Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians: Revisited by Steven Isserlis

Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians: Revisited by Steven Isserlis


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If everybody were to play first violin, we could not have an orchestra. Therefore respect each musician in his own place.

There is no end to learning.

Originally published in1850, Advice to Young Musicians: Musical Rules for Home and in Life offered composer Robert Schumann’s (1810–56) combination of practical advice and poetic words of wisdom for young people beginning their musical education. Presented in aphorisms and short paragraphs, the book’s insights remain as valuable today as when it was written. Recognizing the continued resonance of Schumann’s words, world-renowned cellist Steven Isserlis, himself a writer of children’s books and many articles for young musicians, set out to rescue the work from history. Here, in this beautiful gift edition, he revisits Schumann’s work and contributes his own contemporary counsel for musicians and music lovers.

For this edition, Isserlis retranslated Schumann’s text and arranged it into four thematic sections: “On being a musician,” “Playing,” “Practicing,” and “Composing.” Each page is decoratively designed, and accompanying Schumann’s original quotation are Isserlis’s thoughtful and often humorous glosses. The book concludes with Isserlis’s own reflections on his life as a musician and performer: “My Own Bits of Advice (For What They’re Worth).”  The result is a unique and thought-provoking book that will be treasured by aspiring musicians of any age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226482743
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/23/2017
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 733,591
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Steven Isserlis appears as a cellist regularly with the world’s leading orchestras and in recitals at major venues worldwide; he is also the artistic director of the famous International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, Cornwall. In addition, he is the author of two children’s books, Why Handel Waggled His Wig and Why Beethoven Threw the Stew: And Lots More Stories About the Lives of Great Composers.

Read an Excerpt



From a pound of iron, which costs virtually nothing, a thousand watch-springs can be made, which are worth a fortune. That pound, which you have received from the Lord – use it faithfully.

Schumann himself doesn't start with this nugget – but I feel that it's a good place to begin. Is any child born unmusical? I think not. Every infant, given the chance, will enjoy fun rhythms and catchy tunes, almost from birth; that's why we have nursery rhymes. From then on, though, each child's relationship with music will develop in a unique way. Alas, only a small proportion will get a chance to study it properly – such a pity, when the benefits of a musical education are so unarguably documented. And of those who have the chance to study music, only a few will choose to make it their profession. But that's fine – we need many more listeners than performers!

As to the pound of iron that we've been handed: there's no denying that the Lord has endowed some people with more natural musical aptitude than others; but that's no reason for the less talented ones to be discouraged. In fact, talent can be a danger; all too many young musicians abuse their gifts, rather than 'using them faithfully'. For some of them, it can all feel just too easy, with the result that they get lazy, and end up being superficial performers. Those who have to work harder can often develop more interestingly. As for those who feel that they really have no talent for playing or singing – don't give up! The more you engage with music, on whatever level, the better you will understand it; and the more you understand, the more you will get out of it. Hopefully, your studies will give you a love for music that will enrich your whole life. If not, it's probably because you've been taught badly. For those who've decided that they hate music because their piano teacher Miss Smith rapped them on the knuckles when they played a wrong note, I'd say: give music another chance! It's not Beethoven's fault that Miss Smith was an old sourpuss. Nor yours – and you're the one who'll miss out if you cut music out of your life.

Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm.

Yes – what's the point in even trying to be a musician if you don't love, love, LOVE music with all your heart? Great music is the best possible friend one could have: it will be with you in times of happiness and of sadness; and it will never let you down or abandon you. Why would we not be enthusiastic? Having said which, I have to admit that there is a big difference between music itself and the music profession. Some aspects of the latter are likely to drive you mad at times, if you're part of it. That makes it all the more important, then, to remember why we wanted to be musicians in the first place: because music lives in our hearts. And we have to keep it there.

Through diligent study and perseverance you will rise ever higher.

That's obvious, really; but it still needs to be said. I've seen very gifted young performers fade away because they've become self-satisfied and stopped developing. What makes one grow as a musician is as much as anything else a constant feeling of dissatisfaction – rather like the irritation in an oyster that produces a pearl. That doesn't mean to say that we have to be neurotically self-critical, always unhappy with any performance we give; it just means that we have always to aim higher. Of course we will never reach the level that reigns in our imaginations; but we have to keep trying. After all, even the greatest composers felt that their music could have been better. If Beethoven wasn't satisfied with himself, we can't be satisfied with ourselves either. Back to work ...

The laws of morals are those of art.

What the great man is saying here (I think) is that there is good music and bad music – as well as good and bad interpretations. The greatest music, even if it's tragic in nature, takes us to a world more elevated than ours; somehow the beauty, the profundity uplifts us. Bad music, on the other hand, degrades us. It's the same with performances: a bad performance isn't necessarily the result of incompetence. Some of the worst travesties occur when the performers, no matter how accomplished, are thinking more of themselves than of the music they're playing. These doubtful characters aren't really listening to what the composer is saying – they're just showing off, hoping that they'll have a great 'success' with the public. The performer's basic task is to try to understand the meaning of the music, and then to communicate it honestly to others. Simple, really ... (well, perhaps not always that simple!).

