Léa Birnbaum. The Juilliard School – Cello

Léa Birnbaum. The Juilliard School – Cello November 29, 2016

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Paris, in the middle of the city! I went to the public school down the street, but I would come home for lunch so I could practice. At the time I was playing both the piano and cello, so I had two instruments to practice every day. When I was 10, I started going to a special school for kids with extracurricular activities. The other children were musicians, dancers, figure skaters, swimmers, actors… I spent four years there. It was a public school that was originally opened many years ago for circus kids so they would not have to drop out of school.

My two little brothers also went there after me. It used to drive the teachers crazy, because my middle brother and myself were not the model students of their dreams (we liked to joke around all the time and they kept asking: how many more after you guys?) Thankfully, our youngest brother was the ideal pupil. They loved him.

How did you come to play the cello?
My parents pretty much chose the instrument for me. I had (and still have!) a very deep voice, so my mother thought the cello would be good for me. I started with piano and my father brought me my first cello on a trip he made to Russia. I’m still not sure how he managed to bring a cello back from there. It was before the wall and it was completely forbidden to take anything out of the country! That little cello spent some time under our piano until I was big enough to start playing it.

Could you describe your musical education?
I went to a public conservatory near where we were living. It’s quite different in France than in the U.S. We have public conservatories in almost every single city, and it’s very inexpensive. Anybody can go. Lots of kids give up after a while, but the great thing is that a lot of children get the opportunity to try and get very good training even if they are not planning on becoming a professional.

I had many different teachers for cello, all in public conservatories. I also took some private lessons, but not too often. Every summer, my parents would send me to music camp. Most camps were not for “children” but for older students. There weren’t any adults or counselors to look after me, which was sometimes really fun. I spent a lot of sleepless nights with older people, playing music, walking around at night, and many other dangerous things I probably don’t want my parents to find out when they read this article!

In any case, summer camps were a great way to improve over summer vacations. Two months without a teacher at that age is not great. That makes a big difference in September when you go back to school. Kids who did not practice all summer were worse off than those who practiced during the break. The summer is also a time when you can really improve because you don’t have regular school, homework and things that eat up your practice time during the year.

Later, I went to Paris Conservatoire (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris) where I received my master’s. After that I went to Juilliard for another master’s. It was very different, and I had a hard time adjusting at the beginning. Juilliard was very demanding in terms of reading and writing assignments, and I spent many nights in the library trying to figure out how I could even start writing my essays. I was not used to the rigorous academic work because we mostly focused on playing in Paris.

Léa Birnbaum

How have your teachers helped shape you into the musician you are today?
My parents always made sure that my teachers were good pedagogues and also great human beings. I never had a “mean” teacher. My piano teacher was very, very, very exigent. She had high expectations and would make me practice the same pieces for months until they would get as good as a professional CD recording! She was tough but never tried to humiliate me or put me down. My first cello teacher was the opposite—I did not stay with him for very long. He would give me a new piece every single week! It wasn’t the best way to make me practice hard, but it gave me a good amount of self-confidence and a fairly good level of sight-reading skill since I was discovering new music all the time. I’m probably trying to offer that to my students now: tools to give them the ability to learn new music on their own and be independent, ways to train their ears to hear beautiful sounds, and to be demanding of themselves and always try to reach a new level.

Where do you live now? What brought you there?
In Toulouse: a cute city in the south of France. I did not plan to live there. I was about to get married to someone I met during a year of exchange in Manchester, UK. After the year in England, I applied to the Juilliard School for a master’s in historical performance, and they offered me a full scholarship. I lived in New York for 3 years (I also started a doctoral program after Juilliard) and since my fiancé was Canadian, he came to live with me in New York. When we were about to get married, we decided to try to establish ourselves in Toronto. I had worked there a little bit already with different orchestral ensembles. However, I read about an orchestra audition for the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. I had never taken an orchestral audition before, and I thought it would be a valuable experience. I really did not expect to actually get the position!


What was your experience with the orchestral audition?
Orchestra auditions are hard. A lot of people apply and you have to play behind a curtain so the judges won’t know who you are. Anyway, I got the position in Toulouse two weeks before our wedding and now I live there.

Do you teach music? 
I do teach, and I love it. Usually people email me. Students used to find me on the Juilliard website and on Craigslist when I lived in NYC. Now they contact me through another French website and by word of mouth.

Who are your greatest musical influences?
Of course I am influenced by great musicians. My favorite one really depends on the repertoire. I remember crying every time I would listen to Jacqueline Du Prè’s Elgar concerto. I love Christophe Coin’s versions of Vivaldi’s cello concertos. I’m fascinated by Anner Bylsma’s versions of Bach’s cello suites. The list goes on.

What is the most memorable concert in which you played?
That’s a hard one! Depends if you mean memorable by its quality or by its memories! I will never forget that concert with the school orchestra. We were playing Milhaud’s “Ox on the Roof” and I was sharing the music stand with a good friend of mine. We developed habits of making funny faces during rehearsals, and we had such uncontrollable giggles during the concert that I could not play and had to hide behind my cello! More than 10 years later, I still play with this friend. We now have a cello quartet, and it’s still hard to contain our hysterical laughter.

