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Unsung Cello Hero: Catherine Black

This week we hear from cellist and teacher extraordinaire Catherine Black, who runs cellocourses.com.

Catherine Black

I first heard about her in-person courses when a former classmate was raving about a workshop she’d attended. However, I hadn’t connected these pre-pandemic courses with cellocourses.com until recently.

Since then I have enjoyed attending sessions of Catherine’s Online Timeline Series and All About My Bow Courses. I love that she puts music into historical context and explains everything thoughtfully and thoroughly. Catherine is one of our regular advertisers, and we are thrilled that she is going to join us at the Cello Guild, too.

All About My Bow

Want to take classes with Catherine? You’re in luck, because there are sessions of both of these online workshops coming up soon – there’s even one session of All About My Bow this weekend. Want to try to win a free place on one of her online courses? Catherine has generously offered one place on her All About My Bow Course and another on her Online Timeline Series Course as part of a giveaway. Enter below for a chance to win.

Want to do an in-person course? She also has courses coming up this summer in Lewes, England.

Catherine kindly took time out of her busy schedule to tell us more about her teaching, particularly her online courses.

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

Online Cello Courses at cellocourses.com

Unsung Heroes Online timeline series

Cello Museum (CM)

Please tell us more about your online cello courses.

Catherine Black (CB)

Well, they came out of COVID. I had always intended to open myself up to teaching one-to-one online, but when COVID struck, and we all had to swing around and reinvent ourselves, I’d had to cancel all of my in-person courses, in particular the summer course, and thought, “So what am I going to do?”

Because I was already doing some one-to-one teaching online, I thought, “Oh, there must be a way that we can work meaningfully together online.”

I enjoy being asked to work in a different way. Because I think that’s what COVID taught me: I hear differently online, see differently, think differently, and teach differently. And this was part of that.

Unsung Heroes

CM

Please tell us about your Online Timeline series classes. They seem as if they are an extension of your in-person courses.

CB

Yes, Unsung Heroes began a long time ago (2005) as a way of me wanting to teach differently and to help cello students – mine and those of anyone else who wanted to join us – to work differently, and to evolve differently and more fully as musicians and cellists.

So, these have been running a long time as one-day workshops, where we take a fabulous piece of choral music – it’s nearly always vocal music, hence the title – and we explore it and put the music in its context so that people are developing their sense of history and style and feeling that they’re expanding as musicians.

Catherine Black Students

Students of Catherine Black. Photo courtesy Catherine Black.

Quite soon after the one-day workshops started, I went for it and ran my first ever summer course. It feels so long ago now, and indeed it was. And that, too, has evolved.

It’s attended by cellists of different levels of experience, which was one of my really important intentions behind it. I’ve always disliked the discrimination: “Oh, you’re grade whatever, and you aren’t,” so ne’er the two shall meet, because we always learn from each other.

Everyone needs to be playing fabulous music. Choral music offers that opportunity. So, someone who’s been playing a couple of years can come along and play with a professional who has been playing for decades, and we all learn and enjoy ourselves.

Learning Ensemble Music Online

Catherine Black Cello Courses

CM

I really enjoyed the session that I attended online. I was surprised at how well learning a piece for an ensemble worked online. Please tell us about the adaptations you’ve made for online teaching.

CB

Well, one of the things I had to do was choose a piece of music that literally was physically not too long, and it also needed to have a kind of immediate appeal. I’ve noticed that things will grow on someone during the summer course week, but I’ve got to make some kind of impact with this music straight away online. So length is really important.

Another consideration is to choose pieces that don’t have too many parts. Nearly everything we’ve done is four parts. I will be doing some three part-ers in the future. It’s actually quite an intense experience. It’s very enjoyable, but I think everyone works really hard. You can see it on people’s faces at the end, thinking, “Oh my god, I’ve just been playing and adapting all on my own.”

I actually feel like I’m with these people who are all round the world. I love it.

It’s Bow Time

CM

Your other group course online is All About My Bow. Learning bow technique is one of the hardest aspects of playing the cello. Please tell us more about your all about My Bow series.

CB

Well, I’ve noticed, and I’ve been teaching decades now, that so many people pitch up saying, “Oh, I’m so worried about my left hand. I never think about my bow.”

I was really lucky to learn with Christopher Bunting, and then Eileen Croxford, who had had similar paths of teaching. They also both went to learn with Casals, and Christopher, in particular, had a really strong identity.

Christopher said, after my first lesson, “I want you to go away and come back with three adaptations of vocal music.” Strangely, before I even went to Christopher, I’d been playing around with things, and I came back with a Gerald Finzi song: “Come Away Death,” something from the Bach b minor mass, because I’d done that at A-Level, and then an aria from Don Carlos.

Christopher was always talking about singers and talking about being syllabic – about speaking with the bow. It all followed on from that.

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

One period of my life, after nine years of working in a fantastic Junior School in Battersea and London, I had something like 42 children in two days, and the violinist had 56 students. We both had this really intense experience of creating these young players, who were then going to be the school orchestra. So having nine years of teaching people right from the start was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever had happen.

I’ve always taught beginners, and I always love it. I think it’s both the hardest and the best teaching you ever do because it’s got to be done well. You’ve got to really adapt to whoever’s there. And we all know that people function so differently.

Go Slowly to Go Fast

I Must Go Slowly to Go Fast

CM

Please tell us about your approach to teaching.

CB

I think I’m always aware that when someone is meeting me for the first time to learn online, we need to make a connection. Most students have already been playing. Occasionally, I’ve taught someone from the beginning, because they’re in another country. If I teach from the very, very beginning, I do prefer to be able to be in the same room as the student.

My approach is that, first of all, I want to dispel students’ negative thoughts. So many adults have hang-ups. They think, “I’m too old. I’m too this, I’m too that,” and they never are. And the point is they showed up because they really want to do it.

So I want people feeling that I’m going to go slowly. My young students put a Buddha on the front of their notebooks that I write in, saying: “I must go slowly to go fast.” It’s so important because I want people to go slowly.

Visualization and Imagery

Left Hand X-ray graphic

We repeat things in a similar way to being a ballet dancer. You go through routines: good posture, working on your body – which is a set of energy circuits connected up to your cello (which is another set of energy circuits) – and just going in detail.

I remember when I was with Christopher, and we were doing some left-hand work. I’d never come across anything like it and thought, “How am I going to do this?” So I found as I was practicing and laboring away, that I started visualizing. I used to visualize an x-ray of my fingers, so I could see each joint and inhabit my body more mindfully.

Now, I use that quite a lot in my own teaching. I use imagery an awful lot, because people love it. When something is too dry, it is not graspable. However, if we’re in our imaginations, we’re more able to think about movement and experiment with it.

Overall, I guide towards and encourage calmness. We all need to think and sense, not judge. There’s what’s going on in the music – trusting their musical responses – the real life of these composers and their context and the need to build a relationship with them and their music.

In-Person Cello Courses in Lewes, England

Catherine Black Students

Students of Catherine Black. Photo courtesy Catherine Black.

CM

It certainly is effective. I was impressed with how much individual attention you gave students, even in the group classes. Your private students are very fortunate to have you as their teacher.

Please tell us more about your in-person courses? How long are they? Where are they? What can a person expect from a timetable if they were to travel there to take these courses?

CB

For the one-day workshops, we normally take one piece of music and explore it really fully because I remember myself thinking, “Oh, I’ve got too much coming at me.” I think we learn better and more deeply in a less pressurized way. You’ve got this one piece of music, and we’re going to look at technical issues.

You know, the music is there to teach us so much as players and musicians. So we’re very focused on the music needs, putting them in context. Because, the more we develop our relationship with the composer, and our relationship with the music, the more we can step into that place where we feel, “it’s mine, now.”

We have a program of music at the annual six-day course; the music goes out a month beforehand. People can listen to it; they can take it to their teachers if they want to. Then, every day, we have a big class, exploring different aspects of technique. At the same time, I usually have a kind of syllabus of ideas that I want to work through with people. As we rehearse, things come up.

