I recently received a request from Tamara Holsinger, a visitor who wanted to create a new account on the Ovation Press website but did not see her country listed. To my surprise the country in question was Sri Lanka. After adding it to our website I asked her if she could tell me more about herself and why she was interested in our sheet music for cello ensemble. Much to my surprise I learned that there is a vibrant Western classical music community there. Figuring I wouldn’t be the only one unfamiliar with the classical music scene in Sri Lanka, Tamara has graciously written a series of articles for us to help me and our readers learn more about her cello ensemble and the role Western classical music plays in her native country.
–Michael Buck, President, Ovation Press
Written by Tamara Holsinger
When I was at College in the US, I got asked where I was from quite a lot. My very favorite response to my answer of “Sri Lanka” was from one guy who said, “That’s in California, right?”
I got used to it– and to be fair, most people know where it is, especially those who love their tea. Sri Lanka is known for all sorts of wonderful teas; but for music? Not so much. It was no surprise to me, then, that I didn’t find Sri Lanka on the list of countries when I tried to create an account on Ovation Press’s website. I was drawn by the number of interesting arrangements for cello ensemble, and determined to get my hands on some of that music, resorted to something I don’t normally do. I used that “contact us” button—the upshot of which is this article!
Sri Lanka is a surprising place to find a cello ensemble flourishing, but maybe I can shed a little light on that. We have a fairly long tradition of Western classical music in this country. Sri Lanka was quite a hotspot for European colonizers—the Portuguese arrived first in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch, and finally the British. We were a British colony from 1815 to 1948, and it was the British, God Bless them, who were largely responsible for really establishing “Western music” in Sri Lanka.
There are four generations of cellists in my family. When, at the age of seven, I was deemed old enough to start learning an instrument, I don’t think I ever had a choice in which instrument it would be. My great-aunt was, for a long time, the only cello teacher in Sri Lanka. She taught my mother, and me, and all my sisters—three of them! I remember sitting in on my sisters’ lessons and whining until she agreed to teach me too. My sisters gave up somewhere along the way, but my relationship with my wooden friend has stood the test of time—I can’t imagine life without it.
When I was about 17, I switched teachers—apparently to preserve my aunt’s sanity. One of her former students was back in Sri Lanka after years of studying in London, and she agreed to teach me.
Dushy Perera, my new teacher, was a student of Alexander Baillie in London. She has also learned extensively with another famous Sri Lankan cellist in the UK, Rohan De Saram. As a teacher, she is a force to be reckoned with–tough, inspiring, demanding, a perfectionist. Most importantly, she is passionate about music, about her instrument, and has the gift of passing these traits on to her students. She became not only a teacher and mentor, but my very best friend.
Dushy is a fan of chamber music, and I suppose it was her love for this genre of music that inspired her to look for works that featured the cello in this setting. Whenever she visited London, she brought back music that we could play together, and as her other students developed, she introduced us to more complex pieces that required more players. It was so different and so much more challenging than playing normal cello parts in orchestral music! For once, we could play the melodies and inner parts as well, and not just the bass lines. It gave us a chance to experience music in a context other than solo or orchestra. There was another attractive quality to the music for cello ensemble—while the higher parts required advanced players, most often the lower parts were pretty accessible for intermediate level students.
We were very soon hooked on that unique and beautiful sound that a cello ensemble is capable of producing. There’s something about the sonority and timbre that pulls you in, whether you are playing or listening. At first, however, playing in a homogenous group was a little confusing. Everyone is producing a sound like yours, in almost the same range so it’s hard to hear yourself. It takes a while to adjust, but after the adjustment is made, you learn to listen and blend in as you would do in a chorus. It’s been quite a learning experience for us. For the younger ones, the challenges might be as simple as listening and learning to pitch better. For others it’s been learning to phrase together, or feel a crescendo together, or give way to a solo, and the myriad other subtleties that go with ensemble performance.
In 2003, we gave our first ensemble concert. There were 10 of us at that first performance, and the positive response we got from the audience was great incentive to keep us going. It wasn’t till 2005 that we gave ourselves a name. We chose “Cantando” to depict the singing voice of the cello.
Music is not however, the most affordable art to engage in here, and for that reason, “Western Music” (to distinguish it from our Eastern classical/traditional music) is a subject that has been taken up by the middle classes, and those living in larger cities and urban areas, who can afford to buy instruments, sheet music, accessories and pay for lessons. Although music is included in the school curriculum, most students (outside the major cities of Colombo and Kandy) learn it from a purely theoretical angle, as they don’t have much exposure to live classical music. This is a problem that we have started to address in recent years, with the aid of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka.