Pioneering Female Cello and Double Bass Teachers

Presenters: Gaelen McCormick and Miranda Wilson

Gaelen McCormick
Miranda Wilson

Abstract

In the present day, thousands of women play and teach the cello professionally. But as recently as a hundred years ago, this was not the case. In the nineteenth century, many considered the cello an unladylike instrument for women.

Once the use of the tailpin became widespread, it did become easier to play the cello in the voluminous skirts of the time. There were, however, other obstacles to overcome, such as gender-based discrimination, societal disapproval of working women, and critics who commented more on women cellists’ appearance than on their musicianship.

Women’s contributions to music education have always been significant, but when it came to top professorships, women were often passed over in favour of men. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a woman, Edwige Bergeron, won a cello professorship at a major conservatory, the Schola Cantorum in Paris. And yet, women cello pedagogues persisted in breaking down barriers for themselves and other women in music. In the twentieth century, women created important schools of cello playing in America, Asia, Australasia, Europe, and the former Soviet bloc.

This presentation will focus on the pedagogy of three internationally-renowned women cello pedagogues: Margaret Rowell, Joan Dickson, and Phyllis Young. For each, I will discuss their careers and approaches to teaching foundations, left-hand techniques, right-hand techniques, and musical expression.
Participants in this session will receive handouts about these three trailblazing women cello pedagogues, the challenges they faced, and their pedagogical legacies. This will include a summary of their pedagogical approaches, and the practical applications of those approaches for present-day string educators.

Women double bassists are disproportionately under-represented on stage and in the teaching studio. Historically this instrument was deemed so physically demanding that players were recruited on the basis of strength and height, with less regard to musical ability. Thankfully with the advent and modernization of methods, the improvement in the production of strings, and the ergonomic design of instruments, the double bass is available to all body types and all genders.

These substantial changes in equipment and setup did not become a reality until the mid-20th century. The rise of female teachers of the double bass correlates to this change. There are no historic female pedagogues to share with this presentation, and instead we will focus on four selected women who are currently active in the teaching world: Cathy Elliott (London), Caroline Emery (London), Susan Hagen (Boston), and Orin O’Brien (New York).

In this presentation we will learn about the technical approach these teachers use, and the successes they have found in teaching very young players – in the case of Elliott and Emery – and in teaching the emerging professional player – in the case of Hagen and O’Brien. We will also discuss what the representation of women as teachers and performers means in the double bass world.

Biography:

Gaelen McCormick’s career started on stage with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. After 23 years, she “retired” due to deafness and now is making a new path in the arts in healthcare field, leading the Eastman Performing Arts Medicine program at the University of Rochester.

She is the president-elect of the International Society of Bassists. Pedagogy is an integral part of her career, whether helping new bass players to find their voice and learn to play without injury, or helping teachers create bass studios and school programs that are sustainable.

Gaelen recently celebrated 20 years on the faculty of the Eastman Community Music School. She is the author of three pedagogy books for developing bow technique, Mastering the Bow vol 1-3, and a book of duets for developing bassists, Double Trouble, all published by Carl Fischer.

The New Zealand-American cellist Miranda Wilson is Professor of Cello at the University of Idaho. She is the founder and director of the UIdaho Music Preparatory Division, a pre-college music programme for children, and the Idaho Bach Festival.

In addition to her busy performing and teaching career, MirandaWilson enjoys writing for American String Teacher, Strings, American Music Teacher, and other journals. She is the author of Cello Practice, Cello Performance (2015), The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites (2022), and the forthcoming Teaching Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass: Historical and Modern Approaches with co-authors Dijana Ihas(Pacific University) and Gaelen McCormick (Eastman School of Music).

Miranda studied in New Zealand and London with Natalia Pavlutskaya and Alexander Ivashkin, and later at the University of Texas with Phyllis Young. Her research interests include everything cello-related, women cellists, and women composers.


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