Off By Heart: Memorizing Music in 6 Steps


By Miranda Wilson

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had an anxiety dream about a concert where you had a memory lapse.

Yup, thought so. Is there any aspect of performing that stresses musicians out this much?

When I was a student, I thought I was great at memorization. This was my method:

  1. Put a CD of the piece I wanted to memorize on repeat play for a few hours every day.
  2. Run the piece five or six times a day so that what I thought of as my “muscle memory” would learn the piece for me.

I got away with this for a surprisingly long time. Then came the day I had to perform Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata by memory for my studio class. All was going well until I started the second theme, and I played this:

arpeggione 1

It sounded completely wrong. What was going on? My fingers knew the theme back to front. I felt a surge of panic rising in my chest as the pianist paused and stared at me. I tried again. It sounded wrong again. What on earth…?

That was when I realized I’d been playing the theme in A major, which is the key it’s in at the recapitulation — except that I was only in the exposition, where it’s supposed to appear in the key of C major.

arpeggione 2

I fumbled and scrambled until I recovered and was able to continue, but the memory of the mistake mortifies me almost two decades later.

Here’s why my memorization method didn’t work.

  1. “Muscle memory” is a misnomer. Muscles don’t have memories.
  2. You can only successfully memorize music if you exercise good musicianship. I wasn’t exercising good musicianship, I was being a parrot.

dont be a parrot

The problem with having one bad memory lapse is that it tends to give you a bit of a complex.  I knew that I needed a drastic rethink in my memorization methods. Over many years, I figured out a six-step method that works very well for me and for my cello students at the University of Idaho. I hope it works for you too.

STEP 1: It starts with the score.

The full score, not just the cello part. Memorizing only the cello part would be like an actor playing Romeo memorizing only his own lines without bothering to learn what the actor playing Juliet says back to him.


Before you learn the notes on the instrument, before you even listen to recordings, you should go right to the score — and make sure you get the most scholarly performing edition you can — Henle and Bärenreiter are best for most repertoire.

The full score is like a jigsaw puzzle. It shows you the “big picture” of what you’re trying to accomplish, long before you try to sort all the little pieces into where they belong. Daily full score study uses your eyes, your ears, your voice, and your fingers to memorize music. As Robert Schumann once opined, in his timeless Advice to Young Musicians, “You must get to the point that you can hear music from the page.”

That’s right — you can learn to hear music in your head from reading the score just as easily as you can hear words in your head when you read a novel. Don’t believe me? Watch this scene from the completely fact-based drama, Amadeus, where Mozart’s jealous rival Salieri practises aural skills as he leafs through Mozart’s scores.

If you aren’t quite as good at this as Salieri, help is at hand. If you can’t take a university-level class in theory, analysis, and musicianship skills, there are books and online resources that can help you self-teach these topics, such as (shameless plug #1) this one. 

Using a pencil, make the following annotations in the score.

  • Large scale structures: what is the form of the piece? Where are the big sections, such as the exposition, development, and recapitulation in a sonata-allegro movement? What are the high and low dynamic and expressive points of the piece?
  • Small-scale structures: how are the phrases structured (sentence, period, etc)? Where and what are the themes? First theme, second theme, transitional materials, closing themes, codettas…? How are they connected? What key centers do they go through? Where and how to modulations occur? What are the characteristic intervallic, rhythmic, and harmonic components of the themes? Are repetitions exact or inexact? How do the themes differ melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically when they occur in different sections of the piece?
  • For diatonic music, write a complete Roman numeral/figured bass analysis in the score. This will also help for figuring out intonation, which depending on context may be determined by the composer’s voice-leading.

Now, sing through your own part — and everyone else’s, within reason — and conduct yourself. Use a metronome. If you know solfege, use it. (Fixed do vs. moveable do? Doesn’t matter, they’re both great.)

Also? Don’t sing like a robot. Be as expressive as possible right from the get-go. “Notes first, expression later” is a waste of time. Your head and your heart aren’t separate entities. You have to use them both. There’s a reason we call playing from memory “playing by heart.” Expression dictates all the physical parameters of playing, such as fingerings, bowings, shifts, vibrato, and so on. Use it.


STEP 2: Now you can listen to recordings.

Listening to recordings does contribute to the process of memorization — there’s a reason children learning by the Suzuki Method are so good at performing from memory. The problem with this is when you use it to replace proper score study the way I did. The chief benefit of listening is to find inspiration in the interpretations of the great cellists. Listen to as many interpretations possible — don’t just get fixated on one recording to the exclusion of others. The great players are all wildly brilliant and all wildly different from each other. They’re our heritage, they’re our teachers. Learn from them. Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan.

STEP 3: Pick up the cello, mark up the cello part.

Decide on what physical actions best serve your planned interpretation. In the early stages of note-crunching, you’ll of course want to experiment with lots of possible fingerings and bowings. But once you’ve found good ones, write them down and, for the most part, stick to them. Constantly tinkering with these things is a recipe for disaster. Sure, change a few things here and there if you find something better, just don’t totally revise everything every five seconds.

Know what section you’re in at all times while you’re playing. Know what key you’re in. Know which theme you’re playing. Know when you plan to reach your highest and lowest expressive and dynamic points. Play with as much expression as you can squeeze out of yourself.

Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan. Notice things you might have missed the first few times, such as accents, dynamics, and other expressive directions.

STEP 4: Think. Think again. Think harder.

After a long practice or score study session, I find it useful to keep the piece ticking over in my mind. Long walks are a good time for post-practice contemplation. As the fresh air fills your lungs, try to hear the piece in your head. If you get stuck, go back to the big picture of the large sections, key structures, and thematic materials. I cannot stress enough how useful this process is.

The next away-from-the-instrument practice method is going to sound very daunting. I was stunned to read in Colin Hampton’s memoir, A Cellist’s Life, that the way he taught his students to memorize music was “to have them write it out from memory first. If they can write it out, they’ll know it.” My first thought on reading this was “I can’t do that!”

The problem with thinking you can’t do something is that the universe doesn’t understand “can’t.” Of course you can do it; you just have to think much harder than you’re used to thinking about the small-scale things you might have skipped over in practice. The metronome markings, exact note and rest values, phrase marks, articulations, dynamics, performance directions, and so on. It’s a chastening feeling when you go back to the score and realize how much you’ve missed. But I can say from personal experience that this is the single most useful method for memorizing music because it really does force you to think extremely hard. Thinking is good.


Go back to the full score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan, notice. Go back to the cello. Refine your performance.

STEP 5. Practise performing, perform practising.

Sometimes the biggest hurdle we face in performing by memory isn’t the memorizing itself, it’s the fact that we are performing. (Shameless plug #2: performance anxiety is real, people.)

Therefore, make every practice session a performance. (Shameless plug #3: I wrote an entire book about how to do this.) If you can’t get someone to listen to you, make a video recording of yourself playing a section, a movement, or an entire piece from memory. (For some weird reason, this always makes me feel as anxious as having a person in the room — which makes it great practice for the concert stage!)

Listen to your recording, following along with the score, making notes. Practise all the bits you messed up, then re-record. Listen to the second recording. Acknowledge the progress that has taken place (we cellists are so unkind to ourselves!), take a few more notes.

Go for a walk. Keep the piece ticking over in your mind. Go back to the score. Sing, conduct, interpret, plan, notice, practise, perform.

STEP 6. Repeat phases 1-5. (No, really.)

While practising phases 1-5 will create neural pathways in your brain on your journey towards memorizing a piece, the memorization isn’t necessarily permanent. If you want to keep it, you have to repeat it many times. A piece you memorized last year may need a complete rethink in order for you to play it from memory now. Be careful, though. It’s too physically and mentally tiring to set yourself a task such as playing a piece from start to finish six times a day as you attempt to memorize it. Once or twice — as in Step 5 — should be enough.

And then…

Go back to the score… you know the rest.

(c) Miranda Wilson, 2018. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.


A Defining Trait of Great Musical Leaders


By Miranda Wilson

Working both as a member of professional ensembles and a coach of student ensembles, I often have cause to wonder what might be the single the most important leadership quality in rehearsing and performing ensemble music. In a recent post at my book website, I argued that a good ensemble musician takes personal and group responsibility for mastering the task at hand, offers criticism constructively and accepts it graciously, and seeks to make others in the ensemble sound good.
The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to add one more thing, and I think it’s the most important one.

