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Remembering Janos Starker

compiled by editors | June 2013

    Renowned cellist Janos Starker passed away on April 28 in Bloomington, Indiana. Born in Hungary on July 5, 1924, Starker started playing the cello at age six, began teaching when he was eight, and by the time he was twelve had eight students and was playing professionally.
    In 1945, Starker was named principal cellist of the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic but soon left for Vienna and later Paris. During this period immediately after World War II, Starker stopped playing the cello for a year and a half. The time spent beginning to play again, and teaching close friend George Bekefi do the same, led to what eventually became the Organized Method of String Playing, which covers the entire geography of the cello.
    In 1948 Starker moved to the United States, playing in several orchestras before joining the faculty at Indiana University in 1958, where he taught until shortly before his death, while resuming his solo and recital career. Shirley Strohm Mullins wrote, “The cello class is the heart of Starker’s domain. For years the class has met in Studio 405, with bodies jammed into the available chairs while others sat cross-legged on the floor. People in other disciplines, such as math and science, come to watch the action and to learn about the Starker standard, which includes such topics as motivation, discipline, and team spirit. In 1985 basketball coach Bobby Knight invited the cello professor to speak to his players. Starker’s topics included control and dedication.” Starker made more than 150 recordings and won a Grammy Award in 1998 for a recording of Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. A recording of the Kodaly Solo Sonata won the Grand prix du disque and received two more Grammy nominations.
    On teaching, Starker said, “Certain people by nature and temperament are teachers, and I happen to be one of them. I learned from great teachers who gave me the keys to understanding music; and I always felt that I had strong principles. If you truly believe in those principles, you are obligated to teach them. After a great performance you may receive a standing ovation, but eventually people sit down. What you teach continues for generations. When somebody has led the kind of life I have, playing more than a thousand opera performances, more than a thousand symphony concerts, and thousands of solo and chamber music concerts and recordings, there is an obligation to ensure that those principles you believe in will continue.”

    Janos Starker was twice profiled in The Instrumentalist, by Shirley Strohm Mullins in November 1986 and again by Anne Mischakoff in August of 1996. On the next two pages are some of the best excerpts from each of these conversations.

On Showiness
    “Grand exterior gestures bother my stomach a little. Nevertheless I tell students that if they aren’t up to the task of playing well for an audience that paid for tickets, they should at least do something to justify their presence on stage and give the audience its money’s worth. That’s stage presentation.
    “I’ve spent a thousand nights in the opera, where I learned all the commedia dell’arte tricks to capture everyone’s attention and make sure they have much to talk about at the end of the evening. This shouldn’t be the goal. If the entertainment dominates the music, then you have failed in the mission of bringing music to the audience. Use it when in trouble, because on stage part of the job is entertaining. Some of what I disagree with boils down to taste. It bothers me if a player allows stagecraft and show business to dominate over the music.
    “Emotion is supposed to come through, of course. I consider my mission to create poetry through music, not to speak about music in poetic terms. Many of my distinguished colleagues have developed the ability to speak about music in flowery phrases. For me, that is meaningless. I’ve spent a lifetime expressing poetry through music, and I did it at the times when I was considered cold. I’m a sentimental slob when it comes to soap operas; but in music, I’m emotional – not sentimental. There are clear rules and regulations in music; to be a disciplined musician means that you have an inner need to adhere to these.” (Mischakoff)

Starker as a Teacher
    Students come to Indiana University from all over the world to learn the powerful formula from Janos Starker. If the phone rings during a private lesson in Studio 155, you might hear French, German, Italian, or Hungarian after the initial English “hello.” Great artists and teachers like Franco Gulli, Josef Gingold, Menahem Pressler, Gyorgy Sebok, Fritz Magg, and Leonard Sharrow have visited Studio 155, as well as composers including David Baker and Bernard Heiden.
    “If he’s such a great teacher, why doesn’t he stay put and teach?” a friend once asked me. The answer comes from Starker himself, for in almost every interview, he speaks of his commitment to education. “If I do not teach, I cannot play; if I do not play, I cannot teach. They are equally important to me.” (Mullins)

Coaching vs. Teaching
    “I’m not a coach, I’m a teacher. Coaching means helping students to learn specific pieces. Teaching is imparting principles and helping students attain the skills that will enable them to make decisions based on knowledge. Taste is elusive; some people have it, some people don’t. The teacher is supposed to simply make students aware of the difference. Something strikes them if it is played one way or another, whether they hear the difference. As a teacher my job is to disturb students, to make them aware of things that were unknown to them so they have choices. Eventually they will choose what they want: a major responsibility is to get them to develop to the point that they can choose instead of playing something the only way they can manage. Good teaching is giving choices, triggering the imagination, and letting students find their own way. (Mischakoff)

On Teaching
    Starker believes that the real challenge in teaching is finding the solution to each student’s problems. At one lesson he told me about a young cellist who had been working on a piece by a French composer. Though the notes were technically perfect, the student’s interpretation lacked the mood and feel of French music. Starker related that he gave the student a book containing reproductions of French Impressionistic paintings. Using these paintings, the student was better able to understand the mood conveyed in the composition. Starker uses the term “preconceived imagination” to describe the change in the student’s understanding of the piece.
    One cannot speak of Starker without mentioning the musical trinity of purity, simplicity, and balance that touches everything involving his teaching and playing. The Saturday master class at Studio 405 is really a laboratory for everyone seeking the solutions to problems related to the cello. It’s an effort that requires concentration, experimentation, and observation to reach the ultimate goal of ease in playing. Students learn the repertoire by hearing it played and critiqued in class. They watch as Starker dissects and explains a difficult passage; they listen to comments on interpretation and musicianship, which gradually build a foundation of musical integrity.
    Starker has a doctor-patient relationship with his students. When a student arrives with a problem, the diagnostic procedure begins. After Starker spots the difficulty, he prescribes several remedies. If the student follows the suggested directions, a cure is usually forthcoming; however, if a particularly difficult problem or a new version of an old problem appears, the doctor is intrigued and tries even harder to find the solution. Starker is able to analyze and isolate technical trouble spots, then relate the problem in language that students understand. He shows how to make a correction: “Ah, ah, too much tension. We can’t play when we are tense.” Then comes an experimental phase: “Try this, try that.” If the suggestions don’t work, Starker keeps trying until the answer appears, because, “there are many ways to arrive at the same destination.”
    Starker’s vocabulary is full of metaphors and colorful descriptions. When a student has trouble with a treacherous shift, the pedagogue might coax, “Take your time and enjoy the trip.” Explaining a bowing concept, he may say, “Try spreading peanut butter on your bread.” (One student responded, “Chunky or smooth?”) If a tempo is too slow, he could tease the youngster with, “Son, that’s a middle-aged tempo.”
    This teacher claps, grunts, gestures, and commands to make his points. Once a student was having trouble articulating the correct bowing for the opening theme of Dvo˘rák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor. “Sing the opening theme,” Starker bellowed. “I can’t, I’m too embarrassed,” the student admitted. “An artist cannot afford to be embarrassed – SING!” The student sang and discovered the mistake, and her playing improved immediately.
    Starker’s technical and analytical advice includes details as specific as which muscle should contract or relax. One student sent him a postcard with a drawing of a human back, every muscle identified by name. A desperate question came along with the card: “Which muscle did you say to tighten?” (Mullins)

The End Result of Teaching
    “A teacher cannot teach something that the student is incapable of doing. It’s the teacher’s job to find what a student is capable of and try to enhance that capability. Teaching is supposed to inform but you can only bring forth what is in a student’s nature and enhance the love of music by giving the right information. By nature some people will be ensemble players, some will be orchestral players, and a few will be soloists. The teacher’s job is to help students learn all the skills and principles of instrumental playing and music making.
    “The results from teaching fundamentals are not necessarily visible or audible immediately. With some students only years later do I get a letter saying, ‘Now I understand what you were telling me.’
    “The greatest reward from teaching is to make a student’s imagination work. I’m far less interested in talent than in a student whose brain allows for continual development. I want to make sure that my students are prepared for any demand that music may make on them throughout their lives. It isn’t important how many good violinists there are, but how many people value music in their lives. (Mischakoff)

