By Leah Hollingsworth | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Cellist Mike Block identifies as a “multi-style musician,” one who views performance, composition, and improvisation as connected aspects of his musical practice. He is the most excited about cross-cultural collaborations, especially getting to work with musicians of different backgrounds and styles. Recent such projects include his duo with tabla player Sandeep Das, his six-piece American/African fusion band featuring a balafon player from Mali, and an acoustic folk group with mandolin and upright bass. Block’s bio is impressively diverse, with performances that range from classical concerti to improvisation to jazz and bluegrass.
He is as passionate about education as he is about collaboration, and is the founder/director of two summer programs created to inspire young musicians. He has been a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble since 2005, teaches online through his Multi-style Cello School, and is on the faculty at the New England Conservatory. I enjoyed chatting with him about his instruments—a modern cello and an electric—and his setup, including a tool of his own invention: the Block Strap.
Tell me about your primary cello.
My primary cello is a new instrument made in 2014 by a really great maker from Quebec named Fabienne Gauchet. I bought it in 2015, so I’m the first owner! Its story is my story, in a way. I have a good relationship with my local dealer [in Boston], Carriage House Violins, and I just tried every cello in the shop and fell in love with this one. I often have to check my cello when I fly—it’s more practical in the nonclassical work that I do—and one got destroyed in the process. I decided after that experience to get a new instrument and also a backup cello, so that’s what led to my search that ended with my current instrument.
I also really enjoy my Yamaha SVC-200 electric cello with collapsible wings. Most of my performing outlets tend to be acoustic, even if amplified. So I do not tour with the electric, but I use it at home for compositional exploration, experiments with pedals, that sort of thing. I would love to have a band some day so I could play it more.
What first drew you to your instrument and how did you know it was the right fit?
In contrast to older Italian instruments, what I appreciated about [the Gauchet] is that it didn’t have its own strong personality that it was imposing on me. It felt very versatile, and particularly for the multi-style work that I do, this felt good to me—even vital. When I tried it, I felt like it allowed me to both soar melodically and also play crisply and rhythmically when I needed to—it responded to me better than a more stubborn older instrument might.
What is something your cello has taught you?
I don’t check my Gauchet; I tour with a Chinese cello that I can check and not worry about much. As a result, I’m constantly shifting between instruments, depending on whether I’m at home or on the road. This back and forth makes me more versatile—and whichever cello I’m playing seems to become my favorite. This practice makes me stay on my toes, and keeps me engaged in the details of the sound production.
And how did you settle on your electric instrument?
I’m a Yamaha artist, and I’ve enjoyed working with that company over many years. They hooked me up with this cello, so I did not do an extensive shopping trip of my own. I have tried all the other electric instruments, and they all have different strengths. Yahama is the ideal bang-for-your-buck option—it’s a fantastic cello at an affordable price. The Yamaha is collapsible and particularly easy to travel with, and it’s set up to use with headphones; you could practice late at night and not bother your roommates or in a hotel room and no one would know.
What gift does the electric bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
I have learned so much and been able to experiment with so much on the Yamaha by using pedals and amplification for compositional and recording purposes. What I really appreciate is how much easier certain things can become. For instance, if you’re playing with a delay pedal or an echo effect, you can create textures that you could approximate acoustically, but creating them using a pedal, you don’t have to work very hard at all. It’s an inspiring mental place to be in, because you can create really interesting textures, but you’re not working super hard so your brain can stay creative and engaged and not worried about the technical concerns.
Additionally, projection is such an important part of training, but when you eliminate the need to play with a concerto-level forte, it gives you much more endurance and flexibility musically because you’re not trying to play really loud all the time. So playing with amplification—whether with an electric or on an acoustic—can redirect all the energy that otherwise goes into just being heard into creativity.
What is your modern instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
A very polite and helpful friend.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
I haven’t thought about it. I would usually blame myself if something is not working. I guess that’s part of playing a very modern instrument—and what I love about it. It’s not very temperamental.
You designed a strap for the cello to allow the player to stand. How does it work?
About ten years ago, I first put a strap on my cello. I was inspired by my good friend Rushad Eggleston, who was teaching at my camp in Florida in the summer. He played with a strap during a faculty concert, and a lot of students showed up with straps on their cellos the following morning. I myself had resisted trying it for a few years, but then, inspired by these younger students, I gave it a try in March 2013 for a music video. It became clear that a guitar strap was not conducive to playing with the technique that I had learned while playing seated. I spent a month trying to adjust my technique—then I realized that instead of changing my technique, I should change the strap design.
That became a two-year project of revising and redesigning, and I’ve been selling it since April 2015. As I was working on it, friends kept asking, “When you figure it out, can I get one too?” That led very early on to the idea of turning it into a product that I could sell. From the initial stages, I wanted to make something that didn’t just work for me, but that would work for anyone. It attaches via buckles at three different places on the cello and has a chest cushion to help customize the inward angle. The strap comes on and off in 20 seconds and does not require any adjustment to the instrument itself. The whole idea is that anyone can feel comfortable with normal technique and normal positioning while standing.
I’ve played concertos, string quartets, bluegrass, jazz—all sorts of concerts using it and standing up. There are two obvious benefits: logistical and psychological. Logistically, I don’t need a chair or a
place for an endpin, and I’m ready to play anytime, anywhere, with any ensemble.
In ensembles where there’s improvisation and spontaneity, this is really important—I can take a step forward when it’s time to solo and then take a step back when I’m done. Psychologically, there’s the power of performing when standing in front of a roomful of people. I feel different. I’m more emotionally and physically engaged when standing. Think about it: people don’t give speeches sitting down; teachers only rarely sit down in front of a class. There’s a reason for this, and there’s just so much more power in being able to stand.
Mike Block’s Gear
Strings: I have a long relationship with D’Addario and am a D’Addario artist, so I play with their Kaplan Mediums for both instruments. I find them very affordable and versatile.
Bows: My primary bow is a Pierre-Yves Fuchs, which I found through Carriage House, and have been playing on since about 2015.
Case: I am horrible with cases. I break them all—you name it, I break it. I go through cases about every two years. I’ve learned not to be too personally attached to style and color. The Bam Slim Hightech is my latest case, and I do really swear by the Bam flight case. So whenever I am buying a new case, I look for one that fits into the Bam flight case.
Rosin: I am a man of convenience. After years of Pirastro Gold, and then years of the sticky Kolstein rosin, now I’m really enjoying the D’Addario rosin. It also comes with a nice rubber grip that protects it.
Additional Gear: When I’m touring, I’m playing amplified most of the time (like 90 percent), so I’ve got two amplification setups. If I’m playing in a group, I use a combination of a DPA clip-on microphone and Realist piezo pickup, which helps provide clarity on the low end, and I can use the pickup in the monitor to avoid feedback. Then the clip-on is the primary source for the sound. If I’m playing solo or a duo with another string player, I really love the Ear Trumpet Labs Delphina mic, which adds in lower frequencies that work nicely for cello.