The teacher I needed

Be the rhythmic change you want to see in the world

I saw a great quote the other day: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I don’t think any of us is single-handedly capable of bringing about world peace, or an end to climate change — we’d need the systematic and institutional support of a huge number of unanimous people for that to happen — but we can all do something within our own particular skill set to improve one or two things, can’t we?

As well as teaching cello, string methods, chamber music, and string pedagogy at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in musicianship. We call it Aural Skills III and IV, and break it down into the mutually interdependent categories of ear training and sight singing, but I like to think of it as a class in musicianship. Or, more specifically, a class in the DIY of what makes music work so that we can figure out how to be better at it.

Everyone loves to hate their aural skills professor — carping, nit-picking tyrants that we are — but I enjoy teaching the subject even if I lose all the popularity contests around here, because it’s a chance for me to help students with a few things that I struggled mightily with and that took me years to figure out on my own.

I was very lucky to have teachers in all my music subjects who were brilliant musicians and pedagogues, but I did have a rough time when it came to a couple of things, specifically sightreading — especially when it came to rhythm and counting and so on.

That’s where I’ve had to learn to be the kind of teacher that I needed when I was an undergraduate.

Back in the day, one thing I really had a hard time with was the concept of polyrhythms such as “two against three,” “three against four,” and so on. Sometimes we got given an orchestra piece with lots of this hard counting and it felt like being thrown in the deep end with an imperfect understanding of how to swim. It was a game to which I hadn’t been let in on the rules. I felt completely adrift — and one day I almost burst into tears when a conductor told me I was doing two against three wrong — i.e. I was swinging them long-long-short instead of three equal notes. This happened because I was subdividing, wrongly, in four instead of the three that would have permitted me to understand how to get the triplet even.

You’d think that as a 17-year-old who could play a lot of advanced cello repertoire, I might have figured this relatively simple rhythm out on my own, but to my embarrassment, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for the thing that two and three have in common — that is, six. One and a two and a… vs. one-and-two-and-three-and…

These rhythmic concepts are taught a lot more systematically to pre-college woodwind, brass, and percussion players than they are to string players, perhaps because so much wind ensemble and concert band music is more modern and therefore more rhythmically complicated than the string orchestra music that’s typically used in pre-college settings. So I decided that maybe we string teacher types just need to be a bit stricter about really making sure our students understand how to figure out unfamiliar rhythmic concepts independently.

So these days when I teach rhythm, I break it down in what I hope is a readily understandable way — because I’m being the person I wish I’d had back then in the university orchestra rehearsal room when I didn’t understand two against three.

And, because I’m a tyrannical cello teacher as well, I combine the concepts with scales. Because two birds, one stone, right?

Click on the links to read my posts on learning rhythm through scales:

The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part One, Part Two, Part Three


Etudes = Gifts

By Miranda Wilson

Duport 21 Etudes for Cello
Duport’s 21 Etudes

When I was a teenager, I studied with a teacher whose idea of fun was giving me a minimum of three etudes a week, which she expected me to learn and memorize. Sebastian Lee, J. J. F. Dotzauer, Friedrich Gruetzmacher, Louis Feuillard, Bernhard Cossman, Joseph Merk, Adrien Servais… we did them all. Every teacher I had after that was similarly obsessed with etudes.

I groused and moaned plenty about this, but ultimately I was glad that thanks to their insistence, I’d managed to learn all of the Duport 21 Etudes, the Popper High School of Cello Playing, Piatti’s 12 Caprices under the supervision of a teacher.

And what a gift they are. Now that I’m the teacher responsible for tormenting students with etudes, I’m so, so grateful for the preparation these wonderful pieces gave me. The best etudes don’t just put you through your paces in every possible way you might be expected to execute a certain technique, they also teach you something about harmonies, structures, and patterns.

For example, the way Feuillard teaches thumb position arpeggios makes perfect harmonic sense at the same time as it trains your thumb and hand shaping in the upper register. Dear Monsieur Feuillard, thank you!

Feuillard, Daily Exercises
Feuillard understood the rules of harmonic progression as well as how to improve your thumb technique.

Alfredo Piatti, for his part, knew how to teach us to be in tune in the slightly problematic key of B-flat major while increasing our virtuosity so that we could play all the great cello concertos. Thank you, Signor Piatti!

This is how you learn just intonation the fun way. Piatti #3, you’re the best.

David Popper understood exactly what his students were going to need for their auditions and composed his High School in such a way that if you master all the techniques in it, you can play all the great orchestral literature of the time, as well as the solo literature. I love #19 so much — the “Lohengrin” etude that he wrote to help cellists with a certain problematic section in the Wagner opera.

Popper 19, the gig-getter of the time

Even Dotzauer, who gets a little less praise showered on him by history than the others, is such a great teacher. I didn’t realize until relatively recently that he’d made an edition of the Bach suites — one of the earliest 19th-century editions — and that it’s much more careful, restrained, and faithful to the available sources than the great majority of editions from that era. And his etudes are great too — he just knows all the things we’re going to screw up, and discreetly writes an etude to get us through. I sometimes look at his compositions and almost feel as if I know him personally. I know this sounds sentimental or even fanciful, but when I play his etudes I’m sure he was a person of thoughtfulness, care, and precision.

Dotzauer etudes
Dotzauer #26, compulsory for anyone about to learn the Elgar concerto…..

So I’m not even sorry that I’m one of those teachers that’s addicted to the etude-book. Just think — if we master the Duport etudes, we master every skill we need for playing Beethoven’s cello, chamber, and orchestral music. Piatti and Popper help us master the entire virtuoso classical and romantic literature — whether for solo cello, chamber music, or orchestral parts. Dotzauer and Feuillard take care of everything we might be getting wrong. They’re all wonderful. Play some etudes today!


A student recently apologized to me for “disappointing” me when he wasn’t able to perform in a recital that I’d asked him to be part of. I felt puzzled for a minute: I have many feelings about students, but disappointment is rarely one of them. So I told him that my approval of him wasn’t conditional upon his performing in the recital.

Then I started thinking about the teacher-student relationship and how approval-based the whole business seems sometimes. So much of my motivation to practise during my student days came from my fear of the teacher’s disappointment or disapproval. I suppose what happens when you don’t have a teacher any more is that you transfer the guilt complex to yourself, so that if you don’t practise, you’re the one who’s disappointed now.

But why should the teacher/student relationship be about striving for approval? The thing about students is that they’re here to learn music, but they’re also here to learn about themselves, what they like, what they want out of life, who they want to be. Some of them will practise a lot and have successful careers in music, and some of them won’t. My approval is irrelevant to this because what they do in the practice room or the concert hall isn’t for me. It’s for them.

The thought of another person’s disapproval hangs over so many of our heads. I recently reconnected with one of my graduates, a person I’ve always admired as a great player and an even better human. He told me something I’d suspected but never really known for sure, which was that his family had disapproved of his coming to college in the first place, and especially of the fact that he was going to study a music, which they didn’t think was a suitable career.

This didn’t deter him, and I admire him even more for this determination, because this is a hard profession even with the support — emotional or financial or both — of your family.

What happened next makes me feel terribly sad. This graduate came from a community that has traditionally viewed higher education with suspicion, and he found that when he returned home after graduation, he and his family had become incomprehensible strangers. It was as if his education had driven a wedge between them.

As scholars, I think we’re called upon to try to understand the values and belief systems of people significantly unlike ourselves, even if we can’t agree with them. What bugs me, though, is that I would have thought anyone would be proud to have a son like my former student. Who wouldn’t want their child to be as intelligent, considerate, kind, well-read, articulate, gentle, and sensitive to the feelings of others as he is? College didn’t make him this way, by the way — he was all of those things before he got here. So what was it about his insistence on getting a degree that was so destructive to their relationship? Surely it couldn’t just be the classes and juries and recitals that he had to pass to get a music degree. I’m going to assume that the dangerous bit was the critical thought processes he learned along the way that led him to question the values he’d been taught. The subversive thing about higher education is that you’re encouraged to ask yourself hard questions, and shape your own values accordingly.

Surely it’s no accident that the teacher-student relationship is so often rather like the parent-child relationship. Since I’m a teacher and a parent, I tried to think of anything my daughter might do that would turn her into a stranger to me, but I couldn’t think of anything. I would still love her unconditionally even if she joined a terrorist cult — though I hope very much that she would never do that, of course!

That said, it’s OK for her to disagree with me. She doesn’t have to have the same religion and politics as her father and me to win our approval, because she already has it. By the same token, my students don’t have to aim for the same career trajectories as me to win my approval. I’m hugely proud of the achievements of my graduates who have made it as professional musicians, because I know how hard it is, but I’m also proud of the ones who are now in other fields. We can’t control our students’ lives any more than we can control the lives of our children, but we can control our own responses to their choices.

My love letter to music

By Miranda Wilson

Some days, when I’m feeling pessimistic, I question every career choice I’ve made. Then I go into a doom spiral where I question the morality of spending so much time encouraging young people to make similar choices. But the thing I keep coming back to, the thing that makes it all worthwhile, is what a privilege it is to make music. Is it difficult, frustrating, annoying, exceptionally badly paid, and overcrowded? Yes. Pointless? No.

When our world seems to be going crazy, I can’t help feeling lucky that I’m in a profession that brings people together. I very seldom express my views on religion and politics, mostly because I hate the arguments the subjects can provoke, especially when no one involved is going to change their mind.

In this way, I’m often glad that I don’t teach a subject such as political science where these debates are part of learning. Of course, it’s important to have these arguments, and in a free society we can and should discuss all manner of political views. But when just opening the New York Times sends me into a fit of anxiety, I start to feel relieved that my job doesn’t involve being a political pundit.

But even if I decide that I’m not going to read the news for a day or two, many people that I interact with in daily life regularly and openly express views whose lack of compassion upsets me deeply. Really, some of it is worse than a lack of compassion because it’s also a lack of the kind of imagination that might lead to compassion, and as a professor the concept of imagination is one of the things I try to encourage. Sometimes I want to shout from the top of the roof, “None of us has any idea what is going on in the lives of others! Can we please at least acknowledge our shared humanity and stop this relentless judging of others?”

If you continue down this path, you can become very unhappy indeed.

Or you can rejoice in the existence of orchestras and choirs, ensembles where your personal beliefs matter less than the things we share, such as the goals of making good music together in a manner that is (hopefully) in tune, in time, and expressive of a shared vision of what a good interpretation will sound like.

I realize that being able to feel this way reveals my safety in a world that doesn’t afford such safety to people who don’t have my privileges. I don’t and can’t feel complacent about any of it. In many ways I feel powerless to make the lives of others better. But there is this one thing that I can do to bring something of beauty and love into the world, and I’m so lucky that it’s my paid profession to do so.

How many people are lucky enough to do something that brings people together instead of tearing them apart? How lucky am I to have the privilege of playing the music of Beethoven and Bach, whose beauty and nobility reduces me to speechless tears every time? What could be a more beautiful way to spend our days than working on shared goals where we’re all in this together, creating something in the face of so much destruction we can do nothing about?

We’re all on the same journey. No one makes it out of here alive. Music reminds us daily to look for the things we all have in common. That’s what has made this all worth it.

My Year of Women Composers

Things I wonder about: did Fanny meekly accept her father’s pronouncement? Or did she seethe with rage at the unfairness of it?

By Miranda Wilson

I made a New Year’s Resolution today. 2019 is going to be the year that I explore, learn, perform, teach, and promote music by women composers.

I’ve always known women could be composers, because my late great-aunt, Dorothy Freed, was one of New Zealand’s first. “The grandmother of us all,” she often said proudly.

This being the case, I find it hard to explain why I haven’t actually played a lot of music by women before. My weak excuse is that I…didn’t think of it.

Once, aged about 18 and filled with newfound enthusiasm for feminism, I asked Dorothy if she had ever faced sexist discrimination in the music profession. “No,” she said immediately, “it was hard to get your music heard, whoever you were.”

“Would you describe yourself as a feminist?” I persisted.

“A what?”

“You know, a women’s libber,” I said.

