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Cellist David CunliffeIn this article, we talk with cello faculty member David Cunliffe on the intersection between the unique and the universal in the teaching of music, and the importance of showing up.

For the Grammy-nominated cellist David Cunliffe, each lesson with his students is a fresh promise, a discovery of a new facet of the infinite miracle of making art, a renewed source of possibility. A founding member of the award winning chamber groups the Lincoln Trio and the Black Oak Ensemble, as well as numerous festivals and worldwide musical initiatives, David believes in the lifelong pursuit of musicianship as a universal possibility open to all in an endless variety of forms. To those of his students who wish to make music a professional career, David serves as an inspirational role model and a dedicated mentor.

Growing up in England, David started playing piano at the age of six and discovered cello a couple of years later. As for the origins of his musical pursuits he does not recall any great story of “hearing Bach in the womb”; it was rather a “my mum made me do it!” pathway to the music lessons, for which David is so thankful. Eventually it led to one of United Kingdom’s specialist music schools, Wells Cathedral, which David recalls as, “fantastic because of the amount of time it allowed kids to practice and play in orchestra and chamber music groups,” and to the summers spent at a wonderful chamber music camp called Pro Corda.

David attended the Royal Northern College of Music and the Yehudi Menuhin Music Academy in Switzerland. In addition to his musical education, David studied Computational Linguistics. Returning to the University for a different degree was also an opportunity “to test whether a musical path was right for me, but I missed playing too much.”

Teaching has been a constant part of David’s professional life from the earliest days until the present time. In each student and each lesson, David discovers a new experience, an exciting learning opportunity. Some of his core observations center on the uniqueness of each individual.

“Every student is different! Different skill sets. Different commitment levels. Different family backgrounds. So as a teacher I think it’s very important to be flexible and attentive to each student’s needs.” David sees his mission as an educator in recognizing and developing everyone’s special talents through “pushing and nudging,” as well as instilling a deep abiding love for cello and for music.

CMPI has made an impression on David as an incredible source of practical support for his eligible students. He especially noted the partnerships CMPI has made with various organizations across the Chicagoland area, as well as the invaluable feedback from external adjudicators. David feels strongly about the opportunity presented by CMPI to the future fellows: “It is a no-brainer to encourage eligible students to audition!”

Some of David’s most cherished performance memories are of playing with the Lincoln Trio, a group that also includes David’s wife, violinist Desiree Ruhstrat, for one of the Lincoln Bicentennial events with President Barack Obama in attendance. Another highlight was attending the Grammy Awards in LA with the Lincoln Trio – a very surreal experience. Just last week brought another amazing musical experience, playing with the Black Oak Ensemble in a small village in Corsica that happened to have a state of the art recital hall constructed with ancient Egyptian acoustical techniques!

Hall in Corsica

Recital hall constructed with ancient Egyptian acoustical techniques in Corsica

David has advice for those who wish to make musical performance their profession. “It’s not a career to pursue if you are not passionate about music! It’s always been a tough profession, so it’s important to go in with your eyes wide open. Be willing to do everything from busking to teaching to gigging to orchestra to soloing. Always show up. I can think of so many times of concerts I didn’t think were particularly important only to discover there was someone in the audience that would be pivotal in the next stage of my career. There are many many ways to have a musical life.”

“Oh…and practice!”


Top: David Cunliffe
Bottom: Recital hall constructed with ancient Egyptian acoustical techniques in Corsica

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