Stephen Geber Interview
Ovation Press: What inspired you to play the cello?
Stephen Geber: I was born into a family of cellists. My father and mother were both professional musicians. One of them was in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and my mother was a very renowned teacher and performer on the cello in the LA area. My brother is a founding member of the American String Quartet and is now the Dean of the Manhattan School of Music. I just kind of fell into it, you might say.
OP: How involved were your parents in your musical education?
SG: My mother was actually my first teacher and I worked with her for about two and a half very rocky years. Mother and son did not click in that area but I was able to move on to another teacher, which, not being a family member, seemed to work a little better. However, my mother and father both oversaw what I was doing as I was growing up and were a great help and influence in my future life in music.
OP: When did your musical career begin?
SG: Well, I think it really took off when I went to the Eastman School of Music--it's sort of a late start. Although I had been active throughout grade school participating in various contests, competitions, and most importantly in a lot of chamber music, I think it's when I went to the Eastman School of Music when I was 18 or 19 years old, that it really turned everything around for me and made me realize that this is a career I really wanted to pursue. During my time there I was heavily embedded in orchestral training as well as chamber training, and this appealed to me very much. I also had the good fortune of working with a wonderful teacher at the Eastman School, Ronald Leonard, and this certainly helped me to succeed in the orchestral field and also in the chamber music field.
OP: What kind of warm-up routine do you follow?
SG: Well, before I perform or play or even practice, I do a warm-up routine of scales and just some slow practice for about 15 minutes to a half an hour. Everybody needs to do that in order to hopefully avoid any kind of injury or tendinitis or anything like that.
OP: Have there been specific teachers or mentors that had an especially large impact on your development as a musician?
SG: I think they all did. Being from a musical family and my parents being cellists, it was a great help to me for them to guide me to the right teachers at the right time. I'm indebted to all my teachers.
OP: How has teaching impacted you?
SG: Teaching young people has been an inspiration to me and helped me grow as a musician. It's actually helped my cello playing because I have to put into words and express what I'm trying to communicate to the student. The sharing of ideas with young people today is a real inspiration for me and it helps me in just about every aspect of my musical life.
OP: What kind of career advice do you give to your students?
SG: I simply tell them: if you can look in the mirror and can say, "this is what I want to do," and if you have a tenacious enough personality to stick with it, you will find your niche and succeed. There are no guarantees. It's a very competitive field. There are no guarantees of success immediately but I think if you stay with it and really work hard, your opportunities will come along at some point. Everybody seems to find themselves or find their way as they go along in life.
OP: What are some of the most important responsibilities of being a principal cellist in an orchestra and can someone train for that specifically?
SG: The responsibilities are rather simple yet they can be numerous as well. I think the most important thing is one has to be a solid player, both technically and musically. One has to have an edge on temperament and an edge on the ability to play solos. That's not to say that a principal player is necessarily a better player than other people in the section--that's not always the case. I also think one has to be a people person and know how to relate to the section and bring everybody together to play as one. He or she has to be involved with the music director or whoever is conducting, and be able to relate to that personality as well. Additionally, it's important that a principal player has poise. And as far as training and preparing for that, I think it's a gift. Some people have it and some people just don't.
OP: Is experience as a section member beneficial to a future principal player?
SG: Absolutely. I was very fortunate when I came to Cleveland because I had previously played with the Boston Symphony as a member of the section for 8 years. That experience really fine-tuned my orchestral playing and gave me the opportunity to concentrate on my solo playing when I came to Cleveland.
OP: What does a young musician joining a major orchestra for the first time need to know?
SG: I think they have to come and step into the situation with very open thoughts about an orchestral career. Nothing can be taken for granted. The young orchestral musicians today are very fortunate in that they have opportunities that ensure a very good life for an orchestral player. I think once a person has achieved the opportunity to perform within a fine orchestra, they also should keep their skills as an individual player fine-tuned as well. Do chamber music, teach, play a solo every now and then, but do not just sit back in the chair and take their position for granted. Additionally, I think that young players that come into the orchestra have to continually learn to respect the players that have been there for a while. I think most young players do, but there are cases where a young player comes into the orchestra and they feel that they would rather be a soloist than an orchestral player. An orchestra is a team effort, and in order to be successful with that you need to work as a team, not as an individual.