On Musicianship
    Despite his stern reputation, Starker is generous with his advice: “Learn as much from every area of music-making as possible. Get the broadest possible education so you are functional in every area. Be the complete musician, not like the great virtuoso who can’t play second violin in a string quartet.” (Mullins)
    “All musical problems are caused by changes: the note values change, the tempo changes, the phrase changes, and the dynamic changes. All the instrumental playing problems are caused by changes in the music. Going from one position to another, from one string to another, or from one bow speed to the next – these changes are the core of our problems. Once we discover this it becomes natural to look for places where changes occur and to prepare for them.” (Mischakoff)

Playing in Tune
    Starker trusts his ear, not theories of intonation, which only amuse him. “Absolute pitch is much less adjustable than developed pitch. Someone with absolute pitch can be almost maniacal on the minor and major third distances, but for me his playing might be out of tune if not adjusted to the harmonic context.” Thirds, like widely spaced octaves, should be guided by the ear. In high and low octaves the ear wants to hear the upper note on the high side of true pitch. “Obviously this tends to be sharper, but it still has to be dead center. I have to trust my ear. If it is high and it clashes with the bass, then there’s a problem.”
    Starker was among the first musicians to use tape recordings, which he credits for developing his ear. “Once, after recording the Brahms E Minor Sonata, we listened to the playback for a particular note, so as to cut and splice it. We slowed the recorder to half speed, and the tape sounded an octave lower. Everything that had sounded perfectly in tune at the regular pitch sounded awful at the lower octave: the width of the vibrato meant my fingers almost touched other pitches.” Starker began using this recording technique regularly because at half speed he could hear pitch problems clearly. “I altered the range of my vibrato and changed various colors and accents. This process affected my ear. I believed I had always played in tune, but this showed exactly how in tune it was. The whole issue of playing in tune covers such a very wide range of views. Some people count the vibrations per cycle; they remind me of Pablo Casals, who influenced cellists for decades by saying the leading tone must be sharper. Sharper than what, than out of tune? The leading tendency is toward the tonic, but the point is developing the ears to hear tiny discrepancies. (Mischakoff)

    “Most people become conductors because it’s a dominant role with lots of power; they can say who plays and what they play. I don’t feel that need. Like General Colin Powell, who said that to run for president you must have the inner urge and drive, I recognize that I lack the inner drive and urge.”
    Having spent a major part of his career in or in front of orchestras, Starker has strong opinions on what separates great conductors from the rest of the pack. He finds that some younger musicians are better prepared than some of the great conductors of the past who became great by virtue of aging. He jokes, “One secret to becoming great is to last, then you’re automatically called great. If you have prominent positions and keep aging, people will forget some of the things you didn’t do well.” (Mischakoff)

On Fritz Reiner
    Fritz Reiner was “not just my favorite, but the conductor I consider the greatest of the 20th century.” Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Ernest Ansermet, and Pierre Monteux were others he deems to have been outstanding. “Reiner was distinguished by his knowledge of scores, first of all. He knew Sacre du printemps, now considered the test piece, by memory, among hundreds of other works; but he used a score. Moreover, he could balance an orchestra and focus on what the score contained. He had control of an orchestra with the minimum means, simply by knowledge and by ear. He did the least stage acting in his conducting. If he repeated a program for four performances, three of them were not necessarily exciting and on occasion might even be dull; but his performances were of the highest order, musically and technically. Playing for him for nine years was a stunning, memorable experience.” (Mischakoff)

A Wonderful, Complex Man
    Even after all the years I’ve known Starker, sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile the image of the great artist with the grandfather making funny faces at a little boy, the master teacher growling at a student in a Saturday morning class with the party host playing ping-pong with the same student that evening. They’re all Starker, though. (Mullins)