Noa: I think the first time I heard you play, I won’t say the year so then people can’t calculate our ages, but I think you were probably 14 or 15. And even from the first moment I heard you, you sounded amazing and didn’t matter if it was the Haydn Concerto, Rococo Variations, or harmonics in the Shostakovich trio. I can’t remember if it was the ESPN theme, or the Monday Night Football song that you used to …
Mark: I’m sure it was the NBA in NBC in those days.
Mark: The John Tesh tune.
Noa: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Didn’t matter what it was. It always sounded like everything was so easy and effortless for you. But also, you were totally engaged. And it seemed like you were having fun. And then, on top of that, you were always just unflappable. Didn’t matter what was happening. Didn’t seem like nothing would ever get to you.
Noa: So I know you had kind of this unusual, or atypical environment growing up. Your dad was a cello professor. Your sister Paula’s an excellent cellist as well. So I imagine this must’ve not been the typical way in which most one-year-old cellists start playing. So I’m curious about how you practice now of course, but I’m also really curious about how things were when you started learning and started practicing as a kid. Do you remember much about those days?
Mark: Sure, of course. It was a very, it was a family trait, being a cellist of course. And I started at such a young age, there was something very organic and very natural about it. And of course, following a parent and an older sibling in the craft of playing the instrument, and eventually the profession. So I think that’s why I took to the instrument in such a natural way. But of course, as you grow and learn there are things you have to deal with. And there are always difficulties.
Mark: My father was very big on slow practice. I think that paid a lot of dividends. Of course, it’s not just practicing slow. You have to be very conscious and aware, and paying attention. But practicing under tempo gives the mind a chance to really see what’s going on, and to register what needs to be done. Or what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well. And so slow practice was a big thing.
Mark: Also, and just practicing well in general, so that you didn’t have to spend so many hours practicing. I practiced, but if I was eight or nine years old, I suppose for that age it’s a lot. An hour, or an hour and a half a day. But maybe not by modern standards. Certainly if we look at some of the prodigies, they were definitely probably putting in more time than that. And then, the amount of time gradually went up with the years. Also just, I also started with private lessons with my father combined with the Suzuki method. So there was a strong audio base, and once I could read music, we stopped that. And then I ended my …
Mark: Also my father thought it was important that I have some influences outside of his musical realm. So I had quite a few lessons with different teachers from the Minneapolis twin cities area with Minnesota orchestra members. Notably Janet Horvath and Marsha Peck. And then later Tanya Remenikova at the University of Minnesota. I took quite a number of years of lessons with her, and so …
Noa: So you had a pretty robust and well-rounded number of influencees from the time that you were younger. You know, I think it’s tough sometimes as a parent, at least I’m experiencing this, to make sure your kid knows that you love them, but you still want to criticize that they’re playing out of tune or rushing. So, did your dad have a way of … Did you guys argue at some point? It seemed like you guys had a great relationship always.
Mark: We did. Not so much … When I was really young, he would be … If he was passing by, or if he heard us do something that wasn’t good in the room, he would stop by and tell us that hey, you shouldn’t be practicing that way. Or you’re missing this intonation here. Or whatever the issue is. It would correct it. And you’re right, that is a very difficult road, or balance as a parent. To offer the support, but at the same time to be critical.
Mark: My father was overwhelmingly supportive in all of my efforts. He would correct things that were wrong, but always in a very supportive way. I never felt like, that I was being unrightfully criticized in a negative capacity. So you’re right. We had a very close, and a very positive relationship. Father-son. Also it helped, of course, from the very beginning, I just looked up to him. He was my idol too. So that makes it probably easier as a parent, to get your child to do what you want them to do.
Noa: Well, in terms of being supportive, I can’t imagine … I mean, I don’t know him super well. Just a few coachings and so forth. But I can’t imagine him raising his voice. He seems exceedingly patient, too. Was a lot of the support through just kind of his warmth, or tone of voice? How did he communicate support, yet saying, “Okay, if you practice it like this, these things are going to happen.”
