Saturday, August 20, 2011

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

No comments: