Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Monday, 28 October 2013

The French cellist details a recent week’s practice in which she tackled Monteverdi, Scelsi and Schnittke

If I don’t rest before practising late in the day, I feel like over-exposed camera film

I begin practising at 6am, trying to articulate the vocal lines of a Monteverdi madrigal as a singer might. I go through the passages very slowly, one note at a time, making sure of the ‘pronunciation’ in the left hand. I have to think about the right hand as well, though, because when I play the piece at tempo a lot is related by the synchronisation of my hands. After two hours I stop, and that is it for the day.

In the morning and afternoon I focus on Schnittke’s First Cello Sonata for a concert the following month in London. I start from cold on the Presto, practising a repeated eight-bar passage that starts as a whisper and builds to a huge crescendo. I slow it down and I split it into groups of four notes, holding the first note of each group, pausing and then playing the other three quickly. I then repeat this group a few times, holding a different note each time. I also practise Schnittke’s original bowing of two bars to a bow.

In the morning I practise a section of Dithome, the second movement of Scelsi’s Trilogia: The Three Ages of Man, where the left hand is extended to its absolute limit for a whole page. I pinpoint moments in the passage where I can afford to loosen the muscles in my left hand for a fraction of a second – you can give a lot of rest to the muscles in this way – and aim to work them into my performance. In the afternoon I give three interviews about my new CD. It doesn’t feel like a break from practising because I put the same amount of energy into articulating my thoughts and making my point clear.

In the morning I have a meeting at a new multimedia venue in Paris where I am staging some new projects next year. I get home late in the afternoon, excited but tired, so I have a lie-down: if I don’t rest before practising late in the day, I feel like over-exposed camera film. When I awake, I practise the same Monteverdi and Scelsi passages from Monday and Wednesday.

I spend most of the day travelling to a concert in Limoges. When I arrive, I practise intensively for an hour and a half in the hall. I play the second movement of the Scelsi to check that the work I have done this week will work in a large hall. I am then joined by my pianist, and we play through this evening’s concert programme so he can get used to a new piano. That’s three hours’ practice in all, the absolute maximum for me on the day of a concert.

I spend most of Saturday travelling back home to Paris, but it’s not a completely practice-free day. I play just to move my fingers and have contact with the instrument, repeating the more ‘mechanical’ passages from my Monteverdi arrangements and the Schnittke.

I am back to ‘real work’ today, so I warm up by playing scales from Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a piece I’m playing in a few weeks. I don’t use scale systems or etudes any more because I can find all the material I need – arpeggios, octave scales and so on – in my repertoire.

Originally published in The Strad, April 2011. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial.

Photo: Richard Dumas/Naive

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