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Interview with Renata Bratt on Alternative Playing Styles

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Renata! Why don't you start out by telling us about yourself and what kind of teaching background you have.

I’ve been teaching since I finished my undergraduate work at Pomona College in Claremont. For a while I was the “regular” cello teacher at the Claremont Community Music School and Rick Mooney (a registered teacher trainer with the Suzuki Association of the Americas) was the Suzuki cello teacher. I was fortunate to be living in Claremont for a number of years and to observe the beautiful teaching styles of the cello teachers at the National Cello Institute which is based there. I was able to take a couple of masterclass series with Margaret Rowell – a cello teacher who has been a huge influence on Suzuki style cello teaching.

Then I finished up my Master’s degree in performance from California State University at Northridge and moved down to San Diegowhere I got my Ph. D. in music from the University of California there. Directly after I finished my Ph. D. work, I started taking Suzuki training with my friend Rick Mooney, back up in Los Angeles County. I also observed a lot of lessons from a wonderful cellist named Glen Campbell who is a Suzuki cello teacher (as well as a member of the San Diego Symphony) in San Diego. We taught together for a number of years at weekly Suzuki groups at San Diego State University. Later, in San Diego, I was able to take a very fine course in performing cello using the Alexander technique from Evangeline Benedetti – a trained Alexander teacher as well as a former member of the New York Philharmonic.

I started playing with Jimmy Cheatham’s Big Band at UC San Diego – in the sax section (on the cello). That was great for sight reading – plus Mr. Cheatham would make me play improvised solos as well. I learned never to say no. Cindy Lee Berryhill, a noted singer songwriter, asked me to play in her band and I learned how to perform without music and onstage in all sorts of conditions, her songs are always wonderful, and very cello friendly. We’ve collaborated for many years now.

I became interested in jazz after I heard the Turtle Island String Quartet perform and started flying up to the San Francisco area to take lessons in jazz theory and performance from Turtle Island Quartet member, violinist David Balakrishnan. I took lessons in playing bass styles (on the cello) from jazz bassist Rob Thorsen. I lived in the Boston area for about a year and a half and took jazz lessons from violinists Evan Price and Matt Glaser as well as bassist David Hollender. I joined the International Association for Jazz Education and started teaching jazz to cellists and other string players at summer camps, as well as performing.

I moved back to California and attended Mark O’Connor’s first California summer camp, the San Diego Mark O’Connor Fiddle Conference. There I was extremely influenced by the wonderful sounds of fiddling, and started taking fiddling lessons immediately (on the cello) from guitarist Jim Lewin. I have found that the best way to learn something is to teach it, so I wrote a book on playing fiddling tunes for cello, with lots of help from my friend, the fiddler Darol Anger – from whom I learned many interesting variations of fiddle tunes. That’s “The Fiddling Cellist” which is published by Mel Bay.

I heard Irish fiddle style player (but born in Chicago) Liz Carroll perform at the first stand-alone American String Teachers Association Conference and fell in love with Celtic music. In my area (northern California) we have a very big Scottish style group called the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers. I have attended (and later also taught at ) Scottish Fiddler Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling Camp for many years and learned various fiddle styles (on the cello) from many teachers there. I wrote a book about that, too: Celtic Grooves for Two Cellos, published by Mel Bay. I have been very interested in accompanying all of these styles, and often write or teach about that.

Despite the fact that you've branched out from a classical background, do you still consider yourself to be a Suzuki teacher? Why or why not?

I do still consider myself a Suzuki teacher. I very much involve parents if I am teaching younger children – they are the “home” teachers. I expect my students to learn to play by ear - listening to their Suzuki CDs or their non-classical CDs. I teach in a Suzuki step-by-step way, and I firmly believe that we are educating beautiful people – not just musicians.

Why should students try alternative styles of music? Why not just focus your energy or learning one style really well?

As you can see from my story above – you just can never tell what kind of music is going to affect you deeply. I was from a very classical family, but found that many other styles reached me at a visceral level as well. Students may or may not be bitten by the classical bug. We teachers need to make sure that they find “their” music. Music needs to be a part of our whole lives – not just something to do before you enter college. Playing music by ourselves or in a group helps us find inner peace and a shared purpose.

I think most classically trained musicians - teacher and student alike - are a tiny bit scared when trying improvisation for the first time. Why do you think that is?

Making up little tunes as part of a regular practice schedule is extremely important. Teachers need to give students the freedom to play around with their instruments. This should be a direct order from the teacher. Very good classical players are afraid of “making a mistake,” so they cannot allow themselves to play little lines or phrases within a key that may be a bit aimless at first. Nobody ever woke up one day and started composing without noodling on their instrument first. Not even Mozart.

If a teacher is interested in introducing their students to different styles of music, how would you suggest they go about doing that?

First make up a list of tunes in the style for the students to purchase and download. This is a new set of listening tunes. Ideally these tunes will then be taught by the teacher. Every nuance does not need to be present from the beginning. A good outline of the tune is fun for all. My students bring me tunes from everywhere – Celtic, bluegrass, jazz, online games, movie and TV themes.. I don’t mind teaching them a simple or complex version – whichever they (or I) are ready for. I like to use a lot of back-up tracks to provide a chord and rhythm framework. Or I accompany students myself.

Next, have the student purchase a written version of the tune or style – either from your local music store or online. Learning music from the page is fun for sight-reading skills – but not so good for making the tune sound authentic. If it’s jazz, have the student get some sort of slowdown device for their computer or phone and slow down the solos. Repeating jazz solos note by note is a time honored way of learning jazz licks or phrases.

What if the student expresses interest in alternative styles to their parent? What should the parent do?

The parent should discuss this with the teacher. If your teacher is not interested in teaching this (or these) styles, then find a member of the musical community who teaches that style. That does not mean that you quit taking lessons from your current teacher – just that you start learning about the style from someone who is willing and able. Your other style teacher could easily play another instrument than you do, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn that style from him or her.

Thanks, Renata!


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