Interview: Steven Isserlis

Rather ironic that in order to entice world-renowned cellist, Steven Isserlis, into the social media issue of Get Classical, I chose the most archaic method of communication known to a Millennial: letter, envelope, stamp.  Even more surprising that he kindly agreed to be our Cover Boy considering I rather cheekily referred to him as Mr Tweet – it could have gone either way.  Luckily, having been following Steven on Twitter for the past six months, I knew he had a good sense of humour (The Marx Brothers are listed as one of his ‘Non-Musical Enthusiasms’ on his website) and I took the risk that one of the world’s best and busiest cellists of our time might be willing to put aside a moment of his precious schedule to answer some niggling questions.

But it’s not just his tweeting that I was interested in for our Get Classical readers.  Perusing Steven’s essays on his website about various aspects of performing (Nerves/ Preserving the Joy/ Beware of Emotion) one is struck by how much emphasis he puts on inspiring and helping young musicians.  Indeed, he has written two books for children about the lives of composers, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and When Handel Waggled His Wig, where even the About the Author bubbles with dry wit ‘Steven Isserlis was born at a fairly early age…’ and the Introduction sets the tone: ‘…I couldn’t really call up Mozart when I felt miserable; people who have been dead since 1791 are extremely hard to reach by phone.’

Steven Isserlis, CBE currently has 10.4K Twitter followers.  To put it into context, BBC Radio 3 has 15.1K; Adele has 29M, Donald Trump has 47.9M, but I’m hard pushed to find many ‘serious’ classical musicians (as opposed to those of the crossover variety – one of his pet hates) who connect with their audience on such a regular basis.  He most definitely breaks the mould.

By regularly tweeting ‘On This Day in History’, informing us of interesting and often quirky musical facts from the past and by also documenting the colourful status quo of a performer’s life (problems at security with cello/ bizarre remarks from the lady in 34G on the 12-hour flight to San Francisco), we get all sides of the spectrum as he brings his profession down to daily-grind level and then right back up to unworldly.  To be crude, following @stevenisserlis is like getting a reality TV fix – having a snoop into a world-class musician’s daily life and getting to know the human being behind the glorious sound and musicianship (one of only two living cellists featured in Gramophone’s Hall of Fame).

That he responded to the questions below on a train journey from Naples to Venice, adds to the perceived romanticism of a top musician’s life, but the reality of a life on the road, spreading the musical gospel, is reflected in his daily missives…

You started tweeting in 2013.  What was your reason for embracing social media?

Well, it was a combination of different people bullying me, really.  Hyperion Records wanted me to start tweeting; my agents at IMG Artists agreed and set up my account; and then my great friend Stephen Hough kept telling me: ‘You’ve got to go on Twitter, dear – it’s such fun’.  So eventually, being the weak character that I am, I succumbed.

To what extent has this helped you build a bigger (younger?) fan base?

I really don’t know – but I do have exchanges with people I don’t know at all, which I find rather interesting (unless they turn out to be weirdos, which can happen).

You tweet about all sorts of aspects of your life as a musician, about certain composers, what happened ‘OTD in history’ etc…. Are there topics you consciously steer clear of?  Do you always think before you tweet?

I USUALLY think a bit before I tweet.  More than certain people do, perhaps – not mentioning any American Presidents, of course.   I tend to avoid private/personal issues – who would care, anyway?  But I like finding good quotes, musical or humorous.

You devote a lot of your schedule to coaching young people.  Are you generally positive about the opportunities available for young classical musicians?

Yes, I think they’ve improved since my day. Not that it’s ever easy for many young musicians, of course – but there seems to be a bit more support available these days.

You talk in one of your essays about how music is ‘NOT a competitive sport.’  Are we all too hung up on results/competitions and what other people think?


Many young children are not being exposed to classical music.  What advice would you give to a parent on how to introduce it?

Well, I think it’s important for children to hear classical music from an early age – pieces they can remember easily and enjoy, such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, parts of the Magic Flute, The Rite of Spring, etc.  They can have it on in the house, in the car, etc, even if it’s in the background – familiarity is important.  And if at all possible, the child should be given an opportunity to learn an instrument – with an inspiring teacher!  I know that that’s not always possible, alas, but as long as the parent(s) is/are involved and supportive, even the lack of a special teacher can be overcome.  The benefits to the child of playing music are huge – social as well as educational.

You’ve written two brilliant books on the lives of composers so that children ‘can get to know them as friends’.  Any chance of any more?

Thanks!  Well, I don’t think there’ll be another book like those ones; I feel that two was enough.  For music students, I’ve recently written a commentary on Schumann’s ‘Advice for Young Musicians’, which has been published.

Also, I did offer to write something for younger children (age 3-5) – but the publishers don’t seem interested.  Ah well; perhaps they’re right, and I’m not the right person for that.  But for children age 6 upwards, I’ve written the text for three musical stories, with music by Anne Dudley.  Those were great fun to create – I hope that someday we’ll record them (hopefully with Joshua Bell, who took part in all the first performances).  They’re called ‘Little Red Violin’, ‘Goldiepegs and the Three Cellos’ and ‘Cindercella’ – perhaps that gives you an idea of what they’re about…