By Benjamin Whitcomb

The repertoire for cello is vast, and contains many single-movement works that are suitable as encores. One of the most distinctive is Julie-O by Mark Summer, a fabulous cellist and one of the founding members of the Turtle Island Quartet. It is a delight to perform and, when well played, is not only a real crowd-pleaser, but it can also appeal to some audiences that are less affected by most of the cello repertoire.

However, the piece certainly does not “play itself,” as the expression goes. For one thing, even in the 21st century, many string players still play in a way that reveals a strong favoritism for simple duple meters with rhythms that move on the beat—Julie-O is not cut from such cloth.

For another thing, Julie-O is meant to sound improvised. While string players these days are much more likely to have been exposed to improvisation than they were a few decades ago, many still struggle to sound convincing in improvisatory styles. With a little guidance, however, a cellist may identify the piece’s fundamental techniques and work on them diligently, avoid some common pitfalls, and save time in learning the piece well. 

Mark Summer
Mark Summer

7 Steps to Take Before Tackling the Actual Work

Before you get started working on the piece in earnest, there are some useful things you can do first.

1. Listen to various recordings—preferably at least three. Be sure to include a recording of Summer playing the piece. 

2. Think about what the piece means. Can you turn it into a story, or even add specific words to certain passages? The more you can do these things, the more likely you will perform the piece in a way that is meaningful for you and your audiences.

3. Practice your D-major scales and arpeggios thoroughly. Try practicing in double-stop sixths and thirds as well!

4. Sing the piece. I know this is a difficult proposition for some passages, but do your best. Singing is perhaps the best shortcut to your musical soul, and it can quickly reveal where things are clear or not clear conceptually.

5. Work on finger slides—they do not come naturally to everyone. My favorite exercises for these are the sort developed by Dounis—something like Ex. 1.

Ex. 1

6. Spend some time each day improvising in D major in the style of the various passages in Julie-O.

7. Practice in front of a mirror, not only to help you monitor your technique, but because your facial expression and body language can have a significant effect on your success performing this piece.

Taking on the Piece: Break It Down

Measure 1

This is probably the most important measure of the entire piece! Getting it just right effectively sets the mood and context for everything that follows.  

As with several passages in this piece, experimentation is the name of the game. Be willing to try this measure in many different ways—not just the way that you are used to hearing it. 

Tune this passage very carefully. Nothing spoils a performance more quickly than playing the beginning out of tune. The key to the intonation of the chords is to place the fingers to create a truly perfect fifth. If this gives you trouble, experiment with different heights of the left elbow.

Do not play the passage too quietly—listeners want to hear the string ring and to be struck by the beauty of the sound of pizzicato on the cello.

Be careful not to roll the first two chords too slowly: listeners still need to hear the melody created by the pitches on the A string. 

It is important that the triplet be heard clearly. The fourth finger needs to hit the string clearly and cleanly, and then release the string with a bit of left-hand pizzicato. Feel free to supinate the hand (i.e. roll it away from you) if this helps.

Do not move too quickly from m. 1 to m. 2. Listeners need time to think about the beauty of that first measure.

Measures 2–7

This is a wonderful passage, but deceptively difficult. You may want to bracket it for extra practice.

Keep the meter at 7/8! It is easy to distort a duration enough that it starts to sound like 6/16 or 8/16, neither of which creates the same mood. Try clapping eighth notes (as slowly as necessary at first, but eventually at a tempo of 192) while speaking the rhythm.

This passage can be started extremely quietly to good effect.

Try playing the open A as though it is a pick-up to the next figure.

As with the first measure, intonation is critical! Practice the three thirds and the three sixths as double-stops, both arco and pizzicato, until they are always in tune and comfortable. (See Ex. 2 and 3)

Ex. 2
Ex. 3

Mark Summer himself says he likes to practice passages like Ex. 4 with the following bowing, which he says is “an excellent bowing for jazz phrasing and instantly makes a player sound jazzier.”

Ex. 4

You may wish to experiment with using two or more fingers to pluck the string in this passage. Such a technique takes a bit of getting used to, but some people prefer it.

Measures 8–11

The meter changes here, so establish a new “groove” right away. It is another good passage for clapping eighth notes while saying the rhythms. Even if you eventually take some license with some of the rhythms, it is always a good idea to at least start with the rhythms that the composer wrote! 

Do not rush the three 16th notes at the end of mm. 8 and 10, nor the left-hand pizz at the end of m. 9.

Do not make a big deal out of picking up and putting down the bow. Do it as naturally as switching utensils when you eat. While this may seem like a small point, the little things add up. 

Measures 12–18

Here is the foremost melody of the piece. It is essentially a jazzy folk song, and it should have a comfortable, affable feel to it.

Sing it often. Do you play it as naturally as you sing it?


The composer’s notes include a caution against too much vibrato. This is one of the best passages for illustrating his point. If you use a traditional, classical vibrato, the mood will sound artificial.

Try playing this and other passages further out in the bow than you are used to.

The second half of m. 15 particularly needs to sound like you made it up on the spot. 

