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Miranda Wilson: Life, the Universe of Bach, and Everything

Miranda Wilson, Cellist and Writer

Miranda Wilson

Miranda Wilson is a cellist, a professor of cello at the University of Idaho, and the author of two books. One is Cello Practice Cello Performance.

Even in my work, it is rare to come across someone so passionate about cello and writing that they have successfully pursued both arts to the professional level as they require such a significant investment of time and energy. Miranda is one of these exceptional cellist authors whose work I’ve been following for some time.

Recently, I was fortunate to sit down with her to talk about her new book, published autumn 2022, The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites.

What follows is the transcript of our conversation, along with my review of The Well-Tempered Cello.

Tl;dr: I love it and highly recommend it, particularly for adult cellists and music lovers. If you’re worried about delivery times, the Kindle version of the book makes an instant gift.

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


Cello Museum (CM)

Please tell us about your book.

Miranda Wilson (MW)

I first got the idea for this book many years ago, when I was a new professor at the University of Idaho. I came here in 2010; [it] involved leaving my previous job as the cellist of the Tasman String Quartet. We were a group of four New Zealand string players who decided to seek our fortune as a string quartet.

I loved being in that quartet so much, but the workload and the constant travel made me wonder what would happen if I also wanted to have some work life balance – that’s not really something that you get a lot in a string quartet – and I was newly married, I desperately wanted to have a child, and a happy life. So I was incredibly lucky to win a job here, a job that I love as a professor of cello. But I really missed that quartet.

Beethoven Bash

As I was unpacking my office – I am really clumsy – and I was trying to put books into my bookshelf, a hardback volume of Beethoven string quartets (all of them, so you can imagine the size of the thing) fell on my head. I fell over on the floor and burst into tears.

Beethoven String Quartets

This is where my book really starts. I started thinking, “Oh, no, I left my quartet, and I haven’t played all of Beethoven’s string quartets yet.” I had a moment of drama there.

Back to Bach

Somehow, a voice just said, “You could still play the Bach cello suites.” I hadn’t actually played them that much in concerts for several years because I’d been in a quartet. Of course, the string quartet as a genre postdates Bach’s lifetime, so there hadn’t really been the opportunity to do so.

I started coming up with all of these reasons why I could not do that. But there was a voice in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone that said: “You should do a marathon concert of the Bach suites.” That was quite overwhelming because it takes a long time to play them all.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas.

Then there is the fifth suite where you have to detune your cello. Finally, there’s the sixth suite that wasn’t even written for a four-string cello, and I didn’t have a five-string cello. In fact, I barely even had a four-string cello. During my quartet years, a very generous sponsor bought an instrument that I was allowed to play. I gave it back when I left the quartet, so I was left with my own cello, which was more of a student-type instrument, and I was feeling very dissatisfied with it.

5-string cello

However, I needed the project. So I decided to give myself until I was 40 to get it done. [At the time] I was 30, and I actually made it a couple of years ahead of schedule. In between, I wrote a different book, and I had a child, but I eventually made it through.

This book is the story of all the interesting highways and byways of how I did it – all the tangents or the distractions, and the years of self-immersion in this amazing music, that we all started learning as children. But we come back to it again and again and again and again and we change our interpretation of it. I think it changes us too, doesn’t it?


I always love watching students when they first learn a Bach suite. They get through the prelude of the first suite, and are surprised to find themselves exhausted. But then they build endurance, and sometimes they comment on it. The suites are tests of endurance, aren’t they?


They are. People think that because it’s the first one that everybody learns, that it’s the easy one. But I don’t think it’s easy at all. I think the first prelude is actually a really hard piece. You’re absolutely right, I think it is a feat of stamina to get through even one Bach suite, which is why in order to play them all in one concert, you really have to go backwards and forwards, and backwards and forwards, and just keep reviewing.


That’s kind of what I ended up doing with the structure of my book. I do think that gives us a built-in structure by having six suites, each one of which is divided into six movements. So I cast it into 36 short chapters, the way that Eric Siblin did in his wonderful book.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I decided to use the built-in arc of the six-suite cycle, writing the book in ritornello form – the backwards and forwards and then returning to certain refrains. I also wanted to do something with the concept of the repeat because all of these binary dances in the suites have repeats. The second time, you’re supposed to go back and add some ornamentation, add some flourishes to it. So, as a joke to myself, I don’t know if anyone has noticed this yet, but I took an idiom or an expression, and I put it in again, a few pages later. That was my way of doing a repeat sign and an ornament.


I see that you have Luis and Clark five-string and four-string cellos. Please tell us about the cellos you play now.


I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the difficulty of playing the sixth suite on a four-string cello, and my quest to find a manageable way to get a five-string cello. If you do some research into people who have experimented with five-string cellos, there was an article where Steven Isserlis was interviewed. He said that he tried an amazing five-string cello but he thought it sounded dull.

I thought, people aren’t going to let me just show up at their doorstep and say, “Can I try your five-string cello from the 18th century?” If it were Steven Isserlis, “Come on in.” If it’s me, no. *Slam*

So I thought, “OK, well, I don’t have any money. I’m not famous. I don’t have the funds to commission a new instrument. What do I do?” Obviously, an 18th-century instrument is off the table; even if I did have lots of money there aren’t that many of them. And then I thought, “OK, I’ll buy a cheap student instrument, and I’ll have somebody change the fingerboard, bridge, and the peg box, and put a 5th string on it. But then I thought, “Well, if it’s a cheap instrument, it already sounds bad. What’s it gonna do with an extra string on it?”

An Old Problem Solved with New Materials

Then I ended up kicking myself. I could have found the answer to this all along. I got a phone call from Rachel Johnston, my inseparable friend from my student days in New Zealand and London. I told her about the five-string cello problem to see if she had any ideas. I told her that everyone says multi-string cellos don’t sound any good.

She tells me that’s absolute nonsense. “Do these people not listen to rock music?” she asked. “Do you really need me to answer that?” I replied.  “Rock musicians put five and six strings on cellos all the time,” Rachel said, “and they sound great.” This is why you need a best friend. She said, “Well, you know those people who make carbon fiber cellos? You know they do a five-string one, too.”

Luis and Clark 5-String Cello

5-String Carbon Fiber Cello by Luis and Clark. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

I already had a carbon fiber cello, so why this did not occur to me earlier, I don’t know.


I have a modern French cello, which got me through college and graduate school. I found that it didn’t take me much further than that. I loved it. I did a lot of great things with it. I played it in competitions and so on. I still have it because I have a sentimental attachment to it.

In my quartet, I had a couple of sponsored instruments. The irony is that when you’re a professional musician, you make no money, and instruments cost so much. I was incredibly lucky that some sponsors loaned me wonderful instruments on which I felt I could do so much. When I got my job in Idaho, I had to give the sponsored instrument back, and the problem was that turning 30 seems to close a lot of doors for you.

Ageism and Musical Instruments

I appealed to sponsors and instrument banks saying, “Look, I don’t have a good cello.” And they’d say, “Our instruments are for young up-and-comers.” Only weeks before, people had described me as a “young up-and-comer,” but apparently, now I was too old and too employed.

So, I struggled along with my own imperfect instrument. I thought, “I’m just going to do as much as I can, while I keep working to try and get a borrowed instrument or save for an instrument of my own.” But when I visited major cities and went to dealers and tried out what they had, I didn’t like anything that cost less than six figures. That’s as much as the house.

Luis and Clark

And I became more and more dissatisfied until I started thinking about Luis and Clark instruments quite a long time before I even knew they made one with five strings. And I got one of them because I had tried a prototype when they were first invented. When I was a student, I happened to meet Luis Leguia.

Yo-Yo Ma with Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Cello. Photo: Kevin Sprague

Yo-Yo Ma with Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Cello. Photo: Kevin Sprague

As soon as I got it, I thought, “OK, this is something that I’m going to use for playing contemporary music.” But I found that it had a sort of hollowness to the resonance that worked extremely well for Baroque music, which I hadn’t expected. I live in a very dry climate here in Idaho, and I found that it was just so nice to have an instrument that was basically impervious to temperature and humidity, because we don’t get a ton of humidity here and instruments react accordingly. So I love the convenience of it. I love that you could just put it in your car and drive when it was hot, and not worry that it was going to do something terrible on the way to the destination.

So that’s the instrument that I’ve been mostly playing on for about five or six years. And then there was the five-string cello. Which was definitely a surprise, because I thought you could just grab a cello, get somebody to put five strings on it, and then you could just play it like a normal one. I didn’t realize that it was actually a completely different instrument. Although it’s approximately the same size, when I first got it, I kept bashing into other strings.


Sometimes if I get really tired, even though I’ve had my instrument for over 15 years, I still sometimes reach for the A string where the E string is, because I’m so used to having four strings.


That’s very relatable. Paradoxically, I think playing the 5-string cello improved my string crossing technique on a four-string cello, because I realized how little you actually have to move.


How did you first choose the cello? And how did you get started on it?


It’s a funny story. As I wrote in the book, I came from a musical family. My dad’s an opera singer, and my mother is a pianist. So I grew up in a house full of music, and I started playing the piano.

When I was four, she happened to meet a Suzuki violin teacher. She thought this would be wonderful because she loved the violin. I, however, did not love the violin, and I really wanted to not play it.

I feel so silly admitting this, but the reason I didn’t want to play the violin was that in Saturday morning Suzuki group, you had to play standing in a line with the other children. We were all the same age, but because I was so much taller than the others. I towered over everybody, and I didn’t like it. It made me feel like a rhinoceros. That’s not a feeling that we ladies enjoy!

But I knew that if I asked my mother to quit violin, the response would be, “Nonsense, child!” So I had to come up with an alternative plan. For some reason, we had a cello at home that my parents had taken care of for a friend who was moving house or something. One day, I pulled this thing out of the case. I wasn’t supposed to touch it, but I did. I guess I was seven or eight and thought, “Oh, it’s just like an upside-down violin.”

I figured out how you held it and how you held the bow. Then I was discovered, and I thought I would be in terrible trouble. But my mother was actually quite kind when she saw what I was doing. I thought, “You play the cello sitting down, so nobody will know you’re tall.” So I just said, “Oh, I love the cello so very, very, very, very much.” This was considered an acceptable exit from the Suzuki violin class.

Judy Hyatt and Miranda Wilson

Judy Hyatt and Miranda Wilson

So I started playing the cello and had a wonderful teacher, Judy Hyatt, who I wrote about in the book. She was the cellist in the New Zealand Symphony and the most wonderful person. [She] had played cello all over the world and met all sorts of famous people, and I just worshiped her. I wanted to be exactly like her.


She sounds just like a remarkable cellist and teacher. It’s amazing how much of an impact teachers can have on on kids’ lives, especially working one-on-one. I know you teach at the University of Idaho – what do you teach, aside from applied cello?


Oh, a bit of everything, really: chamber music, mostly String Quartet, since that’s my happy place still, and piano trios. I also teach an early music ensemble these days, which is really fun. We’ve got a wonderful instrument collection here; we’ve got some harpsichords and violas da gamba, as well as Baroque woodwind instruments of all types.

In addition to that, I teach the undergraduate music history sequence for the sophomore year, which I love. I teach the odd graduate seminar. I’m also the director of the Idaho Bach Festival and the director of the string side of our children’s music program, so I’m busy, but I love it all.

Upcoming Projects


I have two more books coming out over the next couple of years. One of them is co-authored with violin, viola, and double bass colleagues from different schools. That is going to be a book about historically informed approaches to string pedagogy.

The next one is going to be a collection of essays in the form of extended program notes on the core cello repertoire. The book will be called Notes for Cellists. It’s part of a series published by Oxford University Press, and it’s been tremendous fun. The brief was to write about the repertoire, the core repertoire – and I got to decide what I thought the core repertoire was!


The Well-Tempered Cello came very highly recommended by Cello Museum researcher, Gill Tennant, so I suspected I would enjoy it. For general audiences, I worried that perhaps it would be about temperament and tuning of cellos, with 18th and 19th-century fingerboards, showing finger placements for sharps and flats in different locations, which can be interesting, but rather dry subject-matter! I was also a bit concerned because the book’s graphic designer put a violin on the back cover. What is a violin doing on a cello book?

Diving into the book, I was quickly drawn into the different threads of the story. Wilson weaves together multiple stories, like the multiple voices in a single line from the Bach suites. This is a beautifully crafted memoir, twined around the story of the Bach suites as she rediscovered them. She shares her thoughts as she worked not only with the scores and history of the suites but also with finding suitable cellos on which to play them. Her quest to find a balance in her professional and personal life is familiar yet compelling.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how she brings J. S. and Anna Magdalena Bach to life. Wilson conjures thoughts of the Bachs not as stuffy dead musicians in formal portraits, but as living, breathing people, struggling with some of the same problems experienced by professional musicians today. This is not a book with analyses of the suites – or fingerboard diagrams! – but rather a book that brings the suites to life in a way that I had not experienced before, even having lived with them for many decades.

I highly recommend this book, not only for adult cellists, but for any adult who loves or wants to learn more about Bach. Younger readers will get a lot from the book, but perhaps not find the personal story as relatable, if they’ve not yet had similar experiences – for example, being considered “too old” at age 30.

Need a last-minute gift for an adult who loves the cello? Get them a copy of Wilson’s Well-Tempered Cello, a book that seamlessly weaves together life, the universe of Bach, and cellos.

How to Follow and Support Miranda Wilson

Order The Well-Tempered Cello here.

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