The Cellist

Her love of the cello began at age five

By Elisabeth Kamaka

There it was, one of the largest and most intimidating stringed instruments in the music classroom, nearly as big as she was. And she would be playing it.

Others tried to discourage her from playing such a large instrument, but she would not listen.

Five-year old Sarah Lew’s small hands could barely reach the strings as she struggled to play her first note. As she brought down her bow to touch the strings of the cello, its distinct calm and solemn tone suddenly filled the entire classroom. And it was from that moment, little Sarah Lew made up her mind: she was going to be a cellist.

Lew, 19, is now a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College. She is majoring in chemistry and interested in pursuing forensic chemistry or neurological research. Life is different for the Houston, Texas native trying to adjust to the fast-paced East Coast academic life.  But rather than leave her cello to collect dust at home, Lew brought her cello to Bryn Mawr, where she performs with the Bi-Co Haverford-Bryn Mawr College Orchestra.

Although she has studied general music and choir, and plays the piano and flute, Lew considers herself a cellist. “I’ve dabbled in pretty much every string instrument but the only one I can consistently say I do well playing is the cello,” she explains. Lew usually practices in blocks of 30 minutes to an hour but doesn’t like to put pressure on herself about practicing. She says during school “when things get really bad” she has a hard time keeping up with her cello practice. “If I’m going to practice, I’m going to put everything into it and if I’m stressed out already, then I don’t want to stress myself out more.”

The Bryn Mawr Haverford College Orchestra

The Bryn Mawr Haverford College Orchestra

Lew is currently one of the personnel managers for the Bi-Co Haverford-Bryn Mawr College orchestra. Her responsibilities include managing the orchestra’s attendance book, and communicating with members who are absent. Lew says that one of the challenges of being a personnel manager is remembering everyone in an orchestra with 75 members. Although she says that she now knows most of the members in the strings section, “I made a super big mistake…and asked a random oboist about a clarinet player.” This valuable work experience allows Lew to learn the everyday workings of running an orchestra, and provides much-needed support to Heidi Jacob, the orchestra conductor. Lew plans to continue playing her cello in the future but she does not know if she will “join a professional group.” However, Lew said that she may be interested in teaching music in the future, even as a part-time job.

Lew’s parents always encouraged her and placed a priority on music in her life. One of the reasons Lew says that she stuck with the cello was Steven Wiggs, the teacher that took her as a student when she was nine years old. During the 2nd to 4th grades, Lew did not have anyone to teach her how to play the cello. She has now been taking lessons from Wiggs for 11 years and says that learning from Wiggs is like learning with a friend. Two of the greatest life lessons Lew has learned from playing the cello are focus and the importance of practice. She is able to make her “own discipline for things.”

Lew’s favorite piece to play is Prelude Bach Suite #1, one of the most famous solo compositions for the cello. Her favorite movie composer is John Williams, who has written some of the most popular film scores in cinematic history including the Star Wars series, ET the Extraterrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, Superman, and the first three Harry Potter films. When it involves music for movies, “he’s the best.”

Lew enjoys composing music during her free time  and uses the program Finale Print Music for composing. She’s been composing music for approximately six years, and started when she was asked to do live transitions for a theater show. Lew has done formal composing for the violin, cello, flute and bassoon. She is presently working on a full orchestra piece. Lew describes the music she has been composing as sounding like “movie music” with a John Williams influence.

Lew’s advice to budding musicians is to resist the urge to quit when things get difficult. If you are thinking about quitting your instrument, Lew recommends to “talk out the pros and cons of quitting.” If the reasons for quitting are that playing the instrument is “too hard,” Lew says “do not quit, because challenges help you grow.”

Lew says people can always switch instruments if they are having difficulty or have reached a plateau. One of Lew’s friends who is a violinist, sometimes switches instruments with her for fun, to change it up.

Whether you are five or 75 years of age, Lew has the same advice. “Don’t play [a musical instrument] because someone tells you to play. Play it because you like the sound and you like how you feel when you play it. Everyone has a eureka moment, I think, when you’re like ‘oh my god this is the big thing for me’ and I had that moment the first time I heard the cello and got to pick it up.”