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Janos Starker: Born to Teach

For nearly half a century, Starker has guided cello players through the pitfalls of their craft


The stage must be set before the master appears. On a Saturday afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana, a teaching assistant rolls the grand piano to the middle of the studio, scoots a pair of padded stools into place, and rests the master’s cello by its scroll on a chair in the front row, second from the end. Tradition reserves the first chair in the front row for the master himself. Audience seats are filling fast with local musicians and visitors from Europe. The first two students are getting ready to play: Chih-Hui Chan tunes her cello while Ayako Toba warms up at the keyboard. Tension fills the room.

No one talks.
At 12:30 sharp, Janos Starker walks through the door. Looking professorial in a well-worn sport coat, he cracks a joke about the studio’s air conditioning. A curt nod and a wry smile to the audience are the only introduction he offers. The legendary cellist and teacher has arrived to preside over his weekly master class at Indiana University, where he has taught for 48 years.
At age 82, his face is softer than the severe visage that intimidated me when I played in his master class 30 years ago. His hair, now gray, still frames the endlessly high forehead that has distinguished his appearance since he was in his 20s. The demonic look of his youth may be gone, but he still radiates keen intelligence and steely confidence.
Seated, he arches an eyebrow. Chan takes the cue, nods to Toba, and they launch into the first movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. Starker listens without interrupting. His lower lip pouts with concentration. His legs cross, and an arm drapes over the back of his cello’s chair. He gazes at the floor and, occasionally, glances at the performers. No expression reveals his opinion.
I remember sitting before him during a master class at the Aspen Music School in the 1970s. “Let me hear your power!” he commanded, boring into me with fiery, brown eyes. He watched me make a huge circle with my bow arm, then land on the open D string with a fortissimo down-bow. I was supposed to think “round” and remove any angles from my shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers. His intense focus made it the down-bow I never forgot.
Now he turns his intensity on Chan. After a dramatic pause, he declares, “That could have been a performance. Beautiful playing.” Chan beams, and the whole room relaxes.
“But there are a few things we could discuss. An-tic-i-pa-tion,” he says slowly, exercising his smile muscles as he picks up his cello and bow. “Prepare your bow speed mentally, before you touch the string, like this. And do you hear that hairpin at the end of certain notes? Get rid of it.”
He works through the movement on his cello, exaggerating things he wants her to change. A short figure could sound “more Vienna.” The long, downward slide she played “went out in the 19th century.” During a turn, she accented the wrong note. No detail is too small to escape his notice or merit his attention. Yet no principle is too big to address, even for an advanced player.
“If you need more bows, take them. If the fourth finger doesn’t feel quite safe, use the third. And when you play, I see you move only to the left. Sometimes, you should move to the right. Balance.”
Things don’t go so well for the next player. When Haeyoon Shin finishes the second and third movements of the same sonata, Starker pronounces his judgment sternly: “You are halfway.”
Some of her shifts fell short of their targets in the upper registers. “Every single time, you are missing these shifts because they are not anticipated. Didn’t we talk about anticipated and delayed shifts?”
He shows her again how to move the left arm and deliver the finger on pitch.
“I said you should listen to some Schubert songs, and did you?” She silently shakes her head and looks at the floor. She has not listened. “It doesn’t go dy-a, dy-a, dy-a, like the maid singing in the kitchen!”
He plays the opening of the slow movement, articulating the grace notes in the cello’s fourth measure as if each were a syllable to be sung, then takes up at bar 35 playing the bass-register melody like the song of a stern father.
“There are three different characters of sound, three different personalities singing,” he tells her.
“Each must be expressed.”
Starker has reached the highest levels of music making from a humble beginning. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1924, the son of a Polish tailor and a Ukrainian mother, he had no official citizenship until 1954, when he became a citizen of the United States. His two older brothers began violin lessons at an early age, and Janos took up the cello at age six. His only teacher was Adolf Schiffer, a bookkeeper who taught himself the cello well enough to enter the class of the illustrious David Popper and to succeed him as professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Starker never graduated from high school, because he left at age 15 to play professionally and to study the humanities privately with a university professor.
During World War II, his family suffered persecution as Jews. Starker’s older brothers were marched to Yugoslavia in 1944, where Starker believes they were shot by Nazi soldiers. Janos spent several months in a Nazi work camp, but was freed due to the intervention of a Swedish couple, friends of his esteemed cello teacher Schiffer.

Further Resources

Further Resources

Read a review of Janos Starker biography.

Starker moved to the United States after the war and became principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony, then the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and, ultimately, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His career as a soloist took him all over the world, and his former students now play as soloists, chamber musicians, and members of opera and symphony orchestras. The list of his recordings fills 33 pages of his memoir, The World of Music According to Starker, published in 2004 by Indiana University Press. His edited versions of concerti, sonatas, and the Bach Suites have been in print for decades, and his long-awaited edition of the Kodály Sonata, Op. 8, for unaccompanied cello, was recently published by Master’s Music Publications, Inc.
A true master, Starker is respected as much for his formidable personality as for his impeccable intonation and focused sound. Students travel thousands of miles to study with him, but they may tremble in his presence.
According to Emilio Colon, a former Starker student who now teaches alongside him at Indiana University, Starker “fired” more than half of his students during his first year as a teacher in 1958. Colon himself was almost fired.
“I was thrown out of his studio before I played even one note,” says Colon, who went from Puerto Rico to Indiana in 1986. “He claimed I missed my lesson. I disagreed, respectfully, and stood up for myself, so he said he would give me one more chance. I was used to Caribbean time, where 12 o’clock can mean 1 o’clock, and he wanted me to know the importance of being punctual. It’s about standards. He expects you to work at your highest level at all times. He gives his students the same experience he went through.”
Maria Kliegel, who studied with Starker in the 1970s and became his teaching assistant, is now the world’s most recorded cellist on CD. Yet she vividly recalls the abrupt ending to one of her first lessons with him. “I played the slow movement of Haydn D major,” she says. “When I finished, he was very quiet. He lit a cigarette and said very slowly, with a very deep voice, ‘If you ever play so out of tune again, I will deny I was ever your teacher.’ He knew how proud I was to be his student, so his comment affected me very strongly. I packed up my cello and left the room. There was nothing I could say.
“It was horrible, but he knew I could take it. He knows how much his students can take, because he’s a good pedagogue. And I got the point. What he meant was that you never own good intonation. You always have to work for it. Last May, I played the Elgar Concerto at a concert in Japan, and afterwards, he came backstage. I said, ‘How was my intonation today?’ He made his eyes twinkle. That’s how he answers, just with his face, which I know so well. He can just raise an eyebrow, or smile with one part of his mouth, and you know what he means.”
Shin, 19, remembers the master class in Seattle where she first met Starker.
“There was an earthquake right in the middle of the class,” she says. “Half of the people went out in the hall, and the other half stood close to the walls of the room. Mr. Starker waited for the shaking to stop and asked everyone to sit down and get back to work. Last semester, he made three girls cry in their lessons. Everybody deals with it at some point. You get upset, but you live, and you work harder. He’s such a great teacher, great performer, that it’s intimidating to think you’re going to play for this person.”
It has been said that he has become kinder and gentler in recent years, and that the change occurred when he had grandchildren.
“He has grandchildren?” Shin laughs. “I hope he has some more.”
To work with Starker is to join an extended family, says Brant Taylor, a former student who is now a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “His level of perception leads to close relationships with his students. If you’re willing to be unguarded around him, to give yourself over to him, you get the best of what he has to offer. I refer to him or his principles when I practice and in every lesson I teach, because his ideals still inspire my own musical thinking.”
After class, Starker heads for his private studio on the first floor of the IU music building. The distinguished professor of music is the only person allowed to smoke indoors on campus. Settling on a chair in the corner, next to a standing ashtray, he lights a cigarette before beginning our interview.
His students say he would do anything for them, I point out. What can he do for them, and what must they do for themselves?
“They have to do everything for themselves!” he responds, “The only thing I am supposed to do is show them the road.”
They also say Starker can see right through them.
“Because I’ve seen it all,” he says. “The difference between me and other teachers was described by Susan Moses, a former student of mine who also studied with Piatigorsky. She said Piatigorsky sees people’s strengths and enhances them. But I’m not interested in the strengths. I’m interested in the weaknesses, because the strengths are fine. If someone plays with a beautiful sound, I leave it alone and concentrate on the left hand. I am interested in the problems, in helping people overcome the obstacles.”

