Remembering William Pleeth
The cellist, chamber musician and pedagogue would have been 100 this year. As well as being one of the leading performers of his generation, he taught Jacqueline du Pré and left a teaching legacy that includes some of today’s finest cellists. Five of his students share their memories of lessons with him and explain why he was such an inspiring and charismatic teacher, in this article, first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Arco
At 15, simply being in the same room as the man who had taught Jacqueline du Pré was enough to make me dream of a starry future. I remember waiting in the warm-up room, which had a round mahogany table full of old signed photos in silver frames, and peering at the famous names offering love to William Pleeth. When no one was looking I would touch du Pré’s picture.
Pleeth’s priority was always musical integrity: for example, practising a passage slowly, for technique, with exactly the same expression as when fast. He didn’t necessarily help me with technique material, or mastermind a plan for me, so technical development felt a little random. He spoke mainly of phrasing, and really opened my eyes to technique being the servant of the musical idea. From that moment on I never chose the easy option technically, but the one I believed would give me the musical vision I was after. I still have my editions of the Bach Suites and Beethoven Sonatas with his annotations. He loved those works.
I had a terrible cello and poor parents, and he knew my mum was working two jobs to pay for my lessons and the train fare from Leicester to London. He helped me get £5,000 pounds (a big sum in 1988) by writing to benevolent trusts, and asked David Rubio to make me a cello. Having that instrument was the turning point for me to decide to play cello really seriously. It was a generous act from a busy man.
Vicki Parkin is a member of the orchestra of Opera Australia and teaches at Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy and High School. She had private lessons with William Pleeth between 1988 and 1994
‘In order to develop into a mature, healthy and profound musician you had to be a good teacher to yourself not only in music but also in life’
William Pleeth never imposed his own personality on to you as a musician. Indeed, in my experience, he didn’t actually teach from the cello. This allowed you to develop as an individual voice, without emulating him. He was particularly interested in absorbing who you were as a musician and how you felt about music in a way that was natural to your own personality, ensuring that he didn’t develop a ‘school’ of cellists who sounded even remotely similar to one another. Each and every one could evolve under his tutelage, true to themselves.
It was generally advised that you only went to Bill when your technique was secure. He was interested only in the music itself, not the obstacles that prevented a musician from expressing it fluidly. The focus was on the true goals and the energy within the music itself. I loved this – I went to study with him at a time when I just wanted to hurl myself at all the repertoire without having to relearn or reassess anything. This can be (and was) incredibly liberating.
He used to say: ‘Never have a fixed bowing or fingering.’ He always recommended that you change spontaneously, so as to avoid bad habits and entrenching a particular interpretation rigidly. It meant that you had to keep various markings only in your head – they weren’t to be written down. I remember taking him Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite and just before I started, he yelled, ‘Up bow!’ I had to start on a completely different footing. To this day I never stick to the same bowing or fingering, choosing to feel free in order to colour a phrase, depending on new and varying factors in a performance – the acoustic or the audience. This helped me develop a palette of colours, and a freedom I wasn’t aware existed before. The art of adaption is very important.
He also told me not to wait to play the mature works. He asked me why, in the two years thus far, I hadn’t brought along Bach’s Sixth Suite. My answer was that I wanted to wait. ‘What for? Next week?’ he laughed. ‘You’re young. Now is exactly the time to climb these mountains. If you fall off you know which new route to take when you train for the next attempt. If you revere it as insurmountable you won’t understand it. Understand it now, when young, because it’ll inform you later. The whole point of learning is to make mistakes.’ He didn’t believe in ‘waiting for the right time’ and encouraged me to be as fearless with this repertoire as I was with, say, concertos. ‘Make good friends with the Gods,’ he used to say about the classics.
Another piece of wisdom was, ‘Always sing from the heart,’ and ‘Don’t try to impress someone with immaculate playing if it hinders natural expression and the spirit of the music.’ He blamed a constricted obsession with perfection on a competitive world, when the arts shouldn’t have anything to do with sport. He encouraged you to find your own sound, as that was your inner voice speaking truthfully: ‘Then that sound will guide you through.’ I’ve always remembered that.
One of his last guiding statements was, ‘Be a good teacher to yourself.’ This made me understand that in order to develop into a mature, healthy and profound musician you had to be a good teacher to yourself not only in music but also in life. Once you crack that one, everything falls into place.
