Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians – revisited by Steven Isserlis

Credit: Jean Baptiste Millot

Credit: Jean Baptiste Millot

Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians was originally written in 1848 to accompany his famous, and still very popular, Album for the Young, a suite of piano pieces for children and students. Schumann was a remarkable, forward-looking man, not least for his huge and varied oeuvre of miraculous music, but also his championing and support of other musicians, as well as teaching, writing, and encouraging aspiring young musicians. Celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis has taken Schumann’s advice and expanded upon it, adding his own commentaries and words of wisdom, and often matching Schumann’s humorous or witty tone with his own amusing observations. Schumann’s advice, though couched in the language of his age, is always relevant and Isserlis, through his own words, demonstrates how perceptive Schumann’s wisdom is by passing it through the lens of his own experience as an established and highly-regarded classical musician.

Some of the advice is obvious:

Schumann: Tale care always to have your instrument well tuned
Isserlis: well, yes: it will be much more pleasant – for you, and for anyone else within earshot.

While some is more philosophical:

If your music comes from your heart and soul, and if you feel it inside yourself, it will affect others in the same way.
Yes: if your music comes from deep inside you, it will speak to a deep place in others. But it’s not just heart and soul – your mind needs to be engaged too; all three should work together (in concert, as it were) in order for you either to create music or to recreate the works you interpret. There is no contradiction between thinking and feeling; it’s all part of understanding.

41Cd7dO-1-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Looks as deeply into life as into the other arts and sciences
Ah, so true, so true. Except that I’m not quite sure what he means…..

Divided into five sections, the book explore keys facets of the musicians life and work, from being a musician through playing (and performing), practising to composing, something which Schumann felt all musicians should do, and which far fewer practising musicians do today (Steven Isserlis’s good friend and colleague the pianist Stephen Hough is a notable exception, whose polymath musical life Schumann would certainly approve of). The final section contains Isserlis’s own pieces of advice which are thoughtful, intelligent and accessible. Isserlis reveals his reverence and enthusiasm for his chosen art in a way that is never didactic, sometimes profound, always realistic yet never depressing. The tone throughout is modest and sensitive, for musicians can be fragile souls, prone to self-doubt and anxiety.

Isserlis brings the advice right up to date for today’s musicians working in a profession that is increasingly busy, competitive, uncertain and stressful. Such advice includes the importance of playing with others, receiving critical feedback from one’s peers and teachers, appreciating audiences and understanding the structure of music.

Not just a handbook for young musicians, this delightful and wise book is a manifesto for all musicians, music teachers and music lovers, provided inspiration and amusement in equal measure. Read it in one sitting, or dip into at one’s leisure to extract a nugget of wisdom.

Official Website

Steven Isserlis will be talking about his book in Hong Kong on October 16th 2016.

Schumann: Album for the Young
Samuel Feinberg

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