More Than Notes

It's Ella's time to shine. She has been studying with me since she was in fourth grade and is now a high school junior. She sits in her weekly lesson ready, if not willing, to discuss her piece for the winter recital.

Normally my theory on choosing repertoire is to choose music that reflects new found ability of the student as well as some of their personality. This has worked pretty well although I have found that Ella has cajoled me into letting her play a duet a few more times than I'd like. There are two reasons this happened, one: having four sons, I do understand that high school students often have too much on their plates. Two: I am a sucker.

This season as we sit down for the discussion I silently hand her the Brahms E minor Sonata. She takes it, looks at it, looks at me and sets it on the stand. I literally watch the wheels turning behind her eyes. “Are you kidding?” “No.” I answer.

Early in high school Ella would do all of the things I asked of her but not much more. Her parents had helped her purchase a beautiful older cello and there was a definite sense of obligation in her study. But as she rounded out of her sophomore year things began to change. She auditioned and was accepted at the Apple Hill music camp: she found that she knew more than she thought and, better still, it mattered to her that she did. Suddenly playing the cello made her even more special.

Handing her the Brahms was handing her a challenge. That day she looked at me, understood, and accepted that challenge.

Getting the notes came fairly soon, I knew that would not be where the difficulty would lie. Once we had the bones of the piece in place the work began. We had many discussions about the back story of the music. history has it that Brahms was living in Robert and Clara Schumann’s home, and shortly afterward helped Clara with her many children when Robert was confined to a mental health facility. During that time, possibly before, he fell desperately in love with her. The E minor reflects that desperation. It is a beautiful cry of pain.

What I had to do was try to help Ella to connect to the music, to the story, to Brahms. I was asking her to internalize the notes on the page and bring forth her interpretation of what Brahms was saying to her. Letting the cello tell the tale.

Adult students often struggle with the desire to make everything perfect, hitting every note being the ultimate goal. In doing that they often forget to tap into their experiences in order to really make the music speak. And kids simply don't have a lot of experience to tap into.

Something I often write in notebooks about playing a piece is “Tell me the story”- This became my mantra to Ella.

At first things like the recapitulation seemed simply like repetition to her. She would, dutifully, bring the main theme back with the exact same expression she had used before the painful watershed in the middle of the movement. What really changed things for her was adding the piano. Before going with an accompanist I sent her the piano part to play with from her computer. I asked her to put recordings of the piece into the background of her daily life, to listen but not really listen.

At her lesson some weeks before the recital I had Lynette, our accompanist, come to the studio to rehearse the piece with her. As they began to play together, began to feel the way one was moving around the other, Ella started to really hear what Brahms had been whispering into her ear.  Paul calls this moment “warming to the piece” it is the point when you can, literally, watch someone relax into feeling. To let go of the “have-to's” and just play.

At the recital Ella rehearsed with Lynette and made a few comments to me about being glad to be done with the piece. Somehow it was a relief to know she had not completely let go of being a teenager.

As her page turner I sat beside her as she began that most haunting of melodies. At the beginning she was totally performing, doing what she had learned to do from me and then she began to warm to the music and it was transforming to her, for me.

Ella was pleased with her performance, she could even give me that, but what she couldn't say, but what I know for sure, was that she had taken up the challenge I had thrown down and succeeded not only in getting the notes, but telling us the story.


Melissa Perley


Sitting on the stage during the sound check I shield my eyes and look out into the lights to see where Paul and Josh are sitting. I laugh with Tom, the clarinetist, questioning the likelihood of good intonation from a silver flute resting on the cold floor under his chair.

I’m not really concerned about the fact that I’m tethered to my amp by the tiny microphone stuffed between my strings. My concern really lies in the relationship of the feet of my bench to the edge of the small stage. There seems to be a real possibility that I could be moving with the music and simply disappear off the side of the platform. This thought takes up so much of my attention that, in deciding to make that one last trip to the bathroom, I stand, cello in hand, and begin to step down from the stage, turning first directly toward my amp. The feedback is fast and furious. Think high pitched car alarm.

My first performance as a gypsy cellist begins with shouts of “Melissa, sit down!!”

Fortunately the rest goes much better. We start the set and the amplification of the cello is perfect. The audience is able to hear the cello lines and, better still, so am I. It is the first time I have been miked for performance. I was quite uncertain of how I’d feel about it all but even in testing the amp in the store I realized the positive benefit was how really hearing yourself helps with everything from pitch to vibration. Small details are much easier to pick up (pardon the pun): I find myself wondering how the Arensky piano trio would sound amplified….

It was/is new territory for me as a strictly classically trained cellist. I think I was so nervous about anything improvisational that I wasn’t able to fully see/hear the possibilities for true learning and growth.

Playing that night, it was clear to me that what I had been learning was much more about listening than about improvising or adapting to a new style of music.

As we wove the melodies around each other I felt that being out of what I perceived as my element made me more conscious of how my part fit with the other musicians’ and I was able to enjoy “playing” in a completely new way. Reminding me that real growth is only possible through struggle, and with the risk of failure and falling off the stage present.


Melissa Perley


Sitting down to practice I look at my music and can hear the notes in my head, I bring the bow to the strings and begin- only to find that, while the notes in my head are correct, the rhythm is squiffy. septuplets and sixteenths and duplets and triplets...these are a few of my favorite things….I need the Doctor. Dr. Beat that is, my metronome.


When you are beginning to study an instrument the introduction of the metronome is both a benchmark and a catastrophe. It’s seemingly simple to clap along to quarter notes that aren’t moving too quickly- we do it at concerts with our hands AND feet. Yet being metronomic, by definition, is being exact. As we try to clap precisely with a downbeat we often find ourselves lagging...or speeding. I very clearly remember being at lessons as a child, watching the triangular wooden metronome sitting atop the piano. Hearing that distinct click with the added necessity of winding every so often. My teacher also had a ticking clock that often fell on the off beats of my metronome pulse making things even more confusing. Trying to clap to two separate rhythm sources while watching the clock for the lesson to be over was nearly impossible.

In making introductions between metronome and students I remind them that we are all hard wired for music; we live surrounded by pitches and day-to-day rhythms. The most consistent pulse of all being our own heartbeat. As important as logical thinking is, I ask that this is one area that you ‘feel’ rather than work through.

I find that the consistent sound can be rather meditative. I took a Eurythmic class and the instructor and I spent a lot of time sitting, eyes closed letting the steady pulses wash over us. After a time we would begin softly clapping- the task seemed so much easier after quietly “feeling” the beat.

Once someone is ready to begin metronome work I will assign a piece that is very simple, rhythm and note wise so that all that is required of the brain is to feel the pulse. I ask that each session begin with clapping of the rhythm, no bow or cello in hand. In dissecting music you are getting ready to play- notes and rhythm are of equal importance. Even if you have no idea what the piece in front of you sounds like- if you can clap it- you can play it.

For a while, once out of the studio, this clapping stuff is confusing. You are trying to clap eighth notes but they seem to be coming sooner than needed...and forget those sixteenths. Perhaps it would be easiest to practice without that thing for one more week?

The metronome is why I have tissues in the studio.

But once understanding kicks in...oh how things change. Suddenly everything is untangled by the metronome- he is consistent and never lies to you- he really is your friend! So now perhaps it would be easiest to practice with the metronome on for everything?

I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to have a “life metronome” - a little black box that could hang around your neck- it’s sole function to explain and untangle everything.

Bet they’d sell it on Amazon.


A Foreign Language

This past April Paul and I were sitting on an old trolley winding our way up a hill in Lisbon, Portugal. As I sat in the cracked leather seat, basking in the sun, a light breeze coming through the open window, I realized that I wasn’t able to understand one word that was being spoken around me.

This past August I walked into rehearsals for two bands that I am a new member of. They both rely on an eclectic grouping of people: many of the musicians play without written music. In discussions I realized that, once again, I wasn’t able to understand much of the language spoken.

Previous to my joining the groups we were all open about this language barrier. We discussed the fact that I wasn’t an accomplished improviser: from the age of six I had only studied music written on a page. This was ok with them because they could not read printed musical notes- all of us clinging to the things we knew.

As we began to explore our new relationships I found myself watching them use their ears more effectively than I have been- keying into subtle signals to know where they are in a phrase. Relying on the fact that everyone has been told how many times they would repeat something...why use a Del Segno?

All of the music, even traditional pieces, are composed or arranged by someone in the group. When I became part of the gypsy/flamenco group I walked into the rehearsal cello on my shoulder, stand in hand and my translator/composer right behind me. It was an agreement that Paul would help bridge the gap between us. Fortunately Paul has also been an accomplished guitarist. In discussions, the guitarists would say that we would be returning to the A major section. I would have it marked as measure 45. It worked.


One day I opened an email from a member of one group and he had sent a recording for me to listen to and work from. In the email he had written the note to be played and three slash marks following it. As I sat there I realized that he wanted the note played four times in that particular measure. To him that was indicated with slashes, to me they were quarter notes. I smiled as I read the rest of the email. He said “Melissa, can you understand this? If so...I believe we are beginning to speak the same language.”

Pushing myself out of my box is important; being in places where I don’t know where I’m headed, having to ask directions with my special kind of mime work, getting lost but then figuring it out, even deciphering coded musical emails.

Whether in another country or in a new genre, it’s good for me to remember that there are many ways to speak the same language.


Melissa Perley

How To Train Your Dragon

Emmett’s mom and I are good friends. At the end of our lunch together she mentions that he hasn’t been doing much practicing this summer- fair warning for his upcoming lesson.

Summer lessons are much looser than during the school year. I put out a schedule written grid-style (yes, on paper) and students can sign up for as many or as few lessons as they would like. The sign up sheet becomes a hub of activity as parents and students congregate. I never take personally the occasional remark from young student to scribing parent “Two? Are you kidding?”

The lessons themselves become a good opportunity to pass (some of) the mantle of control over. Normally lessons have a pattern to them and, even with input, I choose the repertoire. In the summer months I ask students to bring in music that they would like to play- caveat being it has to be within the range of their ability. That said, it gives me the chance to focus on their individual needs and wants.Ellen loves lyrical, familiar music, Chris craves straight-up classical, David wants to wrestle with Beethoven and Dotzauer and Jeff lightens up with some fiddling.

Emmett’s mom was right (mothers always are), not a whole lot of practicing going on. Emmett fights the good fight- wrong notes are “just a goof.” I smile and nod; it’s summer. There is swimming to do, gardens to help with and bikes to ride. My job is to keep Emmett motivated until he is self-motivated.

So, like sneaking broccoli onto the top of your kid’s pizza, I try to find way to keep him learning without too much pain.

Emmett loves film music- especially the fantasy genre. Paul had arranged “How to Train your Dragon” from the film with the same title- as a cello duet for a wedding we had been asked to play it in. I casually took it out at Emmett’s last lesson- wedged it between scales and etudes. He was thrilled. His face lit up, he grabbed his bow and asked if we could play it through together.

So excited that he never noticed it was written mainly in tenor clef or that there were four sharps in the key signature…..

Apparently there really is more than one way to train your dragon.


Melissa Perley


We are leaving on vacation for a week at a lake in Vermont. The important words are “for a week.”

Paul and I aren’t organized packers. We are rather haphazard in our approach to what pieces of our lives will go with us on vacation.

As a matter of principle; we only travel with carry-on sized bags. A bike trip to France is responsible for this habit; we dragged our own bikes, packed in enormous cardboard crates through several airports on our way to Paris. Paul is an avid cyclist and I love Paul, enough said. All of our possessions had been stuffed into four panniers that ride side-saddle on the bikes, they were then slid into the belly of the airplane. Three of those four panniers rode the carousel out of the plane in France...fortunately for me though, the shopping is not half-bad in Paris.

The day (okay hours) before our summer vacation, we are, literally, tossing things into the car. Two dog crates nest together nicely creating a beach bucket, of sorts, for a plethora of “stuff.” Unfortunately, the size of the dog crates leaves no room for the very dogs who use them.

And two.

A lake vacation, for us, is defined by the amount of time we can fill by doing nothing. No emails, no TV, no telephones and no practice, unless….two very close friends - one being the violinist in my piano trio - are getting married on the last day of our vacation and ask us to play for their wedding.

And two becomes filled with two cellos in cases, music stands, benches and, of course, music. Once the cellos take their rightful places in the car there remains very little space for anything else.

So, what if our son, who is enjoying this vacation with (on) us has his car sitting in the driveway?  Perfect spot for a week’s worth of groceries, loaded on the way out of town and, what a great opportunity for him to bond with two border collies!

We finally arrive at the lake house in our merry convoy only to spend as much time unpacking as we did packing.

The week prior to the trip it rained every single day- but the sun made it’s appearance on the first official day of our vacation. Clearly, nobody could argue with that day spent reading, picnicking and paddling-

No practice.

Day two is the fourth of July. Parade to attend and how about finding Vermont’s “best creamee?”

No practice.

I start caving on day three. I have to walk by the cellos on the way through the living room. They lie there, seemingly silent, but like the loon out on the water- I can hear their call, “Time to those calluses have all gone soft on you!”

Out come the stands, benches, music and those nagging instruments.

A little work on vacation in the name of love.

But, my bench is definitely facing the lake...even if it is through the window.


Melissa Perley

The Accompanist

Recital prep is all-consuming for months ahead of the scheduled event. In each recital there are players who work with a pianist and those who play duets or simply unaccompanied cello.

For this spring recital it happened that there were a lot of students wanting to work with a piano. Some are experienced at it, for others it is their maiden flight.

Finding someone to play with students is not easy: often I have wished there were a for students and pianists. Learning to play with other instruments, especially a piano, is challenging on it’s easiest days, and bear-like on others and makes me feel protective. Last season the piano at the venue where we rehearsed was horribly low in pitch. It required the cellists to tune down way below comfort level in order to meet the piano. One of my advanced students fiddled with the tuner to find what Hz the piano was at, wrestled with her wire stand (ultimately bending it into submission), adjusted and readjusted her stool then sat to begin. The lower sound of her instrument, coupled by the fact that we were in a church basement threw her. She glanced at the pianist, who smiled over the music, then looked up at me, who smiled from the corner, and began to play. Unfortunately as I watched her, immediately the tears began to run down her cheeks. I clamored out of my metal chair, Lynette knocked over her piano bench, each hurrying to comfort the distressed, yet still playing, teen cellist.

Everyone had two rehearsals in the studio with Lynette on our piano. She drove here six times in the two weeks proceeding the recital, each day arriving with an armful of music, sticky notes in an array of neon colors fanning out from the pages of the books. Each day I would put a different, small gift on the piano bench. The second day she looked at me, questioningly, about “another gift?” Although I had definitely crossed into the over-gifting category, it was the only way I could think of to express my gratitude.

One after the other, each player sat down in the same spot. Exactly where they could see her peripherally from their left eye. Students new to this process adjusted their music with shaking hands. They learned to look to her for the ‘ready’ but not before swinging to look to me for the ‘it’s going to be OK.’

We launched, we stopped, we clapped, we stomped, we added the third player- Mr. Metronome. Each time, every time, Lynette calmly smiled.

Audrey sat down and beautifully played through the Chopin Sonata Largo movement the very first time she tried. We all laughed and cheered. Lynette stood and clapped.

At the recital Paul and I dragged the small grand across the floor to be sure that the configuration that the students had been sitting in with the piano remained the same.

Lynnette entered, arms full of books, neon stickies gaily waving back and forth.

David sat down to play. He had, as had his trembling, told me that he was nervous. But, as we’d rehearsed, he focused on the gift of the music, filled his lungs with air, blew it all out and began. He used the big, whole bow that we talked about to get rid of excess nervous energy; he used a calm, low carriage and Mozart jumped out of his F holes. But, almost finished, his eyes shifted him to a line in the music completely unrelated to the one he had been playing and he momentarily stumbled, playing the incorrect line. Lynette glanced up from the piano, calmly smiled, threw that big net out underneath him and quietly, quickly and neatly caught him.

It was in that moment that I knew the very real difference between a pianist, and a pianist who is also an accompanist.

Melissa Perley

Who Says

The snow has made it's final retreat. Tulips, daffodils and crocuses, as promised when I tuck them in during the fall, circle the bird feeder.

Vermonters quickly lose their jackets and tip heads back in homage to the new warmth of the sun.

Skis are put away. Gardens turned over, the clods of dirt still cold under our fingers. In our anxiousness to put something under earth we race down to the plot with our hands full of tools, gloves and persistent peas.

Spring also means recital season has opened. Students have reluctantly, but carefully, chosen the pieces that they will work up to performance level.

Making these choices and working up the pieces seems to turn over the insecurity that lurks inside us all. Sometimes during a lesson, but often afterward, conversation turns to the challenge faced when we are revealing something about us that is new, something that even we may not have realized before. Many times these conversations are peppered with negative comments about the effort involved in studying; not being enough, having difficulty making “real music”, being too young, too old, too male.

At some point in our lives we seem to have been assigned our “roles.” That role might be about the expectations and goals of our parents, it might be based on the job that we have been working at our entire lives or it might simply be who we see in the mirror every morning. That assignment becomes how we define ourselves.

Why not change those definitions? Who says that we are only allowed to be one dimensional; have one job, one goal, one partner, one talent?

You can love theater and then study economics. You can work as a lawyer for twenty years and then become a painter. Be a mother AND a cellist.

In doing the herculean work of rolling ourselves over to reveal previously undiscovered parts of us, we just might find that there is something shiny about our underbelly.

What is important is that we are brave enough to take the chance on being all that we can be. To be defiant in the face of being kept in a role that makes others comfortable but us miserable. To know what it is that we want and to march, not walk, toward it.

This begins even before the first lesson; it begins with the first thought of taking one.

Art isn't an anecdote. It's the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. (Cheryl Strayed)


Melissa Perley

The Street Map

Whenever I travel to Manhattan, I'm struck that, in spite of it's enormity, it is relatively easy to get around (I'm talking walking here). The avenues run up and down and the streets across. So, no matter how high I get, as long as I remember which way I am traveling, I can figure out how to get where I want to go.

In the studio there is often debate about what skill, of many, is most important in learning to play the cello. We talk about the importance of reading and the translation of that to the left hand- important. The bow, right hand, always ranks high in my book with its many subtle techniques and the color it provides to all playing-important again. But time after time we come to knowledge of the fingerboard- it gets the crown.

We begin using the position books once someone is shifting. The ability to shift your hand, with another finger, to another position on another string can't be undervalued. But, perhaps most valuable, is working on knowing your streets and avenues and which way they run.

One of my very favorite moments in teaching comes when I have given a student a piece that works quite a bit in the first four positions and it is new to them. We've discussed fingering but I've asked them to take the unfingered piece home and figure out where the editor is asking them to play given the fingering provided, and when that is not provided, decide where best to play to keep a quiet hand. They bring the piece back, it is carefully fingered with clear, big numbers. As they begin to play, there is an F sharp on the A string in fourth position that they have, correctly, fingered with their third finger. It is followed by a B, and each time they choose to slide their hand back to the B on the A string in first position and then zip back up the neck to the F sharp. When finished, and once they stop panting from the effort, I ask where else might they choose to play that B? If the answer doesn't come easily I'll have them name the notes in fourth position on each string- getting extra teaching bang for the buck. When they get to the D string they begin “A, B-flat....B..” They stop suddenly and grin at me as it all comes together- the B is directly across from the F sharp and played with the same finger making it faster, easier, quieter with their hand. We then talk about how the cello repeats itself in octaves and, as long as we are going in the same direction, the B will be directly across from the F sharp everywhere, every time.

Just as I know that if I am on Fifth Avenue and 81st street and go up one octave, I will be at 82nd street. If I travel on Fifth to 84th street I will, every time, get to the Metropolitan Museum to visit the Batta Strad.

The knowledge of what is across from what, the mastery of the fingerboard takes many hours of playing in all positions including those at the end of the fingerboard and is, in my opinion, essential to learning to play the cello and getting where you want to go.


Melissa Perley



Born Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, nicknamed 'Slava', on March 27, 1927, the son and grandson of cellists became a noted cellist, pianist, conductor and political figure. Rostropovich became a symbol for struggle against oppression. A representative for the power of music.

He made his concert debut at age 13. Before he was 30 years old he had been awarded the State Stalin's prize in recognition of his numerous competition victories. He was close friends with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten who all composed for the talented musician helping him to make his musical mark on the world.

However, it was his friendship with dissident writer Alexksandr Solzhenitsyn that began to make his mark as a powerful world political figure.

In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was wanted by Soviet authorities. Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya made a plan to have Solzhenitsyn stay at their dacha outside of Moscow. When this was discovered, authorities were furious with the cellist. In retribution they banned Rostropovich from all international tours and even from performances within the Soviet Union. All of this reduced his income to only that from his teaching.

After years of punishment and argument with the government; Rostropovich, his family - consisting of his wife and two daughters - defected to the United States. Leonid Brezhnev immediately revoked his citizenship.

While he missed his friends, the home of his birth, he was free here and in 1977 became the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. While in the United States Rostropovich toured, taught (one student being Jacqueline Dupre) made recordings and solidified his position as the best cellist of his time.

His activism for a free society continued. In 1989 Rostropovich sat quietly and played the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites in the rubble after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Gorbachev restored Rostropovich's citizenship in 1990 and he returned during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in his homeland he worked with Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the coup against hardline communism. In free Russia he began to speak out about political freedoms. He and his wife established the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to improve the health care for all Russian children.

Slava was laid to rest in Moscow at age 80. Among the many awards and medals he had received were the Order of Service to the Fatherland medal of Russia, Presidential Medal of Freedom, (in the United States) and the Defender of Free Russia medal in 1993.



“The Ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”                          Martin Luther King Jr.


There is much to be learned from the past.



The Possibilities

The tree is down, the ornaments boxed up and safely stored away until next year. And with it all goes the light. Although there is a satisfaction in the clean up, in the sudden starkness of the space, I miss the light. Having the luxury of working from home, during the last two weeks before the holiday the house remains lit throughout the day and evening. Each time I pass the living room I feel the warmth of the Christmas tree in full display.

