Judith Mitchell cellist

Musical Thoughts

Thoughts About Music, Cello Playing, Teaching Now

Here are just some of the ideas that interest, inspire and guide me at the moment. The section is actually one unfolding story but the headings help you pick out specific topics within it:


  Music In Our Time - the Jewel In the Crown (follow the sub-headings too!)

  Secure Foundations

  A Craft for Playing all Music

  Play and Teach, Teach and Play

  Who to Teach?

  Beginner's Viewpoint

  "I wish I had time to practise!"


Music is everywhere in our lives wherever in the world we live, and in today's world we can feel closer than ever before to so many diverse and wonderful sounds and cultures.

Dedicated musicians the world over hold in common their absolute commitment to the very special musical-technical skills unique to their chosen musical tradition. This specialised and singular attention is of the essence in maintaining and developing a living tradition. We realise, perhaps, that most of us can really only become expert in one of these traditions, and even that takes many years of involvement (Winton Marsalis springs to mind as one of those notable exceptions and of course there are others). But music is surely to be shared by everyone; we can listen to it, try it out and get to know it as far as we are able. The more our understanding grows, the more we truly appreciate and respect different musical traditions and the skills of the musicians who create it.

I have worked and played with many musicians in the course of my career and I feel so privileged also to have shared concerts with performers such as Venancio Mbande (Mozambique timbila music) and Hossein Omoumi (centuries old traditions in Persian music) as well as listening to and working with colleagues in this country who are closely involved with various musical traditions (not to say bombarding them all with questions about the music they love and perform!). This all continues to be of huge interest and wonder to me. Many of the composers I have worked with share this fascination and the results can be heard in their music too. The strikingly different approaches to learning and performance, the intricate wonders of centuries old musical traditions and above all the sounds of all that music have been a big influence on the development of my own playing, my teaching and my whole musical outlook.

Over the span of my musical career I have chosen to play, perform, create and teach music in the Western European musical tradition, from more or less as far back as cello music survives to the music of the present day. There are so many forms of 'Western' music making up this rich and vibrant musical scene and I have sampled and worked in quite a few of these from time to time; but my main focus is centred round 'classical music', 'art music' or whatever else you decide to call it. There is such a breadth of style and invention in this music that it has taken up all my time to explore the music of its history in depth and from there be able to contribute to the living tradition. This journey continues, I am glad to say.

Music In Our time - the Jewel In the Crown

One of the most exciting, challenging, engrossing, occasionally infuriating, areas of my musical life has been the performance and creation of contemporary music.

Music connects and brings together

I think that all music can draw us together in a way that makes us feel both individual and part of a group at the same time. Whether we are rehearsing or playing together in an ensemble, performing for others, or absorbing music purely as listeners, we can respond to the music completely personally; and yet, within our personal response, we also feel that vital connection and interaction with the people with whom we share the experience.

Through the music we also travel across time and place into the world from which it arose; and from this 'insider view' comes empathy and understanding of the world and its history and its people. I feel this is not only a great joy but also an absolute necessity for us all to share.

I am very happy when I am absorbed in the music of the past and I hugely enjoy playing it for its own sake. I also feel it has a tremendous relevance to us all; there are so many echoes and threads that stay with us in the present and so many echoes and threads of ourselves in the past. The past also leads to what and how we are now and the process goes on, for today's present continues from the past and leads to the future. Music throughout history is a part of this, linking us to people and thoughts and feelings throughout time. For all those reasons, I think there must be music that is of and about today, to take its place in the process.

Contemporary music connects with the present

It's the realisation and expression of the world we actually live in - the pre-occupations of our own lifetime - that attracts me so strongly to contemporary music. We really must foster that empathy and understanding of the colourful complexity of our own time.

I think it is no coincidence that (so-called) 'avant garde' jazz, pop, rock, and classical music have drawn together in recent years and indeed sometimes even converge and overlap to a remarkable degree, sharing also a huge diversity of cultural inspiration. This is very heartening; not only does it draw people together through music but it also provides so much scope for creative inspiration. I hope that musicians in all these musical genres will continue to share, and indeed increase, the access to their instrumental, compositional and improvisational discoveries - and invite each other more to their electronic studios! A sharing of thoughtful and intuitive skills as well as ideas is really important; and this has to happen right from the early years of school music onwards throughout musical life, as many inspired teachers are striving to bring about.

Equally striking (and possibly linked to these musical affinities?) are the connections that can actually be made through contemporary 'classical' music - 'avant garde' even! - just as much as all those other musical styles. Disenchanted younger and older people in a variety of situations, and also those with special needs of all kinds, are just some of the communities for whom music can bring so much and in which inspired pioneering musicians like Robert Worby have worked extensively.

The essential ingredient is creating your own music about the preoccupations of your own life. Plunging into Beethoven and Mozart, however enthusiastically this is presented, doesn't always make the connection. However, as the creative, expressive buzz of music takes hold, the doors can swing open to understanding and getting involved in any musical culture; and that goes for Western music of the last few hundred years as much as any other.

There is so much to think about here, and far too much for this section of my website to hold!

Music evolves over time as a continuous, connected flow of 'contemporary' music!

Music, like life itself which it reflects, evolves over time. The myriad musical strands are interwoven and linked like lace threads, which themselves are in a constantly flowing state of change - sharing origins, converging, moving apart - but always remaining connected and intertwined. There are few straight lines in music's evolution; more a matter of creative ideas flowing sideways, up, down and round about in all directions. The pace of these changes can be very variable too, sometimes really sudden and sometimes more gradual.

Whatever the direction and whatever the pace, however, musical inspiration always flows from that timeless and unending source, which is the world we live in. So it is not the case that there is 'music', then a complete double bar, and then a new phenomenon called 'contemporary music'! In any case, where would you draw the line? Music is always 'contemporary' in its own time and this has been the same throughout history. The music of today is just the latest in a long musical procession and because its inspiration is the world around us right now, it should have more resonance, not less, with today's musical audiences.

Why should it be that too often contemporary 'classical'/'art' music does feel 'separate'?

Sometimes we feel strong links with music we hear, but sometimes this link vanishes and it begins to seem as though some contemporary music is separate from other music. Is it that this music does not, in fact, reflect the current world in which we live, so we feel no connection with it? Are we ourselves cut off in some way from the world around us? Are we determined only to like what we are familiar with already? All of these can be true and I think there is also another origin for those feelings of alienation that we sometimes experience. I think that one of the most potent reasons is simply that we have not always explored and followed those quirky steps in musical developments leading up to the present.

Music can lose its meaning if we have 'lost the thread' of this musical evolution.

We miss some links altogether and we 'lose the thread'; then the sounds cease to make sense because they have become separated from what we know and respond to already. It is true that we understand and remember new ideas when we connect and integrate them with our familiar world. Disconnected bits and pieces are much harder to get to grips with; although, if we are truly open to new ideas, they can be immensely inspiring.

I sometimes ask pupils (and indeed colleagues and teachers) who is the most modern composer they really like; sadly, the answer is all too often someone writing a hundred or so years ago. So we need to find where we lose touch and follow developments from there to the present. For me, the key is to understand and respond to both the music and the living environment from which it arose - do this and some wonderful music will come alive for you.

Sometimes, however, it is indeed a question of recognising our 'fixed mindset'! Maybe we are clinging to well trodden and much-loved paths and turning a blind eye to the rest, perhaps due in part to the unconsciously absorbed prejudices of others, and all too often misled by misinformation. All we need to do is find our sense of adventure, fire up our innate curiosity, open our minds to unexpected revelations and begin to experience the excitement and delight of fresh discovery! (See also 'Lecture Demonstrations and Workshops', as well as other sections in my Teaching and Performing section).

Creating Music for Cello

I have enjoyed many hours working out how to play new music and, for me, a major highlight of this process has always been working together with composers to find technically viable means of bringing to life the exotic cello sounds that they dream up. We adapt and devise completely new techniques where required - using all sorts of tuning systems, timbral effects, double bowing, integrating live cello playing with electronics, - and often feeling increasing panic as the performance day creeps nearer and hurdles still remain!

As an instrumentalist, I feel my part is to provide possibilities for cello sounds, to explore, extend and devise more of these at the direction of the composer, i.e. the composer guides, selects, develops; and I work along with that as an aware and intuitive partner (hopefully) rather than a 'prescriber'. ('Partner' is the key word; neither of us is 'servant' to the other!).

The sounds I make on the cello are 'musical' sounds, that is, sounds which elicit a feeling and 'message' that we can share. When these sounds are put into a structure (and I think even 'randomness' is structure of a kind) then they become 'music'. There are so many definitions of 'music' and they are all fascinating and insightful but this is one version I come back to time and again. It is what I am most concerned to share, in both my performance and teaching of contemporary music. Come to think of it, this is my chief concern with performing and teaching music of all kinds, times and origins.

Secure Foundations

Extending a technique is exactly that and the process tests strengths and weaknesses mightily. If you extend something that didn't work properly in the first place the stresses and strains are magnified and you can (and I sometimes have!) end up in real trouble.

'Rules of playing' hitherto unquestioned, and some probably absorbed unconsciously, come under fresh scrutiny when they are highlighted by attempts to push the limits. Often it's a question of re-considering, re-shaping how we play and, above all, finding the true starting point for all instrumental technique: good use of self, body and mind.

The same goes for musicianship skills; they are essential for the strong, intuitive empathy we must have both as player and as audience ('musicianship' is the word I use for 'everything to do with music' - performance, style, history, musical trends, people, structure, chords, melody, … complete the list for yourself!). Studying and playing 21st century music deepens our insight into all aspects of music and performance and it nearly always brings the need to re-visit and develop our understanding of what music is and how it works. Above all, we have to bear in mind the real basis of all interpretation: truly receptive listening. This boils down once again to: good use of self, mind and body.

A note about good use of mind: the thinking, intelligent side of our brain works in partnership with the intuitive, receptive side - I think intuition takes on and responds to what we have discovered and analysed and what we intuitively sense forms some of the basis of our thinking. The two are intertwined and supportive and we must rejoice in and use both because the one can't function well without the other! Only space here for the bare bones of a very important, developing and much discussed topic.

Extending this response is an on-going process based on flexibility of attitude, openness to change and development - and hours of study and practice. Needless to say, this is a continuing process throughout everyone's musical life and activity.

A Craft for Playing All Music

Sorting out the basics and then extending our musicianship and technique for contemporary music has the happy effect of greatly enhancing traditional skills. We can play with much greater flexibility and variation in sound and meaning. When the whole craft of playing music on the cello is in place in this way we begin to feel at ease with playing, that we can 'bring music to life'. For me this swept away the frustrations that I used to feel when my performance of music from any period just didn't sound or feel how I wanted it to and I didn't feel I had the wherewithal to play any better. I now have a much-renewed enthusiasm for playing music of the last 350 or so years; in particular, the ins and outs of historically informed performance and style have also come alive again for me.

Feeling happy about playing, rather than struggling, leaves us free to choose exactly how we will play. This concerns the whole intriguing and delicate partnership between composer and player, created through the conversation of the music. It's all a matter of how our interpretation is decided; studying music actually with composers is very illuminating and can certainly shed light on shaping interpretation when the composer is not there to ask.

I have thoroughly enjoyed returning to familiar cello repertoire, seen afresh in this way, and in particular re-visiting the area I first began to investigate back in 1965: so-called historically informed playing. There has been a huge expansion of research and experiment in this area and it also now encompasses music from well before and long after the eighteenth century focus of my early forays into the field (see Articles and Recommendations section for my latest 'must-listen' CDs). It is a dimension that informs my playing in so many ways, whether playing on a period set-up or with a modern instrument and/or bow.

