My creative writing teacher at Juilliard used to tell us: “there’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you can’t write, lower your standards.” I cannot recall any music teacher anywhere ever telling me anything like this. I remember analysing scores with inspiring theory teachers and being put on the spot to improvise by the inimitable Fred Sherry, my cello teacher at Juilliard (“play a melody in the style of Mahler. Now make up a Fifties love song”). These were all, independently, important and valuable lessons, but it took me decades before I put them all together.

As I write this I am listening to an old recording I unearthed of my Dvorak concerto with the Berliner Sinfonie Orchester (now Konzerthausorchester) from 2003, my final exam for the Konzertexam degree I did at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler with Boris Pergamenschikow as my teacher. I remember the petrifying fear I felt before going on stage, fear that was entirely unnecessary — the playing on the recording is technically pretty impressive. What it’s lacking, though, is spontaneity. Fun. Enjoyment. Playfulness. I was holding onto every single note for dear life, reproducing it the way I’d practiced it (which was good, and convincing, but still not alive, as far as I’m concerned). I had all the right parts to build a fabulous machine, but I didn’t know how to put them together. This is why I’d like to make it easier for others to put together their machines in a more joyful, effortless way.

This was the idea behind Cello Lounge, an experimental concert concept I started in Freiburg in January 2016. The Theater Freiburg has a bar/lounge area that serves as the foyer to the chamber theatre, and for a year it hadn’t been in use as a bar, so they were starting to host events there. I had a meeting with a colleague from the Hochschule and a programming assistant from the theatre and we set a date for a cello class performance. I knew that if I wanted to do something that departed from everyday life at the Hochschule, it had to take place physically outside of the Hochschule. I had no inkling of what we might do and I was more than a little nervous about it. This was July 2015, however, and as the laws of procrastination dictate, I made no plans until about the first week of January 2016. I’d love to say this was by design, that it was intended to be of the moment, but in fact, the semester and other things just overwhelmed me and I had no mental space in which to conceive of a creative program.

The only thing I had was a vague idea that, by improvising and being forced beyond the comfort zone of printed music and rules, my students might start to not just intellectually understand but elementally experience how gestures and harmonies and sounds and rhythm come together to create meaning. I didn’t know how we would do this, but I knew it was important.

I had thought and read a lot about how we learn in general before starting this job, and one conviction that grew stronger from my reading and thinking was that you can’t play music unless you can speak it. It’s the same principle we apply universally to learning to speak and write language. Imagine if we learned to speak by reciting passages of Shakespeare and Goethe verbatim. The idea is absurd, most obviously because it would be pretty hard to find a passage from either author expressing the need to pee (although more likely in Shakespeare). However, this is pretty much what we do in classical music. We ask students to turn off the natural human ability to use (musical) language to express individual sentiments and to please learn and reproduce these pieces that we’ve been playing for the last hundred years, bitte schön.

When I see stiffness in a bow arm or hesitation in shifting, I don’t necessarily think of prescribing Sevčik or Feuillard exercises, although I do use both and find them valuable and well thought out. I also look beyond the technical limitation and try to place it in the context of expression. What unseen force or thinking pattern might be inhibiting this action?

These thoughts and others were brewing while I put off making any plans for the concert. I had invited students to contribute their own ideas, but because I was very vague about what we would be doing, there were almost no suggestions forthcoming.

In my mind, just the invitation to present whatever you wanted to in a cool bar setting should have filled the hour-long program instantly, but I was working against some serious lifelong conditioning to carry out assignments, not create them.

Exactly a week before the concert, I started putting together ideas for it. I was sitting in my mobile office (the high speed train between Berlin and Freiburg, my third home) and the first idea that popped into my head was to play around with Charles Ives. After all, he says in his own postface to his 114 songs:

Every normal man—that is, every uncivilised or civilised human being not of defective mentality, moral sense, etc.—has, in some degree, creative insight (an unpopular statement) and an interest, desire and ability to express it (another unpopular statement). There are many, too many, who think they have none of it, and stop with the thought, or before the thought. There are a few who think (and encourage others to think) that they and they only have this insight, interest, etc., and that (as a kind of collateral security) they and they only know how to give true expression to it, etc. But in every human soul there is a ray of celestial beauty (Plotinus admits that), and a spark of genius (nobody admits that).

