Dr. Benjamin Whitcomb's Blog

Thoughts on Musicality from George Neikrug

The weirdness of 2020, with so many performances cancelled, led me to spend more time writing articles. I managed to get seven written, five of which were published in 2020. The most recent one was the collection of remembrances about George Neikrug, who passed away in 2019 just after turning 100. All three of the cello teachers who had influenced me most were now deceased, having passed away within a two year period from 2017-2019. I feel such a profound debt of gratitude to each of them that I have tried to help preserve their memory and legacy.

For Mr. Tonsing, I scanned his compositions and digitized his recordings, convinced Oklahoma State University to create a Special Collection of his materials in their main library, and I am working to get his many boxes of original material on the Pawnee language and music delivered to the Pawnee Museum in Republic, KS.

For Mrs. Young, I am part of a group of her students who submit and subsequently deliver papers about her teachings at conferences like that of the American String Teachers Association. For Mr. Neikrug, I compiled this article that is now available in the January edition of The Strad. The process of putting it together was very rewarding, in terms of the memories it brought back, the new stories I got to hear, and the people I got to meet. I do hope you get a chance to read the article.

I figured I would take this opportunity to share some of the things I wrote down in my notebook during my time studying with him, the vast majority of which took place during my one year at Boston University in 1991-92. For the purposes of space I decided to choose one topic, which is that of musicality.

In no particular order, here are some of things he said that I wrote down:

  • Rhythm equals phrasing, and vice versa.
  • You can't figure out phrasing until you get your beat going.
  • Rubato: speed up there so you can slow down here.
  • Practice using facial expressions as you play as a guide to characterization and expression.
  • Figure out how to play periods, not just phrases. Question and Answer! i.e., build for four bars and relax for four bars.
  • Sing the accompaniment as you play a piece.
  • Play everything at the piano (in addition to singing) to figure out the line and the phrasing (without the cello to prejudice you).
  • Practice everything like a wind player. Take plenty of time to breathe often. Try actually breathing with the bow and phrasing as if you were playing the oboe.
  • Always practice with over-exaggerated expression.
  • Look for opportunities in the music for high points or special points.
  • Always sing passages, and see where your mouth does what (for example, shortens, lengthens, or attacks) and imitate that. Pay attention to what places get staccato or marcato bites.
  • Sing every passage: it shows where to put the impulses and make phrasings, it shows how to do rubato, and it makes everything a musical idea.
I hope this at least gives you an idea of his approach to musicality, and that you will find these thoughts inspiring. George Neikrug was a unique individual and a truly great musician, and not a day goes by that I do not think about what he taught me.