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Interview with Cello Instructor Mike Block

When did it start to feel natural?

I remember learning to read music quickly, but only well enough so that I knew which fingers were associated with which dots, so I could make the right sounds. It took me much longer time to figure out the actual names of the notes (A, B, C, etc.), and to really start hearing what I was playing - rather than having cello be just a finger exercise.

Who are your favorite cello players?

My two favorite and most influential cello players are Yo-Yo Ma and Rushad Eggleston.

Throughout High School and college, it was Yo-Yo’s warm and passionate sound quality that I was drawn to in all the great Romantic Period melodies.  However, even earlier, one of the first cello CDs my parents got me for my 10th birthday was Yo-Yo Ma’s HUSH, with Bobby McFerrin – an incredibly creative album with a mix of rearranged classics and groovy originals.  My favorite track back then was track 5, “Hush Little Baby”, and I would listen to it on repeat incessantly!

I think this album planted a lot of creative seeds for me that influenced my ultimate direction into non-classical styles on cello.  In my adult years, now that I get to work with Yo-Yo professionally, he has become a mentor and a friend who continually inspires me musically, and personally. 

yo-yo-ma and mike block playing cello

Rushad has also been a big inspiration for me to find a personal artistic voice, particularly with songwriting.  He is a pioneer of rhythmic cello playing, and so I’ve learned a lot of chopping techniques from him that have become a fundamental part of my playing.  He was also the initial model for me to start standing with the cello, and my life has never been the same since. 

What is the future of cello music?

Wow, what a question!  Over the past 10 years, we’ve started to see the cello being adopted in more and more non-classical styles, and I also see many young cellists wanting to improvise, compose, and even sing songs with the cello.

I think that the cello will continue to develop in more contexts away from the orchestra and string quartet settings that my generation was preparing for in school.  The cello is truly one of the most versatile instruments there is, and I sincerely feel that anything is possible with it.  Creative people will adapt it to any and all musical situations!  I also think the new freedom of standing while playing might be the final piece of the puzzle for cellists to take over the world.  But not in an Evil way. 

What do you think of modern acts like 2Cellos and The Piano Guys bringing more attention to the cello instrument?  

I am a believer in the “rising tide raises all boats” mentality.  2Cellos and The Piano Guys are making non-classical cello music very popular, and hopefully it can create more of an audience for all cellists, particularly those of us engaged in creating music outside of the Classical standards.  Personally, I am not always inspired by their arrangements or song choices, and I think they could benefit from some training in improvisation and groove playing.  Maybe they’ll join my online cello school at ArtistWorks at some point, and I’ll get to help them learn some non-classical techniques that will make their arrangements sound even better!  But seriously, they are very talented players and passionate performers, and I enjoy following their careers as they unfold.

How did the style of playing cello standing up develop?

Rushad Eggleston was definitely my initial model to start standing with the cello, but he was not the first to do it. 

Rushad has told me that he actually saw Michael Kott do it at Mark O’Connor’s Camp in the early 1990s.  Michael Kott is an enignmatic figure, and I’ve heard more legends about him than actual music.  Apparently he could do a flip while playing cello, and there are rumours of him skateboarding while playing a cello on a strap. 

Years before Rushad was standing, the singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac used a guitar strap to stand while singing with the cello, although she only played pizzicato.

I resisted adopting the strap for years even after I first saw Rushad play with it, because it seemed like “Rushad’s thing”.  In 2012, I hired Rushad to teach at the annual Mike Block String Camp in Vero Beach, FL.  The morning after our faculty concert, four of the high school boys showed up to camp with guitar straps on their cello trying to play like Rushad!  I was inspired by their enthusiasm and willingness to try something new, and was amazed they had gotten their hands on new guitar straps before 10am!  These proactive students were my new role models, and I thought that maybe the cello strap isn’t “Rushad’s thing” after all, but simply the “NEXT thing”.  It still wasn’t until 9 months later that I finally put a bass guitar strap on my cello for the first time, in order to move during a music video shoot with my pop-duo BowSmack. 

Because both Lindsay and Rushad’s guitar strap setups position the cello drastically different than how one normally plays cello seated, I undertook a massive design project to see if I could customize my strap in order to facilitate the highest standards of traditional cello technique.  Two years later, The Block Strap became available for sale at www.CelloStrap.com.

How did the Mike Block String Camp come about? 

I was first brought to Vero Beach, FL back in 2009 to do a solo performance and a few clinics at the local high school.  This happened because of a proactive mother who made the funding happen after her daughter studied with me at a cello camp in the summer of 2008.  After my visit to Vero, the same mother organized a dozen local string students to attend a camp that I was teaching at in Chicago that summer.  Afterwards, she told me, “Mike, if you could just do a camp down here in Vero, more of these kids could go to it, because it’s too expensive for many to travel across the country.”  I simply said, “OK!”, and within days, she had created a brochure and was already promoting locally. 

2010 was the first year of Mike Block String Camp, and it was a big success, with over 60 students coming from all over the US, as well as Canada and England. Ever since, MBSC has grown to include a second week of instruction for advanced players called the Extension, and our public performances comprise the Vero Beach International Music Festival.  

mike block string camp 2014

Related Blogs:

Learn Cello Online at ArtistWorks from Mike Block, Click here for more info

online cello lessons with mike block

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