Hans Jensen: On Practicing With the Mind, Not Just the Fingers

Eavesdropping without permission is not cool, of course, but if you were to sit on the practice floor of most music schools and just listen, what’s the one thing you probably would NOT hear very much of?

Silence. 🤫

When I was going through school, I thought practicing meant making sounds come out of my instrument. And that silence didn’t count.

In fact, if there were too many pauses or silences in my practice as a child, my mom would get suspicious and ask what I was doing (though to be fair, she was right to be suspicious, as in those days, silence usually meant I had gotten distracted).

However, when you’re no longer an easily distractible 8-year old, one of the telltale signs of poor practice is actually the lack of silence. Because a lot of the most crucial aspects of practicing – like planning and reflecting – is accompanied by silence.

Umm…so…what sorts of things should we be doing or thinking during these silences, anyway?

Meet Hans Jørgen Jensen

Cellist and distinguished pedagogue Hans Jensen is on the faculty of Northwestern University, The Royal Conservatory in Toronto, The Meadowmount School of Music, and The Young Artist Program at the National Arts Center in Ottawa.

Many of Hans’s students have gone on to hold positions in leading orchestras, teach in prestigious music schools around the country, and win prizes in top competitions.

Hans has also recently published several acclaimed books on practice and pedagogy – PracticeMind (practice strategies), as well as CelloMind and ViolinMind (both on intonation).

In today’s episode, we’ll explore…

  • 1:54 – The moment that sparked Hans’s love for the cello
  • 4:31 – How does Hans help to spark motivation in his students?
  • 6:28 – Is it possible for a young student to go from unmotivated to motivated at some point down the road? Or seemingly untalented to talented? Unmusical to musical?
  • 11:03 – How does one go from being a mechanical player to a more expressive player?
  • 13:14 – Hans explains how one of his older students went from being unable to play fast to being able to play very fast.
  • 16:36 – How important is it to get feedback from others? Is it possible to give yourself feedback, or does it also have to come from more experienced musicians?
  • 20:28 – Can one learn to become a better teacher as well, even if you may not be a good teacher at first? How? What exactly changes, that enables them to become a better teacher?
  • 23:15 – Hans explains why he thinks many musicians “play way too much when they practice,” and why the key to better practice is not in the fingers but in the mind.
  • 25:10 – How do you decide what to do with a phrase, when you have many different options or ideas?
  • 28:22 – What Hans learned from Joseph Silverstein, that changed his teaching.
  • 32:39 – Hans shares some thoughts on how YouTube has impacted learning – is it a good thing? Bad thing? How can we listen to others without feeling bad about ourselves?
  • 35:05 – Why is it important for us to understand the connection between rhythm and technique?
  • 41:55 – What is the difference between inner pulse and outer pulse?
  • 44:22 – Why is it so important to practice octaves? Hans also shares a great trick on how to play them better in tune, and explains why this works.

NOTE: There are a few parts during the interview where Hans illustrates a concept with hand motions. So a video version of the interview is available below for added clarity.

Noa: I read this quote on the internet years ago. I don't know if it's a true quote or not, but it's attributed to Leopold Auer, and he supposedly said that, if you practice with your fingers, you need all day; practice with your mind, and you'll do as much in an hour and a half.

I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your own practicing journey. I mean, I know that your parents were musicians, so were you kind of a lucky kid where you grew up with a clearer sense of how to practice and didn't really have to figure it out and struggle or, or, yeah. I'm just wondering what your practicing journey has been like.

Hans: Yeah, I was lucky, but I started when I was very little with a violin because both my parents are violinists, but my father was too tough. So after a few years I just rebelled really hard and I remember one time the worst thing, he took my violin part, and then he erased all the fingerings. He said, you're only reading the fingerings.

You're not reading the notes. It upset me so deeply that I actually refused to play an instrument. I wouldn't practice. They couldn't make me do anything. I had a strong personality, but he has too. He was a wonderful teacher, but he didn't know how to deal with a child, I think at that age.

But I think I'm lucky because that made me not play for 15 years. I played violin all the time. I mean, I practiced maybe an hour, but I, I wasn't really into it. Then one day I heard them play string quartet in my home and I immediately knew when I watched the cellist, I sat there for two hours when they were practicing, they had a string quartet and a symphony that they played.

They played a lot of concerts. It just, it, it was really deeply one of the late Beethoven quartets and I just felt, Oh my God, that's, I said afterwards, you know, I want to be a cellist. I want to have a cello. And they got really excited. So I got a cello really fast and I said, I actually need your help for practicing because you're really good.

So I said, if you gimme like two or three lessons a week, and in the addition to my teacher, they found me a wonderful teacher, but then I would just do what he said. He read everything about the violin literature because he was a natural talent, my dad, so he could play anything. But then when he started teaching, he wanted to understand it.

So of course he read the Flesch book, Auer, all of everything that was written about the violin. So he really knew, he really understood how to practice and how to go slow enough. Cause I had a lot of questions. But there was nothing that I would have a problem with because I really wanted to do it badly, and I knew he had the solution.

He was actually maybe even a better practicer or teaching practicing than my teacher. So I could improve incredibly fast because I practiced a lot, so I knew from the beginning I would have a lot of problem, I'd just go, how do you do this? How do you do that? So that was amazing. But many times the young students, they don't really want to. They want to do it, but they don't have this burning desire. So I think me waiting that many years created this like burning desire for doing it, and I actually never lost it since then, the burning desire for our profession.

Noa: I think you've spoken about that elsewhere and how, that's a type of talent maybe, or that's a, a key ingredient that's hard to do without. Have you found ways of maybe not sparking an intense level of desire, but have you found ways of fanning the flames in your own teaching?

Hans: Oh, you have to, when you teach, we have to find in each person we teach. I find, of course the old teacher was, he's a king or the queen, and the student has to obey all of it. I find, I'm searching for whatever is innate or within the talent in, in a student. And try, it could be like in sports, it could be anything else, find the interest that the students have. Especially, I taught a lot of younger high school students that would have to play because they wanted to maybe not major in music, but they want to go to schools that they had be really good. So I find lots of reasons to give them motivatation. With high school students, it's you have to play at all-state, you should be in the orchestra, it's good on your college. I mean, there is the ultimate where we play because we love it and we want to be great. But I think if you were born and you would then move to an island and you had an instrument, if you practice, probably after like an hour and a half or two hours, you would had enough.

It's like you eat, you can only eat that much and for practicing maybe four or five hours if you really want to become professional. There needs to be a goal and like an ambition like into the future. Could be a big competition, could be a job, could be getting into a school. Once you find these goals that you give to the student and combine it, of course with the love for what we do and how amazing the music profession is.

Lot of people don't get to do what they love to do and make a profession. It's a, for any musician that can make money and succeed, it is an incredible profession. I never forget it.

And that's something my parents, they've always saying how amazing profession they have. And I really agree with that, but it's important we find that whatever it is in each person and spark that interest.

Noa: I have a related question about talent, that I think I heard you speak about elsewhere, but sort of related to that, is it possible to tell early on if a student might have that sort of spark or not, or does sometimes the spark maybe comes years later when they play in a, a chamber music group for the first time, or they play in orchestra for the first time and for years there was nothing, but then suddenly, I guess what I'm wondering about is for parents who might have started their kids on cello or trumpet or something, because sometimes too it's like a different instrument than suddenly feels different. So like, how long do you stick with something or how can you tell if it's the right fit or maybe just a little bit longer.

Do you know what I'm asking? It's not a very organized question, but...

Hans: I totally agree. I've seen people that had no interest and they were... I used to just take anybody, but now when I'm older, I really don't want to teach younger kids that don't have an interest in it because it takes so much energy. And I have a lot of energy, but I want to put it where it really is important now.

It used to be I had unlimited energy. So because when you have a student that doesn't want to do it, it takes so much energy to make them do it. But I've seen students, they seem, when they were young, they were not so interested in it, and then suddenly they go to college or, or they go senior, junior in high school and suddenly it's like they totally fall in love with it, and they just didn't realize, and people absolutely changed. I've seen students, even when you say somebody's musical, I've, I've had students, they were not very musical. And then one day suddenly they became musical. And that's something I would used to say, that's not possible. You're born with musicality or you're not, but there's nothing that can't be developed.

I think if you want to see, if somebody has really, really a bad ear and you absolutely can't hear intonation, it's totally off. Or you have an incredibly bad coordination, then it's hard to get really good. So you have to have some kind of coordination so they, but you can develop it. There's no limit. I've had older student, an older lady that had retired and she said one thing she never did, she never did all the Popper etudes.

She never did all the Bach Suites. So two or three years we went through all of that. But also she said she can't play fast and after like a year, she could play really fast. So there's no limit to what you can do, but definitely that change of going from not having a real interest and suddenly something wakes you up.

I've seen that many times and that's amazing how you can't say something, this should be this or that should be that. There's no limit.

Noa: The reason why I ask is cause it's related to, I think I heard you say on a particular, video, maybe it was the Meadowmount video, where you thought once upon a time that you'd be able to judge talent relatively easily. When you saw it, it's like, you know it, that's a talented student and then you see somebody else, it's like, no, that student, doesn't have talent. But then I think you started over the course of your career, it sounds like, to realize that that's not actually very accurate. Can you, yeah. Can you say more about that?

Hans: I mean, again, I think, I mean that also has to do with maybe a younger kid hasn't seen all the possibilities there is in music and suddenly, as they develop, they start hearing, wow. When I play with the piano, the baseline in the piano or see how the harmony is changing in that chord, and then I react in the cello to that. And then suddenly people start realizing music is not just playing that one melody, but, there's so many things going on, and also behind the music, when you start feeling and sensing what is the true meaning of that. So when people start relating to that, I think it changes something and how you react to things once you start hearing all of that.

And when you practice, you practice in a different ways and I think it wakes up, but sometimes it can be, I've had a student, I said, I'm sorry it isn't personal, but I think you fell in love with somebody. You are loving somebody. I'm absolutely sure, and sometimes I'm totally wrong, but 90% of the time I'm actually right.

And when a person, maybe for the first time, a younger person, suddenly fall in love with another person. It changes how you feel things and how you perceive things. Everything has a different quality and how you relate to music suddenly is also more meaningful. So there are many things that influences how we develop over the years.

Noa: You mentioned a little bit ago about how some students go from being not especially musical to suddenly being more musical, and so I'm sure the answer isn't for them to fall in love. That's not the

Hans: No, no, I know!

Noa: But, but like, what are some of the other things that, like, how does that happen? How does one go from being maybe a more mechanical kind of player to being more expressive over time?

Hans: I actually learned that from, we were writing PracticeMind, Oleksander my coauthor, we were talking back and forth. So one chapter we write about, and I always said that, that people love to do what they're good at doing, but they avoid doing what they don't like to, but they're not good at. For instance, some people are really good at playing fast and mechanical, so when they practice, they do all the time what they're good at, but they don't like to play slow movements.

