A Personal Voice
Cellist Dave Eggar shapes his own vision with fluidity, integrity and musical honesty
Volume 116, No. 11November, 2016
Three-time Grammy-nominated cellist and composer Dave Eggar has been a member of Local 802 for almost 20 years. A virtuoso in classical, jazz and rock cello, Eggar started his academic career at Harvard, where he studied both music and biophysics, before later earning a master’s and doctorate from Juilliard. Eggar’s most recent projects include tours with Phillip Phillips and the group Five for Fighting. He arranged the new Norah Jones record “Day Breaks” as well as Frank Ocean’s debut recording “Channel Orange,” which was certified gold in 2013. Eggar has also been composing (with Will Calhoun and Chuck Palmer) a new musical about environmentalism and art called “The Way of the Rain,” created and directed by Sibylle Szaggars Redford, the wife of actor Robert Redford, who is also featured in the show. Eggar, Palmer and Amy Lee just scored the upcoming film “Blind,” which stars Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin. Eggar is also an avid martial artist with a black belt in karate from the Shotojuku dojo in Astoria, Queens. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Eggar to learn about his surprising path to becoming a cellist equally at home in classical, pop and folk.
Bob Pawlo: How did your eclectic journey in music begin?
Dave Eggar: Music was in many ways my first language. My mother and her entire family were classical musicians. I have vivid memories of falling asleep to my mom playing the Franck violin sonata. My mother had dreams of me being a concert violinist, but these dreams were dashed to the ground when I was five and my mom enrolled me in Suzuki. One of the things you’re supposed to do in these classes is walk around with a violin tucked under your neck. I found this moronic. After three weeks of it, I smashed my violin in a rage. So for Christmas later that year, my parents bought me a cello. My mother looked me in the eye and said, “It’s bigger than you. You can’t break it!” But soon after, my mom took me to a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a very beautiful production with sets designed by Marc Chagall. In the second act, a log came down from the skies with three kids on it. They sang this really cool trio, and I turned to my mom and said, “I want to be an opera singer.” She was dubious, but she allowed me to audition for the Met Children’s Chorus – and I got in! From then until when my voice changed, I had a very exciting career as a boy soprano. I actually sang with the Met, New York City Opera and even on Broadway. I sang hundreds of performances, including the role of First Genie in “The Magic Flute,” Shepherd Boy in “Tosca” as well as roles in “Carmen,” “Tannhauser” and even a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” conducted by the composer of the opera, Gian Carlo Menotti. And then suddenly my voice changed, and my “new” voice wasn’t so great. It was very tragic. It was at that moment when I turned back to the cello as kind of my new voice. I think in many ways singing has been the foundation of everything I think about cello. There’s so much in cello that is exactly like the human voice – for instance, in the tension and emotionality of vibrato.
Bob Pawlo: Who was your first formal cello teacher?
Dave Eggar: It was a guy named Fred Ostrofski, who taught in Westchester County where I grew up. He was such a great teacher because he really got me so excited about playing. I think he’s responsible for a big part of my style because he made the cello so adventurous and exciting. He showed me the range of the cello and all the different sounds and colors it could make; it was so fascinating. I then studied with Lorne Munroe, who was the principal of the New York Philharmonic. He started teaching me orchestra excerpts when I was ten. Both of my teachers taught me fluidity of left hand, timing, concentration of tone and intonation. Mr. Munroe was an incredible principal cellist and soloist, and he taught me a lot how to project. A lot of string players don’t really reach a listener who’s 50 feet away.
Bob Pawlo: Is it really true that you studied piano with Aaron Copland?
Dave Eggar: My mother ran a concert series at the local library in the town of Croton, New York, which is a fairly unremarkable place except that it was where Mr. Copland had retired. He actually lived just down the street from us. He was in his 80s, but he would come by and help us set up for the concerts! And so my mother decided to teach me this little kid’s piece that Mr. Copland had written, called “The Cat and the Mouse.” I learned it, and I was very proud of it, so I wrote him a letter and put it in his mailbox, and the letter literally said, “Dear Mr. Copland, I play your piece really, really, really well, and you need to hear me play it.” And I signed it, “Dave, Mrs. Eggar’s son.” I was 8 years old. So later, he calls me on the phone. I said, “Hi, Mr. Copland!” He invited me to come to his house and play the piece for him. So a couple days later, I went over and spent about six hours at his house and worked that piece over and over. Then for the next four or five years, I would go over there, and I studied all of his different piano repertoire with him and listened to all of his incredible stories of his many collaborations with Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein. He lived in this very Zen-like, sparse home, hardly furnished at all, and he would let me look at his original scores. I was only a kid, so I would say things like, “Wow, what’s this piece called ‘Rodeo’? That’s pretty cool!”
Bob Pawlo: What did you learn from Mr. Copland?
Dave Eggar: He was an incredible stickler about clarity. He hated pedaling in piano music. He was always on my case about less pedal. Rhythm was very important to him. He had a very crisp, jazz-type sensibility, and he heard his own music as dynamic and spicy, almost closer to Thelonious Monk. He was very intense. He really knew what he wanted. He would talk to me like I was an adult. He was a person of absolute pure integrity as a musician. He taught me that success and integrity could go together. He showed me that you can be incredibly pure, incredibly honest, and incredibly true to your art – and also be a huge success.
Bob Pawlo: How has this piano background helped you as a cellist?
Dave Eggar: Oh, in so many ways. I do professional composing and arranging, and I quite often create orchestrations with layered cellos. I feel that my understanding of piano harmony has made me a much richer string player and arranger. Additionally, my understanding of the breadth of the piano repertoire has given me so much to draw on in my work.
Bob Pawlo: I know you studied at Juilliard. What was it like for you there?
Dave Eggar: Up to that point, I had been an exclusively traditional classical player. But pretty soon I was playing with many different contemporary groups. Within a year and a half, Tom Chiu and I started the Flux Quartet with Kenji Bunch and Neil Dufallo. This allowed me to really break down a lot of walls and limitations I had put on my playing and to expand to a much broader palette of sound choices. Within a couple years we were in some powerful collaborations with Ornette Coleman and DJ Spooky, and we were doing some very cutting-edge stuff at the dawn of the electronica scene. It became a very exciting group. I actually found Juilliard to be an incredibly creative environment. It stretched me, and after school I got an offer that stretched me more: I got a call to work with Michael Brecker, the jazz saxophonist.
Bob Pawlo: How were you prepared to do jazz and improvisation at that point?
Dave Eggar: I had always improvised throughout school, but I had never seen myself as a jazz player or even as a pop music player; I’d just sort of seen myself as a classical and contemporary classical guy who just loved jazz and blues. But what I learned about improvisation with Michael Brecker was how to pull from all the music that I already knew. Instead of putting my head in a strictly theoretical jazz space, I learned how to tell my story, as Ornette Coleman would say. I would weave together styles of music I already knew. I found my own set of musical lenses. I think my technical preparation at Juilliard helped. For instance, sometimes the chromatic jazz with Brecker was hard for me at first, because I didn’t have the same kind of jazz background. But I had done a tremendous amount of classical music that had very similar exploration of chromaticism. Suddenly, I realized that the other guys are playing a diminished scale, but for me, if I play stuff that feels like Ligeti or even stuff that Messiaen had taken from Indian music, it works over the chord changes in a way that let me have an individual voice. Michael Brecker was an incredible mentor in my life. I’ve actually kept every email he ever sent me. He was just so supportive in helping me to learn how the cello could have its own voice – not trying to be a “jazz instrument,” but really just being its own voice within the jazz ensemble.
Bob Pawlo: How do you prepare and practice in a daily or weekly routine to be able to be so flexible in so many different genres?
Dave Eggar: I’ve started thinking about music the way a method actor would think about acting. I think as if I were a character in a movie, and how would I sort of shape and redefine my technique to exactly match the script. When I’m about to play a concert, I really try to connect back to the sense of story. I feel like musicians can easily get caught up in theory and easily get caught up in technique, but at the end of the day, when you’re out there performing, you’re trying to share your unique story with people, and I think what I really try to do is emotionally connect and then really let the audience in, like see what kind of energy is in the audience. Answer that call to adventure and remain connected to the music. A lot of times, I will play Bach right before I play a rock or pop gig, because it really centers me before I need to be wild and zany. But a Bach warmup also keeps the technical focus. With today’s more extreme styles, you need to be able to reach that full palette of extremity of emotion but at the same time, if your technique has no core, you’re going to be out of tune. You know what I mean? You’re gone.
Bob Pawlo: For those of lucky enough to see you perform your Appalachian music project, you guys are having a ball up there.
Dave Eggar: We do. We have a great time.
Bob Pawlo: If you’re not having a good time, how can the audience?
Dave Eggar: Exactly. And I want to say that learning fiddle music is so valuable, partly because there is a much higher degree of bow sophistication in fiddle technique than classical. It’s true that classical is much more developed in the left hand, but it actually made me a much more relaxed classical player to learn fiddling. Learning Gypsy music or Texas fiddling opened a much broader palette of how I use my bow. It gave me a much higher degree of confidence when I play classical chamber music.
Bob Pawlo: You have a black belt in karate. How has that helped your music, and how has your music background helped the karate?
Dave Eggar: I think it’s helped me to discipline my mind, focus my energy, and create kind of an expressive sense of toughness, which I think is very important, especially in how wild and diverse all of our careers as freelance musicians are today. We really have to maintain a strong inner toughness and at the same time be able to be lyrical and have flow. And I’ve also found ways to combine music and karate. Five years ago, I and Sensei James Luk were commissioned by Lincoln Center to do a collaboration of music and karate called Balance in Two Worlds. The goal was to look at the related aspects of classical music and martial arts, like power, control, being creative within a traditional form and thinking in the moment. The show was very successful and now we have toured it all over the world. We do live karate fighting with live music, playing a wide range of repertoire from Bach to Messaien. It’s really exciting.
Bob Pawlo: In closing, what advice would you give to young string players starting out their careers now? And what would you like to say to your Local 802 brothers and sisters – and to musicians and union members around the world?
Dave Eggar: I would say play with everybody. Tour, try a lot of different kinds of things. Don’t be afraid for your career to take you to a place that’s different from what you had in mind. I think it’s so important that we have come together and unionized as musicians, because I feel like only musicians make music. That’s what you hear. You don’t hear lawyers and executives on a song; you hear musicians.