Cello Teaching Philosophy: Hannah Roberts
A series of interviews with Hannah Roberts, Rowena Calvert, Mikhail Nemtsov, Abel Selaocoe and Nicholas Trygstad about Hannah’s teaching philosophy.
In the first of an annual series of interviews with leading UK cello professors, Hannah Roberts talks about her personal philosophy of cello teaching and her experience of studying with William Pleeth and Ralph Kirshbaum.
Following her interview are a series of reflections from past and present students Rowena Calvert, Mikhail Nemtsov, Abel Selaocoe and Nicholas Trygstad and some comments from Hannah Roberts on teaching each of them.
Hannah Roberts interview
‘I will always be grateful to my first teacher, my mother, for her unfailing dedication and for striking such a skillful balance between keeping things fun and maintaining discipline. I’m also very thankful that she tested the set up and response of my modest childhood instruments to be sure that they would work well for me because the way an instrument is set up is tremendously formative to a person’s concept of sound and physical approach.
‘I was offered a place at the Menuhin school when I was 8 years old. William Pleeth had just started teaching there and Menuhin himself was also spending a lot of time at the school during this period, playing chamber music with us and conducting. Menuhin was such a humble person and was genuinely interested in sharing music with young people. He had an unmistakable voice as a player: his personal, expressive and flexible sound opened my ears and mind to seemingly endless musical possibilities and his influence has stayed with me ever since.
‘I had lessons with Pleeth once a month – how lucky was that?! For me, the hallmark of his influence was the way he taught independence of thought. He would poke fun, in a nice way, if he thought a student was thoughtlessly following a piece of received wisdom and would encourage us to go back to the score and think around it another way. Analogies poured out of him when he taught. In the early days, he was trying to encourage me to have a more fluent wrist and bow and said, ‘Darling, imagine that it’s a fountain pen.’ He was always ready with an image to help his students to connect with something they already found natural in everyday life.
‘Every week I would also study with Jennifer Ward-Clarke who was very kind, consistent and thorough. She made us work through all the Feuillard exercises, and even created her own which she wrote out by hand for us all. She also set all forty Popper High School études (to be learned from memory) during my time at school, which I would probably not have had time to do in that depth later on.
‘After leaving the Menuhin school I was very fortunate to get a place in Ralph Kirshbaum’s class at the RNCM. Ralph made me think very carefully about my playing and homed in on essential details, for example whether the bow was acting enough as the foundation of the sound, or whether the left hand and the bow were matching up and working in tandem to create sound in the right way. His laser-like concentration, profound musical insights and warm generosity of spirit continue to be a great inspiration, and his wisdom in guiding the decision-making process on developmental and career opportunities was also invaluable, even when youthful
enthusiasm to take on attractive but possibly ill-timed engagements had to be curbed!
‘I started teaching at the junior department of the RNCM as an undergraduate and a few years later, just as I graduated, Rodney Slatford asked me to fill in at the RNCM when two distinguished professors decided to move on. It was initially somewhat daunting as my first class was made up of a group of young men, some of whom may have taken a little persuading to accept help and advice from someone both younger AND female! But I am enormously grateful for the trust that was placed in me at that time.
‘It’s such a privilege to be involved in the evolution of another person’s progress and the benefits of this stimulating process are mutual. You learn as much as you give. The essence of it however, remains the same: sensing as much as you can about the other person’s thought process and their way of understanding is the key to being able to help them. That is the cornerstone, whether in a consultation lesson or working with a long-term student. You are constantly trying to sense what the person needs at that stage and how they are processing what you are trying to give them. Are they able to utilise it there and then? Or are you sowing the seed of the idea that may mature or re-surface later?
‘What excites me about the potential of a student, in addition to innate ‘giftedness’, is their thirst for learning, exploring and self-improvement. I want to see signs of self-motivation born of a deep love of music, as well as a genuine fascination with the craft of playing the instrument. I’m not so drawn to work with students who are just content to soak up what I say. The potential for conversation, a bit of repartee even, and an open but independent mind are all healthy ingredients in the learning process. When working with a talented student you are dealing with something very precious. It is essential to gain the student’s trust that you’re not attempting to diminish or damage the potency of their gift.
‘For a young player to whom everything has come very naturally from childhood, it can initially feel that if a teacher focuses stringently on detail, this may diminish their spontaneity and flow. For example, if you feel that someone needs to work on their bow hold, you need to demonstrate the future advantages of a changed bow hold, instead of merely showing what’s wrong with the existing one. Once you gain the trust of the student that you are there 100% because you want them to improve, they can accept the compatibility of
your guidance with the shared goal of their ultimate progress. There is no one-size-fits-all in cello teaching. Every student has a different physique and a different personality and it’s essential to work with each student on an entirely ‘tailor-made’ and individual basis.
‘If someone has a major problem that pervades all of their playing, such as a collapsed left elbow, they definitely need some exercises that allow them to focus almost exclusively on that. There is no point trying to reinvent the wheel; there are some technical matters that we know are good practice, for example not having your left elbow too low when you go up above thumb position. It is good to be clear which issues are subject to an individualistic approach and which aspects of the instrumentalist’s playing discipline are best served by existing exercise books and materials which can then be adapted to specific circumstances.
