Sitting on the stage during the sound check I shield my eyes and look out into the lights to see where Paul and Josh are sitting. I laugh with Tom, the clarinetist, questioning the likelihood of good intonation from a silver flute resting on the cold floor under his chair.

I’m not really concerned about the fact that I’m tethered to my amp by the tiny microphone stuffed between my strings. My concern really lies in the relationship of the feet of my bench to the edge of the small stage. There seems to be a real possibility that I could be moving with the music and simply disappear off the side of the platform. This thought takes up so much of my attention that, in deciding to make that one last trip to the bathroom, I stand, cello in hand, and begin to step down from the stage, turning first directly toward my amp. The feedback is fast and furious. Think high pitched car alarm.

My first performance as a gypsy cellist begins with shouts of “Melissa, sit down!!”

Fortunately the rest goes much better. We start the set and the amplification of the cello is perfect. The audience is able to hear the cello lines and, better still, so am I. It is the first time I have been miked for performance. I was quite uncertain of how I’d feel about it all but even in testing the amp in the store I realized the positive benefit was how really hearing yourself helps with everything from pitch to vibration. Small details are much easier to pick up (pardon the pun): I find myself wondering how the Arensky piano trio would sound amplified….

It was/is new territory for me as a strictly classically trained cellist. I think I was so nervous about anything improvisational that I wasn’t able to fully see/hear the possibilities for true learning and growth.

Playing that night, it was clear to me that what I had been learning was much more about listening than about improvising or adapting to a new style of music.

As we wove the melodies around each other I felt that being out of what I perceived as my element made me more conscious of how my part fit with the other musicians’ and I was able to enjoy “playing” in a completely new way. Reminding me that real growth is only possible through struggle, and with the risk of failure and falling off the stage present.


Melissa Perley


Sitting down to practice I look at my music and can hear the notes in my head, I bring the bow to the strings and begin- only to find that, while the notes in my head are correct, the rhythm is squiffy. septuplets and sixteenths and duplets and triplets...these are a few of my favorite things….I need the Doctor. Dr. Beat that is, my metronome.


When you are beginning to study an instrument the introduction of the metronome is both a benchmark and a catastrophe. It’s seemingly simple to clap along to quarter notes that aren’t moving too quickly- we do it at concerts with our hands AND feet. Yet being metronomic, by definition, is being exact. As we try to clap precisely with a downbeat we often find ourselves lagging...or speeding. I very clearly remember being at lessons as a child, watching the triangular wooden metronome sitting atop the piano. Hearing that distinct click with the added necessity of winding every so often. My teacher also had a ticking clock that often fell on the off beats of my metronome pulse making things even more confusing. Trying to clap to two separate rhythm sources while watching the clock for the lesson to be over was nearly impossible.

In making introductions between metronome and students I remind them that we are all hard wired for music; we live surrounded by pitches and day-to-day rhythms. The most consistent pulse of all being our own heartbeat. As important as logical thinking is, I ask that this is one area that you ‘feel’ rather than work through.

I find that the consistent sound can be rather meditative. I took a Eurythmic class and the instructor and I spent a lot of time sitting, eyes closed letting the steady pulses wash over us. After a time we would begin softly clapping- the task seemed so much easier after quietly “feeling” the beat.

Once someone is ready to begin metronome work I will assign a piece that is very simple, rhythm and note wise so that all that is required of the brain is to feel the pulse. I ask that each session begin with clapping of the rhythm, no bow or cello in hand. In dissecting music you are getting ready to play- notes and rhythm are of equal importance. Even if you have no idea what the piece in front of you sounds like- if you can clap it- you can play it.

For a while, once out of the studio, this clapping stuff is confusing. You are trying to clap eighth notes but they seem to be coming sooner than needed...and forget those sixteenths. Perhaps it would be easiest to practice without that thing for one more week?

The metronome is why I have tissues in the studio.

But once understanding kicks in...oh how things change. Suddenly everything is untangled by the metronome- he is consistent and never lies to you- he really is your friend! So now perhaps it would be easiest to practice with the metronome on for everything?

I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to have a “life metronome” - a little black box that could hang around your neck- it’s sole function to explain and untangle everything.

Bet they’d sell it on Amazon.


A Foreign Language

This past April Paul and I were sitting on an old trolley winding our way up a hill in Lisbon, Portugal. As I sat in the cracked leather seat, basking in the sun, a light breeze coming through the open window, I realized that I wasn’t able to understand one word that was being spoken around me.

