For this month’s column I am introducing three wonderful pieces that are perfect for the younger and developing cellist. All too often I see students so preoccupied with playing exam music that they lose sight of the real reasons for playing music. These three pieces are a fantastic way to break away from the dull and overplayed, and break into a world of new, interesting and expressive music. I purposely selected these pieces because they are all around 5 minutes in length and have a low floor and a high ceiling. In other words, these pieces are appropriate for a student cellist who is just starting off as well as the professional cellist looking for music to expand their repertoire. This would be similar to Bach, a composer whose music we can study from a beginner level and continue studying throughout our entire musical life. Without further ado, the first piece I present is:
So Ham is a beautiful meditation that lets the performer explore the natural resonance of the instrument while introducing upper positions on lower strings. The title So Ham comes from the chanted mantra used in meditation. The piece is deeply connected with the performer’s breath and requires superb bow control to keep the instrument sympathetically vibrating for the duration. About halfway through the piece there is also a short sung passage, where the cellist sings in unison with the melodic cello line. A level 6 student would be able to develop legato phrasing techniques, playing on lower strings in upper positions, and left hand intonation. The music is in a very tonal language, so it is easy for the student to know if they are playing the melodies correctly.
The next piece is a solo cello piece by British composer Patrick Miles. One of the first things I came to love about this piece was how well the range of the cello is used throughout. You can almost hear the composer’s background as a clarinettist come through in the writing. Each part of the cello’s range is reserved for specific compositional material and this makes for a very clearly defined contour in the cello’s melodic lines. This piece requires fastidious attention to intonation and rhythm as there are many subtle variations to themes and motives. Ballade includes some fun modern techniques, which are woven into the timbral fabric of the piece. Players will encounter col legno, harmonics, double-stops, and unique trill effects that, when executed well, add a wonderful character to the music. This piece also gives us a great teaching moment to show students how melodic lines can be played with many different fingerings, each one giving the musical line a different phrasal nuance.
Steven Crino wrote Gateless Garden for a concert that was to be presented to the Azure Family Foundation, a group that brings music to people with autism and other intellectual disabilities. He set out to write a piece that is calm and peaceful and succeeded in writing a very idiomatic piece for cello. It utilises open strings and has the quality of a celestial chorale. It might deceptively appear to be the easiest piece of the group; it is in G major, there are no accidentals, almost all of the piece is in first position. Don’t be tricked! The challenge of the piece is to maintain the tranquillity and uninterrupted placidness for the entire piece. Bow speed, and weight must remain constant to project the purest of sounds. Gateless Garden is an excellent piece for improving left hand strength, vibrato, and projecting a beautiful tone. A mature level 3 student would find this piece challenging but doable, whereas a level 8 student would find this piece very rewarding, and a great calm interlude to a recital.
If you find yourself needing a reminder as to why we play music, these pieces are a great place to start. The journey towards proficiency doesn’t have to be an arduous slog through overplayed, tired repertoire. There is an endless world of music out there to explore; take a risk and see what you discover.