Cellospeak Studio Chronicles (2020)

 Chronicles from Cellospeak Studio July 31-August 2, 2020

A Great Success!

By all accounts, the July 31 – August 2, 2020 Cellospeak Studio – our first ever (but not the last!) virtual event – was a great success! Yay! A total of 71 people registered, including many stalwart Cellospeak workshop attendees, several who were returning after a long absence, and 16 people who had never previously attended a Cellospeak event. Participants joined via Zoom from 26 states across the U.S. from Alaska to California, Wyoming to Texas, Ontario to Louisiana and Connecticut to Florida! And we had one participant from Canada! The post-event evaluations from both participants and faculty were overwhelmingly positive.

This experience has encouraged us to create additional virtual offerings to supplement our in-person cello workshops for adults, so if you missed this one, rest assured there will be more!!

Thumbs up for Zoom!

We were happy to learn that Zoom worked very well, particularly the “breakout group” feature which allowed participants to magically be virtually transported to the proper “room” for concurrent sessions – then back again to the general meeting.  We also made good use of Zoom’s interactive features which enabled us to see each other’s faces, catch up by talk and text chat, and engage in class participation. It was a bit strange to not hear each other play, and we all really missed the opportunity for a true cello ensemble experience. But the format also had some advantages. For one thing, people enjoyed having all of their familiar cello “stuff” right at hand, without having to pack up and move frequently. And all of the participants were on mute, so no one had to worry about what they sounded like! Everyone could try out new techniques and practice music on their cellos in the complete privacy of their own homes.  Although that also made it challenging for the faculty, they adapted very well – watching students intently and ensuring that the class was following instructions. The format also allowed all of the students to focus without interruption on what the instructor was saying and demonstrating.

Stellar Faculty Presentations

We packed a lot into the 3 half-day sessions! Our Studio faculty included Bob Battey, Nancy Baun, Lynne Beiler, Amy Ward Butler, Jihea Choi, Katlyn DeGraw, Carl Donakowski, Jorge Espinoza, Gary Fitzgerald, Bob Jesselson, Ken Law, Devree Lewis, Susanna Mendlow, Camilo Perez-Mejia, Alan Saucedo Estrada, Natalie Spehar, and Irina Tikhonova. They presented a smorgasbord of incredibly useful cello technique classes. Although each of the faculty made uniquely valuable presentations, there were many common themes.  These themes included body mechanics (or ergonomics) (on both the right and left sides), techniques for achieving great intonation and sound, and strategies for demystifying the process of learning new music.  Many of the faculty also provided useful handouts and reference materials to enhance their lessons. A detailed description of all of the sessions can be found HERE.

Relaxation and Effective Practicing.

Almost all of the faculty touched on the importance of maintaining a good relaxed posture and releasing tension to playing musically and without strain. Susanna Mendlow, Katlyn DeGraw and Bob Jesselson each offered specific breathing exercises and other routines to help release tension, on and off stage. Bob Jesselson’s presentation focused on finding zen in the art of practicing, including strategies to make best use of cello practice time by setting different types of goals, tracking time spent on each aspect of practice, and using different techniques for mental practice including memorization.

Right Hand and Arm Mechanics.

Jorge Espinoza demonstrated a suite of exercises to ensure that cello bow fingers are relaxed and limber and to ensure proper engagement of the right hand and arm for different bow strokes. Jorge, as well as Carl Donakowski, Katlyn DeGraw and Jihea Choi demonstrated body and right arm movements and exercises for getting the best sound from the bow at both the frog and tip.  They offered specific bowing strategies for expressive playing and performing seamless string crossings.

Left Hand Patterns and Arm Mechanics.

Another theme was understanding and using the concept of left-hand patterns to facilitate good intonation and shifting. Bob Battey encouraged everyone to study music theory (e.g., musictheory.net).  He offered an extremely useful way of understanding the organization of notes on the fingerboard by focusing on intervals, visualizing thefingerboard in “grids” of notes that can be reached from each position, using specific left-hand patterns in each position and employing position-specific strategies to accurately find notes. Similarly, Alan Saucedo described the use of “frames” of specific left-hand patterns and motions to facilitate accurate and swift shifting.

