The Musician as an Athlete – Part 2: Corrective Exercise

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Corrective Exercise

In Part 1 of this series I mentioned Janos Starker’s lifelong routine of a daily swim, calling it ‘corrective exercise’, a term I would now like to clarify. Musicians spend several hours a day essentially working through one limited plane of movement. Pianists play with their hands in front of them on the keyboard, shoulders internally rotated; a cellist’s bowing arm is similarly internally rotated but their left is in a different position that can tighten up the muscles surrounding the shoulder blade; violinists often have their head tilted to one side and violists have all the problems that violinists deal with but worse, since they are holding a much heavier instrument.

Internal rotation of the shoulder joint contributes to imbalances, injury and eventually a permanent slump and poor posture. It is common theme for musicians (including brass and woodwind players) and also for anyone who has a desk job, so I am going to suggest an example routine that you can begin straight away if you fit into any of these categories.

The following mobilisation routine should be completed before you first practise of the day:
Begin by encouraging bloodflow to the shoulders and throughout the upper body with a series of arm swings. You can be as imaginative as you like here, just make sure to swing both arms forwards, backwards and sideways. I would then suggest holding a few stretches. Ease into the stretch and hold until you feel the muscle relax – the primary objective of these stretches is not to lengthen the muscles (although this will happen in time), but to stimulate a neural connection from the brain to the muscles so that they work optimally when you start to play.

Suggested stretches include:
1. Spine roll downs- from a standing position, roll down to touch the floor starting from the vertebrae at the top of the spine and striving for an even curve all the way down. Come back up slowly.
2. Spine openers – sit cross-legged on the floor and raise you hands above your head, palms facing inward shoulder-width apart. Think of your spine lengthening as you reach upwards and simultaneously keep your tailbone pressed into the floor.
3. Pectoral muscles – stand facing a wall with one arm against it and turn gradually away from that arm.
4. Neck stretch (particularly good for violinists) – to stretch the right side, with your right arm straight actively press the shoulder downwards. Tuck your chin and then gently turn your head to the left, tilting it slightly to help get more of a stretch. Take this one slowly as the muscles you are stretching are very slender and it is quite easy to overdo it.
5. Hip flexors – in a standing position, bend one leg and grab the ankle behind you. Pull it up until your knee is totally flexed and then contract your glute muscles in order to press the hips forward slightly. This should open up the flexors in the front of your hips which become very tight when sitting down.
6. Cobra spine flexion – lying face down, gently push yourself up on the palms of your hands (or your elbows if that is too much straight away). Repeat several times, moving your hands back towards you each time in order to flex the spine a little further.

I use some of these stretches after practising as well.

In terms of Corrective Exercise, everybody has different requirements, but if I had to pick three exercises that would be a valuable addition to every musician’s day they would be:

1. Face Pulls – holidng a resistance band which is fastened at head height in front of you, pull both ends (one in each hand) towards your face finishing by your ears. Think about initiating the movement from the muscles in your back between the shoulder blades.
2. Finger Fans – put a rubber band around your fingers and simply open out your hands against the resistance, keeping your fingers straight.
3. Hollow Body Holds – this one is difficult to describe but the video below gives helpful progressions and instructions. This exercise is great for that ‘core strength’ that we hear about all the time and very important to give you a stable platform from which to play your instrument, preventing fatigue that inevitably leads to poor posture.

Here are a couple of books I would recommend for anyone who finds this kind of thing interesting:

The Permanent Pain Cure Ming Chew

And if you get any sore spots, despite your diligent stretching (!) this is a great little self-treatment book that works a treat for athletes and musicians alike.

Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, Davies & Davies

The Musician as an Athlete – Part 1

My first series of articles for this blog is going to address a topic close to my heart and central to my way of living.

Part 1 is really just an introduction. In Part 2 I will talk about my concept of ‘corrective’ exercise for musicians. Part 3 will take the athlete’s concept of ‘efficiency’ and apply it to instrumental technique. Please feel free to ask questions in the Comments section and I will do my best to address them, either directly or in a future post.