To me, it all emphasises that sense of musical continuity over the centuries because the approach to it all is precisely the same in every way as exploring contemporary music. For instance: 'How does an eighteenth century bow sound if you allow it to play according to how it is built and balanced, rather than impose a modern style on it?' is a strong parallel to 'What sounds will this modern bow make if we allow it to press strongly on the string over the fingerboard?'. 'What does it really sound like, if we really listen?', 'What musical effect does it have and what could we say with it?' are surely universal musical questions; all creation and performance of all music addresses these same questions in this same way. We need a genuinely open mind (be honest about this!), and a positive enthusiasm for the surprise of the new, in order to ditch prejudice and let all those sounds take their effect.

Play and Teach, Teach and Play

All these developments in playing give a real boost to my teaching and, in turn, the process of helping other people to learn throws up a myriad of new and useful ideas that enhance all our playing. It is rightly said, I think, that you don't really know about something until you can teach it! So, for me, performance and teaching are mutually beneficial and the one without the other would be diminished. Teaching has always been a big part of my life, from post-graduate days to the present, and one which I have enjoyed every bit as much as performance.

Who to Teach?

Variety is the spice of life as far as I am concerned, with regard both to pupils, their aims and the music they wish to play! It's an absolute delight to work together, whatever their involvement and musical background might be; whether playing for pleasure after a hard day in the workshop or the office, or putting in long hours earning a living from playing and teaching; players with modest or not so modest aims; or any shade in between. I have taught in a very wide variety of situations and settings, but my aim is always the same: to find the best way, and the right pace, for each individual to discover the musical partnership of cello craft and musicianship, so that they can take delight in playing music on the cello exactly as they want to.

I'm always happy to share my own ideas and, even more importantly, I'm committed to helping musicians find their own unique musical response and technical language so that they can take over the whole discovery process for themselves over time.

I also love a conundrum, so those who have experienced difficulties with their playing, feel uncomfortable, can't 'say what they want to say', as well as those who want to take their playing to the next level, are all equally welcome. Results not guaranteed, of course, but it's amazing what can be achieved given time - and some practice!

All that is required is to come along with a mind open to new ideas and change, a willingness to experiment with a variety of ideas, and a modicum of perseverance (and time to practise a bit at some stage!). And this applies equally to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Xenakis and Adkins!

A special note for teachers

I am also very committed to working with other teachers to explore the many aspects of helping people to learn. In these sessions we often find ourselves in the realm of cello craft (best to be able to do what you teach!) and also devising ideas for the particular circumstances and details of a particular teaching situation. There may be specific areas to develop or some generic issues to explore, that fall outside, or are left over from, available CPD courses, or that require the personal atmosphere of one to one discussion in a guaranteed non-threatening, non-judgemental, optimistic setting. How to develop your own ideas is as important, if not more so, as '100 handy hints for teaching' (though we can assemble these too, of course!).

Beginner's viewpoint

There is another specific and exceptionally useful spin-off from learning to play contemporary music. Tackling new scores gives me daily, often vivid (!), personal experience of actually being a real beginner cellist, of genuinely wondering, "How on earth do I play this music on the cello?!" As well as the resulting empathy with pupils, this is a really powerful and continuing revelation as to what the steps along the path to learning really are!

I know there are other ways of reproducing the experience of being a beginner, including learning another instrument, as well as ever-present empathy and long-term memory; but, for me, this experience has been real, vivid and on-going because it concerns the actual instrument that I play and teach. Every new piece brings new things to conquer and reminds me of the great variety of solutions to the craft of playing music, depending both on the individual player and the nature of the music to be played.

"I wish I had time to practise!"…

I also have wide experience of picking up the pieces after long breaks from playing, and of keeping some sort of something going during enforced breaks, so that when I can play again it feels more familiar and ground is regained more easily. There are also ways to cope with a very common situation: playing in ensembles or orchestral rehearsals and concerts with no, or very little, time to practise. Unlike 'no-dig gardening', which really is just that, I can't promise 'no-practice practising' but, actually, we can get surprisingly close to it!