Meet fabulous cellist, early music specialist, professor, and writer, Dr. Sarah Freiberg, and learn about her delightful new album with cello duo partner, Colleen McGary-Smith: Have Cellos, Will Travel.
Meet Cellist Sarah Freiberg
One reason I love my job is that I get to have great conversations with wonderful cellists. I first met Dr. Sarah Freiberg in a 2021 Cello Museum Book Club discussion, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her about her life with the cello and her recent Tutti Bassi album, Have Cellos, Will Travel, with her duo partner, cellist Colleen McGary-Smith. Dr. Freiberg is a tenured cellist in the Handel and Haydn Society who plays a lot of early music. She teaches at Boston University and at the Powers Music School in Belmont, Massachusetts. She is also a writer and the corresponding editor for Strings magazine.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Have Cellos, Will Travel Album by Tutti Bassi
Cello Museum (CM)
Congratulations on your recent recording, Have Cellos, Will Travel, by Tutti Bassi, your duo partnership with Colleen McGary-Smith. Please tell us about this project.
Sarah Freiberg (SF)
Colleen McGary-Smith and I have been colleagues for quite a while, and we thought about playing duos together a little over ten years ago. She is also a tenured member of the Handel and Haydn Society.
We thought it would be fun to do a CD. Maybe we didn’t choose the best time to do a CD because we recorded it in September of 2020. But we were able to do that in a small chapel in a cemetery in Andover, Massachusetts, despite the fact that there was lawn mowing at the same time.
In addition to being a cellist specializing in original instruments, you also are a writer and editor. Please tell us more about your writing and editing projects.
Many years ago, I wrote to Strings magazine to answer somebody’s question, and my letter got published. A student in college asked how she could be a good enough musician if she also had to do other things to get through college. I said you could do it all, because I had done it.
I had very specifically not wanted to go to Conservatory; I wanted to get a well-rounded education, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a musician. Being in a small pond and being a big fish could be a really good thing because I got a lot more opportunities to perform; I could give a recital every year and that was great. I had to do a lot of writing as well.
But I think from having written that first little letter, my name got processed by Strings magazine. When I did my doctoral lecture recital, it was on the so-called Boccherini Cello Concerto, which, as most of us know, is essentially a Grützmacher invention. I had done the lecture recital using bits of two violin duets and the Cello Sonata that’s very similar; a couple of people asked if I’d write it down.
So I approached Strings magazine and said, “Would you be interested in this?” At that point, they were very serious about checking my credentials and wanting me to talk with an expert. I did, and that was my very first article. That was a long time ago.
After that, I started writing other things, or they’d asked me to review a prototype of a bow. When my daughter was very small (she’s now 28) [I wrote] about traveling from Seattle to San Francisco with a baby and a cello, and making that work.
The editor at the time, said, “You know, you write a lot. Would you like to be a corresponding editor?” I’ve been that ever since, which mostly just means that I write a lot, but sometimes they asked me to look something over. Or they might say, “We need some reviews, can you do that?” So they come up with ideas, and I come up with ideas – and I’ve been writing ever since.
Guerini Cello Sonatas
You write wonderful articles and you also edit music, not just words. Please tell us more about the editions you’ve made.
Long ago, I came across these sonatas by a guy named Guerini. I was playing in a trio in San Francisco, and there’s a collection of all things Italian, the de Bellis Collection, at San Francisco State, which happens to include some music. We did a little recording of music from there.
So I went through and found the mistakes. I also went through it with my friend Byron Schenkman, who is a wonderful keyboard player. If there were mistakes in the figures, I might not have caught all of them. There’s that [corrected] first edition, but a lot of people don’t like to read from early editions, so we made [the other, modern] edition for PRB Productions, and Byron wrote a really nice realization of the keyboard part. That was a while ago. Since then, with so many pieces available for free on IMSLP and other places, I think people have gotten more used to first editions. They’ve also gotten used to these pieces that nobody’s ever heard of before – there’s lots of music out there.
The Difference an Edition Makes
In fact, I teach a class at BU in the spring, which is Baroque Cello for Modern Cellists. Occasionally, I have bass players, too. I was giving them their first early edition to look at – the Lanzetti Sonata Op. 1, No. 1 – which is basically in first position. It’s not particularly hard; a little bit awkward in places, but it’s not hard if you know how to read it.
I realized, trying to give it to a student in middle school, that it was impossible for her to read. Many years ago, I also wrote an article about it. I had one of my graduate students at BU make a modern copy of the piece. Then all of a sudden, it wasn’t so hard.
What I realized is that it’s a really good introduction for people who don’t read first editions to look at, because the notes themselves are not so difficult. It was fun to look at, because, for example, they were trying to line up the two parts – the basso continuo aligned with the solo part. They looked at a note, which was a quarter note with a dot. The dot was quite far away from the quarter note, and they wondered why.
I said, “That’s where that beat should be. If you look at the part below, you know exactly when and where that dot should be.” That’s really confusing. So it’s great for learning. Then I say, “Well, you look at the end of one line, and maybe it’s halfway through the measure, maybe it’s not, but you’ll see a little squiggle at the end of the line. Notice what note it’s on, because that’s the next note you’re going to be playing. They were very thoughtful back then.” So it’s fun.
A Gut Feeling – Learn from the Instrument (and its Strings)
That sounds like a great class – I wish I could take it! What advice would you give to a cello student who didn’t have the opportunity to take your class and wanted to try period instruments?
Well, I remember when I was first starting out, somebody told me that the best thing to do was to get a bow and a gut string or two and put them on your instrument because that will train you. They will teach you how to play. I think that’s really true. He said, “Ninety percent of it is the strings and the bow.”
If you have to figure out how to hold it without having an endpin, that also teaches you. You can’t vibrate very much, or it’ll vibrate away from you. You have to learn how to let the cello rest between your legs so that you don’t hold on for dear life and discover that your legs are shaking because you’ve been trying so hard. Choke up on the bow a little bit, and you’ll start finding out just from the instrument what it can and can’t do if you really just let it. Sometimes, it’s hard for us because we know what we want to do.
In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who started me over in seventh grade because I was as tight as a pretzel. Her name was Madeline Foley. She had studied with Casals and lived two blocks from me. I would have these three-hour lessons with her every Friday afternoon, inevitably leaving my watch behind and having to walk back to get it.
She decided that my bow was not going straight. So she forced me to put on a gut A string, and I hated it. If you pressed too hard, it squawked. If you didn’t play in exactly the right place – closer to the bridge as your fingers got further down, then it squawked. If you did anything slightly wrong, it squawked.
I was playing what I didn’t know then was not really the Boccherini Cello Concerto first movement, and I was going to play it for an audition for a summer program. I got into the audition, and I got tight, and I got worried and I stopped paying attention to where my bow was going. I [literally] squeaked my way through that audition. I got into the summer program anyway. (Thank you, Leslie Parnas, for doing that.)
When I got to the program in the summer, I had graduated back to a steel string. That was the first thing Leslie Parnas said to me: “Oh, I see you got rid of your gut A.” So he had certainly noticed it. I had not enjoyed it at all, but much later, I found that modern cellos will take a lot of assault and battery. But they tend to like it much better if you learn how to really coax the sound out from the side rather than pressing. The more I played my Baroque cello, the more I was able to get out of my modern instrument.
How do you balance everything with performing, recording, writing, editing, and being a professor?
I find that being busy is better than not being busy. I also find that if I have very little time to practice, I make really good use of that time. I tend to practice whatever is next and not necessarily just saying, “Oh, I’m gonna play five etudes today, and I’m going to practice ten scales.” I will practice etudes, and Colleen and I usually say in our January get-together, “What etudes do you want to practice this year? Let’s aim to get through Popper this year,” or this and that.
This year, actually, I decided as I was pulling out Dotzauer etudes for one of my students. I looked at the very first Dotzauer etude, which is almost entirely in first position. If you play it the way that it is very specifically [notated] in terms of bow distribution, it is really difficult. So I am now pounding my way through the first volume of Dotzauer etudes. I expect I will have gotten through both books before the end of the year. It’s been a real learning experience. Now, of course, a lot of my students are being forced to do that very first etude.
So I like being busy, but sometimes I’m too busy. Last week the Handel and Haydn Society did all of the Brandenburg Concertos in five or six different locations all over New England. Guy Fishman, who is principal cellist, had to play everything; I only had to play in the third Brandenburg, so it wasn’t so bad for me. We had played them literally as the world was shutting down in the Dominican Republic on March 11th and 12th in 2020. For those, I actually played second gamba as well, which for me was quite a reach. I have played a lot of tenor gamba but not bass, so there was a lot of practicing involved in that.
And organization is key.
Choosing the Cello
What was your first experience with the cello, and how did you choose to play it? I read that you started with a recorder. But please tell us the whole cello story.
I wish I remembered the cello story. My mother was a piano teacher, so, of course, at the age of five, I was introduced to the piano. But also my mother was helping to start what is now the Powers Music School, where I [now] teach. There was a recorder teacher who was going to teach in our basement and it seemed like somebody from the house ought to take recorder lessons. So I actually played recorder through the age of 15. We started a group that was coached every week, playing all this great Renaissance music. That may be part of the reason I like early music. But, I was the youngest, so when the other ones graduated, that was the end of my recorder-playing career.
I played piano from the ages of five to 10. My parents made sure I went to concerts and heard local music. In second grade, when forced to learn penmanship, when we were [answering the question], “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said I wanted to play the cello. I couldn’t spell it to save my life, but that was second grade and I had decided this. I have no idea why – I just liked it.
Then, in fourth grade, they offered it in school, so I took up the cello. I was the one and only cellist in my grade school. A number of little girls thought that it’d be nice to play the violin. By the end of the year, there was me – the violinists had quit. The violin is much harder to start. The teacher was a violinist and I already knew about scales. I had an ear enough to be able to sort of play around on the cello, and he said, “You should find a cello teacher.”
Unfortunately, the teacher that my mother found turned out to be a great cellist but not such a great teacher for little kids. I had this teacher for two years. I’d say, “But I can’t do this.” [His response was,] “Oh, it’ll come.” – “But what about vibrato?” – “Oh, it’ll come.”
I have learned that I don’t want to start little kids on cello either. My son started at four and a half when he discovered there were little cellos, and he had to have one. I said, “I am not teaching you.”
So I had to sort of relearn cello when I started studying with Madeline Foley. It was all in the head – all about understanding. Madeline scared me to death. She threw a pencil on the floor, and in her smoker’s voice, told me to pick it up. I picked up the pencil from the floor, and she said, “Don’t move!” She told me that was the perfect bow position – and she was right.
Relearning the Cello
She had me putting my hand on the bow and taking it off and getting that same position over and over, being in front of a mirror. The first half year, this was seventh grade, I couldn’t play the cello anywhere else. I had just gotten into the greater Boston Youth Symphony, and they had me sitting in the back because I couldn’t miss it, but I couldn’t play. In the middle school orchestra, they said, “You have to play something, just don’t play cello.” – “Okay, I’ll play the bass.” My friends all said, “This isn’t fair. Sarah gets to play something else – we do, too.” It was a terrible year for the orchestra. We had a violinist playing cello, and a cellist playing French horn. It was pretty bad, but we had fun.
By eighth grade, I had graduated to actually being able to play in other places. On the last day of eighth grade, which was the last day of middle school, there was a party. I was planning to go, as I’d been the last two or three years, to a horseback riding camp. Madeline said, you have to take your cello and you have to practice at least 15 minutes a day – she had this stretching exercise. I was just horrified that I had to play the cello at camp.
On the last day of school, I was running around at this party in somebody’s backyard and it was hot and I took off my shoes. My parents always said, “Never go barefoot.” I stepped on something terrible. Luckily, I have high arches, but nobody knows what I stepped on – whether it was glass or whether it was metal. They didn’t want to sew it up, so I spent the summer on crutches and soaking it, and practicing the cello because I couldn’t go to horseback riding camp. That kind of changed the trajectory of things. I never returned to horseback riding camp.
So she had forbidden you to play the cello at all until you had reworked your bow technique?
She wanted to make sure that I was really relaxed in my playing, and that I didn’t get back any of my old habits of being very tight. It worked!
She used to come up behind me while I was playing and grabbed my thumb, to make sure that it was loose. Of course, if somebody grabs your thumb, what do you do but tighten up?
She would show me that you could make part of your finger tight, but make the end of it loose. There are things that she told me that I’m still teaching; things that are much harder than what you actually have to do, like playing in funny rhythms, that she always said was like beating your head against the wall. Why do you do it? Because it feels so good when you stop. She was quite a character. I’m very grateful to her because I certainly wouldn’t have been playing cello past high school had she not been my teacher.
Get Your Skates On – A Merlin Cello and More
That must have been really hard but so helpful.
Please tell us about your Merlin cello, and any other cellos and bows that you play.
My modern cello is not a Merlin. It’s a William Forster Sr. I love this cello. I’d been looking for a cello for a long time, and I bought it because my cello teacher then, Tim Eddy, made it sound gorgeous. I didn’t know how to play it at that point, because I was pressing too hard. I bought that in graduate school.
Then I started playing Baroque cello. I had a series of different instruments, including one that had been made for me. But this one I just got by happenstance. The cello I was using when I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast started sounding terrible on the East Coast when it got dry in the winter. What I didn’t realize was it was simply that the strings had separated – the inside of the gut string, from the metal on the outside. When you’re in Seattle or in San Francisco, it’s always wet enough, [but] I didn’t realize that and the cello sounded awful.
It also had lots of seams and cracks that could have opened up. I went to see luthier Curt Bryant, who happens to live a half a mile from my house. He said, “I’ll take a look at it, Sarah, but I just got this cello for auction in London, and you should take a look at it.” It is this Merlin cello – John Joseph Merlin, who signed it wherever he could. He actually stamped it and signed it on the top. I only just have gotten to see what it looks like on the inside where he signed his name and the date and the place in London.
He was an inventor of epic proportions. One of the things that he is credited with is inventing rollerskates, although he didn’t really – they’d been invented about 60 years before – but he improved them. Unfortunately, he thought that he could show off some of his talents at a masquerade ball by playing his violin and rollerskating at the same time. He didn’t realize that the end of the room was the end of the room, because it was a mirror. He broke the mirror into many pieces. That was a very expensive mirror. Just before I came across the cello, I had seen this little blurb about Merlin and that very event. It ended with “Thus ending both his violin playing and roller skating careers.” He lived another 30 years and he probably didn’t do [either] in public after that.
The Swan – by Joseph Merlin
He made many, many different things. He was interested in automated things like music boxes.The biggest one was a silver Swan, which is life size. It has, I think, eight different tunes that it can play. It is automated to move its head and preen itself and then reach down and it looks like it’s grabbing a couple of fish. If you look carefully, I think you’ll see that the fish are actually inside the mouth already. But they sort of come out and then go back in. That is in the north of England in the Bowes Museum and it is having a significant birthday this year. I’m actually hoping to go see the silver swan.
My article was partially about just searching for that and trying to learn what Merlin was about. Having written that article, I started getting really interesting responses from people. There was an Anglican priest somewhere in England. [He] had inherited his mother’s cello, which was also a Merlin. I heard from the Bowes Museum to say they have his silver swan.
One of the things that’s very odd about Merlin is that he numbered his instruments, but they weren’t in an order you would expect numerically. Mine has the number 54, which happens to be the number of my house. I thought that was perfect, but I have no idea – 54 out of what?
I do now have the book. This is the cover – the Gainsborough portrait of him. For many years, nobody knew that this was Merlin. They thought it was another musician. Once they finally figured out what he’s holding – a measurement for gold that he had developed – somebody came across the broad side of an advertisement for wheels for a horsecart. It was an inverted picture in black and white of this portrait, and someone said, “That must be Merlin.”
From what I understand from the Bowes Museum, Gainsborough actually did two portraits for him. This was the fancier one. The other one was for him to send home to his family in Belgium. I’ve learned a lot about him.
He was one of my favorite quirky makers I learned about when I was first studying British cello history. Please tell us about your bows.
I have two old British bows – what we always called transitional bows. One is stamped Dodd, and it’s incredibly lightweight. Some people actually thought it was a viola bow. It’s great for playing very lightweight pieces like Haydn or Mozart. It was missing its frog and it was missing its button. It had actually belonged to a violinist, and one of my teachers had gotten it from him. That was Bonnie Hampton. She didn’t know what to do with it so I started using it. She had a baroque frog on it. I put a classical frog on it and after a while, I said, “Is this insured?” After I insured it, like 10 years later, I said, “Can I just buy it?” I’ve had this for quite a while and I love it.
My other bow, which I nicknamed my “club,” with its hatchet head, I got on eBay back when you could actually do that. That was about 20 years ago and it’s got this huge piece of ivory. I’m not going to travel with it anywhere out of the country. It was going for $500, which to me seemed like a lot of money for something that I couldn’t try because it was in London and I was in Boston. I started bidding, you know, $50 and $100, and other people started bidding on it and it didn’t go for sale. I wrote to the seller and said, “Are you going to put it back out there?” He said, “Well, I didn’t it didn’t reach the minimum, which was $500. If you want to pay $500, you can have it.” So I bought the bow. It is great for Beethoven. In terms of weight, [these two bows are] about as opposite as they can get, but I love [them].
My modern bow is from 1850, and it’s stamped Bernardel – it’s by Simon. I love my bow. I just happened on this, because the bow I had been using which was a Hill – I was in grad school – and the tip broke. My coach at that point, his son was looking at this bow, and he just let me try it, and I loved it. I may well use this for Mendelssohn. I will certainly use it for Brahms. I love my bow – very lightweight, very lovely. [I still have] my Hill that has the broken tip. Very sad, but it works fine.
I bought another bow off eBay fairly recently just because I love the frog. I couldn’t tell from the pictures that its tip is not original. It’s okay. It’s good to give a student when they forget their bow.