‘So, to focus on the left elbow, we would look for simple exercises that already exist, for example in Feuillard. But I am also very keen that students come up with their own exercises, because it’s so important to maintain creativity in practice. You need a very solid goal and then to be inventive in adapting and developing existing exercises for yourself. I often advise students to imagine they were trying to help someone else with a problem – how would they approach it? Which aspects would they emphasise? And how would they make the message clear for the other person? Using this thought process, they often clarify what they need to do for themselves and identify the simple nuts and bolts that form the problem.
‘The interaction between my personal practice and teaching is very strong. Teaching is a real challenge and I’m always asking myself, how can I put this point across in a way that will unlock this student’s problem? When I’m teaching, I often demonstrate to students the ‘bad’ way and the ‘good’ way of doing something and to do this, I really need to have crystallised for myself what elements each consists of – and I explore this in my own practice. Often through that process you find the nugget that’s going to help the student: which physical feeling it is that you are asking them to find or change. There’s no doubt that teaching continually informs my playing and my learning process.
‘I hold a performance class with my students almost every week. There are so many benefits to these classes because they provide a natural, rotating experience of performing and giving feedback to other performers. Students also get to see when someone has made progress because they have put more work into their preparation, which leads to a very healthy, mildly competitive ambience created by the students!
‘I usually pick four people to perform each week, so that one week you will be in the spotlight – whether you like it or not! – and the next week you will practice how to offer comments which will help that week’s performers the most. In class, I offer my feedback to the performer first and then invite the other students to contribute their ideas. I try to foster a culture of trust and mutual help in the way I put my comments as a teacher in front of the group. The comment should always have the end goal of helping. Of course, it’s important to be honest and to say something critical, to help them to improve, but you also need to give the student the tools with which to pick themselves up and, ideally, make most of that improvement there and then.
‘If a student has a problem with wobbly vibrato and the group sees a teacher repeat over and again ‘you have wobbly vibrato,’ it doesn’t help them to know why the vibrato is too wobbly or what could be done about it. Whereas if you say, ‘I think we need to explore the balance of the left hand and what it is that underpins the vibrato. Let’s try it without any vibrato and see whether you are honestly balanced when you shift onto the 3rd finger,’ – this is a different and hopefully, constructive way of arriving at the point. Of course, there is the risk that in the class situation a student may make a point in an undiplomatic way, but I have found that most students quickly adjust to the culture of the class and learn a lot about how to effectively share ideas and opinions to the benefit of their peers. The whole process is a learning experience for the entire group.
‘As a teacher, I hope to foster inquisitive, intelligent and generous musicianship. I try to help my students to develop tools as well as an ever-expanding manual on how those tools can be used in their playing. I encourage them to question and investigate, to be creative and imaginative in their approach to technical and musical matters, making connections between issues rather than separating them. Above all, I hope that my students will become generous musicians. Generosity of spirit is essential for music-making to be of any value – and for it to transmit the music effectively to the listener. For me, that is at the core of what it is to be a musician.’
Rowena Calvert interview
‘I studied with Leonid Gorokhov in the Yehudi Menuhin school before joining Hannah Roberts’ class at the RNCM. It was so good working with her that I stayed on for a postgrad and then did another postgrad, because I didn’t want to leave her. Hannah is passionate about learning for as long as possible in order to make your ceiling as high as you possibly can, because once you stop learning you don’t have that same opportunity again.
‘It was very clear from the beginning that Hannah Roberts was what I wanted and needed in a teacher. College life was fun and I had a good time but the focus was Hannah and what we did together. It helped that we had a similar background at the Menuhin School. Hannah Roberts is an incredible player and everyone adores hearing her, but she really is 130% the most dedicated teacher. There’s a performance class for her students every Tuesday night and under pain of death do you miss that class. One thing that really struck me about Hannah’s class and everybody in it was the level of everyone’s preparation. Also, once everyone had played she would open up discussion to the whole class, so you had brilliant performance practice and then an immense amount of information thrown at you after having played in front of your colleagues. In every class she will have her cello out and she will know every single piano part by heart, and writes endless sheets of notes during the class so at the end of each class we would have an enormous quantity of notes she had taken down for us. I still have them, hundreds of sheets of notes.
‘It was incredible seeing people in class, improving a concerto or sonata week on week, so you knew that by the time they got to the concert or audition date there is absolutely nothing left uncovered. That was most important thing I learned from Hannah, that every time you perform, there is the utmost dedication to the preparation, which meant that you could really enjoy your performances. I played the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the RNCM orchestra and it was such a highlight of my college life, though playing in front of everyone you know, all your colleagues and friends, could have been the most horrendous experience. But I felt so prepared, there wasn’t a note that had been left undiscussed or challenged or thought about and it was just such a fantastic experience and memory.
‘Hannah Roberts’ classes wouldn’t have worked without everyone taking the same attitude. For Hannah everyone worked; not working wasn’t an option. She was never angry, just utterly gracious and consistently gorgeous to everyone, but it was an unwritten rule that it wasn’t an option to go into the class unprepared. Everyone was similarly minded, everyone was working really hard because that was why they were there. It was 100% passion and dedication to the cause. We always felt motivated because we were part of the class, like a big family.
