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Interview with Josephine Knight

In this interview, originally commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, Josephine Knight, Alfredo Piatti Chair and Professor of Cello there, recalls some of the inspirational teaching she’s had, and explains her own priorities as a teacher

I studied with Aldo Parisot at Yale and then at Juilliard. He was very tough, but always in a positive way, and methodical, clear and concise. He was also generous – he looked after his students. He laid the fundamentals for me to be free musically. There were no grey areas. If you asked, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ he would know exactly what to say, and explain the solution in complete detail. The technical foundations he gave me – along with my own take – are now what I pass on as a teacher.

I feel very fortunate to have studied with David Strange. He has worked with some of the greatest conductors that have ever lived and his knowledge and experience were invaluable to me. He made me aware of pulse and sound. Pulse is life’s breath and your sound is ultimately who you are as a musician and how you touch people. He is someone I will always respect and cherish. He also believed in me and was instrumental in introducing me initially to the Academy as a professor.

The big challenge as a cellist is how you get from A to B. We cover big distances, and we have to ask ourselves the right questions. Which finger are we shifting on? What bow are we shifting on? What do we want to say musically – do we want to highlight the interval or the note? These sorts of aspects are the tools of expression, as well as of technical assurance. You have to send a clear message from your brain about how to get from A to B. If someone says, ‘You’ve got to get to Stanmore,’ and you don’t even know if Stanmore is north or south, you’ll never get there. But if you have specific directions, you’ll be all right.

Music is a double-edged sword. It isn’t just expression or just technique – it has to be both. Of course, you must think musically, but if you don’t know how to make that thought happen, without the facility, you’ll never be able to show it.

I give my students very clear stages of practice. For example, if you’re practising scale passages, or fast passagework, stage one is to practise just the shifts in one bow, without vibrato – there’s no time to vibrate. Stage two is to play a dotted rhythm, so you’re making a quick shift, still in one bow. We’re constantly focusing on freedom, engraining an easy approach, and never over-trying as we move from one position to another. I have various practice techniques for gaining speed, but one stage would be to start playing through fast passages with each note having six quick notes to the bow, then 5, 4, 3, 2 and finally 1, but keeping the quick notes the same speed, thus gradually shaving a little of the beat each time. This is a brilliant way of building speed into your practice, which I use myself to get results.

It’s all about information, preparation and execution. The information is about how you’re going to play, and then comes the preparation and execution of that information. I give my students a very clear idea of the foundations so they have the right information – and then practice techniques for preparing and executing, so they can find the refinement in their playing.

Every student is different. If you’re teaching a first-year undergrad you have the luxury of four years’ space to set the foundations, and to take things a bit slower. They’re younger so they need more time. Postgrads are more mature, so your pace is a little different.

I don’t feel you should take a student back to basics just for the sake of it. If something isn’t working technically, you have to address it quickly, bringing in pieces and studies that take them forward through that process. I never paper over the cracks, but make sure to set the foundations of what they need technically and to set up a programme of how they practise.

Aldo Parisot never gave me a single study. He believes you should give pieces rather than studies because it’s more useful. He could always find a piece that incorporated what I needed to be able to do. I don’t think it does any harm to do studies – it can only back up what you’re doing technically – but I’m not going to say, ‘Learn all the Popper and Piatti etudes and then you’ll be able to play the cello.’ If I set a study it’ll be for a particular thing, such as sustaining, or shifting, or up-bow staccato.

I get my students to draw a family tree of the repertoire they’ve learnt and what they’re going to learn. It’s important that by the time they leave they have a balanced repertoire that includes Beethoven, Brahms, concertos, contemporary music and Bach. If you write it all down, you can see if it looks well balanced.

We have an obligation at least to try to take from the score what we can see, and reflect what would have been going on stylistically when that piece was written. We shouldn’t just ignore what Anna Magdalena wrote in her autograph of the Bach Cello Suites, for example. That was my only point of disagreement with Aldo Parisot – I didn’t go to him to learn stylistic Bach. He has always been surrounded by composers – Hindemith was at Yale while he was there – and he believes that you have the right to play anything how you want. He encourages students to think for themselves. Why have you chosen that fingering? Why are you shifting in the new bow, or in the old bow? These are all decisions, and he would challenge those decisions, which was healthy. It was exciting to have this fantastic technical foundation work, but always with a view to what you could do musically: the control and the colours. He brought it out of me, and that’s what I try to do with my students.

I believe that you have to be respectful about the difference between Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, so I do discuss stylistic matters, but I also try to bring out students’ individuality and to help them think for themselves. That journey is so exciting, because you see them become confident young performers, who walk out of here thinking, ‘I can do this,’ rather than worrying that there are so many things they don’t know. They walk out of here and are ready to fly as musicians.

I don’t give out bowings and fingerings, except to first years. It’s amazing what they come up with. The other day I was giving lesson on the Schumann Cello Concerto to a second year and she came back with some wonderfully expressive fingerings. I asked her about her choices and her reasons were spot on. It was so exciting. I encourage that by asking questions. Why have you chosen that? What else could you do there? What is important to you in that phrase? What colour do you want? Is there something else you could do there? Students might go away and come back with one set of fingerings, and I’ll say, ‘Come back with two more.’ It doesn’t matter if the fingerings are difficult – they’re too young to be making decisions based on that. I always give reasons why fingerings work or don’t work, so they can think for themselves.

