Prologue: An afternoon in Oxford

26-3-2018 Oxford, UK

It’s late March, and I am in Blackwell’s, on the Broad, in Oxford. Strictly speaking, I’m in the Music Shop, but the whole complex from 48- 53 Broad street joins up, behind the White Horse Pub at no. 52, and I am trying to avoid the temptations of the vast book-filled Norrington Room behind me, and concentrate on sheet music.

I am looking for a copy of Dotzauer’s opus 113 etudes, because I am working my way through Gerhard Mantel’s ‘Practising Etudes’, and this Dotzauer, along with several collections I already own (Duport, Popper, Gruetzmacher, Stutschewsky) contains many of the suggested exercises for working through and incorporating Mantel’s technical ideas.

I pull out a plastic envelope containing a slim volume in light green and yellow labelled ‘DOTZAUER’ in large letters, like a bestseller. Also like a bestseller, the title of the work is written much smaller than the name of the author. The small print tells me not only that this is the desired opus 113, but also that this is only a part of it. ‘Oh’, I say ‘This is only volume one’. The voice from behind the desk says ‘It comes in four volumes. One and two should be there’. Who is this man, who knows seemingly the entirety of his stock, down to the last heft of a four-part set of exercises that are only of interest to a cellist? This is Pete, the Blackwell’s sheet-music guru, who is internationally known as the man who knows which editions of anything are available, and where you can get them. I have phoned him from Paris for a score of Swan Lake, from Utrecht for an American clarinet technique book, from Scotland for editions of French flute music. He is quite right. I find volumes one and two, and after a quick reference to Mantel (I usually have this book in my backpack), ascertaining that I probably need at least these two volumes, I hand their plastic sleeves to Pete. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asks.

He asks because the day before we had a rehearsal together, and this afternoon, I have an exam. This man, with the international reputation for his genius in the area of printed music, is known locally as a fine pianist, and a fine accompanist. I am more than a little embarrassed to have engaged his services, particularly as I know his daughter is a professional cellist, but as I am far more apprehensive of his hearing me play than I am of having an examiner sit in judgement, it works for me, and I benefit greatly from his discernment, his sensitivity, his unshakeability, and his unassuming kindness.

I am here in Oxford for an exam. What exam could I possibly be taking, having started my cello studies in 1985, and it now being 2018? I am taking the Intermediate Certificate exam with Trinity College London. It is a recital exam of about twenty minutes of about grade five level, or a little higher. I must dress for a recital, produce a printed programme, and behave as if giving a public recital. There will be no scales or arpeggios, no general knowledge questions, and no aural tests. I have deliberately chosen a programme of shorter salon pieces, of a type that I never got to play when I was studying in the eighties, plus a short sonata, which I did learn, but never performed:

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This exam is the first step of a self-imposed program of rehabilitation as a cellist. Having taken up the cello in my last term at school, I advanced rapidly, to the extent that a year and a term later, I began my studies as a performance major on cello in the music department of the leading university in the state. Shortly after that I began to develop a number of problems: a shaking bow arm, a gripping left hand, strange pains in my forearms, an inability to sit comfortably holding the cello, the need to use the bathroom every five minutes while performing. The cellistic result was poor intonation, poor tone, bow vibrato, and a very unhappy cellist. I gave up.

Now, some thirty years later, I am determined to regain my skills, and go beyond them. I wish to play at the level of a professional cellist, even if I am never engaged. It is partly a matter or pride, partly the need to deal with unfinished business, but mostly the need to regain an artistic voice which has lain dormant in me for several years. And I like playing the cello. I’m lucky to play it. But it’s a slog, this relearning; something akin to digging up a corpse to see what murdered it, or if it can in fact be resuscitated. I have lost the first fine careless rapture that allowed me to know instinctively where all the notes were, so long as I could hear them in my head; that allowed me to start learning the Bach Suites in my third lesson, that allowed me to sit in a orchestra and sight-read Brahms symphonies when I had been learning for less than a year. Everything has to be found now, and learned consciously. Besides which, there is so much to be unlearned. My one saving grace is the fact that I have found an outstanding teacher, who solved my bow jitter in about five minutes, who has infinite resources for solving problems, infinitely high standards, and infinite patience with my scrapings. And who has the belief that I myself have lost.

So, later in the day, here I am, in concert black, entering the Music Faculty building in Oxford. I tell the exam administrator that my accompanist is on the way, and she says, ‘Is it Pete?’ She doesn’t know me from Adam, but my pianist is, it seems, one of the most likely suspects. We warm up, and slightly early, the examiner comes to fetch us. I rosin my bow, we enter the room, Pete tries the piano, then tuning, a nod, and off we go. The examiner starts scribbling furiously. I hold it together, slip here, slide there and sludge a bit, but it’s respectable, and 23 minutes later, we emerge. ‘Well that went alright’ says Pete. And he is right. I am satisfied with none of the performances, but it went alright. I believe I’ve passed. I know all of the things I would have liked to do better. So tomorrow, there is the next step. And Dotzauer.

Later on, as I am walking the water meadows, in search of a snakeshead fritillary, I am seized with a sudden panic: I have bought Book I, but what if it is a ‘compleat’ method, and starts at a very basic level with a simple bowing exercise in first position? Will the first volume be a waste of my time, and my money? Time will tell. Time now for a cocktail with a friend, and a dinner party, and bed. Work begins tomorrow.

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