Cello Chat: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of a Cello Cyber-Community

by Thresa Swadley

Oklahoma Baptist University

Paper Submitted to OU Sooner Conference 2004


The fantasy theme method of rhetorical criticism was designed by Ernest G. Bormann (1972) to describe or explain the shared world view of groups of rhetors. This method looks at how symbolic convergence occurs and is maintained through the rhetoric of groups (Foss, 1996, p. 121). A relatively new rhetorical venue that is open to this type of critical examination is the use of the Internet and groups that form in the context of a cyber-space community. This paper will examine an example of a cyber-space group for evidence of a shared world view through the use of rhetoric. Postings on "Cello Chat," a forum of the Internet Cello Society, will be used to determine how the fantasy theme method of analysis of characters, setting, and plot converge in the community to create the rhetorical vision of shared knowledge and the joy of cello playing.

Description of the Artifact

"Cello Chat" is a forum that is operated by the Internet Cello Society formed in 1995, and states the following as its mission:

An international cyber-community of cellists, which seeks to advance the knowledge and joy of cello playing around the world. We welcome cello enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels. We currently have over 11,016 members representing 84 different countries of the world.

Although the Internet Cello Society hosts several forums for specific age and interest groups, "Cello Chat" has been chosen for this artifact as it is the most active and inclusive of the forums. The purpose for "Cello Chat" is stated on the forum as being "a message board for the discussion of the cello and cellists ... All cellists, whether professionals, amateurs, students, or children are more than welcome to post messages here." This forum is the most active of the Internet Cello Society with over 7,000 posts having been made on this board during its existence. These postings are made by student, amateur and professional cellists sharing their experiences and passion for the cello. Because of the vast amount of postings in this forum, this artifact is being approached by limiting the artifact to posts from October 7, 2003 through November 7, 2003. Further parameters have been placed by examining the topics which were addressed with the most frequency and choosing those which best represent the symbolic convergence which takes place through the rhetorical efforts of the members.

Method of Analysis

Fantasy theme analysis is based upon the theory of symbolic convergence, which has two major assumptions: (1) reality is created through communication and (2) individual interpretations of symbols can converge and create a shared reality for those involved. This happens in a social context in which individual worlds and interpretations converge, resulting in a shared reality for those involved. Sonja K. Foss (1996) in her textbook, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, quotes Bormann as stating:

If several or many people develop portions of their private symbolic worlds that overlap as a result of symbolic convergence, they share a common consciousness and have the basis for communicating with one another to create community, to discuss their common experiences, and to achieve mutual understanding. Symbolic convergence occurs when individuals have jointly experienced mutual interpretations with similar emotional responses. (p. 122)

Though the message in these encounters is important, the act of sharing the message is the critical issue in these incidents.

The basic unit of analysis of symbolic convergence is the fantasy theme. The fantasy is defined as a creative and imaginative interpretation of an event that makes it credible or believable to the participant, or rather the means through which interpretation is accomplished in communication. Bormann (1972) states in his article "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality" that participants in a fantasy theme are interested in the personal satisfaction found and are not troubled by contradictory details or evidence that might exist within the communication. As the participants participate in the story, similar emotions and interpretations will be present among the members of the group. The fantasy theme then becomes the group's experience and results in a shared reality for the participants. (p. 400).

There are three types of fantasy themes included in Bormann's theory: (1) setting themes, which name the scene of an action, (2) character themes which describe agents or actors in the drama, assign motives to them and portray them as having certain characteristics, and (3) action themes which are the plot lines in which the characters engage. (Foss, 1996, p.127)

The next level in analysis is observing fantasy types within a community. A fantasy type is a repeated fantasy theme that includes similar scenes, characters, and plots that are shared by the members of a community. Griffin (1997) observes that most fantasies do not chain out but rather fall on deaf ears, but that chaining out occurs when people catch on to a fantasy theme and then continue to spread the theme which then feeds into the overall rhetorical vision or a unified putting together of various shared fantasies (p. 34). When a fantasy type is developed the rhetors involved are able to give a general story and the audience is able to fill in the details of the entire scenario. Included in the rhetorical vision of a community one will find fantasy themes which share the values, practices, heroes, and villains within the rhetorical group. Actions that make little sense to someone outside the rhetorical vision make perfect sense within the context of the group involved.

Analysis of the Artifact

In researching the artifact for the presence of a rhetorical vision among the members of "Cello Chat," postings were selected and categorized as being a part of the three fantasy themes of setting, characters and action. Two to three examples were chosen for each of these categories were based upon the frequency in which the topic was addressed during the one month period.

Recital and Audition as Setting

The first fantasy theme to be addressed is the setting of a "recital" or an "audition." During the one month period of examination of postings on "Cello Chat," the setting of a "recital" had thirty-six references, with the setting of an "audition" close behind with thirty-two entries. When referring to the setting of a "recital" or "audition", there is a rhetorical common ground in that no one explains what a "recital" or "audition" entails, but only gives details regarding the specific event. An example of this is found in a post by Zambocello on November 3, 2003: "Tuesday the 4th, at 8:00, Cal State University at Long Beach's; cello students will present a recital. 5 students of mine and one of Rick Naill's will play works by Bach, Kummer, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Popper, Haydn, and Barber." The posting then grows as Zambocello and other cello chatters give a follow-up on the success of the students who played on the recital. Other postings related to the "recital" setting were also of an informational nature announcing upcoming recitals by participants and other "characters" known by members on the board.

The second example of setting can be observed when examining postings regarding "auditions." A thread begun on 10-24-03 by Soundberry states:

I'm just procrastinating my cleaning and practicing before my Mock Audition party tonight. Friends and family are coming over for fondue and excerpts. They have been instructed to stare me down as I play, whisper to their neighbor and occasionally let out a light cough.

Other members of "Cello Chat" immediately pick up on the setting of the "audition" and chained-out adding their own personal experiences with "auditions" to add to the list of what Soundberry should include in the setting of a "mock audition." The list included: "get one of your friends to very obviously read his newspaper;" "have someone spill a cup of coffee just as you reach the cadenza;" and "pick a friend to fall asleep as you play." Symbolic convergence occurred as those involved in the posting recounted their own experiences in the setting of an "audition."

Conductors and Solo Cellists as Villains and Heroes

The next fantasy theme type, character, is also readily observed when perusing posts on "Cello Chat." Characters that are commonly discussed on this board include conductors and professional cellists who have become codes for attitudes and personality characteristics in the "Cello Chat" community. The villains of this community can be found in postings which mention conductors. Statements such as the following portray villainous traits to be avoided among the "Cello Chat" community: "wannabe conductor types attending could sneak up behind you unexpectedly and breathe down your neck while you are playing your Bach" (10-24-03); "you'd think he stayed up nights thinking of ways to demean us" (10-30-03); and " ... but I seem to recall he has a somewhat ... limited ... repertoire...." (10-30-03).

Though one might think that cello soloists would be the heroes of the "Cello Chat" community, they instead become symbols of technique or attitudes that the cello chatter should either emulate or avoid. This can be observed in statements such as, "I probably would have eye-rolled at those with Rose-colored glasses" (11-3-03), refers to the late cellist Leonard Rose; and "Well, du Pré certainly went on to become a professional cellist. Whether she became a musician has been the subject of contentious debate here!" (11-4-03); in reference to the questionable technique of the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

Although a professional cello soloist might be criticized for technique or personality, usually members will pepper these comments with more charitable remarks as observed in a post by BA on 10-27-03 regarding Yo-Yo Ma, "He did Kirchner here with us last year and while I don't much like the way he plays, I loved the piece and was really grateful that he was using his celebrity to promote it." The general community view is that one cannot totally write off the efforts of anyone who plays the cello.

In searching for the heroic ideal among cello chatters this is undoubtedly found in the character of Mstislav Rostropovich. "Slava" as he is commonly known among the community is never criticized and is always held up as the highest standard of cello playing. Cello chatters join together every year on his birthday to send him notes regarding their appreciation of his contributions to technique and standards in cello playing. The emotions regarding "Slava" are such that if a member went against this heroic ideal within the community, the member would probably be disregarded in future discussions and posts.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Plots of Cello Performances and Rehearsals

The last fantasy theme type, action or plot, is also evident within the rhetorical community of "Cello Chat." Shared stories regarding good and bad performances, arriving late to gigs and rehearsals, finding practice time, and other cello related anecdotes often chain out for pages as members converge to share their similar experiences. One recent post was that of someone recounting a performance in which he stated that everything had gone wrong including the chair and end-pin sliding, air conditioning blowing music off the stand, and dropping the cello bow while playing. This post was answered by several members who added to the experience through symbolic convergence as they told of their own bad experiences during performances (10-31-03). This type of chaining out is what creates the sense of community and builds the rhetorical vision of the members involved.


When one looks at the fantasy themes of setting, characters and plot that occur in the postings of the cello chatters, the rhetorical vision of shared knowledge and joy in playing the cello is easily observed. Though participants share a variety of backgrounds in their cello playing, the common bond in all the discussions is ultimately their enjoyment of the cello. The settings of recitals and auditions, characters such as Mstislav Rostropovich being the heroic ideal, and plots wherein the participants symbolically converge, all work together to create the rhetorical vision of shared knowledge and joy in playing the cello. The successful continuation of "Cello Chat" is correlated to the symbolic convergence that takes place on a daily basis and the participants shared world view through their rhetorical efforts.

  1. Bormann, Ernest G. (1972). Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 58, 396-407.

  2. "Cello Chat" (1995-2003). Internet Cello Society. http://pub1.ezboard.com/fcellofuncellochat (2003, November 7).

  3. Foss, S. K. (1996). Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration & Practice. (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

  4. Griffin, EM (1997). A First Look at Communication Theory. (3rd ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.

  5. Internet Cello Society (1995-2003). http://www.cello.org (2003, November 7).

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