Never miss an opportunity to play music with others; as for example in Duets, Trios, etc. This will give you a flowing and lively style of playing. Also accompany singers often.

That's an interesting way of putting it. I'd add that not only does playing chamber music give you 'a flowing and lively style of playing': rather more vitally, it teaches you to listen, perhaps the most important skill of all. For listen we must, at all times – to the composer, and to our fellow musicians. We mustn't try just to squeeze every little drop out of every note in our own part, in order to be noticed; that's rather like a footballer who gets possession of the ball and keeps it as long as he possibly can, refusing to pass it even though that ruins his team's chances of scoring – ridiculous. In fact, I'd say that all music is chamber music, and needs to be treated as such, whether it be a concerto, a symphony, a piece for small ensemble, or even a solo piece; there is always a dialogue between voices, which is the essence of chamber music. And it is up to us to balance those voices, to bring out the conversation. (I was born lucky, in that my two older sisters were already playing instruments by the time I took up the cello. We played together almost from the beginning; and the life of a little brother who ignores what his sisters are doing really isn't worth living. So I learned to pay attention to other voices ...)

As to accompanying singers: yes, that is very important – and not just for pianists. But as Schumann himself tactfully puts it:

You can learn quite a lot from singers, but do not believe all that they say!

Ahem – well, yes. Perhaps not all operatic tenors, for example, have been among the greatest intellects on the planet; and one cannot usually imitate a singer on an instrument (easier for them to imitate an instrument, probably). But one can learn much about legato, about articulation, about breathing, about talking through one's instrument, from them. From the good ones, that is. And one can also learn about intonation. A good singer will never use piano intonation; intervals will be altered by microtones in order to increase or decrease their intensity. The same should be true for string and wind players; expressive intonation is an essential part of interpretation.

Never miss good operas.

It's very important to get to know operas (as long as you can afford the tickets – thankfully, though, that situation seems to be getting better all the time). It's revealing to see how composers treat words and dramatic situations in their music; Mozart's operas, for instance, give one strong clues as to what he is expressing in much of his instrumental music. Besides, good opera productions can be overwhelmingly wonderful – although, it must be admitted, bad ones can be torture ...

Frequently sing in choruses, especially the middle parts; this will help to make you into a real musician.

It's a good idea to sing in a chorus – even if, like me, you sound like a corncrake with a mulberry stuck in his beak. It's very useful to feel how a singer phrases and breathes from personal experience, as well as getting to know wonderful choral music. And if you're a singer, I'd recommend playing a stringed instrument, so that you can see how the other half bows. Meanwhile, all musicians should be able to play the piano – at least well enough to study their pieces from the score or from a piano reduction.

If you are endowed with a good voice, do not hesitate to cultivate it – consider it the most valuable gift that heaven has granted you!

I wouldn't know from personal experience ... but he's right, of course (as always).

If everybody were to play first violin, we could not have an orchestra. Therefore respect each musician in his own place.

A real pearl of wisdom, this one. Not everybody is going to be a soloist. Many people understand this, and are content to play in an orchestra or chamber group, or to teach; these musicians are every bit as vital as those whose names may become better known. But there will always be those for whom the glittering career is all-important; these are usually the least interesting interpreters – and that way bitterness lies, because even if they do achieve outward success, they'll feel empty inside. Many of the greatest musicians I have known have been primarily teachers rather than performers; without these teachers there would be no performers, anyway. (Schumann himself wrote at one point: 'I want to become a real piano teacher, and compose in addition.') And many of the most knowledgeable, perceptive musicians I know play in orchestras or chamber groups, or sing in choruses. We have to find our own niche, our proper place, in the music world, as in any other profession; what matters most is that we use our love of music to enhance our own lives and the lives of others.

The object of art is not to acquire wealth. Become a great artist, and other things will come.

Ah, so right, so right – though few of us object to riches, if truth be told. But if earning a lot of money is your principal aim as a classical musician, then you're in the wrong profession. (Try managing a hedge fund instead.) The same goes for applause: it's lovely, and I don't know of any musician who does not enjoy an enthusiastic reception (even if they pretend not to); but it must not be the main goal. An honest approach to music will not necessarily whip an audience into a frenzy (depending on the piece); it may leave them in thoughtful mode. But people with true sensitivity to music will feel your sincerity and be moved by it; and moving people is more important than impressing them.

Make sure that your head is not turned by the applause of the crowd, often accorded to so-called 'great virtuosi'; that of artists is of greater value.

Yes – so often one goes to a concert, sees a performer showing off horribly, and the audience reacts with fevered enthusiasm. It's hard not to be depressed by this. It means nothing, though; that sort of triumph is hollow. If you have a big success, by all means enjoy it – that is only human. But remember that it's not the main thing; the applause won't last for long. (Schumann rather rudely compared audiences to a herd of cattle momentarily distracted from its grazing by a flash of lightning.) Later, when you are alone, think back over your performance; and also ask the opinion of honest friends whom you can trust – Schumann's 'artists' – because intelligent feedback is important. Then decide whether you really deserved the accolades. Remember that there's always room for improvement – and artistic growth.

When you play, don't worry about who may be listening to you.

Well – unless they happen to be artists, presumably? (See p. 20.) Again, though, what he's reminding us here is that our relationship to the music should be stronger than our relationship to the public.

Never help to popularise bad compositions; on the contrary, do your best to suppress them. You should neither play bad compositions, nor, unless compelled, listen to them.

This can be awkward; if a composer writes a piece for you, you may feel obliged to perform it, even if you don't like it. You can usually avoid playing it for a second time, though, if you explain to the composer (as gently as possible) that you don't really feel that you can do justice to the piece. As for listening to bad compositions: the way in which music surrounds us now is completely different from anything Schumann could have imagined. What would he have made of the Muzak that assaults our ears almost every time we leave our homes? He'd have gone mad. (Well, yes – he did that anyway, I know; but his last years would have been yet more tragic and awful if they'd had piped music in his asylum.) Leaving Muzak aside, though, it's tricky to avoid hearing bad music on a fairly regular basis – there's so much of it about! If one's stuck in a concert hall or opera house, walking out is usually not an option – it's too embarrassing; but try to avoid repeating the experience if you can. Choose your musical encounters carefully; make sure they fan, and don't quench, the flames of your love for music.

On the other hand, choosing isn't always that simple:

Do not judge a composition from a first hearing; that which appeals to you at an initial encounter is not always the best. The works of the masters need to be studied. Many things will not become clear to you till you have reached a more advanced age.

Hmm ... so how is one to know for certain on a first hearing whether a work is good or bad? Perhaps if the piece is by a composer one knows to be great, one should give it the benefit of the doubt; if it doesn't speak to you on a first hearing, try again – we lesser beings are more likely to be mistaken than the immortals. For many years, for example, I just couldn't understand the First Cello Sonata of Gabriel Fauré, one of my favourite composers. So I worked at it, and worked at it; and then, suddenly, it was if I'd gone through a door, and the music made perfect sense to me. The strange thing was that, having stepped over that threshold, I then couldn't remember why I hadn't understood the sonata in the first place – it now seemed so clear.

With composers we don't know, of course, particularly those writing in an innovative musical language, it is more difficult. We have to give unfamiliar music a chance, or even several chances – but not waste our lives trying to find a meaning that is not there. Ultimately, I suppose we have to trust our instincts. These are essential in music; losing touch with your musical intuition is fatal. One can educate instincts, certainly – but never ignore them.

When you are older, do not play fashionable stuff. Time is precious. All that is merely fashionable will soon become old-fashioned; and if you keep playing these works, you will become known as a charlatan whom nobody respects.

A charlatan, eh? Sounds bad. I'm sure, though, that he's not telling us to play only the greatest, most profound music. Some lighter fare – including virtuoso pieces – can be wonderful; and some all-too-serious music can be awful. He's just advising us to stick to music that is real, not written merely for effect.

Respect the old highly, but also take a warm interest in the new. Do not be prejudiced against names unknown to you.

It's a temptation as a performer to stick to the tried and tested masterpieces, and of course the great composers have to be at the centre of our repertoire (if they have written for our instrument); but we must remember that there are always worthwhile lesser-known works waiting to be explored. Discovering a neglected gem is a real thrill. Also – and this is really what Schumann is emphasising – it is the duty of every performer to play the music of his or her own time, and if possible to commission new works. That's what keeps music alive! It is also (usually) really enjoyable to work with a living composer – and so very useful to have him/her on hand. If I have a question about a piece by a friend of mine, I can call up said friend and put the query to them; whereas every time I've tried to call Haydn or Schubert recently, they've refused to answer the phone, or to return my call. So rude.

Be sensitive to the requirements of your audience; but never play anything of which you are inwardly ashamed.

There is nothing wrong with wanting audiences to enjoy your concerts; but one should avoid 'playing down' to them. Play music that you would want to hear yourself, that genuinely speaks to you. If you truly believe in the piece that you are performing, and are able to communicate that belief, the public will respond – and will be grateful.

In judging compositions, discriminate between works of real art and those designed merely for the entertainment of amateurs. Cherish those of the former description, and do not get angry about the others.

Here he's telling us (I think) to have strong musical values, but not to be snobs. There's a place for great music, and a place for lighter music. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive; great music is very often lots of fun too – think of Beethoven!) There's no place for bad music, though. Well, perhaps there is: the waste-paper basket. Or, these days, the recycling bin.


Excerpted from "Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Steven Isserlis.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

On Being a Musician
My Own Bits of Advice (For What They’re Worth)
                On Being a Musician

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