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.

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