Written by Beth Cuthbert, photo by Sheryl Smith

Sheryl Smith’s “History of Music” series was so popular that Osher will offer a reprise in fall 2014. It’s easy to understand why, since Sheryl’s enthusiasm for music, from Gregorian chant to John Cage, is infectious.

As a child, Sheryl displayed an aptitude for music. Her mother noticed that, if music was playing while Sheryl was “riding” her hobby horse, Sheryl bounced to the beat of the music. She began music lessons at age 10, and through the years has played many instruments: guitar, clarinet, viola, saxophone, recorder, and cello.  Sheryl began playing the cello about 12 years ago and believes it is the perfect instrument for her.

As an adult, music was an avocation for Sheryl. After graduating from Boston University with a Bachelor of Music Degree (in clarinet), she studied electronics and later worked for the appliance manufacturer Hamilton Beach. As you listen to Sheryl’s lectures, however, it becomes clear that music has always played a vital role in her life.

Today, in retirement, Sheryl plays in the University of Richmond Orchestra and the University of Richmond Student Chamber Music Ensembles. She is also a member of a local cello quartet, the Mellow Cello Quartet. Most quartets of string players include two violins, one viola, and one cello, not four cellos. As a result, composers have written few pieces of music expressly for four cellos. Naturally, this hasn’t stopped Sheryl. She simply writes her own arrangements. Taking music in the public domain (that is, music written before 1922), she creates arrangements to be played by four cellos. She sells these arrangements under the name Yellow Cello Music.

Sheryl follows a certain routine as she learns to play a new piece of music or refresh her performance of an “old” familiar work. First, she listens to recordings of the piece performed by cellists whose work she respects. This allows her to study the variety of ways in which different artists interpret a specific composition. Sheryl then integrates into her own performance one or more characteristics she has heard and liked, with respect to tempo, sound, and mood.

Sheryl also draws inspiration from listening to versions of a piece played on other instruments, particularly voice. By imitating the natural phrasing of a vocalist’s breathing during a song, Sheryl can “think” in phrase lines which allows her to smooth out the sound of her cello as she moves her bow across the strings.  

Sheryl’s favorite composers include J. S. Bach, for the mathematical complexity of his work, and Dmitri Shostakovich, for the emotional intensity of his music. Her favorite cellists are the Latvian Mischa Maisky and the late British artist, Jacqueline du Pre.

Sheryl seems equally happy to play and listen to music from any and all periods. When asked how a listener should approach listening to classical music, she gives a simple answer, “Think about why you enjoy the music, not why you think you should enjoy it.” A corollary to this advice is to ask yourself a question, “How does the music make you feel as opposed to how you think it should make you feel?” And, whenever possible, listen to the music “live” because doing so will enhance your enjoyment of the piece.

Sheryl’s father, an Osher member who lives in Florida, introduced Sheryl to the Osher Institute. Like many Osher participants, Sheryl enjoys a variety of interests. Aside from music, hers include gardening, creating mosaics with ceramic tiles, hula hooping, painting, and playing with her grandson. March and April are especially busy for Sheryl because she is a volunteer tax preparer who works with an IRS/AARP joint venture that prepares tax returns for people of all ages. One of her hobbies is selling items on eBay and donating the proceeds to local music organizations.