Carter Brey Masterclass Review

Guest post by Sara Sitzer

Carter Brey with 17-year old cellist Brandon Xu

Last week I had the great pleasure, along with the rest of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, of accompanying Carter Brey on the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Brey played incredibly--his first movement was heroic, romantic and technically perfect. His second movement left nary a dry eye in the house. Everything about his performance was inspiring. While he was in town, the ESO arranged for him to give a masterclass at Judson University in Elgin.

Now, some famous musicians came to play their instrument so naturally that they’ve never had to put much thought into what techniques they are putting into practice. Often times these musicians don’t make the most articulate or helpful teachers, simply because they haven’t had to think analytically about what they are doing when they perform--it simply comes easily to them. Perhaps since this was what I had experienced in other recent masterclasses, I was half-expecting this to be the case with Carter Brey. Boy, was I wrong.

Brey worked for a half hour each with 4 students, ages 12-17, whose skill levels ranged widely. From the least to most advanced, he was able to engage them and put them at ease, and was also able to address universal concepts applicable to any cellist of any level. Below are some of the concepts I found most useful and most interesting.

General Concepts:

To achieve a successful sautille bow stroke, the screw of the bow should make tiny ovals.

We sometimes wrongly associate volume with bow pressure. What actually allows the bow to draw a louder sound has to do with the vibration of the string or amplitude. This is achieved through bow speed and contact point.

In experimenting with using a baroque bow, Brey found himself staying close to the frog almost all of the time and generally playing off the string. This has affected the way he thinks about playing Bach and all baroque music now.

When your contact point is close to the bridge, the sound becomes saturated with overtones--this is why it can be so resonant.

To achieve smooth string changes, think of the bow itself as a pivot.

Our goal is to find a balance of expression between the right hand and the left hand--neither one is solely responsible for phrasing and musicality.

Slides are made with the bow. To hide a shift, let up on pressure and slow the bow down.

Piece-specific Concepts:

Popper, Hungarian Rhapsody - The Hungarian language is full of extremely strong accents, often on the first syllable of a word. Keep this in mind in regards to accents and phrasing.

Bach, Suite No. 1, Prelude - Practice by playing each bar as a chord. This will force you to think about each bar as a hand shape, rather than a bunch of notes. This will improve intonation.

Elgar, Cello Concerto, Movement 1 - More than any other concerto, the integration between the solo cello part and the orchestra part is highly involved and highly conversational. Knowing the score is vital so that you are aware what instrument or section you pass the melody to or take it from, whether you’re playing melody or accompaniment, and what dynamic you should be to fit in with the texture.

Brey with 15-year old cellist Nathaniel Blowers

The masterclass was insightful, inspiring and entertaining. No official video was taken, but if you’re interested in hearing Carter Brey speak about inspiration and the cello, take a look at this recent TED talk he gave. He truly has proven himself to be, not just one of the great cellists of our time, but also a wonderful teacher and speaker.

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