Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Question for Adult Cello Students

Last Saturday my wife and I put in some volunteer time for the Southern California Dulcimer Heritage's annual Harvest Festival. It has various workshops and concerts for mountain and hammer dulcimers, but also has room for other instruments. One of the workshop leaders was Mintze Wu, a fine professional, classically-trained violinist (graduate of Cleveland Institute of Music), a former member of the Azmari Quartet and on the Northern Kentucky University faculty. But now she's making quite a name for herself on the dark-side -- as a fiddler.

I attended her workshop. Wu showed how to take a simple, rather sing-songy tune (Road to Lisdoonvarna) and with some imaginative bowing and ornamentation, make it --WOW!-- very nice, indeed. I was the only cellist, and very welcomed by Ms. Wu. With some fingering adjustments I was able to get by about as well as the violinists (sometimes I've been over my head at these things). Wu made us individually play back what she teached, which put us on the spot, so I know other students had mixed results in getting it right as well, including one competent classically-trained violinist.

I also attended an organized jam workshop. I was somewhat fussed over by the leaders, who were delighted to have a cello in the mix. I was asked to start a tune and when I played the first few notes, I heard at least one gasp, presumably of delight ;-), emanate from the group.

My question is this: Given the almost embarrassingly welcoming treatment we can receive, and how one can easily play 1-5 bass parts until ready for more, why aren't there more adult student cellists venturing out to Old-time, Celtic, and other casual "traditional music" events? I know the cello students exist. Is it a matter of interest? -- adult students took up cello because they want to perform Classical, and that's that? Is it fear of playing without the trusty music stand and paper? Too much uncertainty and lack of structure? Is it lack of preparation and encouragement by the teachers? Fear of a lack of ear training or music theory? Too easy? Too hard to lug around that big case? Unfamiliarity with what cello sounds like in those genres?

In a nutshell, why don't cello students do like other instruments? It ain't 'cause we ain't got frets; violin and string bass (and some banjos) also ain't got frets.

By the way, we know cello and dulcimer played duets together in colonial Annapolis at least as far back as November 1752, so there is a tradition for this kind of thing in America, albeit sometimes appears to be forgotten.

Any thoughts on the subject?