A great musical leader knows how to adjust to others.
Good musicians show up to rehearsal knowing their part. Great musicians show up knowing the entire score. Great musical leaders know the entire score so well that no matter what happens, they can adjust to whatever situations may arise in rehearsal and performance.
Because here’s the thing: no matter how much you’ve practised and rehearsed, something can go wrong that never went wrong before. I see lots of memes and motivational slogans about practice like this one:

it can always go wrong

Look! I fixed their meme 😀

Nope nope nope. It can always go wrong.
Sometimes things go wrong for external reasons. Your endpin slipped and you missed an entry. A colleague got such a bad cold that his ears stopped up and he showed up to the concert even though he was shivering and could barely hear.
Sometimes the inexperience, unpreparedness, and anxiety of colleagues are the reasons things go wrong. No one comes out of the womb a perfect musician, but the fact is that some people are simply better than others, and unless you’re Yo Yo Ma you likely have to play regularly with musicians who aren’t as skilled as you. (Then again, everyone is less skilled than Yo Yo Ma, so maybe he isn’t exempt either.) People of any skill level can get stage fright, but it’s people who are less experienced or less prepared who are more likely to completely choke under pressure.
When this happens, it isn’t the low-skill musicians who should be able to fix the problem. It’s up to the high-skill ones to adjust and adapt. The fact that mistakes happen isn’t the noteworthy thing here, it’s being able to recover from them that counts. Part of being the more skilled musician is knowing how to adjust and move on.
I can think of times in my career when I rescued colleagues from mistakes. Once, in the performance of a recitative in a Baroque oratorio, the harpsichordist with whom I was playing the continuo line suddenly went double speed, throwing the vocal soloist into a panic. In confusion, the harpsichordist stopped. I motioned to the singer to keep singing the recitative, because I knew when to come in. And when I did, the harpsichordist could see and hear my pitch and start playing again.
Other times, I was the colleague who needed rescuing. When I was two months postpartum, two friends asked me to perform in a chamber recital. (I realize now that I could have said no, but at the time I was desperate to prove that motherhood hadn’t turned me into a slacker. New mothers, please be nicer to yourselves than I was!) I was underslept and exhausted, and this slowed down my mental and physical reflexes.
One very modern piece on the program had a long passage of complicated rhythm, a thing that has always been one of the most challenging aspects of musicianship for me. I needed a lot of extra help in rehearsal to get the tricky section down. The night of the concert, I was even more bleary-eyed than usual, and in the middle of the troublesome passage I went completely blank, forgot everything, and started counting at half speed.
My heart stopped.
I knew that I’d done something wrong, but my slower-than-usual brain couldn’t figure out how on earth to fix it. I was flat-out lost. I figured there was nothing for it but start again at the place I’d left off and hope the others would rescue me. My two colleagues, hearing and instantly understanding what I’d done, both simultaneously jumped back two measures and “caught” me. Thanks to their leadership, we didn’t have to stop. No one in the audience knew anything was amiss.
(On both occasions, it seemed as if time slowed down and I was moving in slow motion. An eerie almost-calm seemed to take over. Sometimes performance anxiety helps you that way.)
In contrast — and it pains me to admit this — there have been occasions when I was a prideful jerk. I knew someone else had miscounted or come in wrong, and had to let everyone know about it by rolling my eyes, sighing heavily, and playing extremely loudly to show my colleagues and the audience how great I thought I was. I’m not proud that I’ve sometimes been that person. If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone, it’s this: don’t be that person.
(Click here to read my essay on how I learned not to be a jerk.)
And yet there are a lot of jerks around. We all have the story of the person at the gig who decided they were the “correct” one and everyone else was wrong and should adjust to them, and accordingly blasted away oblivious to the needs and nuances of the situation. I recently sat wincing and cringing through a student performance of a piece in which it’s easy to get lost, and in which the person playing the moving line got a beat off from the person playing the bassline. The person who’d miscounted was obviously panicking, but the person on the bassline stuck immovably to what was “right,” visibly sneering, refusing to rescue their colleague.
That is not being a good leader. A good leader adjusts. Always.
Is it fair that the better you get, the more you have to strive to be the fixer and the bigger person even when it was someone else’s mistake? No. Is it easy to control your annoyance at lesser musicians? No. The humility required to back down from being “right” is a hard lesson to learn. It’s a bit like turning the other cheek. It puts me in mind of a line from W. H. Auden: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”
Adjusting to the needs of others is, after all, a kind of love.

