Janos Starker and Learning From Giants

by Keith Thomas, Cello instructor at The Lesson Studio

Janos Starker, renowned cellist and teacher, passed away last week at the age of 88. I doubt that any performing cellist today has not been touched in some way by this giant. I first encountered his teaching as a young student learning the Bach Cello Suites for the first time. I played his fingerings and bowings (largely) without really knowing the man. He was, arguably, the most influential pedagogue of the 20th century, holding a professor position at the University of Indiana Bloomington for five decades. His methods are used in private studios and universities across the world.

At 15, he made his name performing this piece, the Kodaly Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello. That astonishing fact should give you an idea of his technical genius from an early age. Watching him perform the same piece as an older man, I’m struck by the total mastery and ease with which he tackles such a monstrous piece, and I consider it like a man and his old friend having a conversation. Look again at his performance: look at his face, fully focused and concentrated (and almost bored looking); look at his arms and wrist, relaxed to a ridiculous degree; listen to his ideas, how invigorating and interesting they are.

Which brings me to my point: there is an amazing value in studying pros. I’ve learned so much from listening to great performances from cellists, violinists, singers, flutists, and almost every other type of musician. Our ears are so spectacular that they can tell our bodies what to do intuitively. If I want to play with the color and character of Maria Callas, I need to listen to her singing and try to match it. If I want to play Kodaly like Starker, I ought to study his efficiency, his bowings, his fingerings, his musical ideas, his coloring, etc.

There’s a treasure trove of musical performances on YouTube. If you’re performing a piece, listen to it first. Then listen again and again, from different performers. It will ingratiate the music into your heart and you’ll feel more comfortable practicing and performing it. Listen and look; they’re the two biggest tools we have to have more fun practicing, and more success performing.

Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas


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