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Life in Teaching: Stefan Popov

Stefan Popov has been professor of cello at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama for 40 years, and before that taught at Boston University and New England Conservatoire. He was born in Bulgaria, and studied at the Moscow Conservatoire with Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and Mstislav Rostropovich. In this interview for the Winter 2017 issue of the European String Teachers Association magazine Arco, he told me about the strengths of the Russian School, and how he’s still learning

I started teaching when I was only 16, when I was still at school in Sofia, helping my Bulgarian teacher with the younger students. Later, as part of my studies at the Moscow Conservatoire, I had to teach. I would bring my students to the head of the teaching department, Lev Ginsburg, and he gave me feedback. That was the system, which is why Russia has so many great teachers – although life has changed now. I started by teaching what my teacher taught me, and over time I discovered what I had to look for myself, and I changed a lot over time.

The great thing about the Russian School is that young children are taught professionally from an early age. There is no compromise, and by the age of 14 or 15, they are well developed technically. One of the characteristic differences in the Russian School is the sound: you can hear it in Rostropovich and all Russian players – a big, vibrant sound.

We were always taught the freedom of the hands and how to use natural weight. When you press, you block the sound. When you’re free, you get the instrument to vibrate, and the sound projects, which is very important. Rostropovich used to talk about singers who have a big voice, but can’t be heard against an orchestra in the Bolshoi Theatre, whereas one with a small voice can project right to the back. You have to be very free to get this projection, to have a very good contact with the strings and to feel that even when you’ve stopped the bow, the sound carries on.

Sometimes students want to play a piece, but they’re not ready, so they struggle to learn it. They like to play, but they don’t know how to shift, or they don’t have the freedom in their playing. Technically, they should always be one step ahead in order to enjoy music. That’s been a problem in England. In some countries, such as France and Russia, there is a set series of technical concertos that every student follows. In his book, Violin Playing As I Teach It, the great teacher Leopold Auer lists the order in which students should learn repertoire. Children learn very quickly like this. It’s the same for the cello – there is plenty of music written by our 19th-century forefathers – you have to learn it in the right order, and not jump around, which is a common mistake.

The best way to build a solid base is to learn repertoire written by the professional players. Violinists should play pieces written by violinists and cellists should play repertoire composed by cellists. You can’t learn to play the cello from Bach – he wasn’t a cellist. Pianists are lucky, because they play Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven – works written for their hands. The Romberg sonatas might not be at the same level as Beethoven, but they can help students learn how to play cello.

Everyone is different. One student might be more emotional and one more rational, and you have to create the balance. Some students don’t have enough musical temperament, so you have to give them music to wake them up. With students like this I try to give them some Spanish music, to try to help them burn inside. You can show them music like that and they change. You have to choose repertoire to develop the different parts of each student, so that they become rounded players.

You have to be very honest. It’s important that students feel that you’re trying to help them.

The standard of playing has improved a lot, both technically and musically. I remember the first time I sat in auditions at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, some of the players were not ready for music school, let alone conservatoire. That’s changed completely now.

Grade exams are very good for amateurs and music lovers, but not for professional development. It’s good that children are motivated to get their exams, and are encouraged by their results, but the syllabus doesn’t always develop their abilities. You see a piece like the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Cello Sonata being played for Grade 8, but it’s the most difficult Beethoven Sonata – I don’t even give it to students who have graduated.

Ninety per cent of students don’t know how to practise. They need to be taught how to get better results with less time. If you spend ten hours practising a day you don’t see anything else in life, which makes for a poor musician – never reading books or doing anything other than learning to play the notes. That’s why it’s important to learn how to practise less, with more concentration.

The first thing students need to do when they practise is to warm up their hands – both left and right. I have my own specific exercises, which my students have to do daily. They do 20 minutes of warm-up exercises, and after that, a minimum of 30 minutes of scales.

Practising scales is not emotionally involved, and you have to get everything absolutely right, always correcting notes with open strings or harmonics. It’s important to get the right overtones, because the sound is better and the instrument sounds better. My students learn to love scales. When you hear the vibration of a perfectly tuned 3rd or 4th, it’s fantastic. They have to enjoy that.

When you practise intonation, you have to feel how everything fits together like a puzzle. If you play an F sharp, you have to know that it’s different whether you’re in D major or G major. That is expressive intonation, which is my preference over tempered intonation.

Intonation is an emotional thing. A note that’s is a little sharp gives you an optimistic feeling inside; one that is a little flat is more pessimistic.

Intonation is the most common problem with the cello. It’s difficult, firstly because everything is big and all the relationships between the notes have to be polarised. The violin is easier in some ways, because you always have the supporting point of the thumb, and you measure your distance from that, even when you go to the top and come back. On the cello, we only have that sensation near the nut, in the first positions, but not further away, which is why it’s more difficult when you play in the thumb position.