Does it take a strong personality to study with him? I wonder.
“Personality is ego, and students don’t need that, but they have to be strong,” he says. “When they leave here, they will never be as nervous as they have been in my class. I want them to experience the problems that come in a musical life. If somebody has a mediocre talent, I am most of the time nice to those people. I know they cannot do certain things. But when it comes to the things they can do, I am tough.”
How can a person become one of his students? “People are always asking me what they have to do to get into my class. I pick those who need my help,” he says. “I’m usually looking for people who have the kind of brain that can absorb information, hopefully with some semblance of speed.”
Almost all of the other teachers in the department are his former students. How does he collaborate with them?
“We send students to each other when the need arises,” he explains. “All my crew here, they know the rules. We have an open-door policy for students, even during lessons. These chairs are usually full of cellists, violinists, violists, all kinds of people.
"The smart ones bring the music and take notes.”
I ask him to explain his concept of “anticipation,” which he mentions often during his master classes and lectures. “It’s the single most important element in music making and in every facet of life,” he says. “Anticipation is part of music itself. It is not the same if you take a slow, even breath before an entrance or a sudden, quick one. This motion affects the sound you will make on the instrument. You must anticipate the start of a phrase, the connecting of phrases, the speed of the bow, the connecting of positions, and so on.
“Hearing the music before you play it is essential.”
What then is the place of spontaneity?
“Even spontaneity must be prepared,” he says. “Spontaneity means choosing, because of changing conditions, among the things you have already prepared.”
And “professionalism?”
“Professionalism is simply consistency,” he says. “On every night, if you are a professional, you must be able to give at least 85 percent, no matter how you feel. This is the cultivation of discipline. Only from discipline comes true freedom.”
I ask about his teaching method and whether he takes the same approach with each student.
“Teaching means planting ideas that students can work with the rest of their lives, to build their own convincing performances,” he says. “Each will use my ideas differently. For example, I want all my students to have a rhythmic sense, not just a sense of rhythm. If you don’t have a rhythmic sense, the music you play is not just meaningless, it’s directionless. In the opening of the prelude of the G major suite by Bach, for example, you establish the harmony by taking time on the first three notes. Then you have to make it up by the end of the bar. One must also learn the geography of the instrument. The left hand is the subject of a book I published a long time ago, An Organized Method of String Playing.”
As for practicing, Starker recommends that students use the time to challenge themselves. “If you practice four hours a day,” he says, “the first hour should be devoted to experimental practice. What happens to the bow if I start at the frog and go to the tip? If I lose sound, what am I doing wrong? One must simply listen to the sound. Play single notes and regulate your vibrato. Listen to the difference when you delay a shift and when you anticipate it.”
Given the breadth of his career as an international soloist as well as the principal cellist in opera and symphony orchestras, I ask where teaching fits into his life.
“For the past 48 years I have been here, and for 37 of those years I was playing 100 concerts a year,” he says. “Yet the most important thing for me is teaching. I was basically born to be a teacher. That’s my temperament. No matter how great the ovation is after a concert, the people eventually sit down and stop applauding. But if you teach, you may affect generations.
“I have a historic hang-up,” he adds. “I am much more concerned with the future than with all the accolades I got for performing. I stayed alive when many other people, including my brothers, were killed in the war. The fact I stayed alive means it is a duty for me to do as much good as I can.

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