Mark: Through warmth, and I would also say through humor. He could be very humorous. I would say basically those two main points.
Noa: The other thing that I always remembered about you was that, you seemed like you from an early age, cultivated clear ideas about music and how things should be. And you weren’t one to, just because a teacher told you, say, “all right, I’ll do that just because you told me to.” Is that something that came about pretty early on for you? Or what happened, did your dad and you sometimes disagree about things and have to work through that?
Mark: There wasn’t a lot of outright disagreements about things. I think I had a certain … Especially by the time you knew me, I had quite a bit of autonomy actually, because I didn’t really have … I mean, I took lessons, but they weren’t always weekly, and they weren’t always … Because a lot of these teachers were in the twin cities and we lived a hundred miles away. And my parents both worked. So it wasn’t always possible to go over every weekend to the twin cities. So I worked on assignments, but there were periods where, there were even periods where I didn’t really have a regular teacher at all.
Mark: And also my interest from an early age as a composer. So I looked at things a little bit differently. Not that I was so trained in composition, or had such a intellectual understanding of all the inner workings of music when I was young. But I figured out a lot of things intuitively, or on my own. So I really was thinking about music, probably differently than a lot of people my age.
Noa: When did you start getting involved in composition? Because if I’m remembering correctly, didn’t you do the concerto competition, and play your own cadenza at one point?
Mark: The concerto competition, what I won in Aspen was Lalo, which doesn’t have a cadenza in it. But there were … You know, you probably … I was practicing my first year in Aspen to play the Rococo variations in a recital, and I wrote a cadenza in Aspen for that. So it could have been that. And I was in the habit, right, of writing cadenzas, even from an earlier age. I mean, I dabbled in composition as early as four years old, and my father always remembers the time when I was writing a piece I gave him for his birthday when I was four. And in the midst of writing it, I got mad at him for something.
Mark: And he heard me in the room saying, “I’ll fix dad.” And apparently, I wrote it, and they were in treble clef, as a cello student, with ledged lines. It’s all up in the rosin area. And I gave it for him for his birthday. So I made it impossible, or next to impossible, in the register where basically dogs are more familiar to listening to it.
Mark: So I was dabbling in composition from a very early age. When my sister, my father and I, when we used to play cello trios, I wrote a cello trio when I was nine. And we performed that in many places. And another piece a couple years later. And so yeah, I was always interested and working in composition, which I think changed the way I would look at a piece of music I’d be performing.
Noa: I can kind of make guesses about that, but could you say more about that? How it would change how you looked at pieces, in terms of the decisions you would make and what you were looking for and so forth?
Mark: Well sure. I can just say that, of course early compositions are affected by the music I’m hearing and learning. At especially such a young age. But right. I think harmonically, and also just having the sense for how a piece is put together. Even if I hadn’t had any theory, this is clearly the first melody or theme in a piece, and this is the second theme. And we know that this is where the music develops after the exposition ends, although I might not have called it that. And then the return of the main themes. Also, you know, I think there’s composition, but also a tremendous advantage, having a professional musician as a parent, and especially a really good one.
Mark: So I’m hearing of this repertoire since before I was born. Even as a toddler, my mother worked and sometimes I would be in my father’s office. He’d be watching me while I practiced. To really hear all the right musical grammar, and the concept of a cello sound, excellent intonation, understanding of the music. So a lot of it, was just in a way, just give it to me on a silver platter. The audio is there, and the realization intellectually comes later.
Noa: That sounds almost like you had a really nice model to start from, in terms of what you were aiming for. Sound, intonation, decision making …
Mark: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Just to have that example, I think there’s no substitution for that. I think at that age, that’s just the best way to learn. Is from audio. I’m thinking the really early years, two, three, four years old. These ages.
Noa: So that’s kind of an interesting question that I’ve thought about a little bit. My wife is a pianist, and she always had a preference to go straight to the score first, before she really dug into a piece, and didn’t really bother with recordings until a little bit later in the process. As a Suzuki kid, I was always gravitating towards recordings first before I would start working on things.
Noa: Do you have a preference now, when you’re learning new music, whether you’d want to go to the score or the recording first?
