Cello Teaching Philosophy: Gillian Thoday

In the second of an annual series of interviews with leading UK cello professors, Gillian Thoday talks about her personal philosophy of cello teaching and her experience of studying with André Navarra.  This is followed by interviews with former students Jonathan Dormand and Lara Moore.

Interview with Gillian Thoday

‘I come from a family of scientists and educationalists – which explains my lifelong desire to understand how things work. During my 3rd year at the RAM my friend Peter Worral came back from a course with André Navarra and told me I really should try to work with him. He said that Navarra had a very technical approach to his teaching, and I knew that I was really hungry for this way of working. There was something in my bow arm I wasn’t happy with: it was an obstacle between me and the instrument that had never been explained – and I knew I needed a solution. So I went to a course with Navarra in Siena that summer.

Watching Navarra’s bow arm in action for the first time was like finding water in the desert. I knew I had to have it. It was the equivalent of seeing Federer playing tennis: it was poetry in motion, the physical action completely attuned to the ideal outcome. In our first session I played the 1st movement of the Elgar concerto and he gave me a really good lesson on it. Then I started playing the introduction to the second movement, and he sat back and – as teachers did in those days – lit up a cigarette. I could see he was just going to relax and let me play without comment, so when I reached the sautillé part of the movement, I stopped and said, ‘This bow stroke isn’t working. Why?’ I could see a twinkle in his eye. Then he got up and gave me a transformative lesson on the French school of bowing.

I went home to London after the course and worked on everything he had taught me. I played to him again in London a year later, during my final year at the RAM. He walked all around me so that he could see my bow hold and bow arm from different angles. He was so impressed by what I had achieved on my own after 15 minutes of input from him in Siena that he invited me to come and study with him in Germany.

When I arrived at the Hocheschule, Navarra picked me up by the scruff of the neck and dropped me in the deep end by saying I should learn the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. I was slightly panic stricken and said to my fellow students, ‘This is so difficult,’ but they looked at me and said, ‘Just practice!’ It was a completely different philosophy in his class. Navarra’s gift was to demystify the learning process; he gave us ways to get down to ground principles. Whatever the difficulty is, there is always a point from which you can work on it.

To illustrate the learning process for repertoire, Navarra used to draw a circle like a cake. The first, fairly generous slice, is about simply learning the notes. Then an enormous chunk of the circle represents the process of going back into the piece in a very deep and detailed way, making a profound and comfortable connection with every note, musically and physically, examining and working on every detail. The final slice of cake is when you emerge out of that deep learning stage with a very different experience of playing the piece. He understood that young people tend to think they have learned the piece when they have learned the notes – but that’s only the start. It is essential to find that depth of connection, with physical ease and mental calm, so that practising becomes, at its best, a kind of meditation.

As a result, I probably move a bit more slowly at first through repertoire with my students because I feel it is important to go into depth rather that crunch your way through masses of material, possibly at the expense of the health of your playing.  I like to keep repertoire flowing with an eye to what each student is ready for, what suits their character and what they will enjoy. It’s terribly important that they enjoy it and are stretched – always with this aim in mind of making them at one with their instrument. Everything I do has that long-term aim, finding stepping stones along the way to suit each individual. Whoever comes into my teaching room, I try to meet who they are. I would find it very difficult to write a book on teaching technique because the way I explain it, the approach I take and the order in which I do things depends on who is sitting there – I can’t write that down as a rigid set of rules.

In terms of technique, the French school of bowing is one of the most important things I need to pass on as a teacher. It involves the development of much more even finger control in the bow hand so there is a much stronger connection between the little finger and bow. This affects all aspects of bowing technique and also influences the way the sound is produced.

When it comes to moving the bow, the French talk about ‘en poussant’ and ‘en tirant’: pushing and pulling (not ‘up’ and ‘down’ bows) and this basically describes what you are doing with the sound. You push the weight of the bow through the string (you don’t impose on the string from above) using an utterly released upper arm, so that you can get an enormous sound with very little physical effort.  This also sums up one of the fundamental philosophies of my teaching, which is to get the maximum result with the minimum expenditure of physical energy. This in turn means that your playing can last for many decades, as you’re less likely to get injured through physical strain.