And I know one person that was a big talent, she was a violinist. And I used to go to the practice room, and I always notice her because she showed talent. So sometimes I would knock the door and say, Hey, you also gotta practice the fast passages. I hear only the slow, and sometimes in jury I've noticed that person when it's really hard, she wasn't so good at it. But I said, the way you can play slow, you can use the same skill for playing fast. And they, we just organize the [?]. You can make the technique incredible. There's no limit. I think making yourself practicing things that you're not good at could wake you up. So the person that is very mechanical, maybe they don't spend a lot of time listening.

Also on YouTube, now we can hear so many things, but when you play a composer, why don't you listen to the piano sonatas? Why don't you listen to the orchestra just a little bit open yourself up. I remember Rostropovich in a class, he told this young kid, you have to learn the Ring, you learn the Traviata.

And of course I admire Rostropovich, but always said, poor kid. He has to spend now two hours, three hours a day listening to opera. He's too young for that. He should know it, but he should be because he wants to learn it, not because he has to like a, like a duty, but I think when we are aware of many things, it changes. So I, I think making people practice what they're not good at.

So if you're not good at being musical, I will give them a lot of slow pieces. You play a whole recital with only slow pieces, only slow movements. So I go the opposite. So I've learned not to do that, also, don't go extreme, but expose yourself the things that it's not natural for you and you try to avoid maybe subconsciously you know.

Noa: You mentioned an older student, who, went through the, the Popper etudes, the Bach suites and learned how to play faster. I'm assuming it's not something that happened spontaneously, but it was intentional and it's something that you guys worked on, and I know that in, in PracticeMind, there's some exercises related to being able to transition from slow to fast a little more effectively.

Are those things that, that you could share?

Hans: I have a lot of exercises. I mean, number one, we all know from the experts that if you have to play fast, you have to practice fast. So we, people obvious think they can start things and then slowly click up the metronome, but it doesn't work like that. You get to a certain limit and suddenly you cannot keep going like that.

So for me, I use the same, uh, as for running. Some years ago I started marathon running. So to get fast, I had to do interval training. So you have to do like a mile. Or you have to do a half a mile, whatever, do a certain speed and learn to go really [?]. So it's like just go [sings], impuse practice, one measure of four notes.

I'd say even two [sings], then go [sings]. So just learn that and then you can move very fast. What's funny about speed is even a student that plays a piece that say, like for cello, Elgar second movement, [makes music sounds],

so it goes at 160. I say, if you wanna be comfortable at 160, you have to go 180.So I go at 170 [makes music sounds]. Let's go 180 [makes music sounds].

And I force them to play fast. And then just one minute and now say 160. Suddenly it seems slow. It's amazing how the perception of speed, you can have an immediate reaction to that. But of course to teach somebody that cannot play fast, that might take five, six months. It's a lot of practice over time.

Doing, like for the cello, you do [?], or for violin, you have so many exercises, but it's like building the speed over time. But I say interval practice is good. And then also, uh, if it's several bows I have them play it slurred. Because when you play slurred, it's like you're seeing the left hand under a microscope.

You hear all the problems come up, so you say, oh, it's slowing down here. Or if there's one finger, that's a little slower. It's also important we use, not a lot of people use too much. Just the finger motion instead of using the, the, that motion (demonstrates) is the strongest and faster. So combine the rotation of their forearm together with the fingers that gives, because sometimes they just isolate there and then it gets stiff in here.

So you have to, when you see people that play without practicing like Barenboim, I mean I'm sure he practices, but that was the way his fingers are just like he did, rotates like beautiful. I mean, he practiced a lot when he was a kid, but I'm sure he can play without practicing. And people like that.

It's just like they have an amazing technique, but they definitely don't like the, Czerny exercises people used to isolate. You know, it's very bad. It's good exercise, but you have to rotate.

Noa: Is this the sort of thing that, it helps to have like an outside observer for, or these things that, with videotaping, maybe we can figure out ourselves because some of those things, you know, like the, the rotation and so forth, I don't know that those are things that we naturally intuit. Do you know what I mean?

I think our tendency is to try harder, not necessarily find ways of doing less or, or more easy or more efficient. And so, if somebody is, studying on their own or, or kind of working and feeling stuck? I mean, is going to friends a good idea or finding a teacher or how does one start to figure out some of these things that they may be doing that they don't realize that they're doing?

Hans: You're absolutely right. There's nothing better than feedback. From anybody. I mean, but of course if, if you have friends that plays and you have a older friend, but sometimes a young friend that's younger, they're little kids, they're very intuitive. They know things. I remember playing a recital in Houston where I thought that the Moores School of Music, University of Houston, and I played a recital and. I remember after the concert, my son was four years old, he said, you know, daddy, what's funny is in the beginning you look so, so small, he said, and in the end you look like a giant. He said, how? How could you change from being so small? How could you grow like that? So I said, I'm sure I didn't grow. I probably was very nervous.

So I go like that, and the end, I felt more comfortable. So I opened up. So that made me go back and think, yeah. How do I play when I feel really comfortable? And then I would learn, actually, if you're nervous, just start moving the same way. The funny thing is the nerve goes away as soon as as you, because you go like that, and then it doesn't sound very good.

So then you get even more nervous. So if you just see, look at yourself and you play the best, and then try to do that, even if you don't feel like it, and as soon as you do the physical. Your, your nerves goes away, but about feedback, there's nothing better. I have all my students, I encourage them to teach each other, and I actually taught, maybe the best lesson I ever taught was in a pedagogy class where I had a student that were going to a competition and she was not ready.

She had one piece I was still missing and I said, pedagogy, we need today to teach that young student the Bach prelude of the six feet. We have a whole hour, but she has a competition. But it's not, it's not ready yet. So she played it then I asked the students, so what do you think? And I ask each one, and then four of them pointed out exactly the right thing.

