Cherylonda Fitzgerald’s first musical experiences were similar to many people’s – singing in the church choir and piano lessons. After that, she took her musical course in a different direction – she became a classically trained cellist. She holds a Bachelor of Music and Music Education from the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, and Master of Music Performance from Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York.
“I spent 17 years in the San Francisco area pursuing a career in computer graphic production and design. When I moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, in 2003, I returned to music as a full-time profession. I am currently on faculty at Milligan College where I teach applied cello and coach the Milligan Quartet. I also teach private students at my studio, The Cello Underground. As a performer, I am principal cellist of the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra, a section cellist with the Symphony of the Mountains and the Asheville Symphony, and a founding member of two chamber music groups: the Paramount Chamber Players and the Johnson City Symphony Quartet. I try to keep busy,” she says.
The cello came into Fitgerald’s life when a string quartet performed for her fifth grade class to recruit students for the school’s middle school orchestra.
“The violin part for that fifth grade quartet demonstration seemed flashy and complicated, but the cello part looked fun and relatively easy. I eventually found out that cello parts can be just as difficult, but by then it was too late. I was already hooked, and the beautiful sounds were well worth the effort. Lucky for me, the cello turned out to be a perfect fit.
“Many agree the tonal range of the cello is closest to the range of the human voice — I think that is why it speaks to so many people. My cello, Cecilia, is an extension of my voice and an outlet for my creativity. I enjoy the challenge of using her not only to give audiences something pleasant or exciting to listen to, but also to hopefully reach them on a deeper, emotional or even spiritual level.
“I value the cello’s versatility thanks to its wide range, from the lowest tones on the thick C string to the highest notes in thumb position on the A string. Even within individual pieces, cello parts often bounce around from covering the bass line, to singing higher melodies and everything in between. The cello is perfect for so many styles from classical to Celtic, jazz, blues, pop—there are cellists out there playing it all.”
Fitzgerald’s original approach to music was traditional, but like many musicians that approach evolved and is applied to her performing and teaching approaches.
“I recently participated in an online seminar addressing body awareness and mindfulness in performance called ‘Your Body is Your Strad’ and have already incorporated many of the philosophies and techniques into my teaching and practicing. It seems like every few months I encounter something that ‘revolutionizes’ my approach.
“I love that music can be as simple or as complex as I want it to be. My preparation for a piece involves the consideration of so many aspects like dynamics, harmonic structure, articulations, bowings, melodic features, emotional context, who the composer is, and what was going on in his/her life when the work was written, etc. Each work is a puzzle to be solved, and I like that aspect. There are endless opportunities to make discoveries about the music I play, my skills as a cellist and my approach to teaching.
“Teaching is just as important as performing to my growth as a musician. The process of analyzing problems, crafting solutions and breaking things down in a way that works for each unique student helps me address issues in my own playing. I am also happy to be able to make a positive impact on the quality of life of my students.
“I am trained in the Suzuki Method books one through three and think that is a fantastic method for my very young students. I approach older students as individuals and customize my materials and teaching to accommodate their long-term goals. Those goals might include to win a music scholarship to help finance college tuition, to be able to perform in their church ensemble, to improve their technique for middle school orchestra or to fulfill a lifelong dream to play cello, etc. The goal is not always to become a cello virtuoso or soloist. I think it is important for the process of learning to be challenging but never intimidating or stressful in a negative sense.
“Music is a vehicle through which students can develop self-confidence, self-esteem, the courage to try something new, and the perseverance and patience to eventually succeed at something that seems difficult or even impossible at first. My intention is for each student to end up with a respect for and appreciation of music and a sense of accomplishment from a long-term commitment to doing their best,” she says.
Her own teachers are her main influences. “They may not all be familiar names, but they instilled in me a positive and nurturing approach to teaching and a love for and appreciation of all types of music. I am deeply indebted to my cello teachers Patricia Brannon, Louise Harris, Susannah Onwood and Timothy Eddy.
“Any cellist who is expressing themselves sincerely from the heart is an inspiration—including my students, from the young beginners who initially can barely get a decent sound out of their 1/8 size cellos, to my adult beginners who succeed despite self-doubts and stiff fingers, to my more advanced students who are sometimes surprised at what they can accomplish with consistent, thoughtful practice,” she says.
While live concerts have been on hold, Fitzgerald, like so many other musicians, has participated in online performances. “I would encourage everyone to seek out opportunities to attend online events and to continue to support the arts until it becomes safe to resume in-person concerts,” she says.
Her upcoming concert with the Paramount Chamber Players goes live on their YouTube page Feb. 13. This Valentine’s Day program features French music for piano trio, violin/piano and voice/piano. Her other virtual concert with the Paramount Chamber Players is accessible on YouTube.
For more information about Fitzgerald, visit www.cherylonda.com.