The fact that I engage seriously in both music and sports is often a source of surprise to both musicians and athletes. I hardly ever meet a fellow athlete while playing chamber music or a professional musician out on a training run. (The recent exception to this was a Saturday morning chaingang – that’s a fast bike ride – with Twickenham Cycling Club when I found myself riding alongside Anthony Hewitt, a concert pianist who also happens to be a pretty nifty cyclist.)

I have always loved sport and I do it for its own sake. I love being outside, I love to push myself to new limits and I have a competitive streak that is not fulfilled by my musical aspirations, since music simply doesn’t work competitively. There are also many parallels between the two including a shared requirement for coordination, dedication and mental strength. Many endurance sports reward a strong sense of rhythm and can also help a brass player develop strong lungs. The majority of musicians, however, give up sport from a very early age, especially those who show early promise and are often excused from school P.E. in order to get in a few more hours of practise.

An excellent example of my favourite tactic - protecting hands with face.

An excellent example of my favourite tactic – protecting hands with face.

Why do they do this? Often it is for fear of injury and it is true that many sports put a musicians’ hands at risk: rowing stiffens up and desensitises the fingers; rugby, netball and cricket all carry risk of broken fingers or worse. The sport that occupied most of my teenage years was lacrosse, which is played with a hard rubber ball thrown around at head height in netted sticks. In order to knock the ball out, opponents are allowed to hit your stick, inches from where your hands are holding it. I had in the back of my mind the possibility and consequences of a broken finger but I wore gloves and adapted and refined my technique in order to minimise the risk. I broke my nose four times and got a few black-eyes, but that didn’t bother me enough to change sports or modify my style of play…

Perhaps I was lucky, but many people sustain serious injuries simply tripping over the doorstep. I would rather enjoy the sports I love, taking a calculated risk, and benefit from the enhanced balance and strength which might in turn help me to catch myself before falling down a flight of stairs carrying a cello.

Furthermore, sports and particularly ‘corrective’ exercise can allow musicians to play their instruments more efficiently and for longer, both in the short and longterm. I will address specific types of ‘corrective’ exercise and give my suggestions on how to implement them in Part 2.

Roger FedererWhen I think of perfect, balanced cello technique the man who comes to mind is Janos Starker. Like Roger Federer flowing around the court, or a lithe cyclist dancing their way up an Alpine pass, he made even the most complex, acrobatic playing look easy. And guess what? Yes, Starker always approached his cello technique with the thorough detachment of an athlete, but he also swam every day, counterbalancing the hours of practising his instrument with corrective exercise.

Here is the great man performing the Kodaly Solo Sonata with utter physical poise –  all the passion is in the sound he creates and no energy is wasted in pointless extra movements or tension. ‘Efficient’ does not mean ‘boring’, and I will talk about efficiency in more depth with regards both sport and music in Part 3.

And for good measure, here is ‘that video’ of Fabian Cancellara descending at 40mph+ with a great soundtrack…

Memory in Action: Part 1

One of the most frequent comments I receive after concerts is in fact a question:

How do you remember all those notes?!

Blinking in the bright lights, I often mumble something indistinct about repetition in practice and starting young. Occasionally I have the presence of mind to quip that I do not remember all the notes at once; just the next one.



I put my hands up now and admit that neither of these are good answers.



I am currently memorising music to perform as conductor rather than cellist, which is a novel prospect for me, and one which caused me to think more clearly about how memory works for me.


A friend recently shared this picture on social media which highlighted for me an important point in the process of memorisation, and one which possibly explains why many people find it difficult to be 100% confident performing from memory.

At first glance, the top of this pyramid seems to be the ideal state – Know it so well you don’t have to think about it. In this case, when you are on stage, your brain can leave the more mundane requirements, like playing the right notes, up to autopilot and busy itself with the real reason we play music at all – communication. But what happens when your brain, in its adrenaline-fuelled state of heightened awareness, notices in its peripheral ‘vision’ that your fingers are flying all over the instrument in a blur of virtuosity and cannot resist engaging?

This is, I believe, a prime time for the disaster feared by every musician: a memory lapse. Your heart starts hammering in your ears, fingers suddenly become clammy, time slows down (or speeds up) and you have to either improvise your way back in, or stop. Stuff of nightmares!

When your brain has a chance to second-guess the muscle-memory you have drilled into your body, there can be a painful gap as the autopilot stalls and the brain, which has shut down its right-sided functions to fire on all its creative cylinders, cannot immediately take over.

Therefore we must strive for a higher level of ‘Mastery’ when memorising music:

Know it so well that even when you do think about it you still know it.


How is this achieved? Conscious practice, tricks and exercises to programme the correct movements into the brain from all possible angles, mental visualisation, a knowledge of an entire score so thorough you can see clearly where you are, where you have been and where you are going at every moment.

Watch this space for my next blog post which will delve into the details of these methods which have helped me to memorise all sorts of repertoire, including complex contemporary pieces like this one:

The formation of a culture – Seraphin Chamber Orchestra

Cambridge University is a hotbed for talented, enterprising and thoughtful musicians. What better an environment then to set up a new string orchestra, a rare beast in the UK’s music scene where smaller orchestral projects are dominated by early music ensembles or new music specialists heavily weighted towards the woodwind, brass and percussion elements of the orchestra.


The Seraphin Chamber Orchestra was born out of a desire to perform the rich vein of repertoire for strings, from Vivaldi and Mozart through to Stravinsky, Britten and beyond, as well as to encourage living composers to write for this ensemble. SCO seeks to provide experience for top student players working in a condensed intensive fashion which fits in with their studies, in collaboration with young professionals. The Orchestra also aims to support emerging composers, encouraging them to explore the possibilities of writing for strings and granting them performances of their work in an open-minded culture and by committed players.

The challenges of setting up a new orchestra are numerous and complex, but the enthusiasm and commitment of the players has been a significant boost each time another challenge disrupts my plans! Repertoire planning is fun and exciting, as is rehearsing and performing with the orchestra, but devising marketing strategies, organising the box office, securing concert and rehearsal venues, hiring parts and raising funds are all removed from my artistic comfort zone and can often feel quite overwhelming. It is all worth it when twenty talented musicians come together to make fantastic music.

So what are my ambitions for the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra? I will not be studying at Cambridge forever and do not wish the Orchestra to disappear when I complete my PhD. By the time I graduate in 2019, I hope to have a financially independent orchestra with a strong following and the capacity to hold its own beyond Cambridge’s stone-walled colleges.

The original ideals of combining talented students with professionals, performing a wide range of neglected music and inspiring a new generation of composers will always remain at the heart of the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra.

Our next concert will take place at 8pm, 19th November at King’s College Chapel and tickets are available to purchase online here.


If you would like to follow the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra please do join our mailing list for notice of future concerts, exclusive ticket offers and insights into the orchestra’s process.

You can also follow us on Twitter @SeraphinCO and Facebook.


To support our endeavour the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra would be hugely grateful for donations of any size which help our continued development. Please contact for more information.

Russian Connections

Stravinsky – Suite Italienne
Britten – Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87
Tchaikovsky – Valse sentimentale from 6 Pieces, Op. 51
Tchaikovsky – None But the Lonely Heart
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

Joy Lisney – cello
James Lisney – piano

The Russian Connections Tour reached its conclusion at the start of this week at London’s Kings Place. This relatively young concert hall lived up to its claims to be a true hub for the arts, a stones throw from Kings Cross Station. We were particularly delighted with the futuristic car parking arrangements which involve driving into a lift which carries the car down into a subterranean car and cycle park… The concert hall itself is impeccably managed and provided state of the art video and recording facilities for our concert, samples of which are now available on YouTube!

Here is the Britten Suite. Head over to my channel for more…

We visited many places on this tour, some familiar, some quite new, from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to some charming smaller venues tucked away in the most unexpected places.

The ‘prologue’ to the Russian Connections tour was a very special concert in northern Germany, in the Sendesaal Bremen. Our concert was part of the Konzerte im Dunkeln series and as such, took place in absolute darkness. One cannot help suspect that British health and safety laws would forbid such a thing… Particularly in a hall seating a few hundred people!


