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.
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:
I’ve just completed an unaccompanied Bach cd of the first and third cello suites which will be released in July. These two suites are both positive and sunny in mood and have been a joy to work on. I think this music is wonderfully relaxing to listen to and has a great sense of overall balance and calm. I’m not sure quite how Bach achieved this. I’ve just read a book with extracts from his letters and it’s clear that his life was just as busy and stressful as most of ours are today.
What did Bach write about?
Most of Bach’s letters are formal, necessity communications rather than outpourings from his heart. He obviously expressed his feelings through music rather than words. You do get a sense of practicality and a down to earth approach to life though. Although well respected by his contemporaries, Bach was nowhere near as famous in his lifetime as he is now and only a fraction of his music was published.
The cd was recorded at Wadenhoe Church in Northamptonshire ( above) which is beautifully tranquil, has wonderful views of the Northamptonshire countryside and a resonant acoustic.
Next Monday I’m recording a Bach cd of his third cello suite at Wadenhoe Church. The music is so happy in spirit that however fed up you may be feeling it usually has an uplifting effect. It’s in the uncomplicated key of C major and has a certain virility and confidence that makes it a joy to play, despite its technical challenges. You can link to our cd page here:
I’m not an early music specialist but I’ve been reading musicologist Robert Donington’s book A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music which has some interesting things to say:
” When a virtuoso cellist conveys a sense of undue strain in Bach’s unaccompanied suites by too massive a sonority and too heavy an articulation, this is not from any unsuitablity in his noble instrument; it is because he is applying a mental concept which, powerful and impressive though it may be, does not really lie within the baroque boundaries of style and is not really matched to the implications of the music.”
” The baroque performer was meant to set his stamp on the music. Reverence for the written text can be a virtue, but was no part of the baroque attitude. A text left deliberately incomplete was not meant to be exactly established but imaginatively realised. Options left open by the composer cannot be tied down to any exact intention: the intention was that they should remain the performer’s options.
Fab Mr Donington
Quoting sentences out of context is a bit like the dodgy practice of manipulating phrases from the bible to make your point. But one interesting aspect of the book is that Mr Donington believes that baroque performers were trained in a completely different way from modern performers and that improvisation in concerts and creatively altering music you were going to play was the norm. This must have given players a wonderful sense of freedom which would be hard to regain today. Perhaps the main point though is just to enjoy it. You can buy the book by clicking here: