Francisco Vila, an Ecuadorian, talked his way into the great cellist’s class. Here is his touching reminiscence:
Homage to a great man: Janos Starker
In the past days people from everywhere have paid their respects to a man that impacted so many in the world of music. It was recently that he impacted me as well. He surprised me, disturbed me, made me laugh, broke me down, helped me to heal and eventually helped me to trust myself in a world where self-confidence is the means by which to deliver a convincing musical message. He had the largest influence in my cello-playing and was a tremendous role model in the human realm. For cellists, he was the universal standard for decades with the likes of Casals, Rostropovich and in recent years, Yo-Yo Ma. It is almost impossible to encompass in words the essence of the artist, the man and the inspiration which he offered to many who came under his guidance. In homage to such a giant in the world of music, telling a small part of my story is the only way I feel I can pay my deepest respects after he passed last Sunday.
If in present day there were someone more devoted to their principles and to their art, for me it was Janos Starker. I felt this when I was sent to Indiana University to study with Mr. Starker at the recommendation of Gary Hoffman. Gary assured me that I would have no problems getting into his class and I had a very difficult time believing this prediction. Of course it was hard to believe that one of the greatest cellists of all time would take into his class a young guy from Ecuador with nothing to offer aside from aspirations and a whole lot of ambition. How was it possible? On one hand I had natural impulses and capabilities but did not have the so-called technical abilities on the instrument and had never experienced formal training until the age of 17. In any case, I ended up in Bloomington for a trial lesson with Mr. Starker. I watched him come into the studio as did approximately seven other students gathered there to watch the lessons of the day. It was the first time I would play for him and I was nervous as hell, not out of fear, but respect. He had a unique way of commanding it in his demeanor.
Two people played before me and then it was my turn. At the center of his studio and in front of the piano was situated a platform on which all cellists sat to “perform” the piece they would offer to the master. I got my cello out of its case, tuned it and stepped onto the podium. Before I could get a word out to announce what I would play, he addressed me with the first words he had ever directed to me: “Who are you and what are you doing here?” I told him that one of his old students, Gary Hoffman, had suggested that I should play for him with the hopes of entering his class. He responded by saying, “Very well. Then what is your offering today?” I played the first movement of Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello. At the end of the movement he lit a cigarette and began to assess my playing in much the same way a doctor examines a patient. He even included some compliments in his assessment but concluded by observing that somehow my playing was reminiscent of the old Hungarian gypsy style of playing. I didn’t know what to say so I answered: “Coming from you, that´s a compliment!” I felt honored to have gotten ANY reaction from him after playing. In the end I realized that while he felt there was spirit in the performance, it was not necessarily a good thing to play Cassadó like a Hungarian gypsy! He meant that a few technical issues were hindering my playing and that they should be dealt with. Thus began my effort to get to Bloomington and to become a member of his class.
He accepted me to the school and I made arrangements to be there in the fall of that year. Little did I know that everyone who wished to be part of the Starker gang would have to audition once again on the first day of classes, at which point he would make decisions. This meant moving my whole life to Bloomington to hope for the best. I made the move from Boston to Bloomington and on the first day of classes I met and played for him for the second time. He remembered me and after I played, he again said that he felt I was gifted and had the natural ability to catch on quickly, and added that therefore, I need not study with him. I felt absolutely hopeless! There was no reason to stay if I would not study with him. On the following day Sharon Robinson Laredo, a wonderful cellist and educator of her own right, who had by then graciously accepted me into her class spoke with Mr. Starker. I listened. He simply repeated to her what he said to me: “There are other people in this class who need my help more than he does. But I told him that he can come to play for me from time to time if he needs it.” It was then that I understood under what principle he had taken his decision. He was interested in teaching musical principles and technical elements, which he felt I did not need, but inside myself I strongly disagreed! There was nothing I could do to save that situation. He had made his decision. What he didn´t know about me is that I would not give up so easily. Every chance I got to be in his class to observe and take mental notes – I was there! Every…single…day.
Eventually, he saw that I was serious and I began to have regular lessons with him while also studying with Sharon Robinson. This was one of the rare opportunities I was granted to see someone work in the highest level of music-making and teaching. Mr. Starker made the environment a familial one and wanted us to learn from one another. There was no such thing as a private lesson. He stressed that we should listen to the improvement of others in order to learn about ourselves; our technical deficiencies among other things. Every day a handful of people observed and listened. I became familiar with what he called the “esoteric” elements in music-making, which included all of the minute but necessary details that would make all the difference in the sounds we produced from the instrument.
The lessons I learned in that classroom often times held more value in the human aspect. The most treasured piece of advice from him was one that I won´t ever forget and one that sounded more like a command: “If you have a problem, then solve it.” Although succinct, he meant that we were being given the necessary tools and should put them to work without overthinking. All of us were very fortunate to have been in the presence of such a man. He was tough but forgiving when there were technical “sins” like unclear half-steps, which needed “some warm water and soap” to become clean again. I could go on quoting him and telling more stories about Mr. Starker, but my guess is that I would be stealing other “disciples’” memories and the opportunity for them to tell their own stories in paying respects to this great teacher and king in the world of music. As he always said in very slow and sharp pronunciation:
“My job is to disturb you.”
Disturb us he did, and he got us to love him for it.