What kind of cello do you play? How long have you been performing with it and how did you acquire it?
I use a French cello made in Mirecourt. We don’t know much about it. I got it when I was 17! At the time, I was looking for a better cello for my audition at the Paris Conservatoire. My teacher saw this one, I went to try it, I liked it, and my parents bought it for me. Maybe I will change it for another one day, but I still like it. I played my orchestra audition in Toulouse with it and the panel liked it! I also have a baroque cello with gut strings that has been lent to me by the Fond Instrumental Francais. Unfortunately, I’ve had it for three years already, and I need to give it back.

Which stickers do you have on your cello case?
Haha! I used to have three sentences written in big capital letters on the case.

I thought these sentences would help me get rid of all of the usual comments made by people on the street. It didn’t! Comments just came out differently. I took them off a few months ago. I also have some backstage stickers from halls around the world where we played. Oh, and I recently got a big red sticker: “Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse,” although I have no idea who put it there. A mystery. But my colleagues are a bit jealous because no one else has this sticker. You can’t buy it anywhere! The garcons d’orchestre use them for our material and flight cases when we travel.

What are some of your interests outside of music?
I love to read. I also like to watch TV shows a lot! When my husband is in Canada, we watch episodes over Skype. We both set up our computers and say “1 – 2 -3, GO!” So we can still kind of watch together. I also love to be outdoors doing fun and dangerous sports. I roller blade a lot, but I also ski, rock climb, and more.

If you could play music with any one person or group, who would it be?
Never thought about that before. I wish I could keep playing trio with my brothers. I miss that.

Can you give us a glimpse of your current schedule?
Just came back from a 3-week vacation! It was the first time in my life that I was away from the cello for such a long time. I have to admit that I liked it! I usually don’t feel “at home” if my cello is not around, but this time was okay. Two days from now, I go back to work. We have two days of rehearsal and a concert in Ravello, Italy on a beautiful stage overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.


How often do you practice and how do you practice?
I should be practicing every day. It’s hard to find time while working in an orchestra, and I have to admit I’m very lazy and don’t like to practice much. I prefer to play and to perform, and tend to do things at the last moment. I do love to practice when I have a goal, though, like an upcoming concert, a rehearsal with new music, or an audition.

How do you practice?
How I practice depends on what I have to practice for. When preparing for auditions, I like to use a recording machine. You can’t cheat with a recorder! You always think what you just played was pretty and then you listen and it’s very bad. Then you do it again, and now it’s a bit better, but another note is out of tune. You do it again, but now it’s not rhythmical! It’s painful and time-consuming work, but it definitely pays off.

Which composers do you think wrote music that best features the cello?
Beethoven, of course. I don’t see his sonatas being played by any other instrument. Then, obviously, the classics: Dvorak, Schumann, Shostakovich, Elgar, Herbert, etc.

What does your current iTunes or Pandora playlist look like? It’s okay if it’s Metallica or Justin Bieber!
Oops. My iTunes playlist isn’t very “modern.” I have a lot of French songs (Brel, Brassens, Aznavour, Nougaro, Bourvil). I also have a lot of female jazz vocals by Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Anita O’Day. And French baroque music, and Schubert’s lieders, and Italian Opera! I really like vocal work.

What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
Just trying not to drive into a ditch! I just got my license a few months ago, and I have already been in a ditch once at night in the forest. Not my fault!

What motivates you?
A good patisserie after a day of practice! Maybe a nice restaurant with good company after a difficult concert? I’m very food-oriented.What inspires you?
For inspiration, I admire regular people who dedicate their lives trying to help others, trying to make things better, trying to fight for the ones who can’t. I wish I were like that. I try to do my best on a small scale. But it’s nothing. We can’t even make a comparison. I hope one day I’ll have the guts to do something. It could involve music. I have a dear violist friend who travels from Guatemala to Afghanistan and from Lebanon to India to teach music to children. She spends 6 months to a year with them. I think it’s amazing.

What do you work toward in your free time?
There are lots of things I should be working toward in my free time. Learning Russian, for example. My in-laws speak Russian at home, and it would be nice to understand what they mean when they’re all yelling and staring at me with weird looks…

I also try to keep in shape, since sitting to play cello for so many hours per day cannot be healthy. But a walk to the patisserie with some friends is always more appealing to me than a run alone in the cold. Okay, it’s never cold in the South of France, but you understand.

Lea Birnbaum cello

What is your advice for parents who are trying to get their kids to stick with taking music lessons?
Spend time practicing with them every day! If they are still little, try to go to some of their music lessons so you can understand what their teachers want and help your kids at home. Even if you don’t understand anything, try to sit near your children and get them to practice every day. Make sure their teachers are good and that your kids have a good relationship with their teachers. They don’t have to be best friends but kids should not be crying on the way to their lessons.

What is your advice for children who are starting to play instruments?
Enjoy! Don’t forget, you are playing music for your own pleasure and you are so lucky to be given that opportunity! Also, don’t give up on the rest of your life. Keep reading, keep traveling, go to the theater and museums, and watch movies. Actually, don’t just keep doing it, do it even more! Someone who stays locked in a practice room 12 hours a day usually does not have a lot to offer to an audience. Having great technique is essential, but it’s not enough. All of these activities will be reflected in your playing.

Thank you Léa! We wish you well and continuous success!

We’d love to recommend few books:

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. A seamless blend of biography and music history, The Cello Suites is a true-life journey of discovery, fueled by the power of these musical masterpieces.

Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. The biography effectively de-mystifies a figure frequently regarded as a Romantic enigma. It reveals him, for the first time, as a brilliant, passionate, resolute musician and a thoroughly creative human being, the composer of arguably the best music of his generation.

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