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Joanna Borrett

Warming up on the cello

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Warming up on the cello used to be quite a boring process for me. I would usually try a few scales and shifts or perhaps technical exercises. While there is nothing wrong with any of that, I now begin warming up by inventing a tune or playing by ear and then improvising – including improvising in thumb position. I have found this to be 100% more beneficial. For me it reinforces  the pleasure of feeling at one with your instrument, of realising that you too can compose – and that interpretation is most effective if you make the music you are playing sound like it is your own.
warming up on the cello

General creativity

If you want to practise a particular type of bowing when warming up on the cello , why not invent your own series of chords to try it with? If you want to practise a particular shift – say a major 6th –  why not also invent a short piece based on that particular interval? In the past I’ve found that if you give a first performance there is a relaxing sense of freedom. None of the critics or audience know how it is meant to go,  so you have a completely free hand as long as you look confident! Why not apply that same confidence to unaccompanied Bach?

Escaping confines within the classical

Have you ever been struck but how much more relaxed folk and pop musicians usually look in performance? Some of this is because the music is easier and more repetitive. But is it also because a lot of the music has been composed or arranged by the performers themselves? How wonderful it would be to be able to carry that sense of pleasure in performing into the classical world.

Our own improvisation

Roger and I have found that improvising and composing music definitely helps our arrangements and keeps creativity alive. You can hear some examples of our arrangements on our Moonlight and Music cd which you can buy by clicking the link below:

Does style matter in unaccompanied Bach?

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Does style matter in unaccompanied Bach?  This may seem an almost sacrilegious question, but I think strong feeling is far more important than style.

Apart from the fact that no one knows exactly what baroque style was, there is no such thing as perfect interpretation. Like Shakespeare – Bach is good enough to cope with any number of imaginative ideas.The key thing is to have creative ideas and project them strongly.

unaccompanied Bach

What makes a performance hold the attention?

There are so many wonderful performances on unaccompanied Bach around, and each one is different. Those using early instruments could be said to be more authentic – but what value is style if you don’t feel the music that way? Who says Bach would not have loved rubato and passion, and didn’t play like this himself? Listen to Casals’ performance of Bach and the idea of authenticity goes out of the window. Ultimately you can only play as you are and be guided by what is true to you.

The 5th Cello Suite

I will be recording Bach’s 5th suite for unaccompanied cello in a few weeks so all this is very much on my mind. You can purchase the my cd of the 1st and 3rd suites here

Here are some superb , but very different – recordings.

Choosing Cello Strings

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Choosing cello strings is a tricky and expensive business. It’s so expensive, in fact, that it’s rare to able to afford to experiment much. All the more reason, then, to have unbiased feedback about strings from the start.

Steel Strings

I can only speak from my own experience. For many years I used Jargar A and D strings. I was then advised to change Jargar for Larsen and the improvement was huge.For me, Larsen strings are more sensitive and responsive and more immediate in sound. Larsen soft soloist suits my cello well and I can truly recommend them.

choosing cello strings

Covered Gut

I have always used Pirastro covered gut on my lower two strings. I love the feel of the strings under my fingers and I think the sound is warmer and more subtle than even the best steel. I am currently using Pirastro Eudoxa, which matches the Larsen strings well. However, my cello was made in 1855, so is not modern.

Do modern cellos need modern strings?

I have been told that modern cellos can only use modern strings. I have no idea if this is true, but it is certainly the current way of thinking and steel is easier to play on.

How temperamental is covered gut?

Covered gut strings are more responsive to temperature and slip out of tune more frequently. But the lower strings, being thicker, don’t slip that often and rarely break.choosing cello strings

What sound do you want?

Not only does the choice of string depend on the cello you are playing on, it also depends on the type of sound you want. And it is all in proportion. So an expensive string may improve the tone, but will not hugely change the  sound of the cello overall.


If you want to experiment with different strings and are a music college student or professional player you can arrange a free trial of strings at Stringers music shop in London and Edinburgh. More details are available here:

And to test out your new strings why not try playing our cello duets, which you can buy here:






What Cello Rosin is Best?

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Although I am a professional cellist I have often not been sure what cello rosin is best and have sometimes suspected the whole subject is spurious. Mostly I have used a variety of high quality rosins – including Laubach gold, Laubach non-gold and sometimes borrowed violin rosin –  and have never noticed much difference.

Rosin problems


Recently though,  the rosin I was using ( Laubach) didn’t seem to stay on my bow easily or have much traction. I had read that Andrea cello rosin was excellent and for best results should be used  just after the bow has been rehaired, so different brands are not mixed.
cello rosinI was due a rehair anyway so I tried the solo dark variety and the results have been good. So far I am using far less rosin than I was before, the articulation is immediate and clear and there is a definite improvement in traction. Although this cello rosin is expensive – it cost £35 for a full  cake – it should last a long time.
You can buy it here


Other views

The brilliant cellist David Finckel has strong views on this subject and devotes a five minute video to it in one of his 100 cello talks – which you can view below:

The results for him are convincing, but this doesn’t mean it would be right for everyone. Luckily, buying rosin is less expensive than buying new strings and so it’s easy to experiment. If you are looking for a mid-price option my bow rehairer strongly recommends Art Craft no 7 dark rosin by Kaplan which costs around £7 a cake:
cello rosin 2

And why not try your new rosin out by playing our cello duets? The link is below:

Dance of the Blessed Spirits String Duet

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Dance of the Blessed Spirits string duet is the newest addition to our online shop. The first and third sections  of this famous piece are calm and pastoral and there’s a contrasting minor middle section. The music comes from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice and the story  is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus’s journey to Hades in search of Eurydice and his bargain with the gods to allow her to return to life.

Dance of the blessed spirits

Our arrangement

In our arrangement both instruments share the tune. We have also added some optional ornamentation  in repeats for variety. This music would be good for a wedding reception or as guests arrive.You can find out more here: Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Purcell Violin and Cello Duets

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We have just added two Purcell violin and cello duets to our online shop: Fairest Isle and Rondeau. Although these pieces both come from  operas they could not be more different in mood.

About the operas

The song Fairest Isle is from King Arthur and comes immediately after drunken dancing by peasants. The sudden change of character is a delightful surprise and the words praise the goddess Venus and her birthplace – Cyprus – with warmth and affection.
Fairest Isle
Rondeau is played near the start of the opera Abdelazer. The story here is based on  a tragic revenge play and the dark character is apparent immediately in the music. Benjamin Britten’s superb Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra uses this tune as the main theme and many people – myself included – will have first come across it there

About Purcell

What a wonderful composer Purcell was! The more experienced I get the more I am aware of the extreme beauty of his music and its sense of congruence with the world.

Our duet arrangements

We have aimed to reflect the different characters of the music on our arrangements, which we will be recording in March, and you can buy the music here:


Accord Cello Case

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I have had my Accord cello case for three years  now and it is almost unbelievably light.

Finding a dealer

Accord cases are hand made in Croatia so buying one here, in Cambridgeshire, was quite a challenge. Very few companies stock Accord and when I eventually found one dealer  who did, he proved unreliable. Finally my cellist friend Mark Bailey recommended talking to Stringers in London – and they were extremely helpful. They asked for detailed measurements of my cello, and arranged for  Accord to make a bespoke case.
Accord Cello Case

Was it worth it?

The whole process was not cheap – it cost £2400 – and it took two months for the case to be made. But this ultralight, carbon fibre  case weighs only 4.9 pounds and it is now hard to imagine ever using anything else. It is a very snug fit and there’s limited room for any extras like rosin or spare strings, but that doesn’t bother me as the lightness is a joy compared to my previous fibre glass case. This will certainly last my lifetime and for me the money has definitely been well spent.The link to Stringers is below:

Scarborough Fair Sheet Music

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I very much enjoyed composing the Scarborough Fair sheet music arrangement that we have just added to our online shop.
I started with a strong idea of what I felt the song was about – a  combination of Wuthering Heights and Jamaica Inn. To create a sense of drama, wildness and travel, there are fluid quavers –  giving movement and the feeling of a journey. There is also a contrasting middle section in the major, some rich cello chords and an ending that feels quite bleak.
scarborough fair

Arranging Scarborough Fair Sheet Music

Folk songs are ideal for music arrangements. The tune is  usually simple and short ( and often beautiful) and there is no original version, so you have lots of interpretative freedom and can compose contrasting tunes or introductions to add substance and avoid too many repeats.

Unsurprisingly there are many different versions of Scarborough Fair on You Tube. Revamped’s ideas (below) combine acting and music especially inventively:

This is nothing like our arrangement, which we will be recording in March. To buy a copy right away and see for yourself what it’s like, click below!

Cello thumb position

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Cello thumb position – like most high playing on the cello – is something few cellists are super confident about.But one way to develop a relaxed approach to thumb position is to play simple tunes in D major that lie within an octave by ear : these involved no stretches and lie relatively easily under the hand.

cello thumb position

One octave starter tunes for thumb position
You could begin by playing the one octave scale of D major in thumb position and then D major arpeggio. All the notes in the following tunes lie within that scale and they all start on D :Black Sheep, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Kum-ba-ya, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Lavender’s Blue, Blue, Pop Goes the Weasel. 

Two things to remember
You need to toughen the skin on the side of your thumb, so build the amount of time you spend practising in thumb position gradually. You could also consider rubbing surgical spirit on your thumb to help harden the skin. Secondly – thumb position itself is very natural: if you take your hand away, shake it to relax it and then put it on the cello in the right place
(thumb on harmonics D and A) the position will be roughly correct.

Make up tunes and exercises
Something about the spontaneity of getting used to playing without music is generally very good for confidence anyway,so you could move on to improvising simple tunes or exercises involving thumb  position. I think it’s a good idea when practising to start with something you find easy and just enjoy and then move to something you find less comfortable. And if you think the cello is challenging on shifting and intonation you may especially enjoy watching the video below – a fine example of beautiful, relaxed thumb position playing on the double bass!

Christmas Gifts for String Music Lovers

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With December 25th  only five days away here are my suggestions for Christmas gifts for string music lovers:
gifts 2

christmas gifts for string music lovers

Finally, if you’re searching for a present for a string player sometime next year we now have a gifts and dedications’ page where we custom write music. Find out more here: