The Way I Play: Heinrich Schiff explains why he is still practicing scales

Interview by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, December 2004 Vol. 115 No. 1376 page 1292

Heinrich Schiff explains why he is still practicing scales

Twenty-five years of teaching have taught me that we must always define what each of our motions at the cello represent in order to be efficient players capable of technical ease, great stamina, physical power and musical depth. To have control we must develop the ability to use our physical gestures economically and unconsciously. Craftsmanship, or the non-musical aspect of playing, such as velocity of fingers, bowing technique, shifting, et cetera should be studied separately from the musical expression. Expressive possibilities are limited if the player is not at home with the instrument and the further one goes away from “home” the more the basics are needed.

This is why I believe in etudes and studies – and I still play scales – as Heifetz emphasized. I don’t find this pleasurable, but do it anyway and spend time on it. A wonderful part of instrumental fitness can be found in exercises by Feuillard and Cossman, for example.

Not all instrumentalists regard exercises as important and, in fact, many artists think etudes are rubbish and that one can learn technique through pieces. I say yes, if you understand what you have to do. An etude is like a series of small limited structures and should be played with complete control without the emotional distractions of your concerto. If you apply that behavior to your solo and find the pattern you can practice the passage with the same sensibility as you would with an etude. At this point all enemies will say: ‘Now the concerto will sound like an etude!’ They are right. Anyone can describe what to do, but it takes knowledge of the basics to approach the problem.

Consider other musicians. Every singer certainly begins the day with basic vocal exercises: tone, arpeggios, scales, and intonation. They practice their routine in every key making sure their voices are properly supported. Wind players hold long notes for endurance and breath control. We string players don’t do this enough – especially young players who should be trying to find their own “voice”.  I suggest starting on the open strings with or without vibrato. Concentrate on the physical aspects of playing. Question yourself: Is my body comfortable? Can I control the bow in fast and slow speeds? How should I vary my vibrato? Keep the note plain then add vibrato as a sheer physical exercise. If it sounds “dry” don’t do it. Even when the gesture is detached from the artistic act you must love the note, feel yourself relax, enjoy your instrument, and get addicted to the sound you produce in order to always find a “home”, otherwise when the music makes increasingly difficult demands you could lose control. The more aware you are of your physical approach the easier artistic matters become.

This is a tactic I often use in master classes. I ask the student to play something quiet and small, like a simple row of notes in a moderato tempo. Then we increase the dynamics to mf or f, playing full but not too loud. Perhaps we choose a few notes from the concerto, maybe with a slide because it makes us nervous. Sometimes I ask for a Ševcik or Feuillard exercise – we are looking for something simple in order to come back to basics.

Basics include posture. When sitting at the instrument the torso must lean towards the cello. You must find a position in which you can sit for many hours. Control your neck avoiding pushing away or pressing towards the cello, which causes tension. If you are relaxed from the hips, your torso can help your arms produce the weight. Tension in the hips reduces power. Likewise, lifting the shoulders (a mistake we all make) interrupts the flow of energy into the fingers by creating stress. This applies to both arms.

Concerning power, and cellists need a lot; one can be lucky or must train for endurance. Producing sound from force is wrong. You must be strong, but use body weight and gravity. Besides we would have to develop more muscles than needed in order to have reserve strength, since we should be able to play through three concertos in the practice room in order to perform one. Just like we have to master passages that are more difficult than the works we play on stage. So, back to etudes in order to make the Dvorak Concerto easier. You have to be fitter than required and you have to have more skill than needed.

Developing the artistic ingredients and controlling emotions is difficult. We have players who are well educated, but do not have fantasy or imagination. Musicianship is, of course, as important to prepare as the craftsmanship aspect. Generally I find artistic information of composers has to do with performance practice. How did Beethoven’s violin sonatas sound? There is a lot of information available and I think it is important to find that information, but it takes time and energy.

Emotionally, though, I think the cellist has to try to develop colors and atmospheres with pressure and speed of the bow, vibrato, expressive shifting and find a repertoire of possibility that are called personal, but are connected to the instrument. In order to enrich the pallet of human experience it is necessary to go to the theater, exhibitions, opera, and ballet, as well as experiencing non-musical culture. Read. Learn as much as possible about psychology, for example, to nourish yourself as a person and to become more knowledgeable. Geörgy Ligeti speaks about finding inspiration from scientists; their research makes him able to be creative as a composer. I find listening to records is not enough to become an interesting artist. Fascinating, yes, and shouldn’t be missed. And concerts are dead (frankly I am not sure if he means no one goes or they are all the same) – but theater isn’t! Engage your mind. Ask questions that will make you a richer person.

As an end result I adapt my ability to apply the etudes I learned to the Elgar Concerto. In the performance I repeat my exercises of relaxation and subtlety. I bring together the elements of vibrato and bow control with those of expression and, hopefully, I land at Elgar. Play scales to the end of your life! Practice slowly. Don’t play loud and fast. Control your body. Remember to rules. Think like a singer and feel the breath from your stomach. And finally, be patient and don’t give up.

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Heinrich Schiff studied with Tobias Kühne and André Navarra and has performed with all the leading orchestras in Europe, the US and Japan. His extensive recordings include prize-winning versions of the Bach solo suites and the Shostakovich concertos. He plays the 1711 ‘Mara’ Stradivari and 1739 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Montagnana cellos. In 2004 Schiff was appointed chief conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

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