“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”


Beethoven: Cello Sonata no. 5, mvt 1

Interpretation Class
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“Beethoven was deaf, he couldn’t hear, and yet he created the most heartwarming, most inclusive, most life-giving music that has ever been written.”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript:

Ben Zander:

So Alex, great. You’re fantastic. You know you are perfect. You’re perfect, so one thing I could say to you is, great, bravo, well done, terrific, have a great life, and on we go, get the next thing, but I’m not going to say that because perfection is not enough, and so somehow we You could be very comfortable in life just being exactly this way, and you’ve become a marvelous cellist, and your intonation is fabulous, your sound is good, your control is good, everything you do is musical, but these guys travel for hours to get here, so there’s got to be something more than just being perfect, and the question is, how do we get access to that world?

Well, the first thing is you’ve got to give up being in control of everything, of your appearance, of your playing, of the environment, comfortable in control because Beethoven wasn’t in control. He was in control of the music, but he was not in control of the message. The message was completely out of his control. He lived in a very deeply revolutionary period, in war, surrounded by war, surrounded by danger, going deaf, already almost completely deaf at this point, fighting against his nephew, fighting against the world, changing his apartment every three weeks, 16 different apartments he went to in the course of his life. I don’t remember the exact time, but he was also a stupendous pianist, maybe the greatest pianist of that entire era somebody wrote who had heard Mozart, and him, and Liszt, and everybody said that Beethoven was in a class of his own, just an incredible artist, and technician, and everything.

Then he wrote these pieces, the Allegro con brio pieces. Does that say something to you? Allegro con brio is the essential tempo marking of Beethoven. There are 20 first movements of Beethoven written at this tempo, Opus 95, and so many of the first Piano Concertos, so many of these pieces, and they’re all they’re wild, they’re extreme, and they’re not in control of energy, of passion, of power, of fight, and fear and all those things. At the moment, what you are delivering to these worthy people who’ve traveled a long way is high competence, high control, and everything perfect. It’s not enough. Got it?

Alex Aranzabel:


Ben Zander:

All right. Now you have to give up something in order to do this, safety. Risk, you have to take risks at the moment. You don’t take many risks because you’re so beautifully in control. I had a teacher once who said this to me. He said, it wasn’t Casado, my main teacher was another teacher I was working with, and he said, “Ben, you’ll never learn to play well until you learn to play badly.” It took me a long time to get that, but what happened was, when I was a young cellist, my father worked with me when I was very young, he practiced with me, and every time I played a note, he went like that, if I played out tune, he went like that. He said one day in jest because he was very funny, he said, “One day you are going to read in the newspaper, headline, boy kills father by playing F sharp too flat.”

Imagine what that did to a young kid. I was just so I didn’t want to kill my father with an F sharp so I became very careful, and this teacher said, “Give up being careful, just give it up, and come to it later.” I give the same message to you. Don’t be so careful. It’s like throwing down a gauntlet, all those Allegro con brio pieces by Beethoven. He wrote something, nowadays this statement is outrageous, but you have to understand it in its context, “sentiment is only for females, music must ignite a man’s spirit.” Now, in that time, of course nowadays, everything has changed because there’s no difference between men and women now so everything’s different, and incidentally, it’s really amazing because in those days women were brought up to be full of sentiment and delicacy, that’s how they were brought up. Nowadays, they’re brought up to win Wimbledon, they fight.

There’s a film, I just watched a film of tennis champions, there’s no difference in the way, but then there was a difference, and for Beethoven, this was a masculine world of power and fire, fire, he talked about fire a lot. This is the essential Beethoven idea, and that it represents him, Beethoven most clearly, this music, and it always has 16th notes, often a scale, like a turn or something like that, and what it is is a surging flame, like that. I think maybe, Dina, if you can do it, this is Beethoven was the greatest pianist maybe the world has ever known, and he didn’t hold back in tempo, so can we try and just fire these like a shot out of a gun? So here she goes, and what a way to begin a piece with an octave and then from the E, all the way to the G, I mean, it’s impossible. Let’s try it. This forzando is on the second beat, that doesn’t mean the first beat is weak. It’s such a surprise that second beat. Now! It starts in fury and ends in love. What an amazing idea.

