Friday, September 24, 2010

The shrinking endpin.


I walk in to the audition hall with my cello. I pull the end pin out as far as it will go, tighten the screw and stick the spike in to the maple wood floor. I hear some rustling in the third row of the stalls. I think briefly about Martin Finn whom I love. I never really know how to start so I just put my bow on the string and pull. The audition ‘accompanist’ catches me up imperceptibly, brilliantly, and we are off, taking a lugubrious route through Schubert’s arpeggione sonata.
To the seventeen year old me, this classical sonata for the six stringed instrument rather like the viola de gamba is simply a page full of yummy cello tunes in which I can show off my new-found chocolaty sound, not to mention my spanking new figure-of-eight bow changes. I play a note and love it until I am satisfied that it is beautiful and atmospheric and full of character, and then I move on (with the help of my Rolls Royce bow change) to the next one. Even though I am a teenager with short spiky hair dyed blue who loves to go wild on the dance floor (particularly to earthy African music), on the cello, neither rhythm, pulse nor meter are an issue. Not even tempo is an issue. Cello playing, as far as I understand it, is all about sound. Gorgeous, sexy sound!
Towards the end of the exposition I am interrupted by the tinkle of a bell, perfectly in tune with the piano, that signals the judges for the award have heard enough. Shame, I think, as I have a very special colour up my sleeve for the development. A sort of gossamer purple. Anyway, I have certainly made some beautiful sounds in the first half and am pretty sure they will hand over the dosh.
‘Why are you playing it at such a slow tempo?’ says the woman with the bobbed haircut, lowering her spectacles and pushing a sheet of paper to the side. ‘And what about the rhythm?’
I sit in silence. I have no answer to the judge’s question.
‘OK, thank you Miss Phillips’ says the judge. ‘Could you tell the next candidate we are ready?’
The first clue I find to the answer to the judge’s question is five years later when I realize that each time I feel anxious before or during a concert, I pull the endpin out just a little longer in the hope I will feel more in control. And then I feel even less connected. It takes me another twenty-five to figure out the rest.

The endpin started out life as a cushion on which to rest a bass instrument and thus relieve the strain on the classical pantalooned knee. In 1830 it morphed in to a wooden peg a few inches long which allowed the Belgian cellist Adrien Servais to rest his cello more comfortably against his body. (On whether this became necessary because of the size of his Stradivarius or his increasing paunch, views differ). Not everyone adopted it, but it did give women the choice to give up side saddle playing, and the Portuguese beauty Guilhermina Suggia (with her flowing scarlet robe as painted by Augustus John) the opportunity, half a century later, to become the girl cellist’s first heroine. The endpin’s heyday surely came when the French cellist Paul Tortelier invented the bent model adopted by Rostropovitch, with the cello jutting out from his chest like a table, so much so that one almost expected to see a napkin tucked into his dress shirt. Nowadays, with so many cellists straddling modern and period styles, playing with the cello cradled between their knees one day and supported by an endpin the next, the long endpin craze seems to have subsided and a mid-length support is back in fashion.
As I see it, there is a musical parallel with this journey from short to long endpin and back to middling. This journey is from the cello playing a fundamentally rhythmic and harmonic (vertical) rôle in the baroque and classical eras, to a melodic (horizontal) one in the romantic era. In other words, the reason that endpin length increased was a direct result of the increase in long melodic lines in the cellist’s, especially the solo cellist’s, repertoire. But what of the ‘modern’ high endpinned cellist playing a Haydn bass line in a symphony, or indeed Schubert’s arpeggione sonata? Is it surprising (not, of course, that everyone was as extreme as that blue-haired cellist) that the era of the high endpin was also the era of baroque and classical repertoire being played so often in a slow, lugubrious manner, lacking a sense of harmonic rhythm or driving pulse? Was everyone struggling like me?
I started playing the baroque and classical cello in the mid nineties, sort of by accident, because it was becoming apparent that if I did not, I would be locked out of the repertoire I loved more and more: Haydn and Mozart symphonies, Bach cantatas, the Passions. Audiences and concert halls, and even film makers (Tous Les Matins du Monde was THE soundtrack at the time) were becoming increasingly interested by and demanding of the gutsy folksy sound that was (re-)emerging, and period instrument groups were on the up. As soon as I was comfortable with cradling the cello with my calfs I found answers. I changed from being a nervous pulseless perfectionist who wouldn’t play anything until I had practiced it for months, to someone ‘bien dans sa peau’ on stage, risk-taking, and as spontaneous as any folk musician. The main reason for this change was a feeling of abandon as my arm swung around round my torso and back.
Think of any folk culture that has stringed instruments - Indian, folk, jazz, gypsy. The violinists all hold their instruments low on the body and angled downwards to get the optimum connection to the arm’s natural swing round the torso and therefore the rhythm and the harmony. I was not far off when I realized that my desire for more control in concerts was making me want to put my endpin higher and higher. What I had yet to realize was that there was something that went hand in hand with control, and that was abandon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010



