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.

Preparing for a Bach Cello Suite Marathon

suitte a cinq cordes

Performing all six of Bach’s Cello Suites is a marathon in the career of any cellist, and for many years I wondered if it was even a good idea to attempt this feat. Surely it was a lot to expect of an audience to compel them to sit through six long and intellectually demanding pieces? Mightn’t they stagger out at the end, exhausted, never wanting to listen to the Suites ever again? Would it not be more prudent to perform one or two of the Suites at once, leaving the audience wanting more, rather than bashing them over the head with all six?

But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. And the more I thought about the Suites and how important they had been in my career and my life, the more I realized they really did belong together as a cycle. A Gradus ad Parnassum, almost, starting with the G major suite (No. 1, which is playable by some well-taught children of eight or nine), progressing through the harder D minor (No. 2) and C major (No. 3) Suites until you get to the “big three,” the really hard stuff: the E-flat major (No. 4), the C minor (No. 5, in which Bach asks us to tune our A-string down to a G, a setup which is very hard to get used to), and the mighty D major (No. 6), which is, on a four-string cello, bloody difficult.

To be honest, it was the difficulty of No. 6 that had stopped me performing a “Bach marathon” in the past. How could I, after playing five long, complicated pieces, have the strength to play something that compelled me to zoom up the highest reaches of the register and twist my fingers into all manner of uncomfortable shapes?

That’s when I hit upon the idea of doing what the cellists I admire the most do: getting a five-string cello. No one can say without a shadow of a doubt exactly the instrument Bach had in mind when he directed us to play à cinque cordes, though Dmitry Badiarov has made a pretty convincing case for the violoncello da spalla. I knew right away that I had neither the funds nor the time to buy one of these marvellous shoulder-held cellos and figure out how to play it, so I hit upon the idea of commissioning a five-string cello from Luis & Clark, since I knew that it would be relatively familiar to play and would have a sound that I liked.

There was now no excuse not to do a Bach marathon, and so I find myself preparing daily for this concert, which will take place on January 16 here at the University of Idaho and which I hope to repeat at other venues.

One problem remained: exactly how do you prepare for such an event? Comparatively few people do this, so I didn’t have a rule-book to refer to.

The first question was: repeats, or no repeats? In Bach’s binary dances (i.e. every movement except the Prelude that begins each Suite) so much of the sense of balance and proportion comes from having repeats, plus, the second time affords you the opportunity to add a few improvised ornaments. Big problem, however: when I timed myself playing with all repeats, the total time of the concert came to well over two and a half hours, which seemed like a big ask, both for me and for the audience.

So with some trepidation, I decided to ask strangers on the internet. This is a thing I ordinarily hesitate to do, since as we all know, the internet is full of terrible mansplainers. (There are two ways to deal with mansplainers: the delete button, or, if you’re feeling particularly ornery, replying “Nice mansplaining there, buddy!” which will cause them to lose their minds.) I went on an internet forum where a lot of cellists hang out and asked if anyone had done a Bach marathon, and if so, had they done the repeats.

A few commenters jumped in to tell me I was a moron (I ignored them). A few people who actually knew something about the subject offered thoughtful opinions. A couple had done Bach marathons and found they’d got much tireder than they thought they would after just two or three Suites, and wished they hadn’t done repeats. After much consideration, I decided I wouldn’t do repeats, and would save my improvised ornaments for a later studio recording.

Next problem: how do you practise for such a long and hard concert when you have a full teaching load of lectures and studio students, not to mention rehearsals and concerts and travel and class prep and grading and email and freelance writing, and your practice time is at a premium? Clearly, I was going to have to apportion my time very carefully.

That was when I had the idea of practising only two Suites a day, but in pairings that would allow me to “review” the “easy” Suites (1-3), which I’d performed dozens of times, and work in detail on the “hard” Suites (4-6), which I hadn’t done as often, and in the case of No. 6, only ever on a four-string cello.

My pairings went like this, and I did them for six days of every week:

  1. G major and D major (two major keys, both pieces in the “transcendent” style)
  2. D minor and C minor (two minor keys, the most “French” of the Suites, both in a melancholy style)
  3. C major and E-flat major (two major keys, both in a more “jovial” style than the G major and D major)
  4. D minor and D major (parallel modes)
  5. C major and C minor (parallel modes)
  6. G major and E-flat major (somewhat related major keys)

On the seventh day, I did a mish-mash of movements that were the hardest for me: usually, the D minor Menuets; E-flat major Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue; C minor Prelude and Allemande; D major Prelude and Sarabande.

This way I felt I was covering each Suite relatively often and relatively well. The only problem was that I did tend to get overly stuck on the Preludes and Allemandes, which tend to be the longest and most complicated movements in each Suite. I solved this problem by starting with the Gigues first and working backwards.

The rest of the difficulty lies in being true to the score, which is hard when no J. S. Bach autograph exists. I’m working mostly from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy, but referring to the other three manuscript sources (Johann Peter Kellner, Westphal, Anonymous Viennese) and the Norblin edition (first print). And until someone buys me this for Christmas (hint! hint! Come on, it’s only 400 euros), I have to do this by flipping back and forth. I documented some of my struggles on Instagram:

…and added a few videos of myself practising the five-string cello:

I have a month and a half to go. I’m nervous but excited too.

In Memoriam Phyllis Young, 1925-2017

Mrs Young and MW

Miranda Wilson with Phyllis Young, Austin, 2005

Sixteen Novembers ago, on a grey, dreary day, a bright yellow book fell off a London library shelf and landed on my feet. Had it not done this, my life might have turned out considerably differently.

Playing The String Game by Phyllis Young wasn’t your average book of string pedagogy. Every aspect of teaching technique was conveyed in imaginative, kinesthetic language, accompanied by whimsical line drawings. Even quite hard concepts, like teaching a child to hold the bow, were made into an entertaining game. “See this imaginary bucket of water? I’d like you to dip your right hand into it…” “…Pick a strawberry with your second finger and thumb, then take a fresh hold on the bow…” [1]

As I flipped through her book, I thought This woman knows everything about teaching people cello.

I knew that I wanted to teach. I also knew that London, where I’d been studying, was a place of strange hierarchies and caste systems, a game whose rules no one would let me in on, an endless series of slammed doors and rejection letters. Phyllis Young’s biography said she was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a place I had never heard of. An idea came into my head. I checked out the book, then hurried out of the library and into an internet cafe across the street. Before I could lose my nerve, I looked up the University of Texas, found Phyllis Young’s email address, and composed a message in which I asked whether she had any places in her doctoral program.

Two days later, I had a response. Yes, she was accepting new doctoral candidates, and yes, I might come to Austin and audition for her. I went to a travel agent bought a plane ticket.

I had never been to America before, except for the transit lounge at Los Angeles, a stepping-stone between my home in New Zealand and my adopted country, Britain. I was dimly aware of New York City and Washington DC, but Texas was only a name on a map. I found myself at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport one late night in January 2002, ready for the adventure I was sure was in store.

Things started badly when I tried to get in the driver’s door of the taxi I’d hailed to take me to my hotel. Then when I got to the hotel, I was astonished to be addressed by the Texan proprietor as “Ma’am.” I assumed he must be addressing someone standing behind me, so I looked around, but I was the only person in the lobby. Had he mistaken me for a grown-up? O brave new world!

Almost as soon as I’d put my bags down, the telephone in my hotel room rang. “Is this Mirinda?” said a bright, heavily-accented voice. “This is Phyllis Young.” We conversed for twenty minutes, during which she did most of the talking, and I tried to respond as politely as I could given that I could understand almost nothing of what she said. Finally, she ordered “Come to my office tomorrow at four. I’m going to hang up now.” Click.

I got lost in the cavernous lobby of the School of Music and then in the tangle of green-carpeted hallways and mezzanines before I found my way to Mrs. Young’s office on the fifth floor.

A colourful vision greeted me at the door. I had learned from my researches that Mrs. Young was in her late seventies, but the woman before me looked at least thirty years younger. She was as tall as me, slender, and clad in a silk blouse of boldest yellows, oranges, and pinks. Her hair was a swirling confection the colour of butterscotch pudding. Two bright brown eyes — which I later learned missed absolutely nothing — looked back appraisingly at me. “Mercy!” exclaimed the vision. “Why, you’re a real pretty girl. They must make a fuss of you in Luhn-don!

“Er, no, they really don’t,” I said, and the vision pealed with laughter. “Honey,” she said conspiratorially, “you have just a little bit of an ayac-cent.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but she went on. “You must be hungry, honey. I’m going to take you to dinner now.” She drove me — terrifyingly, talking a mile a minute as she screeched around corners — to the biggest, flashiest restaurant I had ever seen, and ordered a platter of shrimp so enormous that I could only stare at them. An elderly admirer of hers who had joined us (“He’s not my sweetheart, honey”), and who insisted on paying the not insubstantial bill, proudly informed me that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” I was enchanted.

