Membership Spotlight: A Musical Biography of Ruthann Sutton

I began playing the cello in the fourth grade (age 8) through the public school music program. My parents were both music lovers, especially my mother, but neither had any opportunity to learn to play any instruments, as both were children of poor families during the depression. Mom liked to play her classical records at home. I grew up listening to Beethoven's 5th, Carmen, The Four Seasons, Peter and the Wolf, etc. When my older sister decided it would be cool to learn to play the string bass, my parents were very supportive. My older brother also decided to play bass. As the baby of the family, it was decided that I wouldn't be big enough to play the bass, so the cello was chosen. Not a very deep reason, is it? After a year's worth of school lessons, the instructor referred me to a private teacher.

Mrs. Irene Watson influenced me tremendously. She began by insisting I learn to play on bare gut strings with no fine tuners. She introduced me to the joys of the Klengel technical studies, Schroeder etudes, and slides. She liked to add glissandi to everything! I guess she was quite elderly;, I know her husband was retired. She taught me to keep my left knee behind the lower bout - gripping with both knees was unladylike! Two things I can still hear her saying to me in my mind are "snap those fingers" and "play louder." She often talked about "the cello" as if it were something quite magical, and those of us that played it were somehow involved in a mystical quest. To this day I still think the cello is the coolest thing on the planet.

After six years of studying with Mrs. Watson I stopped taking lessons. Family circumstances were tight financially and Mrs. Watson was retiring. I continued to play in the school orchestra and practiced quite a bit, just for my own enjoyment. I got the idea that I would like to pursue the cello as a career, so I found a new teacher, Tim Brown, to help me prepare for college auditions. He had studied with Eva Heinitz at the University of Washington (UW). He gave me serious repertoire to learn and encouraged me to work.

I played the Mendelssohn Sonata in D, 1st movement, for my audition at the UW. I remember being quite nervous and very intimidated by the string faculty, all of whom seemed to have European accents. My pianist lost her place at the end of the first page and never came back in. I just kept on playing, imagining the piano part in my head. I was thrilled to be accepted as a cello performance major.

Although I had auditioned for Eva Heinitz, she was retiring. Toby Saks, a Leonard Rose protégé, became my teacher. I learned a lot in college. My playing improved tremendously, but my ego took a severe beating. The atmosphere at that time was quite competitive and niceness was not a prized commodity. I decided I'd better abandon the plan of being a musician for a living because I thought all pros would be like my peers in college - nasty, small minded, and unfriendly. I became so disillusioned that I quit playing completely for about five years.

My first husband and I moved to the central valley of California to teach high school. I took occasional paying gigs on the cello, but didn't work much at it. It seems that people were often looking for a cellist and were willing to pay. I had a number of different jobs during this period - substitute teaching, managing a live theatre, security guard (a real low point!). I decided to go back to school and get a computer science degree.

After my husband died and I got my new degree I moved to a small city in the Mojave Desert where I knew no one, but had been offered a good computer job. I told every new person I met that I played tennis and the cello. I joined the tennis club, through which I met my current husband (who plays the radio). I joined the local community orchestra. We weren't very good, but most of the people were nice and friendly, especially the other cellist. Yep, when I joined, I brought the numbers in the cello section up to two. I rediscovered the joys of playing music. I played for just about anyone who asked: weddings, club teas, musicals, I played them all. I made great friends and had a lot of fun. For a couple years we even had a cello quartet going. We weren't all that good, but we had such a good time.

Soon I had children of my own that I wanted to introduce to the joys of music. When my daughter turned three, I started her on the violin with a local Suzuki teacher. I chose the violin for several reasons. I knew two wonderful violinists whose technique and musicality I deeply respected. They worked together teaching Suzuki violin. I felt very confident that they could introduce my children to music in a way that would encourage them to love it. I became an immediate convert to the Suzuki method through attending their violin lessons. The approach made so much sense and I could see how effective it was with my children.

I had often been asked to teach cello, but had always declined. I didn't take any pedagogy in college and I was smart enough to figure out that knowing how to play wasn't the same thing as knowing how to teach. But the Suzuki method gave me just the structured approach I was looking for. I borrowed every good teaching idea from my kids' violin teachers and from reading books about the Suzuki method and began taking the occasional student. I have recently finished taking my first set of Suzuki teacher-training courses at the Intermountain Suzuki Institute. I learned a lot about teaching beginners, how to teach the stuff that I have no memory of learning myself. I now have a nice little cello studio going with five students. I really enjoy sharing the cello with them.

About eight years ago I heard a young violinist that impressed the heck out of me while adjudicating a musical competition. I asked her to play some chamber music with me, she agreed, we found a pianist and the 'We Three' piano trio was born. We typically perform between two and five times a year. A couple years ago we performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the local community orchestra. We've had some changes in our "soprano" voice - our first member grew up and went away to college, another violinist moved away, etc. We've used flute and clarinet in our trio. Now we hopefully have a new permanent member who is a wonderful violist. Our practice sessions are often the highlight of my week. Every once in a while during those practice sessions, the music really flows together and it's as if there is some magic in the air. It gives me goose bumps.

I no longer play in the local community orchestra (the conductor is a slimy idiot!) but I do try to go to Mammoth Lakes every summer for the Sierra Summer Festival. It gives me the chance to play in the Eastern Sierra Orchestra under a wonderful conductor for a week. Last year we played Beethoven's 9th with a choir from Bonn and soloists from the LA opera community. Great stuff!

So now I'm a part time computer scientist (30 hrs a week), cello teacher, cellist, soccer/basketball/Suzuki/dog show mom. There's a husband in there as well. And then there are the hobbies, all of them time-consuming -- quilting, embroidery, cross-stitch, knitting, reading mysteries, camping, visiting lighthouses, and probably one or two more I've forgotten. But somehow, it all starts with the cello.

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