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Jumping Off A Musical Cliff

Cello Performance graduate student Rebekah Thompson spent two weeks exploring beyond the musical boundaries of her classical training during PAA’s Irish World Academy Summer Music Intensive.

This June I attended an outdoor festival in Nelsonville, Ohio to hear folk bands perform. To my surprise, I found a cellist playing his original tunes in bluegrass style. I was intrigued by his ability to use his obvious classical training and adapt it to folk. After the performance, I approached him and asked how he was able to “break away” from the strictness that classical music requires from a performer in order to play the folk genre with so much ease. He simply stated that to do this one must “jump off the cliff.” This was confusing, but I thanked him and moved on. Up until the time of applying to Performing Arts Abroad, I knew I was searching for a way of playing the cello that allowed my natural musical voice to come out. I had spent years training classically to develop technique, but there was something missing. Performing Arts Abroad helped to reinforce my theory that music can open a world of exploration beyond the fundamentals provided by classical music. It opened the door to allow me to find a connection to other people through a culture of music even with the cello, a nontraditional instrument.

Photo courtesy of Emily Lehr

Performing Arts Abroad hosted a trip to Limerick, Ireland this summer. The festival is called BLAS, a two-week Irish music intensive where you show up with your instrument and go to lectures, have masterclasses, and play tunes in pubs late into the night. When arriving to Ireland and sitting in on the first class, I realized how out of my comfort-zone I was. In one moment I was overwhelmed and the next moment on the verge of tears from the beauty of the tune. Being a cellist in a fiddle class had its own obstacles. Everything was taught by ear just as they had been generations before me. The notes I heard and had to imitate took me longer than the others because I had to hear them an octave down on my instrument. Many of the tunes are in simple positions on the violin, while the cello requires shifting and awkward fingerings.

Photo courtesy of Emily Lehr

The differences in the instruments wasn’t the real issue. I knew that my sound was not blending with the others but could not pinpoint why. After a week of seeing dozens of trad tunes played with feet stomping and people yipping, I decided I was going to jump off the musical cliff. I did this by not worrying about the notes but instead focusing on the inner pulse of each tune. People immediately looked at me in surprise with big grins on their faces. I realized in that moment that it is possible to play trad music on this big instrument. The notes were not longer notes but rather a part of a beautiful, interwoven, ancient history.

Photo courtesy of Emily Lehr

By the end of the festival I had developed wondering friendships. I have becoming more confident in who I am as a musician. My purpose of playing music has shifted. It is no longer about creating perfect notes, but rather contributing to the expression of the culture. Learning those tunes with the Irish brought a sense of community that was often missing in my training. I am happy to have found another realm in music, one where you can bond with others and grow as a human and a musician.

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