Reprinted with permission from Aitchison Cellos.

In the first of an annual series of interviews with leading UK cello professors, Hannah Roberts talks about her musical upbringing and her experience of studying with William Pleeth and Ralph Kirshbaum.

‘I will always be grateful to my first teacher, my mother, for her unfailing dedication and for striking such a skillful balance between keeping things fun and maintaining discipline. I’m also very thankful that she tested the set up and response of my modest childhood instruments to be sure that they would work well for me because the way an instrument is set up is tremendously formative to a person’s concept of sound and physical approach.

‘I was offered a place at the Menuhin school when I was 8 years old. William Pleeth had just started teaching there and Menuhin himself was also spending a lot of time at the school during this period, playing chamber music with us and conducting. Menuhin was such a humble person and was genuinely interested in sharing music with young people. He had an unmistakable voice as a player: his personal, expressive and flexible sound opened my ears and mind to seemingly endless musical possibilities and his influence has stayed with me ever since.

‘I had lessons with Pleeth once a month – how lucky was that?! For me, the hallmark of his influence was the way he taught independence of thought. He would poke fun, in a nice way, if he thought a student was thoughtlessly following a piece of received wisdom and would encourage us to go back to the score and think around it another way. Analogies poured out of him when he taught. In the early days, he was trying to encourage me to have a more fluent wrist and bow and said, ‘Darling, imagine that it’s a fountain pen.’ He was always ready with an image to help his students to connect with something they already found natural in everyday life.

‘Every week I would also study with Jennifer Ward-Clarke who was very kind, consistent and thorough. She made us work through all the Feuillard exercises, and even created her own which she wrote out by hand for us all. She also set all forty Popper High School études (to be learned from memory) during my time at school, which I would probably not have had time to do in that depth later on.
‘After leaving the Menuhin school I was very fortunate to get a place in Ralph Kirshbaum’s class at the RNCM. Ralph made me think very carefully about my playing and homed in on essential details, for example whether the bow was acting enough as the foundation of the sound, or whether the left hand and the bow were matching up and working in tandem to create sound in the right way. His laser-like concentration, profound musical insights and warm generosity of spirit continue to be a great inspiration, and his wisdom in guiding the decision-making process on developmental and career opportunities was also invaluable, even when youthful enthusiasm to take on attractive but possibly ill-timed engagements had to be curbed!

‘I started teaching at the junior department of the RNCM as an undergraduate and a few years later, just as I graduated, Rodney Slatford asked me to fill in at the RNCM when two distinguished professors decided to move on. It was initially somewhat daunting as my first class was made up of a group of young men, some of whom may have taken a little persuading to accept help and advice from someone both younger AND female! But I am enormously grateful for the trust that was placed in me at that time.

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