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Avoiding Cello Flightmares


I’m home! Here’s a picture of a toucan I saw near Iguacu Falls:


And here’s a picture of me feeling intense about Brahms…

Brahms, Natal

Having just completed the four-city recital and masterclass tour of Brazil, which included one car trip, three domestic flights, and one round-trip international flight, I’ll explain why I was unusually light-hearted.  I didn’t bring my cello!  Usually when I travel for concerts, I face the frustration and complexity of bringing the cello onboard, extra ticket gripped firmly in hand (and stomach gripped even tighter…)  The slightly unusual aspect of this recent tour was that I used borrowed cellos for each concert and left my own at home for several reasons.  Although my room and board was generously covered in each city, most of my flights were not, and I didn’t want to pay close to $1k for the extra plane tickets.  I didn’t want either the headache of carrying it around, nor the emotional and mental hassle from airport personnel in a country I didn’t know.  I definitely wanted to avoid risking injury to my instrument from climate or other issues.  Truly, traveling sans cello is just so much easier for body and mind and I never received any airport challenges with the bow case.

I was exceedingly lucky to find cellist “hosts” in each city who generously found a cello and concert opportunity for me.  Each cello was unique, and like my own instrument at home, had its quirks.  At times, I felt that I definitely didn’t sound my best: some notes didn’t come out as clearly as I expected, some tone colors were not at all close to my intent, and I suppose that in general, it was more tiring physically to play my program because I had to work harder (strings were higher in some cases, and some of the instruments had not been played much recently, so their projection was small or felt stiff) and so I lacked my usual full power. I brought my own preferred strings, mutes, rosin, and resonating endpin anchor!  Did they help me?  Maybe a very little.  I rather enjoyed the challenge of trying to make each instrument work for me and although I can’t say that I won 100% of the time, the percentage of acceptable sounds was high enough to make the work worth it.

Certainly, its ludicrous to think of showing up for concerts and expect a playable cello to be waiting there.  Alas, cellos are not sitting around onstage like concert grand pianos!  In fact, I was quite astonished that I could find cellists willing to loan me their second, and in some cases, only cello for my needs. Would I loan out my instrument if someone came through, petitioning to play?  Hmm, good question!

I suppose in the end, the decision on whether to bring the cello or not depends on the expectation of the experience.  Since I traveled to Brazil partly out of curiosity to see the culture and countryside, and partly to visit and discuss the business with other cellists, I admit that I wasn’t so focused on my reputation as a player.  My tour was arranged randomly and through an incredible musicians’ network.  I thoroughly enjoyed all of the conversation and music making, for the pianists and cellists I worked with were all great musicians and very kind people.  I also truly enjoyed the teaching and when demonstrating, I tended to use the student’s cello.  Perhaps my own cello would have gotten in the way!  On my next trip, I am not sure I would go this route again, because the unknowns are somewhat terrifying, however for this trip, it was definitely the best solution.

If you want to travel like I did… and you are a cellist, here are some ideas for you. Try a call to the local instrument dealer, and explain that at your concert, you will be promoting the instrument for several local cellists in attendance.  If you are using a cello that doesn’t speak as clearly as you would like, you can check and adjust several things quite easily. The most obvious component is the bridge — a straight bridge, centered between the F-holes, will deliver a much clearer sound. Dust on the bridge and around the body of the cello mutes the sound, so a cleaning can really help.  Definitely bring your own bow, and don’t forget the rosin!  New strings of your choice may also be an improvement.  Finally, at the concert, remember that after the initial sound adjustment, the audience will come along with you, as long as you are involved and enthusiastic. So, bon voyage and enjoy the lack of flightmares! Its a wonderful feeling!

Another wonderful feeling is writing this blog post on a computer rather than a Samsung S3…




This past week, on Thanksgiving, I gave a recital in the island capital of Santa Catarina, the city of Florianopolis.  The concert was held in a church built in the mid-1700′s, on the side of a mountain.

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It was a new way for me to spend the North American holiday, playing solo cello music in this resonant ancient space, for other music lovers of Florianopolis.  My program, of Bach, Saariaho and Geoffrey Gordon, felt different under my fingers.  Partly it was due to the cello du jour – - the quick adjustment for each concert has been an interesting challenge, and I am beginning to have more empathy for pianists.  Partly it was the particular energy of the listeners who not only had to locate this remote, remarkable venue, but drive a vehicle that was agreeable to the steep climb and rough terrain of the old cobblestone streets. Hans Twitchell, the cello professor drove us up there. During the drive, we got slightly lost and then when we did find the right road, it was so steep that we lost traction and were forced to sort of roll down the hill, backing up fortuitously into a driveway.  One gets the feeling that Brazilian driving is not for wimps!   Lastly, to finish my thoughts on this concert experience, I was aware of the incredible 3-dimensional feel of the acoustic.  Creating sound in that church was like tracing rapturous curving waves that would hang delightfully from the ceiling.