So I said, okay. I mean, there was many [?], but it's like this was the order of this. There was maybe three things to fix. So I took the most important first, and I said, who can teach that of you? Okay, you do it, or why don't you tell me all what you think. So they said it. Then I said, the first idea, the third idea, can you do that?

So all I did was control what we implemented, but it was none of it was my idea, but it was all, I just knew what, what they, what she needed. So I helped control that and it was unbelievable. In an hour. She played it three times better. If I taught the lesson myself, she might have played it a little better, but not this improvement.

I think having everybody there, we all like really into it. It was an amazing experience. It taught me, it's amazing how when you see the same thing, how we all see it different and feedback is important. Your, your fellow, your friends, even non-musicians, you ask something, they might say, you look a little funny there.

Why you raising your arms so high there? You don't need that. When you see it up and just, but you play there, you go like that. Then you go high. You go like that. Why is that? Somebody, into sports or anything they can see that kind of thing. Maybe sometimes even better than a musician cause you get caught up in like the bow or whatever.

Noa: I love that class idea. Is that something you do regularly? Because I think it's pretty typical for students to be asked to provide feedback, actually then taking that feedback to the person playing and, and teaching that, that's like a whole other level. It seems like it would really draw everybody in even more than just the feedback.

Hans: Oh, it's very good. There's nothing better, but it's just, I teach once a semes...quarter year, quarter system. I teach it in the spring quarter. I teach pedagogy to all the students. Usually the older students and sometimes the junior, senior joins, and sometimes in that class they, some people when they teach, you just think, oh my God, they can't teach.

I only said that a few times. Somebody was extremely talented and he was so bad at teaching. I said, my God, I've never seen somebody be that good and be that bad at teaching. You're gonna change that. So he took the class two or three times and usually, when they take it, that it's like they get much better at it because we talk about it and also you see somebody teaches and I say, how did you think that was? Can you, can you criticize that? So they criticize the teacher. And so I've learned to try to step out of it. So I don't criticize so much. Cause my tendency is to interrupt too soon and talk too much. So I have to write down, don't talk now, let them do it, and you, you don't talk.

So I've learned as much from that as, the students

Noa: What is it that changes actually, so for this one student, for instance, who was having difficult... is it that they, they don't themselves know what they're doing, so it's hard for them to articulate it? Or, or they can't, like what seems to be the difference between the ones who...

Hans: over the years, I used to see, now I interrupted you again. I'm sorry. No, that's, it's, I, I, I just too eager. I used to have with Leonard Rose. He would come up, he goes behind me and then he grabs me just like that. He holds me. He says, Hans, when I talk to you, you gotta be quiet. I say two words and you start playing.

You act like you know, but you don't know half the time. Listen to me. He say, I'm strong! He, he took me like that. And I say, okay, okay, Mr. Rose. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. It's just eagerness. But the thing is, I learned, I used to teach, okay, you, you learn vibrato you learn spicatto. So you teach that. And that over the years, I realized the most important thing to teach students is why. Because when you ask, what do you not like? Most people just say, I don't like this, I don't like this, I don't like that. And they all see it all, but very few willl.. So then I say, so if you don't like that now, why don't you like it? What exactly is it that's wrong? Is it like the finger is too high? Is the shift too fast?

It's like something very specific. There's nothing you do that you, it's usually like, just like one or two little things that can make big things seems out of order, but that they're actually not good at seeing. So you say, why is that not good, this thing. And then many times nobody can say why.

And then when they've done the class three times or two times, they get much better at pointing out what it is that's behind it. That's the same in practicing that students, I say, you gotta know if you didn't like it, don't get upset because it's either the note it's too sharp or too flat, or it's out of rhythm.

There's something very specific that's wrong and you have to find exactly what it is and spend time figuring that out once you know what that is. So people play way too much when they practice. So that goes back to PracticeMind that they don't stop and really think about. So the biggest problem students have, they don't know what it is they want to do.

They don't have the goal. So they think, okay, I've heard about this bow arm. You're gonna have like Leonard Rose bow arm, or you're gonna have like a Starker bow arm and you do this, you do that, and that's all good. But I said, it's not gonna make the great sound if you don't have the great sound in your inner ear.

If you don't know really what is a great sound, no bow hold is gonna do that. It doesn't change it. The physical is not, you have to have it in your mind, number one, what it is that you want to do. And number two, what it is that you do that doesn't make you do what is number one. So I think those things are the most important thing in teaching and to know how to fix something, of course also has to do with, you want to do this or you want to do that.

But many times people waste so much time practicing because they're looking at the bow. They're not singing what it is that they're trying to do. They don't form that idea. And I think that has to be done. I mean, you can practice in a way where you say, okay, I really don't know anything. I have all these ideas.

Because some people have lots of ideas and some people don't have a lot of ideas, but sometimes the people that have a lot of ideas, they have a hard time deciding which one it is that they want to do. That was my problem. I hear something and I can hear like 10 different ways, but I can't decide which one is the best and I can't do any of them anyway.

When I was young, I, I know this and this, I can't do any, so I just learn one way and then learn another. And then figure out, when you are young, you don't know which one is the better. So that's, that's what we practice for figuring out what we want to do sometimes and also then to do it.

Noa: Actually, you know, that's a good question. How do you decide sometimes when you know you have a few different ideas on how you would like a particular passage to go and, you could make a case for either of the two or three ways of doing it.

And you can't really come up with a definitive, do you just like pick one or like, do you know what I mean? How does one know, okay, you know what, this is a good idea. It makes sense for now, I'm gonna move on.

Hans: That, of course you can see that at different levels. For instance, if I teach younger students that are just learning and I spend my time teaching them to play the instrument really well, so I always say, you have to have it, that is absolutely in tune and has beautiful form and rhythm.

And then if they start, I say, don't, no, just focus on these things first. But if you're at the highest level, when you're starting to really understand, then it comes down to, to, okay, you're gonna play Bach now. What style? Nowadays the styles are changing, you know, of Bach. So I think some people want to play baroque style and some people are still into playing romantic Bach and I was brought up where we play like, like Fournier or [?] Casals, all of those guys, it's very romantic.

Of course when the student is with a teacher, the teacher usually is a great performer, if like it's in a college. And then the student will try to emulate the teacher.

If you had Janos Starker, all the students would listen to his recordings and they know that's the ideal for what we are trying to do. We are gonna try to sound like Mr. Starker. And he plays Bach like that. He was very specific. So that's easy if you have a teacher that recorded so many times and you want to learn to play in that style.

So now with [?],and I think the Netherlands Bach Society, it is a beautiful, tradition there where they have lots of recordings with many players, many of them used baroque bow and even used the modern bow in the style of the baroque bow. So there's one violinist, recorded all the sonatas and partitas and it's absolutely beautiful, but it's at the highest level of playing he plays.

It's so beautiful. It's fantastic. I start telling the student, listen to that. It's a good style to have a little bit of baroque. Then if they start being interested, now I can start teaching them.

So I think it has to do with what is the style you're trying to play, going to play Tchaikovsky concerto? What kind of, who you gonna sound like? Do you know yourself if you're really strong personality, you know? So it's like having that specific goal. So of course, without knowing that, you can't really decide all the details.

So I gonna use like a lot of vibrato? I'm gonna play like, uh, let's say Mr. Starker, not so much vibrato like compared to Lynn Harrell was a lot of vibrato. I saw a masterclass with Joseph Silverstein where I taught at [?]. He was at Columbia University, that summer, I think we were at Barnard College.

But, so he gave a masterclass and I learned incredible amount from watching him teach. And I also got to know him well and spoke to him many times, had lots of questions. About his relationship with Dounis, because Dounis was sort of a fascinating, uh, teacher in the violin world back then. But I saw with Silverstein, he said, so you play this now if you played it like [?] Or you played it like this person or this person, he said, then you have all these options to look.

So I just saw how he, he did not limit how he perceived the world, but he had a vision where he looked for everything that actually was good, although he had a very strong personality. And he knew exactly what was good for him, but when he was teaching from that moment on, I changed, wow, it's nothing to do with me.

I was playing a lot at that time. So it is always, when you're a player, you want the students to kind of, you have to be the leader. But actually from the moment when I decided here Northwestern, not to play so much, but put all my focus, I feel actually I'm a better teacher because they're not limited about my ability to play.

And I'm not limited by just me. It's nothing to do with me. It has to do with the most amazing thing there is in the our music world from the brand new person that comes out and plays absolutely beautiful. There's a young, young kid in that Netherland society, he plays the Bach third suite. It's amazing playing. It's better than any famous person. Maybe he's famous now. I don't know, but, and you can hear like, you should listen to the old recording because you can on YouTube see so many things. So I think that idea that the whole world is open to your concept and you look for what's good in everything .

When you are younger, you say, this is not good, this is not good. But I say, what's good in this thing? What's good in this thing? There's a lot of good in many things, so opening the mind up makes it more free. So of course, I will guide the students for this recording. What do you think? Show me some. That's good.

I think that thing.... Like Daniil Shafran, it's, fantastic when you listen to him, but if you copy it, it's just too much. But let's say you're totally unmusical, maybe it's good to listen to that. But some people, his vibrato goes, he goes over the pitch, so when he goes fast, it's very rich. It's like in the flute world, the flute players all agrees for violin, violin and cello vibrate from the pitch and back.

And some people say up to the pitch, but actually it's better when you think [sings]. So student of mine said, really rich vibrato is two-thirds under one third over. So. You want really rich, but you don't go two-thirds. Shafran goes a lot over. So with the flute world, I had the flute players show me all these tapes where you have all the flute players, analyzing vibrato and you have them all the[sings], it's all the way back to like the famous flute player Rampal.

And then, Galway, he has a best sound when you hear it, but he vibrates over the pitch [sings]. Go over the pitch. That's why it sounds a little bit like Shafran, but for me, that flute sound is just amazing when I hear it.

But when I spoke to some flute players, I said, no, no, no, no, no, no. You gotta vibrate under the pitch. I've tried to teach that to a student actually, if you know, to control it. But, so all of that has to do with what we want people to do. That was a long answer though.

Noa: No, it's great cause it actually reminds me of something that until now I wasn't really sure if it related to the music world and I think it could, I remember seeing a TED talk some years ago about how, because of the internet, because of YouTube, dance styles have evolved much more quickly than they otherwise would because, if you have people doing a particular kind of dance in Brazil than a different kind of dance in Japan and then something else, in Europe, those people would not see what the other dance communities were doing unless they came together in person.

but because of YouTube, you see these folks, in Denmark doing this and these folks in Seoul doing this. And, and very quickly these different styles can become adapted and, and changed and modified and tweaked. The idea being that this evolves the whole field of dance even more quickly than it otherwise would. Maybe I'm wrong, but the tendency I think when we look at other musicians on YouTube is to like compare ourselves unfavorably to them. It's like, oh, I can't do that that fast, or I can't do this kind of spiccato, or like, they're playing so much cleaner and more in tune. I think we tend to focus on those kind of mechanical details.

But it sounds like from what you're describing, if we use YouTube and the internet as a way of seeing other people's approaches to the same pieces. It gives us more options, I think, like you said, to choose from. Is that part of developing a concept of style

Hans: Absolutely, I think the internet, it's, uh, it has made string playing going up much faster. The cello playing, a hundred percent because you see, like, and I learned it from the students because when I was younger I remember sometimes feeling intimidated by listening to a lot of things. And if it's like another young person the same age and they're better than you, it feels actually bad.

And I didn't know how to, at that time, I didn't know how to perceive that. And I never spoke about that with anybody. But if somebody told me, Hey, this is, I learned it from the students. I had one young student. That was Brannon Cho. He listens to tapes. He says, this guy does this, this. He listens to all the winners of the big competition because he wanted to do it.

And he is like, he goes to the tapes and he listens to all the rounds and he would, he improved incredible from that, and he taught to me. I started doing, tell everybody. Yeah, because there's always this, you feel insecure about yourself. Many things. So if you hear something that's like that, it's, uh, makes you afraid to listen to it.

So, so my experience with Silverstein and then seeing Brannon being so not fearful, but just, he just listened to it and said, that's really good. That's really good. I'm gonna do that, that that changed. So I told another student that's very, very good, I said, you're gotta do the same. You've gotta listen to it.

Because you, I say, do you hear how we want that competition? Hear that, see what they do. Wow. It's amazing. Don't put them down. You'll try to be able to do the things you can't do that they can do. And then I learned that from Piatigorsky one summer. I studied with him in Denmark. His best student was Erling Blöndal Bengtsson, an a phen, phenomenal cello player.

He's like world class. He taught in the end at Michigan. He never got to be a household name. Because he was incredible cellist. I mean, he was in Europe, but Piatigorsky said, if you see another musician that can do something you can't do, go ask them how they do it. And if they won't tell you, just steal it from them.

Just be able to do it. He said, when I played with Heifetz, I learned to do downbow and upbow staccato at an incredible speed. He said, could never do it before. And he said, my trills everything. I had to improve it because, Jascha Heifetz was so amazing. So he had incredible influence on me.

Noa: I wish there was a really great transition to this, but maybe there isn't. It's one of the things that I've been looking forward to asking you. It might have been the same Meadowmount video. You said something, if I understood correctly about how a strong sense of pulse or rhythm and technique are related, and I wonder if you can expand on that a little bit and explain what you meant by that.

Hans: Oh yeah, because whenever we play a passage, we are moving, we are playing notes in time. So, and when you see like the best gymnasts, they do their floor exercises. If they don't have timing down to an absolute precision, they won't be able to do it. Same with the skaters. When they're skating to the music, they have to be absolutely in sync with the rhythm of the music.

So whenever they do these amazing moves, they have exactly the right time and they have exactly the right amount of doing it within time. So I think many times when people don't have a really solid rhythm, I've noticed that technique is not so solid and is not so good because when you play like [sings], and if you go [sings], they don't have that solid rhythm, it doesn't give the impulse to the fingers. So I think I've learned over the years, it's just from having had students that were actually, one student is extremely talented, he has extremely beautiful tone. But when he plays something technically difficult, he, he would have trouble and I realized it's his sense of rhythm.

So I spent a lot of time, I'm not even sure he knew that, but I used to say your rhythm. That was that. And once he learned to time everything, it's also realizing that the faster we play and the faster of the rhythm go, the slower we have to move the the notes relative to the time. What people often do is they speed it up a little bit, they rush a little bit, and there's not enough time, so we have to think [sings], please make everything very precise in between the beat. So I think understanding timing, because movements happen in time, so time is a key to, to do anything. How much time you have.

One thing I think is amazing that I didn't know because you obviously you have to anticipate, so, and I have taught that too because I learned it. Also, of course, we have to anticipate, but you shouldn't think about it because the brain does it automatically because we always, we shift ahead [sings].

So I say whenever you shift, it should always be in time. It could be in a slow time, but always do the shift in between. So, because people go [sings and demonstrates], I say, no, you can move ahead. You can move a little early when you go slow. But now if I have to put my hand here and I have to put the other. It's hard to do it, but so up there and then down here. So this one is very close to, I start here, you know, so I have to go. If you say this one has to move faster to get to there, so I go pa slow, but if I do it fast, pop, I just think both fingers the same place.

Pop, pop, pop. It looks like it moves slow. It moves faster. It is the camera pop because you, you just think the same place. The brain will anticipate that you move that arm ahead of the thing. So that's the same. Whenever we do, they measure that. Now all the tools they have to, to look at the MRI, to look at the brain so they can see the brain sends that signal.

So if you start sending a signal to anticipate, you are actually mixing up the signals that the brain does automatically. So there are a lot of things you realize the less you think about it and the more you just follow your natural inclination, the better everything. So after we practice something, maybe anticipating duh, because it's okay to control that.

But then as you go faster now pa, pa, pa, just go and the brain will do it. That's interesting. That's not what you were asking me though.

Noa: No, it's, it's very much related. Just to clarify though, when you say anticipate, is it like a, a kinesthetic feeling? Is it, um, is it a sound? Like what, what, how would you describe

Hans: If it's shifting,

Noa: Yeah.

Hans: if it's, if you're shifting to a specific note, I always practice that they play, if it's on an violin, you, you play the note, put the hand down and just be able to know pa so you have it really strong in the ear. And then measure that spacing. You know how much you curve your arm. It goes there, but now you, that's a high note.

No, I mean, it's here. Yeah. So you are up high and then it's a good idea is actually to shift from the high and then keep your arm in that level and go down. Then you see the low note. It's, it's very uncomfortable now the low note. But now you realize, okay, you're here. So when you shift here, you have to go back and then put it up to there before you shift.

So if you do that, that something is, but, but anticipate, I would say anticipate from the low note to, to the high nose. You hear the whole [sings], I say if you shift slow two times, stop when you hear it. Uh, and then when you go ba-whoop, you just go for it. Dee-yup. And if you want slide more or less depending what slides or something else has to do with. So the anticipation is, but for me it's important. [sings] It's not like the, because if we start, when we practice slow, we already practice very, very rhythmical. That's absolutely essential. So you learn the, the balance of the movement compared to like having a specific time because you do it out of time, it's not a good way to practice.

Noa: So even when you're playing slow, you wanna make sure you're still moving in time.

Hans: You should You're moving a little earlier, but you have to move within that beat. That's very important I think.

Noa: When you actually said something that I think is really hugely helpful, but I wanna make sure that we take a moment on it because it went by so quickly that, especially folks not looking at video, maybe it didn't register, but the idea of, starting from the high position, where you're trying to go to and then, going back to where you started, but without changing your wrist, your fingers, your arm, the angle of everything. So when you go back to the starting point, it's uncomfortable, but you can play it. But that shows you where you're gonna have to be eventually. So, Right. So instead of like having to like change everything in the middle of the shift as you're trying to go a crazy distance, like you've already done most of the hard work in advance by making the, the, the starting point a little more uncomfortable, but not terribly so, that I think is, is a hugely useful way of trying to conceptualize how to shift in a more economic way.

Hans: I think it's a great exercise. I learned it from Channing Robbins who was, Leonard Rose's assistant. Channing was a wonderful teacher. He knew so much. He was extremely clever,

Noa: So related to, shifting and rhythm and so forth, one of the things that comes up in your book is this idea of inner pulse versus outer pulse, and I wonder if you can explain a little bit the difference between the two, but also some of your favorite ways on how to cultivate this inner pulse.

Cause it sounds like that might, if I'm understanding it, be related to this idea of technique and shifting as well.

Hans: That's funny. I read once and I cannot find that. I've looked for it for many hours. I read a thing about baroque playing how they actually perceive you have the phrase and the longer stronger beat. But then you have the pulse of the piece, but then you also have the subliminal pulse. So if you're going [sings] maybe, [sings] but you also have, then you have the [sings].

But they would feel [sings], I would say the stronger parts and the stronger feeling of the rhythm, that's what the audience perceive. The audience don't need to perceive the inner rhythm and, uh, when it's subdivided, but especially if you're practicing for an audition for an orchestra. So if you practice Beethoven's Fifth [sings], you really feel [sings]

so you having that inner rhythm in, in many passages, it's something that people, once you experience, you have that intuitively and you don't think about it. It just goes there like it is way that monitor you. So you have control over the pulse, over the [?]meter.

Noa: That's something that I remember Leon Fleisher used to talk a lot about, thinking the half values of notes. And I think his teacher also used to talk about something related to that. I might be getting the quote wrong, but I guess Schnabel used to say something like, when you play fast, you should think slow. When you play slow, you should think fast. The idea of being, if you have a lot of fast notes, I think the larger groupings and when you have a lot of slow notes, you kind of fill them in with smaller pulses like you were just describing. And the thing that I love about that is it actually forces you to be very much engaged in what's happening right now.

Also, it's hard to worry about what's coming up in two lines or the next big shift when you're actively engaged right now.

Hans: Yeah, that's right. That's a great point.

Noa: So another thing that I found really interesting in your book, was that you devoted a whole chapter to octaves, and I think initially looking at the contents, I was like, oh, that's interesting. But then you make a really strong case for why that's included. And I wonder if you could share a little bit of why a whole chapter devoted to octaves.

Hans: Oh, because like Galamian said, the octave sets the frame of of the violin hand and for cellists, octaves sets the frame when we are in thumb position, because with [?] and everything we play, I mean we can play an octave in this position, but usually we play notes inside an octave. So I think getting that really organizes. That sets the whole playing up because then everything else falls within that. And I think octaves actually, but also Auer said is, and I didn't hear it there the first time I heard it first from my dad. He always said, play the low note really loud. When you focus on the low note, then you'll automatically, I remember arguing, I had a student and I still regret that I didn't say no, it's wrong. Because he used to say, you have to fix the top one. But actually since then, I realized when people, if you listen to both note, it's too hard to fix it. If you just focus on the low note, your high note will automatically fix itself. And, once you get the feeling in the hand of playing really strong on the low note and really lead with the low note, it's very easy to do, but I think it's important to practice octaves from the top and then go down because it's easy to slide back down. Sometimes from the cello they push up, it's like it's easier to pull. So I teach and pull back, but also pull up. So on violin will be the same pull back, but also, yeah, I would, I would try to an anticipate in the upper arm.

So you move ahead. So the motion is actually, you pull both ways. You don't push going up, but you pull going down. And then you come in and then you, you pull going up by being ahead in your other arms, so you pull it ahead. So I think, once you get that feeling for octaves, but a lot of people, they avoid practicing octaves.

And so then before concerts, they spent hours and hours practicing their octaves. And the more you practice them, the worse it gets. I did that myself. I realized always Wow. And then Sweden, after the concert I played, wow. It's so I can actually take acello and just play octaves. Now, even if you don't practice, it's just something, it's really not hard once you get the right feeling.

But if you do it, if you try to play an octave, the main thing is the sliding. It's a sliding thing. So you slide and then obviously you have a scale [sings], so

not [sings]. It's also that octaves is constantly moving, that you don't have one octave here, and then the next one there, is like [sings],

so the octave is there the whole time as you slide. So it's just very smooth and it's, once you get the right feeling, I say don't try to play in tune. Try to do it the right feeling and then it'll be in tune. But if you try to play in tune by controlling too. It's very hard to do. It's almost impossible.

It's like jumping from here to there to there, slide. So I find learning octaves can change your technique in a tremendous way.

Noa: Well, it's interesting that you wouldn't stop on each note, so it's, it's like your fingers are constantly having to make those adjustments organically, as you go up through each note as opposed to arriving at each one. Yeah, I really like that. That's really cool.

Hans: Just so, just smooth.

Noa: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And, and that lower note thing, Franco Gulli actually said the top notes just, you just need it there a little bit for a little tiny shimmer. You don't actually need equal sound on the top note, and, he demonstrated, 50 50 and like 80 20, whether it was Paganini or something else, I don't remember exactly, but, you don't really notice that much of a difference when the top note is equal to the bottom or if it's just a little tiny shimmer and it makes it so much easier to not have to constantly worry about two notes simultaneously.

Hans: Also because the first overtone is an octave, so when you play the low note, you are already playing the high note because it's already in the low note. So even when it's a little bit out of tune, if you play it a little bit loud on the low note, it's so close that the vibrating will actually make it sound like it's the same note. Another thing, I have a recording of the Rococo (variations) and I know when I go, uh [sings],

I think I just play one of them, the low note, really loud, and people say, wow, that's really in tune. I say, yeah, because I don't play the high notes. But people that know, they hear it in their mind because you already hear the piece in your head because you know the piece. So even if you don't hear what you hear, you hear something else.

And then the people that don't know, they don't know. So it doesn't matter. I'm not saying to cheat. I just remember I said, yeah, but that one, it sounds in tune, but that one is, I think I just played the low one. I didn't do it on purpose, but that's what it is, anyway.

Noa: I know that you have a whole other book on intonation that we could go to, but is there anything that I should have asked and didn't ask.

Hans: No, but about intonation, I say if you have a great intonation, you don't have to know any theories about intonation. It's not necessary to know anything except if you are a teacher. For me was like after many years of teaching, I will make students play in tune. Because they, they're not gonna be happy if they don't do it, but it's, it's very important.

It sounds good, but sometimes I saw people go, I hear them six years later. It's out of tune. Why are you playing out tune now? You never did that before. So I realized when you have an amazing inner ear that can just hear everything, it's just intuitive. You don't have to think about anything and you do different ways of tuning.

People do that instinctively, but if you don't have a really great ear, then having theory about intonation is a system whereby you can teach yourself to have a better year. So you can always go back and do that over and over. And I remember a student, he's a wonderful cellist, but he didn't always play in tune.

And I asked him, do you mind, I put in the forward about our experience together where I talk about, he came on to say, I found the seven partials on the A string. Cause I always spoke about, I said, I never knew that. He said, here, when you hear, I can hear the no, the F I can hear the seventh overtone on the G-string ringing when I make it really low.

So that tells me now I have to make it a little higher so I have a point of reference. I said, I didn't know that. That started me thinking about all of that because I was just starting to develop my knowledge because I, I was just intuitive. My dad always said, you play melodic intonation and you play harmonic intonation, the two kinds of intonation, and sometimes you temper a little bit equal.

And he said, melodic, you have the high thirds and the major and the low thirds in minor, and then when you play just, you have the lower thirds when you're playing chords and stuff. So he knew that, but he, he could not really explain it. And I remember I was writing this book actually. I started doing it while he was dying.

I was there with him, we had agreed I have to be there. So he was very positive. It was a great thing, but it was his time he was 88. But he always said, make sure that whatever people learn from the book, that it gets into the ear and it's something they don't have to think because you have to think about theory nothing. Everything is in the ear. You have to perceive it. So I use it only as a tool for training people that can understand it, they can train the ears. I have many students they learn to play absolutely in tune, but if you are great player, you don't need to know that. And in the end, obviously, make sure you absolutely, I say if you're playing in a string quartet, and you have a first violinist that doesn't, that do not know anything about intonation, don't start lecturing that person because if they have a great ear, they're better than you. And then only if you sit down at the dinner table and talk about it, you can discuss what you know, but don't start telling that person, the person with a greater ear is the boss in a string quartet.

A hundred percent. You just gotta don't say, oh, I know this. I know that. Trust that person's ear, yeah, so for a long time I was really into that, and I'm still into it. Every lesson I learn something new, but I use it as a tool, ear training tool. Not to have some theory in your brain. That doesn't mean anything.

Noa: That sounds like a good distinction to make for who's gonna really find value and, and who might not need to.

Hans: Yeah, yeah,

Noa: yeah.


25:53 – Hans references a number of different cellists with regards to playing Bach – here are a few, if you’d like to do a deeper dive and listen to what he was alluding to:

  • Pierre Fournier
  • Pablo Casals
  • Janos Starker
  • Lynn Harrell
  • Daniil Sharfran
  • Erling Blöndal Bengtsson

28:11 – Hans also mentions D.C. Dounis. You can see a short video about one of his bowing concepts, as demonstrated by violinist Daniel Phillips:

  • Dounis Violin Principles: Bow Changes – @tonebase

31:19 – I reference a TED talk about dance – here it is:

  • In the Internet age, dance evolves

49:42 – We start talking a little about intonation, and Hans mentions harmonic vs. melodic intonation. For more on this, check out the podcast episode with cellist Minna Chung, Hans’s CelloMind co-author:

More Hans Jensen

The PracticeMind Instagram has a ton of tips:

The PracticeMind YouTube channel also has exercises and tips to level up your practice: 

And here’s the Ovation Press website, where you can get weekly practice tips, and a copy of PracticeMind, CelloMind, or ViolinMind: 

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