I am tough on students, but in a positive way. I’ll always say, ‘If you’re practising it this way and it’s already better, just think what it could sound like.’ I don’t ever tell students that they sound bad, or that they should do something in a particular way. Aldo Parisot didn’t say anything nice to me for about six months, but the day he said, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty good,’ I felt fantastic! I didn’t want to hear that something sounded great, when I knew it didn’t. You don’t pay money to hear that you sound good if you don’t. However, I always say when things do sound great.

It’s important to make five minutes of practice count. If you are working on a difficult passage, don’t think about how you are going to get the whole thing perfect in an hour. Take four bars, or even two, and if you practise in the right way, you could get those right in just five minutes. If you carry on doing that, in a week they will be perfect. The most frustrating thing is when students don’t practise the right way, even when they’ve been given the information.

Sometimes I put on a timer and say, ‘You’ve got three minutes. Practise.’ These things happen in the profession: someone will come to you and ask you to fill in with half an hour’s notice. You have to be able to scan the part, work out where the difficult passages are and be ready in 30 minutes. I talk the student through how to get up to speed in three minutes, and then get them to play the passage. You see the shock in their faces when they play it and it’s good. With the right information, they can do it.

It’s important to be able to practise in your head. Rostropovich used to do this. I was lucky enough to play with him when I was in the London Symphony Orchestra and learnt this skill from him. He told me that if he was learning a new piece he wouldn’t even get the cello out the case. He would open the score, scan the part and decide what he wanted to do with it – musically, fingerings, everything. That is the power of the brain. You can get very quick results. Sometimes I get students to do it. Look through the phrase. Where does it go? What do you want to do with it musically? What’s not right at the moment? What about the timing of the shifts, the colour of vibrato, your choice of string? You can practise all these things in your head. We blame everything on our fingers, but the instructions come from the brain first. If you map out what you want to do, you can cut down your practice time massively.

I get my students to do a practice diary, so they can see how much time they’ve spent practising technique and pieces. When I’m working for a big concert, and even when I just want to do a good day’s practice, I put a timer on my phone. Then at the end of every day I know exactly how much practice I’ve done, to the minute.

Two hours’ practice means you’re as good as you were yesterday – no better. Anything over two hours, you’re making improvement. I tell students to do from four to six hours every day. It’s better to do four hours every day than one hour one day and five hours the next, though – you build more with consistency. It’s not good enough to say you haven’t been able to practise one day because you had orchestra. If you do an hour and a half before and after, that’s three hours, and you can make real progress.

You don’t have to be muscly in order to make a big sound, but you do need to use yourself well. In lessons, I talk about being free, breathing, posture and where arm weight comes from. Students at the Academy are offered Alexander Technique for free, and I tell them to sign up for it, because it’s invaluable. You learn how to use your body, to think of the directions your mind sends when you move, and to reset your back, which is useful, particularly if you’re carrying a cello around.

I studied with Mischa Maisky at masterclasses in Sienna, after studying with Aldo Parisot. He is such an expressive musician, and it was so interesting to learn about the Russian style, having learnt the American style and taste. The American way is with heavier, deliberate shifting, whereas Russian shifting is less pronounced. Russian playing is very romantic, but not in an obvious, upfront way. This is mainly about the speed of shifts. Also, the extraordinary thing about Mischa Maisky is that when you hear him, you think he’s just made the music up there and then, but he’s actually thought everything through. He’s worked out what he will do musically and where he will take each phrase.

When you see the conductors and musicians who walk into the Academy, you understand how lucky the students are. I’m not a teacher to say students should stay in a practice room and not do orchestra. I encourage them to embrace everything they’ve got here. However, it is like a see-saw. Sometimes you put a bit more into one thing – it might be orchestra or chamber music, and you’ll just be chipping away at solo stuff; and then the next week it will tip the other way. We discuss time management a lot, and what they’re going to do if they only have a few hours a day. I tell them to embrace everything that’s thrown at them because it’s such a fantastic programme. They should take every drop they can squeeze out of what’s going on.

The most important thing is that every student reaches their potential. That’s all I can help them do as a teacher. I tell them it’s a tough world out there and there are no guarantees. I try to be positive, but in a realistic way. It matters to me that all my students go on to earn a living. They know how they need to work towards auditions, competitions, and to being successful.

I work on orchestral excerpts because even if students aren’t going to go into an orchestral position, playing excerpts well takes enormous technical refinement and discipline. For the second year postgrads, I incorporate learning repertoire for auditions. Success in competitions and auditions is simply about practising enough, and having put in place what we’ve worked on in lessons as part of preparation, so that you know that when you walk through the door, you’re going to be your best. You might lose 5 per cent of your capability, but you’re not going to lose 50 per cent, and that’s empowering.

Students are often very humble. It’s exciting to see their eyes light up when they become more accomplished and they think, ‘I can do this.’ Most of what I do is to give them the tools and the confidence to know that they can do this, and can go on and be successful.

This interview was first published on the Royal Academy of Music website in 2016

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