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Acclaimed Cellist Alisa Weilerstein Talks Bach, Practice and Believing In Your Art

Latest SFCM News

Watch Opus 3 artist Weilerstein’s masterclass for SFCM students and read our interview to find out more of her advice for young musicians—and the time she broke a string five notes into a performance.

June 15, 2022 by Alex Heigl

By Alex Heigl

“If there’s such a thing as ‘cello mojo,’ Alisa Weilerstein has it,” NPR declared in 2011. Since then, Weilerstein’s reputation has only grown, which was a tall order: She made her Carnegie Hall debut at 15 and performed for President Barack Obama in 2009. (Weilerstein records for Pentatone, the record label acquired by SFCM in 2022.)

Weilerstein has graced innumerable stages—but she can still recall the advice, lessons and odd moments that have come along the way. After delivering a masterclass for SFCM students in May, she later spoke with us about some of the extra-musical aspects of her life. As she said in her masterclass—about Beethoven—“This is where you can get that sharp contrast between what was going on historically and what was going on inside the person; the difference between the universal and the personal.”

You grew up in a very musical family. What are some of your first memories of growing up in that environment?

My earliest musical memories were just watching my parents practice and rehearse in the house. My father was a quartet player, of course: He was the first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet for 20 years, so the quartet players would often rehearse in the house. They would sometimes teach in the house, and I went to concerts from a very early age and the radio was always on. Another thing: My father and I had kind of a ritual, we would listen to Don Giovanni every night before I went to bed. Not the whole thing of course, but I really loved the Commendatore scene; it was one of my favorites, so we listened to that together quite often.

How do you approach the masterclasses you give?

Well, it's funny because a masterclass is sort of a manufactured situation where you're teaching in front of an audience and there's kind of a pressure to produce a change in the students right away, and you're also trying to bring the audience with you. But I try to kind of forget about that and focus on the individual student and what they need and how to prioritize the most important things—where I think I can actually make an impact in a short amount of time.

I don't go in trying to preach a vision or something like that, it all comes down to what the student needs. I remember I played in a masterclass for Yo-Yo Ma, actually, when I was 13. He's a wonderful teacher; he doesn't have the time to teach regularly, but he's just fantastic, and he also really tailored his advice to what people needed individually. So I watched him teach others, and then he taught me.

What advice do you have for younger musicians in high-pressure audition or performance situations? 

You have trust in your own preparation and process. But there are things you can do to not only prepare in the practice room, because that's a very specific setting, and one can get very, let's say, "comfortable" in there. So I would practice in uncomfortable situations. Like playing for a group of friends, which for me is always very uncomfortable, actually. I always found it harder to play for a group of friends or people who knew me well than to play for an audience of strangers. Even asking for comments afterward, which is hard to do. Prepare yourself in that way so then when you play your performance or your auditions they become much easier.

What sort of regimen or rituals do you have to look after the non-musical side of being a musician—your mental, emotional and physical well-being?

There’s more to life than practicing [laughs]. Make time for friends, make time for museums, make time for long walks. Even prioritizing sleep is very important. To truly live and not just focus on the next audition or the next goal.

Fortunately, I’ve never dealt with any pain or injuries, but I firmly believe in making sure your body is active in a healthy way, stretching, getting massages when you need them, and taking it seriously when your body is tired. If your body is tired, bad things can happen. 

Do you have a favorite museum you’ve visited?

I lived in Berlin for six years, so the Museum Island was one I always visited. It’s food for the soul. I love MoMA. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. has a new collection of Picasso from his Blue period; I was just there performing with the NSO. 

You’re a MacArthur fellow: What advice would you give to students who are seeking funding for projects?

I’m working on a project right now, so I’m dealing with a lot of this. You need to be prepared and know who your audience is. And you need to believe in what you’re selling. That’s the best advice I could give anybody, because it comes through in your voice. Face-to-face is also better than written pitches, I’ve found; even just having a Zoom is much, much more effective. They need to hear the passion for your project in your voice.

Your career started before social media was as much of “a thing.” How have you navigated it as it’s become more essential to artists?

I think we all have a bit of a love/hate relationship with social media. It can be a fantastic, invaluable tool in all the obvious ways, but it’s tricky. My problem is when anybody can just write something, and then it’s all over the internet and there’s nothing you can do about it. Anyone who’s in the public eye in any way has always had to have a very thick skin, but it’s not getting easier.

When you perform something like the Bach Cello Suites that are sort of ground zero for the repertoire, how do you find ways to make it exciting for yourself and the audience?

Well, that’s the reason why they’re ground zero: They’re such a masterpiece that there’s always something new to find in them. So there’s no way for them not to be fresh—and in fact, they can feel a little bit too fresh in that they’re some of the most nerve-wracking pieces to perform.

What are some of the other pieces of the cello repertoire that you get excited about returning to?

The Elgar concerto is another great example of a piece that still feels new. The Dvořák concerto is another one of those touchstone masterpieces that some people might think is overplayed, but I don’t think so. That score is such a rich and inspiring, touching piece of music that it’s impossible to not fall in love with it every time.

Do you have any funny performance stories that stick out from your career?

Well, something very funny happened to me in a relatively recent performance of the Dvořák concerto, actually. I was performing it in Shanghai in September 2019, and you wait 87 bars to come in. And the very first chord, I played five notes and my A string broke. So I waited four and a half minutes to play, broke a string immediately, and had to walk offstage and fix it and come back, like, “Sorry guys!” [laughs]

Who are some of the artists you’re listening to these days?

Well, not a ton at the moment, but I am listening to a lot of the symphonic repertoire because I have two young daughters and I want them to be listening to great music, so I go through a lot of mainstay things that way. In terms of non-classical, I love Björk, I love the Beatles. A lot of Latin music as well.

Are your daughters playing?

Well, one of them is four months old, so she’s not playing yet. But my 6-year-old plays violin and piano. 

How do you balance being a parent and a musician with having a budding musician daughter?

I don’t think of her as a budding musician, first of all. I wanted to be very much a part of her education, and she is talented and very musical, but I want to give her the tools and let her run with it, and that’s where I stop.

What’s something you wish you’d been told as a younger musician?

I was told a lot of things [laughs]. I think one of my favorite things I was told was by my mother, when I was preparing for a recital when I was 8, 9 years old. And she asked me if I was nervous, and I said, “Oh, maybe.” And she said, “There’s no reason for you to be nervous, you are very talented and you’re very prepared.” And this goes back to what I was saying earlier about trusting in your abilities and the work you’ve done. It’s very basic, but it’s something that’s given me the confidence to be onstage. Confidence doesn’t always come naturally: It’s learned, something you can practice and cultivate.

Learn more about studying cello or strings at SFCM.