A is a nine year old book worm who wants to be a writer when she grows up. Even though she lives in a paradise vineyard in Provence, every time I see her she is curled up on a couch or crouched in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chest, escaping to somewhere else. Usually, I fear, platform nine and three quarters. Once a week I wrench her away from her stories. She drags her cello out of its case and starts to play for me, her eyes still lingering on the book abandoned mid-chapter. It takes a while for A to emerge from the world contained within her beloved pages to the world of bouncing bows and clapping, but we usually get there in the end.
Last week A pulled out a little piece of Lully arranged for cello duet and placed it on the stand for us. The music sauntered along nicely as we played, with pretty thirds and sixths shifting between parts like layers of silky pinks and purples. At about the mid point there was a long and painful chord with a flattened sixth that had the potential to tug briefly at the corseted gut before being resolved. However, when we played it there was no tension. It was time, I thought, to see if we could make the connection between Harry Potter and the intrigue that might have been occurring in Versailles on the day Lully wrote his air.
First of all we dressed up. Although neither of our knowledge of Louis X1V’s designers was intimate, we donned, in our imagination, powdery wigs, corsets, hooped skirts and shoes with bows and, as the music unfolded, we tried to imagine what was happening. Was someone opening a door here, or crossing the floor there? What were they feeling? In love? Hesitant? Proud? Haughty even? Who was the mystery guest and what was their relationship? How was she ushered in? Bar by bar we tried to get inside the gestures of the baroque story. Then came the bar with the flattened sixth.
‘What is happening now?’ I asked.
There was a pause.
‘I don’t know’ said A.
‘Is there anything different about this bar?’ I asked
‘I don’t know’ said A.
Whether or not it was a result of the (recently discussed in the Guardian) fear children have apparently developed in French schools of giving the ‘wrong’ answer or not, it took a very long time for us to establish that something had changed, that the feelings here were different, that we actually felt differently in our bodies. Uncomfortable, unresolved. We played the chord again.
‘There is a memory…’ said A at last.
‘Is it a painful memory?’ I asked.’ If so, of what?’
I asked A what it was that she liked about the story she was reading, or indeed any story. Was there not some kind of painful, or challenging moment, I asked, in every story that made the development and the resolution so satisfying? Would she really want to read a story that went ‘One sunny day the happy girl walked along the beautiful sunlit road and met a very nice boy and they lived blissfully ever after’ or, likewise, ‘The nasty ugly man sniffed the hideous air in the run down city, drew his sword and killed the cat. The end.’
‘She’s been here before…’ said A.
We were getting somewhere, I thought.
‘…When she was a little girl…’
Time was up and lunch was on the table in the sunlit vines. Glasses of the house' own rosé glistened, salad was dressed with home made olive oil.
‘It’s a beginning, A.’ I said. ‘Can you see, though, how important that bar is? that there is no relaxation in this piece without the tension in that bar? no light without shadow? And that there is no right answer, just how you feel?’
‘Yes' said A. 'Can I go back to my book now?’


Thursday, September 16, 2010



'I joke with my friends' L told me once me at the end of a lesson as he stuffed forty euros into my hand and filled the boot of my Mini with St Joseph and Condrieu for my petrol money, 'and say you are my bio dynamic cello teacher!'

Driving through Caromb, Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueyras this week to teach the great bio-dynamic wine-maker in Gigondas, I realized I was enjoying the enforced slow pace for once. This was because most of the big white caravans from Holland and Belgium have now been replaced on the roads with little red trucks carrying mountains of priceless red and golden globelets. I idled away watching the sun shine on the grapes that, having been picked by patient hands under the September sun, would be transformed into some of the best wine in the world. And as I idled I got to thinking yet again about L's comment....

With the lack of response in France to the way I approach music (confirmed recently in the British press) and with my passion for making and teaching it, and the enthusiastic response I always seem to get from doing that, I have been thinking internet coaching then book, video magazine then video coaching then internet book, book with video coaching then internet kindle book....I have been thinking a lot. A visit last weekend from the wonderful Mig helped clarify things. Teaching Mig helped me see that teaching without actual touch is hard, and I could not do the internet coaching without at least having a model, and that perhaps I should write the book first.....?

Most days this week, I made cups of tea, packed paintings, went to the post office, veg shop and boulangerie. I called friends, went for a run and had a long shower then had another cup of tea. Finally today, having achieved most of these tasks and still with time on my hands, I sat down, opened Scrivener and created a new project.

Working title: The Bio-dynamic Cello.

Another mountain to climb? Bey hey, it's a new day!