In order to play well… Or at the very least, not fall on my face, I usually try to follow a few rules for concert days: I take a nap, be alone backstage, and do not teach at all during the day.  This particular concert day, I broke all of the rules, plus the enough-sleep rule, by rising at 6 am to catch the plane that morning out of Rio.  Perhaps because everything and everyone was so new and interesting, I didn’t feel a lag in focus, even during the memorized portion of the program.  I wonder if its possible to recreate this kind of energy in the future!  Maybe the ocean also had something to do with it?  We arrived in the morning and Hans delivered us to a hotel with a great view!


By the hotel pool:


That afternoon, I gave a two-hour masterclass for Hans Twitchell’s students at UDESC, which is an acronym for University of Santa Catarina, the name of the state we were visiting. They were all really good players!  I heard Haydn D Major concerto, Piatti 3rd Caprice, and Kabalevsky Concerto, among other pieces.  They were also really warm people and passionate about the cello. The concert that evening took place at 7:30, and it felt to me as very much related to the teaching of that afternoon because several cello students were there in the front pew.

The next day was another opportunity to increase my excitement with this place.  Early that morning, I was taking in the glassy surface of the bay, the low hanging clouds, and the sounds of morning roosters, when suddenly two very noisy, green and red birds flew past me along the shoreline.  Why didn’t I take a photo?  I think I just saw some wild parrots for the first time in my life.

Later that morning, we went on a hike in the very south of the island with Hans and members of his cello “family.”

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We climbed up through mountainous jungly forest (we happened upon delicious wild Pitanga berries growing on a tree along the way) to a beach called Lagoinha do Leste. Its not possible to drive to this beach, which makes it seem to the sun- and wilderness-starved North American like paradise. Its easy to lose track of time, of place, of… Lots of things. I had to remind myself that I would be flying back to Rio that evening.


I am grateful to Hans for showing me such a different and beautiful aspect of Brazil.


The Great Pernambuco Tree


When I was preparing for this trip last spring, I would stare at the map of Brazil and become consumed with curiosity about what the countryside looked like in any given spot. I noticed that there was a *whole* town called Pernambuco, named after the native tree. I have heard of this amazing tree since I was little, because it provides the best wood for string instrument bows.  They are endangered and there are all sorts of strict rules about taking the wood out of the country.  I desperately wanted to see one. In conversations with Felipe, I would revert back to these trees with tenacious questions. He would tell me about how slowly they grow, which is perhaps why the wood is so dense. He promised me that he’d take me to the zoo, where a really old one was growing (perhaps 200 years old??).  We found it in all of its magnificent splendor, next to a growling female lion’s den!  Here are pictures of its bark covered by little spears, and its breath-taking immensity!




Thursday night, Durval and I performed our recital in Joao Pessoa. I’ve included photos taken by a professional photographer (!) and also, at last, I figured out how to upload these lovely pics of the cello classes:



After Natal recital

With Fabio’s class in Natal, taken after the Nov. 17th recital


With Felipe’s class after the Nov. 21st recital.


Coqueirinho Beach



The most beautiful beach I have ever seen? Is that statement even possible to make in a country that has such beauty in spades? All I can say is, this deserted, gentle place was a balm to all the senses. I don’t need to describe to you the sounds of surf breaking on the shore, the smells of some piney vegetation, and the feel of the warm water washing around my feet. You can easily imagine it, because it is the beach of your dreams, even if you dare to reject the label of “Beach-lover”.


I am most grateful to my host, Felipe Avellar de Aquino, a friend from Eastman, for showing me his wonderful city, sharing his lovely students with me, and organizing and publicizing my recital tomorrow night. The amount of work for the host professor is huge and begins long before the visit. I am floored by how warmly welcomed I have been ever since I landed in this dream of a Cellist’s Brazil!

Lest it appears like I have been only at the beach, I will share some photos from the classes held at the Federal University of Paraiba.