(Out of) Control: Reframing Performance and Anxiety

By Miranda Wilson

You probably know Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Even if you aren’t religious, it’s good advice for performers. I think about it when I’m helping students prepare for a performance.

The thing is, in performance, it’s not about the things you can change, it’s about the things you can control. 

Sometimes we have this illusory idea that performance would be perfect if only we could control every parameter of what happens. That’s not quite true. We can control some things and not others. Continue reading

You’re already doing it.

Four years ago, when I was struggling to finish my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I hit a wall. There was so much to do! I had to typeset hundreds of musical figures, get all my citations right with the style guide, compose the index, and so on. It seemed utterly overwhelming.

On the phone with a friend, I wailed “I can’t do this!”

My friend replied “You’re already doing it.”

Don’t ask me why, but for some reason her point somehow made the way ahead seem clearer. Of course I could do it. I was in the middle of it, I knew how to do it, the end was in sight.

I saw a tweet this week that brought that conversation to mind.

It inspired me to be that kind of professor. So many times students will approach me with a hard concept that they think is impossible. Usually, with coaching, they leave doing it better than they did when they arrived.

Yesterday I gave one of them a post-it note with my friend’s words on it.

“You’re already doing it.”



Getting back on the horse

horseI was a horse-mad teenager. Though I could never own a horse, since my family lived in the city and could neither afford nor house one, I went on horse treks an hour away every weekend. I loved everything about the horses — their appearance, their soft noses, their horsey smell — and felt utterly exhilarated when I was galloping across the countryside on one. I have always been a cautious, shy person, and riding seemed to take me out of myself. I had never felt so free, or free to be reckless.

And then one day the horse I was riding threw me. It had been a busy day at the stables, and the horse I normally rode, a gentle mare called Sugar, was out when I arrived. The stable owner instead assigned a horse called Buccaneer that I hadn’t ridden before. He was much bigger and more lively than Sugar, but since I was an experienced rider, she figured I would be OK.

I’d never fallen off a horse before, so when Buccaneer’s foot went into a hole and he went one way and I went the other, I was more astonished than anything else to find myself flying off the saddle and landing with a sickening crunch on my right elbow.

I found out later at the hospital that the joint was dislocated and the ulna fractured, but all I knew at the time was that my arm wouldn’t move and that I was miles from the stables. Miles, in fact, from anywhere. There was nothing for it but to get back on Buccaneer and, holding his reins one-handed, walk back. I don’t remember pain or fear — those came later — just the single-minded determination to get to the stables.

Everyone said it was important to start riding again (“get back on the horse”) as soon as my arm was better, but I didn’t. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, but after eight weeks of plaster and another eight of physiotherapy, I found other hobbies that took the place of riding in my life, and the stables were forgotten.

A few years later, I got on a horse again while on holiday at a friend’s farm, and while I wouldn’t say I was terrified, somehow the thrill had gone out of the activity. After that, my interest in horses was mostly limited to watching races on television.

I guess it’s obvious that I’m going to make a comparison with performing now. As cliched as it might sound, I really do regret not making horses my friends again while I still had the time for things like that, and I’m glad that I’ve always managed to find a way to keep cello as a friend and not a betrayer. There were times during my studies with a demanding teacher that my cello lesson would make me feel so bad about myself, I associated the cello with bad feelings and didn’t want to practise it, which led to a vicious cycle of having another bad lesson and more bad feelings. But ultimately the cello remained a friend.

I’ve spent a lot of the past few years writing and lecturing about stage fright, so the horse metaphor does tend to come up. It’s so easy for a bad performance to be totally off-putting to the performer, or to lead to a sort of “doom spiral” of a run of bad performances and the destruction of self-confidence.

What can I say to students who are really suffering?

Here are some of my ideas.

  • Your worth as a human is not defined by how well your last performance went. You may have done a D- concert, but you can still be an A+ person.
  • Why didn’t it go well? What specifically was the problem area? Can you recall the specific things that triggered or exacerbated the problems and your responses to them?
  • What might we adjust in the practice room that would prepare you better for your response to the situation next time?
  • Let’s compile a mental check-list of all the things we need to have in order before we can perform. (Here’s mine: endpin out, bow tightened and rosined, strings tuned — even if I’m going to tune onstage — hair secure, shoes secure, clothing checked for malfunctions, music binder in order with all page turns sorted out and no loose pages that could fly away and get lost, secure solution for endpin sorted out well in advance, arrangements for repeats and da capos thoroughly sorted out with colleagues, etc, etc…)
  • Don’t quit.

I actually think the last one is the most important because it’s so, so tempting to quit attempting to make music. Of course some soul-searching after a bad performance is important, but it’s equally important to make sure you have another performance really soon so that you can hopefully follow it up with a good experience.

I live in a college town surrounded by farmland now, and last weekend at the county fair I got to pet a horse who had won a prize for its beautiful appearance. I breathed in that unmistakable horsey smell and stroked the lovely creature’s nose and remembered that wonderful free feeling of galloping across pastures.

New tricks


This is my old dog. He’s awesome.

Sixteen (!) or so years ago, when I was a student in London, I often supplemented my income from music with a few moderately well-paid temporary secretarial jobs.

I could make more money than most temps, because I had a typing speed of 116 wpm. This was faster than most people’s. I had taught myself to type using a touch-typing program that happened to be installed on a computer in my school when I was 11, and my finger dexterity from playing the cello and piano enabled me to build high speeds. Because of this, most of my jobs didn’t involve filing, photocopying, or answering phones; for the most part, it was audio typing and copy typing. The other secretaries in the offices where I worked were jealous that I could make £4 or so more an hour than they did. It wasn’t a fortune, but it paid the rent and enabled me to save enough money to live comfortably for the next three years in Texas without going into debt.

The kind of pay bumps I enjoyed largely don’t exist any more. These days no one needs a typist, because everyone does their own. If someone really can’t type, there are voice-activated software and scanners and so on. My skill that I prided myself on is now both universal and obsolete.

I was thinking about this the other day when I overheard some undergraduates complaining about a class that compelled them to learn to code even though it wasn’t a class in computing. And I thought, “Wow, why would you not want to learn to code?”

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I happen to be learning to code myself. The reason I’m doing this is because my husband and I are co-authoring an online open-access textbook on college theory and aural skills, and though we have the assistance of a coding expert, we have to figure out a lot of this ourselves.

And it turns out I love coding. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about all the cool things I learned about coding that day. Then I fall asleep and dream about coding and all the cool things I’m going to do with it tomorrow. Coding is incredibly fun and geeky, and I feel that knowing how to do it sets me apart as a writer and a teacher.

When I considered this, I started to wonder whether coding wasn’t the new typing — a skill that is prized now because not everyone knows how to do it? But a skill that 15 years from now will likely be universal. And then maybe I won’t be so exhilarated that I know how to do it, because it won’t set me apart any more, but right now it feels like the kind of heady high I used to get from typing fast and accurately while the other secretaries looked on enviously.

And then I thought about the skills a subset of modern cellists have now that aren’t considered mainstream yet, such as reading lead sheets, swinging the rhythm, improvising over agreed-upon chord changes, the kind of extended techniques that you can use in pop or rock or Latin jazz and so on, singer-songwriting…. I greatly admire the cellists that do this, but I don’t (yet) have any skills in those areas. Will they be the norm fifteen years from now too?

To get some historical perspective of shifting skill sets, we should consider that fifty years ago it wasn’t yet completely mainstream for performers to attempt to perform early music in a historically informed style, but today just about everyone has some knowledge of it even if they’re still using modern instrument setups. And sixty years ago, mainstream cello technique was so “un-extended” that for many years a piece like Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto was more or less the exclusive property of Mstislav Rostropovich because not that many people could play it. Now it regularly appears on the required repertoire lists for cello competitions.

One day playing popular styles may be the only credible way to earn a living as a cellist — in part because so much of contemporary classical music is unpopular with the already dwindling audience of people who enjoy mainstream classical music.

So I’ve sort of decided that my next geeky hobby is going to be learning electric bass, and maybe I’ll translate some of those skills to cello playing, and who knows what I’ll do next.


There’s a particularly ghoulish scene in Chapter 28 of Emily  Brontë’s Wuthering Heights where the (unreliable?) narrator Nelly recounts the following conversation with the (possibly also unreliable?) anti-hero Heathcliff:

He turned abruptly to the fire, and continued, with what, for lack of a better word, I must call a smile: ‘I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off [Catherine’s] coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I saw her face again—it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead. And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!’

I don’t know what is says about me that I was obsessed with Wuthering Heights when I was about 15. I think I’d seen the old black-and-white movie version from 1939 with Laurence Olivier as Laurence Olivier Heathcliff, and fancied it to be the kind of love story my heart yearned for, Byronic heroes being a bit thin on the ground in the eastern suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand.

Thoughts on revisiting this strange and strangely-structured novel: it’s curious, isn’t it, how cinematic versions of this novel always cut off halfway at the end of the Heathcliff-and-Cathy1 love story and don’t go into the second generation Cathy2-and-Hareton love story, never mind the grave-disturbing bits.

I also think it’s very curious that Heathcliff is so often sold to us as a romantic hero. Because reading the book again, it’s clear to me that he’s not. However much he’s been wronged — and for an interesting reading of this, please go and look at Gloria Steinem’s interpretation in Revolution From Within — he’s still a monster, a psychopath. How else to explain this gruesome, criminal, unthinkable act?

And yet, when I was a romantic teenage girl, I kind of…glossed over the digging-up-the-grave scene in my mind. Of course I didn’t think clambering into a hole in the ground to pry a coffin open was, you know, acceptable, but it seemed so preposterous, so outside of my mindset, that I kind of flipped through that section on my way to the next chapter.

Isn’t it strange how books grow older with us, and when we’re older we notice other things in them, even horrifying things, that we’d missed before?

And we think, why wasn’t I shocked? This is some legitimately shocking stuff here.

And music, too. Thanks to my parents and the CD collections in the Wellington City Library, I listened to so much music in my teens that by the time I was at university, I was familiar with almost every work we studied in music history or analysis classes.

Does it matter that I barely understood some or most of it? Maybe, maybe not?

I was thinking about this today in our cello studio class here at the University of Idaho where I tormented some undergraduates by prodding them to make a harmonic analysis — if such a thing is even possible! — of the jaggedly broken, chromaticism-filled Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. “What chord is implied here? What are the non-chord tones? Why isn’t this what we expect? What on earth is that D-flat doing there?” I kept asking. (I think they were pretty sick of me by the end of this.)

Still, I hope that this kind of minute analysis of chord tones and non-chord tones, phrase shapes, phrase structure, chord progression and so on may inspire them to make their own readings of whatever they learn. I realize now how much I missed in the music I was playing at their age.

For example, aged 18, I played Beethoven’s piano trio opus 1 no. 3. Under duress, I could probably have made some kind of Roman numeral analysis of the first six bars: chord i in bars 1-2, chord V in first inversion in bars 3-4, chord VI in first inversion in bars 5-6…


I’m ashamed to admit that what comes next went completely over my head. I completely failed, age 18, to notice that bars 7-8 have a German augmented sixth chord. Why didn’t I notice this? I’d studied that chord in harmony and analysis classes. And yet, I didn’t see or hear it, not because I didn’t have a full score of my own (I did; my teachers would never have allowed me not to own a full score of any piece I was playing), but because the cello wasn’t playing at the time. I’m embarrassed that I spent that shocking, tortured four measures of harmonic tension feeling bored because I didn’t have any notes to play. I was hanging out for bar 11, when I got to come in and the real action would start. The augmented sixth was outside of my mindset, so I glossed over it on my way to the next thing.

What was I thinking?

Why wasn’t I shocked?

Other questions I wish I’d asked myself:

  1. Why does Beethoven order the chord tones in the first couple of measures in the way he does? What is it about the ascending endings of each of those mini-fragments that sets us up to yearn for more? What would this piece be like if he’d voiced it this way:

Beethoven 2

2. Isn’t it cool that he goes to chord VI? If, say, Mozart had written this piece, it’s conceivable that he might have done something more like this example below, composed by me (and I hope Mozart’s ghost will not mind!). Tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic. Question-answer. Orderly, symmetrical, rational.

Beethoven 3

…which leads me to my next question:

3. What on earth is Beethoven’s first phrase anyway? It’s not a Mozartean sentence or period, at least not in a traditional, “textbook” sense. We have an opening statement (bars 1-4), and then only an incomplete repetition of that statement (5-6) that isn’t even really a statement at all, more of a question.