That energy, imagine 12 cellists playing that first deed, and then you back away, you change your mind completely in a split second, once again, great. Now, the difference in color between the low D and the top A is a world, (singing), and as if that wasn’t enough, he writes Dolce, not just piano, but Dolce. So do it one more time, and when you the two hands come together like two trains like that. Try once again. Can you look Dolce? When the time comes for you to start attracting women, which is not far away, the face becomes a very important thing, (singing), because you have to tell. You see, if you go up to the first woman and you say, “I love you,” or, “I love you,” they won’t believe you, so (singing) A very interesting question is, should you play it slower than the opening? It’s up to you in the end what you do.

What I love to do is to play it freely, but not necessarily slower, because if you play it slower where you’re (singing), that needs to be burning with energy and with fire, so I would take a lot of time, but stay within the tempo. Should we try it one more time? Great, Dina, you’re doing fantastic. Can you do it more staccato? Not legato, but off the string as it were. Yes! Good. Make it worthwhile for them to come from, every moment, every moment, every moment. It’s good, it’s getting there because you’ve got to feel it yourself. We’re playing here, but to feel the difference, the shock of going from this furious, angry, driven, demonic style to (singing), those are the 16s again. I think they should be in tempo, that’s my feeling. Then when you hit (singing), that’s Allegro con brio, if it’s too slow, (singing), it doesn’t do it, everything is bristling. Great. You can’t not do it again because there’s nowhere to start, except the beginning. We do it again? Can you feel the Just forget about being a good cellist. Don’t be a good cellist.

Take these people by the scruff of their neck and tell them, “You don’t know anything about life,” but what Beethoven has to teach us about struggling times, impossible odds, like the woman up the tree, did you hear me tell the story about the woman? Two years, 180 feet up in the air, on a tree alone? Imagine what happened when it rained, and wind, and she just hugged the tree more, it became her friend. Amazing story. Regular life doesn’t give us access to this world. Regular life actually protect us from this world, because regular life is designed to make things comfortable, and easy to deal with, and convenient, and not too much trouble, and this says, “No, in order to get to the top of that tree and say something important, you have to really put yourself out into a totally different world.” That’s what Beethoven is, and he’s asking you to do that, and Dina, and through you, asking them to do it, that’s the message from Beethoven. It’s a responsibility, isn’t it? Great, I’m glad you accept the responsibility.

Okay, here we go once again, and play everything as if it was the last time, everything you do, as if, “Okay, one more time and then I’ll die.” Here we go. One, two, three. Here we go. The funny thing is, you’re very passive. You’re very passive, you’re sitting, “Oh, she’s playing the piano. She’s playing the piano, oh, I better” No. Did you ever watch Rostropovich? Have you ever seen Rostro? While the orchestra was playing, I played with it. He was playing a concerto, and all the way through the while the orchestra was playing, I thought I could give up conducting, he could actually conduct. It was amazing. When he was just about to come in, (singing) Look at her face, she’s all lit up. She’s excited. She wants to know what comes next. (Singing). It’s incredibly exciting. Are you? Are you excited?

Alex Aranzabel:


Ben Zander:

Oh, great. Here we go. Here we go. Yeah, what’s happening here? (Singing). What’s happening? (Singing). It’s not here, it’s here and here. So give up playing the cello, just give it up. It’s not about the cello. Bravo, Dina, that was fantastic. That was really fantastic. That’s exciting. I mean, that’s irresistibly exciting, and you notice that it’s marginally faster than when you played it before. You took a safe tempo, this is not a safe tempo, particularly later on she’s going to be jumping about the piano. Apparently, Beethoven could do that better than anybody else in the world. Great. Do from somewhere, you chose.

