It’s easy to get lost in the struggle to be an excellent cellist. We take lessons, go to concerts and master classes, listen to recordings, flail away in the practice room. Remember that in the end, the cello is vehicle for music. So the real goal is to be a fine musician. Wind players and singers have to breathe and be intentional with their volume and phrasing: details string players can easily plow through because we can (and do) just saw back and forth until the music runs out.

With this in mind, make sure you’re not limiting your lexicon to cellists alone. Here are some of my favorite examples of people taking great care of the music; listen to how they curate their notes. None of this is by accident- you have to decide, deliberately, to make music this strong.

Holy smokes, Ruth Ziesak.

Sarah Vaughan is known as a singer who phrases like an instrumentalist. The notes begin and end when she chooses, which takes so much care and attention. Yes, I’m using present tense. She lives on in these recordings.

Milt Jackson, playing with time and feel.

Eric Dolphy, paying tribute to his friend John Coltrane, two artists known for lack of affectation and unadorned directness of sound. This is key for advancing cellists to remember, as half the tricks up our sleeve (vibrato, tapered note shapes, different note attacks) become habit instead of carefully chosen expressive device.

Regina Carter’s lovely arrangement of Pavane. Listen to the way she finishes her notes, and when she finishes them. Is it on the beginning or the end of a beat? What about her improvised section? How does she vary her character compared to the initial Fauré theme? Just stuff to think about, because her toolbox is congruent to ours.