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Postcards from Erica May 2022

Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by Black composers? Look no further.

Postcards from Erica May 2022

This is the fourth installment in my series of digital postcards about unaccompanied works by Black composers.

In selecting the music every month, I keep in mind orchestra directors and students in search of contest pieces, teachers seeking supplemental literature, and professionals hankering for new repertoire.

These monthly postcards give you the information you need to help you choose a piece that’s right for you. I also include links to make it easy for you to locate and purchase the sheet music you want. I hope you enjoy exploring these pieces as much as I did selecting them.

Thank you to cellist Corbin Keep, Dr. Megan Hill, and the Music by Black Composers for their list of unaccompanied cello pieces. I have chosen three pieces from that list for this month’s postcards.

Catch up on my previous postcards in this series, my postcards on women composers (“That’s What She Said”), or revisit all of my postcards.

May Postcard #1

One reason many people cite for loving the sound of the cello is its ability to sound like the human voice. This month, my first postcard is about a gorgeous piece that imitates a meditative vocal improvisation: “Hum” by Derrick Skye. This is an excellent piece for professionals, students, and listeners.

  • Title: Hum
  • Composer: Derrick Skye (born Derrick Spiva Jr.) (b. 19 November 1982)
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Date: composed 2020
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: can vary, but around 4’
  • Number of Measures: 52
  • Number of Pages: 4
  • Tempo: quarter note = 140
  • Difficulty Level: later intermediate/advanced
  • Highest Position Reached: 6th, 2 bars of “1st position” thumb position
  • Technique Employed: bass clef; 4/2 and 5/2 time signatures; double stops with one fingered note and
    one open string throughout; grace notes throughout; multiple configurations of triplets; pizzicato
  • Publisher: composer
  • Where to Purchase:
  • Cost of Sheet Music*: $12

Recording by Giovanna Moraga Clayton

Program Notes

“Hum” is a piece that imitates the human voice. It is a personal meditation, meant to sound as if one is improvising a song in an intimate moment.

Cellist’s Guide

Because this lovely piece is written in a florid style, the rhythm and numerous grace notes (indicated as a scoop) look a bit daunting at first. For this reason, It may be easier to learn “Hum” from the recording. For those who prefer to learn visually, counting in 8/4 and 10/4 time might be helpful.

As most of “Hum” is written with an open string drone, neck position playing on the D and G strings is required. For those unfamiliar with 4th through 6th positions on the middle strings, this is a wonderful opportunity to focus on that area of the instrument.

I highly recommend this piece to both students and professional players.

May Postcard #2

Carlos Simon’s “Between Worlds” was inspired by self-taught visual artist Bill Traylor (1 April c. 1853 – 23 October 1949), who was born into slavery, lived through the U.S. Civil War and Emancipation, and witnessed many significant social changes in the USA.

  • Title: Between Worlds
  • Composer: Carlos Simon
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Year Composed: 2019
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: 3’
  • Number of Measures: 50
  • Number of Pages: 2
  • Tempo: quarter note = 50, 108
  • Difficulty Level: advanced
  • Highest Position Reached: thumb
  • Technique Employed: bass and treble clefs; double and quadruple stops; sul ponticello; sul tasto;
    tremolo; glissandos
  • Publisher: composer
  • Where to Purchase: Sheet Music Plus
  • Cost of Sheet Music*: $10


Meet Carlos Simon and performance by Derek Louie

Performance Notes

“Bill Traylor was born a slave in Alabama in 1853 and died in 1949. He lived long enough to see the United States of America go through many social and political changes. He was an eyewitness to the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and the Great Migration. As a self taught visual artist, his work reflects two separate worlds—rural and urban, black and white, old and new. In many ways the simplified forms in Traylor’s artwork tell of the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a dehumanizing segregated culture. This piece is inspired by the evocative nature as a whole and not one piece by Traylor. Themes of mystical folklore, race, and religion pervade Traylor’s work. I imagine these solo pieces as a musical study; hopefully showing Traylor’s life between disparate worlds.” – Carlos Simon

Cellist’s Guide

This soulful work contrasts moods, tempi, the use and omission of vibrato, double stops vs. single lines, and trilled, ponticello, and sul tasto passages. Though I have ranked “Between Worlds” as an advanced piece due to the use of treble clef and some thumb position and double stops, I think it would be manageable for a high intermediate with a good ear.

May Postcard #3

Travyvon Matin at an aviation summer camp

Photo of Trayvon Martin, who dreamed of becoming a pilot, taken when he was at an aviation summer camp. Photo: unknown photographer. Original publication: unknown. Immediate source. Fair use.

My third postcard this month is about a beautiful and very moving piece by James Lee III, dedicated to Trayvon Martin (5 February 1995 – 265 February 2012).

  • Title: Abraham’s Sons – In Memoriam: Trayvon Martin
  • Composer: James Lee III (b. 26 November 1975)
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Year Composed: 2014
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: 5:30
  • Number of Measures: 121
  • Number of Pages: 3
  • Tempo: quarter note = 66
  • Difficulty Level: advanced
  • Highest Position Reached: thumb
  • Technique Employed: bass, tenor, and treble clefs; 5/16, 2/8, 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 time signatures; pizzicato, false harmonics, grace notes, double stops, glissandos, trills, and sul
  • Publisher: Subito Music Publishing
  • Where to Purchase:
  • Cost of Sheet Music*: $8.95

Recording by Dr. Timothy Holley


Program Notes:

The work is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot to death on 26 February 2012 by a neighborhood watch member in Sanford, Florida.


As with most pieces, I listened to Abraham’s Sons before purchasing the score. This is a beautiful work and well worth learning, so I was eager to get my hands on the score. I was surprised to discover the tempo marking was the same throughout. I found the designated tempo to be perfect for some sections, a bit fast in others, and in one place, downright unplayable. I feel that a slight variation in tempo, made at the player’s discretion, will let this piece shine.

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