Isabelle, Joao Pessoa

Tomorrow, I will get to see Durval again, the pianist from Natal. We will perform our program and then I will zip down on a red-eye flight to Rio, leaving behind the North-east coast. I will miss these musicians of Natal and Joao Pessoa very much!


Brazil’s Sistine Chapel?


  • I gave a recital last night at the Federal University in Natal with Durval Cesetti and Felipe Avellar de Aquino. It went very well and it was great fun seeing all the student cellists again afterwards. I will miss that class of Fabio’s. I have a photo of all of us on the stage after the concert, but am having technical difficulties and so will post this one instead, of the teachers, taken during a morning walk. I think it was taken around 9am.


Yesterday morning, the Aquinos brought me to Joao Pessoa, or as Sandra put it, on toward Step Two of my Brazil travels. (I suppose that there are at least 5 Steps!) She also explained how to create the nasal sound found in so many Portuguese words, including her city.  There is supposed to be a tilde (~) over the a in Joao…  My recital here will be on Thursday and here is the lovely poster:


Yesterday, Felipe gave me a tour of his city. Such amazing sights! A peninsula that sticks out into the ocean and is the first piece of land in the Americas to greet the waves from Africa, then atop that hill, a modern structure built by the architect of Brasilia, whose name is Niemeyer I think, and lastly, this 16th century church, the Convent of Saint Anthony. I got very excited because I had never before heard of the style known as “Tropical Baroque”


Because the convent was built over a 200-year period, there are many different styles. Here you can see the beautiful blue Portuguese tile and the detail of the artist in rendering the face of Jesus:

I like this dapper-looking angel too!


It was the ceiling that took my breath away. So detailed, brilliantly colored, and in the trompe d’oeuil manner, it was hard to believe that the surface was flat.


Legend has it that a an underground tunnel runs from the convent to the river, several blocks away. Felipe said it was used to escape from Dutch invaders!

If I can make this little tiny computer do my bidding, I’ll post again before heading south to Rio on Friday.


Thomaz Babini Cello Festival, Natal, Brazil


I have been in Natal, Brazil for a week, during which the incomparable Fabio Presgrave, Natal’s Juilliard trained virtuoso, has organized a cello festival with masterclasses for his talented students, a lecture on the history of cello playing in Natal, and two concerts.  It is a chance for us cellists to indulge shamelessly in shop talk. If you are a cellist, you may know that Yale’s most famous teacher, Aldo Parisot, is from Brazil, but now I know more – - he was born in Natal and began lessons with master cellist (and father-in-law) Thomaz Babini. Here is an early photo of Aldo: 20131113_091827 But of course, its not all seriousness (my colleague Felipe has a phrase that I like: “Just relax, you are in Brasil!”)  In addition to ATC (all things cello) we have visited the largest cashew tree in the world (one whole city block!) 20131113_152701 we’ve eaten like kings:
(did you know about cashew FRUIT? I tried it raw, as a juice, and best of all, in a caipirinha…), and then there’s the beach.  Every morning, I am snapped out of sleep by a determined sun that rises every day at 4am. I try to return to sleep, but usually give up around 6 or 7.  Morning walks on the beach, feet in the water, include views of children playing, surfers, bronzed men and the dental-floss bikinied women. 20131112_143119


Posting as Natasha


Have Cello, Will Travel!

Natasha and cello

Hello! Haven’t you wished you could see how other people do what you do around the country?  I have!  This semester, I am on sabbatical from my cello studio at SUNY Fredonia.  My two goals for this semester are to enliven my teaching methods by visiting other cello studios, and to increase my own practicing through performances.

My travels have been really eye opening, and have included visits with cellists in San Francisco, Florida, New York City, and Baltimore.  Occasionally, I would pull out this really cool cello duo by the Buffalo composer Caroline Mallonée.  Its called Alaskan King (because it’s a crab canon!)  Let me know if you would like a copy, and I’ll put you in touch with the composer.  Here’s a video of a performance done in Florida with cellist Greg Sauer:

My next trip will start on Monday the 11th; three weeks in Brazil.  I’ve never been to South America and am a little nervous, but also quite excited to see a new country.  I’m bringing with me that terrific duo along with two programs, one of sonatas with piano and one solo program.  My first stop on this tour will be in the Northeast city of Natal.  My concert with pianist Durval Cessetti will be on Saturday the 16th, at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte.  In addition to ATC (or All Things Cello), I think I might see some sights like this:


If you have anything to share (especially about Brazil, or cello teaching), leave a comment.

Here is a poster for the masterclasses in Natal: