Cellists? Do you ever wish you played the flute?

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Whenever I tell anyone that I play the cello they tend to say something like:

“I love the cello, it’s such beautiful instrument.” 

Then I remember how lucky I am.  To play the cello is to love the cello. What I really mean is: you have to love the cello to play it. Is that because of its soulful sound, its potential to express deep emotion? No. It’s because it’s really annoying to carry! And if you do play the cello you will certainly be asked many times over:

“Do you ever wish you played the flute?”

I never thought about whether I loved the cello or not when I began to play. Just before I started secondary school, my mum took out a cello from the back of her wardrobe. I’d never seen it before, even though I’d used that wardrobe many times to play ‘hide and seek’. She said I could learn to play it when I went to my new school. On my first day, the music teacher asked us to write down if we would like to play an instrument and if so what, I wrote down “Yes. Cello.”

But I didn’t really ‘get into’ the cello until I was a teenager and I joined a local youth orchestra. Even though rehearsals were on Saturday mornings – I loved it! I got up early and took two buses, changing at Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. The worst thing was, there was really only one seat where I could sit easily with a cello: the first one that has a wider space (designated nowadays as a priority seat). It was usually empty at that time on a Saturday morning but if someone was there, in that seat, I would have to go to the back and risk getting flung across the bus when it went round a corner, hanging on to that cello in its cloth case and terrified that it would get broken.

After rehearsals, seeing as I was in town, I liked to go window-shopping, to a record shop called Rare Records and to Gibbs, a second-hand book shop or go and browse in the music library at St Peter’s Square, except that I had that cello to carry around with me. It was a real nuisance. 

Quite often, I’d get a lift from my mum especially to concerts. One time she had to hire a car as ours had broken down. It was bigger than ours and amazingly the cello fitted into the boot. But when we arrived at the pre-concert rehearsal Mum couldn’t get the boot open. The key didn’t seem to work. She even went to the police to ask if they could get it open for us! But they said these cars have a separate key to open the boot, to make them difficult to break into. We didn’t have another key and there wasn’t time to get one so I had to watch the concert from the audience and not play. Everyone asked me why I wasn’t playing. I was so embarrassed!

Not as embarrassed as I was when I had to go to a different room from usual, for my  cello lessons at school. I had to walk through a classroom full of boys. It was the most excruciating experience, not least because I was shy and skinny, in a frumpy uniform – box-pleated navy skirt and knee length grey socks. I could feel them all watching me and sniggering. It was a few months before lessons resumed in the usual room, to my relief. I couldn’t have done that much longer!

There were many things that could have put me off playing the cello but overriding them all, was the thrill I got from playing the cello in the youth orchestra. We played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth. I didn’t always understand the notation but learnt to copy the other players. I was in awe of the first clarinettist and first oboe-player playing their impressive solos but was glad I belonged in the security of the cello section and loved being part of the full-orchestra sound with strings, woodwind, brass and percussion in full force.

I’d go home and tell Mum all about it, singing the cello part! And she’d say, “that doesn’t sound like the tune, what does the tune go like?” I had concentrated so hard on learning the cello part, I thought that was the tune!

A turning point came when on one of my trips to Rare Records I bought an LP of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a famous recording by Jacqueline du Pré. I listened to it over and over and fell in love with it … its dramatic opening, soul searching phrases and soaring melodies. “So that’s what a cello’s meant to sound like!” Years later, studying for my degree, when my teacher suggested I learn the Elgar for my performance exam, I was so excited, I rushed off up town, straight away, to buy the music. And as I swept my bow across those opening chords, I was in my element. Nothing was ever going to put me off playing the cello! Do I wish I played the flute? Not in a million years!

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Anne-Isabel Meyer plays Bach at Edinburgh’s Fringe

For three weeks every summer, you can feel Edinburgh buzzing as the International Festival and the Fringe take over the city. Just yards from the noise and bustle of the street, I found a gem of serenity in St Cuthbert’s Church, at the West End: a recital of all six of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Anne-Isabel Meyer, over three consecutive days.

Despite the grandeur of its ornate decoration, St Cuthbert’s feels like an intimate setting for unaccompanied cello. Its acoustic is resonant but clear and Anna-Isabel Meyer obviously loves playing here. This London-based cellist has a calm demeanour and she played with a warm tone. Each day, I felt even more privileged to hear how she allowed Bach’s music to speak with precision and clarity – no adornment or over interpretation here. Throughout the performance, the intricate melodic patterns of the preludes flowed freely, as did the dance-like quality of the allemandes, sarabandes, minuets and gigues. The famous bourrées of the third Suite just danced for joy.

Her performance of the Sarabande of Suite 5, for me, epitomised her sensitivity to Bach’s score. The music of this movement is apparently simple, no chords, no accompanying figures, trills or dotted rhythms. Meyer simply let the natural rise and fall of the phrases create their own meaning, allowing us to make what we would, of Bach’s perfectly crafted melody. I found it profoundly moving.

The sixth suite, written for a five stringed cello, truly tests the cellist. Playing this on a four-stringed cello, you have to create the higher sounds using the thumb in place of the extra string. She explained to the audience how at first this is painful and can lead to a blister on the thumb – I’ve had that blister too! Watching closely from the front row, I observed her meticulous technique, as she created the chords and inner harmonies and allowed the melodies to dance above them.

“Playing Bach’s cello suites is like going on a journey” Anne-Isabel Meyer tells us, “and next time it may be completely different.”

Here is a cellist with a deeply musical sensitivity. I look forward to joining her next year when she returns to St. Cuthbert’s to make that journey with the Bach Suites once again.

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach’s Cello Suites

This is a shortened version of the article published on July 19th.

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My cat transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording of the Bach cello suites but perhaps more importantly, he is performing them in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are six concerts still to go: in the US, Lebanon, South Korea, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.

 

Why would a wealthy nation reduce the chance for children to play musical instruments?

I recently left a teaching job I loved because the council had implemented a new policy: charging a fee for instrumental music lessons in schools, that used to be free. Instrumental staff argued that it was a backward step; the council argued that it could improve the instrumental music service! The council needed to save money; instrumental staff argued that the amount they would have to charge to make their saving was prohibitive. The council offered concessions for those on low incomes and free lessons for those receiving free school meals (distracting us from the fact that state education should be free for every child). That’s a fair deal, they reckoned. But, we argued, that doesn’t take into account that parents firstly have to acknowledge that they can’t afford to pay and secondly fill in forms and show proof of their income. Some people won’t want to admit they can’t pay. Some people get stuck at ‘filling in forms’. What’s more, not all parents are aware of or have time to care about the value of learning to play an instrument. About one-third of my pupils were withdrawn from lessons by their parents as soon as the policy came into effect and the ethos of equality in the provision of instrumental music lessons in schools was destroyed in favour of a market driven service. It may save the council ‘a drop in the ocean’. A reduction in the number of pupils in some areas has led to some surreptitious cutting of jobs: posts not filled, total hours reduced and staff redeployed and overstretched.

I believe there should be more provision of free instrumental lessons in schools. We need more staff, so more children can have lessons and we should include non-western instruments. Imagine how that would improve the appreciation of our nation’s cultural diversity if children were offered lessons on instruments such as the Indian sitar, the Chinese erhu or the Arabic oud? I believe the benefits to society, to health and particularly mental health, justify the cost of instrumental lessons on moral grounds. If it has to be justified economically then the cost of improving children’s future health, education and well-being through music would balance the overall cost in the long run: reducing the pressure on the NHS, police and social services in the future.

But, apparently, each department has its own budget and savings have to be made.

We are a wealthy but stupid nation. Let’s look at the bigger picture, let’s join the dots: somewhere out there, there’s somebody who can do the sums, can we fix this now please?

Those Who Can – Teach!

A couple of years into my first cello-teaching job, I went to visit my former cello teacher in Harrogate: Pauline Dunn. I was trying out a new cello and wanted her opinion. When I finished playing to her, aware that I was out of practice, I was taken aback when she said: “I like your bowing.”

“Well you taught me how to bow”, I said, but she pointed out that my bowing was more flexible, relaxed and producing a better sound than the last time she had heard me. I wondered how it could have improved as my cello practice had just been ticking over since my final degree exam and I had spent most days teaching beginners. Then she really surprised me, saying: “it’s because you’ve been teaching”.

It was then that I started to realise that teaching had reciprocal benefits: all that time thinking about the bow hold, analysing and explaining the mechanics of coaxing a sound from a string and showing children how to practise, had had the effect of improving my own bowing technique!

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The more I had thought about how to facilitate my students’ learning, the more I had developed as a musician, consolidating my knowledge and skills. This ‘self improvement’ effect forms the basis of a useful teaching technique: ask a student to teach another student how to play a particular phrase and it is actually of benefit to both students. Have you ever experienced explaining something and afterwards thinking: “I didn’t know I knew that until I explained it”?

So for anyone thinking that teaching is going to harm their performing career, think again. You may find it has the opposite effect and enhances your musical performance.

Believe in your students’ potential and they will blossom. Enjoy teaching and you will blossom too!