5 Qs for Rhonda Rider

One of my favorite things - in the whole world - is talking with my former teacher and (always) mentor Rhonda Rider about all things music. Rhonda was my teacher at The Boston Conservatory, where she is the Chair of Chamber Music and on the cello faculty. The few years I spent studying with Rhonda were some of the most informative of my life. My study with her laid the groundwork for what I now preach to my own students, how I think in the practice room, and how I approach performance and all music. She was also the first person to encourage my fresh interest in new(er) music.

I hesitate to post her bio here, so instead, I'll direct you to her WEBSITE (where you can learn all about her, watch video performances, and read her blog) as well as THIS interview that was recently printed in The Strad on the topic of Popper Etudes! 

This is the first that I'll be posting in a series of Q&A blogs with some folks I superdooper respect and admire in the world of music performance and pedagogy. Some will be colleagues that I spent time in school with, others will be teachers I've had in the past, and still others will be performers I've never met that I've simply "cold-called" (and who have responded)! I hope you enjoy!

JD: In your blog about practicing, you mention listening to a beautiful cello sound for 10 minutes once you’re done for the day. Can you talk a bit more about that? What should one listen to? Does the beautiful sound come from your own cello or someone else's?!

RR: Helping a student, at any level, to improve his or her basic sound is one of the most difficult tasks. Talking about tone is a bit like talking about color. For example, I describe the sweater as teal. You say it’s more blue than a true teal. We may both agree that a color is red but are we really seeing the same color?

Now, let’s talk about tone color. How would you describe your basic sound? The sound you make is your own. Even playing the same instrument, people do not get the same sound. This is never more pronounced as when you hear different pianists play the same instrument. The same big Steinway concert grand and yet it can sound remarkably different depending on the person playing it. And if you hear a really fine pianist play, it will sound like a different instrument with every new piece of repertoire. 

So, how does one go about finding their sound? We spend all day practicing and hearing just ourselves. That sound becomes what we expect to hear. Try this. At the end of your practice day listen to a recording by a great cellist. Be sure to use good headphones or a good sound system. Try to remember that sound, internalize it. The next day, when you practice, expect to hear that sound. Make every sound that comes out of the instrument the most beautiful possible. 

JD: What (general or specific) advice would you give to a brand new string quartet for their first rehearsal(s)?

RR: Play a few slow scales together to begin to work on your group sound. Try to match vibrato, bow speed and intonation. Read through one movement of a piece you’re going to work on. Everyone (really everyone!) choose 2 things they would like to practice. It could be intonation on a couple of measures, or playing a fast passage very slowly, or a tricky transition spot. But by all means, be sure to have fun. 

JD: What piece of non-standard repertory should EVERY cellist (adult amateurs, students, and professionals) know? 

RR: That’s a tough question. There are so many wonderful pieces out there. For starters here are a few:

Arno Babajanian - Piano Trio
Frank Martin - Trio on Irish Themes
Arthur Berger - Duo for Cello and Piano
Fauré - Sonata No.1

Three of my favorite contemporary pieces that are still not quite in the standard repertory:

Judith Weir - Unlocked
Kaija Saariaho - Sept Papilions
Jonathan Harvey - Curve with Plateaux

JD: Do you have advice for students as they enter the professional music world?

RR: 1. Be a wonderful, captivating combination of magical and practical.

2. Take every opportunity to play or teach. You never know what connections can lead to a great career move.

3. Your school chums are the people who will be hiring you (and you, them) in the future. Nurture your relationship and enjoy your colleagues.

JD: How does your practicing differ as a professional performer/educator from your days as a student?

RR: There is much less time for practicing once you are out in the world performing and teaching. I am very grateful to have learned to be efficient in my practicing early on. The beauty is that one does continue to improve!