Swung by Bruge on the way to Bremen…

Although we did not perform our complete Russian Connections programme, all four composers were represented and Britten’s solo suite took centre stage, after a contemplative opening of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. After recovering from the initial surprise at the removal of all light – it is amazing how dark it gets when there is absolutely no light pollution whatsoever – I felt that it was a liberating experience for both performers and audience. On stage my greatest challenge was not the physical one of navigating round the instrument, but rather remembering to keep projecting the music out into an audience I could not see.


Leipzig’s famous Christmas market

Despite the Russian theme of this tour, it was at a small but charming venue on the east coast of England that we got very close to a part of our programme in geographical terms. Clinging onto land with the wetlands of the River Colne stretching into the distance, Studio Music is the ultimate in quirky concert venues and despite its diminutive size has played host to such giants of the music world as Dame Emma Kirkby. The building is at once a home, an art gallery and a concert hall and the audience surround the players on all sides, some of them even sitting up the stairs on specially procured cushions. Only a few miles up the coast is Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten made his home and composed the
Third Suite for Cello.

Britten takes us on a journey from the bleak Suffolk mud-flats, through a rich heritage of western music with Bach’s solo suites clearly hovering over the composer’s shoulder, finally reaching a climactic outburst where western structural sensibility and Russian passion are combined in an extensive Passacaglia. The energy reaches a critical peak and suddenly dissipates, revealing the skeleton of the piece – three simple Russian folk songs and the melancholic Kontakion from the orthodox church.


Benjamin Britten embraces Mstislav Rostropovich – the dedicatee of the 3rd Suite (Photography: Erich Auerbach/Getty)

The rest of our programme is quite clearly Russian, but the Connections are perhaps not quite so obvious. Stravinsky’s colourful Suite Italienne opened each evening, a veritable kaleidoscope of timbre and sentiments as befits its origins as the ballet Pulcinella, a comic Punch and Judy tale first performed at the Paris Opera with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s collaborator in this arrangement was the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who provides the link to our second half, since he arranged the two Tchaikovsky pieces which followed the interval.

The ravishing Rachmaninov Sonata completed our concert with two connections. Firstly there is the fact that Rachmaninov took inspiration for many of the melodies in this piece from the Russian liturgy, thus linking back to Britten’s quotation of the Kontakion. The second connection is a personal one: my father James studied the piano with the pianist Phyllis Sellick, who was a great friend of Rachmaninov. When I was much younger and just at the beginning of my cello playing life, Phyllis requested that we play this piece for her. However she suffered a stroke and passed away before I ever learnt it, giving us an added sense of poignancy each time we perform this music.

I so enjoyed performing this programme and will be sad to part ways with these pieces, though of course I am sure to come back to them in the future with new ideas and new experiences behind me.

I would like to thank all the venues who hosted our concerts and most importantly the audiences who came to hear us!

That’s all for now,



The Russian Connections Tour visited:

Sendesaal Bremen (Germany),
Mosterdzaadje (Santpoort-Noord, Netherlands)
West Road Concert Hall (Cambridge)
Pittville Pump Rooms (Cheltenham)
Hindhead Music Centre (Surrey)
St. George’s Bristol
Pollok House (Glasgow)
Studio Music (Brightlingsea)
Gewandhaus Leipzig (Germany)
Kings Place (London)


— with thanks to Beare Violins Ltd. —

How I turbo-charged my recovery from a broken elbow

When I broke my elbow on 25th December, the prognosis wasn’t great – one month in a full arm cast and another month of non-weight-bearing. After that, it could be weeks to months before I got full range of motion and strength back.

From my point of view as a cellist this was obviously a disaster as it could be four months or more before I could get my playing back up to standard. Aside from the obvious loss of ‘feel’, the sheer strength in my fingers and the toughness of the skin on my fingertips that I have been cultivating for over fifteen years (I feel so old!) would be pretty much gone, requiring a long build back up to ‘form’.

As an athlete, it was frustrating because I was coming off a great winter of base training and ready to jump into my Pre-Competition. It seemed that was going to have to wait.

I did a lot of internet research and in general my two month sentence seemed to line up with what others had experienced with an olecranon fracture. I decided, however, to take every possible step to accelerate my healing, marginal gains being the name of the game…

Six weeks later and I just got back from a seventy-five mile ride in Suffolk, with plenty of riding out of the saddle. I also completed a 3km swim set yesterday and am running more and more. Two weeks ago I couldn’t drink a cup of tea and hold a biscuit at the same time. I have been playing the cello for a week and I am taking that slowly, capitalising on a rare opportunity to step back and re-evaluate my technique – the topic of a later blog post I hope!

Here is what I did:

Week One: Recover from my concussion symptoms which essentially involved a lot of sleeping. I ate very well as healing a fracture can have pretty high calorie requirements and I had three cracks to deal with. This is NOT the time to try to lose weight or control body fat. I minimised the amount of pain relief I took and after the first couple of days I stopped taking it entirely. Studies have shown that the kinds of pain relief prescribed to fracture patients can slow down the healing response and I was happy to endure a bit of pain if it got me moving sooner. With my athlete’s hat on, this was a timely recovery week anyway.

Week Two: Now I was starting to get restless, so I began some exercise including the following:

– Core: Hollow Body holds, supine leg raises – in short, anything that didn’t require the use of my arm.

– Legs: Shrimp Squats, Wall Squats, Glute raises, Calf raises, A-steps and Lunges with running arms – these hurt at first but I wanted to keep my shoulder as active as possible.

– Wrist and Fingers: lots of movement with no resistance up to the point of pain but not beyond.

– Walking. Lots of walking. I started small but for the next month I walked a minimum of 10km every day and I think it really helped mitigate the inevitable loss in running form.

Another important strategy I used was vigorous exercise of the other arm. This can help to stimulate protein synthesis (read – muscle growth) in the inactive arm through some sort of neuromuscular effect I don’t pretend to understand.

Visualisation was also a key strategy I used. I use lots of silent visualisation practise on the cello, imagining every movement required to play in the greatest detail I can, so while my arm was incapacitated I visualised using it in every way I would usually.

My first time trial over 25 miles. I still haven't found any arm-warmers that fit my puny arms.

My TT position, which I trained in on the turbo with my left arm in a full-arm cast at ninety degrees. Yes it got quite sweaty.

Finally I was lucky that my coach Tim Williams set me up to ride my bike on the turbo trainer, leaning on the tribars. As you can see from this picture that position does put weight directly through the elbow. The first doctor I saw actually said I shouldn’t do this until I reached eight weeks after the incident, but I sought out a second opinion and he gave me the advice that would become the overriding focus for my recovery: Listen to the elbow.

Some pain is good for healing, but pain that worsens overnight and lingers the next day suggests that you have done too much. Weight-bearing is good for bone strength – this is why patients with a broken leg are strapped up in a boot and told to walk without crutches. I decided that leaning on my tribars with the vibrations of the bike on the elbow would be an excellent stimulation to bone healing. I have little to no scientific back-up for this but I ran with it…

The cast was moulded to my arm much like a normal fibreglass cast. Those are velcro straps that I could take on and off myself.

The cast was moulded to my arm much like a normal fibreglass cast. Those are velcro straps that I could take on and off myself.

Week 3: Now that second doctor said I could remove my permanent cast and replace it with one that I could take off for showering. I began going to the swimming pool regularly and doing long kick sets and lots of single-arm drills, all the time trying to coax a little more range of motion out of my elbow which was pretty stuck at ninety degrees. I made sure to do plenty of self-massage all around the elbow joint and especially the forearm and biceps in order to get my arm straighter.

Week 5: My X-Ray showed that both the smaller fractures had completely healed and were in fact invisible. The larger fracture was at least three weeks ahead of scheduled healing time and I was given permission to start using it. Listen to the elbow.

