Musical Instruments from around the World – at Ray Man Music Shop, London, UK

Mrs Man For Blog
Mrs Man selecting some silk strings for my erhu, helped by her son (arm just visible).

Wandering through London’s Covent Garden in the mid 90s, I noticed a display of unusual stringed instruments hanging up in an open shop doorway. Inside there were drums of many types and strange looking percussion instruments. It was my first encounter with Ray Man’s music shop and long before I had begun to study ‘world music’. When I went back some years later with the notion of buying an erhu, I couldn’t find it. I asked around and was relieved to discover that the shop hadn’t closed down … it had moved to Camden.

Now, located close to London’s Chalk Farm tube station, Ray Man’s shop is a rare and unusual find. What’s so special about it? It is one of few shops in the UK where you can buy a guzheng, a gong and a güiro. Don’t know what they are? Just ask. Ray Man and his family are a fount of knowledge of instruments from many parts of the world and specialists in traditional Chinese instruments, Chinese music and Cantonese music in particular. They are friendly and helpful, giving you advice on choosing an instrument, how to tune it and how to learn to play it. Ray Man Music Shop is more than just a shop – it’s a valuable resource on musical instruments from China and beyond.

Ray Man's Instruments erhus
Stringed instruments from India, China, Vietnam and Laos. Two harmoniums in front.

There was nothing like it when Ray Man came to London from Hong Kong in 1955, arriving with little more than his musical talent. He began performing and teaching Chinese music and started a Cantonese Opera club. He soon became popular in Chinatown for his musical expertise and his amiable personality. He opened his first musical instrument shop in 1972 and has devoted his life to passing on his cultural heritage, running weekly classes and giving individual lessons.

Ray Man coconut fiddle
Ray Man playing a coconut fiddle.

Now in his eighties, Ray Man’s enthusiasm and interest in music is as lively as ever. He has to be persuaded to have a rest. His wife and sons now run the shop and although there’s no online shop, I did buy an Egyptian oud by telephone and it was carefully packaged and sent to Edinburgh, arriving in a box the size of a fridge!

At a future date, I shall bring you more of Ray Man’s story, including his memories of childhood in rural Hong Kong and his early days in London. In the meantime, if you want to take up a musical instrument but are not sure what, take a look in Ray Man’s music shop for some inspiration. Like many high street shops these days, Ray Man’s has to compete with the internet and its specialism is a niche market. But this is a unique treasure trove – so anyone who is involved in teaching children, or who wants to encourage their child’s (or indulge their own) musical curiosity should have a look at their selection of delightful instruments: thumb pianos, frog scrapers, gigantic seed pods, tiny bells, and thunder tubes to name a few. If you want to know about any Chinese instrument, from the smallest bamboo flute to the most gigantic gong or if you happen to be in Camden and want to buy a ukulele, Ray Man’s the man.

Ray Man's shop violins
Singing bowls, violins, strings and accessories.
Ray Man drums
Chinese drums, Indian drums (tabla) and bongos.
Ray Man's percussion
From tambourines, African pod shakers, maracas and opera gongs to agogo bells, kokirikos, cocoa seed pod and fruit shakers: a tempting feast of percussion instruments.

Ray Man Music Shop is located at: 54 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AN

Ray Man Music Shop Facebook Page

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!


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.