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Cellist Valérie Aimard and Her Innovative and Monumental YouTube Projects

I first encountered the marvelous work of French cellist Valérie Aimard on YouTube through her channel, CELLO KIDS, a video “library intended for apprentice cellists, teachers, amateur musicians, and music lovers.”

Based in Paris, Aimard has been traveling with her cello for decades, playing concerts in more than 30 countries, enjoying chamber music and teaching. She has been teaching kids through pre-professional students for about 25 years at the Conservatoire Maurice Ravel and chamber music and pedagogy at the Paris Conservatoire.

Aimard is highly active in her spare time. She is a mime – and teaches mime. She is also an avid tennis fan and played competitively through age 20.

This month, Aimard completed her monumental five-plus-hour series, ONLY CELLO, publishing the 65th and final video on YouTube, each with detailed commentary.

ONLY CELLO and CELLO KIDS represent an innovative way of using and understanding YouTube. Valérie Aimard has used the platform to create projects that incorporate audio, video, and text. Each channel serves as a complete unit, with a beginning, middle, and end – more like a book or a boxed set of LPs or DVDs. She has combined the best of traditional means of sharing music with the benefits of an online video-sharing platform.

Aimard kindly took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about ONLY CELLO, CELLO KIDS, being a mime, her cello and bow, and more.

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Meet Valérie Aimard

Valérie Aimard

Valérie Aimard. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Cello Museum (CM)

Thank you for speaking with me today. You are such a well-rounded artist – producing beautiful videos, teaching, and working as a mime. You have achieved an exceptionally high level in both cello and mime – two pursuits that require so much work. Yet, so many of us struggle with getting to a high level on just one thing.

Valérie Aimard (VA)

When I was younger, I was a tennis player, too. I played both the cello and tennis until I was 20. I think I always needed to do different things. Playing tennis as well as cello as a teenager helped me learn how to organize my schedule to have enough time for everything. I always needed to do different things – not only playing the cello.

I was totally into tennis. I don’t play anymore, but I avidly follow the ATP tour.

ONLY CELLO

CM

Congratulations on completing your monumental project, ONLY CELLO, with the 65th video this month.

VA

Thank you very much. It’s an enormous project. I had a vision at the end of the summer of 2018 when I was on holiday. I was relaxing at the swimming pool, thinking about what I could do as a recording project. That year, I had played all of the Bach Suites in concerts several times – I did a lot of work on them and played them several times.

Once I had finished these concerts, I asked myself, “Now what should I do for solo cello?” At that moment, while relaxing, I had the idea of recording all the cello pieces I’ve loved for many, many years. I’ve always loved repertoire, and when I’ve had free time, I have always learned new pieces. So I have a vast repertoire for solo cello.

I started to think about a list of pieces. Very quickly, I had about three hours of repertoire to record. Then I started to think more. I made a huge list and carefully chose what I wanted to record.

When I started the project recordings, I had over five hours of music on the list. All this was before the lockdown. When the lockdown came, it was the perfect time for me to do the project because I could concentrate on it. So, for one and a half years, I worked on the project every morning for three, four, or five hours.

I recorded a lot of Baroque pieces and all the 20th-century repertoire – the Dutilleux, Lutosławski, Ligeti – all the fantastic pieces. I accomplished my dream. I did all the pieces I wanted to do from the beginning – 65 pieces for solo cello. You can see them on YouTube on my channel, called ONLY CELLO.

Precision Planning

CM

That’s an incredible amount of work – I can’t even imagine all that went into it. It’s an enormous contribution for both the listener and cellists, too, who are looking for new pieces and get caught in a loop of Bach, Britten, and Reger. But there’s an enormous unaccompanied cello repertoire. How did you narrow it down? Did you have all 65 pieces chosen before you started recording? Or did the number of pieces grow?  

VA

I decided before I started. I had the list, including the order. That was a big motivation for me. I had to do it.

Also, you were speaking about the Bach suites, it’s true that they’re extraordinary pieces, but sometimes the other baroque pieces are overshadowed by them because all cellists play the Bach suites. There are wonderful pieces, ricercars, by Giovanni Battista degli Antonii and Domenico Gabrielli, who were the first composers to write for the solo cello in the 17th century in Bologna, Italy. Also the [Joseph (Giuseppe) Marie Clément Ferdinand] dall’Abaco caprices. They are wonderful pieces, seldom performed. But I play these pieces in concerts, and I thought it would be interesting for other cellists to get to know them, too.

I made very careful choices. For example, there are 12 ricercars [by G. B. degli Antonii], but I chose three of them I really like to play. Sometimes, I didn’t choose whole pieces. I decided to record only one work by Reger because I thought it was important to include in this cello anthology, but I just chose to play one movement because I have a story with this Prelude. I entered the Paris Conservatoire 35 years ago with this Prelude.

Sometimes, I chose to record just one movement of a larger work. These choices make ONLY CELLO a kind of history of the cello.

I also spent a lot of time writing the texts below the videos. I included information about the piece, the composer, and the history of the cello. The text on each video isn’t very long because we don’t have much space on YouTube. I did a lot of work on these descriptions, and I have not finished. It was very interesting for me to work on this text because I learned even more about the pieces, and it got me thinking more about the composers.

Don’t Skip the Descriptions

CM

What do you plan to do with all of this text that you’ve written for ONLY CELLO? Will you turn this into a book or a manual for cellists?

VA

Thank you for mentioning this idea because I’m thinking of it, but I’m not sure how to do it. My texts are great for YouTube, but I’ll need to edit them differently for a book.

In addition to history, I give a lot of anecdotes about my musical encounters with great musicians. For example, György Kurtág – I was very close to him when he was a composer-in-residence in Paris. So the text descriptions under the videos of the Kurtág pieces, which are really wonders of the 20th century, include the comments he gave me when we worked together on the pieces. These recollections are priceless.

 
I’m finishing the 65 videos on the channel with pieces written for me by the French composer Guy Reibel. He’s now 85. We have had a wonderfully creative relationship over the past five years. He wrote pieces for me for cello with text based on Japanese haiku. I put my words in it, too, making it very unusual and personal. The pieces are so poetic, and the work we did together was so inspiring. The pieces are wonderful, and the work we did together really had a major influence on my artistic development. I include all of his comments in the text on YouTube.

Behind-the-Scenes Recording Details

CM

Please tell us about the cinematography – particularly the lighting and sound in your videos. It’s exceptionally well done.

VA

I could speak for three hours about all the behind-the-scenes details because it was such an adventure. In the end, people see a little video on YouTube, and everybody thinks it’s just one take and that there were no problems. But there are so many stories behind every video.

While thinking about how and where to do the project, I happened to play in a private place in Paris, which is 15 minutes from my home. It’s a wonderful place called the Atelier de la Main d’Or (the Workshop of the Golden Hand). It used to be a woodworking workshop. Americans bought this place 30 years ago, and they made a little concert hall. It holds about 100 people, and there is wood everywhere, and it has a projector with lighting.

Valérie Aimard. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Valérie Aimard. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The person who owns this place is the most wonderful man, David Tepfer – the nicest person on earth. He’s crazy with video and recording. After my concert, we were having wine together, and he told me, “Well, anytime you have a recording project, if you want to do it here, I’m very open to that.”

It was amazing, and after a few trial runs, I ended up doing the whole thing there. That was 18 days of recording, and over a year and a half of editing the recordings. But so many things happened.

I recorded the whole thing with him with three cameras facing me. I took a sound engineer there, and we became the greatest friends. He did a fantastic job. It was an enormous project. Of course, I listened to all the tracks, and I chose everything by myself – it was an enormous project. All the details are carefully thought out.

Synesthesia Sympatico

Also, I do shows as a mime – one-woman shows without the cello. For the mime, lighting is very, very important. So, I’ve developed sensitivity to the light on stage.

From the beginning of the project, I had this idea. I see lights where I play pieces – I see how the lights should be on the stage. For example, in the Krzysztof Penderecki Notturno, or for bright pieces, I have the image of the scenery and the lighting. The man at l’Atelier de la Main d’Or happens to be a little like me in this regard. When he listens to music, he also sees it in light. It’s called synesthesia, meaning that two senses work together, hearing and seeing in this case.

I had this idea of doing different lights for every video, and he loved to do that. So, he did the lighting for the 65 videos, and we spent so much time on this, too.

It was a huge project because it was not only a question of sound and the choice of video recording. For contemporary pieces, the choreography is often important, too, not only playing the cello, it’s all over the place with the pizzicato, the col legno – it’s very visual. Because I’m a mime, I make something of the movement around the cello in some pieces. For example, in the Prokofiev March, I do a little playing as a comedian. It was very important for me to have the video, and not only the sound recording. To end the project, there are the Reibel haikus which are really visual. They involve playing, text, and mime – all at the same time.

For me, it was clear that this was a video project, but it’s very, very demanding video. I even had to have the same length of hair.

In 2019, I spent a whole year playing through the pieces. I did many, many run-throughs. Then, I started to record in 2020. It took me a year and a half to record, but it was very concentrated work. It was not easy to get my mind off the project.

Last September, I finished the recording. So much of my mind was on the project – it was not easy to think of other projects. Also, I still had a lot of video editing to check. It was enormous. I needed not one, but two video editors to complete all 65 videos.