I remember once, when I was in my very early 20s, I attended a party after a concert in London, with fantastic French wine thrown in. My weakness in drinking it meant that my 9am lesson was a daunting prospect when I woke up the next morning. Nevertheless I got on the train and turned up for the lesson with Bach’s Sixth Suite. (I should mention that I had to bring a new work every week and never repeat one – for two and a half years!) I was honest with Bill on arrival and told him what had happened and how awful I felt. He roared with laughter, particularly when I told him what I was proposing to play. He was delighted I was embracing my youth and my zest for life, which he considered a fine balance with such intense study. ‘Take it away!’ he chuckled, waving his hand at me sitting there poised, tentatively, to lunge into the Prelude. Miraculously the lesson went incredibly well and I was extremely humbled – and inspired – by his generosity of spirit and wisdom. Needless to say I never did anything like that again, but it gave me an insight into his warm and humorous personality. I can honestly say I never had a bad lesson, and this wasn’t down to me as a pupil, but Pleeth as a truly great teacher and guide.
Jamie Walton is a soloist and a chamber musician with an international career, and founder of the North Moors Chamber Music Festival. He studied privately with William Pleeth from 1996 to 1999
‘He stressed the importance of minimal fingerings and markings in the music, seeing them purely as a distraction in performance’
I studied with William Pleeth on and off for a period of 20 years, although I should clarify that and explain that I was never an official pupil, and William was in fact my grandfather. So, my perspective on learning with him is a uniquely personal, family-based account.
William was totally dedicated to his family, to the extent that his teaching schedule was planned around school pick-up times. In a way, he fulfilled the role of a parent more than that of a grandparent, choosing to pick me and my sister up from primary and secondary school, spoiling us with treats on the way back to my grandparents’ home, Holly Park, where we ended up most days, doing homework and having our supper.
By the time William had grandchildren he’d cut back on travelling and performing, preferring to teach. My lessons were always on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings and took the form of playing cello duets. William always played cello alongside me, adding bass lines, harmonising, or playing in unison – excellent tuning practice! I learnt scales from an old scale book that certainly didn’t adhere to modern fingerings. William was a firm believer in making any fingering work, and not being a slave to what was printed in the part. He hated what he called these ‘instant coffee’ fingerings!
My love of 18th-century repertoire was already apparent at a young age, and rather than trying to expand my musical horizons, William was wise enough to recognise just how stubborn I was, and find wonderful pieces for us to play – technically challenging, often unknown, but pieces which nonetheless stretched my technique. I looked forward immensely to these duet sessions, never seeing them as ‘lessons’, despite the fact that the repertoire was challenging.
William introduced me to the Bach Cello Suites when I was nine, and these pieces really changed my musical life, as they have done for most cellists. I still have my inscribed copy from William, now pretty battered, as well as a beautiful facsimile he gave me of the Anna Magdalena Bach edition, long before it was readily available.
His Bach teaching was revolutionary. We worked from the Bärenreiter edition, although modified it to reflect Bach’s original intentions. Sometimes we diversified from printed phrasing altogether, William showing me that ultimately the music needs to leap from the page, rather than strictly adhere to certain phrase markings, especially if these might inhibit the musical flow. At the time I was too young fully to understand William’s connection and debt to Julius Klengel, with whom he studied in Leipzig, although now I realise the amazing association between these two men, bridging the centuries. Klengel was, of course, one of the first cellists to popularise the Bach Suites in Germany.
William gave me several pieces of valuable advice, which I return to time and time again. He stressed the importance of minimal fingerings and markings in the music, seeing them purely as a distraction in performance. What happens if you don’t follow them? Aren’t you likely to spend the next few bars thinking you’ve made a mistake, and then while distracted be more likely to lose concentration? He also taught me to relax on the day of a concert, being firmly anti panic practice.
In terms of my career as a period-instrument performer, he couldn’t have been more supportive. Gut strings were natural for him, his cellos usually having a plain gut A and D string, long after most modern cellists stopped using gut. He also taught me to relax about tuning. I’ll never forget a period-instrument quartet session that he coached. After about five minutes of neurotic tuning, he gently reminded us that the pitch would change as soon as the bow was on the string anyway.
I still picture him and my grandmother every time I start to play. They used to listen as I prepared for concerts, offering advice and support, sitting on their beautiful green 18th-century sofa, a cello usually resting on one end of it. I have that sofa now, and my cello rests on it, where they used to sit. I can still hear William gently admonishing me if I’m tempted to ‘cheat’, using a harmonic A instead of a stopped note in a particular place in Geminiani Cello Sonata op.5 no.1. ‘Bubala,’ he would exclaim in Yiddish – ‘It will always sound a little off if you do that.’ I take his advice and stop the note!
