Plenty of pluck

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Keen to get some fresh air while playing their music, two teachers and a statistician are taking cello playing to new heights, says Stephen Manning

Keen to get some fresh air while playing their music, two teachers and a statistician are taking cello playing to new heights, says Stephen Manning

In the delicate and serene world of classical music, cellists rarely have to worry about falling down a mountain during a performance. No Rostropovich concert was ever halted by blizzards or altitude sickness. But for two teachers and a statistician who have become daredevil classical musicians, playing a concert at the top of Ben Nevis is merely the latest in a long-running series of stunts bridging the otherwise unconnected worlds of the cello and adventure sports.

Taking the concept of "teachers at the chalkface" to these unusual lengths are James Rees and Clare Wallace, along with statistician and research fellow Jeremy Dawson. For the past five years, these three have been practitioners of extreme cello - playing the instruments in curious locations rather than anything musically extreme.

Such locations have included a 12-day tour of the rooftops of all 42 Anglican cathedrals in England, and every London street on the Monopoly board game within 24 hours.

Now they are limbering up for their greatest endeavour, the Four Peaks Challenge. In the space of nine days (July 21-30), they will climb the four highest peaks in Britain and Ireland and play a concert at the summit of each. They will be accompanied by at least two helpers who will carry food, water and clothes. No roadies, though (or whatever the mountain equivalent might be called) - the trio will be carrying their cellos on their backs, in purpose-built, carbon-fibre, lightweight cases.

The goal is to raise pound;10,000 for two charities - Aspire, a charity for people with spinal injuries, and Mountain Rescue.

"The cello may be the biggest thing you can take up a mountain, certainly the biggest musical instrument," says James. "We're doing this because we love a challenge, and the previous adventures have been incredibly exhilarating. I've never had such a buzz."

James, 28, is a religious studies teacher at The King's School, an independent boarding and day school in Ely, Cambridgeshire, but his two colleagues both come from Sheffield. Clare, 48, teaches German at Sheffield High School, a girls' independent secondary, while Jeremy is a statistician and research fellow at Aston University in Birmingham. The three became friends in Sheffield through their involvement in cathedral choirs.

The peaks they plan to reach are Ben Nevis in Scotland, Britain's tallest mountain at 1,344m (4,406ft); its Welsh near-rival Snowdon, 1,085m (3,560ft); Scafell Pike, England's highest crest, in Cumbria, a mere 978m (3,209ft); and Carrantuohill, Ireland's tallest mountain, in County Kerry, at 1,038m (3,406ft).

They choose music to match the occasion, so selections are likely to include "Climb Every Mountain" (from The Sound of Music), "A Night on a Bare Mountain" by Rimsky-Korsakov and "Lift Thine Eyes" from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah. Not much music is written for three cellos, so it falls to Jeremy to score the arrangements.

Whatever perilous mountainous conditions they may face, at least they only have to give four performances this time. Clare admits that playing "Up on the Roof", The Drifters' Sixties classic, 42 times during their epic cathedral rooftops tour did get on their nerves a little.

Extreme cello first came into being in 2003. Clare wanted to raise money for her daughter's primary school whose music department had been burgled, and chewed over ideas with her two friends.

"We had all seen a TV programme on extreme ironing," says Clare, referring to the somewhat eccentric sport where canoeists, cyclists and the like carry ironing boards and do a little housework during their travails.

"We talked about it later and thought, anyone can iron. Wouldn't it be more interesting to do something in an extreme capacity that not everyone can do? One thing that we all did was play the cello, and that seemed perfect. It's big and bulky and visually distinctive."

Within a couple of months they had set up their own "extreme cello day", playing extracts from Bach cello suites in six locations not normally associated with chamber music, including the top of Mam Tor, a hill in the Peak District, and the Blue John cavern in Castleton, Derbyshire.

The follow-up was a 23-hour, 45-mile walk from Manchester Cathedral to Sheffield Cathedral, to raise money for the latter's choir. A minibus carrying their cellos met them at certain points. "The extremity was in the walking rather than the playing," says Clare. "The trek was over the Peak District and it was exhausting."

But they have little doubt about their fitness for the task ahead. All three are experienced mountain walkers, and between them they have already been to each of the four peaks to assess the dangers and "problem points", though not with large musical instruments on their backs.

They have set aside two days for each peak. So which will be the trickiest? Ben Nevis is the tallest and will be the toughest in terms of physical effort, reckons Jeremy, but Carrantuohill may prove more difficult because of its varied terrain. "There's a ridge towards the end without much of a path. We can all cope with it, but with cellos it's a bit more of an unknown," he says.

What would stop them? "My major concern is wind," says James, not referring to flutes or oboes. "If conditions are too blustery, we may have to pause. Playing in heavy rain would be tricky, but the only reason we would not do this is if the authorities issue warnings for walkers."

James has an extra geographical disadvantage for a mountaineer - living in East Anglia, there aren't any hills to practise on. "I'm using the school gym to get fit, pounding the treadmill with my cello on my back," he says. "That might look strange, but what I like about this school is that a lot of us do silly things for charity."

James also got a bit of vertical practice in before the big event when he accompanied a few of his more adventurous Year 10 pupils in the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, taking in Pen-y-ghent (691m), Whernside (728m) and Ingleborough (723m) in less than 12 hours.

The cellists' plan for 2009 is to do the Great North Run, the annual half- marathon from Newcastle Upon Tyne to South Shields, cellos on backs, and 2010 will see them performing on 20 bridges in 10 countries.

Their pupils love hearing about their exploits. "It can be a bit of a distraction in our German lessons, because they often ask me if they can have a look at our latest adventures on our website via the whiteboard," says Clare. "But children like a mad teacher, don't they?"

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