For 90 minutes on Tuesday, Jan. 31, Alisa Weilerstein was a virtuoso performer onstage at St. Francis Auditorium, giving deeply thoughtful performances of three suites for solo cello by J.S. Bach. For 90 minutes the previous night she was an acting teacher, psychologist, motivator, improvisor, and musical coach at a master class for nine high-school age string players at the United Church of Santa Fe.
It was all part of the surprisingly large amount of musical activity that goes on in Santa Fe mostly unseen by the concert-going public, thanks to the education and outreach programs of groups such as Performance Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, which collaborated on the master class.
For young performers, taking part in such a class is something of a rite of passage. The participants here were two string quartets from the youth symphony and a solo cellist from Rio Rancho. Each had a 30-minute session with Weilerstein, which is a standard format, with an audience present that included some of their teachers, parents, youth symphony colleagues, and members of the public.
Now one of the concert world’s busiest soloists, Weilerstein was a child prodigy who played Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13. She brings an unusually wide range of experiences to her concertizing and teaching, especially for someone with that background. She got an undergraduate degree, not in music but in Russian history, from Columbia University before attending the Cleveland Institute of Music, and her diverse interests were cited by the MacArthur Foundation when it awarded her one of their “genius grants” in 2011.
In person, the 40-year-old cellist is professional, friendly, and surprisingly petite, even when wearing platform shoes. When she warms up her cello before the class begins, an incredibly big, warm sound pours out from the first notes, silencing conversation in the church sanctuary.
Two of Weilerstein’s principal tenets — respect for her students whatever their abilities and meeting them wherever they are as a starting point — quickly become obvious as the class gets underway. Some instructors can be notorious interrupters, but she let each cohort play an entire movement of a piece before starting to work with them.
Then it’s a matter of deciding what to work on in the time that remains. “You have to produce a change almost immediately,” she says, “most importantly so the students get something out of it, but also so the audience can hear a perceptible difference.”
The first ensemble made a bold choice, the Maurice Ravel string quartet, which challenges even the most experienced players, and here Weilerstein’s on-the-spot decision was to focus on what it means for a quartet to play together, in contrast with simply playing simultaneously.
“What do you do when you rehearse?” she asks. “How do you create a unified sound? Do you ever play scales or anything like that?” Told that they played some improvisations, Weilerstein responded, “I’d like to try that with you later on. Meanwhile, let’s start by getting a really unified pitch, on A, since you’re in the key of A minor.”
Creating a feeling of empathy with the students is one of Weilerstein’s most important goals, and one of her techniques is to quickly offer a solution, as she did here, without stating the underlying problem. (“You’re not in tune!” is a route a different master teacher might start with under these circumstances.) She also participates in the solution, playing alongside them after asking the quartet’s cellist, “May I be your stand partner?”
They began working to improve their intonation from the bottom up, having the cello start and adding the other instruments one by one. Once the unified A was achieved, they played a slow ascending scale together, pausing on each note until it was securely in tune. (“Good! It’s getting better and better!” she announces during the scale.)
Much of her technique with the quartet involved deconstructing the music into individual components to work on, so that a rhythmic challenge was solved by having the players count the values out loud without playing (“One, two, three, and four”), then reassembling the components one by one.
Weilerstein also looks for general principles to impart. “Tune to exactly the same frequency before you start rehearsing. It will save you a lot of time, maybe 30 minutes all together.” And she frequently sounds like an acting coach, evoking the emotional content a particular section should have instead of citing what’s printed on the page.
While working on a short section in the Ravel, she noticed that the first violinist had a long trill with a crescendo indication, which he was playing accurately but somewhat mechanically. “You are someone who’s getting more and more confident as the trill goes along and gets louder,” she says. “You’re saying, I want to go in THIS direction!” The result was immediately noticeable the next time through, with playing that conveyed a real sense of swagger, in addition to the correct note values.