This past August I walked into rehearsals for two bands that I am a new member of. They both rely on an eclectic grouping of people: many of the musicians play without written music. In discussions I realized that, once again, I wasn’t able to understand much of the language spoken.

Previous to my joining the groups we were all open about this language barrier. We discussed the fact that I wasn’t an accomplished improviser: from the age of six I had only studied music written on a page. This was ok with them because they could not read printed musical notes- all of us clinging to the things we knew.

As we began to explore our new relationships I found myself watching them use their ears more effectively than I have been- keying into subtle signals to know where they are in a phrase. Relying on the fact that everyone has been told how many times they would repeat something...why use a Del Segno?

All of the music, even traditional pieces, are composed or arranged by someone in the group. When I became part of the gypsy/flamenco group I walked into the rehearsal cello on my shoulder, stand in hand and my translator/composer right behind me. It was an agreement that Paul would help bridge the gap between us. Fortunately Paul has also been an accomplished guitarist. In discussions, the guitarists would say that we would be returning to the A major section. I would have it marked as measure 45. It worked.


One day I opened an email from a member of one group and he had sent a recording for me to listen to and work from. In the email he had written the note to be played and three slash marks following it. As I sat there I realized that he wanted the note played four times in that particular measure. To him that was indicated with slashes, to me they were quarter notes. I smiled as I read the rest of the email. He said “Melissa, can you understand this? If so...I believe we are beginning to speak the same language.”

Pushing myself out of my box is important; being in places where I don’t know where I’m headed, having to ask directions with my special kind of mime work, getting lost but then figuring it out, even deciphering coded musical emails.

Whether in another country or in a new genre, it’s good for me to remember that there are many ways to speak the same language.


Melissa Perley

How To Train Your Dragon

Emmett’s mom and I are good friends. At the end of our lunch together she mentions that he hasn’t been doing much practicing this summer- fair warning for his upcoming lesson.

Summer lessons are much looser than during the school year. I put out a schedule written grid-style (yes, on paper) and students can sign up for as many or as few lessons as they would like. The sign up sheet becomes a hub of activity as parents and students congregate. I never take personally the occasional remark from young student to scribing parent “Two? Are you kidding?”

The lessons themselves become a good opportunity to pass (some of) the mantle of control over. Normally lessons have a pattern to them and, even with input, I choose the repertoire. In the summer months I ask students to bring in music that they would like to play- caveat being it has to be within the range of their ability. That said, it gives me the chance to focus on their individual needs and wants.Ellen loves lyrical, familiar music, Chris craves straight-up classical, David wants to wrestle with Beethoven and Dotzauer and Jeff lightens up with some fiddling.

Emmett’s mom was right (mothers always are), not a whole lot of practicing going on. Emmett fights the good fight- wrong notes are “just a goof.” I smile and nod; it’s summer. There is swimming to do, gardens to help with and bikes to ride. My job is to keep Emmett motivated until he is self-motivated.

So, like sneaking broccoli onto the top of your kid’s pizza, I try to find way to keep him learning without too much pain.

Emmett loves film music- especially the fantasy genre. Paul had arranged “How to Train your Dragon” from the film with the same title- as a cello duet for a wedding we had been asked to play it in. I casually took it out at Emmett’s last lesson- wedged it between scales and etudes. He was thrilled. His face lit up, he grabbed his bow and asked if we could play it through together.

So excited that he never noticed it was written mainly in tenor clef or that there were four sharps in the key signature…..

Apparently there really is more than one way to train your dragon.


Melissa Perley


We are leaving on vacation for a week at a lake in Vermont. The important words are “for a week.”

Paul and I aren’t organized packers. We are rather haphazard in our approach to what pieces of our lives will go with us on vacation.

As a matter of principle; we only travel with carry-on sized bags. A bike trip to France is responsible for this habit; we dragged our own bikes, packed in enormous cardboard crates through several airports on our way to Paris. Paul is an avid cyclist and I love Paul, enough said. All of our possessions had been stuffed into four panniers that ride side-saddle on the bikes, they were then slid into the belly of the airplane. Three of those four panniers rode the carousel out of the plane in France...fortunately for me though, the shopping is not half-bad in Paris.

The day (okay hours) before our summer vacation, we are, literally, tossing things into the car. Two dog crates nest together nicely creating a beach bucket, of sorts, for a plethora of “stuff.” Unfortunately, the size of the dog crates leaves no room for the very dogs who use them.

And two.

A lake vacation, for us, is defined by the amount of time we can fill by doing nothing. No emails, no TV, no telephones and no practice, unless….two very close friends - one being the violinist in my piano trio - are getting married on the last day of our vacation and ask us to play for their wedding.

And two becomes filled with two cellos in cases, music stands, benches and, of course, music. Once the cellos take their rightful places in the car there remains very little space for anything else.

So, what if our son, who is enjoying this vacation with (on) us has his car sitting in the driveway?  Perfect spot for a week’s worth of groceries, loaded on the way out of town and, what a great opportunity for him to bond with two border collies!

We finally arrive at the lake house in our merry convoy only to spend as much time unpacking as we did packing.

The week prior to the trip it rained every single day- but the sun made it’s appearance on the first official day of our vacation. Clearly, nobody could argue with that day spent reading, picnicking and paddling-

No practice.

Day two is the fourth of July. Parade to attend and how about finding Vermont’s “best creamee?”

No practice.

I start caving on day three. I have to walk by the cellos on the way through the living room. They lie there, seemingly silent, but like the loon out on the water- I can hear their call, “Time to those calluses have all gone soft on you!”

Out come the stands, benches, music and those nagging instruments.

A little work on vacation in the name of love.

But, my bench is definitely facing the lake...even if it is through the window.


Melissa Perley

The Accompanist

Recital prep is all-consuming for months ahead of the scheduled event. In each recital there are players who work with a pianist and those who play duets or simply unaccompanied cello.

For this spring recital it happened that there were a lot of students wanting to work with a piano. Some are experienced at it, for others it is their maiden flight.

Finding someone to play with students is not easy: often I have wished there were a for students and pianists. Learning to play with other instruments, especially a piano, is challenging on it’s easiest days, and bear-like on others and makes me feel protective. Last season the piano at the venue where we rehearsed was horribly low in pitch. It required the cellists to tune down way below comfort level in order to meet the piano. One of my advanced students fiddled with the tuner to find what Hz the piano was at, wrestled with her wire stand (ultimately bending it into submission), adjusted and readjusted her stool then sat to begin. The lower sound of her instrument, coupled by the fact that we were in a church basement threw her. She glanced at the pianist, who smiled over the music, then looked up at me, who smiled from the corner, and began to play. Unfortunately as I watched her, immediately the tears began to run down her cheeks. I clamored out of my metal chair, Lynette knocked over her piano bench, each hurrying to comfort the distressed, yet still playing, teen cellist.

Everyone had two rehearsals in the studio with Lynette on our piano. She drove here six times in the two weeks proceeding the recital, each day arriving with an armful of music, sticky notes in an array of neon colors fanning out from the pages of the books. Each day I would put a different, small gift on the piano bench. The second day she looked at me, questioningly, about “another gift?” Although I had definitely crossed into the over-gifting category, it was the only way I could think of to express my gratitude.

One after the other, each player sat down in the same spot. Exactly where they could see her peripherally from their left eye. Students new to this process adjusted their music with shaking hands. They learned to look to her for the ‘ready’ but not before swinging to look to me for the ‘it’s going to be OK.’

We launched, we stopped, we clapped, we stomped, we added the third player- Mr. Metronome. Each time, every time, Lynette calmly smiled.

Audrey sat down and beautifully played through the Chopin Sonata Largo movement the very first time she tried. We all laughed and cheered. Lynette stood and clapped.

At the recital Paul and I dragged the small grand across the floor to be sure that the configuration that the students had been sitting in with the piano remained the same.

Lynnette entered, arms full of books, neon stickies gaily waving back and forth.

David sat down to play. He had, as had his trembling, told me that he was nervous. But, as we’d rehearsed, he focused on the gift of the music, filled his lungs with air, blew it all out and began. He used the big, whole bow that we talked about to get rid of excess nervous energy; he used a calm, low carriage and Mozart jumped out of his F holes. But, almost finished, his eyes shifted him to a line in the music completely unrelated to the one he had been playing and he momentarily stumbled, playing the incorrect line. Lynette glanced up from the piano, calmly smiled, threw that big net out underneath him and quietly, quickly and neatly caught him.

It was in that moment that I knew the very real difference between a pianist, and a pianist who is also an accompanist.

Melissa Perley

Who Says

The snow has made it's final retreat. Tulips, daffodils and crocuses, as promised when I tuck them in during the fall, circle the bird feeder.

Vermonters quickly lose their jackets and tip heads back in homage to the new warmth of the sun.

Skis are put away. Gardens turned over, the clods of dirt still cold under our fingers. In our anxiousness to put something under earth we race down to the plot with our hands full of tools, gloves and persistent peas.

Spring also means recital season has opened. Students have reluctantly, but carefully, chosen the pieces that they will work up to performance level.

Making these choices and working up the pieces seems to turn over the insecurity that lurks inside us all. Sometimes during a lesson, but often afterward, conversation turns to the challenge faced when we are revealing something about us that is new, something that even we may not have realized before. Many times these conversations are peppered with negative comments about the effort involved in studying; not being enough, having difficulty making “real music”, being too young, too old, too male.

At some point in our lives we seem to have been assigned our “roles.” That role might be about the expectations and goals of our parents, it might be based on the job that we have been working at our entire lives or it might simply be who we see in the mirror every morning. That assignment becomes how we define ourselves.

Why not change those definitions? Who says that we are only allowed to be one dimensional; have one job, one goal, one partner, one talent?

You can love theater and then study economics. You can work as a lawyer for twenty years and then become a painter. Be a mother AND a cellist.

In doing the herculean work of rolling ourselves over to reveal previously undiscovered parts of us, we just might find that there is something shiny about our underbelly.

What is important is that we are brave enough to take the chance on being all that we can be. To be defiant in the face of being kept in a role that makes others comfortable but us miserable. To know what it is that we want and to march, not walk, toward it.

This begins even before the first lesson; it begins with the first thought of taking one.

Art isn't an anecdote. It's the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. (Cheryl Strayed)


Melissa Perley

The Street Map

Whenever I travel to Manhattan, I'm struck that, in spite of it's enormity, it is relatively easy to get around (I'm talking walking here). The avenues run up and down and the streets across. So, no matter how high I get, as long as I remember which way I am traveling, I can figure out how to get where I want to go.

In the studio there is often debate about what skill, of many, is most important in learning to play the cello. We talk about the importance of reading and the translation of that to the left hand- important. The bow, right hand, always ranks high in my book with its many subtle techniques and the color it provides to all playing-important again. But time after time we come to knowledge of the fingerboard- it gets the crown.

We begin using the position books once someone is shifting. The ability to shift your hand, with another finger, to another position on another string can't be undervalued. But, perhaps most valuable, is working on knowing your streets and avenues and which way they run.

One of my very favorite moments in teaching comes when I have given a student a piece that works quite a bit in the first four positions and it is new to them. We've discussed fingering but I've asked them to take the unfingered piece home and figure out where the editor is asking them to play given the fingering provided, and when that is not provided, decide where best to play to keep a quiet hand. They bring the piece back, it is carefully fingered with clear, big numbers. As they begin to play, there is an F sharp on the A string in fourth position that they have, correctly, fingered with their third finger. It is followed by a B, and each time they choose to slide their hand back to the B on the A string in first position and then zip back up the neck to the F sharp. When finished, and once they stop panting from the effort, I ask where else might they choose to play that B? If the answer doesn't come easily I'll have them name the notes in fourth position on each string- getting extra teaching bang for the buck. When they get to the D string they begin “A, B-flat....B..” They stop suddenly and grin at me as it all comes together- the B is directly across from the F sharp and played with the same finger making it faster, easier, quieter with their hand. We then talk about how the cello repeats itself in octaves and, as long as we are going in the same direction, the B will be directly across from the F sharp everywhere, every time.

Just as I know that if I am on Fifth Avenue and 81st street and go up one octave, I will be at 82nd street. If I travel on Fifth to 84th street I will, every time, get to the Metropolitan Museum to visit the Batta Strad.

The knowledge of what is across from what, the mastery of the fingerboard takes many hours of playing in all positions including those at the end of the fingerboard and is, in my opinion, essential to learning to play the cello and getting where you want to go.


Melissa Perley



Born Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, nicknamed 'Slava', on March 27, 1927, the son and grandson of cellists became a noted cellist, pianist, conductor and political figure. Rostropovich became a symbol for struggle against oppression. A representative for the power of music.

He made his concert debut at age 13. Before he was 30 years old he had been awarded the State Stalin's prize in recognition of his numerous competition victories. He was close friends with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten who all composed for the talented musician helping him to make his musical mark on the world.

However, it was his friendship with dissident writer Alexksandr Solzhenitsyn that began to make his mark as a powerful world political figure.