‘Sometimes you would see someone play a sonata and you’d think it was absolutely fine. But then after a year with Hannah Roberts you would see them play again and think ‘Oh my goodness’. She has this gift to extract musicianship and technique from people that I couldn’t have foreseen. She literally made alright sounding cellists sound absolutely amazing – using flying upbow staccato and beautiful musical ideas. She just managed to curve her teaching to the needs of every single musician in terms of their technique and musical ideas. She seemed to have this knack of drawing music out of people. It was just amazing.
‘I had a really awesome social life outside college but I focussed on my cello first. After every class or lesson, I would practise through everything so that it was really lodged in my mind. As I said, you have extensive notes from your lessons and your classes so your practice time was really full. It wasn’t just playing the cello or playing the piece from start to end. There was so much to do, because Hannah always encouraged listening to recordings and studying the scores. So I guess I just got on with it and went to the pub afterwards.
‘Hannah Roberts is unbelievably supportive. She knew I was into photography and I remember her coming in to my lesson one time with a big newspaper cutting about a photographic competition and saying she thought I should enter some photographs I’d shown her. I also remember when one of her pupils was robbed, and got hurt; she went and sat with them in A&E. It was just unbelievable the level of support she gave people. Even now I get Christmas cards, and if I perform in Manchester she will turn up with flowers and a present.
‘We had had a class party once, and instead of having a conventional meal with her, one of our cellists said, ‘Look, why not take Hannah to Laser Quest? So Hannah Roberts turns up in a camouflage Angelina Jolie-style Tomb Raider outfit, with fake tattoos, red lipstick, loads of eyeliner and a massive water pistol. There are so many strands of Hannah, where do you start? It’s not just the incredible teaching or the caring side of her, or the fact she commands such respect, there’s also this extraordinary humour and empathy with people.
‘I remember we had a class on Valentine’s day and when Hannah went out for a moment, all the boys in the class hijacked her cello case and hid a huge Valentine’s card with loads of hugs and kisses in it. Who else would inspire that?! She was so playful and gorgeous, and through all that she managed to gain this incredible respect from people. We were in a class once and there was a rehearsal going in the room below that shouldn’t have been happening. She sent someone to go and tell them to be quiet but they weren’t taking any notice, so Hannah gently put her cello down and walked with determination towards the door. Five seconds later there was complete silence. If she walks into the refectory in college, all of her students will get up and say hi. And this is the thing, everyone feels the same way about Hannah.’
Hannah’s thoughts on teaching Rowena Calvert:
‘Rowena’s huge sense of energy has always infused her playing. She also had the ability to make a piece her own, not because she was egotistical, but because she had a very distinctive approach to sound and great sensitivity to the more creative nuances in sounds. Her energy also made her very agile with the instrument and, to my great delight, she would sometimes choose very daring fingerings that other people may have agonised about, but which were absolutely right for the phrase. Her live performances were always really engaging and natural, emanating from a genuine excitement about the music
‘We focussed quite a lot on intensifying the skill of listening; this idea of circumspection. When you are dealing with a very natural giftedness, you need to gain the trust of the student that you are not attempting to diminish or damage the potency of those fantastic elements of their gift, as well as gaining their trust that you are trying to guide them to be able to control what they are able to produce. For Rowena the challenge in the earlier stages of her studies was to become an even better listener, and this enabled her to become a really accomplished young artist.
‘Rowena is a generous musician and she gives to the audience and those that she plays with.’
Mikhail Nemtsov interview
‘I was nervous at my trial lesson with Hannah Roberts but I left really inspired. She was very positive and complimentary and encouraging, but I could see how much I could learn from the way she talked about musical character, sound and phrasing. I knew that if I practised in this way it would take me to a different level.
‘Over all the years I studied with her Hannah was always encouraging, never negative. I really appreciated having individual lessons and weekly classes. In lessons you play and Hannah Roberts coaches, but in class you hear similar faults in the playing of others, and it’s sometimes easier to hear Hannah’s comments when directed at someone else. She would also ask us for our comments on other students and at first, we were rather shy but in the end we would come out freely with our own comments and we all became professors. Classes certainly improve your teaching as well as your own playing and they reinforce what you have learned. The other benefit of the weekly classes is the opportunity to play a new piece in public; it’s a great training as you don’t get that many concerts at college.
‘Verbalising is a very important way to understand musical issues, and Hannah encouraged us to be self-analytical. If you have a problem, you should ask ‘what can I do about it?’ not just wait for the lesson. You can be your own teacher between lessons and you can speed up the process of growing as an artist and musician if you are not just relying on the teacher. Some students only do exactly what the teacher says and that can work very well but when you leave college, then you don’t know what to do any more. Hannah Roberts encouraged self-growth and we all tried to do as much as possible at home. Everyone had a different tempo of development and then she adapted to everybody and gave everyone individual understanding and worked at their pace. She uses humour a lot, sometimes verging on the outrageous, just to make us laugh, to help release tension, and she knew when to say it – always very well judged. She often would give anecdotes – she likes to make funny comparisons. It’s nice to break the seriousness.