OP: How important are excellent bowings in orchestral parts?
SG: Extremely. This is a concern that a lot of orchestral musicians have. So much time is taken up with corrections or erasing or marking bowings in rehearsal. We usually only have four or five rehearsals a week, sometimes only three to prepare two or three concerts, and if you spend a lot of time having to make bowing corrections, it can be difficult and takes up a lot of needless time.
OP: How do you avoid spending time at rehearsals on bowings?
SG: Well, I think it's a two step process. Number one, you must have five principal string players who are willing to sit down and collaborate with the bowings in advance. Secondly, you need a good librarian who makes the part legible and clean and transfers the bowing decisions made by the principal string players.
OP: How greatly have conductors affected the orchestras in which you have played?
SG: I've been fortunate to be a member of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony and in both cases these orchestras were always brought to the highest level by certain musicians and personalities, but they both consistently played on the highest level in part due to their extreme pride with each other. In Cleveland the orchestra played in spite of the conductor who was in front of us sometimes. Naturally, you're occasionally going to have a guest conductor that is just not a good fit, but that pride is still there. Fortunately, during the period that I was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, I had the privilege of working with not only some really outstanding guest conductors, but most importantly music directors. They brought the very best out of the orchestra and the orchestra played for these people. That pride, caring, and musical integrity seemed to move on into the concerts with guest conductors regardless of who they were.
OP: Do conductors ever ask for ideas from the orchestra members?
SG: It works both ways. A really attuned and sensitive music director will turn to a particular section that he might admire and say, "now, how did you do this" or "this seems to be difficult maybe in another orchestra. How did you do it here so well?” Also, I think conductors who are able to sing a phrase and express it in vocal terms rather than speaking terms communicates their intention in a more meaningful way.
OP: What do you think have been the biggest changes in orchestras over the years?
SG: Well, I think there are a lot of changes. The seasons have become more demanding because of the financial and economic situation. More concerts are scheduled with more diversified programming and more touring has been expected of the orchestra members. I think that's good. Orchestral players in most cases now are able to have very good livable income and also enough time to further their musical interests with chamber appearances.
OP: What kind of interactions and coordination occur with the other principals in the orchestra and the concertmaster?
SG: It's like a string quartet, and I was very fortunate to come into an orchestra where the principal players of the orchestra had a string quartet. I'm sorry to say that two of those players are deceased now but we had a very viable and active string quartet for 22 years of my career with the Cleveland Orchestra.
OP: How important is chamber music experience for orchestral musicians?
SG: It's important for all musicians. Chamber music embodies all the qualities that we hope to attain in our orchestral performance: sensitivity, rhythmical and technical issues such as intonation, good ensemble playing, poise in performance and team collaboration. If you can do this with three, four or more players successfully, it only enhances your playing as an orchestral player.
OP: Were you able to maintain an active chamber music ensemble during your orchestral tenures?
SG: I had the quartet in the Boston Symphony for 8 years and then 22 years in the Cleveland Orchestra, and the experience of working with these people has stayed with me for years and years. Although two of the players in the Cleveland Orchestra quartet are deceased now, their qualities and integrity have stayed with me as an inspiration to me and something I try to pass along to my students. I hope I'm doing that successfully.
OP: Would you share a couple of the most memorable or funny moments in your orchestral career?
SG: Oh, my goodness! I think one of the greatest times I've ever had is when we had Danny Kaye the famous comedian come and do some acts in concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra. He was just so funny that I lost it. I just absolutely had to stop playing and I almost dropped my cello...it was so funny. Of course, he made a parody of it as well. He picked up on that right away and had me in front of the audience and all I was doing was laughing. I won't go into graphic details but it was a very memorable evening working with really the best of the best. He was like a Jack Benny--the same generation. And as far as memorable, the beautiful music making, the incredible concerts over a career that has spanned 42 years...I don't know where to begin.
OP: Do you have any final comments for aspiring musicians?
SG: Keep the faith. If you really wish to succeed in music you have to first believe in yourself and also be honest with yourself. I think that would be the only thing I try to embed with my students now. To make sure they understand that they have to be totally honest with themselves.