Alex Aranzabel:

Yeah, 17.

Ben Zander:

There’s one place where you come in, and it’s as if you say, “Here, this entrance,” it’s as if you are saying, “I’ve still got more energy.” Would you do from (singing)? Since you don’t need this, let’s put this here. (Singing) from there. Yeah, can you go (singing)? In your vibrato. If you raised your eyebrows, it might help, (singing). A little breathless. Can you try once here? Do the Beethoven loved these accents on the second beat because it’s not what’s expected. It happened in Mozart for the first time in the Marriage of Figaro, (singing). Figaro says to the count, “If you want to dance, my friend, I’m going to play the guitar, (singing).” That yes, that accent on the second beat, that caused the French Revolution. Well, it’s not quite true, but that was what it was about, it was the accent on the second beat. The servant kicking the count in the backside with an accent on the second beat in a minuet, the ultimate aristocratic dance. Isn’t it Beethoven took that idea, he made a whole style out of it, so every one of those is an event.

All right, so should we and then you kick her off, should we try the same thing? Can you do a very fast vibrato? (Singing). So there’s bristling, burning, burning, that’s right. One, two Can you look excited? Are you excited? Inform your face about it. Your face hasn’t found out about it, it didn’t get the message. (Singing). One, two, three. Now, this is another world. This is second theme, right? Another world. (Singing). The sun comes out tender, loving, the female side of it, so now you can take time in different color, different sweetness, but that’s good, it’s coming. There’s something still preventing you from being a bad cellist. You are so committed to being a good one, and it’ll get you into the right college being the right cellist. It’ll give you more than that, it’ll give you safety, or as I always say, a picket fence around your house when you’re older, but this is an invitation to take huge risks, and it may be allowing yourself to play ugly sometimes in this music, because this is not polite music.

Do you know Beethoven was picked up by the police once? Because they thought he was a vagabond, he had wild hair, and his coat is a and they put him in prison because they thought he was a tramp. He was the greatest composer the world has ever known, but they didn’t know that. So isn’t that fascinating? And he was deaf, deaf, completely deaf, he couldn’t hear it, and yet he created the most heartwarming, most inclusive, most life-giving music that has ever been written. I’m not comparing him to Mozart, it’s not important, but he’s at the center of our culture, the center between the classical and the romantics, the center of Europe’s cultural life, this man, what he had to offer, gigantic person. Huge. He was picked up and put in prison because he was dressed like a tramp. It’s a strange story.

Stories are very important because I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but the story we tell in life is what gives us color, and energy, and fantasy, and warmth, and communication, all those things, so tell a story all the time. Would you try one more time? This time I’m not going to scream down your throat, I’m going to leave it to you, but you think about the think of that, she’s eight? Nine? Is that right?

Speaker 3:


Ben Zander:

Eight, right. Wow, it was pretty close. So think of an eight-year old traveling eight hours to come here to hear you, and just give her everything you have. All right? Don’t hold back. If you play an ugly note, great, terrific. Okay, (singing), and get those eyebrows up. When you are shocked or surprised, (singing) that’s what it’s about. I’m really shocked, (singing). Okay, here we go, one, two, three. Oh, I see. Oh, good. Yeah. Yeah. Different place. They start at different place. You know there’s a famous story of Yeah, that’s right. There’s a famous story of Beecham, who was conducting one night Carmen, and one night Lohengrin at Covent Garden during the war. The person who told me this was the first cellist who actually was sitting there. So Thomas came in putting on his coat into the opera, and he said, “What is it tonight?” He didn’t know which opera it was. John Kennedy thought he was joking, and he said, “Well, it was Lohengrin last night, it must be Carmen tonight.” So he went (singing), he changed from Carmen to Lohengrin one moment. So totally different gesture (singing).

From there. Yeah. One two It’s more exciting. Do it once again, exciting. Yeah, that’s too naughty, (singing). Find some freedom in it. Right from there. Now, don’t play the cello, sing. (Singing). It’s too clinical. Same thing. It still looks difficult. Now, smile doing that because then we’ll know you find it easy. Benissimo. This is a rare Do you have a mezzo forte there?



Ben Zander:

No, it’s not written, but it is a kind of mezzo forte. It’s very, very grand.



Ben Zander:

Like emperor concerto, they’re kind of big thing, so you can take lots of time here. Good. That was great. This is coming. Now we’re getting the message. They’re getting the message. You’re still keeping yourself very in control, but it’s better. I just want fire to come out of your head. Can you do that? Can you act? Did you know we’re actors? Did you ever think of that? We are in acting school. Do you realize that you go to acting school, you learn to cry? You learn to scream? Do you ever scream? Do you ever shout? Never. Do you ever really get angry? No. No. Even when you are pissed you don’t get angry, is that right? So would you work on that? Do you have a younger brother?

Alex Aranzabel:


Ben Zander:

No. Pity. It’s very easy to be angry with a younger brother. You can scream at a younger brother. Can you imagine you had a younger brother, and the younger brother kicked your cello, kicked it over? He suddenly said, “Oh, my God. Younger brothers do that? Oh, my God.” Well, imagine that happened, what would you say, just imagine saying something to your younger brother who just kicked over your cello, what would you say? The first thing you wouldn’t do is think, you’d say, “Don’t ever touch my cello again.” He’d get the message then, right? That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for something just out of control, and you’re at the door, you’re at the gateway. This may be a very important moment for you just to realize that being a cellist, and being an artist, and being a musician is not about being careful. Thank goodness you had a teacher who made you careful about cello playing.

Mark, thank you for the work you’ve done because you produced a wonderful cellist, but it’s not yet a fiery character, so you’re going to work on it. You’re going to get angry with people, and if they get upset, just say, “I’m just practicing.” We’re actors, you got it? Okay, play me a little because this is the idea, it’s such an incredible it’s very short, very compressed, like (singing), like the Opus 95, and it’s all essentially the same. I’d love to hear that passage we just did, and notice how lyrically she plays, (singing), how beautifully she does that. Could you do it from, yeah, from here, after the pianissimo, the subito piano double bar? Yeah, I want them more. I want more. (Singing). So special, that was great what you did. Go from (singing), or from here, the Crescendo 95. Go. Now lyrical. Last one.

Well, like the end of the first movement of Opus 95, which is very short like this, people should be just wiped out, exhausted, and now they want to go into a completely different world, and this could not be further from that world. So let’s just try the beginning of the second movement. One of the most beautiful things Beethoven ever wrote. Good. I am going to interrupt this very, very beautiful playing, really gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous playing. I just want to establish something, which is very interesting about Beethoven, and I think you are a little bit in between the two worlds here. This is in two, four, in two cut times, so the tendency is to think that it must be in two, and I think you are trying to get a feeling of two into it.

But the interesting thing is, for Beethoven, and I learned this from a great, great musician scholar, Rudolf Kolisch, who taught here at the conservatory, and did the most important work on tempo in Beethoven, what he pointed out is that sometimes a two, four means two, four, and sometimes it means four, eight, and if it does, if it’s four, eight, it’s half the tempo of the two, four, and this is definitely a four, eight. If you think of the Eroica, (singing), and then that’s a two, four, two, if you think of the Opus 59 No. 1, (singing), that’s a four, eight, and they’re marked exactly the same tempo, but half-half, the one is marked 80, and the other is 44. So he gave us evidence that sometimes it’s a four, sometimes it’s a two, this is although he didn’t give us a metronome mark, we really know that this is a four, and with all the elaborate 30 2nd notes and so on, it has to be as a very slow movement.

So give up any idea of trying to make it in 2, and think of it really a slow 4 at 44, something like that, and then you’ll change your mindset because you’ll suddenly feel very settled, and very, very calm. Should we just try that? Two, three, four. Let’s do it again without the coughing. Very beautiful. Do you see it’s a totally different feeling, and there’s a complete sense of calm here? Nobody is emoting, it’s just absolutely the calmest thing you’ve ever heard, so would you just try that once again? In mezzo voce, half the voice, not full voice, half the voice. I think that’s some form of pianissimo, but as if you haven’t quite got your whole heart behind it. Yeah. Good. Very beautiful. Both of you, very beautiful, and they’re thinking, “I’m very glad we came up from a long journey to hear that because it’s so special.” Beautiful. Make sure that the 30 2nds really are 30, (singing), don’t try and make them into 16s, (singing).

The other thing is when it’s piano, don’t play too soft because piano is not soft. Piano is normal, piano is outward, piano is giving, pianissimo is soft, so we make a real difference the moment there’s not enough difference. As esspresivo comes, piano espressivo is an invitation to just sing out with everything you have. A lot of people love the cello more than any other instrument. Do you know that? A lot of people say, “Oh, it’s my favorite instrument.” The reason is because it covers the whole human voice, it’s always singing, it’s always representing humanity in the way, so just be the voice of humanity when you play that tune. Would you try, Dina, from after the choral at the beginning? This is the 16th. (Singing). Sing, sing, look at all these people, they want their hearts filled with the sound of your cello. Can you do that? Once again. Full piano. Yes. Now sing. Can you do this again? Beautiful, beautiful playing both of you. She’s the main voice there. If you can both encourage it, and stay a little bit behind her so that the piano becomes the main singing voice.

Can you just try from that Dolce? Do you know where I mean? At 34, just listen once to her playing. Just from that place, Dina. It’s the most gorgeous piano writing, and you’re the secondary voice. Can you do that together?

Alex Aranzabel:

Could I see?

Ben Zander:

From here. You played a note out of tune, well done. That was great. Well done. Totally different. Now you’re the main voice, and she’s the accompanying voice, so you take over it different, and show people what beauty is. They have to come to you and Beethoven to find out what beauty is, and we need it so desperately in this bleak, dark, angry world. You’re like a priest giving calm and peace. It’s one of the great moments. This is late Beethoven, this is the last stage of his life. Dina, you played that so beautifully, and she played it beautifully partly because you went into the second role. If you could look as though you wanted everybody to listen to the piano rather than You have your eyes closed a lot. I never know why people close their eyes because the people are here, you know, “Listen, listen, listen, listen,” maybe sometimes, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it. Keep your eyes open, and particularly since your eyes are so expressive, you can tell, “Listen to the piano.”

My teacher used to do that. He used to sit even closer just to jump up, he used to sit like this, and he said, “I always want to be able to close enough so I can touch the piano in case I need to.” Then while he was playing, you played the tune he would play. Could you do that? Come, come, sit.

Alex Aranzabel:

Sorry, what’s that?

Ben Zander:

Yeah, from the same place. She’s going to play even more beautifully than before. Same place. Listen to me. Yes. More. Can I suggest something there? You start soft, and get softer. Beautiful. Do the chords like far, far away, we almost can’t hear. Last thing, you’re doing dada, dada, dadom, babom, babom. Once again. This is the magical center of the peace. All the musicians listen. When you have a dotted rhythm, and you take time, the little note goes with the next note, not dada, dada, dada, dada, but dada, dada, dada, dada, always keep those together. Beautiful. Once again. Keep that, otherwise, one Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. I want to make a comment about the applause, that’s not applause, “Bravo, well done,” that’s, “Thank you for opening my heart.” That’s what you did, and there wasn’t a single person in this room who wasn’t mesmerized at the end of that moment, absolutely mesmerized. It was beautiful.

So you’re entering a new world. You are entering adulthood. You’re entering artistry. You’re no longer a good cellist, you’re an artist, that’s a huge leap to make. You’ve done the work you’ve practiced, you’ve been very, very conscientious about building this wonderful cello technique, and control and understanding, and now you’re a poet, now you’re telling stories. Is that right? Yeah. What a beautiful thing. Bravo. Well done.

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