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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cello Mad!

When I first started teaching cello in a primary school, I decided to start a cello ensemble so the children could experience the fun of playing music together. Conducting the cello ensemble was actually more fun than making small talk in the rather staid staff room at lunch time. I was surprised by the reaction of the deputy head who told me that I shouldn’t work through my break and that I was ‘cello mad’!

“Well, what’s wrong with that”, I thought, “I am the cello teacher, of course I’m ‘cello mad’!” Since that day, I have always encouraged my students to play in cello ensembles as it is a great way to give them the melodic lines that they don’t always get in other types of ensemble. Soon after I started teaching, in one of my secondary schools, I had a wonderfully musical group of pupils who played well in tune and beautifully in time together. I arranged some pieces for them to perform in a school concert and was feeling really pleased with their sensitive interpretation. My colleague warned me: “You won’t always get pupils to play like this. They are quite exceptional.” He was right, they were exceptional, but that didn’t stop me starting many more ensembles some of which turned out to be just as accomplished.

Whether they are accomplished or not isn’t the point though. Feeling that thrill and the camaraderie that comes from playing music together is what it is about. What can work really well is to have an ensemble that includes all the cello and double bass pupils in a school. The less experienced players can play an easy part but still have the fun of joining a big cello/bass family and being part of a lovely, lush sound.

We are in good company: there’s ‘The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic’ who have produced several CDs of lush sounding arrangements for cellos, as have ‘The London Cello Sound’ (made up of 40 cellists from four London orchestras). There are countless amateur and professional cello ensembles on You Tube including the smallest group possible: two. The internationally famous Croatian duo ‘2Cellos’: Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser play classical, pop, rock and film music in performances that combine virtuosity with light-heartedness. Here they are playing music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of their arrangements are available to buy and can be played by at least four cellos by splitting the double-stopping in each part.

From the smallest ensemble to one of the largest: cellist and composer Giovani Sollima gathers an ensemble of 100 cellos. When I first saw Sollima with his various ensembles of cellists on You Tube I felt I had found a kindred spirit. If an internationally famous composer and cellist can have fun playing alongside his ensemble of students then so can I. There are silly moments in some of the performances, including one where they confront that annoying dilemma of how to turn a page whilst playing the cello. Sollima makes a humorous feature of this, as they all stop playing and turn their pages at once – noisily! Watching these clips, I think Sollima would certainly qualify as ‘cello mad’!

For any other ‘cello mad’ people out there, here’s my list of great cello ensemble music:

  • Bachianas Brasilieras by the Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos who was also a cellist. No. 1 is scored for an orchestra of cellos and no. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos. Here’s the first part of no 5:
  • Fratres for 4, 8 or 12 cellos by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. There are many versions of this piece which makes use of harmonics to produce bell like effects.
  • Concerto in G minor for 5 cellos by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (Publisher: Kunzelmann). This is one of three Concerto Grossi, with cellos 1 – 3 playing concertino parts and the other two forming the ripieno. I have used this with a school cello group which had 3 advanced players. All parts are in tenor clef.gm1216.jpg
  • Violoncelles, vibrez! by Sollima for 8 cellos. It is named after the words his cello teacher, Antonio Janigro, used to say to his students: instructing them to make their cellos vibrate. There are two solo parts, with lots of slides to the end of the fingerboard and there are several versions: with string orchestra or cello ensemble of 4, 6 or 8 cellos. Here it is with Sollima himself and 100 Cellos:
  • Concerto in G minor for 2 cellos and string orchestra (or piano reduction) by Antonio Vivaldi. This is an exciting piece with lots of imitation, great fun for two advanced cellists.
  • Sonata in G minor (Opus 2 no. 8 ) for 2 cellos and harpsichord/piano by Handel. This is a gorgeous cello-friendly piece.
  • Violin Phase by Steve Reich. For people who have no friends there’s no need to miss out on the ensemble playing experience! Here’s a video of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase arranged for cello. The skill required to play this music is immense in terms of concentration as one part goes out of time with the next creating that phased effect.
  • Cello Counterpoint for 8 cellos, a fiendishly difficult piece by Steve Reich which you can play with a soundtrack of the other parts already recorded.

Obviously any music can be arranged for cello ensemble and if you make arrangements yourself, you can tailor them to the level of playing of each player, adding double bass parts if required: perfect for school ensembles.

Here’s a couple of examples of effective arrangements for cello ensemble: firstly, the Prague Cello Quartet with The Phantom of the Opera:

And the Waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite played by Cellostrada.

The following pieces can be played by an intermediate school group:

  • Pavane by Arbeau arranged by Anita Hewitt-Jones (Musicland). My students love playing this piece.
  • Three Pieces for Cello Ensemble arranged by Robin Erskine (Lomond Music). Another favourite amongst my students this album contains three pieces: Mattachins, The Handsome Butcher and Little Brown Jug, in easy arrangements.
  • The Scots Cello Book 1 edited by David Johnson has five short tunes arranged for cello duet and four tunes for cello quartet.
  • Early Pieces for two and three cellos, edited by PEJTSIK Arpad (Editio Music Budapest). This album contains lots of short attractive pieces by various composers including Purcell, Telemann, J.S.Bach, Couperin, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
  • Four Pieces for Four Cellos arranged by Doreen Smith (OUP). A very useful book with attractive arrangements of pieces by Byrd, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz.
  • Deux Danses by Bruce Fraser (Lomond Music). Two exciting movements for cello quartet.
  • 18 Duets for Two Cellos by Bartok (Universal Edition).
  • Renaissance Tunes arranged by Marco Pallis (Thames). For two cellos.

The following are for groups with three players above grade 5 standard:

  • The Entertainer by Scott Joplin (Kunzelmann) arranged for four cellos.
  • Canon in D by Pachelbel arranged by Aaron Williams (Ricordi). One person has to volunteer to play the ‘ground bass’ – the same four bars over and over. The other three parts are in tenor clef but could be transcribed into bass clef.

The following pieces are written with a dedicated double bass part.

  • 6 Sonatas for 3 cellos and double bass by Wagenseil. (Doblinger).
  • Duetto for cello and bass by Rossini (Yorke Edition).
  • Duet in G minor for cello and double bass by Cherubini (Music Unlimited).

For younger players:

  • Threes and Fours by Sheila Nelson (Boosey and Hawkes).
  • Lollipops (Duets) by Anita Hewitt-Jones (Musicland).

Click here for a playlist of cello ensemble music.