Thank You, Rick Mooney: String Lessons from an Extraordinary Human

His complete commitment to his deeply held beliefs resulted in a legacy that rings though the string world

By Emily Wright | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

There exists the temptation to lionize someone who has died, this idea persisting that remembering them as a whole, complex person tarnishes their memory. Perhaps I am a biased elegist, but there is immense benefit in acknowledging the entirety of a person, especially someone known to be full throated in their authenticity, undiluted in the expression of their principles. 

Rick Mooney (1953–2023) was one of those people. He lived with complete commitment to his deeply held beliefs, resulting in a legacy that rings though the string world as music echoes in a cathedral. In place of a Rick Mooney hagiography, please accept instead something I think he would have much preferred as tribute: lessons I treasure based on the way he lived and taught. 

Do Everything Correctly, On Purpose

I grew up in the part of Southern California where Rick was based, and I studied his pupils’ technique from the middle of cello sections and occasionally got demolished by them in regional ASTA competitions. It’s hard to describe, but across all skill levels, body types, instrument quality, and repertoire, there was this unifying force evident in the players he coached. Each shift was simple and clean. They had no issues parsing tricky rhythms. While the rest of us were struggling to play the right bow directions, his students were working out what part of the bow would best create the phrase. From the fourth stand, I felt very much like someone playing checkers while the cellists ahead, his students, were playing—and winning at—chess. At the time, I ascribed it to Mooney’s choice of students, that he would only work with stellar talent. Of course, that correlation/causation was all wrong. His students became great players because of what he asked of them.


Later, I would study with Rick in preparation for the yearly competition-induced trek up Mt. San Jacinto while my first instructor, Cathy, was overseas doing fabulous Baroque things with Anner Bylsma. I started to shake as my father drove the unfamiliar route to Mooney’s studio. I was convinced Rick was only doing this as a favor to Cathy. He would surely see that my playing was insufficient to warrant his input. I would be sent home—perhaps exile would be the only option.

Instead of exile, I found respite. Without so much as a whiff of disdain, Rick patiently listened to my lackluster Haydn concerto and challenged me to justify every fingering, bow placement, phrase idea, and technique. At first, I scrambled defensively. But after only a few repetitions of the exercise, its purpose became clear: the Haydn sounded disjointed because I had no clear reasoning for anything I was doing. I was playing from a place of survival rather than competence and artistry. 

Once we started to organize the piece into musical ideas and the techniques needed to clearly express them, everything began to feel simpler and more direct. The ride home from that first lesson was a euphoric blur of mountains and palm trees. One month later, I got into the advanced orchestra at Idyllwild. I returned to the youth orchestra that fall still seventh chair, but with a distinct feeling that I had finally learned the rules of chess on the cello.


Seriously Funny

Speaking with colleagues and former students in the wake of Rick’s passing, perhaps the only thing mentioned as much as Position Pieces and his thumb-position texts was his sense of humor. His occasionally blunt manner could come across as gruff, but Rick’s wit and comedic timing were salves to soothe any incidental scrapes that came from the pointy end of his personality. Students squirming before him after a week of minimal practice were often treated to this contrast: rather than deliver a scathing takedown, Rick would often ask what had happened and encourage some soul searching. 

I remember hearing one of these conversations through a just-open door. Paraphrased roughly: “You must know that consecutive weeks like this do not bode well for your future as a cellist, if that’s something you’re still interested in.” After an extremely heavy silence, he added, “I get it, dude. I really do. Let’s see if you can recover some of your lost mojo.” By the end of the lesson, both student and teacher were laughing, and I blew my cover as a giggle escaped and echoed in loudly in the hallway. He presented me with a single raised eyebrow in silent reprimand as he closed the door to prevent further eavesdropping. Another burst of laughter came from the room, likely at my (admittedly deserving) expense. 


Might as Well Be a Mensch

When looking at the broad strokes of Rick’s life and work, the word mensch irrepressibly percolates to the surface. The underlying motivation for the whole thing—his books, the reworking of the Suzuki repertoire, online webinars, the Cello Institute, the relentless cultivation of his private students—was this idea that the cello is for everyone, that the right kind of foundation and approach could make this incredibly difficult enterprise truly accessible and available even to late starters or non-wunderkind. He was driven by a passion not just to play the cello but to share it. This approach to living costs a person time and energy. It does not simplify day-to-day life, but it’s the reason Rick’s passing will continue to reverberate. He changed the landscape of cello pedagogy, and every student he worked with had their trajectory altered by his influence.

I’ll leave you with a memory not from my own Mooney archives but one shared by his friend and colleague Kyle Champion. Years ago, Rick invited some friends up to his place in Crestline for a meal—he adored cooking and good food—offering the kids a chance to play in the snow. These memories are so vivid for Angeleno desert-dwellers, who live surrounded by mountains dusted with white but rarely get to experience the stuff up close. Kyle’s entire face smiled as he told me about his son jumping into the snow while Rick took pictures, laughing, cheeks flushed from the cold. I think it’s the perfect way to remember him: someone who was most in his element when creating possibilities for the people around him.