GRISHA ALTSCHULER

Our family had a thing about names. Though I had a close relationship with my mom, we often didn't agree about things. The frustrating thing about arguing with her was that she advocated the "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts" policy. On the paternal side, Zlotkin is the original name. I have it in Russian. I have it in Hebrew. I have it signed by my father's father when his father came to the US in 1923, was hit by a car and killed, and he filed the Death Certificate. Plain and simple. All right, except for the fact that the original spelling was actually Z-L-A-T-K-I-N. Since the Russian 'A' sounds closer to the English 'O', I transliterated to Zlotkin when I procured a legal change of name, approximately 1977. I also like the name better. Eleanor was furious, of course I was wrong. But I liked to argue and ultimately delivered her Part 2 of the 1-2 punch when I told her (1) "How would you know, you're not a Zlotkin?" And (2) "You're not an Aller either, you're an Altschuler!"

Indeed, I am correct on all these counts. I'll remind Eleanor when I next see her (she died in 1995.)

Now we go to the Altschuler musical tree. I made a diagram of it once, but don't know if I can find it. Loaded with musicians. Thanks to a found cousin, I have a fairly substantial tree for that side of the family. Mom, cellist. Her father, cellist. Her father's 1st cousin was cellist/conductor Modest Altschuler (more on him later). Mom's brother, pianist. Mom's mom, pianist. Then we start in with the cousins.. You get the picture. All of this meant that I would become (at least) the 3rd generation of cellists in the family.

BEGINNING CELLO

I can't recall just what I played on, at the age of either late 7s or early 8s, but it was something around a 1/2-size cello. Of course, because he was available, the price was right, and he was a very good teacher, I started with Grandpa Gregory. Gregory was as old-world as any of them in so many ways. Unfortunately, he didn't talk much about the old days, his cousin Modest, his wife, family or anything about life in Russia around the turn of the last century. Though I have a family tree chart telling us that Gregory's father was Leopold, who had 4 wives and many children, I know practically nothing about Leopold other than that he might have been a pawnbroker and he lived in Moscow. Gregory wasn't Jewish, though his father was. His mother was a woman named Elizabeth Narkier or something like that, of Tatar background.

I have vague memories of my mother mentioning that Gregory played in an orchestra in Russia (Moscow State Symph?) but I'm not certain of that. He came to the US around 1904-5 but I'm not certain about that date; Grisha had a habit of evading the officials (something many Russians immigrants had to do for survival) so I can't find him on any of the passenger lists. He lived in NYC through the Depression, and mom mentioned that he did some work in the theaters there. By the 1930s he moved out to Los Angeles. On January 15, 1938, Gregory's wife, Fannie Altschuler, was struck by a car and killed at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. The car was driven by famed movie producer Walter Wanger, who was probably intoxicated. Though I have been unsuccessful in getting records of the Inquest in connection with this incident, it may have had something to do with the Aller's association with Warner Bros studios.

Eleanor had two older brothers, Victor and Herbert. Victor was a magnificent pianist (more on him later) who collaborated with my dad, Felix, for numerous performances and recordings. Among other things, Victor recorded Hindemith's "Four Temperaments," Shostakovich's Piano Concerto #1, Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals" and Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery Tune with Felix. In addition, he recorded the all the Brahms Piano Quartets, and the quintets of Brahms, Shostakovich, Franck and Schumann with the Hollywood String Quartet. Victor also served as a Personnel Manager for Warner Brothers Studios, where Eleanor became Principal Cellist. Herbert had some position, I believe in a legal capacity, with Warner Bros. studio, as well.

Back to studying with Gregory... What a character! I have lots of evidence of his teaching and his handling of music. You see, Gregory wouldn't just purchase music, he would carefully mount it on cardboard to ensure that it would stay in proper condition. At one point, he was interested in buying the sheet music to Bloch's Schelomo, but decided against it because the price was "outrageous" [probably $1.50]. So he went to the public library and wrote it out by hand!

Gregory was a stickler for the "old school". Scales, exercises, etudes.. Everything had to be done in a precise manner. He used a study book by Kummer for starters, but everything was supplemented by his own exercises and methods; for example, though he didn't use the whole Cossman book, he modified several of the most important finger exercises from that and wrote them out for the students. Pedantic? No, way beyond that. He would show me where my feet should be placed and threaten to nail them down if I didn't keep them there!

