Friday, August 26, 2011

More Cello Blog Postings to Come...

I will continue the Baroque cello theme in several weeks when I travel to San Francisco to play in the SFEMS series ( in a collaborative concert between Catacoustic and Wildcat Viols. Three of the musicians in that ensemble are Baroque cellists (Joanna Blendulf, David Morris, and Elisabeth Reed), and I look forward to getting their insight. If any readers have questions they would like posed about Baroque cello, please comment in this blog or send an email to
Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Baroque Cello Masterclass with Jaap ter Linden

In keeping with the Baroque cello theme, I attended a masterclass by Jaap ter Linden, who was teaching at the Vancouver Early Music Workshop. Jaap is one of the premier Baroque cellists today, and he is highly respected for his teaching, performing, and direction. To find out more about Jaap and his international career, see his website at

The students at Early Music Vancouver were all college-aged and very enthusiastic, and it was great to see young people so excited about early music (attending all the concerts and lectures). This is the next generation of early music performer! At dinner one evening, Amanda Keesmaat said that she was going to observe a class with Jaap der Linden, so I decided to go along with her and write about it for the blog. I paraphrased what Jaap talked about in his masterclass.

Jaap began the session talking about technique: bow arm comfort and flexibility and the importance of having a straight bow. There were five students in the masterclass, and they were primarily new to the Baroque cello. Jaap talked about how to creatively leave the auto pilot mode of “modern” playing. The question is how to get comfortable with this change. I like to create exercises. Pretend that your fingers are glued in place to the bow, and move your hand at different angles. Then, practice scales. It is so important to keep practicing scales! Then, there is the matter of the elbow and its role. If you take a photo of your bow arm, you should be able to see if it is in down or up bow mode with the wrist and elbow.

A student asked, “How do I know when I get there?”

Jaap responded: That is an interesting and somewhat dangerous question. It is like saying “how do I know if I am enlightened?" It is a Zen journey. This will happen when you listen to your body and increase your body awareness. When I am in a good place, I feel very comfortable and light. My ears tell me the sound is good. You will feel a flow, and the sound comes more easily. Look, watch, and listen. Trust your ears. Ask yourself, “am I breathing?”

Students played a sonata for solo cello with bowed bass

Jaap: You do all the right things: not too much vibrato, note shaping, yet there are many more stops to go on the bus. Your sound is off the floor because of the great care you take. You are more upright than grounded. You can get more resonance out of the instrument – a type of buzz and ringing. Seduce the cello, just like the sirens seduced the audience in the concert we heard of Purcell’s King Arthur. Wake up the cello. This begins with breathing at the beginning of the stroke. Breathe from your abdomen (gestures just above hips). Before you do anything sophisticated, you need to get the basic quality of sound. Think of a singer and how they warm up to find their resonance. As cellists, we have to do the same.

The student started the sonata a second time with a much more resonant sound.

This is the road! Get the intensity, and then you can start doing more. There are so many elegant possibilities! Jaap talked about intonation and mentioned that the C#’s should be lower.

This is a start. There is a list of possible questions.

I would like to ban the notion that “Baroque music is nice.” No! It is nice, but it is everything! It is passion - Hollywood tearjerker material! Do not give the impression that we are only polite and correct musicians.

Another student played Vivaldi’s Sixth Sonata, Third movement with bowed bass.

Jaap corrected a mistake in the edition. Slurs can help you out or get in the way. This piece is full of biting harmony. Think of where the dissonances are and get a harmonic picture. Aim for the dissonances, but everything shouldn’t always be strong. Solo and bass lines form a type of lament. Look for places of respite (cadences). Find new colors. It is like theatre, when lights change immediately. Find more colors.

Be aware of intonation. Where are your B-flats and C-sharps? Be colorful with intonation. Watch out for your leading tones. (He then worked on finding pure thirds, where one student would play the root of a chord – “D,” with the major third above “F-sharp.” When you come from modern cello, most people cannot find pure thirds on their instrument. Strangely enough, finding the pure third is an innate universal skill. If you play a D and sing the third above in your head, then play it, it will be pure. It is much harder to sing the modern intonation F-sharp. A good suggestion for an exercise book to practice intonation is a book for modern cellists, Melodic and Progressive Studies by Sebastien Lee ( ). This is excellent practice for double stops and interval practice. Diatonic semitones should be big and wide, like C-sharp to D. (He then demonstrated by playing an A with a D, then C-sharp versus D-flat. This intonation ideal changed recently with the advent of music being thought of as vertical versus horizontal.

You should listen to a recording of Edith Piaf. She is an intense singer, who sang “Les Blouses Blanche” ( She paints a picture and changes colors, much like in this sonata. Everything in your playing was nice but the same color. Drama! Give more structure. I hesitate to tell you what to do, but change the intensity of notes.

Nathan Whitaker, Baroque Cellist

Nathan Whitaker, a Seattle-based Baroque cellist, was at the Vancouver Early Music Festival, where he played in Early Music Vancouver's production of King Arthur (Purcell). I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to interview him about his experiences with the Baroque cello. Why not make this Baroque cello month?

How did you learn to play the Baroque cello?

I attended Indiana University for my undergraduate and masters degrees, where I took Stanley Ritchie’s (Baroque violin professor) unaccompanied Bach class. This wetted my appetite for Baroque music, so I signed up for secondary Baroque cello class. I took lessons with Shelley Taylor and later with Stanley. I was able to borrow an instrument from the university, and now I have my own Baroque cello.

What is your musical background?

Both of my parents are professional church organists, and I started piano lessons starting at the age of three. I began cello in the third grade with my school program. I was in high school when I decided that I wanted to make music a profession. I am now finishing my doctorate degree at the University of Washington.

What are the technical differences between the Baroque and modern cello?

1)The differences between the “upbow” is big. Modern cello is always about sustain and creating an even sound. Baroque bowing is more like talking with strong versus weak bows. It is concerned with how the upbows are treated.

2)Intonation is treated differently. Baroque music has lower leading tones, whereas the modern cello has the Casals “expressive” tuning of higher leading tones.


4)The Baroque cello is held at a mover vertical angle, versus the horizontal angle for modern. It is easier to reach higher positions on modern cello.

Who are the good teachers for Baroque cello? Do you teach?

I learned the most from working with singers and violinists. As cellists, we must accompany others. We must learn how to enhance their music.
Jaap ter Linden is an amazing teacher, as well as Phoebe Carrai.
I teach privately and now at the new Baroque program at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle ( We have an undergraduate degree program and performer’s diploma. We hope to offer graduate accreditation soon.

I have noticed a certain amount of difficulty for cellists to approach the sound world of the Baroque cello. Would you comment on the importance of immersion in Baroque style and music? Do you still play the modern cello?

It is so important to be immersed in Baroque style! It is like learning a new language. When you take high school French class for one hour a day, five days a week, it is helpful, but you never really become fluent. If you want to learn a language, you must go to the place where it is spoken. There are so many things beyond the vocabulary to learn. Then, after a while, you can go back and forth quickly.

I do play modern cello: I play Classical and early Romantic music, so there is a continuous spectrum in what I play. Music is always changing, but this change is gradual. I am playing the Shostakovich concerto soon and his trio later today! This variety keeps me balanced. Personally, I need more than one period of music, and it helps to keep things in perspective.

What kind of Baroque cello playing do you do? What would you like to do?

I play in the Seattle, Pacific, and Portland Baroque orchestras, as well as the Seattle Baroque Soloists (an offshoot of Seattle Baroque). I also play in the chamber group Plaine and Easy, which won a competition not so long ago. We play Elizabethan music. I also play in Opus 20 String Quartet, which plays Classical period music on period instruments. I would like to do more solo recitals.

What is your advice for modern cellists who might be interested in learning to play the Baroque cello?

1.It is not easy to play Baroque cello. Just because the notes look easier doesn’t mean anything. You must practice your scales and etudes to become a complete musician.

2.Play as much music as you can. Bass lines can seem formulaic at first glance, but you need to learn when they are different and see the music between the notes.

3.Work with inspirational people – especially singers!

4.Record yourself. There is so much detail to think about, and it is hard to know if you are actually doing things that you intend to (like releasing second notes of a slur). It is good to have external confirmation.

5.Studying with someone is ideal.

6.It is important to read the sources.

What are these sources?

A good place to start is to read the book 100 Years of Violoncello. It has a good list of resources to read.

What cello do you play?

I play a Gustav Greiner, made by Breitenfeld in 1875. My bow is by Ralph Ashmeade.

To learn more about Nathan or to contact him about lessons, visit his website at

Friday, August 19, 2011

Amanda Keesmaat, and Her Journey with the Baroque Cello

I just returned home after a month of wonderful concerts throughout Canada with some incredibly talented musicians. It isn't very often that I play with Baroque cellists, so it was a delight to once-again work with Amanda Keesmaat, a Montreal-based Baroque cellist. Amanda has a beautiful tone and a real sensitivity that add so much to the ensemble. I frequently have people approach me with an interest in Baroque cello, which I do not play, and I thought that my time with Amanda would be the perfect opportunity to ask her some questions that could help others who may be interested in learning to play the Baroque cello.

1)How did you learn to play the Baroque cello?

I was a student at McGill for my artist diploma. I studied Baroque music as an elective, where I took orchestra and chamber music classes. Soon after, I started playing with Orchestre Baroque du Montreal (OBM). McGill had an instrument I could borrow and an excellent group of teachers. I didn't have a private instructor, but I learned over time from other musicians, coachings, isolated lessons, and music directors. Hank Knox is the director of the McGill Baroque orchestra. It took a while just to figure out how to hold the instrument, and later – bit by bit, I learned the details of style. I played for and worked with Betsy McMillan (founding member of Arion), Jaap ter Linden, Phoebe Carrai, and Susie Napper, amongst others. I learned a lot from them.

When I am hired, I listen to the desires of the music directors. Every group has a different idea of sound or musical direction, and I like that. That is how one learns, and it is good to be flexible!

2)What is your musical background?

I started cello when I was four years old. I got my BM from the University of Western Ontario and later went to McGill, where I studied (modern cello) with Antonio Lysy. It was during this time that I started Baroque music. Actually, I joined Baroque Orchestra because my roommate was the violone player. I loved it! Prior to this, I was interested in contemporary music, and I have now played Baroque cello for fifteen years!

3)What are the technical differences between Baroque and modern cello?

Technical: How you get the sound out of the instrument and how to get the string to speak. Wow! It is hard to put it into words. You have gut strings and have to draw the sound out with a pull, rather than with force. You have to coax the sound out, rather than spinning it out.

The bow hold is different. It is held further from the frog – between the frog and the balance point, rather than on the frog.

The cello is supported with the legs: no endpin is used. (Strangely enough, there is no juxtaposition of terminology for “cello” and “da gamba” that has been found.) Because of one's size, one's body dictates the position of the instrument to a certain extent. The Baroque cello is more in contact with the player, whereas the modern cello is kept at a greater distance.

Left hand:
The biggest thing is a concept of tuning and ear training. I play in different temperaments, depending on the decision of the group. I have to be aware of where to place accidentals and how that affects the tuning of the group. It is always important to be aware of what part of the chord the note is for the context of the note and for tuning.

The use of vibrato is always an issue that affects tuning, as well as tone. When I began Baroque cello, I was told to play without vibrato, but as a modern cellist, I had been trained to vibrate everywhere! That was EXTREMELY difficult to eliminate at first, but then I realized that vibrating ALL THE TIME didn't necessarily mean that I had control over the sound, either. For example, it is difficult, if not impossible, to practice intonation with vibrato constantly changing the pitch. That being said, vibrato should not be discarded! It should be used as an ornament or at least very consciously.

4)Who are the good teachers? Do you teach Baroque cello?

There are many great teachers and summer festivals as well. The people who were my mentors and colleagues were great for me. I also teach Baroque cello.

5)I have noticed that it is often the case that those who play modern cello have a certain difficulty approaching the sound world of the Baroque cello. Would you comment on the importance of immersion for “switching hats” between instruments? Do you still play modern cello?

My advice is to be patient and take your time. With enough exposure, little-by-little, one notices things to change with the body that can help to play Baroque music in a more stylishly appropriate manner. In general, you need to be really relaxed to play the Baroque cello. I think that you can do both, but it is difficult. Isabelle Bozzini in Montreal (Quatuor Bozzini) is a good example of someone who does both.

6)What kind of playing do you do on Baroque cello? What would you like to do?

I play mostly bass lines for orchestras and chamber ensembles. I am very happy in the continuo section. I have done more solo playing the past few years, but I am quite busy now with concerts and find it hard to find time for personal projects. In a dream world, it would be nice to spend six months to attack new solo repertoire. I would play as much as possible and know the background for the repertory for my instrument better. That way, if someone requested a sonata from a certain place and time, I could better suggest programming.
Last year I was the invited guest for a concert with the Ottawa Baroque Consort. It was a concert featuring the cello and it's origins. I learned a lot from this and had fun. It was great to do this research and learn new rep! Especially, it was exciting to play with another cellist and talk to the audience about where and when the instrument's journey began.

7)What is your advice for modern cellists interested in Baroque cello – especially if there is no one near them to teach?

1. Experiment with a different bow hold. Hold the bow higher, with the middle two fingers on the hair to get the feel and balance of a Baroque bow.
2. It is really important to have the contact and guidance of a mentor. You can’t really learn Baroque cello without having someone who knows how to talk about the physical feelings, sound and style. Even if you are a professional cellist, you need some input.
3. Listen to as many period recordings as possible. I like Sergei Istomin’s Bach recording.
4. Practice without vibrato and see how you can make the sound carry without that factor.
5. Practise sonatas with another cellist or bass player to listen to the chords. Let the harmonies help you decide how to phrase.

8)What cello do you play?

I play a Baroque cello by Roland Ross (England), 1989 with bows by Louis Begin and Louis Gaucher.