Navarra’s name always comes up during discussions on sautillé bowing. When teaching sautillé, I start by demonstrating exactly what the stroke is. It’s a friction stroke (not off the string) which depends on a lot of contact with the string and uses some weight in the bow. We’re not thinking of pulling and pushing for this stroke, because the bow actually goes up and down if you look at the point. The actual amount of travel of the hair is minute. You also need to find the sweet spot on your bow where it is most inclined to join in, as you can’t impose sautillé on a bow; sautillé requires a partnership between you and your bow.

The other thing Navarra gave us in bucket loads was fantastic techniques for practising. One of his favourite sayings was, ‘Always practice as if you have all the time in the world.’ He said that this is even more important when a performance is just two days away. Rushing your practice is what Alexander Technique teachers call ‘end gaining’ – you are pushing for a result instead of working with where you are at the moment and you are going to build up all kinds of tension as a result.

Another fundamental teaching principle is to try to remove all obstacles in my students’ way. I want to make them feel what I felt when I first got my bow arm right – that there is nothing between me and the instrument. You are at one with the instrument, so it then becomes a channel rather than an obstacle, a channel through which you express yourself rather than something with which you fight. My ideal would be to get all my students to that point and I keep a very close eye on their technique, right from the first lesson, and start to work to remove the obstacles, beginning with the one that seems to be most in the way and progressing on from that.

My uncle, who was a celebrated Cambridge genetics professor, said that he built his entire career counting the hairs on the backs of fruit flies! Talk about the nitty gritty of scientific research! Teaching for me is similar – you need to be patient and observant and to have a mind-set that wants to analyse what you observe. For me it’s a significant part of the fascination and joy of the job. It requires patience, but I enjoy my students as individuals at every stage of their development as cellists.

I had a breakthrough recently in helping a student to understand sound production. He has the most amazing facility and soul in his playing but was working a little too hard to get the sound that he wants. He was using a slightly raised right upper arm and the challenge was to get him to push and pull the bow while releasing his upper arm – to help him trust that if he was really pushing that weight through the string, he would get the level of sound and the drama that he wanted. Then there came that wonderful moment when the penny drops, and you see the ‘wow’ on the face of your student. Suddenly he could play a passage with a fraction of the effort and a satisfying, round forte sound. I think he went away from that lesson convinced that he needed to practise to make that a complete habit.

If you can show a student the art of practising in their own time, it is immensely empowering. They know it’s not just down to my input, but to the work they do by themselves. Navarra sent us all off to our professional lives with a handy bag of tools to use – and that’s what I try to do for my students, with the ultimate aim that they are independent. It’s a good feeling to see them flying off the branch, knowing they have what they need to go on progressing in their own way.’  GT

Interview with Johnathan Dormand

‘I was 16 when I started studying with Gillian at Chetham’s.  In my first lesson I played the second movement of the Elgar concerto and the Walton Passacaglia.  Gillian examined everything I was doing and perhaps 10 minutes into the lesson she made a quick adjustment to the shape of my right thumb (I had been holding my thumb straight, not bent.)  It took me a good 3-4 months before it felt comfortable to use a bent thumb, but she encouraged me to focus on that until it became natural.

Gillian is like a surgeon in her approach to playing because she can see and diagnose a problem and instantly make an adjustment.  The other major change she brought about was to get me playing more freely by using a flowing bow arm.  Bowing is the cornerstone of her teaching: when you allow the bow arm to speak and move freely, you can make a true, open sound, with centre and core.  An inflexible arm is weak.  All you need to do is let gravity use the natural weight of your arm and use the muscles in your back to create sound in the bigger gestures.  The other adjustment was in my left hand – to take me away from playing right on the fingertips to playing more on the pads.  This makes a surprising difference to the sound – if you move away from the bony fingertips onto the pads you have more cushion and you can find nuance in the sound which otherwise you wouldn’t discover.

The great thing about Chetham’s was having two one-hour lessons with Gillian each week.  One lesson was dedicated to scales, exercises and studies, and the other focussed on repertoire.  Gillian was very wise in her choice of repertoire and studies.  Before starting at Chetham’s I was deeply interested in music and had accumulated a huge collection of recordings.  Gillian inspired me to focus my musical obsession specifically on the cello and what it’s capable of doing, by exploring the broader cello repertoire.   To help me to become freer in my playing and in the sound I produced, she put me straight onto the Bridge cello sonata and the second movement of the Dvorak concerto.  I had never heard of the Bridge sonata before and it felt so cool to be set a piece of unusual repertoire – it was great as a teenager to have a piece to call your own, as a way of distinguishing yourself.  This left a lasting impression on me.  I’ve seen the work she does with other students and she wasn’t assigning the same things to everyone – she gives a very individually tailored programme to every student.

Those lessons with Gillian were the highlight of the week.  She was just the right combination of inspiration and sternness.  She expected that after two hours of one-to-one lessons each week, you would bring a lot of work back to the next lesson in return.  She was so inspiring and liberating that you felt you could tackle anything – and this was brought about by her belief in the student.  For instance, at the age of 16 I never expected to play even the slow movement of the Dvorak concerto so soon.   To have someone assign that kind of repertoire to me because it was what I needed to develop technically was super exciting and I wanted to live up to that.  She really knew how to motivate me: when I studied the Schumann concerto, she got me to apply technical elements to specific passages so that I was also improving my technique when playing the piece.

Gillian was stern in terms of what she expected and how to work during my personal practice.  She was very quick to jump on me if I was going down the wrong path, but she has a positive energy when she is teaching.  As a young player surrounded by musical talent at Chetham’s you can feel a bit fatalistic: it’s easy to think that musical ability happens by the grace of God.  Gillian showed me that in fact it’s down to a combination of natural ability and hard work, having useful information and being able to apply it.  You can achieve anything if you just follow the method.

Gillian’s approach was very structured and methodical.  She was the first person to grab me by the scruff of the neck and say hang on, listen.  She opened my ears to what was actually going on in both the sound and the intonation.  She set down methodically how to dissect a small passage and how to make it workable – to practise playing one or two notes next to each other, and to play with the open string to help with intonation.  Before I studied with Gillian, I would attempt a tricky passage using the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach.  One of her favourite mantras is that slow practice is the fastest method and she taught me to put things into bite sized chunks and make sure I had the right quality of sound and was listening to the intonation.  I remember feeling for a while that my intonation was getting worse.  Gillian insisted that it was getting better but that my ears were finally picking up on what was not there.

She demonstrated a fair amount in lessons, but she also used a physical, hands on approach to help me move into the right playing position.  Physical contact is considered a bit taboo these days, but I think that’s a load of nonsense – you can’t experience the sensation until someone moves you into what you think your hand can’t do.  For example, when trying to develop my extensions she would help by physically moving my hand into the right position to prove that I could do something I thought I wasn’t capable of.  I’m a big guy and have big hands!

The great thing about Gillian’s teaching is that everything you are taught becomes second nature, just as natural as taking a glass from the cupboard when you want a drink of water.  It’s the same principle when you pick up the cello and play your double stop scales – that sensation of how it feels in the hands and body is just something that – through her rigorous training and careful observation – sticks with you and becomes your own body language.

Gillian is a big supporter of the Alexander Technique and the principles come through in her teaching: how you hold yourself and how you ask yourself to do things.  She has a real understanding of the equilibrium of the body and what good posture is, so that you don’t have problems later in life.  She set me up so well that when I played in UK orchestras, I could call on all the information that Gill had given me physically.  In these intensely busy jobs it’s easy to get yourself into serious physical trouble if you are not watching what you are doing.  But I was lucky enough that Gillian gave me good habits for a lifetime.’ JD

Interview with Lara Moore

Lara Moore

‘When I was six, a young cellist played The Swan at school assembly.  Over the next few years I kept telling my parents I wanted to learn the cello, but they thought it was just a fad.  Luckily for me, when I was nine and a half, a local cello teacher came to my school specially to teach me; I was their only cello student at the school.

By the time I was 13, my teacher encouraged me to audition for Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.  I’d made quick progress after my late start as a cellist, but as I hadn’t done a lot of technical work, Chetham’s asked me to reapply the next year.  I worked really hard for another year, re-auditioned and this time I was successful, and I started studying with Gillian in September 1990 when I was 15.

Before Chetham’s, I think I got by on natural musicality rather than disciplined work.  I hadn’t done many scales in the past and I didn’t even know what studies were.  I thought practice just meant playing pieces through.  Gillian was a very dynamic teacher and I could see that she wouldn’t accept any nonsense or laziness from me!  I felt ready to be in that environment, working hard during practice periods, trying to focus more on technique.

Gillian was always very professional and efficient.  She was chatty enough to make you feel comfortable, but she didn’t waste any time.  I remember being quite in awe of Gillian as a teacher and as a person.  Here was a woman the same age as my mum who, unlike her or her friends, was totally independent: travelling from London to Manchester, juggling her busy performing and teaching career, articulate and well read.  She was truly inspiring and became an important role model for me in adult life.

It felt natural to work hard for Gillian because I had a real hunger to learn and was definitely ready for it.  On another level, it was hard for me in the first term because I felt I was having to do a lot of catching up, just to keep my head above water.  Gillian worked a lot on my bow arm and bow hold to start with.  She’s famous for that so I was really lucky.  I remember doing scales and long bows, thinking about the balance in my bow hold, taking the two middle fingers off.  My left hand was quite weak when I arrived and I remember doing lots of fast, strengthening left hand exercises which has influenced me a lot in the way I teach now.  When you teach young pupils there is a lot of muscle building needed – you can’t hold your bow properly until you have built up the strength in between the thumb and index finger and across the knuckles and it’s the same with the left hand.

I got the feeling from Gillian that the work we were doing was completely normal.  She was good at encouraging me and was never negative.  She never gave me the impression that I had to catch up and I didn’t feel compared to her other pupils.  She made me feel it was all just part of the learning process for my age.  Gillian was particularly good at encouraging me to be more thoughtful and self-analytical with my practice, which I had never been up to that point and I learned how to be more constructive with my practice and to make it last longer.

Before Chetham’s I used to do a bad hour of practice each day and suddenly Chetham’s gave me 3 hours of supervised practice within a 12-hour school day.  I used to wonder how to fill the time!  Luckily for me, Gillian is quite an analytical teacher.  She didn’t just lay down the law.  If I was finding something hard, she would ask me to try different solutions, such as experimenting with different bow strokes, bow hold, arm position, thumb position.  This started to influence my own thought process when practising – for example I’d think about practising a phrase without vibrato or with a lower left-hand position…

My first year at Chetham’s was a very difficult year for personal reasons.  About 6 months before I started at the school, my father had a bad car crash which partially broke his neck and he was off work for months.  Then the following April my brother was killed in a car crash.  Gillian played a big part in keeping me going.  She wasn’t emotional with me when my brother died; she was just extremely supportive, constructive and business-like which helped to keep me focussed.  I didn’t need nurturing in an emotional sense, I needed someone to be clear, straightforward and constructive which is one of Gillian’s many strengths.

It’s incredible that Gillian managed to get the best out of me at that time, considering what had happened.  I managed to do my GCSEs the following year when I was still 15 and I then did English and Music A levels as well as preparing for conservatoire auditions.  I used to get very anxious about performing in front of other people because of what had happened at home, but Gillian prepared me for auditions really well, and I had offers from the RNCM, RAM and Guildhall.

In my first year at the Royal Academy of Music, we observed children’s classes at the String Wise First String Experience at the RAM with Wendy Max and Cecily Mendelssohn, a project which was influenced hugely by Sheila Nelson.  I remember watching all those 5- and 6-year olds and literally got goose bumps because I couldn’t believe all these young people were reading from charts and using solfa.  I started to go along and watch on Saturdays and ended up as Wendy Max’s assistant, struggling to play the piano accompaniments!  Eventually I took over the cello teacher’s role and I’ve been teaching there on Saturdays ever since.

I now specialise in teaching young children from 4 -5 onwards until they are ready for junior conservatoire so that I can make sure that they are well set up technically.  Working with Gillian on Popper, Feuillard and Sevcik studies really opened my eyes and helped me to understand that young children are capable of doing exercises even when they aren’t aware that they are practising exercises.   I think that Gillian’s constructive approach as a teacher has had a huge effect on how I teach.

Just before my children were born, Gillian had a reunion get together for some of her students, and we realised that we live very close together.  We’ve been friends ever since – we often meet for coffee, a walk or a meal – and she’s even given my 11-year-old son two cello lessons.’ LM


Gillian Thoday studied at the Royal Academy of Music where she was a scholarship holder and prize winner.  She won further awards to study for four years in Germany with the renowned virtuoso and pedagogue Andre Navarra.  On returning to London she gave a Wigmore Hall debut to much critical acclaim and won a Greater London Arts Association Award resulting in solo appearances at major London venues and throughout the country. She has made solo broadcasts on television and radio and has worked closely with contemporary composers including commissioning a new work from Michael Berkeley for performance at the Wigmore Hall and giving a live broadcast of Jonathan Harvey’s “ Curve with Plateaux” as part of his 50th birthday concert at St. John’s Smith Square.

Gillian has huge experience of the music profession having worked with most of the major orchestras in London including the London Symphony, BBC Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras, the Academy of St. Martin’s, the English Chamber Orchestra and as a session musician.

As a chamber musician she has played with such groups as the Lontano and Redcliffe ensembles with radio broadcasts, CD recordings and tours of Europe and the USA. Work as guest principal cellist includes the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, the Radio Orchestra of Dublin, the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and the Brussels Opera House.

As a teacher her approach to bow technique and sound production has been strongly influenced by her studies with Navarra. She has taught for more than thirty years at Chethams School of Music and at the Guildhall School of Music Junior Dept., and since 2009 has been a cello tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. There are many cellists, now themselves active in the music profession, who have been greatly influenced by her teaching.

Jonathan Dormand is the cellist of the Verona Quartet.  He has performed internationally on stages including London’s Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre, as well as New York’s Weill Recital Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Jonathan’s performances have been praised by the Boston Globe for being “elastic in phrasing and transparent in detail.” Ariane Todes, the former editor of the Strad magazine, noted “Dormand is a fine and thoughtful player, for whom everything works securely and easily.”   Jonathan is a Laureate of the Isang Yun International Cello Competition 2012 in South Korea, and the Pierre Fournier Award 2015 in London, where he was awarded a Major Incentive Grant. Further awards have been from the Hattori Foundation, Countess of Munster Musical Trust and a Williamson Foundation grant in California.

His principal teachers were Gillian Thoday at Chetham’s School of Music, Hannah Roberts at the Royal Northern College of Music, Laurence Lesser at the New England Conservatory and Ralph Kirshbaum at USC Thornton School of Music.

Jonathan’s work as a Chamber musician has been extensive. He has appeared at major international festivals and has collaborated with acclaimed musicians such as pianists John O’Conor and Peter Frankl, violinists Midori, Phillipe Graffin and Donald Weilerstein, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and singers Lucy Shelton and Rod Gilfrey.  Jonathan was a founding member of the cello quintet SAKURA, declared by the L.A. Times as “superb” and “brilliant” with whom he performed at the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival 2016.

As an orchestral musician, Jonathan has served as guest principal cellist with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Royal Northern Sinfonia and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. A committed and dedicated teacher, Jonathan has taught at Yellow Barn’s Young Artist Program.n addition to being on the faculty at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.  http://www.veronaquartet.com/jonathan-dormand

Lara Moore BMusLond, LRAM, PGDipRAM 
has gained a reputation as a leading teacher of many young cellists over the last 20 years. After winning a scholarship to study with Gillian Thoday at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, Lara continued her studies with Professor David Strange and Philip Sheppard at The Royal Academy Of Music. After spending some time working as a freelance cellist, her love for teaching young children gradually took over. In 1998 she was exposed to the wonderful pedagogy of Shiela Nelson which inspired her to work and train as an apprentice alongside Wendy Max, Cecily Mendelssohn and Philippa Bunting on The First String Experience Programme, where she has dedicated herself to the teaching of children ever since. As well as her work at the JRAM, she leads the String Project at South Hampstead High School for Girls, directs the North London Chamber Music course, has given seminars for the European String Teachers’ Association, and runs a thriving private teaching practice.

Lara’s work with children on courses such as Stringwise, Frinton-on-Sea, and Music in Progress has fuelled her interest in holistic musical training, and she particularly enjoys working with children in the earliest stages of learning, setting them up physically and mentally as they grow, mature and flourish into young teenagers. Lara strives to tailor her teaching to specifically nurture and fit the needs of each individual pupil. She passes on the experience she has had working in masterclasses with Paul Watkins, Heinrich Schiff, Zara Nelsova, Ralph Kirschbaum, Raphael Wallisch and Matts Lidstrom.  Many of her students have gone on to win places in the National Youth and National Children’s Orchestras, and to secure scholarships at junior and senior level at London conservatoires and prestigious schools.

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