His teaching method involved incredibly detailed markings. He would put in all fingerings, all bowings, positions, string designation, and two abbreviated instructions, "W.B." and "K.F.". "W.B." meant use the whole bow, and "K.F." meant to keep (or prepare) the fingers. To this day, I would say that these two factors are most certainly among the most important fundamentals of cello, and string playing. In addition, Gregory would mark stretches (where you must reach a 1/2-tone higher between fingers) with a bracket over the stretch, in red pencil. He would even mark double stretches (a whole tone) with two such brackets, in red. He marked what string you should play on ("Ast, Dst") and also marked what position (1st through 6th) you were to play in. Nothing was left to chance, everything was right there.

He also composed music for beginners. One piece, entitled "Waltz," is still firmly fixed in my memory. Remarkably simple (ok, maybe inane), in G major, only dotted half-notes. The A section using only 1st and 4th positions, and the short B section venturing into 3rd position. [An interesting point that is somewhat inconsistent arises here with regard to the "positions" on the cello: The cello, not being a fretted instrument, needs some kind of deliniation to define where the 1st finger should rest as it traverses the fingerboard. Ergo, on the 'A' string, if the finger is placed on B-natural, it designates that one is playing in 1st position. If the 1st finger is on B-flat, it can be designated as 1/2 position OR, if the B-flat is followed by a C-natural, it's a 1st position extension. The same is true of 2nd position (C-natural or C#) and 3rd (D-natural or D#). If one considers each note chromatically, from A# to G-natural, it might be defined as 10 positions. I still remember my confusion over this; but there are many inconsistancies and illogical things about music!]

Cello lessons with Gregory always involved him sitting at the piano. The piano had to be tuned regularly, every month, and meticulously. I still remember our piano tuner, Mr. Reiner "pounding" the pitch into the piano for 3-4 hours. Gregory's teaching method was designed to "pound" true intonation into the student by using the piano. Although it has limitations, because the piano can never temper the pitch the way that most other instruments can, it is very helpful at the outset, to develop a "true" ear.

His method of course included scales. He mounted the 3- and 4-octave scales, complete with all fingerings and "stretches," onto cardboard, so that they would survive the often rough handling of a young music student. He used Kummer's method book, and took me through most of those. He also borrowed some basic finger exercises from Cossman, using the most fundamental combinations that every string player must master, i.e., 1-2-3-4; 1-4-3-4; 1-4-2-4; 1-3-2-3 (N.B., for string players, the index finger is "1," and the others 2, 3 and 4. For cellists there is a special symbol when the thumb is used like a finger).

During the 4 or so years that I studied with my grandfather, I also remember doing at least the first two books of Etudes by Dotzauer. There may have been others I can't recall. His method (one I still advocate) was scales, finger exercises, etudes (studies) and then, pieces. (I don't remember him dealing much with arpeggios). Many of the early pieces were taken from a book called, "Everybody's Favorite Cello Pieces". "La Cinquantaine" was a favorite. There were many others. Then there were the "student" Sonatas and Concertos, with special emphasis on the works of Bernhard Romberg. [Romberg was quite a colorful character, who was one of the first to play major works by Beethoven, and others. Beethoven admired Romberg, and offered to write him a cello concerto; but Romberg refused, telling Ludwig that he only performed his own compositions (Damn!). When Bernhard first read the Scherzo of Beethoven's String Quartet, op. 59, no. 1 where the cello plays only repeated B-flats he hurled the music to the floor and stomped on it! But Romberg was a very decent composer.] For me, as a young cellist, I didn't know much music and regarded these works to be masterpieces. I think this underscores the purpose of so-called "student" works.


After approximately 4 years of lessons with Grandpa Gregory, I had a lesson with him that I will never forget. After the usual regimen of scales, exercises and etudes, I played the first movement of Boccherini's Sonata in A. I thought it went quite well but my grandfather stood up and came over to me. He put one hand on the right side of my face and delivered a smack to my left cheek. It didn't hurt very much, it just sorta stunned me. He left the house. I was mortified. What had I done or played that could have upset him so much? My parents came home. I hid in my room. They knocked and entered my room and my mom said, "what happened at your lesson?" Obviously, they had spoken with Grisha. I stuttered and stammered trying to explain that I thought I had played the Boccherini very well but then.... My mom directed my dad to one side of me while she stood at the other. And they both kissed me on each cheek. I still didn't understand. Then my mom told me two things; first, that Gregory was so taken with my playing, and the cellist I had become, that he was beside himself. And second, that it was time for me to move on to another teacher who could really demonstrate (Gregory was in his 80s).


Go East Young Man
Mr B, the Duke and Me
Grandpa Grisha
A Perfect Pitch Diversion
Banging My Head On My Pillow
All content © 2020 Frederick Zlotkin