“Heavens, no! Bunch of silly women,” came the dismissive reply. Then she was silent for a minute. “There was this one time, though,” she said thoughtfully. “I applied for a postgraduate scholarship to study in Italy, and the head of music [at Victoria University of Wellington] said ‘Dorothy has a husband and children. If she wants to go to Italy, let him pay for it.’ Never mind that we were on the brink of divorce.”

Dorothy never let anything stop her, and she went to study in Europe anyway — with Elisabeth Lutyens and Peter Racine Fricker, among others — but had to self-finance her studies by working as a secretary and librarian. While her male contemporaries got comfortable incomes from university teaching positions (for which they were often hired on a handshake) and had helpmeet spouses at home to take care of their laundry and their dinner, Dorothy enjoyed none of these privileges. Nothing stopped her from composing, but her output is much smaller than it might have been had she had the support that male composers of her generation took for granted.

I have long wanted to honour Dorothy’s memory, and have started to do so with the publication of a major research project in the New Zealand literary journal Ka Mate Ka Ora. But I wanted to do more. Hence my Year of Women Composers.

Some recent events were all the inspiration I needed. Throughout 2017 and 2018, I followed the progress of the Composer Diversity Database, which sought to increase the visibility and accessibility of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the field. Around the same time, a cellist friend compiled a widely-circulated Google spreadsheet of cello pieces by women composers. I no longer had any excuse for not performing more music by women.

I’ve only partly explained why I’m doing this. Let me put it this way: whenever you get into a discussion with People Who Are Wrong On The Internet on the subject of women composers, someone always butts in to say “Why should we care if the composer is a woman? Why not choose repertoire that’s just good music?” This person, by the way, always considers themself an objective, impartial arbiter of what music is good and what isn’t, and — surprise! — their default idea of who’s a good composer usually looks like a man. A white man.

This is deeply, deeply irritating to me. These people (let’s call them PWAWOTI) have seldom stopped to consider the obstacles women in music have been up against. If they weren’t barred from conservatories and universities, they were talked down to, patronized, infantilized, forbidden from the concert stage, assumed to be non-serious. Their oppressors and dismissers weren’t always anti-feminist ogres: even the so-called feminist Camille Paglia notoriously wrote in Sexual Personae (1990): “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”

After finishing Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, I read biographies of Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel that explained a lot about why there hadn’t been a female Mozart. Consider this letter to Hensel from her father, Abraham Mendelssohn — who had, by this stage, uncomplainingly paid massive amounts of money for the education of his brilliant children:

“Music will perhaps become [Felix Mendelssohn’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.”

Musical training is expensive to acquire, but Hensel’s high social status might, paradoxically, be the reason she wasn’t supposed to become professional. Such a thing would reflect poorly on a wealthy family — the idea of a woman having to earn money might make it look like they couldn’t support her.

Clara Schumann, who came from a lower social class than Fanny Hensel, was trained by her father Friedrich Wieck (the original helicopter parent/tiger father…or is that Leopold Mozart?), to become professional from an early age. She had no choice about whether to earn money from music. She had to, since she had a sick husband and seven children to support. Even so, her money had to come from her gifts as a pianist, and she barely had time to compose a thing after early middle age.

To my shame, I really hadn’t heard much of Clara Schumann’s music until 2018, when my pianist colleague Yoon-Wha Roh suggested that we learn the Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 17 to commemorate her bicentenary in 2019.

Well, I fell in love. What an incredible piece — a darkly passionate first movement, a Mendelssohnian (Felix or Fanny!) scherzo, an utterly gorgeous slow movement that tears my heart in two every time, and a finale that I can only describe as wildly exciting. I suddenly remembered that the musicology professor who supervised my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas had often opined that Clara Schumann was a better composer than her husband, but for some reason I never believed it until now. This amazing trio reminded me instantly of Robert Schumann’s three trios — but I didn’t realize until reading Judith Chernaik’s recent biography of Schumann a couple of weeks ago that Clara’s trio actually predates them. What an influence she must have been on him!

OK, that was it — no more excuses, it was time to seek out the music of women composers, learn it, perform it, assign it to my students, programme it everywhere.

