The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with cello instructor Shaun Diaz about how he uses a wide array of repertoire to help his students develop creativity and self-expression.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello, my name is Erica Reid. I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and today I am talking to our faculty member Shaun Diaz. How are you, Shaun?
Shaun Diaz: I’m good. How are you?
Center: Great. We do these interviews just to get to know our faculty members. I believe you are pretty new at the Center, is that correct? Can you tell me your history with the Center, and what brought you here?
Shaun: I’m brand new, actually, with [the Center for Musical Arts]. There’s a handful of opportunities that came my way in the past month or so, and when [Education Director] Kathy, or [Registrar] Nancy… I think it was Nancy. Was it Nancy? Yeah. It was either Nancy or someone in the school reached out to me and the opportunity presented itself, and I was immediately enthralled and excited about the possibility of being a cello teacher at the school. So I took that opportunity, and we had an interview. Interview went very, very well, and I was just ready to go.
Center: Do you live in Lafayette? Have you been here long?
Shaun: I live in Boulder.
Center: You’ve been there for a while?
Shaun: Been here for three years, yes.
Center: Okay. You like it here?
Shaun: I love it. Yeah. Colorado is fantastic.
Center: So you mentioned that you teach cello, and I see a very happy cello case behind you. What drew you to the cello? How did you know that was your instrument?
Shaun: My mom actually played the cello. When I was about eight years old, she approached me with the opportunity to be my cello teacher, actually. And I, at the young age of eight, didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into and was definitely curious about stringed instruments.
I was starting to compose music at that time, so my creative juices were just beginning to emerge as a young budding musician and artist. So when the cello became a part of my life, I just knew it was a good match. And my mom was very nurturing and supportive of it, gave me lessons for the first year or two, and it became a match made in heaven, really.
Center: I’m glad to hear that.
Shaun: Yeah. It’s been a huge blessing in my life to this point.
Center: So let’s talk about teaching cello. There are a couple of lines from your bio that really caught my eye. You say that we are “living in a new era for cellists all over the world,” and that when you’re teaching, you take an approach that helps “restore a sense of freedom that is so vital to the learning process.” Can you tell me what that means to you? Especially, what does it mean that we are living in a new era for cellists?
Shaun: Yeah, we really do. I think it’s really important to recognize just how diverse a world we live in. If we’re not even speaking to the cello, we live in a world where there’s so much access to culture, and to different ways of seeing the world and being in the world. The internet certainly has helped cause that in our society. And we really have access to a lot of different resources and influences from different countries and different musical and cultural backgrounds.
So yeah, even though the cello is very rooted historically in classical music, I think it’s become important to at least honor the fact that music is wide and that we can engage with it, not only on a classical level as string players, but we can explore different genres, different approaches to the instrument. We can learn to improvise, include different influences from a wide array of backgrounds, really. We don’t have to stick to one approach, necessarily.
Center: Can you tell me how that impacts your teaching?
Shaun: So for me, I have a very deep training in classical cello playing. And we’re talking many, many years, decades, 30 years, actually, of playing this instrument. And initially, it was all so classical. All I did on the cello was play primarily white European music. And it wasn’t probably until after graduating with my degree in cello performance that I started to realize there was more I could do with the instrument.
So I have a very strong formal training that supports being able to ground my students in understanding how to play the instrument properly, and I like to branch out from there and engage my students beyond, so they can understand proper bow technique, vibrato form, articulation control, and beyond, everything that we need to do well as cellists.
And then we can apply that, too, to what fits our personalities as artists. We don’t come one size fits all, for sure, and we all have a different way of being in life and in the world, our personality. So I like to just encourage that, but I have that as a component of being highly rooted as well in tradition.
Center: You mentioned to me earlier that if students are interested in composition, that’s something that you can talk to them about too. Would you like to address that?
Shaun: Sure, yeah. So my students will have the freedom, and always have, to explore their creativity beyond music on the page. So I like to look off the page and give them the opportunity to improvise and see if there’s something in there that is wanting to come out or express.
Although I’m a composer, not just a cellist — I do have a lot of skill at writing music and orchestrating music — I think it’s really important for my students, if it interests them, to look deep within and discover if there are aspects of their process as musicians and artists that could include composing music.
Center: Wonderful. Shaun, when you’re not teaching and listening to music, what else fills your life these days?
Shaun: I love creating beautiful music with friends… My partner is actually a cellist as well, so we play together. Being outside in nature, hiking, camping. Being in the natural world definitely refuels my inspiration. So taking time to be quiet in nature is really important to me.
Center: You’re in a good place for that. Where were you before Boulder?
Shaun: I was in Seattle.
Center: Alright. Well, another gorgeous place.
Center: Shaun, is there anything else I have not covered here today that you think would be helpful for prospective students who are interested in starting the cello, or are thinking about adding composition to their skills, or anything that they might study with you. Is there anything that they should know about, about you and your teaching philosophy?
Shaun: Yeah. So my experience in music with the cello is really wide, as I’ve been discussing. I offer a deep understanding of how to effectively play the cello. All my students go deep into the mechanics of form and technique, understanding that we all have unique bodies and ways of orienting ourselves around the instrument.
And I want to help my students unlock their creativity and expression, and do it in ways where they are really grounded in effective technique and form, classically. The cello has a strong vocal quality, as we all love and know, come to love, and we’ll just discover how to use bow work and vibrato to play all the important roles in creating lyrical expression.
So for my students, their only prerequisite is to have an open mind and be ready to practice like a pro.
Center: Thank you so much, Shaun. At the Center, we talk a lot about “music for all, for life,” and it sounds to me like you are focused on making a musician instead of a cello player, somebody who has the skills that they can build on, but really is learning how to be creative and how to express themselves through music, which I think is the harder lesson, but the more important one.
Shaun: Indeed. Indeed. Yeah, that’s at the forefront of my desire for my students is to become whole musicians. I would consider it sort of the most wholesome approach to developing your musicianship and wanting to do that in the framework of the most effective training possible.
Center: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for taking time with me today.
Shaun: You’re welcome. My pleasure.