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Thomas Demenga: ‘Sometimes I think we’re producing too many musicians at conservatoires’

The Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga discusses the fierce competition in today’s music world, how students should spend less time online and more practising, and how he can’t always tell the difference between old and modern instruments

Occasionally when I do a phone interview, I feel a pang of envy imagining where my interviewee is. I certainly did when I spoke to cellist Thomas Demenga recently for He’d just arrived in Venice for the start of a sabbatical, after 35 years of teaching at the Basel Music Academy. He described his house and the city, and how his time was completely free to pursue his current project of writing his first string quartet. It seemed like an idyllic, and well-deserved, luxury for a performing artist.

Demenga is one of the rare musicians who always seems to have managed a balanced and varied career, which, aged 60, he continues to develop in new directions. He explained his ideal formula: ‘I’ve never played 100 solo concerts a year, like some people do. It’s tiring because you travel a lot and you’re always alone. I could never do it. I play chamber music, old music, new music; I compose and teach; and I have four kids. The recipe is to try to keep a good balance between all of that and not to look at it as a career.’

‘Everyone always says that every performance is a new experience, even the 150th time, but it’s not true’

He sees the dangers of a traditional solo career, for both players and audiences: ‘I can understand how people who run around the world quickly arrive at the point where they can’t do it any more because they’re burnt out. All you do is play the music and repeat the same pieces. Everyone always says that every performance is a new experience, even the 150th time, but it’s not true. For some players a career means playing in the big halls with big orchestras. But if you have something to say, you say it all the time and you don’t need to be in the biggest and greatest halls. You can do it a different way.’

Modern technologies are certainly helping with this: ‘Forty years ago the only way was to play here, there, here and there, until people slowly started to get to know you. The internet and YouTube have changed all that. People can become famous through YouTube. They have the possibility to make a video in their living room and put it online. They have their own networks and can build up their fan-club so that when they play a concert they can count on a big audience.’

‘Young people spend too much time with their media’

But modern technologies are also perilous for musicians, and he sees the results in his teaching, as he explains when I ask whether young players today practise hard: ‘Young people spend too much time with their media. In my time I practised a lot at one point – five or six hours a day. If you don’t do that you don’t develop ability in your hands. It’s like training for sport. Every sportsperson, dancer or circus artist who has to do something difficult has to practise, practise, practise. There’s no way round it. Before auditions my students get scared and then it’s amazing what happens. They play better, even if it’s a week or two where they really go for it. I don’t understand why they don’t do it all the time. I feel stupid saying that it’s because young people waste a lot of time on the internet and Facebook, but I have children aged between 11 and 25, and I see what happens. They sit in front of their screens for hours every day. It’s a competition. You have 50 people who want a tutti job in a second-tier orchestra and these organisations can choose from all these fantastic players.’

‘It’s hard to know from 20-minute auditions who the best students are going to be’

Indeed, Demenga is frank about the problem of over-supply in the music business and thinks that conservatoires could take a lead from other educational institutions, where entry requirements are much more rigorous and marks stricter. His daughter is at the Design School in Eindhoven, for which she had to do lots of work just to get in, and he cites the film school in Vienna, where of 500 applicants they take 12 in a year. He says, ‘Sometimes I think we’re producing too many musicians at conservatoires. If we were stricter about who enters maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult. It’s hard to know from 20-minute auditions who the best students are going to be. We could spend more time testing applicants, finding out how they react if you work with them, which you never know. We don’t have the time though: if you have 50 cellists auditioning and you give them an hour, you have two weeks of auditions on just one instrument, so it’s difficult to change it.’

In the interview for, Demenga describes meeting his new ‘Soyer’ Guarneri for the first time, having heard David Soyer, cellist of the Guarneri Quartet, play it in Bern, when he was a student, years before. He fell in love with sound and the instrument’s capabilities, but he’s quite adamant about where the sound of an instrument comes from, as he says in that interview: ‘The quality of the instrument has nothing to do with David Soyer. It’s my sound I’m creating. Everyone sounds different on the same instrument. How you produce the sound, what makes that sound yours; that’s not the cello, it’s you.’

‘If you know that someone is picking up the Strad, psychologically, you immediately think this instrument must be better than a modern instrument’

So he’s also realistic about modern instruments and how they compare with the old masters, especially as he has done impromptu blind tests over the years: ‘I’ve made tests when students are buying modern instruments. We’ll go into a hall and I sit with my back to the stage. I often can’t tell which instrument they’re playing. If you know that someone is picking up the Strad, psychologically, you immediately think this instrument must be better than a modern instrument. But many times we didn’t know which instrument was being played. I did a test with my brother, his Ruggieri, my Amati and the ‘Soyer’ Guarneri. We went into a hall we’d never played in, so we didn’t know the acoustics. Neither of us knew which instrument was being played, and we couldn’t even recognise our own instruments. This is amazing. People are so influenced by the fact that Strad must be the best violin maker on the planet. Of course his instruments are beautiful, but in the hall it’s very hard to tell which instrument is “best”.’

However, the subjective side of it can’t be ignored, as he explains: ‘It is easier for the player to tell which is great, because sometimes you feel with a modern instrument that it works well, but it lacks something. Is it just our minds saying “I have an instrument that’s two weeks old” or “I have an instrument that’s 300 years old”? It’s so hard to be true to yourself, but I feel that when you look at an old cello, it’s like an old piece of furniture. There is a fascination with its age and history, how it’s been played and who has played it. If, as players, we feel we have an important piece of material in our hands with which to create our sound then we will play better. We’ll play differently and have positive feedback. Maybe we are creating the fantasy that the old instrument is better than a new one.’

He is very pragmatic with students, though: ‘There are so many good makers today who make instruments that work and sound great. It’s better to spend €30,000 or €50,000 than €300,000 for an instrument that doesn’t sound better in the hall. I recommend that students buy modern instruments unless they are going to become a great soloist, and then there is usually a foundation that will give them an old instrument to use. But it’s wise to go for a new instrument.’

Other articles you might like:

Thomas Demenga performs B.A. Zimmermann’s 1960 Solo Cello Sonata:

Bach Cello Suites with flamenco accompaniment by Bettina Castaño:

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