Lynne Beiler demonstrated a similar system of fingering patterns that make all scales more accessible. She recommended several scales books, including Wendy Bissinger’s “Sequenced Scale Studies,” Wells Cunningham’s “The Art of Scales”, and Louis Potter Jr.’s “The Art of Cello Playing.” Many of the faculty also demonstrated the importance of the correct position of the left elbow, particularly in reaching the 5th position and above.

Sound Production.

Camilo Perez-Mejia and Irina Tikhonova focused on the relationship of the voice to the cello, and the importance of singing to help connect with the instrument, learn music, and ensure good intonation.  Katlyn and Carl demonstrated several strategies for ensuring good sound production.  Bob Jesselson conducted 3 consecutive sessions on the Feuillard Etude #32, focused on improving bow technique and sound production. Butler gave a master class in how to find your own best vibrato, invoking strategies used by Steven Doane, her teacher at Eastman, and using Saint-Saen’s “The Swan” as a perfect demonstration piece.

Learning Music.

Natalie Spehar gave a unique presentation on how improvisation helps develop the building blocks of musical vocabulary. Focusing on strategies to learn the Russian piece “Chanson Triste,” Irina demonstrated the importance of understanding the cultural background of a piece to play it most authentically and effectively. Jihea focused on how to recognize patterns and specific bowing techniques to aid in learning more advanced pieces.  Nancy Baun used 3 standard orchestra excerpts to demonstrate how to decode complex rhythms in learning community orchestra music.


In addition to the technique classes, several faculty coached 3 consecutive daily breakout groups focused on learning selected duets (3 easy duets, the Vivaldi Double, and the Beethoven “Eyeglasses” duets).  Students were able to learn one or the other part and play along as the instructor played the other part.


Special Presentations

Gary Fitzgerald gave an entertaining presentation with concert excerpts featuring Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado illustrating what conductors seek to achieve from orchestras .  He also imparted his singular wisdom on how to participate in large ensembles and most effectively contribute to the process of creating a wonderful shared experience.

Ken Law gave a fascinating presentation on African American composers including David Baker, William Grant Still, Howard Swanson, Dorothy Rudd Moore, George Walker, Joseph Bologna (aka Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges), and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson.  He played several illustrative YouTube clips of the composers’ music and several clips also highlighted accomplished African American cellists such as Khari Joyner and Timothy Holley.

Faculty Recitals

The highlight of any Cellospeak event is always faculty recitals.  This event did not disappoint.  Despite some initial technical difficulties, we succeeded in presenting two pre-recorded live-streamed faculty “concerts.”

Solo performances included Katlyn DeGraw playing Vivaldi and Faure, Lynne Beiler playing selections from Elgar and Squire and a lovely arrangement of “Greensleaves,” and Nancy Baun playing pieces by Amy Beach. Amy Butler played 4 different cellos herself in a recording of her own composition “Shine.” (Read more about another original piece by Amy – “Hush Now” HERE.) There was a lot of Bach, including a tour de force performance by Bob Jesselson of the entire Suite III as well as Katlyn DeGraw playing the Suite I Gigue, Nancy Baun on the Suite III Gigue, and Kris Gilbert and Marion Baker with a duet arrangement of the Suite V Prelude. There were also several other spouse/partner duets, including the “Woodlawn Trio” comprised of Ken Law with David Kosutic on piano and their dog Presto who made a precious “appearance”; Alan Saucedo Estrada and Miho Sato de Saucedo on piano playing “Meditation” by Thais; Nancy Baun and Stephen Rosenthal on saxophone playing “Danny Boy;” Camilo Perez-Mejia and Andrea Diggs on flute playing Ibert; and Devree Lewis and Susanna Mendlow teaming up on Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” Perhaps the “virtual” highlight of the recitals was a video of 4 Susanna Mendlows, each in a different temperature-appropriate costume, playing all parts of Spring and Winter from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

– End –