My Cello Story

I began playing the cello at 9 years of age, when I was offered free lessons at primary school in Manchester. I loved it right from the start and a friend from secondary school recently told me that the only time he saw me really happy was I was playing my cello! When I was 12 years old I began attending the Junior Department of the Royal Manchester College of Music on Saturday mornings. My teacher there was Ian Bewley and over the course of our five years together he opened my eyes, my ears and my tactile senses to what is involved in becoming a fine cellist.

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Here I am playing in the back garden, aged 14. At that time I was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. It was an amazing experience for me playing in the NYO, meeting others who were just as enthusiastic and better players than I was, and playing in the BBC Proms premiere of Shostakovich 15th Symphony in the Royal Albert Hall.

I stayed in Manchester for my full-time studies at the Royal Northern College of Music. My first teacher there was Paul Ward who had conducted the Stockport Youth Orchestra over several years when I was a member. When he retired I spent a wonderful year in the class of Bruno Schrecker before eventually being taught for my final two years by Boris Heller. Boris was very little older than I was and he had no time for my excuses for lack of practice. He threw difficult pieces at me and gave me plenty of praise and the confidence to work intensively and single-mindedly. I began to venture into professional work – theatre shows and choral dates. My first engagement with a ‘real’ orchestra was The Dream of Gerontius in Hull with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. By the time of my final year at the RNCM I had become a busy freelancer. Years previously a wise old professional had warned me to put cello practice before paid work while I was at college but, like many before and since, I ignored this sound advice. Now it is my turn to give it my students!

I then spent a postgraduate year studying in London at the National Centre of Orchestral Studies which was located at of Goldsmiths’ College. As part of my course I received funding for cello study with Christopher Bunting which lasted for two years. Christopher was a sincere and empathetic man with the ability to isolate and explain any technical problem and then give you a solution, usually in the form of one his own exercises to he had given names such as Albert. The first time I arrived at his flat he greeted me with a quote from G. K. Chesterton – ‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly!’ – he detested perfectionism. The course at Goldsmiths’ consisted largely of a year’s orchestral playing with a variety of conductors including some very fine ones – for example, Lorin Maazel, Gennadi Rozdhesvensky, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. The highlight of the year for me was that I got to perform Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra.

At the end of my time at Goldsmiths’ I was invited by Leonard Friedman to join the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. The SBE (known today as the Scottish Ensemble) was ‘Baroque’ only in its size and make-up; it was in fact a 12-piece unconducted group of strings with harpsichord which played music of all styles on modern instruments. I moved to Edinburgh in the summer of 1980 and was quickly able to build up a scene of freelance playing with orchestra and theatre work and teaching to fill in the gaps around to SBE schedule. This was a very happy and exciting time for me. I loved playing in the Ensemble and I took full advantage of the opportunities for solo work which it brought me. Chamber music was a big part of the SBE’s work and I soon found myself performing such pieces as the Schubert C major Quintet and Brahms Sextets all over Scotland with my distinguished colleagues.

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Here we are rehearsing the Mendelssohn Octet for strings in Utrecht’s Vredenburg Hall, in June 1981. That year we played the Mendelssohn many times on tours of Canada, Germany and Holland, as well as in London.

By 1983 I had been playing professionally for a few years and was feeling ready for some new inspiration. I read William Pleeth’s new book about the cello and was captivated by his holistic approach to playing and his sheer charisma which seemed to permeate out from every page. I wrote to him, went and played to him and, to my delight, he agreed to teach me. I applied for funding to pay for lessons and was lucky enough to be given a Music Award from the Scottish Arts Council which was subsequently renewed for a second year. For those two years I made the trip to his house in Finchley, North London once a month or so. He was a uniquely inspiring teacher, for me as for so many others, and I can still remember the feeling of his presence, sitting on the chaise longue with his Stradivarius cello beside him. I cannot remember him ever saying a single negative word about my playing; he would simply show me the next step. On one occasion I played him Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. In the little cadenza half way through I was not finding the intensity of sound which he was asking for. He played it himself to show me what he meant and, to his consternation, I still wasn’t getting it, so he came over to me and sat beside me, perched on the chair together with me and played it again so that I could literally feel the vibration from him and his cello. The difference was like night and day to me and I immediately got it!

My own teaching has become more important to me as I have got older. William Pleeth used to speak about the ‘oneness’ of everything and I have always felt that doing and teaching belong together and nurture each other. Since 1989 I have taught in the Junior Department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) in Glasgow, and since 1992, at the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools in Edinburgh. Many of my former pupils are now professional cellists themselves and my respected colleagues. Seeing them grow into fine musicians without the need for my constant supervision is a joy beyond words and I believe that if you want to keep something, you have to give it away!