Mark: I think it depends on … Well, yeah, I do both. I really do both. I mean, sometimes even hate to say it, but sometimes even time comes into play. If you need to get a quick start on something. But for me, the key with recordings is, you either shouldn’t listen to recordings, or you should listen to many recordings. If you have … I mean, it’s okay to have two, three examples. But certainly not just one recording. That’s only one person’s view of a composition, and it can be very limiting, and it can also … It can get you to do things, or play in a way without really having a real understanding of the music. Or not understanding why the choices that were made, were made.
Mark: Looking at a score is great if you’re … And especially as a pianist. I mean, I think you can sit down and read, and hear harmony right away. If you play a one-line instrument, like most string instruments, unless you’re going to sit through double steps all the time, or triple steps. Then it’s … unless you’re playing a solo piece where the harmony’s implied fully, like a Bach suite, or if you’re a violinist, Sonatas and Partitas, then maybe you won’t be able to get the same kind of feel for a piece of music. If you can pick it up and score read, and hear it in your head, which I learned to do, that can be powerful too. Not everybody has the ability to do that, I think. Either has learned, or has the ability, one or the other, or both.
Mark: I think people learn in different ways. And I think different pieces, perhaps even are benefit from being approached from one way or another. And then again, that would also be based on who the person is, and how they learn.
Noa: And going back a little bit, too, before I forget to ask about this. You talked about two things from an early age that you did. One practicing well, or effectively, in an efficient way from an early age. But also you talked about slow practice, and being conscious and aware while doing so. I think those are two important factors, in making sure that practice pays off in the long run, and that we’re cultivating good habits. I wonder if you could expand on both those things a little bit. Maybe starting with the slow practice. What does slow practice look like? Maybe it looks the same now as it did back then. But especially early on. How did you do that?
Mark: Well, I think, yeah, early on it’s a little more simplistic of course. So the idea of … And if you really want to make sure the tempo’s good. You practice with the metronome, so you can measure the time. And then you speed the metronome up by whatever the increments are. If I go back and look in my Popper Etude book from when I was a kid, I see certain Etudes are 72 to the quarter, then 82. Increments of 10, or whatever you decide to do. Just so that by the time you get to the tempo you want to be at, the how-to’s are … It’s kind of building things from the ground up are in place. Now of course, being so young, I’m not thinking well, this is only for vibrato, or this is … I’m probably just using my ears, I’m listening. Which is ultimately what we do when we perform. So that’s why that’s great.
Mark: And okay, maybe I’m thinking about one thing or another. But how practicing slowly would look today … I often think about, so what’s the best way to go at a piece of music? If it’s a piece you already know, you don’t have to learn the notes, because you already know the notes. Then, what I’ll often do, is I’ll just sit out and start playing. And start playing the piece, play it a few times, or play it in a day, and do this for a number of days, just to kind of take a bath in it, basically. I’ll just become reacquainted with the workings and the sounds, and the general feeling. And to be brainstorming my thoughts about the piece, and to figure out what I want to do with it.
Mark: For these performances, so what do I want to highlight, what do I ultimately want to communicate in this music. And what do I find of the most important value. Or what am I interested to. And which angle of interpretation. That’s what I try to do first.
Mark: And then once I know what I want to do, then I come up with a strategy, or start breaking things down, and practice slowly, from the ground up. Now of course, you do that, and build it step by step. That’s when you have adequate time to do all these things. Then there’s the time of practicing you do when you don’t really have enough time. And that happens more times than you might think. Because in the meantime, there’s life, and if I’m teaching and playing in the Cleveland Orchestra, and playing concertos and sonatas, it’s a lot going on.
Mark: So when you’re short on time, it’s a question for strategizing. First of all, what’s difficult. Where are the hard parts. So let’s go after them first, the ones that I’m less confident about. And then, looking at the music, in terms of the structure. Okay, well if you’re practicing this, well I see that this material comes back over here. So if I practice it well, I want to make some changes here, but I don’t have to labor over when it comes back, because it’s more or less the same music. And here in the middle, okay, this is really different. That’s another project.
Mark: So just to … So that you can get the best results for the time that you can invest, and what you’re practicing. And then also think about what is important about this music, and what should the audience experience when they’re listening to it. Also if it’s a piece you don’t know, yeah it probably takes about a week to learn the notes and be able to play it pretty well depending what it is. But that’s usually a good average amount of time. And then for the difficult work, is always the polishing and he details. And that’s knowing how to work on details, and get things really to such a high level. That’s where you have to have a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error involved. Experimentation and also disciplined practice. Slow, working on, you know if it’s going to be on my bow, to make sure that for the sound production or articulations, or if it’s going to be the left side for balance and shifting. I always start with the bow, because if the bow doesn’t work well, then the left side is doomed. Pretty much.
Mark: So that’s kind of my more modern approach to things. I’ve also found that it can be very useful, well can be extremely useful to pick up a score sometimes and study it without your instrument. Especially again, if you score read well, or if you really know the piece, and can go through and analyze and hear the sounds in your head. And then going back to when you’re younger, you don’t think so quite as complex, in such a complex way. But still just learning that process of building things up from the ground up. And how to, of course, my bow isn’t doing this. So we’ll focus on one thing at a time. I think that goes along way, because of the way the brain works. I think we really can get a better thumb print or imprint in what we’re doing, if we can just focus on one, maybe two things at a time. But if there’s too many, try to do too many things at once then the result will probably be a more average, instead of excellent.
Noa: Do you mean like, let’s focus on smooth bow changes, or the contact point or something like that? And then forget about intonation for now? You mean kind of like that?
Mark: Can be, yeah can be. Just, and sometimes I think it’s actually healthy to let some mistakes go by. Actually honestly not good at, even though I don’t let much go by. Because I can’t stand it. But I do think it’s good to be able to be forgiving, and let some mistakes go by. For the reason of capitalizing to improve a certain element. And then once that’s getting much better or improved, then okay, then let’s go and look at some of the other things that aren’t very good.
Noa: When you say work on the bow hand first, or the bow arm first, tell me more about that. That’s intriguing, that you would prioritize one. That would make sense, but I’m curious as to what that would look like.
Mark: I prioritize it in terms of order. Not that it’s more important, but that’s the first thing you’re going to go after. If it’s the right and the left side, I would probably … Go after the right side. Because that’s where the sound production is. And that’s where you know, in a way, the greatest source of nuance and color possibilities is coming … I mean, this is what’s producing the sound. Although, the left hand produces more of the sound than you may think at the same time. If you, as we all know, and you know if the angle’s off, or if you’re squeezing, it can just decimate the sound.
Mark: But nevertheless, in terms of moving around, the fingerboard, you’re not going to be successful, or as successful getting from point A to point B if the bow is acting rogue and changing speed all the time. Not a good contact point. I just think it’s important to get the bow settled, and really working well first. I like to think of both sides as a succession of choreographed motions for every piece. Because it is motion that makes music sound alive. And really, neither side should start from a stand still. We sometimes have to do that, just to feel like what catching the string feels like, or to see what feels like to be set. All these things have to be there.
Mark: But then, once those again, once you experienced that and those are good, then it’s time to practice preparing the motion setting with the bow, catching the string going. Same here. You’re set, but then lift the finger, prepare so the potential energy, if we’re looking at science, and then the kinetic energy of course, is when it’s realized in motion. So to me … And actually even not long ago, I was watching figure skating, and I was watching somebody do unbelievable mind boggling things. And you realize that it’s really not much different from what we do, in a sense that there are specific choreographed motions that are developed and painstakingly thought out of routine, from beginning to end as a composition. But then once you become good at that routine, and can do it in a very efficient and very reliable, consistent way, there are so many … And even in the process of getting there, there are so many variables, or ways of doing things different. Every time they skate it’s not exactly the same, but it’s the same routine. It’s built on the same roadmap.
Mark: And when we perform, it’s precisely that. It’s the same thing. That we have a very specific plan laid out, but every performance is going to be a little bit different because of a number of factors.
Noa: So I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers have themes. I mean, you watch them give master classes or you study with them. A lot of times there are certain themes that they pick on, that they feel are more important to them personally, whether it’s sound or rhythm or something like that.
Mark: That’s true.
Noa: If I were to talk to your students, what would they say is the theme that Mark Kosower tends to harp on regularly?
Mark: That’s an interesting question. I should present it to my students and get back to you on that one! Well, I mean there’s lots of things. I’m certainly allergic to unwanted portamento in a bow. Don’t allow any of that. Whatever they do has to sound musical. I’m allergic to what I call either … I don’t want to, I shouldn’t even label that. But what I call it, I would call it “workman” type play. Where it’s lay the notes down in tune, in time, and musically it does nothing. That, I’m kind of allergic to that. Because that misses the point of why we’re doing this at all.
Mark: What else. So, commitment to music, I would say, is one of the big things. If they’re not playing in a committed way, then I’m probably going to get upset.
Noa: Can you say more what that means? How can you … What’s different when someone’s really committed verses when they’re not? What do you hear, what do you see?
Mark: Well, it’s amount of effort invested, preparation, and when you’re playing also commitment in the sense that if something goes wrong, you’re going to come back with resilience in the playing. Something that nobody probably ever was better at than Heifetz. If you listen, scientifically, as perfect as his playing sounds on recordings, you can find notes that are out of tune and things. But when there are a little note here and there, the next thing you hear out of his violin is one of the most extraordinary things you’ve ever heard. Almost every time. And so I mean, unbelievable resilience, and just pride.
Mark: And I think that, commitment means being dedicated to what you do, and are willing to invest and even make sacrifices in your life, and with your time, and energy to really serve music, and to be a professional musician in the most noble sense, I would say.
Noa: There’s one other thing that, is not related to practice per se. But maybe it is. I’m not even sure how to articulate the question in the most helpful way. But what I’m curious about, is what goes through your mind when you’re performing? It might be different in chamber music, orchestra or solo, and so forth. But when you’re playing Bach, or when you’re doing concerto and so forth, what is going through your mind? Are they thoughts about technique? Or just about sound or phrase, or the orchestra you’re playing with the piano. What’s going through your mind?
Mark: You know who was the person who ever asked me that question? Was Yo-Yo Ma. I was 13 years old, playing in a master class. I played, he’s like, you play great, it sounds great, but he asked me, “What are you thinking about when you’re playing?” And I was kind of dumbfounded. And he says, “I mean, are you thinking of Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics?” I said, “No, actually Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.” But nevertheless, I mean I can’t say it’s always the same. And I think some of it is dictated by the piece, the music and my relationship with it.
Mark: I think in actual performance, I tend to do best when I basically just hearing the sounds I want to hear. And I’m perfectly in sync with the choreographed motions that I’ve worked on. The feeling in the body, and your emotional state perfectly matches in the moment what you’re doing, with just a few thoughts here and there. If there’s a shift, maybe I’ll just give one directive, remember to do that, or something like this. But to keep it simple, and to keep the mind open, and to be just totally tuned in to what I’m hearing in my head. And at the same time, with the 20 or 30 percent hearing what’s coming out of my instrument, you have to have that, too.
Mark: So those to me, are usually the … that’s when I’m playing the best. Or am quote unquote, the most natural. Sometimes, orchestra can’t always … More times than not is not like that. Because it’s just a lot more complex. And it’s more about giving the ensemble what the ensemble needs at that given moment, which sometimes may be perfectly in sync with your time. And sometimes may be really different than how you might naturally feel at that moment.
Mark: But I’ve also found the best orchestra concerts I’ve found are part of when everything’s really clicking, everybody actually is more in that rhythm anyway, like I’ve described in the solo playing. And I imagine string quartets would say similar from their experiences.
Noa: That makes a lot of sense, and it’s very similar to what a lot of other musicians describe when they’re having a good performance. Doesn’t mean that they’re there all the time. But we know that if they’re there, things are probably going to go pretty well.
Mark: Right. Sometimes I’ve played concerts where I’ve superimposed, or superimpose sounds like it’s deliberate. But there will be you know, specific thoughts or a narrative, or like if I’m playing Dvorak concerto, the coda comes and you think of the immortalization of the spirit of Dvorak’s wife’s sister who he was in love with. That was really difficult for me, when I learned that one of the greatest cello concerto perhaps ever written, was in a dedication to the composer being in love with his wife’s sister. And this whole coda is being ascension basically to the life after.
Mark: But just the idea of that, and of regardless of who it is. Yeah, it triggers feelings, and expressive things that really enhance your performance, of course. Those thoughts come to mind.
Noa: So if you were to identify a piece that everybody ought to have experience playing, whether it’s an orchestra or chamber music, or as a solo player. Are there any pieces that come to mind, that you think, “oh you know what? Everyone should have the opportunity to play this.”
Mark: Meaning for their own personal benefit? Or just to experience, because it’s …
Noa: Just to experience. Because hearing it’s one thing. But actually playing, it’s another.
Mark: Oh, I see what you mean, right. And everyone, I guess it depends. You know, for the highest level musicians, maybe something like the Grosse Fuge would be something to experience. We’re talking the most advanced. Because that’s really, can be life changing in the best situations. And the late Beethoven works. Beethoven would be, it’s one of the most life-changing composers I can think of. I could think of a number of pieces, of course, the great symphonies. Three, five, nine. Seven! Most of them! Six…
Mark: But these, the chamber music, of course I mentioned late string quartets. You know, Archduke can be like that. There’s kind of no end to the possibilities there. Of course, there’s music outside of Beethoven! You know, if you’re a string player, then Schubert two cello quintet. Maybe the A minor string quartet, these types of pieces. There’s just too many choices. Brahms, Bach, goes on. I think if you love music so much, it’s hard to say, “Well, this piece.” But if I had … My orchestra centennial just went by, it was last season. And the three pieces we performed, that were chosen, that changed the course of history. One was Beethoven three. Another was Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It’s very musically, and intellectually, what that did for music. And the third piece was Rite of Spring, Stravinsky.
Mark: Yeah, I would say being a part of any of those works could really cause some kind of an earthquake inside of you. Mahler’s symphonies. Nine. Really depends, if it’s a great performance, any one of those could really transform you. Brookner. I didn’t have any real feel or appreciation for Bruckner until I went to Germany. And worked with various conductors and musicians there. And then, of course coming back to Cleveland, Franz Welser-Möst being a, specializing in a way. He’s a champion of Brookner’s music. And in Germany, was more Herbert Blomstedt.
Mark: So yeah, I guess it’s difficult, but the composer I’d probably start with is Beethoven. And actually, like Brahms said about Bach: “You should study Bach, because everything’s in there.”
Noa: And one last thing being, you know, I never got to try cheese curds when I was in Wisconsin.
Mark: You didn’t?
Noa: No, and I blame you for that, because I think we had an opportunity, and just never did! So I still, 20-something years later, have not experienced cheese curds. But if we were to be in Wisconsin or Cleveland…when people pass through New York City, and they’re anywhere near Lincoln Center, I always tell them to go to Levain Bakery for the cookies there. In that same sort of way, is there anything in Cleveland, if we’re there or in Wisconsin, that you think we ought to grab some of before we leave?
Mark: There are some particular restaurants that are of note. Lola downtown Cleveland, is a Michael Simon Iron Chef restaurant, which is an experience. There’s another one in town called Crop, which is in Treemont district. It’s actually in what used to be an old savings and loan bank, that is beautiful architecture and all marble floors and everything. But it’s an excellent restaurant, as good as anywhere in the world. Crop. Good enough for my music director, that he eats there too. Who travels the world regularly.
Mark: And so, I would say those two restaurants, I would highly recommend in Cleveland.
Noa: Sounds good. Well, thanks so much, Mark, for taking the time to chat about some of these things.
Mark: Oh, pleasure’s mine, Noa. Always great to talk to you.