When a musician can claim the unusual distinction of having performed, conducted, and taught masterclasses on every continent except Antarctica, it’s tempting to note the impressive arc of his career; perhaps to even ask, “where next?”
But Steven Thomas (DMA, Professor of Cello, UF School of Music) would rather not speak the language of predetermined trajectories. It makes him think of being propelled like a cannonball—when Thomas would prefer for himself, and his students, a freedom of movement more akin to a floating balloon.
“I don't think we're being open-minded if we already know where a cannonball is going to land. It’s a false sense that there is strength in a predetermined path—or that success is seen as the ability to arrive as planned,” Thomas says.
A balloon, he notes, can “adapt to circumstances without compromising one's integrity. Success is measured by how long you stay in the air.”
That may be the short answer as to how a Cambridge-bound mathematician changed course to study cello at Yale—and eventually become a world-renowned orchestral and chamber musician, conductor, Professor of Cello at the University of Florida, and one-half of the world’s preeminent saxophone-cello duo—performing alongside Jonathan Helton (DMA, Professor of Saxophone, UF School of Music.
“Speak to 1,000 cellists and 999 of them—at the suggestion that they might do something serious with saxophone—would say, ‘nah, I don’t do that,’” Thomas says of his anything-but-typical trajectory.
Suffice it to say: the arc of a balloon’s career is less predictable, but more interesting, than that of a cannonball.
In the Loop sat down with Dr. Thomas to explore highlights of a career spanning four decades—and to imagine, from a balloon’s-eye view, what’s in store for the future.
On beginnings: the son of a chemist becomes a cellist
As the son of an accomplished chemist who moonlighted as a chamber musician, Steven Thomas cannot recall a moment when music wasn’t in his life.
“I remember going to sleep listening to my father and his friends playing chamber music. And I still have that in my head, you know, five-and-a-half decades later. It's still a part of me,” he says, adding:
“Everybody knows about Einstein playing the violin every day. And right here at UF, we have Cade, who invented Gatorade and credited that invention to his violin teacher. I think my father was the same: a scientist who wouldn't have been the scientist he was, had he not had music in his life.”
Coincidentally, his father’s profession would connect Thomas, later in life, to the University of Florida—and it informs the conversations he has with prospective students to this day.
“I knew when I was applying for the position [in 2007], that there was a very renowned classicist [Karelisa Hartigan] at UF. I knew there was a Shakespearean expert. I knew there were high-level physicists and chemists,” Thomas recalls.
“And pretty much the moment I set foot on campus, I came across this other chemist who had worked very closely with my father. My father was the first person to synthesize orange juice, and obviously there was an interest in Florida about that. So, he started working with a chemist in Florida. It was that faculty member in the UF Department of Chemistry.
So, what I tell students is: I came here to be surrounded by people like that. You sit in our university orchestra, and your neighbor could be that next great physicist or chemist.”
On being ‘not one of the talented ones’
At age ten, Thomas became a student at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where he studied under leading teachers like Maurice Gendron and William Pleeth. Many of his peers achieved teenage fame—something Thomas believes can be a recipe to cannonball.
“Trying to continue that trajectory as you get older is impossible because, in a way, you're a circus act. And the circus act is only as good until the next young superstar prodigy comes up,” he says.
“My sister—she’s a professional pianist in Switzerland—once said to me, 'thank goodness you weren't one of the talented ones,’” he adds.
“I started practicing late. I never had the superstardom. And that's been the biggest blessing in my life—because I feel like my life just got better and better and better.”
At the time, Thomas’ trajectory was to become a mathematician.
“I was a math whiz. Three-hour exams got done in 30 minutes and I never got anything wrong—until my last exam before Cambridge. I fell apart in that one,” he says.
A simple question then posed by a trusted family friend— “what do you want to do?” prompted the answer: music. That friend’s subsequent advice changed the course of his life:
“‘So, do music. Just make sure you're good at it.’"
On being ‘quite talented and very boring’
Thomas received a Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of Cambridge in 1981 before attending Yale University. Yale was the only place he applied—not realizing it had the most difficult cello program to get into in the United States.
“The professor who accepted me was world-renowned performer-pedagogue, Aldo Parisot. I later saw the comments that he wrote on my audition tape, and it was only four words. He wrote: 'quite talented and very boring.' That was his assessment of me. Again, you know—I think that's a stroke of luck, because he was one of the most instinctive people I've ever come across.
He was an avid and fantastic painter, as well as a musician, with no training at all. I think the reason we hit it off was that he was a completely creative instinctual artist while I was a pedant, and I was overtrained. He managed to inspire in me that part of you that really comes from the heart, not the brain.”
Thomas went on to earn his Master of Arts: Music (1983), Master of Musical Arts (1984), and Doctor of Musical Arts (1990) from Yale. Next, his teaching trajectory was no less unusual than his journey as a student.
“I didn't go the usual route where you get your college degree and you go find a job in academia. I went through community schools, teaching a very different group of people,” Thomas says.
“And I think, again, a stroke of luck. Go to academia, and I think you get a particular type of student—particularly for music. In a community school, you get a much greater range. You learn how to teach. I really went through the nuts and bolts for almost a decade before I got my first university job.”
Thomas performed as Principal Cellist in the New Haven Symphony (1983-2007) and Orchestra New England (1985-2010). He was a visiting lecturer at Yale University. He also taught at the University of Hartford and University of Bridgeport before joining the University of Florida in 2007.
Mattia Imponenti, who is working toward his DMA in cello and education, says he’s been playing the cello since age eight—but when he first arrived at UF in 2014, he planned to major in finance. As a student of Dr. Thomas, Imponenti soon re-charted course to focus on cello performance and education.
“Studying with him has helped to make music a true part of my life … he’s made me see [the cello], really, as a natural part of my body,” Imponenti says.
“Something I’ve learned specifically from Dr. Thomas is that [music is] very much a natural movement of the body—so, you want as little tension as possible in your hands; in your whole body. I tend to stress—to clench—my teeth, and I’ve had to move past that to become a better cellist. Changes like that really influence how you go about your everyday life.”
He notes that Thomas provided significant one-on-one technical instruction early in his undergrad, but paired the pedantic aspects with strong encouragement for Imponenti to develop a unique style of his own.
While he remains in Gainesville to continue his studies and work as a private instructor, Imponenti says he hopes to help strengthen access to strings education and extracurricular opportunities for high school and middle school students—in no small part because of the impact Dr. Thomas’ teaching has had on his own educational path.
On teaching and performing across the globe
“Often musicians divide into what you do as a soloist, what you do in chamber music, what you do in orchestras. People tend to gravitate towards one and stick with that—and here again, I've been lucky because I've been able to do it all,” Thomas says.
He estimates having played roughly 2,000 orchestral concerts and 1,500 chamber music concerts as a chamber musician, recitalist, soloist and conductor. Thomas has also taught masterclasses in locations ranging from high profile—Shanghai, Madrid, and Sydney Conservatories; The Royal College of Music—to those considered “off-the-beaten-path”: Hohhot, Inner Mongolia; northeastern Brazil; Filiatra, Greece—in 22 countries to date.
When he came to UF, Thomas joined saxophonist Jonathan Helton in forming the Helton-Thomas Duo. Helton recalls asking Thomas to learn a particularly challenging composition, Sonata for Alto Sax and Cello by Edison Denisov, not long after Thomas arrived at UF. They formed the duo shortly afterward, traveling first to France, and around five additional continents since.
“I have to say: Steven is a wonderful musician. It’s just a joy to play with him; to be able to make music together,” Helton says.
“Audience reaction to our concerts is wonderful to see; some have cried; they give us lengthy standing ovations; people come up to us afterward and say, ‘I can’t believe the sound that you guys get.’ No one expects to hear the blend and variety of tone color we produce in a concert. So, it’s been great fun playing with him. Musically, we’ve done some really wonderful things. We've played a lot of new music written for us and have presented important pieces by significant composers," he adds.
Audiences often don’t know quite what to expect because saxophone-cello duos are a rarity.
“Our repertoire is absolutely phenomenal,” says Thomas. “It is a unique sound. The saxophone is not like any other wind instrument—and for me, it's part of: ‘if it's good, do it.’ And it's good—so I do it.”
The Helton-Thomas Duo has contributed significantly to research and expansion of the saxophone-cello repertoire, produced two CDs, and accessed students across the globe through performance and masterclasses.
“I've been to all the continents except Antarctica and I've seen an absolutely unbelievable spectrum of humanity that all come together through music,” Thomas says.
Teaching music theory in Potchefstroom, South Africa in 2019 ranks among his most memorable experiences.
“We were teaching a music theory class populated by about 12 to 14 students who, between them, spoke nine languages reflecting their tribal origins. And—there's a stigma attached to music theory: everybody hates it. But they were having the time of their lives. They were laughing, they were engaged, they just found everything absolutely magical,” Thomas says.
“There's a great choral tradition in South Africa, and the raw materials that are used in that tradition are identical to classical music"… It tells you something about the roots of music: it’s the same everywhere, on every continent.”
The theory lessons gave South African students—whose education had not prioritized notation—new tools to notate and compose from music that previously transmitted through oral techniques.
“It takes about 15 minutes with the very first student to realize—you're communicating the same things. The education is different, but ultimately: the way we communicate, and what's inside each one of us, is the same,” Thomas says.
Each destination offers Thomas new insight into diverse methodologies and ways of learning in different cultures, and a deeper understanding of music’s universal power.
In rural northeast Brazil, he recalls meeting a student who built his own cello because he didn’t otherwise have access to an instrument. Another student helped him understand how playing the cello relieved chronic pain from their cerebral palsy. These details stick with him.
“Inevitably, I just know that my approach to teaching is affected every single time I go on a trip. I come back with different things that have fed me—and that gets to my students, too,” Thomas says.
Imponenti appreciates his professor’s sense of urgency to seize every gig opportunity.
“He tells us: ‘if you want to be considered for opportunities, you have to be fast on the response,’ especially in our career path. There are a lot of other people they can go with, so you need to be quick on the draw with opportunities,” Imponenti says.
Imponenti says Thomas brings lessons from abroad home to his students at UF and creates opportunities for musicians to collaborate in the Gainesville area whenever possible.
“On thing I wish could happen more often is: there's a cello ensemble called the ‘Cellorando’ that is entirely run by Dr. Thomas,” Imponenti says.
“He tries to get as many cellists as possible that are part of the School of Music, and cellists outside the music school, to create what we call a ‘cello choir.’ It’s all music that's been arranged by him, or that he's picked out, or played in his travels … The best example I can think of is: the Berlin Philharmonic cellists do that. Outside of that, you might see small ensembles with three or four cellos.
I think this year, we had something like 25 cellists. So, you can imagine how difficult that is to organize—but it’s really awesome,” Imponenti says.
Career snapshot within a career snapshot: Covering Beethoven’s full repertoire for cello-piano
This September, Thomas was joined by UF School of Music faculty and staff for two nights of concerts covering the breadth of Ludwig van Beethoven’s repertoire for cello and piano.
“Recently, I was fortunate to attend the first night of two concerts that Steven organized presenting Beethoven’s entire compositional repertoire for cello and piano. Over the course of two consecutive evenings, he and his invited colleague faculty and staff pianists took the audience on a journey through the complex and nuanced cello-piano duets that are a most unique and fascinating way to experience this composer's evolution,” says UF College of the Arts Dean, Onye Ozuzu.
The Dean notes that these back-to-back performances over two nights were a feat of remarkable skill and endurance that also highlighted the spirit of camaraderie and tremendous musicianship at COTA.
“Steven played the cello for hours. It’s rare to see an artist perform something that is so physically taxing, so beautifully, with such stamina—and to do so two nights in a row is a tremendous feat. And all the while, he discussed the music and its history, and with incredible generosity highlighted his colleagues, the pianists,” she says.
“He really let them shine, showing off what an impressive array of voices we have on keys at UF College of the Arts, and giving us an opportunity to appreciate their depth and breadth by hearing them one after the other in this profoundly integrated context. I think this show was such a perfect example of what learning of Steven's career communicates to me: he is a star, and he makes the effort to shine his light on others," Dean Ozuzu concludes.
On the future: the musician is a balloon, not a cannon ball
Now in his early 60s, the mathematician-turned-musician says he’s reached a new high: fatherhood.
“There was a time about 10 years ago, where I was thinking: what's this all about? What am I doing here? I have a blast. I go out for great dinners after concerts and I travel all over the place, and I see all of this and that, but you know—so what? And then your first kid is born. And then you go, 'oh. That's why,'” Thomas says.
“At the ripe old age of 62 I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old. And—this is a really big deal—I need to see them in their 30s. I need to live well into my 90s, so, I figure: I’ve got a lot of time ahead of me.”
He recalls the cannonball-balloon metaphor, and notes that he isn’t planning on leaving the air anytime soon; rather, floating higher on a path with myriad possibilities.
“The trajectory … is that I want to find a more tangible, lasting contribution to the art; to cello playing, to our society,” Thomas says.
“I don’t yet know what form that takes. There are certain things that I'm absolutely passionate about. Teaching—do I write a book about that? Do I simply gather materials? Do I catalog things? And how does [doing that] relate to the things I still want to perform?”
Ask him his favorite composer, and Thomas will tell you: “the one I’m working on.”
“If you're going to be serious about any performance, you are going to research everything that you can find about the music. The performance must be informed to be of real value. So, there have been times when I've been completely obsessed with the Bach I'm preparing—I’m doing Bach, I’m only doing Bach—but then a month later, I’m looking at some late 20th-century bossa nova with Welson Tremura and his Brazilian group, and that becomes my obsession.”
Thomas recently resumed the festival circuit, and international performance and teaching, following a pandemic pause.
Now, the cellist is scoping out his next “obsession.”
One possibility is Ruth Gipps, a 20th century English composer whose work Thomas says is often overshadowed by her male contemporaries and the small number of women of the early 1900s who achieved “household name” status despite gender discrimination in music.
“Rebecca Clarke is an absolute household name in music; everybody knows her. And I think Ruth Gipps should be that, too. She’s another composer from the same era, maybe just a little later, who has written amazing music—and people don't really know it, yet” Thomas says.
“I'm just into quality—and where there's an imbalance in people's access to, you know, to their presence on the stage—for me, that's not a demographic choice,” he adds.
“And a lot of people will think, ‘well that's a very sort of politically correct thing to do’—to look at a female composer … But the heart of it is: if there's great music out there—then, I want to go out and find it.”
Thomas was promoted to Professor at the UF School of Music in June, 2022.