly,” determined to make sense of Schnabel’s principles of melodic articulation.

“You’ll get it,” she told me, when I expressed frustration at my inability to phrase something in a compelling way. “You see, if you want it badly enough, you’ll be able to. I had to struggle too.”

She and Mr. Ma divided their time between Ohio and Manhattan, where they had a large teaching studio near Chinatown and a concert series called the Si-Yo Society, on which they performed chamber music with well-known musicians in New York. When they asked me to take part in the young artist division of Si-Yo, I was thrilled to work with other serious young musicians. Their nephew Yong-Zi, a sensitive cellist, and another nephew, exuberant violinist Wing Ho, who’d both survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, were core members of the ensemble, as was the powerfully expressive violist Sarah Adams. Under the scrutiny of Mr. and Mrs. Ma’s exacting ears, we rehearsed the Brahms F-minor Piano Quintet, as well as the Dvorak, Mozart and Faure Piano Quartets, over and over again. It was not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the resulting performances remain some of the most satisfying of my life.

Eventually I graduated from med school and moved away. Eventually, Mr. Ma retired from his professorship, and the Mas moved back permanently to New York. We stayed in touch by phone and I sent them a yearly Christmas card. I was puzzled when at some point I stopped hearing back from them, but I assumed they were just busy with their lives.

It was only when Sarah Adams phoned to tell me that Mr. Ma had passed away did I learn that both Mr. and Mrs. Ma had been ill for quite some time. Living alone and childless, their health worsened without their extended family realizing the extent of their decline. They were moved to an upscale retirement community close to their niece Zhen-Mei, and coincidentally, only twenty minutes away from where I now live with my family in suburban Philadelphia.

I phoned Zhen-Mei, whom I remembered from long ago as warm and generous. “She doesn’t remember much,” said Zhen Mei, who oversees Mrs. Ma’s care. “Her Alzheimer’s is pretty bad.”

When I saw Mrs. Ma at the memorial service for her husband, I was astonished by her chic looks, her shorter hairstyle, her figure trim as a teenage girl’s. Whether she could remember me, I didn’t know, though she smiled and spoke to me as if she did. Now that I knew that she lives nearby, I drove over to visit her a few weeks later.

“What took you so long?” she asked, and hugged me.

A black-and-white photo of Artur Schnabel hangs in a prominent place in the small apartment she now occupies at the Hill at Whitemarsh, where a nurses’ aide watches her 24 hours a day. Her concert Steinway grand takes up most of the living room, the front part of the fallboard protected by a length of plastic to prevent scratches on the ebony finish, just as it was covered in Kent. On the lid sit handsome photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days.

Although she can’t remember the past week’s or morning’s events, or my name, she listens attentively when I sit down to to play for her. She takes a seat close to the keyboard as if she is about to teach. And she does teach. She sings the phrases of these famous masterworks by Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, as she would play them.

“Not so short on the second beat,” she tells me, “but more like this —“
“Vary the phrasing, for instance, like this —“

When it comes to music, her mind still doesn’t miss a beat.

I e-mailed Zhen-Mei a few weeks ago to let her know that I wanted to schedule another visit to Mrs. Ma, and learned that she had to be hospitalized because of a bad fall, from which she’d sustained a broken ankle and what might have been a subdural bleed. Her pacemaker had to be re-inserted, and she doesn’t want to eat. I remember Mrs. Ma telling me that Schnabel, at the end, refused to eat. She’s since made a small recovery, and I hope that under the right care, she will continue to improve.

In September I had the honor of performing for Mr. Ma’s memorial concert at Merkin Hall in New York, along with Yong-Zi, Wing (now a full professor of viola at China’s prestigious Central Conservatory Beijing, and a highly influential teacher,) and Sarah (now a sought-after freelance violist in New York and member of the Cassatt Quartet.) Joining us was the marvelous young concert violinist Chen Xi, who was raised in China and educated later at Curtis and is studying now at Yale. Yong-Zi chose the demanding program. Performing the late Beethoven trio and the Brahms C minor Quartet under the Si-Yo banner was a wonderful re-union and brought me the same happiness I’d experienced playing for Si-Yo so many years ago.

After the concert, there was a boisterous party in the reception hall upstairs, where Mrs. Ma, with a pink lily pinned to her chic black suit, was the honored guest. Friends, former piano students, and many family members surrounded her. I’d had no idea, from the vantage point of her milieu in Ohio, what an impact she’d had on so may people, and what a large family cherished her.

To bring music to so many, through teaching and playing, and to have the love one’s family -– that is a life worth living. Bravo, Mrs. Ma.

Read the late Alan Rich’s wonderful commentary on the Si-Yo Society and Mr. and Mrs. Ma.

The Si-Yo Memorial Concert at Merkin Hall, with Chen Xi, violin, Yong-Zi Ma, cello, Sarah Adams, viola (and Isaac Harlan, turning pages)