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Top Secrets for Cellists

Table of contents

Preface by Kurt Hess

Biography Janos Starker

An Organized Method of String Playing (OMSP)


Category I: Playing Preparation



Category II Right Arm-Hand-Fingers

Bow hold


Thumb Placement

Bow Articulation

Category III Left Arm-Hand Fingers

Finger Placement



Thumb Positions

Position Changes

Anticipated Slide

Delayed Slide

Finger Actions and Aspects of Tension/Relaxation

Artificial Harmonics, Extensions


Category IV Musical Application



For some years, cello students of mine have asked me to put on paper some pedagogical ideas and methods which I use in my teaching. In July 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to make notes. The further I proceeded, the more it became clear that many of the ideas and concepts stemmed from my student days at Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana, USA in the mid-1970’s when I had the privilege to study with Janos Starker.

I remembered that Janos Starker included an analytical summary of wide-ranging technical and musical aspects in his autobiography The World of Music according to Starker (Indiana University Press). After consulting this book again, I decided to put my notes aside and let the master speak. With my students in mind, I then made a German translation of the chapter «An Organized Method of String Playing».

Janos Starker’s text is divided into four categories. Within these categories, the text is ongoing and without subdivisions.Thus, I took the liberty to further structure the text by adding some headings as well as listing them in a table of contents.

Janos Starker’s musical career was extraordinary: over 5000 solo performances worldwide, 170 CD/Studio recordings, and over 75 years of devoted pedagogical activity.

My strong wish is that the ideas and concepts of Janos Starker contained in this book, which stem from an extraordinarily wide-ranging musical experience, will be of great inspiration and practical benefit for cellists of any standard - from students to orchestral players, chamber musicians to soloists.

With this publication, I also wish to honour my great teacher!

Kurt Hess, Beromünster, Switzerland

Biography Janos Starker

Born on July 5th, 1924 in Budapest; † April 28th, 2013 in Bloomington, Indiana USA.

Janos Starker was one of the greatest virtuoso cellists of the 20th Century. As a six-year-old child prodigy, he received his first cello tuition at the renowned Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

He later became principal cellist of both the Opera and Philharmonic Orchestras in Budapest. After the Second World War Starker emigrated to the USA (1948) and later occupied the principal cello chairs of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Besides his highly successful concert career with over 5000 solo performances worldwide, Janos Starker recorded a vast part of the cello repertoire, releasing around 170 CDs and studio recordings. As a distinguished Professor, he started teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana USA in 1958 and continued teaching students from around the world until 2013.

From 1950-1965 Janos Starker performed and recorded on a cello by Antonio Stradivari, the «Lord Aylesford». From 1965 until his death in 2013, Janos Starker played on his treasured Matteo Goffriller cello, Venice 1705.

An Organized Method of String Playing (OMSP)


Since 1955 I have been giving string seminars regularly on four continents under the title «An Organized Method of String Playing.» The following is an attempt to describe what takes place in these public classes.


«An Organized Method of String Playing» (OMSP) is a way of thinking about music and instrumental playing. Its objectives answer professional needs: stability, power, health, maximum use of limited time, increase of confidence and avoidance of stagnation, deterioration, nervousness, and insecurity. Though these needs are based on varying degrees of talent and ability, physical and/or musical, they are aggravated by previous learning processes. The necessary imitative learning of a child is too often continued into adulthood. Changes from concerned to unconcerned teachers, or vice versa, result mostly in the unexplained use of various schools of learning. These schools, often marvelously demonstrated by highly gifted exponents, reflect solutions oft the exponents’ individual shortcomings or advantages. In order to explain the thinking process behind the approach to OMSP, let me give some background as to its origin.

As a child prodigy from the age of six, I was fortunate in having a great teacher, Adolf Schiffer, a student and successor of David Popper. His forte was in assisting his students to develop their natural abilities. He was a superb cellist and musician, but because of a rather late start as an instrumentalist, he limited his performing activities to string quartet playing. He used no method. He assigned material, corrected musical errors, played fragments to clarify his suggestions, and ridiculed unnatural motions that were contrary to the music. Theatricality was discouraged and dismissed as fitting only for clowns to employ in lieu of talent. Inborn or inbred eccentricities when coupled with talent were considered sufficient to reach recognized stage heights.