But now it is full-on winter.

One of the things I love about living in Vermont is that we all understand that once we are surrounded by white, there is almost an insistence for some kind of group entertainment on the weekend evenings. There is story telling as listeners huddle around the wood stove centerpiece, there are art walks that fill the night sidewalks with people shuffling down the street in colorful, sleeping bag-like jackets: hats pulled down tight over their foreheads, their eyes the only visible flesh. And there is music.

We gravitate to musical events of all kinds. We love formal classical concerts and community coffee houses with the same intensity. Obviously we are drawn to the performances that include our friend, the second largest of the violin-family instruments.

It has long been a goal of mine to put the cello into musical situations where you might not expect it. Watching a street performance by a Didgeridoo player in Montreal filled me with the drive to play with that instrument. The goal is to use it, combined with other instruments for Klezmer, West African and other genres of music.

One of my students invited us to attend a performance at the Ripton (Vermont) Community Coffee House. The music, while mainly of the folk genre, is diverse. Performances are held in a wonderful building distinctly of New England architecture. We all clunked in wearing our winter, Frankenstein-inspired footwear, and settled into folding chairs facing a small stage. As we waited for the performance it was heartening to look around and see other concerts goers, faces pink with cold, dressed in thermal/flannel.

Harpeth Rising took the stage that first evening and we were truly treated to a cross section of musical genres. There was a violin, cello and banjo/guitar on stage. The group had arranged pieces for those instruments and it was wonderful to hear the cello join forces in places where it normally would have been relegated to the background. Interesting to hear how the electronic pick up on the cello enhanced the low strings and warmed up the top.

Last evening we returned to Ripton for The Brother Brothers performance. Adam and David Moss, identical twins and identically talented, brought their combined songwriting gifts to the stage. Instruments entwined, a five string violin, guitar and cello. David is the cellist and a prolific songwriter/composer. He fearlessly brings the cello to share the spotlight in several of the pieces played. Some written by him and others arranged for the instrument to be included.

Each time we leave a concert, once the heater in the car has made it comfortable enough to form words again, Paul and I spend the ride home excitedly talking about possible instrument configurations to include the cello, compositions that we heard that were inspiring and discussing where we can go to hear more.

This Christmas our family had talked a lot about giving gifts of experiences instead of more things to, ultimately, go into the landfill. Our son, Ethan gave us hockey tickets and season passes to Shelburne Farms filling two of our four seasons with fun.

Our youngest, Joshua, having listened to Didgeridoo rehearsals and sitting in on countless discussions of possible musical influences for compositions also gave us the gift of really listening to who we are by giving us tickets to Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal. A duo pairing the Kora, a twenty one string- lute- bridge- harp, used extensively in West Africa, and a cello. Music to be included will be African music and Bach Suites.

I wonder how Didgeridoo, a twenty one string-lute-bridge-harp AND a cello would work?

Ahh..the possibilities...




The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, of which Paul is a founder, was just getting started on the last night of their fall concerts. They were finishing the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, playing to a full house, when the fire alarms started. Almost metronomically the alarms buzzed as the orchestra gamely played on. Since performance lives by the mantra “the show must go on”, it did as did the buzzing.

Finally, our son, Joshua, leaned over to me and, sotto voce, said “ I think we should get out of here....” Apparently others felt the same way as there was palpable beginnings of stirrings. The orchestra finished the movement and it was decided that we would all head outside into the brisk November evening to wait out whatever we were waiting out. Musicians grabbed their cases to keep their instruments safe to the exclusion of their coats. Once outside we laughed and chatted for a few minutes and then, as time passed, we got more silent and began rubbing our hands together in the chilly 40F.

Firetrucks arrived to cheers, we were certain we would be back in our sweater-covered seats momentarily.


The concert space is housed in a beautiful, very old, college chapel. It's said to be haunted and I'm not sure there wasn't some of that in play that evening. Perhaps a mischievous music lover was watching out of the fourth story window, enjoying the chaos caused.

The concert was over before it began.

The MCO had just hired a new music director, Anne Decker. It was the first full concert of her new position: the very first night she had performed (or not) in the orchestra's home space. I felt slightly nauseous for her. I spotted her passing among the players and audience members as we stood outside. Laughing, cheerful and seemingly in control of the uncontrollable. She ended up standing on the edge of a granite fountain to make the impromptu announcement that the performance was canceled, how sorry she was and to say that she really did not have a solution, at this point.

However...a few days later orchestra members emails began to light up with her plan. She would like to know who would be available to perform a “pop up” concert for the city of Montpelier. One performance, one piece, the Beethoven.

On Tuesday evening, December 6 at 6:00 I walked into an vacated Main Street store just before the concert began. Members of the orchestra waved as I entered, some dressed in velvet tops and others in jeans and sneakers. Paul was bundled up in his winter coat and boots- fashion be damned. I picked a spot to stand and watched as audience members drifted in; couples holding hands, a daughter pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair, a mom with a sleepy child slung over her shoulder. In an increasingly crowded space, everyone somehow found a place to light as Anne took the podium.

Once again she turned to face us, stick in hand, a smile on her face. She explained the situation and a bit about the piece. Her ponytail flipped as she spun to enthusiastically face the orchestra and off they went.

People tapped feet, babies bobbed in rhythm and the room filled with the orchestral sound.

It was then that the brilliance of this struck me. Before the music began you might have looked at the group of musicians and had no idea what kind of music they would be playing. Jacketed Paul might be a grunge band cellist for all you knew and that, exactly that, was part of the beauty of this performance because once they began even I, who knew what they were going to do, was surprised and completely delighted by the fact that it was classical music replacing the air in this empty building.

The orchestra and it's brand new, fearless leader, had given the city of Montpelier a wonderful gift at the perfect time of year.

It also gave the audience and the orchestra a real chance to see that Anne Decker had, indeed, come to play.

Melissa Perley

The Long Road

T'is the season of extolling virtues: kindness, generosity, faith. There are two virtues that I extol daily in my cello studio; patience and perseverance.

When a new student arrives for their first lesson they are filled with excitement. Cheeks flushed with anticipation.

Rental instrument in hand, pulled gingerly from it's padded snowsuit. It sets on it's single, wobbling, still shiny steel pin. Music book placed carefully on the stand, pages so new they refuse to stay open.

Poised to start, bow in hand, so ready......we begin the journey with my asking them to put the bow down.


Many months later, a slightly more tattered etude book is laid on the stand. Discussion ensues about yet another scale. A few tears drop in frustration over an argument (another) with their metronome.

Who is that cursed little braided girl in the Suzuki book anyway?

“The importance is in laying the foundation,” I speak quietly

“If you can play it slowly, you can play it fast,”

The metronome is your friend”

“Connection, articulation, intonation...”

“Turn OFF YouTube.”


We cruise through Suzuki I only to collide with “Happy Farmer.”  Hours spent understanding “the block” just in time to begin vibrating and forget it ever existed.

Twinkle, Rigadon, Marcello, Breval, The Swan, Tarantella....The road to excellence is full of potholes and badly named pieces.

If we remain on course, putting one foot in front of the other as we climb, metronome in hand, we will arrive at the top of our mountain.

Patience and Perseverance.

Mastery is, after all, staying on the path.

Black Monday

It begins like every other practice. I open with scales, paying attention to the detail of each note. I play them until I feel that the cello and I are in synch and ready to move forward.

Etude. Difficult work this week but I maneuver pretty well. I remove any outer layer I'm wearing as I begin to heat up. Before long I have a small heap of discards to include my watch, sweater and rings. My shoulders are loose and my body falls into a familiar, daily rhythm. I set aside the etude book and pull out the piece that I am working up.

I've made myself a promise that I will work backward in practicing repertoire. Most difficult comes first and so on. It means that my focus will be the most sharp on the most challenging work. As I begin to fatigue I get to play measures that are more familiar to me. Most days this works well. I finish practice sated and satisfied (mostly) but not today....

As I climb the mountain of fast scale work I notice that somewhere between last night and today my fingers have fattened up quite a bit. I thwack instead of pizz and, for good measure, I pick up several extra strings. This might be a good thing as the ones I intend to use don't seem to be working so why not throw in a few more for good measure? (who am I kidding- there are no good measures!)

Instead of slowing down, I speed up. Insisting that my hand and brain work in tandem. I should know that there is a reason that the brain is in charge. The more I push, the worse I play. In fact, I find that I am now beginning to practice the mistakes.

I flip the page with extra zest and the book falls to the floor. I look across the room and wonder if I could actually hit that far door with my bow if I heaved it hard enough. The only thing keeping it in my hand is the dollar sign.

Now if my student tells me about a similar practice I would patiently listen and calmly tell them that in this circumstance, you should “remain patient, step away from the cello for a while and come back when you are rested and less frustrated.” Even this voice in my head makes me want to punch myself in the face.

I drop the Alexander technique altogether and begin to practice the art of self sabotage. Look how bad I am - watch me get even worse.  I can, I really can.

All this and no sugar to blame.

Finally I firmly place the cello/traitor on it's stand. I slam the light switch off in my studio taking delight in leaving the instrument in the it has left me.

 I thought that once I had passed the gazillion hour mark the agony percentage would decrease and days like this would stop.

Tomorrow is another day...


Melissa Perley

Making Music

I'm sitting looking out the window pondering the fact that last weekend I was hiking up Mount Mansfield and this weekend I'm looking at snow on the ground in the third week of October.

I've chosen a seat next to the wood stove for daydreaming. It is one of the first fires of the season and the ping of the metal expanding and the warmth on my bare feet make it an irresistible perch.

In due time I will lumber back to the computer and begin to organize my teaching schedule for the upcoming week. The snow will have melted and the crunch of the leaves will return just in time for Halloween.

This past week Paul and I finished running a cello quartet, made up of some of our adult students, that had been Tuesday evenings for the past six weeks. The final evening was an open rehearsal for family and friends of players involved. The four cellists sat in a horseshoe facing the “audience” and played, for them, the pieces that we had worked up together. The goal of this ensemble was to offer students the opportunity to play with their peers in an organized, coached situation. Ensemble work is a completely different animal from lesson situations where you are sitting next to your teacher. The goal of this was to be able to focus, not only on the notes in front of you, but also on the people alongside you and what they are doing.

We spent a great deal of time identifying what player was carrying the melody, who had the job of supporting it and then discussing that when it is your line, “play out Jeff!” There was laughter over mistakes and cheers when there was success.

The evening of the open rehearsal was the culmination of those weeks of practice. We ran through the music, stopping and correcting. Paul conducted and I played in where I was needed. At the beginning I would sit in on various parts on each of the pieces but that final rehearsal It was only necessary for me to be in on one of them. The weeks of practice paid off. The group had learned how to blend their sound and create pieces that were cohesive even in the separateness of the parts. I sat back, resting my hands on the top of my cello and watched their faces; they were looking at each other and smiling, pride had replaced fear.

Later that evening I oversaw various emails flying back and forth between the quartet . Calls to come together again and to perhaps play a couple of those pieces at the winter recital?. I watched the screen but stayed out of the conversation. Like all growth experiences, the goal includes becoming more independent of the instructor.

Last week I had two early students overlap each other's lesson so as to play a duet together. I gave them each the music the prior week and had them come in prepared to play together. Other than dueting with me, it would be their first time making music with another instrument.

As they finagled the big bodies of the cellos into place, tightening end pins and bows and shuffling music onto their designated stands, there was nervous chatter. They didn't know each other with the exception of passing on the in and out path to their lessons. I stood in the corner and let them balance their space and then begin to play. At first they had trouble listening to the other rather while simply reading their own parts. We added our good friend, Mr. Metronome and things began to iron out. They started with only a few measures, then just the first line and finally, the entire piece. Big sighs of relief as the bows clunked back onto the stands. But as big are their smiles because they just cannot believe that they are making music!

I find lessons for us everywhere. Left like crumbs of bread for us to follow on our paths. In our everyday lives it is important for us to read our own parts but be always conscious of those around us because they too are following their individual rhythms.


To Injure Or Not....That Really Is The Question.

I ran Sam at the sheep farm today. The wind was blowing a cool breeze and a few colorful leaves swirled around us in the field. This, and the fact that for the first time I was wearing pants instead of shorts, might have indicated that summer is over. And when we took Sam to the river to cool off after running, there was not one person colorful umbrellas, no picnickers or swimmers...just us.

School has started and we are back in full teaching mode. There is grief in retiring my bathing suit but there is also excitement in returning to routine.

I find the relaxed schedule of summer has done two things for returning students; helped them to let go of certain habits and challenges that plagued them last season and wreaked havoc with their technique!!

Which means that, within all levels, we return to basics to reinforce our foundation. The importance of this cannot be overstated because basics not only give us the roots that we need in our playing but also help us protect ourselves from injury.

One of the very first things I teach new students is the importance of the proper seating position. Feet on the ground, hips aligned with upper body and a straight spine with relaxed shoulders and elbows. This has aggravated many an electric guitar wannabe as they hold the cello slouched into their laps.

We also talk, at length, about the need for movement of the body while playing. So many times I have seen effort and hard work translate to tension in the neck and jaw of a new player. I've sat and watched someone trying to set down a difficult extension and literally push their bow and squeeze the strings as if the extra oomph would guarantee perfection. Sometimes I am literally thrilled to see a breath symbol in the Suzuki books so as to remind students of the need to do just that...breathe.

Ella came to me, as an early student, tucking her bow arm against her body. I liked to call it the “fetal position” This arched her wrist and tucked her hand under the fingerboard forcing her to lift her wrist every time she wanted to move. A recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome. We corrected the position by opening her elbows, “like a Pterodactyl” only to have it rear it's ugly head time and time again as difficult passages forced her to revert to what she knew best. Now, years later, all I have to do is slightly turn my head toward her and out pops the elbow!

Extensions are always a bugger for early players. The explanation alone is confusing, never mind the actual hand position. For a bit of time pretty much everyone forgets to bring the thumb along with the movement of the second finger into the third finger position making the extension look more like a stretch for home plate. I ask them to look at their fingers and make note of the white markings that indicate both tension AND the lack of blood in the thumb.

Rigid necks, awkward facial contortions, hunched shoulders, flapping elbows and palsy-like vibratos. All things that might seem like unavoidable results of learning to play the cello. And how can I expect you to both read those little black dots and sit up straight, move, lift your elbow, drop your elbow and....well, relax?

Every teacher would be remiss if we did not work on these things. Our goal has to be not only to teach you the technical aspects of playing a difficult instrument but also to protect you from the injury of what is, without question, also a serious athletic endeavor.

Ella...pop that elbow!




Madeline Collaborates

Madeline is my seven year-old student from Boston who studies with me in the summer months. The first half of her writing (black ink) was in response to my previous blog: the blue ink portion was written after experiencing some frustration with a difficult piece and a subsequent conversation between us.

(Mushing is dog-sledding)

I think Madeline's observations are brilliant.


Summer, 2016

We are in the middle of summer, actually, as we hit the last day of July we are rounding the corner in the stretch of the season. I prefer to think of us as strolling, relaxedly through the dog days of summer rather than racing, helter skelter toward fall.

I purposefully lighten my schedule for the summer months. It offers students the chance to enjoy family vacations and have the time to sit back and, perhaps process some of what we have worked on. This year it has also offered me the opportunity to train and compete in sheep herding trials with my border collie, Sam.

At first glance this would not seem to fit into my life as a musician. When filling out the yearly American String Teachers Association forms they asked me to write about something “interesting and unusual” that I enjoyed doing besides music. As I wrote “sheep herding” it did seem unusual, even to myself.

But, as I examine it further, it strikes me how common the thread actually is that binds together all of the things that I enjoy doing both for work and for pleasure.

Sheep herding trials were born from a farmer's desire to have some time off the farm. Farms that had sheep normally had at least one, if not more, border collies to work with them in the daily chores of moving the stock, etc. So, like tractor pulls and calf showing, why not get together and take some of those daily chores and turn them into a fun competition and get those few days out of the field to boot?

Many years later the set up for the sheep trials remains very much the same. You are given a random group of sheep and you and your dog have to move those sheep through various gates in a straight line, turn them around the post at which you stand and, ultimately, put them into a small pen, finishing the run and earning you the distinct pleasure of turning to your dog and saying the words immortalized in the movie “Babe,” “That'll do.”

When I step onto the field to work with Sam it requires focus and determination. My mind has to search for all of the possible invisible landmines that might trip us up and I have to have a plan.

When you sit down at your music stand and scan the music, I think you will see where I'm going here.

As I pick up my cello I have to respect it as my partner. There is no music without it and there is no music without me. I know that my instrument requires a certain touch as I move closer to the bridge and it is very clear that without the weight that it asks of me, chaos will ensue.

Sam and I have a routine before our runs. We move off of the crowd of handlers waiting their turns and we sit and watch the other dogs take the field. I talk with him about what they are doing, what we need to look out for and how I think we should proceed. As we walk to the post to begin, he always looks up at me as if to say “I got this, now let's go.” And I have to respect him as my partner for there is no structure and plan without me and there is no speed and muscle without him.

It would seem,simply, that I enjoy cellos and that I enjoy dogs and that much is true. However, what I love about the cello is taking the technique that I have gathered and being able to use it to interpret and convey what a composer is saying to me.

What excites me about working with my dog is that, although we are of different species, we are a team and if we are to get the job done it will require communication that crosses that barrier between human and animal. And when I look up and see sheep coming toward me in a completely straight line (hopefully) with Sam zig-zagging behind them, it absolutely thrills me.

Too many summers I have filled my time with too many things. I over-book myself with playing and teaching. I agree to run a camp or attend too many events and as I cross the finish line of the summer I look backward with regret.

Not this year. This year there have been sunny days filled with swimming and picnicking. Trips to places in my own state that I had never seen before. Long car rides, without phones, for Paul and I to really converse and catch up on things.Walking through open fields and watching Sam chase the ball, over and over and over again.

And ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream.

It is wonderful to be as determined about doing the things I like to do (or doing nothing at all) as I am about working toward other goals.

So as we round the corner and step into fall, the nut gathering can begin. I am rested and ready.


Melissa Perley


The Birth Of Your Musicality

At some point it becomes apparent that what makes players special actually has little to do with how many black dots they can play and everything to do with how those dots are played.

The misconception is that truly making music, exposing your innermost feelings, is reserved for a certain level of musician and for a certain level of music. Students often feel that there will be some line written in red or a bell that will go off letting them know that “now is the time”. In reality, that time is now.

As early as possible I like to begin to play duets with my students. One of my favorite moments is when I put a piece of music that they have not seen in front of them, and they not only actually play it, but now they are making music with another person. From there we begin, learning that making music is far more than producing notes.

I believe that there are layers to practicing and I suggest that we begin working a piece from the bottom up. Nothing important stands without a solid foundation. Technique is the key to freedom and it is the concrete in our foundation. Practice must include dissection, inspection and understanding of the technical aspects of each piece. However music always has to be a thing of beauty and technique always has to be in service to that beauty.

Too many times I have sat in an audience listening to progressing cellists use whatever techniques they had gathered in an attempt to play difficult groups of notes in a difficult piece of music. There was no feeling, no beauty, only a collision of notes played with fear, followed by disappointment and some relief when it was over.

It is a mistake to believe that all success comes from the left hand. Bow movement and sound point are crucial to creating color. These should be introduced early and used at all levels.

Moving someone and truly making music cannot be achieved solely by mechanical means. Like in so many areas of life, muscle and elbow grease are self defeating.

I ask that students work on the bones of every piece, scale, etude. When that knowledge is solid the cellist should let go of the idea of playing just with their fingers and begin to play from their gut. I want them to tap into the emotion that sits in the puddle somewhere deep inside of us.

True beauty is never determined by what you play - but always by how you play it.




 Every single time I have a new student over the age of 20 I get the exact same question “Am I too old to learn to play the cello?” and every single time I give the same answer, “no”.

The benefits of learning music as a child are real - let's face it, our brains are both more accepting of learning new information and, probably more important, our brain is not crammed with the minutiae of day to day living as an adult; work, family, pets, garbage day, car repair and, of course the plethora of code numbers for every single account we need to access (my personal hair trigger). The code numbers alone scientifically take up 7/8's of our usable brain space (my science).

In teaching both younger and older students I can say that another benefit of being a “younger” student is that children and teenagers don't normally carry the baggage of having to be correct all of the time. Adults become almost fixated on making their notes perfect. They will make room for some rhythm, when asked, but of utmost importance are the black dots. Kids, on the other hand, not only don't mind making mistakes, they often take delight in it. Most enjoyable to me is when a student, of any age, makes a really noticeable error and explodes into laughter. It makes me hoot as well and then we get right back at it.

Kids have that damned memory thing going for them. Many times I will assign a piece and the very first week they return they have it completely memorized. I remember having that kind of memory.... I think.

But take heart adults, that is why I give everyone a notebook!! And, interestingly, my young learners often don't “remember” to look in the notebook at what I assigned them.

Adult learners come to lessons, almost without exception, prepared. Even with full-time jobs, laundry, and kids to ferry to soccer, they arrive having practiced. Often they are a healing balm at the end my “young learner” day. Adults are studying the instrument because they really want to. They have thought it through and, recognizing the challenges, make it happen. And it is their name that is on the check at the beginning of the month.

Adults take my suggestions and really work with them. They will sit in front of mirrors, use a drone and make friends with their metronome. And I say “Bravo”

Interestingly, something both teens and adults need in lessons is some time to talk. I make the studio a safe space. If you haven't practiced- I talk with you, not your mom or your partner. And you can bang your fist and you can tell me that you hate this piece (I get the insinuation that it includes me..but I can take it) and it never leaves the room. Music gives everyone a second voice. We can use it to express joy and passion and love and...rage.

Learning something new is difficult at any age for different reasons, but it is also an inherent part of our growth as people. Perhaps this is what keeps all learners “youthful learners?”

Adult learners vs. young learners is a bit like the tortoise and the hare...and we all know how that ends.