I’ve created a technique where I create basic points with my thumb, on the way up and down, so I always know where my hand is, and I can explore all the notes in the area. Most cello schools move everything, which is difficult for the hand. In shifting, I use the principle of extension–retraction–extension–retraction. It’s the ‘principle of the caterpillar’. It means that whenever I change position, there is something that stays. You can use that principle on the violin, too – Galamian talked about it.

Tonal music such as Boccherini, Romberg, Breval and Kraft is not always great art, but it’s written well for the hands and is very useful for intonation. That’s why violinists have to play Mozart concertos for auditions, because you hear every single note, and intonation in an orchestral section has to be very good, because if you have ten people playing with one a little sharp and one a little flat, it sounds terrible. That’s why you need to know this repertoire very well.

If you feel tension doing exercises you should stop immediately. You should never play under pressure. If you try to carry on, everything gets worse, so stop and relax for 10 or 15 minutes. My teacher Sviatoslav Knushevitsky used to say, ‘If you’ve got even two beats’ rest, try to relax in those two beats.’ That has always stayed in my mind.

Students often don’t know how to relax, and it’s important to help them. I tell them to relax, and get them to feel very heavy in their right hand. Muscles have to be elastic all the time. If you relax after using a muscle, you can keep working with it, but if you keep it tight, after a while it doesn’t want to work. A young body can take more pressure, but as you get older your muscles don’t work the same way, so if young players learn to release their muscles from an early age, they can keep playing for a long time.

It’s important to make sure students have a very flexible body and flexible hands. If you look at a hand, you can already hear the sound. They can’t make a flexible sound with a tight hand. I see people trying to play with great tension, but there is no point.

One trick I find works is that if someone has tension in their shoulder, say, I tell them to make a sign saying ‘shoulder’ and to put it somewhere they can always can see it – on the stand or the wall. It starts to work, because every time they see the word, they react; otherwise they forget.

If one thing doesn’t work with a student, don’t be too persistent, because everyone has a different physiology, different hands. Nature is a wonderful teacher. If you watch how nature works, you can resolve many problems. Many of the rules we learnt at school – movement, acceleration and inertia – apply, whether you play the violin or the cello.

You cannot give exactly the same thing to every student. One might have a long first finger, and another a short one, and you have to find a solution for both. When I was a student, my teacher once asked me to play something that was completely beyond my hands, and I struggled. His fingers were twice as long as mine, so it was okay for him, but not for me. I have very short fingertips, and because you can’t play with the nail, that caused many problems. I created my own technique, to suit my hand, so I could play easily.

It is important to concentrate on one problem at a time. You can’t work on everything together. If you’re practising intonation, ignore the music. Practise just for the left hand or just for the right hand.

I want my students to love music, so that they say something with their playing. There are too many excellent players who don’t say anything. They play the notes well, but there is no character. They have to try to translate the composer’s musical ideas, to understand what they felt when they wrote the music.

I encourage students to listen to themselves very carefully, because the best teacher for anyone is themselves. They have two hours a week with me, but up to 30 a week by themselves, and if they don’t listen, they won’t make progress. They’ll learn to move their fingers better, but they will not feel the music. I ask them questions like, ‘Do you like this or not? Play it again. What do you think of your phrase? Is it good or not?’ And they start to listen to how they play themselves.

When you play music, or if you create any kind of art, you have to love it. I always tell students what Honegger said. He used to teach in the École normale and tried to discourage his students: ‘You want to be a composer? It’s a disaster. You’ll be hungry and no one will pay you. But, if you feel that if you don’t write a page of music every day you’ll explode, then carry on.’ I enjoy it when I see my students put emotion into their playing, and I can feel their love for the music.

It’s satisfying when students feel the style of the music, and don’t play a Haydn concerto like it’s Shostakovich. Some people say there’s no such thing as style, that you should do what you feel, but I think that is wrong. When students play old music I encourage them to close their eyes, and see images of how people were then. Some things were the same, but people had their own understanding of what was beautiful.

Every epoch has its own aesthetic and musicians should look to that. If you’re playing Bach, imagine how 300 years ago people didn’t have television – they danced old dances. Imagine dancing those dances. How do you feel? More elegant, more polite? So I like some authentic style, but people get extreme. Many things have changed: instruments are the same but the tension of the strings is different, so they cannot sound like Baroque instruments.

Being a teacher is a very responsible job. If you have a gifted student, you can easily hurt them with the wrong thing. There may be great talents out there whom no one knows about because they’ve had bad teaching. Some teachers push talented students too quickly, because they think it will be good publicity, but these students suffer later in life. How many wunderkinds have disappeared before they were 35 years old? It’s not right to do that.

We have to carry on learning as teachers, to read about different systems, to work out what works for each particular student. Everyone is different and you have to try to help them all, and love what you do. There’s no age limit on the teaching profession. You’re always learning something new, because students are all different. I am 76 and even now I have new ideas – there is no end.

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