Cello Soloist – Mary Riles

Mary Riles will play the Haydn Concerto No. 2 for Cello at our next performance. I spoke to Mary about this concerto and her musical life. She was kind enough to take the time to engage in a wonderful discussion.

When did you start playing music and how did you start playing the cello specifically?
When did you know you wanted to be serious about it?
When you were in Oberlin, when do you know that cello playing was “for real” for you?
The Haydn Concerto No. 2, how did you choose that piece and why did you choose that piece?
What are the things we should watch for?
Soliloquy is solo cello, no accompaniment. It’s so different than the Haydn. What are the solo challenges?


KCO: When did you start playing music and how did you start playing the cello specifically?

Mary Riles: I think I started with recorder when I was 4 or something like that, I don’t really remember. My older sister played harp and her teacher gave a recital with a friend of hers who played cello. My mom brought me as well as my sister. I was 4 years old, and it was the first time I’d heard the cello. I was just struck. It’s my earliest clear memory. I remember the church, and I remember the purple cushions in the pews.  I remember seeing her, and I remember being overwhelmed by the sound of the instrument. And so I knew I wanted to play the cello.

A couple years later, I started lessons with her, the woman that I had heard play. She was my first teacher and I think I studied with her until I was about 12 and she moved away to New York City.

KCO: Wow, and where was this?

Mary: St. Louis.

KCO: You were in St. Louis, you hear cello for the first time and you’re just overwhelmed. And where does it go from there? You take lessons from a really early age?

Mary: We lived in England for 9 months when I was 6. My dad had sabbatical. I think it was the next time I heard the cello. We got off the plane and went to our friends’ house and their daughter, who was a few years older than me, was practicing cello. I walked in the house and heard cello again. I remember looking down the hallway and seeing it. I must have started lessons right after we got back. I was the tail end of being 6 years old.

KCO: That’s really early!

Mary: Yeah. I think that music education was important to my parents and also I had strongly expressed the desire to play the cello. I think they were waiting until I was a little bit bigger.

KCO: Did you go Suzuki method?

Mary: No, I studied with this woman that I had heard the first time and we used Dotzauer and golly, that was so long ago, Dotzauer and then various other pieces.

KCO: How did you manage the size of the cello though?

Mary: They do make very small cellos. I had a half size to begin with I suspect that the half size might have been a little bit too big for me but I’m not sure.

KCO: I see. So, you took lessons and when did you know you wanted to be serious about it?

Mary: Well, in the sense of sort of personal commitment and heart connection, I was serious about it from the very beginning. I went to Oberlin, and I was double degree there. I was in the college and the conservatory.

I had two passions through my life: one of them was music and one of them was language, English. I intended to double major in cello performance and English, so I had an advisor who was in the conservatory who was my teacher and an advisor in the college. Somehow between those two advisors, and myself, somehow I did not realize that I had to take the first course in the English major sequence my very first semester in order to be able to complete the degree in the five years, given distribution requirements. I didn’t do that and by the time I realized what that meant, it was too late, I would’ve had to stay a sixth year, which was not in the cards.

I wound up doing ancient history, classics as my college degree. I had taken Latin for like six years or something like that when I was growing up, and it’s just one of those moments in time where this seemingly super inconsequential choice has these really profound long run repercussions for the rest of your life. Had I done the English degree, I think it’s reasonably likely I would have gone the academic route rather than the musical route because the academic route was so much easier than music, which is, you know, fabulous and brutally challenging.

KCO: Yes.

Mary: And I, for a while in my life, but by the time I was a junior, probably, I’d decided that I wanted to strive to be the best cellist that I could be and that I’d rather be a professional musician and a nonprofessional reader or thinker or whatever you want to call it, than the other way around. The idea of playing substantially below the level, sort of below the capacity I had, sounded very unappealing to me.

You have to make choices. Playing in ensembles is the right place for me. I get to teach people over a long course of time, it’s just really wonderful, personal, collaborative endeavor.

KCO: You make it sound good. I haven’t had a teacher that I’d connected with, in a long time.

Mary: My first teacher was really wonderful. I had a couple of teachers who were really not wonderful. My college teacher died young of esophageal cancer and in fact my first teacher also died young, she had a heart attack, and so I don’t have a current mentor. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a mentor relationship like that.

KCO: I’m sorry to hear that. That’s rough.

Mary: I grew up in a family of teachers, my grandfather was a band and orchestra teacher, my father a professor, my brother and my sister are both teachers, it’s really in my family DNA maybe, and I really just think it’s such an important profession. I definitely have missed having the presence of a relationship with a former teacher for sure. But it’s also true that you can learn from so many people and so many different ways. I have so many incredible colleagues who I learn from and whom I respect, and I really feel grateful for that.

KCO: When you were in Oberlin, when do you know that cello playing was “for real” for you ? When did you think, “I know I can do it?”

Mary: Those are two different questions!

Well I think, I decided by my junior year that playing the cello was what I wanted to do. The self-doubt demons like to mess with any conviction that one acquires. I think that, to be honest, I think that I’ve known on some level that I was a musician since I was very young, some part of me.

KCO: The Haydn Concerto No. 2, how did you choose that piece and why did you choose that piece?

Mary: Well, I had a conversation with James and we talked about what to do. We had been talking about the Elgar and I can’t even remember how it worked its way around to being Haydn. He had been talking about a particular program, I think an English program, and the Haydn. I played the C Major Haydn maybe 15 years ago. D Major is a Concerto that I’ve always really loved. It is so lyrical and so elegant and yet possesses such a depth of feeling and it really resonates for me.

It’s a big technical challenge. You jump up and down a lot, there’s a lot of notes up high on the finger board. There are places where it goes really fast, but it is also doesn’t feel extraneous or like as an ego expression of the composer or something like that.

It’s an expression of energy. There’s so much joy that runs through it, so it’s a piece that really appeals to me. It definitely felt like a challenge, but a challenge that I wanted to take on.

KCO: That was a great description, because I was going to ask the follow up question about explaining to a non-string player.

Mary: I think energy and joy are the things, but also depth of feeling, like its form is elegant, but it’s in no way a superficial piece. It sings.

KCO: What are the things we should watch for?

Mary: Hmm, the things to watch for?

KCO: Well listen to, but I’m thinking from the technical point of view. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s hard about someone else’s instrument.

Mary: Well it goes up really high. it also goes up high and crosses all four strings, often you’ll be up high on the A string, maybe a bit on the D string, but this goes all the way across all four strings and it’s hard to balance on a cello because the range is so wide. Having both clarity and power across all four strings is challenging in terms of just making a cello and playing a cello, so one of the challenges is to play up high on the C and G strings and have a clear tone, have it not be muddy.

KCO: That’s easy for a brass player to understand because it’s hard to make all notes sing because of the physics of the instrument.

Mary: It has lots of leaps. Big, big intervals up and down the string are hard. It’s also full of chords, which can be challenging to get in and out of with grace.

The third movement that has all these wild octaves that go up and down the instrument, way up high in the register and way down low. If you look at a guitar, the frets get closer and closer together as you go up the finger board, and of course the same thing is true on all stringed instruments. You can’t just put your thumb and third finger on an octave and them move that shape up and down the cello. You have to adjust how far your fingers are from each other in order to retain the octave as you move up and down the finger board. Doing that at a high rate of speed presents some challenges.

KCO: I saw your performance of Soliloquy online. Soliloquy is solo cello, no accompaniment. It’s so different than the Haydn. What are the solo challenges?

KCO: Are they the same in both pieces? Does it really come down to interpretation and really finding what you want to say as a player?

Mary: Well it’s a really different thing to prepare a solo piece as compared to a concerto which is not a solo piece in the sense that multiple people are creating this piece of music. Yet, I’ve been spending several months working on the Haydn by myself, in my studio. I’ve listened to it, and what I wound up doing actually was writing orchestral cues in my part. Not all the way through, but in various places, so that I could feel them as I was playing my part. I even recorded some of the orchestral lines so that I could play with myself as a duet so that I could feel the rhythmic interplay between the two parts.

I’ve also played it, a pianist friend of mine offered to play through it with me, so I’ve played with him. I’ll probably do that again, and then obviously I will rehearse with the orchestra. And part of rehearsing with the orchestra and writing in cues is logistics, how does everything fit together, and that’s not even, that can be not as simple question because rhythm really drives phrasing so much and so you have to know how things fit together in order to make music.

But also, music for me is fundamentally about communication and relationships and when you’re working on a piece which is solo, literally you are the only music and yours is the only part, it’s still about communication and relationships. I mean obviously it’s less complicated from the fact that you don’t have to refer to what anybody else is doing.

KCO: It also means all the pressure squarely on you. It’s not like your entrance is going to be late, but still, to me, and they are worlds different.

Mary: When you’re playing by yourself you have to create everything. The fewer players you have, the more responsibility each player has for creating the harmonic and rhythmic world and structure. As a single player, you are both more free and also have to be even clearer about what it is you’re presenting, because you have to present the whole thing.

The concerto is a funny, odd duck because the person who’s playing the solo part has such profound influence on the process and musical choices, but at the same time, all of us in the room are finding and expressing the spirit of the piece and its relationships. It goes well beyond, well “x” section has to be quieter so that you can hear “y” section. All that stuff is super important but it’s like, when I’m explaining rhythm to students who haven’t been playing for very long. I tell them that as they develop their sense of the beat. Every time they play it’s a dance between the beat and the notes on the page; it’s a relationship.

Feeling that relationship deepens your understanding of the music and your feeling for the music. It’s not just a sequence of events, it’s how the music is with or is not with the beat, for example, and similarly, certain things are only visible in relief. The concerto is not whole without all of its parts and all the parts inform all the other parts.

KCO: Perfect. We’ll look forward to it. I look forward to hearing it.

Mary: Thank you!

Interview on May 22, 2018
by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO

Horn Soloist – Darcy Hamlin

Darcy Hamlin is the French horn soloist for our next performance, playing Strauss: Horn Concerto no. 2.

We asked Darcy some questions about her musical background and the concerto she is playing.

Editor – Darcy was erroneously called “Darcy Susan” in the first release.

  1. How did you get involved in music? When did all start for you?
  2. When did you think that music could be your profession?
  3. How did get connected with our orchestra?
  4. Why the Strauss, Horn Concerto No. 2?
  5. You apparently love soloing. But you also play in a section, what would you tell a musician is the difference? Which one do you like more?

Kirkland Civic Orchestra: How did you get involved in music? When did all start for you?

Darcy Hamlin: Well, my mom was a general music teacher. She was a music educator. She had all these wonderful, classical music LP’s. Remember vinyl LP’s? This was a specific collection geared toward kids, so it was perfect. I had my little briefcase record player. They had oval handles. I would open it up and it would be a phonograph player. You would plug it in and it was portable.

I would raid this collection and I fell in love with, they had this narrated version of Till Eulenspiegel, which was outstanding. I just remember identifying with Till because he was such a troublemaker. I loved the horn and I loved Aaron Copland’s Hoedown from Rodeo. That was really great and just all these really great pieces inside. I just fell in love with the whole orchestral genre.

When it came time for me, we had a piano and I always just sit down and play the piano. I would just make up things and play by ear. I didn’t start official piano lessons until I was nine, but that was when I started playing an instrument.

I really loved playing the piano. Then it was time for me to pick a band instrument when I was ten. My mom was so brilliant, because she’s obviously a music teacher, and she was so smart. So I wanted to play the horn, the tuba, or the flute, and those were my choices. The reason I wanted to play the tuba is because of, I don’t if you know this with your kids, but there’s a series about Harry the dog and he goes on a quest to find low sounds because he lives next to the lady next door who sings really loudly and he finds a tuba and I thought that was really awesome.

KCO: I don’t know that story but I can identify with it.

D: It’s a fantastic book, I remember loving that book. But my mom said, “Well honey, the tuba and the horn are in the same family, and you know you’re going to have to carry this instrument to and from school,” so I thought that was really valid point and so I said, well okay, lets narrow it down to the horn and the flute.

All my friends were playing the flute and it seemed really easy to carry back and forth to school, and I thought it might give me some girl cred because I was a little bit of a tom boy, had short hair, and you know, not interested in girly things. This’ll be good, you know, flute.

My mom kind of knew that I was going to pick the horn because, in my spare play time I would go out in the backyard and play songs on the garden hose in the backyard, like I would just play songs on the hose. I’d be swinging on the swing and the neighbors would be calling, like what is that in your backyard? And my mom would look out the window and she’d say, “Okay, I think I have a brass player on my hands.”

My mom, being brilliant music educator, knew that I would be into trying the instruments. So with her connections, she was able to borrow a single horn from one of the local schools. And all of my babysitters played flute so we borrowed one from them.

We had a fun tryout session right in my living room and I got out the horn and oh it was so great! It was so much less painful than the garden hose, it didn’t dig into my face and I could play songs on it.

As a fellow brass player, you know the fingerings don’t really matter. You could pretty much play any notes by lipping it around, I thought that great!

I thought everybody says the flute is really easy so this is going to be even better cause everybody says the horn is hard. I’m going to nail the flute. I could not get out a sound out of it. The only way I could get a sound out of the flute was buzzing into the hole.

My mom, with reverse psychology, said, “well honey, if you really want to play the flute, we can find you a teacher who can show you how to play the flute,” and I said, well why? I can already play the horn so I made the right choice.

I think like a year later I started private lessons in sixth grade, and it was fantastic. AC Meyers was retired from the symphony, and he was just really low key and crazy. He would let me play whatever I wanted, so it was really the perfect first private teacher, so it was nice. I was the only horn player for a while, until I got into high school.

KCO: When did you think that music could be your profession?

D: Well this is another hilarious story because I got braces when I was a sophomore in high school. My horn teacher said, I was only going to have them on for a year, why don’t you just take the year off? It’s going to take you so long to get used to the braces and then when you get them off, you’ll have to get used to having them off. It’s just going to be a lot of grief.

He knew that I played piano, and I had gotten pretty serious about the piano, and I thought, okay. I’ll just spend the year working on piano. And this was great. I took a year break from the horn, and my band director, said, “oh, she reads music, she can read bass clef and she’s got strong fingers from the piano. Let’s have her play the bassoon.”

He found this bassoon in the band storage room that had just been rotting there for however many years, who knows. And this bassoon was just a nightmare. The pancake key would stick all the time and the whisper key was jerry-rigged with a rubber band.

KCO: I don’t know what that means, but it sounds bad.

D: Oh my gosh, it was just a really unfortunate bassoon. It was in need of serious work. No one told me that I had to soak the reeds so I couldn’t get sound out of them of course. I had to play on the plastic reed and we all know how wonderful those sound. It was the most horrible sounding thing you can imagine. We have home videos and you can hear me practicing in the background. I practiced that bassoon more than I had ever practiced the horn up until that point and I never got any better.

It made me angry that there were different fingerings for every single note and your ear just didn’t help you at all except to tell you boy, you sound bad on this thing you know.

I got my braces off and I ran back to the horn. I had never really appreciated it or that I had some talent on it. I didn’t really know what talent was but I discovered emphatically that I did not have it on the bassoon. I guess I needed that sort of Ebenezer Scrooge experience to have me really appreciate what I had on the horn. I finally got my braces off and I started practicing again the end of my sophomore year. I was really motivated and that’s when I joined the youth orchestra and started to get really passionate about practicing. I got serious about my lessons and about auditioning for various regional orchestras and all-state orchestras. Things like that.

And then my parents, when I got into Oberlin, were very insistent that I would get a marketable degree. A performance degree obviously doesn’t guarantee work anywhere so they pushed me to do music education. The nice thing about Oberlin was that they don’t care what your major is. If you can play really well, you can get into the orchestras. It’s a small enough college that there’s no politics about being a performance major so you’re going to get in, or this other person isn’t. I know a lot of bigger universities are like that.

Oberlin was great. I performed a ton and I don’t have an undergraduate in performance. I just got the music ed degree. But it became really clear, the longer I was at Oberlin, that I wasn’t going to pursue music education. I was going to go into performance and that was what I was going to pursue. Then I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music and I got a master’s in performance.

KCO: How did get connected with our orchestra? I take it you know Matt Stoecker.

D: That’s how I got this gig actually. I knew Matt very well at Oberlin. We attended Oberlin together. Matt and I keep in touch with each other regularly on Facebook. He really beats me a lot in scrabble online so that’s always nice.