Immediately I started playing the cello again although I didn’t have the range of motion to play in all the positions. I also started swimming and managed a total of 400m freestyle in my first session, supplemented with kicking. Two weeks later and I’m still a bit slower than previously but I am able to complete all the main sets with no pain. A little discomfort later is a positive thing – Listen to the elbow.

I stayed indoors for cycling for another ten days, avoiding icy roads and building up the strength to control my bike and support myself in my road position but I was able to do some riding out of the saddle. The only thing holding my running back is my legs…

My arm still looks a little wasted and the triceps is weak but I am taking active steps to strengthen it. My main priority now is to avoid any injuries to my back that my be caused by faulty movement patterns, both in sport and cello playing.

So to round up, here are my strategies for speeding up bone healing:

1. Eat plentiful, healthy food so that your hormones and metabolism are working at their best to heal the injury.
2. Try not to take pain relief.
3. Visualise using your injured limb. This takes a lot of concentration to do properly so frequent shorter sessions are the best.
4. Exercise the surrounding muscles and joints as early as possible to encourage blood flow and discourage atrophy.
5. Start weight bearing as soon as you can in a way that does not put any shearing force through the bone – compression only.
6. Massage the surrounding muscles, gently at first and then more firmly as your pain allows.
7. See a physiotherapist or similarly qualified specialist who understands movement dysfunction and its contribution to injury.

Please ask questions below and I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as possible!

Musica Sacra – Music, Mirrors and Bells


Musica Sacra. There is more than one festival of that name. But there is only one festival that immerses the visitor in a total experience… no sense is left untouched. The festival still reverberates with the 2008 appearance of Arvo Pärt.

On the 15th August, the Assumption of Mary, I was joined by my father James Lisney for a very special concert to mark the beginning of the Musica Sacra festival in Belgium. The festival’s home is Rosario, an oasis for reflection and rejuvenation with music at the centre of its philosophy.


Rosario: a converted convent, home to music, poetry, reflection and rejuvenation

Guests are invited to stay in simple rooms with wooden floors and furniture – nothing in Rosario is surplus and yet I have spent the most comfortable nights of my life within its walls. Meals are taken in company at the long wooden table, either indoors with the aromas wafting through from the bustling kitchen or, in summer time, in the courtyard surrounded by nature. Only organic, fair-trade ingredients are allowed to cross the threshold into Rosario, where they are combined in delicious dishes to nourish both body and soul.

The opening concert of Musica Sacra took place in the chapel of a Capuchin monastery tucked away in a neighbouring village. The chapel itself remains largely unchanged since its founding of 1616 by the Arenberg family, a secret gem now hidden among the bustling cobbled streets of the town that has grown up around it. The Arenbergs were once one of the richest families in the Benelux countries – at their most prosperous the family’s land stretched unbroken all the way to Russia. Beneath the chapel where we performed is the crypt where nearly one hundred members of the Arenberg family lie entombed.

This concert exposed many significances, some intentional, and others even we had not planned or considered. In accordance with the religious sincerity of the event, applause was reserved until the end of the concert which proceeded unbroken between each musical offering.

Our programme began and ended with Arvo Pärt, in particular tribute to his attendance at the 2008 Musica Sacra festival. Für Alina was dedicated to a young 18 year old girl just setting off to pursue her studies in London. At the heart of the piece is simplicity, indeed it was designed to be playable by any pianist, regardless of technical advancement. It is particularly notable for its bell-like tolling, the first piece to showcase Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style for which he became famous.

Tintinnabuli: from the latin tintinnabulum – bell

Benjamin Britten’s enigmatic 3rd Suite for Cello emerged out of the silence, with a deep tolling pizzicato on the open C string accompanying a simple melody whose narrow range and speech-like contour creates the sense of melancholy at the heart of Russian plainchant. At this exact moment the bells of surrounding churches began to sound their tribute to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, their music filtering through the thick stone walls.

In this moment, everybody, of any religion or none at all, felt the presence of a higher being, or intention: the bells were tolling on the same note that underpinned the cello’s music – C.