After dinner, Mrs. Young wanted to show me her splendid home in West Austin, with its view of Palladio Point from the vast picture windows that extended the entire length of one side of the house. Brilliantly-coloured souvenirs from Mrs. Young’s many travels covered the shelves, and the white walls were hung with vivid abstract paintings by an artist called Felice Giovanni. (Mrs. Young confided that Felice Giovanni was none other than herself. Was there anything she couldn’t do?!) I asked if Mr. Young were home, since Mrs. Young’s answering machine message said “Phyllis and Giorgio Young.” More peals of laughter. “Giorgio is my little dog,” she told me. “He can talk, you know.” Right on cue, an immaculately groomed white dog clattered out onto the tiled floor to greet me. “He understands present, past and future tenses.”

Mrs. Young always had a huge studio of cello students, a workload I later realized was far more than a full-time professorial teaching load. Her graduates could be found all over the world as professors, orchestral players, studio teachers, schoolteachers, and freelancers of all stripes. She was proud of them all, but especially of the one who’d ended up in the New York Philharmonic. Her teaching style was characterized by simple, easily memorable kinesthetic methods: “No hills, no valleys, no detours!” was her instruction on left wrist positioning; she got you to find your left arm’s correct elevation by knocking your fist (“A friendly fist”) up and down the string so you could shift easily between neck and thumb position. If you messed up a shift on an up-bow, she’d have you play it on a down-bow to see if it went better, and then instruct you to imitate the down-bow’s sound with the up-bow. Noticing my tendency to play flat-knuckled, she showed me how to maintain a pronounced bend in my base knuckles, which improved not only my intonation in thumb position but my ability to vibrate freely too. Her solutions to technical problems demystified the idea of having “good technique,” a thing that’s often presented as impossible to attain for all except a lucky, very exclusive club of top players.

I mean no disloyalty when I say that Mrs. Young and I weren’t a good fit for each other as teacher and student. Some of it was that we had trouble with each other’s accents — our conversations were hampered by mutual incomprehension, such as the hilarious occasion when she repeatedly told me I was “a little hottie,” and it wasn’t until several hours later that I realized she was scolding me for being haughty. And our priorities were wildly different: I was interested in analysis and scholarly performing editions and so on, and Mrs. Young wasn’t. Her concept of musical interpretation was joyous, almost childlike. She loved the big Romantic pieces, and didn’t much care for new music. When I protested that I’d like to play some, she said she’d compromise by letting me learn George Crumb’s solo sonata — a piece composed in 1955! She had no truck with the early music movement either, preferring long, singing lines and continuous wide vibrato — a “Texas-sized tone,” she called it. Woe betide you if you wanted to learn Bach in a more historically-informed manner. “Bach without vibrato? You won’t get a job if you play like that,” was Mrs. Young’s scathing response to my protests.

We fought constantly over this, and over her insistence on bowing with flat hair, a thing I found uncomfortable. Eventually, she told me “Well, honey, you can do what you want, but your tiny little tone isn’t going to impress many people.” Nettled, I retorted — with a malice of which I was immediately ashamed — “I would rather listen to a cellist with a small tone and something musically interesting to say than a cellist with a big syrupy tone and nothing behind it.”

There was a dreadful silence while we both took in what had just occurred. It simply wasn’t done to answer back to Mrs. Young, especially not when it came to the Texas-sized tone. Finally she spoke, in her normal voice. “Honey, I hope you’re not expecting to have a career.” Mrs Young 1, Miranda 0. What a horrid brat I was!

Even if we were often at loggerheads, Mrs. Young inspired my admiration. She had been on the University of Texas faculty since the nineteen-forties, when she was the only woman professor in the School of Music. She had plenty of stories about institutional sexism and male colleagues who patronized and condescended to her, dumped a pile of work on her, then took credit for her achievements. These experiences had shaped her into a staunch feminist and, in her own words, “a yellow-dog Democrat.” “What’s a yellow-dog Democrat?” I said. (Goodness, what a curious turn of phrase these Texans had.) “It means that if the Democrats nominated a yellow dog for their candidate, I’d vote for him,” said Mrs. Young.