‘When I started working with Hannah Roberts, I didn’t have to change anything dramatic like the bow hold, but one of the main things we worked on was finding the physical freedom I needed, which comes from the whole body and is also very much linked to how you think musically – you can’t just be free for the sake of it, you should be together with the music. Of course, there are places in the music where you have to be tense, but it’s about tension and relaxation combined. Maybe at first, I didn’t have enough freedom of movement – I was playing well but rather intensely, and I think this was normal for a young player. I also worked on how to find different colours and character in the music. When you start to understand the music better it becomes very clear where you should become more physically free, where you should give it a bit more energy – it’s really linked. Hannah Roberts never worked on technique and music separately, but she found an amazing way even in exercises to talk about music. Some great teachers focus just on technique, but with Hannah you don’t get frustrated with just technical things; you are always focussing equally on the music and the process is much more interesting and useful because your brain is working more musically.
‘There was always a conversation in lessons – you could ask and she would respond. She always demonstrated quite a bit with her cello, which saves so much time. We all had to study scales in the RNCM curriculum. Hannah gave some classes dedicated to this and to studies such as Popper and Piatti. Hannah played all the Popper studies at the Menuhin school and she taught them as a musical piece – it’s really nice music. Ultimately, she focusses on cultivating freedom and flexibility in everyone. She plays with great freedom herself.
‘She is very open minded about influence from outside – there is team teaching at the RNCM so you have lessons from other professors as part of the course. My team teacher was Raphael Wallfisch and we also had Ralph Kirshbaum and Gary Hoffman and some lessons from Karine Georgian, Gillian Thoday, Emma Ferrand and Nick Trygstad – there are so many fantastic cellists in Manchester. Hannah was totally open minded about this.
‘I was in her class for 8 years and studied for 4 degrees! I’m really grateful for the support of RNCM as I wouldn’t have managed without them. Over these years we continued to work and grow the artistry in me and find more colours and sound. I could see the process of evolution over time which was a great feeling. In the end there is no limit to the colours you can make. Hannah Roberts guides you on the path of always working to explore yet more possibilities.
‘She encouraged us to apply for competitions and auditions – you need to face that stress in your working life and she encouraged us to expose ourselves to this. There were so many opportunities in the UK which I gained through the competitive process. Hannah Roberts is very dedicated to her students and she manages to attend an incredible number of our concerts, even if it involved travelling.’
Hannah’s thoughts on teaching Mikhail Nemtsov.
‘Misha arrived as a super-talented cellist and wonderfully modest person. I remember that he brought some Bach to one of his early lessons, and at that stage his ideas about how Bach should sound had, in his words, mainly been influenced by performances he had heard of some of the great Russian artists from the past. He was keen to expand his outlook, and curious about the many other approaches to this music and it was a great credit to him that he was so quick to embrace and try many different ideas in the process of finding his own way to look at it.
‘We also talked about how the technical aspects of playing could infuse the music in terms of types of bow stroke – what are the merits of sustaining the bow here instead of releasing it? Is it possible to release too much, resulting in a kind of pale, anaemic sound that might not be part of what he felt about that music? How do you reconcile strong views from the past with these variations? It would have been possible for someone as talented as Misha not to be particularly open to new ideas, given that on the face of it they can play it better than a lot of people already. However, I found him very open-minded and inquisitive, which I really admired.
‘At the outset I don’t think Misha had much experience of orchestral playing but during his studentship he became more interested in preparing orchestral solos and suddenly got fascinated with how far he could push himself with that repertoire. Now he has gone on to be principal cellist at the Mozarteum orchestra in Salzburg, as well as continuing to play chamber and solo repertoire.’
Abel Selaocoe interview
‘I started learning the cello at a school called Acosa which is in Soweto, so my brother and I would take the train and then walk. I started on recorder and then began on cello, but the problem was that they never had enough instruments because it was quite a low budget school and they didn’t have the funding. So we could only access the instruments at the weekend. But my brother was such a natural teacher and a very keen educator, and very keen on me, so he started doing some research on what the cello really is, where the notes are and how you can play it. He would give me a broomstick and get me to practise a basic bow hold on it.
So, during the week we would practise, just a basic overview of how to play a cello, so I would learn scales on paper, then on the Saturday we could really put it all into practice and really go for it.
‘The headmaster of the school was Michael Masote, a pioneer of classical music in the township. His son was a cellist who had studied at the Menuhin school in Switzerland, because Yehudi Menuhin came to Africa once, saw him play and said, ‘Look, you have to come back with me.’ So he went and came back, and of course everyone saw him as someone to really look up to and through him I understood that the world is much bigger than we thought, coming from our township. So that curiosity inspired me to want to be a person like him and the cello came along with it. The school realised that I had some potential so I was given a cello and they said, ‘Take this cello home now and see what you can do with it.’ I would come back from school every day and I would play the cello from 5 until 8. And it was just fun, listening to Classic FM and recording what was aired on old cassette tapes, you know, just pressing pause and play. And I would record the Haydn cello concerto and try to play it, that kind of thing. Learning music but in a different way.
‘Afterwards, I got a music scholarship to St John’s College, a very reputable school in South Africa. It had all the facilities you could need, and I did a lot of practice there. Then Ben Oosthuizen, my head of music said to me one day, ‘You should really think about auditioning overseas,’ So I came here to audition for all the colleges: RAM, RCM, RNCM and one in Norway. I got a scholarship for the RNCM, a place which is really well known for the cello and I remember thinking, ‘Wow this is cello heaven.’ Though I didn’t know Hannah at the time, the head of strings told me ‘We have just the perfect teacher for you,’ so I started taking lessons with Hannah Roberts in 2010.
‘I think, coming from a small environment in South Africa, I was looking to be pushed in terms of technique. I knew, every time I had access to the internet that there were some things I really needed to fix. So I said to Hannah Roberts straight up when I first met her, ‘I would really like to be pushed and be shown new technical bounds.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I will show you.’ As though there was no way that I would leave unchallenged. That was really what I was looking for but I didn’t realise at the time the heaviness of my statement because there was so much to do! And at the time it was OVERWHELMING.
‘I think we started working on how to be more natural with playing. I used to move around a lot, so we looked for the things that enhanced my playing instead of distracting it, considering the body and how to work it. I think that was the first lesson. From then on, she didn’t follow the routine that maybe other teachers did, on open strings for a month or two months. The work was immediately in the music, how to feel good in yourself, how to feel natural, because at the end of the day, the idea is to enhance your music making. So she was really incorporating the two sides – ‘Why do I want to relax? So that it makes this difference to the music…’ So that was our first lesson: it was about me and my body but always to do with the music, learning to be natural, and understanding that some of the things I would do were passionate but also not natural, so I had to find a way to channel the passion into some discipline.
‘Hannah Roberts has so many students but one of her incredible gifts is that I always felt that the entire experience was really made for me. It was completely for Abel: what are Abel’s talents and strengths, and what is needed to enhance Abel? At the time I had lots of ideas in terms of making sounds but did not have the security with my left hand to be able to gain control of the fingerboard.
‘She always wanted to tailor the experience to me, and even when I wanted to be improvisatory, she was always on board. It was a teacher-student relationship where we really shared. I came with this improvisational past from South Africa. I really wanted to explore more improvisation which was already a natural part of me, and she took it on so easily, and made some suggestions that really changed things as well. I think it was a giving experience from both sides which was amazing. That is how I have always felt with her lessons, not only me listening but also us exploring and finding our way together. The idea that when you play music there is always some kind of temperament that is being used that is related to the musical spirit. We express aggression in different ways, we express yearning, but there is always a thread of similarity between those different things. So she was really good at teaching me to hone the kind of emotion I wanted. She has an amazing imaginative and creative mind, a teacher who would give you a picture that would really unlock what you needed to know. There are so many examples, one day for example my vibrato was too wide. She would say, ‘You know those parties where you get those tiny, tiny sandwiches? Would you really want a Subway filling?’ There was so much imagery that she used. Mostly jokes, but also very deep. She was always very good at finding these and using images to tell me what to do. Her pictures were fantastic and it is something that I still look for when I am practising and really helps me.
‘The last seven years with Hannah Roberts have transformed my life in a lot of ways. I have taken so much from her, and just the different ways of enjoying how to play music. Enjoying the physical bit, the strings going into your flesh. And understanding where your flesh needs to be, there’s quite a lot of detail to it. Images of the awareness of physical sensation are really helpful. These are the fundamentals that make foundations that I hope to keep for the rest of my life, whatever sort of musician I turn into.
‘For example, with the left hand – she says I can play in a way in which the sound can be free, like dropping your fingers onto the fingerboard. You can put them down quite easily, without tension and even with a kind of relaxation when you drop your fingers down. Getting around the fingerboard is quite comfortable then, even if you are playing loudly; there is no association with pressing or tension. I’ve learnt how to create strong sounds with my right hand and the bow, say in Shostokovich, but I know that my left hand is free. It’s the way to be able to get to the end of the concert! Even with things like shifts, the same thing applies. We went through a time when I felt that sometimes I was reaching for a note instead of arriving at it. So we talked about the contentedness of the Buddha, so when you shift you are not reaching for it, you just fall on the note. It is quite hard to explain, but I know the sensation. This is what makes her such a great teacher. I am also becoming a teacher, and finding ways of putting things succinctly and as clearly as possible for my students.
‘There is never an uneventful moment with Hannah Roberts. Throughout the years you come into lessons with different emotions. There are times when you come in thinking, ‘Ah, I really don’t want to do this any more.’ But she is so good at spotting how you are feeling. She always knows, even if it is not discussed. She always relates it to the music, so you lose a lot of what was distracting you before the lesson through the music. Music is a world of imagination and this is what you should be doing when you are playing: taking people from the place they are in and guiding them somewhere else. This is exactly what would happen in our lessons, when you really focus on things, even if it isn’t focussing emotionally in the music, perhaps just on a physical sensation, this really gets you out of the place you were in before. So I was always happy to walk into lessons, even if I hadn’t felt I had wanted to, and I always walked out wanting to play more music.’