He asked me if I would be interested in soloing and I said absolutely. I’d love that. And he said I could play whatever I wanted to. And I thought that was a really fun idea. It was far enough in advance that I can secure the time off and I can think about what I want to play.

KCO: Why the Strauss, Horn Concerto No. 2?

I chose the Strauss second concerto because it’s one of the lesser known Strauss concertos.

The first one is the one that opens with the big fanfare, that’s the one that most people know. The second is not performed as often. It’s a more complex piece. it’s a very elegant piece. I believe that it was written later in his life.

It’s very elegant. It’s very playful. It’s also significantly more difficult than the first. It’s very technical. It’s very noodly, and it’s got a lot of very almost “woodwind-y kinds of motives and lots of fast scales and lots of jumpy arpeggios and things like that.

But it’s really fun to play. I’ve never actually performed it with an orchestra. I’ve played it on recitals before but, and it’s been a while since I’ve worked on it. I thought, you know, why don’t I make this a good challenge for myself. I always feel like when I am working toward something difficult it makes me better as a musician.

It’s also the juxtaposition of the very typical hunting horn call, very traditional types of playing bugle calls. And then there’s this beautiful lyrical sweeping melody just soaring. It’s just gorgeous. The whole first exposition is really good at demonstrating that.

It’s a really fun piece for the orchestra too, I think. It’s got some really neat stuff. And in fact, there’s some really great sections for me and the whole horns section so it’s super fun for that. It’ll be a really neat piece to experience.

KCO: What else are you looking forward to experiencing?

D: Well I really am excited about the master class. I love teaching, even though my calling wasn’t to teach in a public school setting, I do adore educating and instructing privately. And also, in a more specialized setting, more just horn and more just brass. And I love doing master classes and I love teaching, I’m on the faculty of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music here and I also have a home studio of students who come study with me at my home.

I really am excited about getting to know some of the musicians and to just work with them and to just share some things with the musicians, that’s going to be super fun for me because I really think that that’s part of what makes music enjoyable for me, is connecting with people, connecting not only with the audience, but also with the musicians that I get to perform with. It’s a very intimate experience, to get to share, you’re on stage and you’re recreating this amazing work that you’re bringing it back to life. You know, it was written hundreds of years ago but it’s still alive because we get to bring it back to life and that’s just so exciting to me and I love engaging in that kind of connection with other musicians.

KCO: You apparently love soloing. But you also play in a section, what would you tell a musician is the difference? Which one do you like more?

D: That’s a great question. If you think about a group project at work, where you have to collaborate and really work with other people and you’ve got to really just work together on a really difficult project where you have to work really intimately with other people, that’s kind of like playing in a section or as part of the orchestra.

Playing a concerto solo is more like you get to be the featured guest speaker. You get a podium. You just speak and everyone listens to you. You’re definitely more in the hot seat. You’re at the front of the orchestra instead of the back, which is sometimes a little bit more nerve wracking. You’re certainly more exposed, and so it’s definitely more challenging.

I would say that they’re such different processes, it’s difficult to say which one I like better. One is certainly easier to make a living with. There are very few people making a living as concerto soloists. There are full time jobs available in orchestral performance which is what I do.

There are things that are really exciting about both. I really love collaborating with other musicians. I love the end product that can be achieved by connecting with other musicians in that very intimate way to recreate another piece of music.

But I think what I’m really looking forward to with the concerto soloing is that it is unfamiliar to me. I don’t often do it. The last time I played a concerto solo was with the Milwaukee Symphony on tour. That was before I had kids, that was 2006 so about twelve years ago. I’m really looking forward to this challenge. I think it’s been really good for me, I’ve been getting so much out of my practicing, and just learning a lot about endurance, I mean it’s an extremely difficult piece endurance-wise, I hope I make it through.

We just did two performances of Prokoviev 5 this weekend, and this afternoon we’re doing an all John Williams concert. If it doesn’t kill me, I should have a decent face to be running it this week before I see you on Saturday. I think it’ll be fun. I’m going to experiment with some different things. I still don’t know if I’m going to sit or stand. I still don’t know if I’m going to play by memory or use the music. I don’t know, I might sit and use the music. I have no idea, but we’ll figure that out.

Interview on March 11, 2018

by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO