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.

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