contact us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right.


Novato, California 94947
USA

Mark Summer, solo cellist, composer and co-founder of Turtle Island Quartet. Percussion and pizzicato cello techniques. Sheet music and lessons available for purchase. Winner of two Grammy awards (2005 and 2008), nominated four times, most recently in 2014.

Blog

Occasional blog posts by cellist Mark Summer.

Keeping our heads up and our hearts open in interesting times

Mark Summer

Keeping Our Heads Up And Our Hearts Open In Interesting Times

Since it’s the new year, and there’s this tremendous feeling of uncertainty swirling around me, I’ve thought a bit about aspirations (the word feels more open-hearted than the more calculating “resolutions"). As we all know, we have a new president on deck; that thought is accompanied by deep feelings of fear, at least for me. I want to talk about how to go forward with our creative lives, thoughts on growing and grooving on the cello, and how to ultimately thrive in what are certainly interesting times. Staying open while being vigilant is an aspiration that has tremendous power to energize us and sustain us for the difficult times ahead.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to take a longer perspective on things. It’s not like it’s ever been easy to be an artist in a capitalistic country. It’s easy to take the distress personally and feel like it’s your fault that things are so challenging. But when you reflect upon it, musicians have always had to pay our dues and have felt the stress of fighting to be heard amidst the din of society. Our culture rewards us by telling us that we are “special,” and in exchange for that praise robs us of our due financially. I’m guessing many of you have had the experience of being asked what you do for a living, and receiving an response of envy by the questioner only to discover that they are earning a good living from their livelihood while we struggle to cover our bills and feed our families.

The music business has its own woes. I had a good talk with guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart Andress after a recent recording session for an artist they were producing. I hadn’t seen either one of them since we toured extensively some 20 years ago. Patti spoke of the days when record sales were a significant portion of her and Tuck’s income. That’s completely changed. Now they, like most musicians earn the bulk of their livelihood from playing concerts. That means many, many days and nights away from partners and loved ones. It can be difficult and lonely, as well as exciting and energizing. But touring is not an easy life.
If you want to get off the road, as I’ve often been tempted to try to do, earning a living in music means teaching, both privately and in classes (in my case, improvisation workshops, sometimes in conjunction with classical cello camps). This past summer I taught at the International Cello Institute at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Eugene Friesen’s Creative Cello Summit in Vermont, and Cello Seminar at Interlochen Academy of the Arts in Michigan, as well as playing concerts with 8 time Grammy-nominated jazz singer Tierney Sutton. In addition, I publish my own music as downloadable pdfs (marksummer.net/store)and offer private and Skype lessons, as well as performing in the San Francisco Bay Area in many different guises including a solo cello presentation and a duo with pianist Ken Cook.

 Ken Cook, piano, with Mark Summer at Silos, Napa, Calif., in 2016. Photo credit: Silos, Napa.

Ken Cook, piano, with Mark Summer at Silos, Napa, Calif., in 2016. Photo credit: Silos, Napa.

Focusing on your unique talents and skills and developing your own musical viewpoint and vision is key to forging a satisfying, musically creative life. This takes time and dedication and equal parts of patience and determination. 

One of the most important things during turbulent times is to cultivate our enthusiasm for creative expression, the drive that got us into this crazy business in the first place. Now’s an excellent time to go out and attend concerts, listen to as much music that inspires you as possible, and spend quality time really delving deep into ourselves, into our music. There’s so much negative reporting in the news right now that it can dominate our lives and sap all our creative energy. We simply can’t afford to let that happen. Consider composing, as a healthy response to the current political and geopolitical mess we find ourselves in. Singing our hearts out, whether with our voice or our instrument or both helps to ground ourselves, to get in tune with and be one with the moment, the only moment there is, the rich and ever present Now.

These are strange, rich and potentially artistically fruitful times. I believe we are being called to act, to explore our true, expansive selves and to allow our hearts and minds to open up to the challenge of these times. It’s imperative that we make space for self-reflection; to take the time to think for ourselves. What do we want? How do we feel about what’s happening around us?

There is a tremendous need for our gifts at this time; to create soul nurturing music both for our selves and for this troubled world. Celebrate your unique gifts and share your creative energy with those around you; the world is, more than ever, in desperate need of what is positive, moral, and that which will help light the way through what could be very dark and dispiriting times. Cultivate that light, and nurture your precious gifts of self-expression. Trust yourself and connect with other like-minded musicians and artists. Celebrate your passion, expand your repertoire of healthy responses to stress, and learn how to thrive in the now, these most “interesting” of times.

—Mark Summer

Remembering Beatles Producer George Martin

Mark Summer

 Strawberry Field, originally a Salvation Army Children’s home inspired John Lennon who, with George Martin’s deft arrangement skills, created an enduring masterpiece, Strawberry Fields Forever.

Strawberry Field, originally a Salvation Army Children’s home inspired John Lennon who, with George Martin’s deft arrangement skills, created an enduring masterpiece, Strawberry Fields Forever.

I woke up today (and fell out of bed, to quote a line from Lennon and McCartney’s masterpiece, “A Day In The Life”) to find that Beatles producer George Martin had died at the age of 90. Sir George was the guiding light of the Beatles, who shaped their music, bringing out the very best in them, not only producing an unparalleled body of work but also helping John, Paul, George and Ringo to become the most important and influential musical group of the 20th century.

I owe at least part of my career in music to George Martin’s influence. After all, it was his revolutionary use of orchestral instruments in novel ways that made the Fabs recordings have such a profound impact on these ears, recordings so consistently fresh, inspiring, and ultimately timeless. The use of swirling cellos, along with piccolo trumpets, French horns, Cor Anglais, timpani, harp, bass clarinet and string quartet and octet, and a symphony orchestra was unprecedented in popular music; especially in the way Martin used them. Unlike the standard manner of utilizing strings as “sweeteners”, Martin painted soundscapes with the colors of orchestral instruments in a fresh, innovative manner. One could argue that in using so many instruments in his arrangements, and in gently getting the Beatles to expand their vision to include these elements associated with classical music, that he pushed four fairly raucous Liverpool lads’ tunes into the realm of crossover music.

 Abbey Road Studio #2, where The Beatles recorded most of their songs, with producer George Martin at the recording console in the control room at the top of the stairs. 

Abbey Road Studio #2, where The Beatles recorded most of their songs, with producer George Martin at the recording console in the control room at the top of the stairs. 

My admittedly small sample of one, my father is a case in point. His record collection was an assortment of Mahler, Bruckner, and Shostakovich symphonies, as well as Orff’s Carmina Burana, which he listened with his amplifier turned up to 11. But somehow, The Beatles’ St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned up in his record collection. I remember listening to that recording as a young child and being as frightened by the two orchestral chaotic crescendos in the final piece on the record, A Day In The Life as when my dad put on Shostakovich’s 10th symphony. A Day In The Life, which I consider The Beatles masterpiece and which sounds as fresh today as when it came out almost half a century ago, left me with a feeling of awe and wonder that I similarly felt when at my father took me to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 10. They both took my breath away. And with a recording that I listened to over and over again, its impact on these ears was profound.

In this age of Spotify, Pandora and the like, where every manner of music is available at the touch of a finger, it’s important to take a moment to consider those who have gone before us, inspiring, at least this cellist, to “think different”, and ultimately create a place in the music world that while having a career built on jazz, blues, rock and roll and the improvisation that they include, rests on a strong foundation of classical music. George Martin was partly responsible for my staying the course and not giving up studying this most difficult of instruments. I will always be so very grateful for his inspiration.

 In 2011, I made the famous zebra crossing at St. John’s Wood, site of Abbey Roads Studio.

In 2011, I made the famous zebra crossing at St. John’s Wood, site of Abbey Roads Studio.

Trick or Retreating

Mark Summer

For some time now, I’ve wanted to take a meditation retreat that would give me a break from my usual patterns of busyness and speediness and open up some space for me to ponder my next move, as I continue to process my exit from 30 years as a founding member with theTurtle Island Quartet. So, it was with equal parts a sense of adventure and deep terror that I embarked on a month long retreat in the wilds of Vermont this past January.

Getting to the retreat center known as Karmê Chöling was a bit of an ordeal: My wife drove me to the Marin Airporter for an hour ride to San Francisco International Airport, United flew me to Houston and then Boston, I took a Dartmouth Coach to the Hanover Inn, and finally was picked up by an rural transport driver (sort of the Uber of the region) and made it to Karmê Chöling.

The night I arrived, there was a palpable buzzing of energy. The retreat was fairly large to begin with: something like 60 people attended the first two weeks, along with a staff that included coordinators, meditation teachers, and the two teachers who led the retreat, or what is known in Shambhala Buddhism, a dathun. Dathuns traditionally last 28 days, and involve a fairly rigorous schedule of sitting and walking meditation, talks, work periods or rota as well as taking meals in the oryoki style.

Oryoki is a Japanese method of mindful eating that involves a set of small nesting bowls, special linens and a spoon and set of chopsticks. I could write a whole blog on oryoki. Suffice to say it was one of the more challenging things I ever experienced. We took three meals a day in the shrine room, sitting on cushions on the floor just as we had been doing in meditation. We sat at “tables” configured in either groups of 6 or 8 and served each other in silence. At the end of the meals, using a tool called a setsu, we cleaned our bowls in hot water, drank the water, wiped the bowls clean and used the largest linen to wrap up our oryoki set. Meals took over an hour at first but got progressively shorter as we gained skill with all the various steps of this contemplative way of eating.

It took me at least 2½ weeks to be at all comfortable with oryoki. My friend Phillip Ziegler had graciously given me a beautiful wooden oryoki set which made opening the set a pleasure. We were taught to treat our set with great care. The linens got pretty foul sometimes and needed frequent washing and ironing. Oryoki means “just enough” and not surprisingly, meals were much smaller than what most of us were used to eating. I lost a couple of belt loops, as did most people. The younger men in the dathun were seen scarfing down bowls of cereal and bread with butter or almond butter after the usual dinner of soup and salad. I tried very hard to stick to the food served, augmented by the fruit that was put out in the dining room. It wasn’t a hardship to eat less-it was a wonderful feeling to feel in touch with how much it really takes to satisfy my hunger. It turns out that it’s a lot less than I thought.

Sitting in meditation for days on end was physically difficult and boring for much of the dathun, but seemed a necessary part of the dathun for me. As I sat and marinated in the meditative experience, I began to settle in a way that allowed me to feel my feelings deeply. I began to grieve for some of the losses that have been imbedded in my heart, mind and soul. I cried and began to place my troubled mind in the cradle of loving kindness. It was a profound experience to spend a month learning to love myself.

My experience at Karmê Chöling has continued to unfold. My cello practicing has changed. I am enjoying wading into the unknown; the experience of practicing with attention, mindfulness and enthusiasm is exciting me. And I’ve been creating new solo cello music that fills me with joy and wonder. Where does my inspiration and creativity come from? Will it continue to be available to me? Where am I headed? My path is to be an open channel, and to let my muse carry me further along the path. It’s a sweet journey.

Enjoy Your Cello Playing, Always

Mark Summer

I was working on the prelude from Bach’s G major cello suite the other day when a thought suddenly occurred to me. I was actually having fun practicing! It certainly wasn’t the first time I had that experience. However, the feeling was as fresh as the air after a rainstorm. Often, when things get hard in a practicing session I sort of slam myself with a cascade of negative thoughts: “Mark, you should play this better than this! How many years have you been working on this piece? Can’t you play more in tune? It sounds like &^@#!” and on and on and on. But this time, the self-talk was different. I noticed that I was enjoying focusing so intensely on music I had sometimes mindlessly breezed through many times before. I began to really appreciate Bach’s genius and compositional prowess. I noticed where the phrases were going harmonically and appreciated how delightful it is to play a fretless instrument that allows us to be thoughtful about our intonation, raising the leading tones, finding the purity in fifths, always honing in on the pitch. Instead of comparing my playing to some imagined virtuoso existing in my head, I opened up to the joy of simply playing what is one of the most glorious pieces of music ever written for the cello. In other words, I found myself thoroughly enjoying my own playing; It felt radical!

I wish that this idea of self-appreciation had been introduced when I was studying at conservatory. I felt such despair at the possibility of coming up to a level of competence that was even in the same universe as my teacher, that sometimes even a modicum of enjoyment was beyond my reach. But now, as I think back on my musical education, it seems obvious to me how important it is to find a way to enjoy our cello playing. How else will we have the discipline to practice with the kind of diligence that will bring us the results we are looking for? We all know that being a brutal taskmaster to someone else is a sure way to lose a friend. When we do it to ourselves, we risk even more. We risk losing our confidence, and our inner joy, which once lost are exceedingly difficult to regain.

I have a long time cello friend who absolutely adores playing the cello. She has often mentioned how lost she would be without it. I’ve often envied her dedication and enthusiasm. She has had to grapple with physical issues: frozen shoulder, chronic pain, and tendonitis. I’ve marveling at her tenacity; her devotion to all things cello is an inspiration to me. She’s helped me to understand that our work as students of this sublime yet difficult instrument is never done. When I glance at the music placed on the stand in her studio, I see little arrows pointing up and down besides many notes on the score, reminders to help facilitate her playing in tune. It’s true that with regard to pitch, we're always on a slippery slop, in pursuit of the impossible dream of "perfect" intonation. Yet, rather than be a source of misery, this hard truth can lead to a joyful realization that we are human beings, not human doings, always on the path of liberation from self aggression. We can celebrate our journey of artistic discovery. We can endeavor to enjoy our cello playing, always.

-Mark Summer