Two other exceptional teachers to whose wisdoms I had access were Leo Weiner (piano chamber music) and Imre Waldbauer (string quartets). Weiner, a composer and a mediocre but functional pianist with a powerful musical mind and incredibly disciplined ears, taught his disciples to hear. Waldbauer, a highly respected violinist of the renowned string quartet, had a scientific mind and was preoccupied with the various mechanical ways of producing sounds. He clarified the need for and the possibility of verbal definitions based on experience and on the works of Hugo Riemann and Friedrich Adolph Steinhausen.

After I had reached instrumental maturity and control of a large part of the repertory, World War II caused a year of absence from my instrument. Following this silence, I had but two weeks to prepare for my first public appearance. I continued the profession successfully, and shortly thereafter I occupied the solo cellist’s post of the Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra of Budapest. A year or so later I found myself listening to a recital in Vienna. One of the most admired instrumentalists of our time was performing, a legendary former child prodigy. His left hand was vibrating indiscriminately and barely managed to arrive at the necessary destinations. A loud irregular breathing penetrated the entire hall. I left in the intermission on the verge of nausea. We are all aware of the pressures of international concertizing and reluctantly accept the fact of human frailty, justifying an occasional «off night.» A series of sleepless nights forced on me the realization that the occurrences at that concert involved issues far beyond an «off night.» I had nightmarish visions of the legendary peasant eye surgeon who, when told of the dangers involved of his activities, was never able to repeat his feats. The historically low percentage of child prodigies who grow up to be mature artists needed explanation, and it became imperative to have an acceptable reasoning as to what governs the satisfactory mental and physical functions of a performing artist when called on stage.

Through some horror-laden months of ineffective public experimentation, followed by a stretch of self-imposed inactivity, I became aware that only through conscious understanding of the elements that allow music to be produced on an instrument can one become a professional reasonably independent of the constant hazards. Only through conscious understanding can one control the «skill» part of producing art and distinguish the gifted dilettante from the master professional. This realization induced me to search for the «basic» problems involved in playing an instrument; basic problems that are identical for all and inherent in all music irrespective of subjective feelings and judgments. Invariably, when that search reached the point where the problem was defined, solutions presented themselves, explaining and justifying the differing approaches. Invariably, advantages and disadvantages appeared that were humbling to those whose religious fervor for a chosen route deterred all contradictions, while for those with vastly different abilities answers were provided.

The emphases on professionalism are manifold. Regardless of whether a musician performs as a soloist or as a member of a small or a large ensemble, or assists a budding instrumentalist in learning the «trade», the significance of understanding and knowledge of the issues involved is far beyond the value of natural gifts. It would be infantile to discount the lack of democracy in the distribution of talents; however, the goal toward maximum utilization of one’s gifts is universal. When talent and fortunate circumstances coincide, there may be no need for theories in order to arrive at great results.Those who are satisfied with their output would never bother about problems, since they do not have them. On the other hand, only those are safe from fear who do not realize the risks involved – risks, not necessarily personal, but artistic. It is one thing to lose a competition or audition because of an inferior showing, and another not to win over someone equally good or better. The risks are that of self-respect, and above all the respect for the music itself. One ought to be nervous before a performance to some degree, not because of fear of the unknown but because of one’s respect for the significance of artistic contribution.


After years of investigation, I was able to place the various problems in some obvious categories. This categorizing alleviated the universal plague of lack of practice time. I would venture to say that there is no musician who has not said on occasion, «If I’d had more time I could have…» We may deplore the lack of time for all human endeavors that aim toward unreachable goals, but the misuse of time is just as tragic. It is quite usual for a player who practices one hour to spend half that period repeating already well controlled passages and melody lines. Commonplace is the player who endlessly repeats a difficult passage without realizing that the problem is not a left-hand one, but lies in the bowing, string-changing, phrasing, grouping, or holding of the instrument, and so on ad infinitum.

The four categories are: I. Playing Preparation, II. Right Arm-Hand-Fingers, III. Left Arm-Hand-Fingers, IV. Musical Application. The order and titles are clearly arbitrary. The fourth group, musical application, could obviously be first, or should it be? It ought to be taken for granted that all aspects of instrumental playing must be motivated by musical intentions. To play in tune, to produce uninterrupted lines, to eliminate scratchy sounds, to guard against uncontrolled dynamic changes due to changes in bow speed, and to avoid unwritten notes while connecting distant intervals are not technical demands but musical ones. The solutions are technical, nevertheless.

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