I’m Phil Hirschi.
In a better world, many bands would use the cello as an important part of their sound.
Rockacello Center is for cellists who want to improvise, play the blues, rock and roll, indie rock, singer/songwriter, fusion, jazz rock, and generally make great, beautiful, essential, unique contributions to a band.
You can read my full story here.
Exploring the cello and its place in pop, rock, blues, indie, and folk music.
Encouraging a greater and more musical role for the cello in non-classical music.
MY LONG STORY
[insert photo of uncle max]
The person in this photo, my great uncle Max Froehlich, is probably the reason I play cello. Family lore says that Max owned an Amati which disappeared from the family sometime after his death in the late 40’s. Max’s sister was my grandmother, a conservatory trained pianist. My grandfather was an accomplished amateur cellist. So I had some musical genes coming from my mother. Mom and dad enrolled me in free string lessons in the Oklahoma City Public Schools in 4th grade – a belated thanks to my teacher Ms. Lois Fees – and that same year I qualified along with 8 others to play in a group cello “solo” at the end of year festival; 600 grade school string players playing for proud families. The piece was the Bouree I from the Suite III in C Major by JSB. So I had some level of inherited talent that I nurtured throughout my school years with a modest amount of practice.
I studied with two teachers while in high school, both principal cellists with the Oklahoma City Symphony: first David Vanderkooi and then when Mr. Vanderkooi left for Nashville, Robert Marsh who later became principal cellist of the Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati Symphonies. Some time around 1966 Mr. Vanderkooi let my father know that he’d found a good cello for me, a German “factory” cello, at Moennig & Sons out of Philadelphia. It cost something like $600, which seemed impressively large at the time. My father loved and appreciated all kinds of music – Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, classical symphonic and opera – and supported my musical interests with his time and resources. With a good quality cello comes a higher level of responsibility to play it well. By senior year at Casady School I was the two-time 1st chair in the state-wide Oklahoma Junior Symphony, which undoubtedly helped me gain entrance to Yale University.
The music school at Yale was much more prestigious than I was aware when I arrived. I’d assumed that whoever the cello professor was, I’d surely be one of his students. Things turned out differently. Yale was, and no doubt still is, lousy with really good cellists. My freshman year I sat 10th chair in the 12-member cello section of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. The principal, Louis Rowen, was a math graduate student who was very intense and very very good. The second chair was a girl in my class, Laura Schlessinger, a very cultured and accomplished player. And so on. I attended Taos School of Music that summer, played chamber music 6 hours a day for 6 weeks and came back to Yale for my sophomore year a lot better. All of which gained me 8th chair, and the truth was I belonged there. The other players ahead of me were just noticeably better. I loved playing under John Mauceri in the YSO. As for the cello professor – someone named Aldo Parisot! – he heard me play for like 15 seconds when I auditioned for him and immediately announced that I’d have lessons with one of his grad students. I’ve forgotten their names: the first was a very nice young woman who’d been at Indiana and studied with Starker; she told me that Starker once commented that when she played she looked like she was having sex with her boyfriend. (Janos! not OK!) The next year I studied with a black guy. I’m sure both of my teachers went on to good careers, as they were both fine teachers and players.
My other perhaps more important musical experience at Yale came about because freshman year I lived next door to Chuck Jacob.
