MARLEEN BROEKMANS: ELECTRIFIED CELLIST
Like with so many other musicians it's not so difficult to obtain a general impression of you by surfing a bit on the internet, for instance on www.musicteachers.com.au/cello and Face Book.
But now let's try to strengthen that skeleton and give it some muscles and nerves.
You mention your Belgian roots. Were you born in Paal, or are you a first generation Australian?
Actually, I'm a first generation Australian, but very proud of my Belgian heritage. My grandparents almost exclusively speak Flemish at home and I have visited Belgium on many occasions to visit family and friends. At one point I was even considering some post-graduate study in Leuven, but it's too difficult to leave a studio full of students behind!
Are you stemming from a musical family?
Not at all. My mother is a chef and my father designs wheels for race-cars. I suppose both professions require an element of creativity, but that unfortunately did not stop my parents from being innocently oblivious to my passion for music! When I was a toddler, I would dance to classical music on the radio, because it was the only way I could express my happiness. So my mother enrolled me into a ballet class, thinking I would enjoy it. She learned very quickly that was not the case at all!
At what age did you start music lessons and by whom?
I began my music career on the piano and flute, before finding the cello. My first piano teacher specialised in teaching young children and I would have been perhaps three at the time. She taught me a lot about music theory and I also did French solfège with her.
Was that spontaneously on your own wish or that of your parents?
After the fiasco at the ballet studio, my mother decided to start me on a musical instrument and said I could pick either the piano or violin. I eagerly took up piano lessons because we already had one in the house. I think I always had an affinity for the piano. When I was less than three years old, I had picked many nursery rhymes and folk tunes by ear. Why music was not obvious to my parents still baffles me!
Were you a bit of a child prodigy?
I'm not sure I would call myself a child prodigy, but it was discovered very early on that I had 'perfect pitch' – quite often a hindrance, as it can render one to be quite inflexible when it comes to intonation! Out of the three instruments I played as a child (piano, cello and flute), it was the cello that came most naturally. It just seemed to fit my body and brain.
Did you ever take in consideration the choice for another instrument? A 3/4 violin is easier to handle than a cello.
From a young age, I was deeply infatuated with the sound of the cello. I wanted nothing more than to be Jacqueline du Pre – she was my idol. My mother on the other hand, had her reservations. Cellos are big and expensive; they are difficult to travel with and require far more maintenance than a piano. But after my persisting for several months, she finally gave in and I started lessons on a borrowed half size cello.
Did you start your professional development in Europe?
Not quite. I did my Bachelor of Music Performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which I graduated from in 2011. My degree had spanned over five years instead of the traditional four because I had spent so much time touring overseas. I took a year off from formal study in 2012 to prepare for auditions overseas. But my cello teaching studio kept growing and growing. I suddenly had a stable income – something many of my colleagues yearn for. I learned that I have an infinite amount of patience and that I actually enjoy teaching others the joys of music. So I have remained here in Sydney, to become the cellist and teacher I am now, and for that I am truly grateful. I have seen the world through my travels and have met some wonderful people. But Sydney is where my heart will always be.
You seem to have studied in Belgium, France and Austria. Maria Kliegel and Robert Cohen are mentioned as teachers or did you only go to them for masterclasses? Please tell a bit more about that period.
In 2010 I went to the Euro Music Festival in Klosterneuburg, Austria. I was enrolled in both the class of Maria Kliegel (a student of Janos Starker) and Robert Cohen. I received private lessons on Haydn's Cello Concerto in D major and some Popper showpieces in preparation for my Junior recital (at the end of third year in my Bachelor degree). A year earlier was the Australian String Academy, where we were fortunate enough to have Hans Jorgen Jensen, from Northwestern University, visit us in Sydney. He is a close friend of my cello teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium.
Then there was a period you played an electric cello in the Maske Trio, mainly performing pop music arrangements.
Yes! In fact, I did a show with them just a few weeks ago. I have also worked with The String Selection, where we supplied the backing strings for the television talent show, the X factor.
What was so attractive for you here? The better honoraria, the bigger public, the worldwide travelling, the pieces you played?
The instrument itself is a huge novelty – a body which is predominantly cut away and played standing up. Maske is fortunate to have some kind of sponsorship program with Yamaha, so I have become rather acquainted with their line of cellos. The travel aspect is yet another great incentive. We are not only paid well, but placed in five-star hotels with luxury accommodation. Experiencing new cultures and foods is also enlightening. I have Singapore to blame for my obsession with dragon-fruit!
What are for you the main differences between playing a 'normal' and a 'silent' cello? The possibilities to manipulate your tone, volume, colour although that has to be done by another? Do you have influence on those parameters or are they decided for you?
In the shows I am part of, the electric cello is typically played standing up (with me in high heels!) to allow for choreography. It took me about six months of intense practicing before it felt somewhat natural. There are also extra 'noises' that come about on an electric cello when it is amplified – I have to be very careful how I articulate my left hand fingers so as to eliminate percussive tapping on the fingerboard. The C-string of an electric cello does not behave like that of a C-string on an acoustic cello. It generally speaks much quicker, but is lacking somewhat in tonal variety. For this reason, we rely heavily on our sound technicians to help with the balance of sound amongst performers and also blending our tone against the backing track.
Does it give a kick to play for an enthusiastic (mostly younger) public, more than for a stricter (mostly older) classical auditorium? Or are those two worlds so incomparable that it would be like comparing apples with pears?
It really is very different. The Electric cello tends to be used for corporate functions and conferences. There are lights, smoke machines, glittery dresses and stage makeup. We are the light entertainment of the night, a mere distraction. People come to a symphony orchestra concert with a very different set of expectations. For them, it's really all about themusic itself.
There is a big difference in appearance too. In the one case you have to look a bit provoking and sexy, in the other officially sober and in dark dress. Do you have a preference?
I am a chameleon, I adapt to my surroundings. I am quite literally a cello teacher by day and a pageant girl by night! If I am forced to choose however, I probably say that I prefer the cello in its original setting. There is nothing quite like a cello section in a symphony orchestra.
Is it difficult to change from electric to normal or vice versa in a few hours?
Not really, I have catalogued them as two different and completely independent instruments in my brain. Both hands function at different angles on each instrument and the neck of the electric is often more vertical to compensate the standing position.
Do you have an explanation why all those international electric string groups are 'manned' by young ladies?
I was actually discussing this with a male friend who has an interest in the crossover genre. It really does not make any sense from a musical point of view as to why an electric string group has to be selectively female. Perhaps it is the glitter of high heels and tight dresses which add to the stage presence, enabling the transition from a regular 'concert' to a highly energetic 'show.'
Do you still perform 'electrically' on a regular basis?
Oh, probably a handful of times a year. My post-graduate degree (albeit in a part-time capacity) keeps me very entertained these days. I also have a very active teaching studio, so I prefer not to abandon my students in favour of extended trips overseas!
At the moment your main jobs are in the teaching fields as an assistant for Open Academy Sydney Conservatorium and Shine Music and as tutor at Santa Sabina College.
In addition to my own teaching studio, Parramatta Cello School, I help run the 'Mini Maestro' program at Santa Sabina College, teaching year 4 and 5 cello class. The head of music there is a highly esteemed teacher, Mrs. Karen Carey. An Australian documentary was featured on her work only a couple of years ago, titled 'Mrs Carey's Concert.' I am also a teaching assistant at the Sydney Conservatorium of music in the Open Academy.
Do you still have time to be a really performing artist? Is that in an ensemble or with a piano partner?
My Masters degree demands a rigorous performance schedule as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral cellist. Next year we are celebrating the Conservatorium's hundredth birthday with a series of concerts in the Sydney Opera House, playing Bernstein's Mass.
What is the main attraction for you in teaching?
Imparting knowledge. Doing for others what my teachers have done for me. Leaving a legacy that will outlive my own short life.
You have your own studio in Parramatta. How did that come about.
It gradually built over the course of my Bachelor degree so that by the time I had graduated, I had enough students to live comfortably. I always knew that I wanted to teach cello in some capacity. I doubt it would have ever been enough to simply spend my life in the section of a symphony orchestra, as exciting as that would be. Without my students, I feel somewhat detached from what music really means to me – imparting wisdom and sharing joy.
How many students do you have?
To provide some perspective, I teach about thirty hours a week from home and spend one afternoon a week at Santa Sabina.
Does it give you a lot of satisfaction to follow the progression in talented students?
Absolutely. One of my students is now studying with my professor at the Sydney Conservatorium and is quickly becoming a huge talent on the cello. She is only 11 years of age and performing the Elgar Concerto.
Back to your main study. You're completing your masters with a thesis on the investigation of pedagogical development, motivation and age-appropriate teaching methods. Did you develop your own method already?
My thesis investigates the pedagogical development and motivation of adult beginner cellists in ensemble settings. Adults thrive in ensembles. It allows them to compare their progress to someone other than their teacher or the professional recordings they hear. They learn that the difficulties they encounter on the instrument are not specific to them, but rather developmental. Parramatta Cello Ensemble has formed an integral part of my studio since early 2009.
Now tell a bit about your instrument, an old Dutch one with an English (?) bow. Where/how did you get it?
I bought my Dutch cello, made in 1790, from an atelier near Bondi Beach. He procured it from a New York dealer and I fell in love immediately. My bow is by a local maker, a gold mounted Jeffrey Ellis. I also have two other cellos I use for teaching: a French cello from the late 1800s and a German cello from the early 1800's.
At the moment you're preparing a pageant. You should give more details: is it mainly a virtuosic show, a parade of students? For outsiders it's a riddle, for you it seems a deciding happening.
Galaxy International is an American-based beauty pageant founded in 1988 (the very year I was born!) where contestants from all around the world compete for the title of Miss, Miss Teen and Mrs Galaxy International. But first there are national finals and before that comes state finals, which is precisely where I currently fit in. I am a New South Wales finalist for the 2015 Miss Galaxy Australia title, having already won the title of 'Miss Oatlands.' The New South Wales state final will take place on February 12th and if I make it through to the next round I will be travelling to the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. In the pageant, there are five main categories that we are judged on: Fashion Wear, Evening Wear, Swim Wear, Interview, and Photography. We also do charity work for organisations such as the 'Make-A-Wish' Foundation and Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors. My ability to play cello has served me well in the competition thus far and has been a great asset for fund raising. Tomorrow I will be performing at the 'Westmead Children's Hospital' and all of next week I will be volunteering as a cello tutor for a music camp. Because better way to reach out to people, than with the wonderful language that music is?
Is there anything more that burns on your tongue?
Perhaps this: here are some important weblinks: