Coming Fall 2021 on Navona Records! A collection of contemporary treasures for soprano and cello. Collaboration with Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano, and featuring 20th and 21st century duets never before recorded! Check out the album website: modernmusescd.com

From the album: Alexis Bacon – Alba

To learn to play an instrument is to become a craftsman; to learn one’s musical heritage is to become the steward of a tradition.

JEAN HATMAKER

Inspired by the discovery that famous cellist David Popper was a “great-grandfather”, the Pedagogical Ancestry Project became a journey of discovery into the great contributors to the Dresden School of cello playing. After months of research, a rough sketch was handed over to local artist and music teacher Joanne May (Joanne May Arts), who created this beautifully hand-painted and calligraphed rendering of my cello ancestors.

The goal from the onset was never to incorporate as many famous cellists as possible, a task that would become both unwieldy and misleading. What can be seen on this particular ancestry chart are the most prominent music teachers of a specific style of cello playing, namely that which was centered around a hub of education and performance in Dresden, Germany. The result is a deeply personal reminder of a direct connection to centuries of music-making, something that enriches both my performing and teaching styles.

Every time I play or teach a piece of music by one of the musicians on this tree, it elevates the experience to acknowledge that personal connection. It is my dream that my students will embrace their heritage, that it may give meaning to their efforts, and a sense of pride to participate in a centuries-old tradition.

Copies of this tree may be ordered directly from Joanne May Arts; it is particularly relevant to my students, who may be inspired to have such a keepsake. Joanne and I are also available to create custom musical ancestry trees for other musicians as requested! Please click on the link below for ordering options and prices, and check out this great time-lapse video of the calligraphy!

I am so very much looking forward to performing this evening! Those of you who have never been in Grace Lutheran Church, I hope you enjoy the cyber experience of this beautiful space with its vastly flattering acoustics 🙂
I want, above all, for everyone listening to take this as my small token of love and appreciation for being able to live my life as a musician, and as a gesture of solidarity for the ministry of Bach’s music at Grace. I am blessed during this difficult time to feel safe and supported by my family and community.

I know there are many of you who want to help; if so, I’d like to humbly direct you to https://artistrelieftree.com/, an organization founded by one of my old college friends, Andrew Crooks, who with his colleagues are doing what they can to ease the strain on artists around the world. Please don’t feel you’re supposed to, or that I’m asking you to; rather, if you wanted to anyway and weren’t sure of the best way how, I’d like to send you in their direction.

Above all, thank you for sharing your Saturday night with me, for making space for me in your homes and your lives, and for all the difficult choices you’re bearing strongly to bring us all through this crisis safely.

(cover photo credit: Paul Crisanti)

Some time ago, I was asked to write original music for solo cello, to accompany a dramatic monologue performance for a private occasion. Fragments of the music I wrote, to enhance the ancient Buddhist story of Ahimsaka, haunted me, and I was craving any excuse to fill it out into a full-length piece which could stand independently of the storytelling.

The excuse came in the form of a chance encounter in the spring of 2019 with a dear friend and collaborator from the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, a group for whom I had written my very first piece, What Fear, to accompany dancers. We both agreed it was time to make something together again, and the excuse to finish my second piece was born.

ahimsa is a 6-minute piece designed for modern dancing, but it was inspired by a thought that consumed me at the time: what is it about the human condition that makes it so difficult to live a harm-free life? How could we love without harm, when all we hold dear is so fragile, so easily broken?

(And, moreover, how could I avoid doing harm to the sweet little phrases that had come to me, and not turn them into a tacky, sticky mess?)

I took that second question, and wrote it at the top of a blank page of staff paper. I wanted the music to fight for a good answer.

I wanted to express how beauty can seamlessly corrupt itself into drama and tension. I wanted to convey effort, and fatigue. I wanted this piece to solve every heartbreak I had ever known, ever caused. I needed to be able to hear the exasperation, the frustration I faced when I tried to make good choices and so often fell short. I owed it to myself, and a few others I held in my heart as I worked on this, to try.

It got really personal. And it feels really personal to play. And that feels really good. But in the effort to get there, I had to resist the urge to write a piece that would “sound impressive to other people,” because I might have ended up writing a piece that no one likes. By sticking with compositional choices that felt satisfying to me, I knew at least one person would like it…

Maybe you’ll like it too. You can check it out on my LISTEN page.

By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the word: ‘ahimsa’ is Sanskrit for non-harm. It’s a good quality to think about, especially now.

-August 2019

Music is one of the best things humanity has created. It is very powerful – it brings emotions and profound thoughts to our minds, it brings us together, it lifts us up when we are sad; music is a way of celebrating the fact that we are alive.

Some people study music to become famous, to be popular, or most mistakenly of all, to make money; they do it for egocentric reasons, and I believe they are missing the point. My intention as an instructor is not to make you a great, famous cellist. I hope you might be, if that is your calling, but I care more intensely that you become a great person: a person who doesn’t make excuses, who understands perseverance and delayed gratification, who is curious about what has come before and what they can contribute, who believes that being a musician is the means to the sublime end of serving a higher purpose, not the end itself.

Becoming a musician, not just a cellist, is very difficult. In addition to consistent work towards total control and facility on the instrument, hundreds of thousands of hours, it also requires study of tradition and history, mindfulness of the soul, and a direct line to the emotional plane of existence. The quality of the life you live, what you let influence you – all this will affect your craft. Practicing music, therefore, is also the practice of good, intentional living.

As a musician, you are an ambassador of humanity – you must uphold and preserve the values set forth before you by generations of honorable men and women who made good change, and held themselves to a higher standard. As you study, practice, rehearse, and perform, remember this:

Fact: Making great art does not automatically make you a great person. Beware allowing your craft to make you self-righteous.

Fact: The world has more demand for great people, than great artists. Great artists who are also great people are harder to find – make yourself one of those.

Fact: You will do the world a valuable service by pursuing the call of being a musician who lives with dignity, respect, compassion, discipline, humility, who embraces and lifts up those around them – and sets a good example. It is not the constant achievement, but rather the constant attempt at this, that matters most.

-Jean Hatmaker, 2017

Published on CelloBello.com December 2018


Not counting a negligible number of tap classes when I was 5 years old or so, my first real dance classes were at Indiana University, as a sophomore majoring in cello performance. I had long since forgotten my first fumbling steps as a cellist when I was not quite 3, but the struggle of learning a new skill was all too real as I would wiggle into my leotard and tights at 7:30 in the morning to make 8 A.M. beginner ballet class where I would, with my fellow well-intentioned classmates, attempt to contort myself into an elegant swan, but mainly try not to fall down. My teacher was beautiful; everything about her, her hairstyle, her smile, her hands, her long legs, even her voice, was the epitome of grace. My desire to emulate everything she embodied so effortlessly, met with my utter frustration at falling short morning after morning, was my first real taste of what it means to be an adult beginner. So much longing, so far to go, and, unlike a child, no patience for the in-between.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the not falling down bit was mostly a matter of getting my legs coordinated. The elegant swan bit was something, I came to understand, that lived in one’s épaulement, and for me came much, much later.
Épaulement (ay-pawl-mon) is a great word in the dance vocabulary: literally, it addresses the posturing of one’s head, neck, shoulders, extending down the arms and into the rib cage. It’s the poise you see on the top half, while the bottom half does all the pyrotechnics. Figuratively, it represents the difference between skill and art. It’s the difference between surviving a precarious balance, and defying gravity.
We cellists know what that’s about. It’s the difference between merely getting through the arpeggios in the Dvorak concerto exposition, and shaping them to create a clear, effervescent, magical effect. That requires épaulement, too. Unfortunately, one rarely has capacity to think about such finesse when one is still learning the steps, so to speak.
Ballet classes are all structured the same way (and before I get too far in, I must disclaim that this is based on my amateur perspective and experience): you start at the barre. Pliés, tendus, degagés, rondes-de-jambe, and so on…the combination of moves may change, but you always warm up the body the same way, in the same order of movement type. I was taught that if you were 10 minutes late, never mind being scolded for being tardy, it just straight-up wasn’t safe to jump into class. Your body wasn’t warm, and you could easily injure yourself. While going through all these exercises, the brain is mainly occupied with alignment, proper muscle engagement, balance, extension, and overall attention to detail. It’s where one develops strength, flexibility, and control. Then, and only then, do you venture out into the center of the room, away from the safety of the barre, to really test your mettle.
And here is where it gets interesting. Once in center, a similar routine unfolds: combinations to establish center of gravity, shifting of weight from one leg to another, footwork combinations starting slow and progressing faster, then turns, then jumps, then bigger, grander combinations. Always the same (or very similar) order of movement type, often a different combination. (I should mention that these combinations are learned on-the-spot, watching the teacher do/talk through it once, then diving in, hoping you remember it well enough to repeat in front of your classmates!) Only, now we’ve substituted one training tool for another, the barre for the mirror. Here one can observe their own line, and practice their épaulement, flirting with adding a head tilt here or shoulder pivot there as confidence builds. What this achieves for the brain is an amazing capacity for memory, flexibility, coordination, and the nuance of gesture, so far beyond the prerequisite body awareness and strength training.
All this, and we haven’t even learned any repertoire. In fact, I went years without learning any actual choreography. When I did, it was a different ball of wax altogether: we would repeat the whole thing, over and over, addressing corrections as they came up, until we could get through it without errors. Then, finally! Maybe I would have capacity to think about my épaulement with intention. (My apologies to the dancers out there. I never said I was a particularly good ballerina…)
I dwell on all of this because it’s restructured the way I teach, and indeed practice, the cello. Being in those classes, the predictability of applying attention to my body and my movements in layers, felt so refreshing compared to the hastened scramble I always felt sitting down to practice, jumping right in to whatever scary etude or solo I had in front of me. It taught me that learning how to dance (or play the cello) is a very different skill from learning repertoire. It taught me about respecting one’s mental capacity, about muscle identification, and the very real danger of not stretching and warming up. It also taught me how music feels, in space-time. Of all the things I learned, that is the most precious, and the hardest to replicate for my students unless we go dancing down the hall together (which I have been known to do).
But back to my point: I started designing a lesson strategy, and practice strategy, inspired by these classes. First, I start by attending to the bow. The bow is your breath, your vitality, and unless you start by thinking of it first, it often gets overlooked. Then, I warm up the left hand with simple patterns, get the blood circulating through the fingers, engaging or disengaging muscles as they need. I address the shoulders, attempting to relax the pectoral muscles so as not to pull the neck and shoulders forward. Here, the study of épaulement comes in handy in a literal way; the attention to the placement of the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and relaxed hands, has been the most relevant to my body as a cellist.
Next, as I begin to shift, I keep the left shoulder back, relaxing the brachioradialis (the bulgy muscle on top of the forearm near the elbow) to achieve a dropping feeling rather than a shoving feeling. Then the vibrato, always loose, never coming from a place of tension. By now a body scan might be necessary to remind the brain of all the major or minor adjustments made so far. Now I feel ready for some heavier lifting, a particular skill, perhaps: spiccato, double stops, acute intonation “target-practice”, thumb position, complicated rhythmic patterns, fast passagework, using etudes to exercise whatever challenges feel relevant that day. All before I ever get to “music”. But then, when I finally do…I’ve established a foundation of control upon which I can truly make musical choices, without being preoccupied by remembering how to play the cello (well, maybe a little less preoccupied, anyhow…).
It’s easy to forget how physical music-making is, cello playing especially. But unless the body awareness is thorough, one will never have enough capacity to use the body to its greatest potential, to reach high levels of artistry. Because when you finally get your repertoire, and you start turning your attention from mechanics to épaulement, you become something different, something so much more than the movements you execute or the sounds you make. It is not an afterthought – on the contrary, that spirit dwells in the heart from the beginning, and keeps you motivated through all your technique work. Our épaulement lives in the way we feel a phrase, the way we linger on a note, the prep before the first bow stroke, the hover into a rest, the controlled application of vibrato, the perfect timing of bow speed to note value…so many delectable choices that we can delight in, if only we can get past learning the choreography.
-Jean Hatmaker, 2018

Jean Hatmaker is the cellist and founding member of the Kontras Quartet, internationally-acclaimed quartet based in Chicago, and current artists-in-residence at Western Michigan University. She holds faculty positions at Elmhurst College, Lake Forest College, and Oak Park String Academy, and is an active member and former president of Chicago Cello Society. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in cello performance from Indiana University, where she also studied string instrument making, voice, and began her illustrious (if not particularly swan-like) career as an amateur ballerina.