The 3rd Suite concludes with the exposure of its central themes, that is, a collection of Russian folk tunes, taken from Tchaikovsky’s arrangements, and finally the Kontakion of the Russian liturgy. These references were Britten’s special tribute to his friend and the piece’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The Arenbergs’ ancient ties to Russia rang with silent significance from the crypt below.

Another English composer continued this programme: Sir John Tavener’s Pratirupa for solo piano held sway for thirty minutes fluctuating from celestial serenity to the deepest fires of violence piano and pianist could muster. Tavener, (like Musica Sacra) is interested in the exploration of many world religions, their differences and what unites them.

Pratirupa: Sanskrit for ‘reflection, likeness’

Finally, a return to Pärt and the familiar calm of Spiegel im Spiegel. The title means Mirrors in Mirrors and thus continued the theme of musical reflections.

The closing chord died away and one by one, audience members and performers surfaced from their respective reveries. The audience kindly applauded and stood to show their appreciation and we were presented with sunflowers by two children. It was at this moment that the low clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the dusty windows, gilding the chapel’s beauties and casting a warm glow across the congregation.

Relevant links:

James Lisney

Joy Lisney


Musica Sacra

Interview with… Joy Lisney (cellist)

Forgot to reblog this interview from a couple of months ago… Whoops! I found the questions very thought-provoking as they made me consider more fully why and how I memorise. What do you think?

Memorising Music

JoyLisneyPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Joy Lisney, I am 20 years old and studying Music at Clare College, Cambridge. At the same time, I am sustaining an international career as a cellist performing a wide range of repertoire from Bach, through the 19th and 20th centuries and right up to the most contemporary music. In 2012 I gave the premiere of ‘JOY’, a piece written for me by the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. 2013 will include performances of Vriend’s magnum opus Anatomy of Passion (2001) and a new suite of dances for solo cello which I commissioned earlier this year, programmed alongside Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and more! I spend my spare time cooking, reading and training for triathlon.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why?

View original post 1,248 more words

Music through the Ages

One of the many fascinating things about music is the complex web of influences, derivations and ideas that link even its most diverse manifestations. The exploration of just a single thread through history right up to the present day becomes an exercise in musical archaeology, enriching our understanding of the music from many perspectives.

This summer I have released my debut recording with Woodhouse Editions: Volume II of my father James Lisney’s Schubertreise project. (Click here for audio excerpts!) This concept harks back to a series of recitals in London’s Southbank Centre in 2001, in which the complete ‘journey’ of Schubert’s completed piano sonata movements were performed in a series of 18 concerts. The music of Schubert was programmed with works of other composers, sometimes complimentary in style and temperament and at other times chosen for their musical closeness. Schubertiads have been repeated in venues across Europe and this blossoming recording project seeks to reflect the spirit of spontaneity and exploration central to the original concept.

Volume II gathers numerous threads of the fabric of musical time, not least the father-daughter relationship we share as the Lisney Duo. Our partnership is a collusion of two musicians at different stages in their musical journeys, captured in the moment by this disc: I was nineteen at the time of the recording, still soaking up the plethora of opportunities and ideas which university offers, and my father James has thirty years of rich performing experience with many artists and in countless concert venues upon which to found his music making. Of course, he would be the first to say that he is still learning all the time!

The music chosen for this disc also exposes many other connections. Late Chopin forms the heart of this recording, pairing the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 with the Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65. Chopin completed the Sonata in the winter of his years and the possibility of a link to Schubert’s great Wintereise cycle has been tentatively discussed since the Sonata’s earliest performances.  The powerful opening motif of the cello in Op. 65, which provides thematic focus for the entire sonata, vividly echoes the memorable figure that haunts the opening song of Winterreise, tolling in the piano at the end of each stanza of poetry. Furthermore, both Op. 65 and Winterreise were conceived during periods of great emotional upheaval for the composers – another telling parallel.

