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That’s What She Said – Postcards from Erica May 2021

Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by women composers? Look no further.
Each month, cellist and women’s music specialist, Erica Lessie, sends us three short “postcards” about pieces of three different levels: novice, intermediate student, and seasoned player.

Here is the May 2021 installment of “That’s What She Said . . . Unaccompanied Cello Works by Women Composers.” 

I hope you enjoy exploring this month’s pieces as much as I did selecting them. Want to know more about my digital postcards? See my first installment for more information.

May Postcard #1: Novice Level

“Quirky” is not a term typically associated with classical music or cellos, yet this work by German composer Barbara Heller has certainly earned this moniker. As her only composition for solo cello, Sounds & Signs was created in collaboration with two cello teachers as a teaching piece that enables all students to develop solid technique before branching out into virtuoso improvisations.

Composition details

  • Title: Sounds & Signs
  • Composer: Barbara Heller
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Movements: 14
  • Duration of Work: 10 minutes of scored music, plus indeterminate time for improvisational pieces
  • Number of Measures: 326 for scored movements, an indeterminate number for improvisational pieces
  • Number of Pages: 15
  • Tempo: various
  • Difficulty Level: novice (and up)
  • Highest Position Reached: 5th
  • Techniques Employed: notated pieces – bass clef, 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, 7/8, 9/8, 3/4, 6/4, 9/4, 12/4,13/4, 2/2 time signatures; slurs; accidentals; grace notes. Improvised pieces- glissandos, bowing on the side of the bridge, bowing behind the bridge, tapping on the fingerboard with the bow screw, tapping on the cello
  • Where to Find Score: Schott Music
  • Cost of Score: 12.99*

Recordings: original audio of three movements recorded by Erica Lessie (2021), ~3 minutes


Cellist’s Guide

Sounds & Signs is a collection of 7 short notated and 7 short improvised pieces. The improvised numbers give students a chance to explore extended techniques and to create their own unique sounds.

Written mostly in the lower positions, the quirky notated movements are a nice alternative to the Suzuki repertoire. The rhythm is more complex than most beginner-level literature, often alternating between meter time signatures not usually found in compositions for novice cellists. Additionally, the key signatures are not the typical fare. As the movements are quite short, ranging from 40 seconds to 2 minutes and 50 seconds in length, students could choose to play several of them in a recital.

May Postcard #2: Intermediate Level

Avant-garde cellist and cello composer Ilse de Ziah finds inspiration in many sources from around the world. Solace in Darkness is a characteristically atypical juxtaposition that blends classical instrumentation (the cello, of course) with Indian tabla rhythm and a melody line inspired by…heavy metal rock? Listen to the recording, below, then go find the sheet music and try it for yourself. Intermediate and advanced cellists alike will find something far from ordinary yet comfortably familiar in this captivating composition.

Composition details

  • Title: Solace in Darkness
  • Composer: Ilse de Ziah
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: 4:33
  • Number of Measures: 69 – does not include repeats or D.S.
  • Number of Pages: 3
  • Tempo: quarter = 115
  • Difficulty Level: intermediate, comparable to Suzuki Book 6
  • Highest Position Reached: thumb position
  • Techniques Employed: bass and treble clefs, glissandos, harmonics, double stops, left-hand pizzicato, tremolo
  • Where to Find Score: Play Cello Music
  • Cost of Score: 5.00*

Recording featuring Ilse de Ziah:

Performance Notes

Solace in Darkness is a strong, intense and exciting piece to play. It is dark, with a powerful surging light shining through.

During a dark and intense tropical thunderstorm I was jamming with a tabla player in Sydney. We were working with Indian rhythms that he learnt during his time in India. In the session I created a melody I called “Ode to a Tabla” I have bedded the melody in Solace in Darkness, along with a heavy metal inspired melody and rhythm.

The left hand plays pizzicato with the third finger whilst stopping the melody line with the other fingers. This takes a while to get used to, but with practice it becomes very effective and is an excellent way to strengthen the weaker third finger. I also call the piece “Soilse in Darkness,” which means “light in darkness.” Soilse is “light” in Irish and sounds a bit like Solace. Audiences of all ilks love it! For Intermediate to Advanced players. Three pages.”

– Ilse de Ziah

Cellist’s Guide

Solace is a delight to play. Performed at the written tempo, I would definitely consider this an advanced piece. Intermediate cellists, however, would find Solace quite manageable at a relaxed speed.

The piece begins with open string left-hand pizzicato played simultaneously with an arco passage. Upon first reading, it is physically challenging but ultimately doable. Although much of the work is written in the lower positions, there is a three-octave chromatic scale followed by several bars in thumb position. The measures of thumb position occur at the halfway harmonic in patterns 1, 2, and three and a whole step lower in patterns 1 and 2.

I would recommend this to both the advanced player and those looking to become familiar with thumb position.

May Postcard #3: Advanced Level

Cajón almost missed the “unaccompanied cello music” requirement for this curated selection. Composer Nina Shekhar first conceived of a piece where a cellist would be supported by a percussionist playing the titular Peruvian instrument. Taking the phrase “knock on wood” to a whole new level, Shekhar then reimagined the composition, with the cello pulling double-duty as both a string and percussion instrument. The result is an innovative take on a number of advanced techniques, making it a truly unique addition to the experienced cellist’s musical portfolio.

Composition details

  • Title: Cajón
  • Composer: Nina Shekhar
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: 6:30
  • Number of Measures: 155
  • Number of Pages: 6
  • Tempo: quarter = 120
  • Difficulty level: advanced
  • Highest Position Reached: thumb
  • Techniques Employed: 3/8, 5/8, 7/8, 8/8, 9/8, 10/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 time signatures; bass and treble clefs; double stops; glissandos; sul ponticello; false harmonics; pizzicato; left-hand pizzicato; grace notes; tapping side and body of the cello; slapping strings; hitting dampened strings with the thumb; stomping; chopping
  • Where to Find Score: email the composer
  • Cost of Score: $25.00 (for a downloadable .pdf)

Recording featuring Joshua DeVries:

Performance Notes: 

“A cajón is a box-shaped Peruvian instrument that is played by tapping its sides to make percussive sounds. My original idea for this piece was for a cello to play along with a cajón, but then I wondered what if the cello were the cajón itself. The piece places the instrument in a new context by exploring modes and rhythms common to Indian and Arabic Music.” –from the score

Cellist’s Guide

This creative piece is a wonderful contribution to the solo cello repertoire. Though the techniques used are not new, they are incorporated in a fresh way. By having the cello operate, in effect, as both a cello and cajón, Shekhar has created something completely original.

The high thumb position, frequently changing meter, accidentals, double stops, and extended techniques employed in this piece are considered to be advanced skills. I recommend this piece to any experienced or professional cellist looking for a unique solo.


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*Prices are accurate at the time of article publication but The Cello Museum cannot take responsibility for subsequent price changes.