What we always do, and it’s how I teach, is we build things slowly and manageably. Because, though we’re playing from scores, which does make hearing much easier, we can see what’s going on because we’ve got the music there. Nevertheless, you still have to build things up. For some people, it might be their very first experience of playing in a group. So it’s all step by step, being drawn by this amazing music.

Arrangements for Cello

Catherine Black Arrangements

CM

So much goes into all of your courses. One of my favorite things you do is put things into context. And I know that you also arrange music. Please tell us more about your sheet music that’s for sale.

CB

Years ago, I was commissioned by Paul Harris for a big educational series called Time Pieces. I wrote three volumes for that. A lot of that music was vocal, but some of it was piano music, too. Then I had this huge collection on my computer of Unsung Heroes music. So, in 2009, I released the first volume in the Unsung Hero Series.

I then set up a small publishing house, because I knew there was an awful lot more that I wanted to release. My dad was a publisher; I can even remember going to see the printing house and the racket that there was then. Dad chose the paper; he would go and meet designers, engravers, and painters. So, I grew up with all of that.

It matters to cellists because I can see their lives being changed by music. They come along, and I go as far back as Beethoven, and they are transported. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a designer in Lewes, Max Carrington, who kicked off stunning design. He was really thrilled by it.

He also wanted us to be really responsible, to have really good paper that was recycled. I wanted it to be good paper, because I know that some paper can really fall apart on you and not be the right color for playing in dark places, as we so often do. So, Max set a trend there.

In 2017, Suzie Johanson took over from Max. She’s full of color. She took over my design, and produced another three books. They’re available at my tiny publishing house, which is called Vaulted Sky. There will be more, as well as downloads. Some people might just want one thing; other people might want a collection.

Meet Marilyn…

CM

Please tell us about the cello or cellos that you play.

CB

When I left college, a friend and I became a cello duo. Fiona had a Colin Irving cello; I liked it a lot. I got in touch with Colin Irving and said, “I’d love one of your cellos.” He said, “Well, there is a bit of a queue.” A while later he rang me up and said, “Someone has dropped out. Would you like to jump into that place?” So I did. So he created my gorgeous cello, called Marilyn. I play Marilyn a lot.

Then I founded String Theory cello ensemble to play the Unsung Heroes music. There were four of us. We work together performing this music. At the time, I felt Marilyn didn’t quite fit in because there were some gorgeous old cellos there. So I set out that task of finding, first of all, a bank loan, and then finding a cello. I hunted up and down the country.

…and Margo

Then I phoned up Peter Ratcliff. He was my luthier, and he worked in Hove, and said, “Just come along. Come and just have a look. I’ve got a few.” As I walked up the stairs, he was in a beautiful workshop. I could see this line of cellos, and my eye fell on the one that he was actually about to say, “You want to take this away and try it?”

That is Margo. She’s a Wamsley cello. Peter can date when her tree was growing. He can almost tell me where her tree was growing. It was also right next door to Angela East‘s Wamsley cello, high up in the Italian Alps.

It’s so interesting, all of this, because there was a problem getting wood from Italy to England because of all the wars that were going on. Margo was made in 1740, and she’s very different. She has a beautiful little inlaid crescent moon on the back, a sort of tattoo, because she’s very simple. She’s not glam.

CM

Wow, what a wonderful story! Do you still have Marilyn as well?

CB

I play Marilyn most of the time in a small teaching room. I use her for very specific things.

The (Almost) Accidental Cellist

CM

How did you start playing the cello?

CB

It’s almost accidental. My brother, sister, and I all went to a tiny Junior School in the next village. My brother was playing the piano. I was trying to play the piano; it never really worked for me. Chris was one of those extraordinary music teachers. She was a very good pianist and a very good violinist. She was part of the educational system that has all but disappeared now.

I think she just had a hunch. She said, “Look, Catherine, we need a cello in the school orchestra.” I don’t even know that I knew what a cello was, so I said yes.

