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Steven Isserlis

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Photo:Tom Miller

littlecellist.com is extremely honoured to have Steven Isserlis as honorary patron. Not only is he a really wonderful cellist, he also does so much for children and the cello. He's recorded a CD especially for children (Children's Cello, Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough), he gives concerts for children and he has written two children's books about the lives of great composers: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled his Wig.

We are very grateful to both Steven Isserlis and his cello for finding time in their very busy schedules to answer some questions for littlecellist.com:

How old were you when you started to play the cello?

I started to learn the cello when I was four but - alas - I would constantly play on the wrong side of the bridge, making a horrible noise that I found very funny, even though nobody else did. So I was made to give up, and only allowed to try again when I had reached the mature age of six.

Did you choose to play the cello? 

My parents chose the cello for me. My father played the violin, my mother the piano, my middle sister Rachel the violin, and it was already decided that my older sister Annette was going to play the viola; and our dog Dandy used to sing very beautifully. So a cellist was needed and that was me.

Who were your first cello teachers and what were they like?

My first teacher was an elderly lady called Julia Pringle. She had a way of making her pupils enthusiastic about the cello - so I fell in love with the instrument thanks to her. Then at the age of ten, I went onto my main teacher, Jane Cowan, and stayed with her till I was seventeen. She was a mad genius - she could be terrifying but she was incredibly inspiring. With her, music and technique, and in fact the whole of life, somehow went together. She would nowadays be called 'holistic'. Anyway, she was wonderful, and remains my biggest influence. After her, I went to a lovely university in America, Oberlin College, for a couple of years, and studied there with Richard Kapuscinski, who was an adorable man and gave me excellent practical advice.

Did you always enjoy practising?

No! But I usually do now - unless it's going really badly (which does happen fairly regularly).

What was your favourite subject at school?

English

Were you a good pupil?

No, I was a pain in the neck - the class clown, or one of them anyway. My lowest point at school (The City of London School) was a week when I pushed someone into a glass noticeboard and smashed it, and dropped a briefcase from a high window onto a master's new car, making a huge dent in the bonnet.

Where did you go to music college?

Oberlin was both a college and a conservatory, and Jane Cowan's little school was officially called 'The International Cello Centre' - a very grand title, but it was tiny!

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you in a concert?

All sorts of strange things are always happening to me in concerts. I remember playing in a hall in Armenia once which was full of birds, and I was so worried that one of them was going to deposit something nasty on my cello or my hair.

Similarly, I was once on stage at the Wigmore Hall with my friend the comedian Barry Humphries - except that he was at that point in the guise of one of his comic characters Sir Les Patterson, who has a horrible habit of spitting all over the stage. I had to play facing away from him, even though I was accompanying him in a song written by my sister Annette, so that my cello wouldn't get horribly wet.

There was also a very strange occasion, years and years ago, when I was giving a recital in a church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with the pianist Peter Evans. At the end, when we went to take our final bows on stage, a man followed us, accusing us of having stolen his coat! So we were having to bow and smile graciously while trying to convince him that we weren't thieves and pointing out that he was on stage and everyone was looking at him. All most peculiar.

Does anyone else in your family play the cello?

Yes, my son Gabriel also plays the cello and so does my niece Natasha.

For how long do you practise?

It varies hugely. At the moment very little because I've finished concerts for the year, and both my birthday and Christmas are coming up. But sometimes I practise for several hours - it depends how many pieces I have to work on.

What do you do when something is very difficult?

Practise it more, slowly and carefully, and don't panic!

Do you like playing The Donkey and Driver? 

Yes, I think it's a wonderful piece, but it's tricky! So I don't play it often - I'm very lazy, really.

(The Donkey and Driver by Hubert Léonard arranged for cello by Steven Isserlis, portrays the sad - nay, tragic - consequences which inevitably occur when human and donkey cultures clash. The donkey is trotting along quite merrily, when his driver decides to sing a song; a very nice song it is too, but the donkey is a busy donkey, with places to go and people to see … No prizes for guessing who ends up the winner. You can hear Steven Isserlis play The Donkey and Driver on his CD Cello World

What is the most difficult piece of music you have ever played?

Hmmm …. maybe Bach's Suite No.6?

What music do you like playing most of all?

It varies. It tends to be the piece I'm playing at that moment. But I am a Schumann-nut, so I love playing his music. And the Walton Concerto is a particular favourite.

Do you have any hobbies?

Yes: reading, writing (though that is a profession as well these days), driving my friends crazy by sending them constant emails, and watching film and drama (but especially comedy). And eating!!!

What do you like about playing the cello?

Everything! It feels nice, it sounds nice and it's the best instrument!

Do you have any message for young cellists?

Enjoy it !!!!! And don't think too much about the cello - think about music as a whole. It's the best thing in life (along with food).

Steven Isserlis's cello also graciously agreed to answer some questions for littlecellist.com …

How old are you?

I am about 260 years old. It's hard to remember the time when I was born.

How did you meet Mr Isserlis? Was it love at first sight?

I met him in Paris. Not sure about love at first sight - I decided to put up with him. Anyway, at least he put gut strings on me - that's much nicer - makes me feel much less tense.

Same question to Mr Isserlis. Was it love at first sight?

Yes, definitely!

Does Mr Isserlis look after you nicely?

He tries. He's trying, in fact, very.

What are the best and worst things about travelling?

Getting an extra seat so that Mr Isserlis can sit in the aeroplane and not in the hold. Going to new restaurants and eating food from different countries. Going to posh hotels and lying on the comfortable beds. Playing in nice concert halls - though probably my favourite is the Wigmore Hall in London, near to where Mr Isserlis and I share an apartment with his wife and son and a few other cellos.

Do you think violins are squeaky?

Of course they are, poor little things.

What's your favourite piece to play?

Well, there are lots of pieces I love to play - Bach, for instance, and then several works by those nice young men, Mr Beethoven, Mr Schubert, Mr Schumann, Mr Brahms, Mr Fauré, etc. But I draw the line at those young whippersnappers (like Mr Shostakovich, in his first concerto) who require Mr Isserlis to hit my strings really hard. I tell him he can use other cellos for that. Humph - the idea of hitting a Stradivarius!!!


Here you can see Steven Isserlis playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 3. in G Major at a concert for children in New York.