Beginnings with the Cello

CM

I had a teacher who told me about big projects that, “Art is never finished – there’s only a deadline.”

Let’s turn to your life as a cellist. How did you choose the cello?

VA

When I was a kid, there was music at home because I have a brother who is a pianist. When I was born, there was always a piano at home. My parents were both doctors, and they were great music lovers, so there were records at home.

So it was natural for me to start the piano when I was five, but I didn’t like any of my piano teachers. They were messy, they were hard, and all of them made me cry.

Then, two years later, a friend of my brother who is a cellist – Julius Berger, a wonderful German cellist who teaches in Augsburg – came to our home. I was six years old. He spent one week – I remember it as one month, but I think it was really one week. He played all the repertoire with my brother. I remember quite precisely – they played the Arpeggione, the Brahms F Major, and Prokofiev.

Then, when September came, I said, “Well, I’d like to start the cello.” I started the cello, and I had very, very nice teachers. I loved my teachers. It started like that.

It was clear by the time I was 13 or 14 that I would be a cellist. I didn’t really choose, you know. I did not imagine I could do anything else. I play the cello.

The Cello – A Love Story

CM

It’s always lovely to hear how people came to the cello and now can’t imagine life without it.

Please tell us about your cello and your bow.

VA

The cello I’m playing is one of the reasons for ONLY CELLO, because I love playing this cello.

I had been playing a French cello for more than 15 years – a Miremont, a very beautiful cello. Of course, you always think that sometime you might play an Italian cello, but you don’t know if it will happen. From time to time, I spoke with my luthier, Pierre Caradot, one of the finest adjusters, about maybe finding an Italian cello. And he knows me very, very well. One day, he told me, “Well, in a few months, I will have a surprise for you.”

I came back two months later, and I said, “You did not forget about the surprise?”

“No, no, wait, it is not here.”

Twelve years ago, at the end of the year, I went to his workshop. And he said, “Oh, look, the surprise is here.” I saw the back of a cello on the floor. The back was exceptional – so beautiful. Because I was having a very important concert a few days later, I said, “Well, okay. I’ll leave this cello today, and we’ll make the adjustments on mine. Then I will come back after the concert.” It was at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

I played my concert, and the day after, I went to try this cello. It was Christmas time, so I took the cello home during the Christmas holiday. I played it six hours a day for two weeks – I couldn’t stop. I played all the repertoire. It was amazing, and I never gave the cello back.

It’s an Italian cello from the end of the 17th century. It’s supposed to be from 1696. We don’t know exactly. It’s supposed to be a Grancino, but a few things show that he didn’t make it, so we say it’s from the workshop of Grancino. Inside there is a label, but we don’t really know what it is.

This cello is exceptional because the proportions of its back are asymmetric, and everything is not straight, but the sound is exceptional. It’s more of a speaking cello than a very powerful cello which suits me very well. You don’t make any effort – the sound comes very easily. It’s a very musical cello. I love this cello, and I love to play it. I need to play it every day.

It’s one of the reasons it was such a pleasure for me to work three or four hours a day to record all these pieces for ONLY CELLO. For a few years, I felt the cello was better than I was. But, you know, I always had the feeling that the cello was ahead of me – there were so many things to explore. At the moment, I’ve spent so much time with it that now we are really equals. I feel that it’s like the horse and the rider.

The Right Bow

Valérie Aimard

Valérie Aimard. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Also, the bow – it’s a wonderful story. It’s a very beautiful French bow by [Joseph] Henry, from the middle of the 19th century. I’ve been playing with it for 25 years.

The master who influenced me a lot was Bernard Greenhouse. In the 90s, I met him in Switzerland, and for five or six years, I followed him everywhere in Europe. At the end of a course with him, I was talking about bows with a student who was there. He told me, “I have a Henry,” and I said, “I have a Henry, too.” Because at that time, I had a bow by Henry that had been broken; I could afford it because it had been broken. I said, “Oh, can I try your Henry? It is amazing that both of us have a Henry.”

His bow had all the qualities of mine, but just a little more – all the qualities I missed in the other bow. It was the same thing as with the cello. I spent the whole evening – until three in the morning – playing and playing and playing.

The next morning, I was playing the Schumann concerto for Greenhouse. I started, and he stopped me after about one line as usual. We worked a little on the beginning, and he let me play the whole first movement. Then he told me to go on. I played the second, and finally, he let me play the entire concerto. At the end, he said, “Bravo, bravo. You have a wonderful bow arm.” It was the first time he had told me this, and I was playing with this new bow.

I almost didn’t play with it. But it was obvious that this bow suited me so well that Greenhouse said, “You have a wonderful bow arm,” for the first time in my life.

