Cellist David Waterman argues that string players’ ideal education should reflect the holistic experiences of the great musicians of yesteryear, with everything from composition and improvisation to singing and dancing


I have been reflecting recently on my lamentably patchy music education: not altogether surprising as I spent six years studying philosophy at Cambridge and never attended any music school or college. These reflections are compounded by my experiences teaching chamber groups and individuals at IMS Prussia Cove, ChamberStudio in London and other courses in the UK and abroad with a wide international range of advanced and gifted students. These excellent students often seem to have serious gaps in their musical culture too. This has led me to utopian musings about what I would ideally like to have learnt as a student. ‘Utopian’ because I am happily ignoring all issues of money, time and organisation and simply asking what an ideal school or college would provide for its string players, from school-age upwards.

First, I would hope there would be some grounding in playing the piano (personally I fall at the first fence, and I fall at plenty more to come). Some piano capability makes it so much easier to study a full score. It also helps us to develop an intuitive and practical sense of counterpoint and harmony, particularly for anyone who never plays a bass line. Furthermore, it helps us to understand the issues and possibilities for pianists, who are involved in so much of our repertoire. It can also be good to try out a troublesome phrase on an instrument different from our own, just as it is good to sing a phrase to oneself. Finally, it gives us at least some direct access to such a wonderful and wide-ranging repertoire and enables us, as W.H. Auden said, at least to ‘play the slow movements of easy sonatas’.

Composition studies would also be vital, both in one’s own style and also in the style of particular composers. They help to build some insight into how composers think and develop structures, and what their priorities might be. They highlight for us the frequent and inspired divergences that great works make from the underlying norm. They also help us to consider how composers communicate to performers. They may emphasise how imprecise and in need of interpretation all notation is; if anyone performs our student works, it will become apparent how easy it is to get completely the wrong end of the stick. It used to be normal and healthy for composers to play at a high level and for players to compose. Now it is rare, though I do find that many of my favourite contemporary and 20th-century composers were or are wonderful players. I am sure composers and players alike are impoverished from this modern over-specialisation. Improvisation studies could also be a part of the composition course.

Many teachers refer to passages that sing, dance or speak. So further supplementary activities would include some singing experience, maybe in choirs as well as madrigals. This should be a pleasure in itself but also should help one’s sense of natural phrasing, breathing, intonation and colour.  Similarly, learning to dance the Baroque dances and, say, waltzes, tarantellas, mazurkas and other dances encountered in our repertoire can only be useful (notwithstanding the sad fact that so many players, myself again included, seem to be hopelessly awkward and clumsy at dancing). Also there would be some training in reciting poetry, both classic and modern, for its value in relation to speech rhythms, stresses, and again, breathing. The vital art of parlando playing may then be better developed. In particular, bringing the text of a play to life has so many parallels with interpreting a score that it would be stimulating to have some interaction with drama studies and some direct experience of acting.

Harmony, counterpoint and analysis would supplement the composition lessons, taught with instrument in hand, and integrated with practical issues of interpretation and performance, and not consigned to a separate academic classroom. Feeling the harmonic design of a piece, experiencing motivic connections, and in general following the story the piece is telling affects different performers quite differently, but the playing always benefits from this awareness once it is thoroughly digested at a deep level. ‘Analysis’ is a dry word with academic resonances, suggesting a breaking down into small component atoms. Perhaps what is needed is more like a synthesis – a rebuilding of an interpretation into a new organic whole once analysis has been absorbed and felt.

Also helpful is a sense of the historical context of each piece. Some knowledge of a composer’s other works is vital, and it is particularly useful to be aware of a composer’s songs, operas, cantatas and so on, where the words help to indicate the characters the composer has in mind. Some experience of playing and listening to the sorts of instruments and bows that the composer was composing for can stimulate the imagination of colours and of the sound world of the time. Knowing the meaning of each composer’s notation is important, particularly in relation to character descriptions, accents and articulations, note lengths, the shapes of long notes, the use of vibrato, and many other details of interpretation. The more experience of composers’ other works we have, the more sense we build up of how they use musical terms. It is also stimulating to learn how composers were taught and to know something of their lives and tastes, and their letters and what they read, particularly where their music is full of literary influences. The composer can begin to feel like a friend. Of course, no interpretative questions are anywhere near fully determined by historical knowledge alone, but it is invaluable, along with all the other studies, in feeding the imagination and moulding one’s instinct.

Much but not all, of the teaching in my ideal school would be in small classes rather than one-to-one. This is often the practice in parts of Europe. So, the members of a small group of cellists might each have an individual lesson in the presence of all the others. This has many advantages. It is often much easier to grasp what a teacher is saying when you are witnessing a lesson rather than being in the hot seat yourself. Also comments on performances, positive and negative, can be elicited from each student before the teacher begins. This encourages the class to listen well and to think about teaching – about how they would help their fellow student and what each performance most needs for it to be improved. Classes also give more of a demanding sense of occasion to each lesson and create a sense of community in each class. I would also want cellists to be taught by singers, pianists, composers, and so on, as well as by cellists, in order to widen the range of insights available; and to share classes with other instrumentalists as well.

I would make chamber music a central and continuous part of the student experience, and not only for the richness of the incomparable repertoire. There is no better context in which to learn to develop the skill of playing your part with complete commitment while at the same time having a detailed awareness of what the other players are doing. Students must with great finesse expand their repertoire of bow strokes, types of vibrato, articulations, and so on, so that they can respond to the other players. Chamber music also enhances a player’s feel for the roles of inner voices, bass lines and melody lines. Learning how to rehearse fruitfully and effectively is another important skill to be nurtured. Sightreading chamber music –  mostly unsupervised, sometimes with teachers joining in – should be facilitated and encouraged, and should become so enjoyable and such an unstoppable benign addiction that every student will have tasted every Haydn and Beethoven quartet – among others – well before they graduate.

Of course, orchestral playing would be on offer as well. Orchestral skills are different from, but overlap with chamber music skills and some student orchestral experience is invaluable so long as a first-rate conductor is in charge, and rigorous, exacting orchestral trainers are dotted around the sections. Without that, the activity is less useful and student string players should not be expected