The Teacher’s Teacher: An Ode to the Person Who Taught Me Cello from the Ground Up

Madeline Foley had been a student of Casals, and she happened to live just two blocks from my house

By Sarah Freiberg | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

I have been teaching cello lessons since I was in college, which is now many decades ago. The longer I teach, the more I realize how much of my teaching style is indebted to that of the teacher I was fortunate to have when I was a teenager—though I hope I am a little less scary. Madeline Foley had been a student of Casals, and she happened to live just two blocks from my house. I had no idea when I started lessons with her—which lasted three hours every Friday afternoon—how extraordinarily lucky I was to have this resource pretty much in my backyard.

As soon as string instruction was offered in fourth grade, I had signed up to play the cello—and I was the only cellist in a sea of little violinists. Two years earlier, when working on penmanship, I confessed to dreaming about “praktising the chalow” when I grew up. I guess I followed my dream, though my spelling has improved somewhat. By fifth grade, the young violinists had gone on to other pursuits, and the school music teacher suggested I study cello privately. Unfortunately, my first cello teacher was a natural cellist who was unable to explain/show the fundamentals of relaxed cello playing to me. The result was that it hurt when I played.

I was in seventh grade when Madeline (Miss Foley to me) took me under her wing. I was amazed that she was willing to start me from scratch—and I believe she was amazed that I was willing to do so. And I mean, from scratch. She had a gravelly smoker’s voice, and I will never forget the first lesson, when she dropped a pencil on the floor and demanded that I pick it up—and then added “don’t move.” I was unnerved, to say the least. It turned out that when you scoop up a pencil, your relaxed hand is pretty much mimicking a perfect bow hold. And I use this trick on my students all the time as a reminder of how relaxed and balanced your right hand can be when playing.


I am so grateful to her for respecting my ideas and nurturing my musical independence.

My cello redo was a bit extreme—Miss Foley wouldn’t let me play cello elsewhere until I learned how to approach it in a relaxed manner. So, I picked up the bass at school (and all my school orchestra friends demanded that they get to play other instruments too!) and spent a semester observing all the rehearsals of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony. Meanwhile, I spent hours in front of the mirror placing my right hand on the bow while holding it with my left hand, shaking out the right hand and doing it again. Soon I graduated to taking the right hand for a ride on the bow (but moving the bow with my left hand) while maintaining a loose thumb. Eventually, I was able to draw the bow in a relaxed manner without help. I have modified this for many a student and always have a mirror at the ready.

Once I had graduated to playing the cello again, Madeline had me systematically working on scales, exercises—including a nasty stretching drill to do daily—études, and ever more advanced repertoire. Her explanations were always clear, and she put technique in the service of musicality. Because she spoke to my intellect and didn’t simply show me how to play, I do best as a teacher myself with older students—beginners or not—because that is how I really (re)learned how to play. I now work with students from fifth grade on up to octogenarians. When my then four-year-old son wanted “a little cello,” I wisely found him a more appropriate teacher—though at age 12, he asked to study with me.

Madeline explained how the music worked; lessons included breaking down sonata form in the first Brahms sonata or figuring out how to add dynamics and breathing points in Bach. And she let me develop my own style. When I came back from a summer program and played some Bach for her, it was not as she would have done it. But I was able to explain why I chose to play that way—and show that I had absorbed her methods. I am so grateful to her for respecting my ideas and nurturing my musical independence, and I think it is one of the most important lessons I learned from her and try to pass on.


And then there was that strange phrase, and related exercise, that stuck with me: “beating your head against the wall.” Why would you do that? “Because it feels so good when you stop!” Madeline used this in reference to any problematic musical passage, and then we would explore a variety of unusual rhythms that would make my head hurt—so that when I went back to playing the passage as written, it would feel so much easier. Of course, my students know this phrase now as well, and we work on “funny rhythms,” which they are expected to practice at home too. I have since learned from scientific studies that effective practice includes challenging the brain all the time and not just repeating the same passage the same way many times in a row—which is why Madeline’s technique is so effective.

Early on, Miss Foley would come up behind me and grab one of my thumbs to see if it was relaxed—and my immediate reaction was to tighten my grip. I just stumbled on one of her notebooks, which was from a point when I was playing advanced repertoire, and she was still reminding me, for both hands: “Don’t pinch with the thumb!” She would have me place my right-hand pinky behind the bow and take off my thumb to relax it and convince the thumb that pressing is unnecessary. I have shown many a student this technique, and some prefer this pinky helper much of the time! Madeline talked frequently about letting one’s arm weight fall unencumbered all the way to the hand and really feeling that weight—a reminder I use all the time when teaching.


Madeline wrote me a glowing recommendation to her alma mater—saying I would probably use the same hole in the floor that her endpin made in the practice room. I ended up choosing a different college, but from then on, I have spent many hours practicing using the techniques she taught me, and I continue to use her teaching ideas every day.

I certainly would not be playing the cello today had Madeline Foley not taken a chance on me, and I am both a better student and a better teacher because of her.