Culture Crush Music: An Interview With Cellist Jodi Burnett, Part 1

Jodi Burnett in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Rico Mandel)
Los Angeles-based cellist Jodi Burnett sits down with aspiring young cellist Maya and answers all her questions about being a working studio musician and the effort it took to get there. We get a glimpse of the more intimate aspects of a this creative and unique musician's life, from growing up in Los Angeles with parents who were also musicians, to her life now as an established and sought after professional cellist.

If you had to give your younger cello student self advice - what advice would you give her?
I would tell her to be patient. Real progress takes time. This isn’t easy, but it’s more rewarding in ways that you can’t imagine.

What inspired you to play cello?
I always knew I had a musical talent. I always loved to sing in school choirs, and when I was eight years old, I started learning how to play the guitar. When I was about twelve years old, a friend of the family that played cello the professionally gave me an introductory lesson, just for fun. Soon after that, a cello showed up to the music office at school after a student had lost interest and returned it. Since I’d told the teacher that I had played a cello once, the teacher practically begged me to get it out of her tiny office. The next day, my Dad brought it home from school for me and I became obsessed with it. It feels more like the cello chose me, but I’ve been playing it ever since.

What teachers made a difference in your life and how did he/ she do it?
I’ve been fortunate to have had so many great cello teachers and mentors, but here are the top two:

Joseph DiDullio. He took me from being an intermediate beginner up through college. He was strict and exacting, but also nurturing, like a patient grandfather to me. Until the 1960‘s, the major Hollywood studios employed their own staff orchestras, and Joe had been Principle Cellist of the 20th Century Fox Orchestra. The other day, I was working on “The Simpson’s,” and found an archival photo, recently hung on the scoring stage of Joe, playing cello next to Julie Andrews while they recorded “The Sound Of Music.” Yes, wow! But not only was he one of the most highly respected studio musicians, he was a great teacher, and he helped to launch many cello careers. Joe DiTullio taught me the value of having a solid warm up and practice routine: two scales, starting with whole notes up to fast runs, a technical etude, and then whatever performance piece and orchestral works need polishing. But beyond that, he helped me hold on to my goals and dreams. Whenever I’d be going through a rough patch. I probably would’ve quit if it hadn’t been for his help.

Peter Rejto, my cello teacher at Cal. State Northridge had the patience to put up with me being a major drama queen in my early twenties. I was an accomplished advanced student by that time, but I was totally freaked out, full of self doubt, especially about becoming a professional musician. Being emotionally untethered translated to my cello playing being erratic as well. Go figure? But Peter introduced me to interesting cello pieces that I’d never heard before that played to my strengths. He also gave me the opportunity to perform with the Northridge String Quartet which not only gave me my first taste of great chamber music, but it provided a small, much needed stipend. Along with being a patient teacher, he recommended that I exercised and ate better so that I wouldn’t always feel so hyper, exhausted, and scared. So the first time in my life, I started to love the music I was playing, and I gained confidence by performing with a good chamber ensemble. Peter allowed me the space to make my own musical decisions, but he always knew how to back me up when I stumbled. Within two years of working with him, I was able to perform solid auditions which then helped me break into my professional career.

How long have you been playing? As of 2013, its been 40 YEARS! 

How did you become a studio artist?
I had been serving as Principle Cellist with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra --the top semi-professional orchestra in L.A.-- when the conductor, Lalo Schifrin heard me play and recommended me for one of his recording sessions. After that, Lalo’s contractor started calling me for gigs and then I slowly crawled up the ranks. The studios are a word-of-mouth world and over the years, my name found its way onto the lists for a few composers, contractors, and principle cellists. My life continues to change with a phone call... or not. 

How were your parents influential in you becoming an artist? My parents were both accomplished, professional musicians. My dad was a great trumpet player and he’d take me to work with him to recording sessions as often as I could talk him into it. 

