Second in a 10-part series
Cellist Carter Brey: 'Renaissance lumber'
(CNN) -- This is the second part of an exclusive 10-part series on CNN.com/Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
In this Q&A series, 10 Philharmonic players share insights into their jobs: the occupational hazards, the workday routines, the challenges of being a working parent and finding enough time for the kids and for hours of practice.
This week's Player: Carter Brey, the orchestra's principal cellist. He dedicated himself to serious study of the cello as a teen-ager -- and within a decade was playing in a major American orchestra. For years, he played on a $750 factory-made instrument -- until he traded it in for a rare 18th-century cello that he wryly refers to as his "million-dollar piece of Italian Renaissance lumber."
How old were you when you first picked up the cello?
I was 12 -- it was my first year in junior high school. I had started on the violin at age 9 -- but I lost patience with the squeakiness of it. If I'd known then what I know now -- about traveling with cellos, and the relative paucity of the repertoire -- I would have stuck with the violin, for sure!
Were you raised in a musical family?
Not at all -- I was an only child in a completely non-musical family. But my father particularly loved music. I remember my father bringing home a recording of "The Young People's Guide to the Orchestra" by Benjamin Britten when I was a very small child -- perhaps 4 or 5 -- and home sick in bed. And I completely fell in love with the sound of the strings, the violins particularly. So when I was 9 years old, in fourth grade, and I was able to study an instrument, I chose the violin.
Stringed instruments, of all the instrumental families, are notorious for being very difficult to make a decent sound on at first. It's not like the piano, where anybody can sit down at the keyboard and if you position their fingers correctly, they can play a nice chord with a perfectly beautiful sound. But you pick up a violin or a cello or a viola, and put the bow in the hands of a complete beginner -- and they're going to make a sound that's going to make the paint fall off the walls! It's very discouraging, initially.
So playing a note is not just a matter of placing your finger in the correct place on the right string?
It's also how hard you put it down; what part of the finger you use; whether your hand is pointing straight across, or down or up. And then of course you have to coordinate all that with the bow -- and the bow has its own set of variables: pressure, speed.
Do even professional cellists make the occasional unpleasant sound?
Oh, it'll bite you on the ankle when you're least expecting it! And I think the more high-powered and rare the instrument, the more likely that can be -- they're like thoroughbreds.
Yes! I play a 250-year-old Guadganini that's a masterpiece of the 18th-century violin maker's art. And it's a joy to play -- 95 percent of the time. But these things are boxes of wood, and they respond to temperature and humidity variables -- they expand and they contract. Sometimes, despite all of my mastery, and decades of practicing, I can put the bow on the string and what comes out is a squeak, a screech. And you just have to laugh about it and go on.
'You gotta upgrade'
Tell me the story of your cello.
I bought it back in 1984. At that time, I was still playing the $750 factory cello that I'd had had as a kid -- I won every competition in my life on that factory instrument. But people were saying, "You gotta upgrade."
A friend was having dinner one night with a man who was the trust officer for a branch of the Connecticut Bank and Trust. This man said, "Oh, by the way, there's this cello in the vault." And my friend drove over to the bank the next day, and in the vault was this cello, made by Giovanni Battista Guadganini in Milan, in 1754.
Guadganini (pronounced "Gwahd-ah-NEE-nee") is generally considered to be the next-most illustrious maker after makers such as Stradivari and Guarneri. This cello is from his Milan period, where he had access to really good wood - maple and spruce, from the Italian alps. And he was using this fantastic orange-red varnish. All of his cellos were built on a very small pattern, and so they're perfect for me, because I've got very small hands. But they all have big sounds.
The cello belonged to a woman who'd owned it since 1958, and now had Alzheimer's disease. It had been appraised at a very affordable price - $120,000 - but that wasn't affordable to me. I was 30; I'd just gotten my first credit card - I had no credit rating to speak of. First thing I did was make the round of banks, trying to get a personal loan. These bankers would look at me and say, "Well, what do you intend to use as collateral?" And I said, "Well, how about the cello itself?" And they would frown and say, "What's it made of again?" And I'd say, "Wood that's 230 years old." And they would just shake their heads.