In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was wanted by Soviet authorities. Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya made a plan to have Solzhenitsyn stay at their dacha outside of Moscow. When this was discovered, authorities were furious with the cellist. In retribution they banned Rostropovich from all international tours and even from performances within the Soviet Union. All of this reduced his income to only that from his teaching.

After years of punishment and argument with the government; Rostropovich, his family - consisting of his wife and two daughters - defected to the United States. Leonid Brezhnev immediately revoked his citizenship.

While he missed his friends, the home of his birth, he was free here and in 1977 became the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. While in the United States Rostropovich toured, taught (one student being Jacqueline Dupre) made recordings and solidified his position as the best cellist of his time.

His activism for a free society continued. In 1989 Rostropovich sat quietly and played the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites in the rubble after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Gorbachev restored Rostropovich's citizenship in 1990 and he returned during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in his homeland he worked with Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the coup against hardline communism. In free Russia he began to speak out about political freedoms. He and his wife established the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to improve the health care for all Russian children.

Slava was laid to rest in Moscow at age 80. Among the many awards and medals he had received were the Order of Service to the Fatherland medal of Russia, Presidential Medal of Freedom, (in the United States) and the Defender of Free Russia medal in 1993.



“The Ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”                          Martin Luther King Jr.


There is much to be learned from the past.



The Possibilities

The tree is down, the ornaments boxed up and safely stored away until next year. And with it all goes the light. Although there is a satisfaction in the clean up, in the sudden starkness of the space, I miss the light. Having the luxury of working from home, during the last two weeks before the holiday the house remains lit throughout the day and evening. Each time I pass the living room I feel the warmth of the Christmas tree in full display.

But now it is full-on winter.

One of the things I love about living in Vermont is that we all understand that once we are surrounded by white, there is almost an insistence for some kind of group entertainment on the weekend evenings. There is story telling as listeners huddle around the wood stove centerpiece, there are art walks that fill the night sidewalks with people shuffling down the street in colorful, sleeping bag-like jackets: hats pulled down tight over their foreheads, their eyes the only visible flesh. And there is music.

We gravitate to musical events of all kinds. We love formal classical concerts and community coffee houses with the same intensity. Obviously we are drawn to the performances that include our friend, the second largest of the violin-family instruments.

It has long been a goal of mine to put the cello into musical situations where you might not expect it. Watching a street performance by a Didgeridoo player in Montreal filled me with the drive to play with that instrument. The goal is to use it, combined with other instruments for Klezmer, West African and other genres of music.

One of my students invited us to attend a performance at the Ripton (Vermont) Community Coffee House. The music, while mainly of the folk genre, is diverse. Performances are held in a wonderful building distinctly of New England architecture. We all clunked in wearing our winter, Frankenstein-inspired footwear, and settled into folding chairs facing a small stage. As we waited for the performance it was heartening to look around and see other concerts goers, faces pink with cold, dressed in thermal/flannel.

Harpeth Rising took the stage that first evening and we were truly treated to a cross section of musical genres. There was a violin, cello and banjo/guitar on stage. The group had arranged pieces for those instruments and it was wonderful to hear the cello join forces in places where it normally would have been relegated to the background. Interesting to hear how the electronic pick up on the cello enhanced the low strings and warmed up the top.

Last evening we returned to Ripton for The Brother Brothers performance. Adam and David Moss, identical twins and identically talented, brought their combined songwriting gifts to the stage. Instruments entwined, a five string violin, guitar and cello. David is the cellist and a prolific songwriter/composer. He fearlessly brings the cello to share the spotlight in several of the pieces played. Some written by him and others arranged for the instrument to be included.

Each time we leave a concert, once the heater in the car has made it comfortable enough to form words again, Paul and I spend the ride home excitedly talking about possible instrument configurations to include the cello, compositions that we heard that were inspiring and discussing where we can go to hear more.

This Christmas our family had talked a lot about giving gifts of experiences instead of more things to, ultimately, go into the landfill. Our son, Ethan gave us hockey tickets and season passes to Shelburne Farms filling two of our four seasons with fun.

Our youngest, Joshua, having listened to Didgeridoo rehearsals and sitting in on countless discussions of possible musical influences for compositions also gave us the gift of really listening to who we are by giving us tickets to Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal. A duo pairing the Kora, a twenty one string- lute- bridge- harp, used extensively in West Africa, and a cello. Music to be included will be African music and Bach Suites.

I wonder how Didgeridoo, a twenty one string-lute-bridge-harp AND a cello would work?

Ahh..the possibilities...