Carl Fuchs Method

Mr. Kite, who was another teacher in the school, was a cellist. They were holding Carl Fuchs’s method for the cello. Chris was a very good violinist, but she knew they were different. Eventually, when I went to secondary school, they said, “Go to a real cellist.” So, I did.

Upcoming Projects

Catherine Black Playing Her Unsung Heroes

Catherine Black Playing Her Unsung Heroes. Photo Courtesy Catherine Black.

CM

Please tell us about your upcoming projects. 

CB

Right now, I’m doing the reissue of volume one of Unsung Heroes. We’ll get that printed in May.

My real focus this year, apart from doing my online courses (which I love), are the summer courses. The new course, Through Coloured Glass, is what I used to do with String Theory. It’s a kind of culmination, very much delayed because of COVID, for advanced and professional cellists. We’ve got a couple of professionals coming over from the USA. I’m really thrilled to be doing it.

What we’ve done is create a meditation. We used to perform this in String Theory. If it was a lunchtime concert, we did a short meditation; in the evenings, a long meditation. We played this Renaissance and Baroque cycle continuously, so people could just soak up the music. It also acts as a kind of meditation for the player.

It’s someone seeking refuge from the troubles of the world to calm down to a still point where the music becomes golden. This person gathers energy in order to leave and go out and face the world. We have a soundscape running through this; we set the scene with sound. We’ve got Byrd songs and other songs. The Byrd songs are also symbolic of hope and of strength. We’re going to be playing this, working at it in one place in Lewes, and then going up to the top of town to perform it in this magical church that’s full of stained glass.

We’re going to raise money for refugees, because it’s always been humanity’s problem. Some of us are lucky and haven’t had to seek refuge, or our refuge has been different from our own troubles. But other people are having to move around the world, to shift under shocking circumstances. So we’re going to be raising money for some refugee charities, and Save the Children as well.

woman standing in a white coat

String Theory

CM

What a wonderful project all around. The focus is what so many of us need right now with seeking refuge, as you say.

Please tell us more about your ensemble, String Theory’s origins, and your playing in it. And are there recordings that we can hear?

CB

No, there aren’t. But it started because, as I was working on these scores, and listening to them, I thought “There’s an album, here.”

When I got in touch with Fiona and said, “This is a project that I’d love to do,” she was on board. We then went through a process of finding two others, and rehearsing every third day in London, just developing our sound, and getting to know the music.

I think the really fundamental thing that I learned was that this music was written by people who were really grounded in their own faith, they knew their music had a place in society, and it was valued. I just wanted this music to go out and to be received. So that’s the development of the idea of the meditation.

Let Music Do Its Magic

I remember being in the chapel royal in Brighton, and I was watching people think, “Oh, I think I’ll just lie down on this pew.” People were lying down. They sat on the floor. I thought, “This makes so much sense.” You know that people really want to just receive music and let it do its magic.

Elsewhere, we performed it in a cabaret room underground in Brighton. People were sitting at little tables sipping wine as we played, and it just made so much sense.

What is so magical is when people say “I never heard of this composer. I never heard of this era.” I love it. I think that’s so special. Because none of us know anything until we do. It’s so nice when people see their lives being affected for the good by music isn’t it?

Entries in the Catherine Black Online Cello Course Giveaway are Now Closed

Catherine Black Cello Courses Giveaway

Catherine Black gave away two free online cello courses to accompany this article! In addition, the Cello Museum gave away a T-shirt to each winner and a sticker to each runner-up. We held the first prize drawing on 18 May, and the second prize drawing on 17 June.

  1. Winners of Prize drawing on 18 May 2022
    1. Winner: Angie Sutliff, WI, USA
    2. Runners-up:
      1. Ilay, UK
      2. Aimee, ID, USA
  2. Winners of Prize drawing on 17 June 2022
    1. Winner: Judy and Rob Fine-Edelstein, Lexington, MA, USA
    2. Runners-up:
      1. Edel Taylor, Australia
      2. Aimee Shipman, Boise, ID, USA

Course winners may choose a date later in 2022 if they cannot attend the course they’ve won.



Your Turn

What is your favorite music course or workshop you’ve ever attended? Please tell us in the comments.

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