It was a choice to use the same cello and bow for ONLY CELLO for all these recordings of pieces from different periods. Some other cellists might have chosen to change the cello or change the strings or change the bow for baroque and for romantic pieces. But both my cello and my bow are so important to me that I think of it as a wonderful collaboration. So it was my choice to play everything, music of every style and every period, on the same cello and same bow.

No Repertoire for Mimes

CM

How did you get started being a mime?

VA

I started mime 20 years ago. At some point, when I was 25 or 30, I thought a lot about the relationship we have with the cello, searching for the most economical technique. Actually, Greenhouse was a huge influence in this because he was so natural on the cello. His whole approach was that every gesture you make on the cello has to bring music; he never separated technique and music.

Another musician who influenced me a lot was György Sebök. I attended many of his masterclasses. He was also searching for a way to transfer what you feel inside directly into the instrument.

That was in the 90s, and I did a lot of work on this because I was playing competitions and had tension when playing the cello, trying to get more sound and more intensity. So I did a lot of research on how you relate all your movements to what you want to express musically. I read a lot of books about actors and their training, and I discovered that actors had training for how to express feelings with their bodies. As musicians, we learned how to use our fingers but never how to express ourselves with the body.

One Sunday, I went to the Olympia to see the great mime, Marcel Marceau. He was the greatest, and he was in whites alone on stage. The show started in silence and captivated the audience for an hour and a half. I was so impressed by this show that I went to see his class in his school in Paris. It was extraordinary.

Two years after this show, I started mime. I didn’t go to Marceau’s school because I was much older. But, I found an extraordinary teacher. I was fond of it at once, and I tried to work and work and work. I met a lot of mimes, I did a lot of courses. Very quickly, I started to create my own stories. I made my own one-woman shows – alone on stage, without my cello.

I did not expect that it would become so important for me. Now I say that I’m a cellist and mime. Also, I teach mime for musicians. As you can see on ONLY CELLO, I mix cello and mime, cello and text, and mime and text. It’s a kind of creativity that I have developed over the last ten years.

Everyone has to find his own thing. What was wonderful for me with mime is that it works on all the parts of the body – on control and feelings. Mime also helps with expression, because we work on joy, sadness, and anger – on all expressions. As a musician, it came through my playing without thinking about it. It’s extraordinary for creativity because mimes invent their own stories. There is no repertoire for mimes. But I don’t want to convince everyone to be a mime. I want people to find the right thing for them – something different than what they do every day that can help their main thing.

CELLO KIDS

CM

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

VA

Yes. We have spoken about ONLY CELLO, which includes 65 solo cello pieces. Well, we created another YouTube channel, which is called CELLO KIDS. It’s a channel for teaching repertoire. I did it before recording the solo pieces, and it was also a huge project. I created it with another cellist, Antonina Zharava, and the pianist Cédric Lorel.

CELLO KIDS includes 133 pieces of teaching repertoire. We started at the very, very beginning – with three fingers in Waggon Wheels – I don’t know if you have it in the States. We have about 60 pieces for the first to the fourth year of cello playing, and then about 60 pieces from grades five to eight.

It’s a wonderful story. When I had this idea for ONLY CELLO, I told Antonina, a friend who’s teaching at the same conservatory, about the project of solo pieces. She said, “Why don’t we do it for cello teaching?” We were in a café in Paris, and we thought about it for about five seconds, and we said, “Let’s do it.”

She’s even more of a hard worker than I am, and we started right away. We choose very musical pieces – not always academic works. We had a wonderful pianist – he’s the best piano accompanist you can find. He knows all the pieces because he has been playing the accompaniments at the conservatory for years.

Then we found a wonderful place in Toulouse, in the south of France. We went there two times for three days, and we recorded 60 pieces in three days. It was enormous.

The name of the channel is CELLO KIDS. He did not want it to be too academic and too serious. We wanted to do it very seriously but make it fun with fantasy and imagination.

We added a few accessories and a few mise en scène; it makes it very poetic and very fun. The kids like it, and the adults love it, and we have had a lot of views. It’s just amazing. We just passed 700,000 views, and every day it goes up by 1000.

We thought it would be helpful, but we did not think for a second that so many people would look at it. I think we will pass a billion views in a few months; this is amazing.

With the two channels, there are 200 pieces in total.

Back . . . to the Future

CM

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

VA

After finishing this project with all of the solo cello pieces, suddenly, it became obvious to me that this is the moment to record the Bach suites. That’s not very original because all cellists are doing it now, but it’s important to me, and I’m going to record them in May and July this year. But, this time I’m making a CD without video. So, I’m working on the suites again. It’s wonderful to go back to them after doing all of this solo repertoire and having all of these adventures. It’s like returning to the beginning, and I’m having a wonderful time preparing this recording.

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