To start with, I thought of the “template” I’d usually use for a cello-piano or solo cello recital: begin with something splashy that I know I can play well so I can work my nerves off on it; follow it with a substantial piece by a living or at least relatively modern composer; intermission; then a second half that features a romantic warhorse that will ensure the audience won’t go home at intermission.

Then I figured out how I could substitute compositions by women for all the ones by men that comprise the cellistic canon. Here’s what I came up with. It’s incomplete, but it’s a start:

Instead of Barber’s cello sonata, play Rebecca Clarke’s own transcription for cello of her viola sonata.

Instead of a Beethoven sonata, play Louise Farrenc’s sonata.

Instead of one of Beethoven’s two sets of variations on themes by Mozart, play Helene Liebmann’s sonata, whose last movement is a set of variations on La ci darem.

Instead of Brahms’ E minor sonata, play Ethel Smyth’s A minor sonata.

Instead of a Britten cello suite, play Elizabeth Maconchy’s Variations on a Theme from Vaughan Williams’ Job or Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf.

Instead of Fauré’s Sicilenne, play Maria Theresia von Paradis’ Sicilienne. (There’s some doubt about its authorship, but play it anyway, because it’s a gorgeous piece.)

Instead of Franck’s sonata, play Mélanie Bonis’ sonata.

Instead of Ligeti’s solo sonata, play Sofia Gubaidulina’s Ten Preludes.

Instead of Felix Mendelssohn’s D major sonata, play Luise Le Beau’s D major sonata.

Instead of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, play Fanny Hensel’s Fantasie and Capriccio.

Instead of Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong, play Rebecca Clarke’s Passacaglia.

I realize I’ve only included one living composer here, and that’s kind of deliberate because in many ways it’s easier to access the music of someone whose music is in print and who may be contactable. I’m always looking for fantastic new pieces by living women, and am currently practising some works by Augusta Read Thomas, Graciane Finzi, and my colleague Ruby Fulton for upcoming performances.

For the forgotten women composers of the past, however, it’s actually quite hard to get hold of their scores, since they’re often long out of print. I tried unsuccessfully to buy Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf and ended up having to perform it from an interlibrary loan score. Thanks to IMSLP, some women composers of longer ago, including some I’d never heard of such as Bonis and Liebmann, have become available to us. But the old editions can be hard to read, and even modern printings — such as Hildegard Press’s “edition” (really a reprint from the original nineteenth-century plates) of the Farrenc sonata — aren’t much better. Will someone make some more accessible scholarly performing editions of these forgotten treasures before they’re lost forever as footnotes in the history of composition?

I’m no editor, so this task shouldn’t fall to me, but I can and will perform their wonderful music, and hope to record much of it. Stay tuned for more. Happy New Year, everyone.

The Joy of Basslines (Or How I Learned to Love Pachelbel’s Canon)

Internet meme "What I Really Do." Title: Cellist. What my friends think I do: image of Yo Yo Ma. What my mom thinks I do: image of Popper's High School of Cello Playing. What the media thinks I do: movie still from August Rush. What my co-workers think I do: image of Man Ray's "Ingre's Violin." What I think I do: image of Augustus John's "Madame Suggia." What I really do: image of cello part from Pachelbel's Canon.
It’s impossible not to look cool when you’re a cellist 😀 

A pianist friend and I were planning a chamber recital, and had already settled on piano trios by Brahms and a modern composer. “We should have something more Classical, too,” he said. “What about Haydn…oh, wait, no, cellists never want to play Haydn piano trios.”

“What?” I said. “I love Haydn.”

“You do?” said my friend. “Cellists always frown when I say ‘Haydn piano trio.’ Or they start singing do do do do sol sol sol sol, and then they veto it.”

This conversation brought to mind various interactions I’ve had with cello students and colleagues over the years where someone would complain about a composition being “boring” because “there isn’t much going on in the cello part.”


A thought: isn’t do do do do sol sol sol sol kind of what you signed up for when you decided to be a cellist?

Another thought: if you think do and sol are boring, is it possible you aren’t doing your job very well?

Exhibit A:

Image of bassline from "Toreador Song" in Bizet's Carmen.
A bassline we’ve all played in a few opera pits…

Boring? Really? Let’s look at what else is going on.

Image of first violin and cello parts of "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen
“Toréador, en garde! Toréador, Toréador!” (It’s Bizet’s Carmen!)

One of Bizet’s catchiest melodies is taking place right next to us, and it’s our job to take part in the drama. The direction in the vocal score, by the way, is “Avec fatuité.” “With fatuousness.” That puts a different perspective on do, sol now, doesn’t it? If the melodic line is the bullfighter’s conceited voice, the bassline represents his strutting footsteps. We may not be on the stage, but we’re equal characters in this story, and we need to play like it.

The footstep analogy quite often comes to my mind in Baroque basslines too. In one of my absolute favourite pieces of music ever written, Bach’s Actus Tragicus BWV 106, the biblically derived text instructs us to prepare for death. Perhaps because I know the text well and because I fear death, the opening instrumental Sonatina reduces me to helpless tears every time.

You might look at the Sonatina’s bassline and think there’s not much to do, but in reality, there’s an infinite amount to do. This chain of E-flats directs and determines the harmony so that the pair of recorders on the two top lines of the system can weave in and out, overlapping — and why does Bach cross the parts? Isn’t that a big no-no in voice-leading? Could it be that they are crossing because they represent… a cross?)

Image of measures 4 and 5 from J. S. Bach, "Actus Tragicus" BWV 4, I. Sonatina.

I hear Bach’s bassline as the faithful friend who walks by the side of the anguished protagonist. “Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du mußt sterben!” (“It is the ancient law: Man, you must die!”) When I play it, I feel as if I’m saying “Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. I will be with you, I will not leave you, I will take care of you, I will stay by your side on this hardest of journeys.” 

“Bestelle dein Haus: denn du wirst sterben…” “Put your house in order, for you will die…” How this text must have jumped off the page at the 22-year-old Bach, who despite his youth had already suffered the losses of so many dear to him.


Here’s the thing. When you’re the bassline, you’re the instigator and harbinger of harmonic change. You’re the sea that keeps this whole ship afloat. You can do things that the keyboard instruments you’re so often doubling can’t: sustaining, vibrato, and so on. You provide the rhythmic impetus that stops the ensemble from dragging. You envelop the other parts in a sound-world of resonance that they can add their own resonances to. Who holds the steering wheel? You do. You steer the group sound, the intonation, the harmonic rhythm, the rhythmic drive. You are the most powerful thing in the ensemble.


This post started out as a love letter to basslines, but halfway through I was forced to stop and reconsider a certain bassline that I haven’t always treated with love.

Now play it another 55 times.

Yeah. I’m talking about Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. Yeah. That Canon.

So here’s the thing about the Pachelbel Canon. We all sneer and roll our eyes, we laugh along with Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant, we trade in-jokes with other cellists about the not-so-secret “Pachelbel surcharge” for brides who want it for their wedding processional. But it just occurred to me that Johann Pachelbel basically paid for me to go to graduate school.

Like all students, I was broke and disgruntled, and one of the things I did to pay my rent was wedding gigs — sometimes two or three every weekend. I was a singularly insufferable young person and I thought that (a) wedding gigs were beneath me and (b) anyone who wanted to walk down the aisle to Pachelbel must have very poor musical taste. Luckily, and uncharacteristically, I kept my obnoxious mouth shut, and the rent got paid.

(What a horrid girl I was. I can’t rightly remember what it was I objected to about making $350 for the very small effort it cost me to give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people on the most special day of their lives.)

And another thing. Without Pachelbel’s basslines — listen to his F major Chaconne for organ for a great example — we mightn’t have such good ones by Bach. Pachelbel was friends with Bach’s father, godfather to his sister, teacher to his brother, and his connection to and influence over Bach are well documented. Pachelbel himself was no Bach, but his music is still deserving of our respect.

So in the unlikely event of my ever playing another wedding gig, I promise I will play Pachelbel with better grace this time. I’ll consider how clever this composition actually is — the myriad possibilities for melody and harmony and rhythm that Pachelbel achieves over this simplest of resources, the charm and peace and symmetry of it, the joy it gives to others. I will play the best darn Pachelbel bassline you ever heard in your life, and I’ll play it with love and gratitude. Thank you, Herr Pachelbel.

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