I have a bow that is carbon fiber as well. I got one that was a prototype when I reviewed it, early on. They were supposed to last forever; I sold it to a student and it actually broke, but they stood behind it. Of course, they have better bows now – much nicer looking bows – and so he got a much better bow. I got one of the CodaBows; they look much more like wood now. The original one I got was kind of scary looking.
A Convertible Cello
They’re fantastic. What is either your favorite or the most unusual cello that you’ve ever played?
Of course, my favorites are the ones I have, because I’m biased. I remember when I was in a string quartet in grad school, and we went to what was then the Portsmouth International String Quartet Competition, which is now in London. We had a host family of a doctor and his wife. The doctor played a Stradivarius violin, so the violinists got to try the violin. But I didn’t get to try anything like that. His wife played the cello but she didn’t have anything nearly so interesting.
While we were in Portsmouth, there was Roland Ross – who made Baroque instruments. We went to visit him – and I did get him to make me a cello.
For me, what’s most exotic so far is simply playing a five-string cello, because it’s not what I normally get to do. I have an instrument that right now is out on loan. I thought I would be clever and get an instrument that I could play as a big cello – a basse de violon – but also that was convertible and I could play it as a five-string cello. It has two bridges, and it has two nuts, and a tailpiece that has both four and five holes. I thought – two for the price of one!
Unfortunately, it’s really big. [Playing] the sixth suite on that hurts my hand. The most unusual one was [made] by Dominik Zuchowicz. He was a Canadian maker. Sadly, he passed away quite young. It was such a great idea, to have a hybrid, and I did play it quite a bit as a basse de violon. I played it a few months ago for a Bach Aria written for piccolo cello; [it was] mostly in first position [so it] wasn’t so bad. The sixth suite I still haven’t mastered [on it], because I need a smaller instrument.
Please tell us about some upcoming cello projects that people can look forward to – recording projects, concerts, online events, or summer programs you’re teaching.
I have a couple of interesting chamber music concerts coming up. One is playing the Brahms clarinet trio and a Louise Farrenc clarinet trio as well, on original instruments, but at 440 pitch, because that’s what the piano is at, at the moment.
Also, [I’ll be] playing Beethoven Op. 18, No. 1, and Haydn Op. 20, No. 2 – my favorite Haydn string quartet. Those will keep me out of trouble besides playing Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony in a couple of weeks.
The Handel and Haydn Society has concerts in March, April, and May; they also have an interesting program featuring Black composers in June. That’s going to take place at JFK Museum, in Boston. I’m also playing for the Connecticut Early Music Society. We’re doing Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Beethoven Violin Concerto, and that’s in June. In July, I play for Blue Hill Bach.
In June, Tutti Bassi will be performing on the Society for Historically Informed Performance (SoHIP) series in Boston.
What question or questions do you wish I had asked? Please ask and answer.
With More Time, I’d . . .
What do I wish I had more time for? I would like to learn the sixth suite on a five-string instrument. I had a former teacher who said that when he turned 70, he wanted to play all six suites, and he did it. I thought, you know, having some kind of goal like that is great.
The first year I was in grad school, there was a set of gambas. I didn’t know anything about gambas, but they said, “You like early music, you’re playing gamba.” I tried the bass gamba, and it was huge! I couldn’t play that, so I played tenor. I had one lesson, then I played in a consort, and then I forgot about it.
I ended up in Seattle, and there was a great gambist there. I thought, “Oh, I’ll play during the summer!” [Then] I had a baby – and I had a gamba – and that didn’t really happen.
I came to the East Coast, and a couple of my students at BU were playing in a gamba consort. They were getting coached by this wonderful gambist, Laura Jeppesen. They needed one more player, and there was a tenor gamba. Okay – one more lesson. Over 30 years, I’ve had three lessons and sort of bashed my way through some really wonderful music on the gamba.
Then I bought a bass – a tiny bass – and I thought, “This is what I will learn to do during lockdown.”
Yesterday, I was playing for an oboist who, during lockdown, actually learned how to play Baroque oboe. She’s applying to summer programs. I decided, since I was going to accompany her, I would accompany one piece on the bass gamba. What would I like to do? Actually learn how to play the bass gamba well enough to play a gamba sonata.
Would you play a seven-string bass or a six-string?
A six-string I think. It would be nice to actually play it well enough to feel what it feels like to play one of the Bach gamba sonatas – or all of them, when it’s not like playing the sixth suite on a four-string instrument, when you have to do all this shifting that you shouldn’t have to do. So that’s somewhere in the future.
How to Follow and Support Dr. Sarah Freiberg
Dr. Freiberg has generously donated an autographed copy of her album for a giveaway. Congratulations to Eric Fletcher of Fountain, CO, the winner of our giveaway!
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