It is easy for the pitch D4 (in mm. 12, 14, 16, and 18) to arrive early—guard against this tendency. 

Do not let the downbeat of mm. 14 or 18 arrive early.

Try adding a bit of diminuendo in mm. 13 and 17.

Measures 19–20

Don’t play ponticello half-heartedly, or it may just sound like your tone suffered for a moment. Really go for that metallic sound close to the bridge. 

This passage, too, can start extremely quietly to good effect.

Measures 21–28

Take care not to let this attractive melody sound stiff or like an étude. 

For example, beat 2 of mm. 21 and 23 is really just a written-out turn figure. Try to make it sound like you came up with this particular rhythm by yourself. 

Sing the rhythms, especially those found in mm. 22, 24, and 26.

If the coordination of the fingers in these bars (mm. 22, 24, and 26) gives you difficulty, separate the double-stops into two separate melodic lines first.

The ghost notes in these three measures can be played very quietly and with very little bow.

Be careful not to let the downbeat of m. 23 arrive early.

Feel the trajectory of the energy through the rest in m. 28—don’t just play beat three and stop as though the piece could end there.

Measures 29–32

Again, try playing these measures very softly but with lots of energy.

Although there are no accents marked, it can be effective to bring out the groupings of three vs. two 16th notes.

Think about how you want to segue from m. 32 into m. 33—perhaps a slight broadening, or perhaps an even bigger crescendo here. The point is for it to sound natural and convincing. 

Measures 33–36

This passage is one last consequent phrase to the melody that started in m. 21. As such, m. 37 should sound like more of an arrival than m. 28.

Play this passage a bit freer. The rhythmic and metrical changes here foreshadow the very free passage that begins at m. 54.

Measures 37–38

This short passage can be in a new tempo, as it serves to set up the new section that starts in m. 39. Do not feel like you have to race to put your bow down.

On the other hand, m. 38 must end in a tempo that sets up m. 39 perfectly, which requires practice and a willingness to experiment.

Measure 38 is an excellent candidate for slow practice. How slowly?  Slowly enough that you do not feel anything rushed or spastic about any of your motions. This and the following pizzicato passages take considerable coordination, so please do be patient with yourself if this coordination takes a while (i.e. longer than you wish it would!) to develop.

Measures 39–42

Place a premium on intonation. Every chord needs to be spot on. 

The penultimate chord in m. 42 may need the most work in this regard. It is really best if you can play the chord with fourth finger across all three strings. Supination of the hand may help, as can experimenting with the angle of the elbow.

Rhythm is extremely important in this passage as well. As with previous passages, sing the rhythm first while clapping the quarter-note beat.

Possibly the most dangerous notes, rhythmically speaking, are the left-hand pizz notes, which can tend to be a little early.

It really helps if you truly feel the missing beats. In this style, moving your body to the beat would not be inappropriate! 

Try leading into each downbeat with a slight crescendo, like in Ex. 5.

Ex. 5

Measures 43–49

As with the previous passage, carefully tune this passage. Be particularly cautious going from third to fourth position. (See Ex. 6)

Ex. 6

Rhythm is also critical here. Do not let the figures rush.

Use slow practice at first in m. 46. As you increase the speed, keep in mind that the fingers of the left hand should move crisply and with energy. This measure is truly fun to play—make sure it sounds like it!

Measures 50–53

Measure 50 should sound like a significant arrival, as this will help to define the form of the piece.

For best results with the pizzicato notes in m. 53, lift the left-hand finger immediately after plucking the string.

Measures 54–64

Do not be in a hurry to start this section. The passage should sound intimate and personal. 

Be willing to experiment considerably with the timing. For example, as an exercise, try playing each of the many fermatas with a different length. Vary these lengths at least 8–10 different ways. After an exercise like this, hopefully you will discover some timings that sound entirely natural and organic to the piece.

Experiment with dynamics, too. The tone needs to be resonant and expressive, but not so loud that it sounds public or impersonal.

Sing the passage. Ideally, you should try singing this passage with words. Make some up. It does not have to be anything brilliant to be effective. I suggest you use words like “love,” “she,” and of course “Julie-O” and words that rhyme, like “so,” “know,” and “ago.” You may be surprised how much an exercise like this can help you to play this passage more effectively.

If you do decide to improvise in m. 62, good for you, but do not go on for too long or you will break the trajectory of the line as a whole.

Measures 65–72

After the lengthy introspective passage, mm. 65–68 should change mood and character in order to help set up the ending.

Mm. 69–72 make up another fun and effective passage. The most important thing is that they be entirely in tune! This may mean
that you have to use a different fingering than the one suggested by the composer.

For the intonation of mm. 69–70, practice these thirds in double-stops, just as you did in mm. 3–7.

I recommend that mm. 69–72 actually be played to sound like they are in 6/8 and not in 3/16.

In mm. 71–72, consider how you will end the piece well—with flair! If you haven’t yet fully conveyed how fun it is to play this piece, now is your chance. I sometime delay the crescendo and add a ritard, but Summer says he prefers to accelerando to the end. 

Have fun with the last chord. Save bow on the C and G strings. Consider ending with a slight stinger.