So my mother rode to the rescue -- she offered to take out a second mortgage on her house. It took me almost 10 years to pay it off.
Does your cello require much maintenance?
On a daily basis, I just wipe it with a cloth. It's important to keep the rosin dust off it (from rosin used on the bow). I have two bows, which I also keep clean. You have to have the bows re-haired, probably every month, with horsehair - horsehair from a male horse, because a mare's urine stream hits her tail and weakens the hair.
Repairs are done by special craftsmen, or makers. When the weather is cold and dry, that can dry out the glue and the seams will pop open -- they're designed to do that; it's better for that to happen than for the wood to split. A maker can just glue it, clamp it, and it's done in a day.
Makers also do little aesthetic fixes. You can be talking to someone and make a gesture, and nick your cello on a metal music stand -- that happened to me just the other day. And it's like you have a new Cadillac and somebody keys the door -- you have to have it fixed immediately. You put a little color and varnish on it, and it goes away.
Do you transport your cello between home and the orchestra hall?
If I don't have solos, and the repertoire that week is not especially demanding, I'll leave the Guadganini down at the hall. That saves wear and tear, not only on my shoulder, but it keeps the cello in one climate-controlled environment. When I do have to transport it, I have a superlight Kevlar case with two shoulder straps, so I can wear it like a backpack on the 15-minute walk home.
Yo-Yo Ma once left his priceless cello in the trunk of a New York City taxicab. Have you ever forgotten your cello anywhere?
It didn't surprise me at all that he did that -- it's actually, believe it or not, pretty easy to forget about it. I've left my cello in restaurants, many times. You go to a restaurant; you're having fun with your friends; you have a little bit to drink ... And just as a matter of psychological self-defense: you can't go around all day thinking, "I have this million-dollar piece of Italian Renaissance lumber with me." You just can't think in those terms. It's just a tool in a case.
'Being a social outcast'
At what point did you think you might want to play cello for a living?
I can tell you that exactly -- it was a watershed in my life. We had a remarkable man in my high school, John Jay High School in Cross River, New York, just north of New York City. His name was Paul Ehrlich and he was a violinist. He put us in little string quartets or quintets and put us on a diet of chamber music masterworks that were waaaay over our heads. He would expose us to Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart string quartets -- and we would struggle for half of a year on something like the Mozart D-minor String Quartet, K. 421.
The piece that really made something click inside me was the Schubert Quintet in C major for Two Cellos. We must have spent my freshman year doing the exposition of the first movement of that piece. (Laughs) After which, I felt that an entire world had been opened up for me. I had no real musical background; no real training -- and at that point, no really discernible gift for the instrument. But I knew, with 100-percent certainty, that I could be a professional -- I just knew it.
I began private lessons with a woman named Barbara Levy in Chappaqua, New York, in October of 1970. My parents would drop me off for 45-minute lessons once a week, that cost $9. And she started me from the absolute beginning: with open string exercises. And that laid the groundwork for my technical training.
For the next year-and-a-half, I worked like a dog: I would get up early in the morning, practice, go to school, play in the school orchestra, go to my after-school job, get home, do my homework, and practice for some more hours. By the time I was 17, I was up to six hours a day. I had something in my ear that I knew was my template: I knew how I wanted to sound, and I was working toward that.
In my high school, the kids who were in the orchestra were the dorks.
Oh -- I was a dork. It was tough. But to give you an idea of how strong the pull was, even being a social outcast wasn't enough to make me stop. And you always find a couple of like-minded souls. I had a girlfriend who was a dedicated violinist at the time, and that was very helpful.
What was the reaction of your parents to your decision to pursue music?
They had the conventional worries. My father was a free-lance artist -- he knew that it was tough out there. And neither one of them was a musician -- they knew nothing about that world that I was proposing to dive into. I think the only thing that kept their worries at bay was my obvious dedication to it. They saw that I was focused on this, and not smoking dope behind the garage.
After high school, you studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and later did graduate study at Yale. What was your first orchestra job?
I auditioned for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1979, and won the audition. So within a decade, I'd begun cello lessons with open-string exercises -- and gotten into the Cleveland Orchestra cello section.
I left the orchestra in 1981, moved to New York and entered the Rostropovich Competition in Paris, where I won a prize and got Mr. Rostropovich's attention -- which was a godsend for me, because he had been my technical model for cello-playing.
For the next 15 years or so, I had a career as an independent solo player. I got married; I had one child, and then another -- and started to feel unhappy that as a solo player, I had to continually be traveling. And just about that time, the man who'd been principal cellist for the New York Philharmonic for 32 years retired, and they called me and asked if I'd like to audition.
How hard is it to do this work and balance your personal life and your professional life?
At first, I was using all of my spare time away from the orchestra still playing chamber music and solo gigs. I'm starting to find a good balance, where I'm still artistically stimulated -- and have a good amount of time with my family. My daughter Ottavia is 7 and my son Lucas is almost 5. They're both in school, and I always take at least one of them to school. They both finish at 3 -- and I'm usually able to pick one of them up after my rehearsal. And they go to bed about the time I leave for a concert, so I have time to have dinner with them, supervise their bath; I can read to them, listen to Ottavia read, kid around with them, put them in their pajamas.
Is your wife a musician as well?
No, she's not -- she's a civilian. (laughs) Ilaria -- she's Italian -- is a translator and a journalist; she writes feature articles for the Italian edition of Elle magazine.
'Stay in shape'
People with more traditional jobs talk about working a 40-hour week. What kind of week do you work?
We're off Sunday and Monday. In a typical week, Tuesday morning, you'll have your first rehearsal of that week's program -- two-and-a-half hours, from 10 to 12:30. That night, you'll have the last performance of the previous week's program. Then on Wednesday, two rehearsals -- two-and-a-half hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon. Then 2-and-a-half hours of dress rehearsal on Thursday, and the first concert of that week's program is that night. Second concert is Friday, at night or often a matinee, and then a concert Saturday night.
I'm home before 11, but I'm still wired - adrenaline kicks in during a concert. I often will come home and pour myself a glass of wine or two, chop up some cheese and fruit, and I'll sit here and watch the end of "ER" or something. It can take a long time to wind down. It makes for a long workday.
How many hours a day do you practice?
You know, once kids enter the picture, that's an impossible question to answer! You can go weeks with no "real" practice aside from rehearsals -- which will keep you maintained at a certain level. After a certain age, you've learned most of the standard repertoire, and you've mastered the instrument to the extent that you don't need to practice as much as you once did. In most sports, by the time you're my age you're coaching third base -- but here, experience outstrips any kind of advantage in reaction time that a younger person might have.
When you have some sort of new piece that you're learning, or an important concert that you need to get in shape for, you make the time and you sit down and you practice several hours a day for a period of time.
Do you ever take a vacation away from your instrument?
No, I always take it with me -- I have to stay in shape. Now, I have this travel cello (an electronic, collapsible cello made by Yamaha), which fits in an overhead bin. But before I had that, taking my cello was a problem -- very stressful, very expensive. I had to pay for a plane seat for it, and lug it along.
Do you have established way of practicing -- certain exercises in a certain order?
I practice scales and arpeggios (tones of a chord, played in succession) every day -- I am a fanatic about that. I guess it's like doing Achilles tendon stretches before you go out for a run. If you don't warm up before you start playing, you can hurt your hand. One of the dangers of letting yourself get out of shape -- and this can happen if you practice too much, as well -- is repetitive stress injuries, tendinitis.
You can get "cello elbow?"
Yes! I have felt it coming on numerous times in my career, and I've backed off what I was doing. You can get tennis elbow -- because the muscles in the forearm are what make the fingers go. For cellists, it can happen in both hands. If you're playing a piece that requires a lot of stretching of the fingers, it can be dangerous.
I've tried to develop the most relaxed possible way of playing the instrument. I tend to use orchestra chairs specifically designed for cellists -- they're a little higher than most chairs, and the seat slopes slightly forward and is shallow, so that you can sit all the way back, with your back against the back of the chair. I run 20 to 25 miles a week -- I think my back will probably last longer if I have good muscle tone overall.