And then, smack dab in the first line of this piece, Beethoven’s off in cadenza-land. Before we even have a complete first theme or even a perfect cadence in the home key that might, you know, even establish that we definitely were in that key.

Beethoven, by the way, was about 23 when he began this composition. It was the 1790s, and Mozart had been dead just a couple of years.

Another question for 18-year-old me: can you imagine Mozart writing a piano trio like this? Of course not, because it’s clear that we’re in a completely new world now. One that is run by a 23-year-old.

Which isn’t that much older than I was at the time.

The question I should have been asking myself, but lacked the vocabulary to do so, was Who on earth starts a piano trio like this

But this rough magic/ I here abjure, and when I have required/ Some heavenly music, which even now I do/To work mine end upon their senses…….

And that way I could have played it with wonder and expression and yearning, and hopefully inspired those things in the audience. I read my theory textbooks and showed up to all the lectures, but I don’t think I really understood how to use the information in them until much later.

Musicians = human beings

Reader I called him

When I was a young student, I thought of top musicians — top cellists, in particular — as somehow being above the rest of the human race.

So when I first started to meet top classical musicians, I was startled to learn that the musicians I idolized were human beings as well as supreme masters of their art. I remember my surprise, when I got to meet Rostropovich a couple of years later–I wrote about it in Strings–to find that the maestro had a weakness for candy. How strange that this superhuman person should have any human desires at all! I was also shocked when Rostropovich died a few years later. Wasn’t he supposed to be immortal?

I can’t quite explain this feeling of mine that a great artist should be above the trivialities of human life and the human body, but I’ve never quite got over it.

When I’m not teaching, performing, and researching, I spend quite a bit of my time writing music journalism. (One of the reasons this blog is so seldom updated is because, like Aphra Behn, I’m “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.” This website, and my other site Cello Tips, are where my rants go only if they’re not going to end up in a paid publication.) Part of journalism, of course, requires you to chase people down and call them and ask them leading questions. And this doesn’t come naturally to me.

I’m an introverted person, and I hate to think that I might be bothering or pestering anyone, especially some hallowed master of my profession. So even when I have a phone number right in front of me, I procrastinate for hours and find all kinds of tasks that I have to do before I can possibly call an interviewee. (Right, I can’t do one thing until I’ve moved the piano! Oh, look, dust. I can’t concentrate until I’ve dusted and vacuumed my entire office. And alphabetized my orchestral scores. And planned some recital repertoire. And answered every one of my emails.)

During one of these procrastination sessions, I decided to text a friend who has a music journalism side gig too, and asked him how on earth he plucks up the courage to call famous people for interviews.

He texted back: “Dude. They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like me. I just call them.”

What, the great and the good have to dress themselves? Their beautiful singing doesn’t inspire a collection of adorable small animals to help them get ready in the morning?

snow white 2

Something about this conversation amused me, so I quit moving the piano around, much to the piano’s relief, and picked up the post-it where I’d written the phone number of the famous person I was supposed to interview.

Reader, I called him.

And he was completely lovely, friendly, humble, pleasant, and obligingly full of quotable quotes.

Just like most of the people I have to call for my job.

Because I’ve found that among the people at the top of the top, they’re almost universally the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet, because when you’re at the top of the top you have no reason to be a jerk, so you can just relax and be lovely.

Who owns music history?

In a recent conversation with a composer friend, we started talking about why certain topics are central to the teaching of music theory. Why, for example, does the “textbook” method place so much emphasis on four-part harmony and species counterpoint when a lot of other important theoretical topics aren’t covered as thoroughly in core undergraduate classes?

Or, assuming that this Bach- and Palestrina-centric method is OK, why don’t we integrate the topics of harmony and counterpoint more, i.e. take the procedure of the individual line as the starting point for teaching voice-leading, rather than a list of the rules, examples of the rules, and all the possible exceptions to the rules? (Which seems to be the way most textbooks set forth the concepts.)

Why don’t we start the discussion by listing the practical applications of voice-leading rules, such as knowing what voice of the harmony you’re playing in your string quartet or brass quintet or a cappella vocal ensemble so that you can adjust intonation?

Further to that thought, why did no theory teacher of mine, at any of the four universities I attended, even mention the concept of just vs. Pythagorean vs. equal-tempered intonation to me?