Weilerstein also believes in honoring the observations and ideas her students bring to a master class, knowing that they are often hesitant to voice them. “It’s meeting someone there first,” she says, “and then you can walk together with them and hope you end up in the direction I feel like they should go.”
At times this can require sudden onsite improvisation to engineer a major mid-flight correction. While discussing a particularly evocative section of the Ravel, one of the students described it as ditzy. “Wow!” Weilerstein blurts out, “I always thought of it as people playing games with each other.” After a bit more description of the music’s qualities, she says, “You know, now I can really see how the games might include this ditzy player who’s causing some of these things to happen.” The student’s original idea was honored as they arrived at Weilerstein’s intended destination.
After the session, Violet Henderson, an 18-year-old senior at Los Alamos High School and the quartet’s violist, said, “When we did the things she asked, I heard how my part aligns with others in ways I had never heard before. Even just playing the beginning over and over was so helpful to get us aligned. I’ve definitely become much more mindful of listening to each other and playing together.”
At the college and graduate school level, where the students are focused on a professional career in music, nerves run higher and a master class can often have an underlying level of tension. The atmosphere here was more relaxed. Several of the participants talked about how much they were engaged in other activities; most planned to continue their studies in college but to major in other subjects.
Julian Skrak, one of the first violinists, as well as an avid skier and mountain biker, said he wasn’t nervous before the session began. Even Summer Crabb, a 15-year-old cellist who wants to attend the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, said that her level of nervousness beforehand was “around four or five on a 10 scale,” even though it was her first master class.
Weilerstein’s agenda was different with Crabb, whose skill level is quite advanced for her age, as she demonstrated by playing the soloist’s part from the third movement of Édouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto. After being told Crabb started working on it three months ago, Weilerstein responded, “That was great! Have you played the whole concerto? No? Well, don’t worry, that’s the hardest movement.”
She then started to work with Crabb on some small but important physical adjustments to help keep her playing consistent while conserving energy needed for a long piece. “When you’re playing the C string [the lowest one, on the cellist’s left], you can turn the cello just a bit to the right,” she says, “so the string is a little closer to your bow arm and you don’t have to reach for it. Same thing for the A string [the highest one, on the right], just turn the cello a little bit to the left. That’s easier, yes?”
Crabb agreed and they moved ahead to work on the opening section, with a combination of technical advice (“Try not to look at your hands while you’re playing. Your intonation will improve!”) and interpretive suggestions relating to the concept of rubato. “Let’s see if you can be a bit of a rebel. You’re going to borrow length from some notes to add to others,” Weilerstein says, “so it sounds more free, even though there’s still a steady pulse underneath.”
They work together on the section, using a metronome app on Weilerstein’s cell phone. After a few more minutes, Weilerstein says, “You know this music really well, don’t you?” After Crabb nods, she continues, “Now I want you to play it without the music and without looking at your hands.” Again, the improvement is immediately apparent.
Like Henderson, Crabb was enthusiastic about the session. “I learned some new ways to practice fast runs and that it’s ok to angle my cello in different ways to make it easier to play,” she said afterwards. “I was a little surprised when she focused on how I was holding my left hand because I normally have technique problems with my bow hand, but I could see what she was talking about.”
Given Weilerstein’s skill in a master class situation, it was also a little surprising to hear that she didn’t like leading them at first. “I wasn’t sure they were all that useful,” she says, “and I found the setting rather artificial.”
She had participated in many of them as a student, with teachers including Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Isserlis, and the late Lynn Harrell. Quite a few she recalled as being helpful. The ones that weren’t all suffered from the same problem: the teacher devoted too much time to entertaining the audience compared to working with the students.
Now, she says, she’s changed her mind. “When I’ve spoken to students who have played in my master classes, many have found it very impactful. I’m not trying to make them play like me or interpret the way I would. I want them to become the best possible version of themselves. If I say one thing to a student that’s genuinely helpful and will stay with them, that’s worth it.” ◀