Tatty Theo is a Baroque cellist and Director of Handel specialists The Brook Street Band
‘He introduced the concept of speech in fingerings, using open strings and the lower positions, which gave a keyboard-like clarity in Bach’
As a participant in several summers of masterclasses with William at the Britten–Pears Foundation, I observed him at work with many types and levels of talent – extrovert, introvert, student, young professional – and his starting point was always the musical text, never the cello. Figuratively speaking, he raised our eyes from the fingerboard to the horizon. Begin with the musical vision, listen to what the line is saying and how it is moving, what is primary and what is secondary, and how the cello and piano or orchestral score weave together to form an indivisible whole. I always emerged from his classes with a renewed sense of adventure in familiar works. He managed to make well-known pieces sound fresh and of the moment, and I remember returning home to America wanting to re-learn many of the works I thought I knew so well. That ability to inspire, not only to define, is rare in a teacher.
He left most of the technical aspects to the student to figure out. Talent finds its way, but there were many students who struggled to realise this visionary way of working at the instrument. A teacher cannot be all things, and for me at that stage of my development, I did not require an explanation of the how-tos. My technique was already formed well enough to benefit.
His concept was that the music dictates fingering, rather than comfort and convenience at the cello. It should never be safety first. The opening of the Brahms F major Sonata was a case in point. My previous teacher’s fingerings were all about being safe. It was an eye opener, to take risks in order to communicate the urgency of the music. I loved his fingering choices in Bach, which were so simple and clear. I came from the generation of teachers whose tradition was fingering all the open strings and singing every note. William introduced the concept of speech in fingerings, using open strings and the lower positions, which gave a keyboard-like clarity in Bach. It was revolutionary. I can’t forget how he opened my eyes to Classical style in the music of Haydn. Repeated notes are articulated in the bow and left hand. He used to say, ‘Close the lips’, so that the spoken consonant is present along with the singing vowel.
More than anything, there was a quality of energy present in the room when he taught. He brought out the best in people. I spent the next 25 years of my life seeking to understand that quality of energy: where does it emanate from and how does it conduct, or better yet, transmit, thoughts about music and the love of music? Once one comes into that force field, one is deeply affected and changed – I certainly was.
Selma Gokcen teaches cello and the Alexander Technique at the Guildhall School and is co-chair of the London Cello Society
‘The right arm is the lung, and the right hand is the lips, teeth and tongue’
I found Pleeth to be continuously imaginative and creative in his thought process when teaching. One defining characteristic was his innate and unaffected gift of creating powerful connections, using imagery from all areas of life to illuminate aspects of cello playing and music making. This was often accompanied by exquisite demonstrations given on his cello with seemingly effortless ease, while standing.
Much of what I learnt from him strongly underpins my own values as a cellist, musician and teacher. He had studied with Julius Klengel, so he often recommended Klengel or Goltermann works as a combination of etude and concert piece. I studied with him at the Yehudi Menuhin school between the ages of nine and eighteen, where I was also fortunate to have weekly lessons with the late Jennifer Ward-Clarke, and she focused more on the setting of studies and exercises.
His unforgettable seminal truth for all bowed string players was, ‘The right arm is the lung, and the right hand is the lips, teeth and tongue,’ (meaning the free arm gives a fund of resonant sound, while the hand is capable of channeling that into a wealth of varied articulations, syllables and words.) This is a typically brilliant analogy, full of vivid and memorable imagery.
Pleeth was a free, independent thinker and taught us to question the ‘traditional’ rubato or dynamic traditions that can build as folklore around some of the standard repertoire. Genuine thirst for deeper exploration of the score and piecing together the jigsaw of the whole work from a chamber music perspective – in the case of sonatas particularly – were priorities.
He was always utterly convincing in demonstrating a number of ways the phrases could be played. Less well-thought-out phrasing that a student may initially have come up with were sometimes demonstrated in caricature, although this was never done with cruelty.
He did perform both as a cellist and teacher during lessons and classes, but personally I never saw him doing this to self-aggrandise, and this was a wonderful example of his genuine passion for putting the music and the student first.
He would always refer to us very affectionately in lessons. We were darling, poppet, petal and other endearments and were always met with a warm, beaming smile. I always felt excited about playing to him because I knew that I would come out of the lesson brimming with new thoughts and ideas and having been treated to a number of ravishing demonstrations. He created a gorgeous range of sounds and happily they have remained in my memory as an inspiration.
Hannah Roberts is principal cellist of Manchester Camerata, and professor of cello at the Royal Academy of Music and Royal Northern College of Music. She studied with William Pleeth from 1977 to 1986 at the Yehudi Menuhin School
The London Cello Society celebrates the life and work of William Pleeth on 20 November at the Royal College of Music, with performances, talks and films. For more information see
This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Arco. ESTA members receive four copies of Arco a year, and two issues of Jesta to distribute to their students. Find out more about membership benefits here.