Hannah’s thoughts on teaching Abel Selaocoe:
‘Abel arrived overflowing with an absolute abundance of natural gift and energy, and wonderful lack of inhibition about music making and the cello: all of which were really striking qualities. I think the challenge for Abel when we started was to feel trust that as his (new!) teacher I would genuinely welcome maintaining and keeping all those qualities alive while simultaneously conducting a rigorous technical programme and working on discipline in his music making. There were some things that he was doing incredibly well but in quite unorthodox ways, and he has done a wonderful job in getting himself to the position where he can really tackle any repertoire and be respected in both ‘classical’ and more improvisatory-based music.
‘He has developed his improvising and performing skills so much with his group which is now called Kabantu (previously known as Project Jam) to the extent that they now have a wonderful career, playing at the Proms, and playing concerts almost every week on the circuit. Abel continues to develop and has been successful in a whole series of awards and performances because he has worked hard to combine his natural talent with a musical and technical discipline, learning that the two things are not incompatible, but are connected.’
Nicholas Trygstad interview
‘My parents started me on the cello when I was four, with a fantastic Suzuki teacher called John Dunham and when I was eleven I was recommended to study with Peter Howard who was principal cello of the St Paul chamber orchestra. who took me on from about 13 until 18. He was fantastic, intense, demanding and encouraging. In his spare time he was an ice hockey coach. He would walk up and down the room during my lessons shouting at me like a sports coach, though it was always so encouraging that it never bothered me. His best insult to me was that I played like a Norwegian Lutheran. He wouldn’t yell at you if you played out of tune, but he’d yell at you if you didn’t express yourself.
‘Mr Howard encouraged me to apply to study with Ralph Kirshbaum, so I went over to New York for a lesson and Ralph in the end said, ‘I don’t have room for you and I don’t think you’re ready to learn with me but if you want to come to Manchester, I can recommend a teacher for you and I’ll keep an eye on you.’ I was so impressed by the lesson with Ralph, I had never experienced anything like that, so I thought, ‘Wow I’d better go.’ And I discovered my teacher was Hannah Roberts.
‘We worked on Haydn D major in my first lesson which I’d started preparing that summer. It was totally in the deep end, everything was different. She certainly wasn’t jumping around the room screaming at me. I think the biggest difference for me was that Hannah didn’t give everyone a set of exercises that everyone had to do. Certainly, in America pretty much every teacher had their set studies and scales which all their students followed. I read William Pleeth’s cello book in my first year and immediately understood her philosophy: the music comes first and you look for the technique to fit the purpose, or look up the exercises when you find an area that you feel you are deficient at. I guess I might flatter myself to think that Hannah didn’t find any gaping holes in my technique, but I had loads to learn in terms of expanding my range of colours and sounds, so you would look for the techniques needed in the piece or study you were working on. You weren’t put into a kind of mill saying, ‘Go in this side and come out the other a flawless cellist’. There is no set lesson. You’re not learning how she’s going to play the piece, she’s trying to get you to open up and play the piece the way you want to. And I’m sure she learned that from William Pleeth and Ralph Kirshbaum.
‘What Hannah Roberts really awakened in me was getting me to listen and create sounds that change. When I was in High School I would try and make a ‘great sound’, whether intense pianissimo or really loud fortissimo, but Hannah was always listening to how the sound changes and getting you to change sounds. Of course, the vibrato needs to change, and you need the ability to change the bow speed within one bow or within a number of bows so that you can create a variety of sounds. When I go and play for her now I still don’t have what she has, because she’s so alive to every element of colour and sound and the fact that it’s always changing. That’s definitely the thing I learned the most.
‘What makes Hannah Roberts unique is her absolute dedication to what you are doing when you’re in the room with her. She has incredible focus and I remember feeling so guilty as a student that she was actually more committed to my work than I was. To feel that your teacher is more on top of your work than you really shames you into treating things more seriously. She remembers everything, and always writes everything down. She still has my notes for everything I played. I’ve had lessons that have finished after midnight and I’ve had lessons with time for two meal breaks within them. And in the lesson that ended after midnight she was still saying, ‘Are you sure I have helped you enough on this?’ when for the last 45 minutes I had been thinking ‘Please God, let this end!’ and at the same time I was thinking ‘Don’t look tired! Don’t yawn! Keep focused,’ because she was so focused. You asked yourself, ‘How can I keep up with this?!’
‘Now I’m teaching I know how hard it is to maintain that level of focus. There are lessons where I feel really present, listening to the students and focussed on what they need. And then there are some hours when it’s a struggle to connect with them. So I’m so full of admiration for how well Hannah does that the whole time. I’m sure she feels that she has highs and lows in terms of connecting with her students but she was always demanding more of you. You can’t give second best to her because she’s always giving you absolutely the very best of her. That must be why she’s such a wonderful performer as well, because she’s aware of herself constantly, literally constantly. It’s what makes her such an amazing musician, it’s as though she doesn’t need mindfulness training – which is what I feel I need – she has an innate ability to be single minded.
‘Mainly she would be looking for analogies when trying to inspire in a lesson, usually to describe the sensation you feel when you play rather than the sound. Which is so important because I’m discovering more and more that the sound you make is based on how you feel. It’s a sonic expression of the state of your body. So, she would be talking about physical sensations, stroking cats, bouncing balls, textures of carpets. She’s such an extravagant dresser and loves opulent things, Liberty fabrics, that sort of thing. All of those textures are really part of her imagination, and those are things she passed onto me. Not only the texture and sound as you feel it but also as you hear it which used to be indivisible. She’s also capable of cracking incredibly rude jokes. As an American I think I probably blushed a few times.
‘One to one and weekly classes were indistinguishable to me, in the way that she worked with us all. It was quite a shock actually, because the classes were more like four private lessons. Hannah would be single-mindedly focused on that one person. I remember especially she would spend maybe 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes even more, with somebody, working in exhaustive detail on their music and then say, ‘Are there any other comments from anyone else?’ She would address the class at points to hammer home a point that she was making. And I would learn a lot of repertoire from her and I learned to listen better through working with other people. She does believe that the content of the class is for everyone to learn from but it’s not public entertainment like some masterclasses can be. Whatever she feels personally – and I know there are students she had problems with – with each student in that room she gives 100% and expects it back from them.
‘Hannah is incredibly supportive to her students. I had loads of competitions to prepare for towards the end of my time studying with her. I remember once we were talking on the phone about how things were going, with Schumann I think, because the finger board felt like this hard piece of wood that I was pressing these strings down onto. I was really struggling under the pressure and the amount of practice I was doing, but she awakened in me the idea that it could be something else by bringing round some of her son’s playdough, encouraging me to feel that the cello could be a different substance. That definitely got my house mates laughing, but there’s a real lesson in that. You have this idea that practice happens when you play the cello in a room, but it doesn’t have to be in this set time. Practice could be going shopping to the home section of John Lewis and feeling fabrics or going to art museums or on walks. I always tell my students that my best creative work doesn’t actually take place with the cello and I’m sure I’ve picked this up from Hannah. It all happens inside you. Of course, you have to spend time with the cello but that’s the tool. You have to be out there experiencing different things.
‘Hannah Roberts works very much in the moment. She has this creative process always happening. And being in the presence of someone who is trying to help you in that way is what helps you grow. You have to be the person you want your students to be, and she already is!’
Hannah’s thoughts on teaching Nicholas Trygstad:
‘Nick was exceptional right from the word go, both in terms of being already such an accomplished player, but also having amazing maturity for his age given that he came to the RNCM aged 18. He seemed to be able to absorb limitless amounts of ideas, help or suggestions, and was very mature in the way that he worked, coming back to the next lesson not only having thoroughly prepared everything but also having really thought around everything that he was doing. This has really borne fruit in his professional life; he has reached a lot of very distinguished milestones very early and for me, as a teacher, it has been lovely to see that he is now such a committed teacher himself. He seems genuinely so interested in his pupils, and thinks deeply about what is right for each of them in terms of their own difficulties and challenges.
‘Because Nick was already so diligent, intelligent and aware, I felt that in the early days he needed to learn that it was okay to take risks and perhaps let his hair down a bit more, judging this of course for each different performance. Also, because he was so able to learn so effectively, it was important to select the right kind of repertoire. Nick was always inquisitive and open about repertoire and as a result was well equipped for the many performances that he was offered. And it is wonderful that he is now a colleague at the RNCM as well as principal cellist of the Hallé orchestra.’
Hannah Roberts is one of the outstanding cellists of her generation and was privileged to have studied with William Pleeth whilst attending the Yehudi Menuhin school and with Ralph Kirshbaum at the RNCM.
Having won prizes in numerous prestigious competitions and awards such as Shell LSO, BBC Young Musician, Jacqueline Du Pré Memorial and Pierre Fournier awards, Hannah has gone on to give many concerto performances with leading orchestras, including the London Mozart Players, LSO, BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Hallé, also making frequent broadcasts for BBC radio and recording for ASV. Festival appearances have included Chichester, Malvern, Beverley, ‘Beethovenfest’ and regular participation in the prestigious ‘Manchester International Cello Festival where she was invited to lead a world premiere of a cello sextet work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and performed on numerous occasions.
Internationally she has taken part part in the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival in Los Angeles and many other festivals in Europe.
In addition to being principal cellist of Manchester Camerata and her activities as soloist and chamber musician, Hannah is a committed and sought after teacher and is professor of cello at the RAM in London and the RNCM in Manchester.
She is honoured to have been awarded an FRNCM for her work helping to nurture upcoming gifted cellists.
Mikhail Nemtsov As a soloist Mikhail Nemtsov has performed all over the world. Recent highlights include performances with Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Porto Symphony Orchestra, European Union Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, the RNCM Chamber Orchestra, Liverpool Mozart Orchestra and London Festival Orchestra. Previous musical collaborations include Vassily Petrenko, Nicholas Collon, The Nash Ensemble, Razumovky Ensemble, Alexandre Zemtsov, Maxym Rysanov, Anna Kandinskaya, Leon McCawley and Me Kyong Lee. Nemtsov was the recipient of the Pierre Fournier Award in 2011, Silver Medal winner at the Rostropovich Memorial International Competition, the Muriel Taylor Scholarship, Silver Medal of The Worshipful Company of Musicians, Gold Medal of the Royal Northern College of Music and twice recipient of MBF Guilhermina Suggia Gift.
Mikhail and his sister Elena form the Nemtsov duo, who are winners of Salieri-Zinetti and the Swedish Duo International Competitions as well as the 3rd prize winners of the Pinerolo International Chamber Music Contest and Lyon Int. Duo contest part of World Federation of Int. Music Competitions. They have performed at a number of venues including the Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room and the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and participated in music festivals in Chichester, Edinburgh Fringe, Buxton, Chester, Orlando and Salzburg, as well as played live on BBC Radio 3. Nemtsov Duo have recently released a CD on the Italian Azurro Records and their new CD on CMF label features Maxwell-Davies and Shostakovich sonatas for Cello and Piano and pieces by Shedrin, Grieg and Nemtsova.
Nemtsov grew up in St Petersburg and following his graduation from the Rimsky-Korsakov Special Music School, he moved to Manchester where he studied at Chetham’s School of Music and Royal Northern College of Music kindly supported by Dorothy Stone and Howarth Scholarships. He has studied with eminent professors including Nicolas Jones, Hannah Roberts, Ralph Kirshbaum and Gary Hoffman.
Nemtsov taught at the Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Northern College of Music and at the Altensteiger Sommermusik Akademie in Germany. He has held masterclasses throughout Europe as well as in Russia. Nemtsov is holder of an International Artist Diploma at the RNCM and was awarded the position as a CMF Artist in 2013, in the company’s inaugural year. He appeared as a solo cello in Bergen Symphony Orchestra and co-principal cello in BBC Philharmonic, Manchester.
Mikhail was recently appointed as a co-principal cello in Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg and was given a position of an Associate Honorary Artist at Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester.
Abel Selaocoe South African cellist Abel Selaocoe is a versatile musician who is interested in exploring the capacity of the cello across genres, from collaborating with beatboxers, folk and world musicians to giving concerto performances and solo classical recitals. He has worked as a soloist with numerous orchestras throughout South Africa. In 2016 he made his Bridgewater Hall debut, playing Tim Garland’s Cello and Saxophone Concerto. Abel performed the Schumann Cello Concerto with Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra and will premier Adam Gorb’s Cello concerto with the Great Britain National Youth Ensemble. He recently gave a solo performance of Britten’s Cello Suite at the Westminster Abbey Cathedral as part of their St Cecelia Festival.
As an orchestral musician Abel has worked with the Britten Pears Young Artist programme, recording numerous award-winning CD’s of Britten’s works. He has also appeared with Multi-Story Orchestra working closely with cellist Matthew Barley to make classical music accessible for a diverse audience and playing in the BBC Proms. Abel plays with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra regularly. As a keen chamber musician, he made his Wigmore Hall debut working with composer Colin Matthews on his String Quartets. He is interested in collaborating with musicians from other genres such as Tim Garland, jazz saxophonist in Chick Corea’s band and the pianist Gwylim Simcock from the Pat Metheny group.
As an improviser, Abel is the co-founder of BBC Introducing artists’ world-folk fusion quintet Kabantu. Kabantu plays across the UK in many festivals such as Fishguard, Ulverston International Music Festivals, Aldeburgh Festival and the BBC Proms Late Night Concert at the Albert Hall broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Abel was the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artists Award 2016/2017, winner of RNCM Gold Medal, Worshipful Musicians Company Silver Medal award, winner of the Sir John Barbarolli prize (UK) and RNCM Concerto Prize. He has also been awarded the John Hosier and Biddy Baxter Music Trust Scholarship with Sir Simon Rattle as patron. He is grateful to Help Musicians UK for making him the recipient of the Suggia Gift, Karl Motesiczky Scholarship; and for generous support from the Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust and the Thomas Jellis Bequest.
Nicholas Trygstad Born into a musical family, Nicholas Trygstad began cello lessons at the age of four in Minnesota, USA. In his teenage years he studied with Peter Howard, Principal Cellist of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who inspired him to pursue the cello professionally.
In 1998 he came to a England to study with Hannah Roberts and Ralph Kirshbaum at the Royal Northern College of Music. While at the RNCM he received many awards both within the UK and America, most notably the Bronze Medal in the London Symphony Orchestra scholarship competition, performing Schumann concerto with the LSO, and the Gold Medal from the RNCM, the institution’s highest honour.
Having previously been Principal Cello with Scottish Opera, Nicholas Trygstad became Principal Cellist of the Hallé in 2005. In addition to his work with the Hallé he has a number of students at the RNCM and performs regularly in recitals and chamber music collaborations. He is a member of the Manchester Piano Trio, which plays extensively around the UK, and he has performed concertos with the Northern Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of Opera North and the Hallé.
A passionate educator, Nick has taught and led workshops for many years at the Royal Northern College of Music and is delighted to now be working with the NYO and NYO Inspire.