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Jo Cole’s Advice for Cello Students

Here is some advice for cello students coming from one of the most suitable people: Jo Cole (Head of Strings at the Royal Academy of Music in London).
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Do you have any advice for students? What would you tell them?

I tend to think of the parallel between physical fitness and playing fitness; there are so many parallels to sports. However, to me, the competitive attitude required by sportsmen and women is incredibly unhelpful for musicians. I don’t necessarily mean competitions per se, because I think if you can use competitions well, they’re fantastic opportunities for being heard and receiving feedback. But I think that the sharp-elbowed-trying-to-win-everything-and-shoving-colleagues-away attitude is an excellent way to have a very short career. So, that’s one piece of advice. But I would also encourage students to keep ‘match-fit’ with their playing, even though practising ‘into a void’ — as happened during the pandemic when the destination of the work was unclear — can feel demoralising. It is important to keep the instrument alive with you. Some days it can be a struggle. Do not allow things to drop away too much if you run out of steam. Try not to be too obsessed with your instrument, either. Obviously, I think the cello is a dream instrument because it answers so many prayers. But I’d say listen to music of every style and genre; don’t close doors to music. Even when you are struggling with your own playing, it’s important to feed our love and passion for music. It is a central part of who we are, and it’s infectious so that you can share it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I consider myself to have been so lucky to have studied with my teachers; they were really inspirational. When I studied with Ralph Kirshbaum, my eyes (and ears) were opened wider and wider in every lesson. The best possible legacy a teacher can leave is to teach the student how to be their own teacher. Students learn how to listen and be a sounding board. You know, when a musician is advanced, they had a teacher who worked hard to prepare them. I always tried to take what my teachers told me and pass it on to other people.

I also think it is incredibly important for musicians to absorb and rationalise different views. It can be a contentious issue when everyone feels very strongly or personally about something. That can be a difficult thing to work on. On the other hand, it is so important to listen to people’s views; it should be enlightening. It’s a life lesson, and I think more of our politicians should try it. In the UK, orchestras have very little rehearsal time, and they work with an awful lot of different conductors. You need to be able to absorb other people’s views quickly — of how the music should go and make it work for the good of the audience, at the same time as retaining a quiet watch on your own taste and judgment.

Jo Cole’s Profile on the RAM Website: ram.ac.uk/people/jo-cole

Full Interview: “Even Though Practising Can Feel Demoralising, It Is Important to Keep the Instrument Alive With You”

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