by Sarah Schenkman

My friend Helen and I traveled together from Georgia earlier this month to the University of Connecticut in Storrs to attend the New Directions Cello Festival. We are both classically trained cellists who do most of our playing in orchestras and wanted to get new ideas on playing different kinds of music. The NDCF was good for this because it is about all kinds of cello music except classical.

The first workshop we attended was with Sera Smolen, a David Darling disciple, and first she had written on the blackboard David Darling's "Musical Bill of Rights" which starts with "There are as many different ways to make music as there are people." She quickly got everyone involved and participating in improvisation. We all sat in a large circle around the room with our cellos, and there were four chairs set up in the center facing each other where she got people to volunteer to improvise, four at a time. I think everyone volunteered at least once, and I found it very exciting doing my first improvising.

The next workshop I went to was a cello big band where Chris White, director of NDCF, filled in as conductor. People sat wherever they wanted, mostly with stand partners, and parts were handed out without regard to the players ability, which ranged from professional symphony musician to can't- read- treble -clef, but it was pretty cool playing in such a large group of around thirty cellists.

Next was an open discussion on "playing cello in a guitar world". Cellists who had played in or with bands of different types talked of their various experiences and compared notes on types of microphones, on playing with guitars or playing with drums and trying to be heard.

There was a concert Friday night with three different acts. The first was Lee Zimmerman and Craig Menteer in "Letter to an Imaginary Friend" for cello, actor and 55 gallon drum. The actor read a poem and used the drum as a prop, rolling it around and leaning on it, while the cellist played. The last concert of the evening was Abby Newton and Celtic Crossing, a quartet with cello, accordion, guitar and fiddle playing Scottish/Celtic music. For me, the high point of the evening was Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson playing "Cellektric Sonic Weavings" for electric cello and prerecorded material. It was really fun to hear and to watch him as he's a wonderful showman and his playing was like Jimmy Hendrix playing cello. And as I found out in workshop the next morning ("Tonal Structural Patterns") he is also a gifted storyteller. So I also attended his next workshop in the afternoon where he drew different kinds of music from his MIDI files and had us all jam to them. He threw himself into everything he did, bringing everyone with him into his energy.

Stephen Katz's strumming workshop was good. He had written a "Cello Strumming Etude in E Minor" and showed us how to play it. It was really awesome when he played it - his strumming technique was incredible, but very hard to copy, especially in the context of a workshop.This technique involved strumming constantly but emphasizing some notes more than others and skipping some notes while continuing the strumming motion. I felt like it was something that would take me a lot of practicing to get. On the other hand, the young man sitting next to me seemed to find it much easier to do than I did. One fun thing for me was Gideon Fruedman showing up at the festival (he's on the NDCF steering committee). I had heard the interview with him on NPR's Weekend Edition, visited his web site and bought his "Adobe Doghouse" CD, which is quite good, so I enjoyed seeing him at the festival sitting in on the strumming workshop. He does his own type of music which he calls "CelloBop".

In Chris White's jazz jam session I got into a little improvisation, but then got lost in the chord changes I wasn't familiar with, so I left to go back to my room and have a nap.

Saturday night's concert was really good. Vincent Cortois is a French cellist described as "solo jazz cello," but I don't know if jazz is how I'd describe his music. His playing was awesome and the show was indescribable, technically wonderful, original and even humorous. He was followed by Eric Longsworth on electric cello with Michel Donato on bass and this I would describe as jazz. The final performance was with Raul Rothblatt and his African-Hungarian jazz group. Helen and I were planning on leaving first thing Sunday morning, skipping the activities for that day to drive back to Georgia, but we were so impressed with Cortois that we stayed and watched a workshop/master class on improvisation with him and weren't disappointed in it.

I suppose I might use things I learned at the festival sometime, but the main thing I took away with me was a different perspective on playing cello and a new attitude to approach my own practicing.

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