Cellista Interviews Dirty Cello

Rebecca Roudman has played cello professionally in the Bay area for years. Equally at home as a renowned classical cello player or on the cutting edge of pop music, Rebecca Roudman is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most exciting crossover cellists.

As a member of both the Oakland East-Bay Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony, Rebecca is an experienced orchestral musician who has toured with orchestras to Brazil and throughout Europe. While developing her classical skills, Rebecca studied with both Larry Granger of the San Francisco Symphony and Gretchen Elliot, one of Janos Starker’s students. Rebecca has premiered numerous classical and contemporary works, many of which were written for her.

In addition to her classical skills, Rebecca performs extensively with an amazingly diverse selection of contemporary musicians including the Jazz Mafia, Chuck Prophet, Texas blues guitarist Danny Click, DJ Amp Live of Zion I, and of course, her own band, Dirty Cello.

In a variety of venues, Rebecca has shared the stage with Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Ry Cooder, JJ Cale, George Clinton, Isaac Hayes, Deltron 3030 and many other exciting musicians. Rebecca also performed on the soundtrack for the Bruce Willis film, Looper, and is on the soundtrack for the Jeremy Renner film, Kill the Messenger.

Why did you choose cello? Or did cello choose you?

My mom chose the cello actually! I was 6 and a half, and she asked me if I wanted to play the cello. I didn’t even know what it was, but I said yes. I actually wanted to play the violin but my sister was already playing it. My mom really wanted me to play the harp, but we didn’t have a big enough car for it. I’m happy about that – I  really love the cello! And if I ended up playing the harp, the band would probably be called, “Dirty Harp,” and you know, that just doesn’t roll off the tongue like Dirty Cello!

You’ve played with a huge number of living legends, but who do you regard as monumental in your life as a musician (celebrity or not)?

My cello teachers – Betty Musser, Larry Granger, and Gretchen Elliott. I started cello with Betty Musser when I was 7 and took it with her through high school. She was like a second Mom to me, and I remember when I met her, I liked her instantly. She is a very unique person – from her eclectic house full of dolls to her personal style, she is engaging while being inspiring. She taught me all the fundamentals, plus she would take me to master classes and concerts and introduce me to all the soloists. She’d even go one step further and set up a lesson with whoever the soloist was. I remember taking a lesson with Matt Haimowitz when I was about 9 years old because of her. Larry Granger was my teacher at Cal State Hayward and he taught me how to feel the music – using stories and imagery. He also took my technique to the next level. He also was an all-around amazing person – a beautiful musician with a very big heart. Gretchen Elliott studied with Janos Starker and she taught me how to play more relaxed, how to shift better and how to play more smoothly. Often when I’m playing long gigs on stage with lots of energy, I remember back to many of the things she taught me about how to approach the cello in a relaxed manner.

I think musicians often have struggles when it comes to playing music. When I started playing the cello again after many years away from it, I really had to convince myself that I was playing because I wanted to, and that I did not have to justify why I was choosing to play music for a living to anyone but myself. Have you ever had struggles like this? What compels you to keep playing?

When I was 13, I wanted to quit. I told my parents, “don’t tell me to practice anymore – I’ll just practice when I want.” They said fine and I didn’t touch my cello for 2 weeks. And then I really missed it, and just started practicing again. And ever since then, I just kept at it. The cello has always been in my life, and I can’t imagine it not being there.

I keep playing it because I love it. In fact, I miss playing my cello when I haven’t played it for a couple of days.

Jason and I were in Hawaii on vacation a few years ago, and about 3 days into the vacation, I told him I miss playing my cello, and he agreed he missed playing his guitar.  We’ve started combining some of our vacations with touring at the same time, and that has been great. Vacation + playing music!

How important was your childhood exposure to music in shaping your relationship with music now?