Why couldn’t we talk more about the harmonic series, and how the properties of sound itself have determined so many of our harmonic principles, and not just in Western music, either?

I’m not a theorist, and I don’t know the entire theory pedagogy literature, so maybe some professors are already teaching this stuff. I hope so. I try to address the issues myself in the sophomore aural skills sequence that I co-teach, in the hopes that I might guide students towards a genuinely practical approach for the practice room as well as the exam room.

All this talk of theory got me thinking about the concept of the music history textbook too, and how deeply problematic the priorities of so many of them are, too, even when some of them have made earnest and much-appreciated attempts to expand the literature so that composers who aren’t necessarily dead white men can have a place at the table.

Here’s my problem, though: I think we are overstating the importance of a lot of episodes in music composition, and understating the importance of others. In a post last year, I found myself wondering if we in the academy had given too much importance, in both history and theory curricula, to twelve-tone music. I rather think that in a couple of hundred years, provided nuclear warfare hasn’t obliterated the planet altogether, music historians might look back at dodecaphony as an interesting but ultimately finite and limited episode in the history of composition. And I say this as someone who really enjoys playing and listening to the compositions of the Second Viennese School. I find a lot of post-Webern serial music to be problematic, as is the academy’s focus on it in preference to other things that were happening at the same time in music. Such as the things that, whether we like it or not, still sell recordings and get audience backsides on seats.

I’m not saying the audience opinions should be the guiding force in all things here (consider all the times great composers of the past got booed — Stravinsky comes to mind, and I 100% agree with the strong emphasis that he gets in music history curricula). But I’ve felt ambivalent about other trends for several years now. This essay on the acoustic impossibility of Schoenberg’s most famous invention has haunted me for a long time. It troubles me because I agree with it, and that’s led me to a lot of second-guessing of the things I’ve always assumed I should be teaching and saying and thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why we spend so much class time on certain composers and so little on others. I remembered a class in twentieth-century music from my undergraduate days (when, ahem, it still was the twentieth century, though the century was on its last legs) in which we spent weeks and weeks analysing Le Marteau sans maître and a few other pieces I couldn’t really bring myself to love, but the names of some other composers who were active around the same era, such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (whose music I did and do love) weren’t even mentioned.


I was too shy to ask the teacher about this in case it turned out that I was vulgar or ignorant for preferring the compositions of the Soviet-era Russians to the mostly Central European post-Webernists that he favoured. I regret this now, because it might have led to an interesting conversation.

This occurred to me yesterday when I turned the radio on to Northwest Public Radio in the car. They were playing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), one of my favourite pieces. It’s tremendous fun to play, always a hit with the audience, a brilliantly written and brilliantly effective piece of music. And it occurred to me that you almost never see any substantive discussion of Vaughan Williams’ music in a textbook.


When I lived in Britain, a few musician friends told me they’d actually been taught at university that their heritage of British romantics and post- and neo-romantics — Parry, Elgar, Holst, Delius, Vaughan Williams, and so on — were “cowpat.” Real British music, they were told, was the New Complexity school. This lofty trashing in the academy seemed wholly unrelated to the fact that putting on The Planets or the Enigma Variations is a sure-fire way to fill up a concert hall. In fact, it seemed for a while that we were all taught to despise anything that might feature in the Last Night of the Proms.

Remembering this reminds me also of some of my own teachers, who went to university in the 1960s, who mentioned to me over the years that their undergraduate classes were taught by modernists who claimed that late romantic composers, Brahms and Franck and Sibelius and Elgar and so on, weren’t any good. It occurs to me now that those zealous anti-romantics had probably been oppressed themselves back in the 1920s by an older generation of critics who couldn’t understand what they were trying to do with post-diatonicism. Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t want to react against the stranglehold of an older, dominating tradition? But isn’t dismissing Brahms a mistake? You can say a lot of things about Brahms, but “not any good” shouldn’t be one of them.

I’m not suggesting that we go the other way and get rid of serialist and other non-diatonic music from the concert hall, the college lecture hall, or the history books. I just wonder whether we might do better at acknowledging that a lot of things were going on in music in the 1910s (and 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s…etc), and it’s not just the ones happening in central European post-diatonicism that are important in the winding, multi-faceted, fragmented, crazy world of music history.

And with that, I have a sudden and unrepentant urge to relearn Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong for my next recital programme.