What are your favorite styles of music to listen to and what have you been listening to lately?
I love having music floating through the house all day, so I turn on those cable TV channels a lot. I love “Soundscapes”--spa music-- or as my boyfriend calls it, “Kitty Music” since I leave it on for my cats when I’m away. But there are some gorgeous pieces on Soundscapes. Lots of cello and the kind of music I love to play and hope to maybe even create a recording of my own. Also, I love classic jazz. Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Ella... I could take up several pages with artists. But overall, I love just about every kind of music as long as the performance is genuine and polished.

What pieces make your heart skip a beat or fill you with emotion?
John Williams movie scores. No contest. Seriously, I get nuts around his scores. Like my boyfriend and I were at the movies, goofing off and stuffing our faces with junk. When the preview for “Lincoln” came on the screen, the music swelled and I had ugly mascara tears rolling down my face and into my popcorn.

But it’s more complicated than that. My dad played played trumpet on some of John’s pivotal movie scores: “Jaws” and “Close Encounters.” John Williams was and still is a dear family friend and he has always been so kind to me. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with my goals to be a professional cellist without his encouragement and allowing me to run around on all of those sound stages when he was scoring movies, and I was just a young girl, just beginning to learn the cello, wishing that someday I’d get to play on the movies.

What orchestras or ensembles have been your faves to play with and why?
USC Symphony, CSUN Symphony, and YMF Debut were great experiences because they were full of excited, talented young people. Professional “grown-ups” often forget what a blast it is to perform with an orchestra, especially when it becomes their job. 

I love playing in the studios. By the time that everyone has achieved that high level of musicianship, not matter what, the playing is great. 

My favorite orchestral ensemble to perform with is The All Saints Festival Orchestra at All Saints Church in Pasadena. It’s not just a church gig. It’s transcendent.

How long would you practice on a daily basis when you were a student?
That was depending on the situation, but in my early days, maybe an hour or two per day, plus orchestra rehearsals on Saturday mornings. By the time I was trying to get into USC, or any time I’ve had an important audition, I’ll put in about 4 hours per day. In college, I would put in about 2-3 hours in my private practice sessions, but I had various rehearsals throughout the day and evenings, so the hours that I’d have a cello in my hands added up sometimes to 18 hours a day.

Do you practice a lot as a professional or do you just go in and perform?
That’s depending on the job. If I know I’m performing solos, I make sure that I’m warmed up properly, hopefully for a few days of practice sessions that usually are anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on the situation. If it’s for a chamber orchestra performance, I make sure that the more intricate passage work is under my fingers, and even if I know it’s a day of whole notes in the studios, I make sure that I’m minimally warmed up. Just 15- 20 minutes of scales and noodling can make a huge difference, especially with how much Advil I’ll need later!

What's your favorite musical instrument shop?
I love McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica. It’s totally retro and hippie cool with all kinds of eclectic instruments and great line up of performers. For all my cello and bow needs, I love Thom Metzler’s shop in Glendale, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Studio City Music (Benning Violins.) I’ve been going there since I began with the cello, and they’ve always taken good care of me and my instruments.

Did your arms hurt after practicing for a long amount of time in one sitting?
I’ve always suffered from tight shoulders. When I’ve put in crazy hours of work or practice--like hours of concerto shredding or pounding out film scores for Rambo-esque movies--I have an old wrist injury from an ice skating goof when I was a girl that flares up and swells. Between that, my aching shoulders, and some arthritis in my neck, there are days I’ve slapped on so many Ben Gay Patches that I look like a walking patchwork quilt. However if I treat myself well with stretching and regular exercise like Pilates, walking, and aerobics with light weights, I don’t hurt nearly as bad.

Have you ever hurt your fingers on the bow hand from tensing up?
Not such a problem with my bow hand other than the old wrist injury occasionally. My left hand can get pretty gnarly at times, though. I just shake it out and massage my palms well. Building “chops” with a regular warm-up a routine helps.

Check back next week for the conclusion to this in-depth interview with Jodi Burnett.


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