Have you ever cut or hurt your hands?
Yeah, I have. Last time I did that was at the Spoleto Festival in Italy; I was trying to open one of these damned Italian milk cartons. You're supposed to scissor them open, and I didn't have a scissors, so I took a knife -- and I cut my thumb. It put me out of action for a few days, a week.
And it does happen that a callous on the pad of your finger will crack open, which is very painful. And there's nothing you can do about that except stop playing until it heals.
'A little society'
Talk about the music you play in the orchestra, the parts written for cello.
That varies according to the composer, of course. We just played Bach's Christmas Oratorio. In that case, I was playing continuo -- I was just playing continual bass lines. It's a challenge to your imagination to try to make beautiful things out of these simple -- and sometimes not so simple -- bass lines. You get to energize the music from underneath; you can steer phrases; you can bring out rhythmic jokes, put in there by the composer.
How often do cellos get the melody? How often is your instrument "showcased?"
Very often. Once you get to a composer like Beethoven, the cello has a very prominent part. Once you get into composers like the late Romantics -- from Brahms to Rachmaninoff -- then you get enormously complex cello parts that veer between bass line and melody, and cover the entire range of the instrument.
What is the hardest music to play on the cello?
Probably the most difficult thing is a passage that jumps around a lot -- from position to position, string to string; very high, very low -- and very quickly. That's probably the most difficult thing for any string player.
Whose music do you most enjoy playing?
My favorite composer of all is Mozart -- who didn't write a lot of rewarding cello parts, but to me, he wrote the greatest music. I guess you have to distinguish between music you love with good cello parts, and music you love that has indifferent cello parts.
Forgive the tangent, but I'm curious -- what music do you most enjoy listening to?
(Laughs) I guess you would expect a professional musician to be, perforce, an audiophile. But I have the cheapest, crappiest stereo equipment -- I mean, my speakers!
I love Latin music; I listen to a lot of salsa. I love to listen to a great salsa singer like Marc Anthony -- I think he is a great artist. And I like to listen to my friends from Nashville -- I've known (bassist) Edgar Meyer since 1985, and I've premiered a lot of his music with him. Sometimes I listen to jazz. Classically, I just bought the reissue of Solti's Ring Cycle on CDs, so I dropped a couple hundred bucks on that.
In your opinion, who were -- or are -- the masters of your instrument?
The most unbelievable cello playing that I've heard to date was Rostropovich in the '60s, when he was at the height of his technical powers. I sort of doubt the world will ever see anything like that again -- you're talking about a genius-level talent for music. I've seen him sit down at the piano in a master class, and produce, from memory, complex accompaniments from orchestral scores.
Is that kind of genius always innate, inborn?
Oh, yes -- you can't learn that. I'm sure he was born with it. Of course, it has to be fostered.
Do you know the Mark Twain story "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven?" This character, Captain Stormfield, dies and goes to heaven, and when he arrives there, he says, "I want to see Napoleon! I want to see the greatest military genius that ever lived!" And the people in heaven look sort of embarrassed, and say, "Well, we can take you to meet Napoleon -- but he's shining the boots of the person who actually was the world's greatest military genius. He happens to have been a tinsmith from Pennsylvania who never had a chance to go to a military academy -- so he never even knew he was a great military genius. He was born with that capacity -- and only here in heaven do we actually know who these people are."
What you see when you look at this orchestra are very talented people who were lucky enough to have their talent discovered and nurtured.
Is it a challenge for all these individual talents to play as a unit?
It's important in chamber music -- and it's 100 times as important in the orchestra. You have to be aware of what's going on in the score; of the hierarchy and importance of various lines -- and where your line fits into that hierarchy. You have to be listening to whoever has the main voice, and fit your accompaniment to that. If you're playing the main voice, you have to be aware of the accompanimental texture underneath you, and be able to react to that as well. It's continually shifting.
One of the things I like about my job is the psychological aspect of it: working with these people. Most immediately, of course, I have 11 other cellists playing with me. And a lot of my responsibilities (as principal cellist) have to do with making sure that we're all pulling the oar the right way. There has to be a kind of blend, and I'm responsible for that.
