One morning this past April, I drew back the curtains, adjusted to the light, and found myself gawking at Big Ben gleaming across the river Thames! “How did I get here?” I wondered.
It all began when, as a 17-year-old rock guitarist, I took a cello home from school, placed it over my knee and started strumming. At that moment “celtar” was born (the style of playing the cello like a guitar). This somewhat humorous experiment would eventually lead to my composing a rather serious set of cello etudes. Known as “Ten American Cello Etudes,” they were published by Oxford University Press, and some of the pieces were added to the exam syllabus of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (a British music examination service that gives over 650,000 exams to students in 93 countries). Some of my pieces were put into the “modern” category, leaving students the choice of playing something like my “Truckin’ Through the South” or a piece by a composer such as Prokofiev. With all due respect to the great classical composers, many students opted for the funky-bluesy fun of my etudes. Many other books of music would follow, including my recent “Ten International Cello Encores” (which, along with the etudes, have been arranged for violin by Danny Seidenberg and Daryl Silberman) and “Dead Cello” (my arrangement of Grateful Dead tunes published by Latham).
The result was that students from all around the world were soon learning my pieces. There are dozens of videos on YouTube from as far away as Hong Kong and New Zealand of students performing them. (I have collected them and made playlists at www.YouTube.com/voncello.)
Over the years I have received many e-mails from students, teachers and performers asking questions about my music or telling me about performances and exams. Among these have been several requests to come to the U.K. Finally I received a request that could not be ignored. It was from the head of strings at a prominent private school in London who also teaches cello at the Royal College of Music. He contacted the London Cello Society, and I was eventually invited to give workshops, master classes and a recital for their big “Cello Day” extravaganza.
This led to more invitations until I had a workshop, master class or recital virtually every day for a week. This included a trip to Oxford for a master class and a video interview at Oxford University Press. The grand finale was a concert at The Forge (a lovely club in Camden), where I had to do five encores to placate the enthusiastic audience! The trip was a great success, so much so that I have already been invited back to the U.K. for next year!
One lesson that could be learned from my experiences is that musicians, like people in all fields today, have to start to think globally. With the Internet and other innovations spreading throughout the world, the walls between countries are coming down and those who are brave enough to sail on international waters can reap the benefits.
What I discovered about music students in England is they tend to be more focused than American students. But the advantage that we Americans have is our inclination toward innovation and improvisation. I was surprised to find that the great strides that British rock musicians made back in the 1970s, combining American blues and rock with European classical concepts, has not filtered down to many young British classical musicians. But what I also found is they are eager to learn, and if Americans are not careful, we may find ourselves experiencing another “British invasion,” this time of classical-rock musicians showing us how to create vital new music based on our own homegrown musical forms!
When I stepped off the plane in London I was treated like a type of celebrity. I was respected for the years of practice and planning that have gone into creating my blueprint for a musical revolution. I was appreciated for my knowledge and invited to return to continue to work with eager students who have grown up on my music. Yet upon stepping back off the plane in Newark I was once again just Aaron Minsky, the solid professional musician, composer and educator, but not the prophet of a new dawn.
Going global is not for everyone. It is expensive and fraught with difficulties such as the discomfort of flying, jet-lag, keeping your papers in order, setting up local travel, lodging and meals, and dealing with being in a new place with none of your usual support systems of friends, family and co-workers. But for those with the vision and the drive to overcome the obstacles it can be a truly rewarding experience. As for me, I’m saying, “Look out, world. Here I come!” It is time to change the course of history…one musician at a time!
For those who may want to get involved in helping me create a new merger of the classical and rock worlds that will revolutionize both, please check out my Kickstarter page: www.kickstarter.com/projects/voncello/i-wanna-rock-my-cello