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How the masters teach the cello

This anecdote is contributed by Robert Fitzpatrick, former Dean of the Curtis Institute, who heard that the last-named teacher told it about himself.

Three cellists die and appear before St. Peter.
Cellist 1: I have led an exemplary life and studied with Rostropovich.
St. Peter: Go straight to hell!
Cellist 2: I have been very pious, still practice Piatti every day, and studied with Aldo Parisot.
St. Peter: Please go straight to hell.
Cellist 3: I have nothing to say in my defence except that I studied with Janos Starker.
St. Peter: Please come right in, you’ve been through hell already.

janos starker

photo courtesy Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Mr Starker is Distinguished Professor of Music (Cello)


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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    In all honesty, I heard an Indiana faculty member tell it saying that he heard it from Starker.

  2. Istvan Horthy says:

    Quite possible – Starker has a great sense of humour as can be seen in his autobiography (assuming it is still in print).

  3. Nice Anecdote

    Aldo Simões Parisot, I’m not sure if I prefer my fellow countryman as a teacher or a painter.

  4. A frtiend, retired cellist, could say the same of Casals! Having sat through some rehearsals & performances w/Casals eons ago at Marlboro (my friend needed transportation. I provided transportation & got a free front seat to everything!). If that wasn’t hell…. I grew up w/that old world mentality as I’ve posted before. I’ve never met Starker but I know what Casals could be like….

  5. Mark Newbanks says:

    My Starker experience therefore must be a good ticket:

    Second year masterclass with his pupils and he interrupts mid-phrase to take my left hand from the fingerboard, almost bellowing so that the class heard every syllable distinctly “you have such a beautiful left hand, Mark”.

    Then taking a long drag on his seemingly circular-burning cigarette, he dryly continued “it’s a shame we cannot cut it off…” inhale, another drag, exhale, “…and give it to someone who knows how to use it.”

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Your place au Paradis is guaranteed.

    • Karen Kamensek says:

      In retrospect, I think I loved every nerve-wracking moment with him, even if he cost me LOTS of sleepless nights. And I was just the accompanist! I think I held my breath through every single lesson I played, until one time he stood behind me at the piano, blowing smoke over my head, put his hands on my shoulders, shoved them back down to where they belonged (instead of up around my ears) and said “for God’s sake, child, BREATHE!”

      I do, however, have everything to thank Mr. Starker for. Without his keen insight and encouragement, and his nudging me in the right direction at a very precise and key moment, I would never have become a conductor!

  6. Speaking of “hell”, studying with Harvey Shapiro was no bowl of cherries either (in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s joke he would have ended up sending St. Peter down there), but he was a great artist who had figured out the technique of doing it and conveying it, having experienced a rebirth in his own playing and a new career as a teacher, after he had become seriously arthritic. (Juilliard’s Peter Mennin had spent some years trying to woo Shapiro to teach there, and when he finally signed on, he did so at a fee that greatly exceeded the standard rate, though still under that of Galamian and Rosina Lhevinne. He enjoyed recounting that when Mennin pleaded poverty, his response was “so sell a rug”. He knew that the teachers were what mattered over the facility, and I’m told his colleagues greatly appreciated him for it, since they all received a raise as a result of his negotiation.)

    Despite his demanding standards, and tough and blunt exterior (you had to be that way to survive in the recording industry in NYC), he cared deeply about his students and was exceedingly generous of his time and money. If you couldn’t afford your lessons, you could pay him later, or not at all (‘just don’t tell anyone’ was the admonition which you just knew he told every other poverty stricken student). I remember one summer driving in a beaten up old Rambler that was on its last legs to a university where he was teaching, in order to study privately with him, and he would accept no money at all. So, I ended up driving to Canada to purchase and sneak back a few boxes of Cuban Montecristo Coronas (his favorite), after having also brought with me some Melodiya records of various Tchaikovsky competitions that I had purchased from the Four Continents bookstore in NYC- a store manned by Elsa Klebb types, but which sold everything from records you couldn’t get in the States to books on Marx and Lenin (though not Mao), and Russian metallurgy and shipbuilding. (To my chagrin, it was later busted as having been a notorious haven for spies. I didn’t care about that spy stuff, I had lost my own secret haven, like one more independent bookstore or record store with rare treasures falling by the wayside, except for me it was even more special.)

    Harvey knew his students’ playing and technical and musical problems so well, that he even instituted a system where, in addition to their weekly lessons, they could call him every day for a five minute diagnostic, and trust me, it worked. I think his LP recordings of the Rachmaninoff and Strauss Sonatas (they have never been digitized) are still the best, though as he was approaching 90, he was the first to admit that his interpretations on the records were not as good as what they had become.
    (A very nice tribute may be found at James Kreger’s website at:

    There are some fine teachers (I have wonderful memories and great appreciation for another marvelous one- Donald McCall), and there are a few great teachers, like Starker and Casals, but for yours truly, who at best had limited talent, Harvey was extraordinary.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      In the words of the late Frank Perdue: “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” (his TV commercials were US classics for his Maryland Chickens).

  7. How about Maurice Gendron? Given the raging debate, he would be very topical.

  8. Ingrid Bock says:

    What a nice thing you wrote there, Ed. Shapiro came alive for me, just from your post.

  9. ExStudentofStarker says:

    As an ex-student of Janos Starker, I will say that very often when you wanted to find a student to let him/her know that his/her lesson is up, you don’t look for them in the practice rooms. Rather, they are in the toilet for their last minute run.

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