When the orchestra is playing, how well can you hear the other cellos in your section?
I can't hear very well, all the way back to the sixth stand of cellos, 25 feet behind me. But I know from my Cleveland Orchestra experience, when I played at the back of the section, that it's very important to have a communication come back from the principal, through body language. I know that sounds strange, but I can't turn around in my chair and look at my colleagues in the cello section; I have to do it through movement. I'm a very physically active player -- sometimes I look like an air traffic controller at Newark. But when people see that I'm breathing with the music, or I'm bouncing with the rhythm, they can be with me.
I get a lot of information from Glenn Dicterow, our concertmaster, during performances. I'm watching him almost all the time, in addition to watching the conductor -- I can watch his bow, I watch his breathing and his body language. I watch him like a hawk. It helps me lead my section with the same body language.
Describe where you sit in the orchestra.
Immediately to my left is the associate principal viola, Rebecca Young. To my right is the associate principal cellist, Hai-Ye Ni, my stand partner.
The dynamic between stand partners (players who share a music stand) is very important -- it can make the difference between a miserable work experience and a very rewarding one. It's like your lab partner in class in high school -- it helps if it's a pal, someone you can kind of pass notes to in class. We communicate, sometimes with words and sometimes with facial expressions and gestures, about everything from the challenge of playing under a difficult-to-hear French horn solo, to just finding it funny that Conductor X forgot to zip up his fly.
No one is immune from making mistakes -- we all screw up. A really good symbiosis between stand partners means that if someone is having an off-day, the other will pick up that extra weight. If I'm about to miscount, Hai-Ye can point with her bow to that bar of rests I've overlooked, or if I'm starting to play something in the wrong key -- (laughs ) and these are all real-life examples -- she can point to the key signature. And vice-versa -- if I can see that she's not ready to come in, I can kick her foot or make an exaggerated preparatory motion.
Does the lower-ranking stand partner always turn the pages of the score?
Yes. I think it's physically easier, actually, for the person who is nearest the page that needs to be picked up to do it, but it's a convention that the person lower on the totem pole turns the page.
To what extent do "office politics" come into play in the orchestra?
Like any community of 100-odd people, the orchestra functions as a societal unit, a little society -- and politics are always present in society. People love to gossip; people who don't have anything better to do will endlessly speculate about others' personal quirks and private lives. When problems come up, it's really just due to personality conflicts -- and we have a lot of strong, intense personalities. People have moods -- and you try to make room for that.
You called the orchestra "a little society." Most societies have class differences. Are there upper and lower classes within the orchestra? Instruments or sections that are seen as more "white-collar" or more "blue-collar"?
I know what you mean. Obviously, the principals occupy a slightly different rung on the ladder. Soloists have more standing, maybe, than section musicians. But are different instruments categorized into classes? (laughs) I remember in the Cleveland Orchestra, they used to say, "The brass are drinkers, the winds are thinkers, and the strings are stinkers."
What do you say when people ask what you do for a living -- and what kind of reaction do you usually get when you answer?
Sometimes, I'll simply say I'm a musician. Sometimes, I say I'm a cellist with the New York Philharmonic -- usually that elicits an appreciative whistle. The name of this orchestra has such caché -- and that sort of attaches itself to you like a suit. A lot of people are very interested in the cello itself -- many tell me that it's their favorite instrument; that they find its sound very "human." It's something they can make a real connection with.
You said that as a teen-ager, just starting out, you knew the kind of sound you wanted to be able to make. Have you succeeded?
More often than not. But there's always something you wish you could do musically with the instrument that you don't feel quite capable of doing. That's the flip side of those times when, to quote Glenn Gould, you feel like you're "exulting on a pinnacle of potency" -- that's what it feels like when you're really grooving with that instrument in a live performance. It feels just like riding a wave in.
Do you feel as if you belong to what might be considered one of the most exclusive clubs in the world: that group of people who love their work, love what they do?
Oh yes. I try to remind myself of that every day, that I'm a member of that club. I love the overwhelming power that a symphony orchestra can generate -- and I love being in the middle of that.
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