[insert photo] We quickly hooked up and formed a folk rock duo named Cosmo Topper. I played guitar and sang the high parts, and we did some covers and wrote some very nice originals, playing them at girls schools (Conn College, Vassar). Chuck encouraged me to play cello, and that was the start of my non-classical cello life. We would do Under the Boardwalk, and I’d basically comp a bass line while Chuck sang and played guitar, and I’d take a simple solo of the melody in the part near the end where the string section comes in in the original by the Drifters. In a fit of inspiration, Chuck figured out that 16 bars from this baroque piece by Boccherini I was practicing was in Dm would fit into a Dm tune we were doing. This was a revelation! Who knew you could mix classical and rock and roll like that! Cosmo Topper became Two Medicine after the summer Chuck and I worked in Glacier National Park, at Many Glaciers Hotel which was known for hiring college aged musicians to entertain the guests. Chuck and I played all that summer; a rich hippy passing through heard us and said he would be our manager and get us a record deal, but do I need to even finish that story? Cosmo Topper had a number of gigs, and two big shows. The first was on campus, where we were paid the unimaginable sum of $75 to open for Jaime Brockett, a pretty well known folk singer out of Boston who had a legendary hit, a talking blues about the wreck of the Titanic, one of my all time folk blues favorites. The second big gig was we played for our Yale graduation, parents in attendance, a sunny afternoon on the Old Campus. We did our original Comin’ Undone, and a reworking of Brown Sugar that Chuck wrote, about Joyce Maynard. (Ahhhhh, Joyce Maynard! How come you made it so good? / Ahhhhh, Joyce Maynard! Just like a Yale girl should!) This was in reference to Joyce’s cover shot on the NY Times Magazine a few years earlier. Joyce of course went on to fame as J.D. Salinger’s girl friend and then in her own right a well-published author. Very prescient of Cosmo Topper!
The last experience at Yale that influenced my musical career was I joined a group called the Sri Chinmoy Centre, and through the Center I met Mahavishnu John McLaughlin in about 1971. John is regarded by many, including me, to be the finest, most exciting and awe inspiring guitarist in the world. He had formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra which was tearing it up on the college circuit; the audience would stand up and scream in joy at the ecstatic high points of several of their numbers – Meeting of the Spirits, Birds of Fire, etc. John’s first version of the MO is now legendary, and imagine my shock when John asked me to play in version two, which would feature the number one jazz violinist in the world Jean-Luc Ponty. I recorded 2 albums with John – Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. I was in a string quartet, later a trio, that helped provide that big rich orchestral sound he was looking for.
I’ll never forget the time early on, before we started rehearsing, John shared a snippet of one of his tunes in 11, which broke down into a lightning fast 3+3+2+3. I was baffled, never having studied Indian rhythms. The complexity and sophistication of the rhythm of fusion is one of its greatest musical contributions to western music, and was a pretty steep learning curve for me. The Orchestra’s drummer was a young, unknown kid, also a disciple of our spiritual group, Narada Michael Walden. Narada was my roomate on tour, and I learned so much jamming with him after hours. Narada’s subsequent career is a matter of record: he produced major hits for Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. I saw a video of him holding down the drums at a White House show that featured Mick Jagger with President Obama in attendance. Not bad. With the M.O. I played two tours of Europe, two tours of America (the second one with Jeff Beck), one of Australia and New Zealand, two albums, a concert in Central Park. And then, in the great tradition of jazz, John decided to change his line up.
My professional cello career was over. But I still played a lot with other musicians in my spiritual group, including several times with Carlos Santana. The head of the spiritual group was always schmoozing with famous people, and one day Carl Lewis, the most decorated sprinter in US history, came to a meditation and it turned out he had played cello when younger. My cello was proffered and he sat down and started playing it. I’d give a lot to have a photo of the great Carl Lewis playing my cello. Another time our group went to pay our respects to Pir Vilayat Khan, who was holding a retreat of some kind. In attendance was David Darling, the cellist with Paul Winter Consort. No one, and by that I mean no one, has done more for the use of cello in non classical settings as David Darling. Anyway, it turned out that Pir Vilayat Khan also played some cello, and he and David and I played a little impromptu jam session. It was way too long ago to remember how it went!
At some point I found a job at UNICEF headquarters in Manhattan, met my future wife Roseanne, almost transferred to New Delhi, left the spiritual group, moved to Boston, then to Seattle, and entered a fairly long period of not playing cello very much. Lots of guitar and singing, but not much cello.
That began to change in about 2007 when I joined a string of several small groups in Seattle. I did some recording, sat in with a should-be legendary Seattle rock band, Jeff Kelly’s Green Pajamas, created some terrific fusion with Spandrel, and now playing in Saint John and the Revelations, Chaos and the Cosmos, Pandamonium, and with a new project named Lyle.