Continuing from Schubert and Chopin, we may follow two separate threads. The first travels along the musical heritage of a nation, with a journey through Polish history right up to Witold Lutoslawski, whose Grave (1981) finishes the disc. The other thread follows the path of musical influence most directly, leading first to Debussy, whose pianism and fluidity of harmonic language owe much to Chopin’s innovations. From here, our thread whirls through the disparate tapestry of 20th and 21st century music to a composer born in the Netherlands, who now makes his home in the hills of Gloucestershire. Jan Vriend  counts the music of Chopin and Debussy among his chief influences and in fact his music ties into our musical web even more tightly than might at first be apparent: Vriend composed JOY in 2011, directly inspired by a performance my father and I gave of the Chopin Cello Sonata. (You can read in more detail about the many significant features of JOY here).

As if that isn’t enough, one final musical link can draw all this together more completely: Lutoslawski’s Grave was composed in memoriam Stephan Jarocinski, a musicologist who specialised in the music of Debussy and Grave takes its thematic starting point from the forest scene of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Writing this has caused me to wonder where I will be on my musical journey in five, ten, or even twenty years time. What ideas and influences might inspire me, who and what might I come across as I experience life as a cellist? Might I even do some influencing of my own?

The more I explore music, the more tightly everything appears to be pulled together, but contrary to that old adage – ‘Its a small world’ – my perspective on the musical world is becoming ever richer.

Related Links:

James Lisney, pianist

Jan Vriend, composer

Woodhouse Editions

Audio excerpts from Schubertreise, Volume II

‘JOY’ – Jan Vriend (2011)

To have a piece of music written for you can be a burden of responsibility, or it can be supremely liberating. Jan Vriend’s JOY is certainly the latter and my affinity with the piece runs much more deeply than our shared name.

This music is the epitome of true unity between piano and cello. The colourful textures that emerge as the piece progresses are characterised by something beyond communication between the musicians. Sometimes Vriend makes great use of the contrast in timbres between cello and piano and engages the musicians in dialogue. For much of the piece, however, the parts seem to be borne from one intention, requiring a special unanimity between the players to create a variety of fascinating colours from the combination of the two instruments. Indeed, when I play JOY, more than most other music, I am playing both parts, in a heightened state of consciousness which is wholly personal but also the most honest communication of the music.

Honesty is at the core of JOY. It makes evident the human struggle for, well, ‘joy’ and takes the player and audience on this journey. The music is fundamentally melodic and its unselfconscious nature is a hallmark of Vriend’s style, which is both very individual and yet instinctive to play and hear.

The cello writing is challenging because of the sweeping range of the melodies, which often span more than two octaves. Once this technical challenge can be overcome, however, the trajectories and tone of the music is strikingly vocal.

The rising phrases of the opening section seem to betray a desperate longing for something altogether out of reach, and indeed this same urge returns throughout between excursions to various ‘tableaux’. The first is a passage that glistens with the glassiness of harmonics, a contrast with the richly scored opening, finishing with the unmistakeable sounds of wailing seagulls in the cello.

Then the piano takes over, leading us into a whirlwind of stormy virtuosity, punctuated by rapid pizzicato in the cello. Out of this chaos springs, like a glorious fountain, a quotation from Chopin’s Winter Wind etude. Jan Vriend’s tribute to Chopin is rooted in a supreme admiration of his music and also a reference to the fact that JOY was partly inspired by a performance of Chopin’s cello sonata op. 65.

At the centre of the piece, there is a still moment of reflection, which for me brings to mind the cello movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin de temps. Pulsing chords in the piano and a long sustained melody in the cello put a stop to the energetic momentum that is characteristic of Vriend’s music. Soon, however, the music returns to the yearning figures of the opening from which the composer leads us into a strangely submerged passage in which the cello plays quarter-tones, the highly chromatic sounds between the notes! Finally the momentum builds to a furious climax, but it is quickly dissipated, and if you listen very carefully you might hear another quotation, this time thinly veiled and played by the cello, a lone voice still daring to whisper with the spirit of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The musical extracts are from a live performance I gave in the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham with my father James Lisney. The full live recording can be found here.

We are releasing a studio recording of JOY along with works by Chopin and Lutoslawski in 2013 on Woodhouse Editions.