Super important. Weirdly enough, I was raised on a lot of 1950’s pop music and Broadway – none of the kind of music I play today! But I did go hear the San Francisco Symphony about once a month, and my Dad tended to listen to blues and bluegrass on the radio. I always loved to go around the house and sing also. My mom is a piano teacher, so I would always hear a lot of piano music in the house. I also learned how to play the piano, too. When I was 12 my Mom entered me in the county fair where I did a variety show of playing the same song on the cello, piano, and then singing it. I didn’t win though!

Your longtime partner Jason is also a musician, first, how did you meet? Secondly, what is it like having a partner who is a musician? How does it enhance your life (both your musical life and your love life)?

I met Jason in college at Cal State Hayward – we were both music majors. It’s awesome having a partner who is a musician – it makes everything more fun – performing and traveling together. We have a lot of fun together and I love sharing adventures with him. We did a gig at a marathon where we played for 5 hours straight. That part sucked. In fact, the gig wasn’t so great – it was very cold, our “audience members” were runners that would only hear us for 5 seconds as they ran by, and a lot of people were peeing in the tunnel where we were playing. So not was it only cold, it was smelly. Yet despite the bad gig, we had fun because we were together.

What are your practice sessions like? Scales, etudes?

Most of the time I skip scales and etudes, I just get right to the good stuff – practicing the songs I need to get ready for concerts coming up. That kind of practice also helps me when I perform. A lot of time, before I perform, I’m backstage, and my cello is on stage; when I’m on stage, I’m never properly warmed up, so it’s a good idea for me in practice to go straight to practicing songs without warm-up, to get used to the feeling.

What’s your favorite key? And why?

I love the key of A. It’s a happy sounding key and I love playing A harmonics.

You were written about in a novel, recently. What was that like, to read that excerpt? How did that author meet you? What inspired him?

That was a surprise and very cool. I never met the author, but I happened on that passage in her book, and it was crazy. It’s weird reading about yourself, but I was definitely flattered, and I bought 2 more copies of the book. It’s a children’s science fiction book called Intuition by CJ Omololu. In the book, a young student is having trouble getting motivated to practice his cello, and his teacher shows him the Youtube video of me playing “Sweet Child of Mine,” and he really likes it, and starts thinking the cello is cool again.

That made me feel really good, and I  emailed the author through Facebook and thanked her.

You’ve played with Santana a few times, can you share anything about him that might be interesting (non-music related)? For instance: does he have an M&M preference? Or does he have sloppy handwriting that makes it hard to read his lead sheets? An affinity for lap dogs?

It’s always fun to play with famous musicians because it is interesting to see what they’re really like. Like with George Clinton. I got to play on stage with George Clinton and the P-Funk about a year ago, and he was so nice and friendly and when I finished with my solo on stage, he gave me a big hug.

Your joy while playing is infectious. I’ve always wondered, right before you start playing, whether it be on stage, or in your living room, what kinds of thoughts or feelings, or rituals do you have? I still think about something Irene Sharp said about exhaling before placing my down bow before I play. That always helps me if I have anxiety. Do you have a potion for your joyous playing?

I just love playing. It feels so good. I love playing with my band – playing with my partner Jason Eckl is always awesome, and I love the rest of the band – Anthony Petrocchi on drums, Paul Smith-Stewart on bass, Jaylene Chung on violin and Sterling Spence on mandolin. Not only are they great musicians, but they are super nice people –  a perfect combination for a band.

And I love playing for audiences, especially when they’re raucous. At one of my favorite shows, the audience was singing along and dancing, and it was so packed that I had to be careful not to stab anybody with my bow when I was playing. I love the energy on stage. A definite cure if you were having a bad day.

When I get on stage, my intent is to have fun and have everyone leaving the show happy. I don’t like to think, “Will I shift high enough… will I miss that part…?” etc., because that’s not what the performance is about.

I described how we met, but just so I have your perspective in writing: How did we meet?

We met playing at Mission College orchestra together, and we got to sit next to each other. So happy that happened! You’re awesome and I’m so glad we’re friends!


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