AMSF Inaugurates Mini-Master Class Series with Cellist Robert Battey

by Louise Crane

On January 27, 2013, AMSF inaugurated the first of several mini-master classes, this one for string players. The idea behind this series is to group students of approximately the same ability level, no more than four, with a master teacher and without an audience. The session should approximate the encouraging atmosphere of a lesson.

Violist Ann Wedemeyer kindly offered her home for this event. The master teacher was local cellist (and Washington Post music critic), Robert Battey. Ann led off the class by playing two movements (adagio and allegro) from a Vivaldi sonata. Battey explained the origins of the unusual instrument Ann played, a German-made carbon fiber viola. He said that some years ago Luis Leguia, a cellist with the Boston Symphony orchestra, was sailing in his catamaran when he noticed the resonance of the waves hitting the fiber glass hull. This led him to wonder about a stringed instrument made of fiberglass. He experimented and eventually teamed up with a fiberglass boat maker. After making several prototypes, they decided on carbon fiber as the best material. They first made cellos, then moved into violas, violins and basses. Battey said these instruments are easier to play and that the sound volume is the same or exceeds that of an instrument made of wood.

In discussing the two movements of the Vivaldi sonata Ann played, Battey noted that the faster movement was lively and bouncy and Ann moved her body back and forth as she played. It is easier to keep the rhythm in faster music; but rhythm is just as important in the slow movements, he said. In fact, having a pulsation in your body is even more important in slow music than fast music. Battey explained a concept taught by his cello teacher at Indiana University, Janos Starker. Starker observed that when a person plays, a muscle must move somewhere in their body; it must either contract or come to rest. Battey asked Ann to identify a muscle somewhere in her body--without telling us which one--that would move along with the music as she played. There should be something within that creates the pulse of music. Rhythm should not be something you think about, something out of your head, but something that comes from within your body.

Battey made several points relating to fingering and bowing.
  • He cautioned against clenching, since a violinist/violist needs loose, rubbery fingers.
  • He advised players to use all of the bow they have to prevent a "clunky" sound.
  • He showed the class how to get a "consonant" sound whereby a finger attacks a string, "bites" it, and then quickly releases it.
  • He stated that when bowing, the upper arm should be as low as possible on an upper string and as high as possible on a lower string. Robert Battey with cello

    Robert Battey demonstrates cello technique to master class participants.

    Following cellist Sarah Aderholdt's performance of Tchaikovsky's "Chanson triste", Battey resumed a discussion of bowing technique. To the extent possible, he said, straighten the arm to obtain optimum leverage. However, he warned, "don't raise your shoulder; that is bad technique. He advised experimenting with the angle of the bow, to try to avoid having to struggle to produce sound. He attributed Rostropovich's wonderful sound to the fact that he had extraordinarily long arms, which made it easier for him to achieve the proper angle for the bow.

    Sarah next played a movement from a Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello, after which Battey discussed string crossing. He advised playing string crossing with the fingers when low on the bow, and with the arm when high on the bow. He cautioned that the movement should not come from the wrist, which he termed "the enemy". Battey acknowledged the difficulty for cellists of transitioning from one muscle group to another.

    Thanks to Robert Battey for a very successful "first" in the series of mini-master classes.