I took this as permission, even invitation, to arrange and manhandle his songs. So this was going to be our first challenge: I assigned four students to an Ives cello quartet. Their job would be to make instant arrangements out of two or three songs, instant meaning within the three or four hours’ rehearsal we had in total. This part of the plan — the scant rehearsal time — was dictated by the curriculum and other obligations at the Hochschule that keep students tied up all day, nearly every day.

Sketching along in my notebook, I then started to think of foolproof, non-intimidating ways of getting students who have never improvised to start tinkering with their own notes. I decided we would play a colour-coded game and I would be the card shark. We would have red cards for harmony, yellow for melody, and green for rhythm. On the red cards would be a single note, on the yellow cards a selection of 3-4 notes, and on the green cards just the word ‘rhythm.’ I would distribute the cards to all the players, one after the other, then swap them, then retract them one by one until the improv was over. This way, we could do an easy pentatonic improv with notes that all made sense with each other while still allowing freedom in the department of register, colour, order, rhythm, etc.

Finally, I decided to get a bit more off the wall for those willing and able, and I looked up a dozen or so evocative poems from Rilke to Lorca to Li Po. Out of these we would create the Automatic Instant Poetry Setting Machine. I assigned four cellists to this group, but one got sick and we were left with a trio. Each player would choose a poem they hadn’t seen before and read a line or two, then play something — a free improvisation — as a reaction to what they had read. The next person would then continue in the same vein or deliver a musical contradiction, and the next after that as well. Then the next lines would be read, the next musical reactions expressed, and so forth, until the poem was complete.

After a weekend ‘retreat’ in the string building of the Hochschule and a few hurried afternoon rehearsals, we were (sort of, hopefully) ready to roll. It was far too little rehearsal by normal standards, but I wasn’t trying to achieve normal standards. I wanted everyone to try something new, not to polish their octave passages to high gloss for months on end. The day of the concert, I had the sensation of poured concrete in my gut: what was I doing to these poor ‘kids’? How could I send them out into the public with so little preparation, so little training? How could this not be a disaster?

In retrospect, it was a huge success, totally independent of audience size or reaction (which was about 30 and rather enthusiastic). We had put out sheets of paper and pens by a sign inviting people to write their own poems and some of us were greeting people as they came in and directing them to the poetry stand. In the end, three people wrote original poems on the spot, so instead of using our own collection, we used theirs to feed the Automatic Instant Poetry Setting Machine. This was perhaps the greatest success of the evening from every point of view: the trio was a fortuitous combination of personalities and they were absolutely ‘on’ that evening. The most wonderfully unexpected motives were produced and developed, and each poem was set as if the whole thing had been planned weeks before, but with more energy.

The Ives songs were fairly hilarious, though maybe more to us than to the audience — we’ll never know for sure — and were a great exercise in pushing people past their ordinary limits of performance, as they all ended up singing at some point. The group colour-coded improv, which was both the opener and closer of the evening, broke the ice for all and established that this was going to be a different sort of Hochschule concert but not a completely crazy one. Their dress rehearsal improv was of course freer than the one in front of the audience, but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Each Cello Lounge since then has been different, with different games and pieces and ever-increasing student participation in programming and arranging. There are some nice clips of our last concert on the Cello Lounge Facebook page, and for the first time ever I’ll be giving a 10-day Cello Lounge workshop this summer in Schwetzingen so we can really let new ideas develop and blossom before presenting them in a final workshop concert.

What makes me happy about the progression of this little experiment is how the Cello Lounge attitude is beginning to flow into every kind of playing my students do. I see them experiencing time differently in their ‘classical’ playing, stretching it and playing with it in a way I think one can only understand through the joy of improvising, through the spontaneity of lowering one’s standards and letting something out; it’s a quality that grows out of knowing how to wait for the notes to come rather than (re)producing them. If it were up to me, the whole of music education would consist of this kind of project, this kind of playground. “In every human soul there is a ray of celestial beauty.” Yes, Charles, I do believe there is.


Elena Cheah, is professor for cello at at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, a member of the Hegel Quartet and a writer.