It wasn’t until we attended a reception hosted by a philanthropic foundation for retired professional women together that I understood something about why Mrs. Young was the way she was. All the ladies in the organization, which had given me a generous scholarship, had had careers as judges and professors and lawyers and surgeons. It was like being in a room full of Mrs. Youngs. Like her, they were perfect Texan ladies: impressively coiffed, made up, bejewelled, and dressed in dazzling colours. Like her, they all went by the title Mrs. even though they had earned the right to use Dr. or Judge or Professor, and like her, their sweet speaking voices came with minds like steel traps. They had been pioneers in their fields in a time when men really didn’t want them there. I suddenly realized that Mrs. Young’s eccentric demeanour might not have been innate, but a persona carefully cultivated to trick those chauvinistic male professors into finding her unthreatening.

I often wondered how Mrs. Young’s life might have been different had she been born in 1945 instead of 1925. Might the women’s movement have made it possible for her to spend less time doing things for other people, and more time on things for herself? By the time I knew her, she hadn’t played in public for many years, but in her youth she’d been the star student of Horace Britt and a member of André Navarra’s masterclass in Italy. Her demonstrations in lessons, even at eighty, were technically impressive. What must she have sounded like at the height of her powers?

One day, I had the chance to find out. My two best friends from studio, A and J, came bouncing into my practice room, breathless and chattering. “I wanted to know if there were any recordings of PY,” said A, “so I looked up the online catalogue in the Fine Arts Library and there was an old tape from the 1940s. I think we should go over and listen to it.”

“We mustn’t!” I said. “Mrs Young wouldn’t like it. She’d go ballistic.”

“What PY doesn’t know won’t make her ballistic,” said A seraphically. “Are you coming or not?”

We hurried out into the sunshine, filled with glee over the wickedness we were about to commit. With our best butter-wouldn’t-melt expressions, we convinced first a librarian, then an archivist, then the archivist’s boss to go on an hour-long search for an ancient reel-to-reel cassette and an archaic machine for playing it on. Finally, we plugged headphones into the adaptive sound system.

First on the tape was the Bach C minor suite, played very much in the highly vibrated, sostenuto tradition of the mid-twentieth century, but with careful nuance and the long, long phrases of the “golden thread” that Mrs. Young always exhorted us to spin. Next was a Romantic piece that we couldn’t identify, and later learned was the Variations Symphoniques by Léon Boëllmann. Last, a Vivaldi concerto played with orchestral accompaniment. It was simply beautiful playing, the kind that makes you want to listen again and again. I felt a kind of mourning that this was Mrs. Young’s single contribution to recorded history. Would anyone digitize this frail treasure before it crumbled into ashes?

Everyone who knew Mrs. Young can describe her unstoppable energy, her generosity, and her kindness. She was so, so kind to me, even if I didn’t always deserve it. One day she found me weeping in a practice room over a broken love affair. “What’s the matter, honey?”

I told her.

“Oh, you’ve left that boy? I’m so glad,” was her response. I looked up in amazement. “Mirinda, honey,” she explained, “you’re such a pretty girl, and that boy, well, he was kinda homely. I was so worried y’all wouldn’t have pretty babies.”

This revelation surprised me so much that I burst out laughing. All of a sudden I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed and laughed until my sides hurt, and Mrs. Young laughed too, and we fell into each other’s arms, bonding guiltily over our lookist prejudice. Dear Mrs. Young!

Later, to cheer me up, Mrs. Young took me to see the American Ballet Theatre, and the next day insisted on making a present of a bracelet she’d been wearing that I’d admired. I treasure it. I’ve kept it on ever since I learned of her death two days ago. How kind she was.

After I left UT, I got to see Mrs. Young one more time when she came to visit me at my then home in Boulder, Colorado, where she had travelled to visit some of her family. She asked after my career, and then, while I was making lunch for her in my landlady’s kitchen, wanted to know if I’d met any marvellous men recently. Blushing, I admitted that I had.

“What’s his name, honey?” she wanted to know.

“Sean,” I said.

“Well, I want to know his last name too!” insisted Mrs. Young. I told her that it was Butterfield.

Mrs. Young was silent for a moment, her head on one side, fixing that all-seeing gaze on me. “Well, honey,” she said brightly, “you know that a lot of girls keep their maiden names these days.”

She wouldn’t come to our wedding less than a year later, saying that it was a long way to travel to watch someone say “I do.” For a wedding present, she wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation that helped me get my job at the University of Idaho.

After that, I didn’t hear from Mrs. Young for a while. And then I got a long letter from her. She had evidently decided that I needed to learn an important lesson. “As you may possibly remember, you were pretty blunt to some of us here at UT but you managed OK because Texans tend to be a bit more forgiving than some others — especially when the person is a guest from another country.  We tend to think that bluntness or the lack of sensitivity might be a general characteristic of the people who live in that country.” She went on: “Remember: Try very hard not to say anything blunt or unpleasant to any faculty, staff, or student there in your Idaho job. We never know who will be appointed or elected to serve on the faculty committee which will decide our fate when the question of re-hiring or the matter of tenure comes up. It seems that almost everything is revealed and discussed openly in these committees which are always held behind closed doors. And we never know which staff members or students might be quoted.”

She signed it “Phyllis.”

Reading this sent me into a fit of the sulks. Even after all these years, was I still in trouble with Mrs. Young? I’d grown up now; I’d changed; I wasn’t the same early-twenties brat any more. I knew how to behave myself in a faculty meeting and I wasn’t stupid enough to pick fights with colleagues. Couldn’t she stop scolding me, ever?

Then I felt ashamed of myself, remembering how kind she had been to me and how disagreeable I had been to her, always arguing when I should have been listening. Eventually I wrote a careful response saying that I was grateful for her wise advice, and that I asked her forgiveness for all the times I had been disrespectful.

She didn’t write back, and I never heard from her again.

I learned later that she had written many letters to former students that month. She’d received a dismaying diagnosis, but she didn’t tell us that. She was writing to us to say goodbye, to teach us one last “life lesson” that she knew we needed to know.

Just like the cover of her book, Phyllis Young was a sunburst of bright yellow in a world full of grey. How lucky we were to know her. Her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives that she touched. How we loved her, and how we miss her.

[1] Phyllis Young, Playing the String Game. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1978, 22-24.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

Open secrets

I’ve been following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo hashtag on social media recently, and keep reading the same comment, usually (though not always) voiced by men: “Why didn’t they speak out? If everyone knew, why didn’t they do something?”

I’m not an actor, but as a member of another profession for which there are exponentially more aspiring workers than there are jobs, I think I know why.

It’s an open secret that certain top figures in the classical music world are sleazebags. Everyone knows who they are. I can think of at least one well-known cellist who was reputed to have been grossly inappropriate with younger players. Another was universally known to have raped someone. Everyone knew, and there were no consequences for this person, ever.

Musicians aren’t monsters, and to be fair, I’d say the majority would at least warn  colleagues about known lechers. I remember a few times, early in my career, when kind colleagues would tacitly make sure I was never left alone with a person who was known to harass and/or grope young women. I now do this myself, for example by offering rides home if someone is about to get in a car with someone she shouldn’t. I didn’t contribute to the #metoo campaign last week, but of course I’ve had my share of unwanted male attention, both verbal and physical, and I don’t know a woman who hasn’t. It’s clear that the discreet warnings and pre-emptive chauffeuring are woefully inadequate responses to a serious and widespread problem.

Why does this happen? Why won’t we confront these creeps? Call the police? Kick up a fuss? Because we don’t want trouble. Troublemakers don’t get hired again, and most of us have worked way, way too hard building our careers to want to do anything that would jeopardize them. If you won’t put up with a person in power who leers at you and pinches your backside, someone else will be found in five seconds flat. Such is the nature of a profession with a neverending supply of young up-and-comers.

I’m glad that the Hollywood establishment will no longer (so it claims) tolerate the revolting behaviour Weinstein got away with for so long. I’m also heartened to see several groups, such as She Bangs The Drum, finally giving a voice to people who for so long were afraid to speak out about the epidemic of harassment and assault in the music profession. I feel emboldened to be more direct the next time I witness something that’s unacceptable, and I hope widespread systemic change is coming, and soon.

We’ve still got music

I should remind myself not to look at social media right after an appalling tragedy, because reading the same meaningless platitudes (“thoughts and prayers”) again and again makes me feel so hopeless and powerless and enraged. But for me, a day without social media is like a day without oxygen, so of course I looked. @carnegiehall had this to say:

And I thought, OK, we can do that. It’s what we’re trained to do.

My next thought: who’s listening? Most people don’t like or listen to classical music, so who is this really for?

I scrolled further, and there was @stevenisserlis with this quote from “On Music” by Thomas Moore:

Which says it all, really.  What we do, classical music, might not speak to everyone, but in times of distress, we who make it have the privilege of being able to take comfort in it. Music is our life’s work, the soundtrack and very fabric of our lives. It’s there when words fail. I can’t find solace in “thoughts and prayers” because I do not and cannot believe. But we have music, we’ve still got music.

And once more I turn to Bach’s cello suites…