Woman outside smiles in front of autumnal trees
Community Engagement Coordinator, Creative Economy

CreativeGround highlights the people and places that contribute to New England’s thriving creative economy. Today we’re on the CreativeGround with Suzanne Smith – cellist, teacher, and director of CelloChanWoods. 

CelloChanWoods is a musical and artistic experience that, in small part, resembles a Zen retreat. It provides the opportunity for students to improve technically on the cello within a broader context of attention to a student's well-being, level of awareness, and confidence to investigate the cello. Cellists are given space, mentoring, and tools to become more centered and powerful in their playing.  To learn more about the retreat and Suzanne’s involvement in the local creative economy, check out the CelloChanWoods CreativeGround profile. But first a let’s pull some strings with Suzanne…

CG: Tell us about CelloChanWoods. What is a typical day at the retreat?

Suzanne Smith (SS): A typical day at CelloChanWoods begins early in the morning in silence at breakfast, followed by beginning meditation and a morning talk by Suzanne, setting the tone for the day. Students may feel that meditating is a bit odd for a cello retreat at first, but they understand the connection quite well at the close of CCW. Generally, the day flows from relaxation exercises to working at the instrument in different contexts throughout the day: Chamber Music Coaching, Improvisation group class, private lessons, and interviews with staff about individual needs. The day then opens into enjoying the 700-acre beautiful Vermont compound, CommonGround in Starksboro, VT. There is a private spring fed lake, hiking trails, and much more.  In the evening there are discussions, bonfires, music making and general community fun.  An animation of our typical day might resemble a flower, closed at the start of the morning and opening as the day proceeds: first silence and introspection, then work, and opening fully into sharing and fun. Each day follows this pattern.

At CCW we work toward clarification of our cellistic goals and learn more about what has been in our way as we play. To play freely and well. The connection between mind and body has to be very clean and direct. Students are given tools to bring about this connection over six days.  

Participants form friendships and receive support from many sides to help them let go of tension and other technical blocks.  This year will be CCW’s 10th year. Participants journals are available on www.CelloChanWoods.com.  

At the end of the retreat there is a celebratory performance by participants and staff that is open to the public. In summary, this is a unique musical retreat is organized in a way to leave as better players, clearer thinkers, and more joyful artists.

CG: What is a typical day for you as an artist?

Black and white photo of a woman with her cello leaning up against her.
courtesy of Suzanne Smith

SS: In the morning, I practice cello for about two-three hours. Included in that is a short meditation session. Additionally, I teach at Middlebury Community Music Center, at my studio in Burlington, VT, and have a private studio in Moretown, VT.  

There is always work on the retreat, whether that’s correspondence, website edits, phone calls, etc. My artistic development and the ongoing development CelloChanWoods are closely linked. CCW is not a Zen retreat, but reflects tools I have learned, having attended many Zen retreats, related to concentration, centeredness, and the ability to relax within movement when playing the cello. I think a lot about how we perceive things in general, and in music how to stay balanced, confident, and clearly aware.  To play from a place of deep awareness means the body can relax and follow the mind… they are in tandem, so less tension, confusion, fear, and mistakes are made. Having the space to work without too much frustration and doubt is critical to becoming good. Janos Starker said, "You need to be confident before you put your hands on the instrument." This statement implies a lot. It says to me that we need to be solidly in touch with ourselves have faith in ourselves, that we can do anything on the instrument if we stay focused. 

CG: I see how these practices inspired a retreat! What other influences contributed to CelloChanWoods?

SS: My mother was an amateur cellist; as a child, I was precocious at the cello but fearful of performing. Everyone has a unique configuration of emotional dynamics, and I did a lot of introspective reflection during my growing up. I noticed that there were music camps but nothing that could address some of the issues surrounding playing that can block talent. It’s become clearer to me that many problems people have at the cello are the result of not understanding how to practice, to powerfully focus, and claim the right to move ahead with joy, regardless of mistakes. Since we all want freedom in our playing and as artists, we need to learn how to better take care of ourselves in the context of our work - in making music. CelloChanWoods aims to give cellists ideas on how to better ground themselves during the artistic journey. The staff has been trained to be highly supportive to each student. Our participants range from beginner/Intermediate to very advance cello majors.

Under a spotlight, five cellists play in a cabin at dusk.

CG: Now that we have an idea of what you do on the clock, tell us how you’re involved in the region’s creative sector off the clock. Let’s start with what you’re reading. What is your favorite arts blog or online publication?

SS: My reading range includes a wide range of subjects. I am interested in climate issues, politics, Zen related reading, and anything that I find interesting and meaningful. I consult cello articles like Tim Finholt’s Janos Starker Master Class Report as just one example. I also like the autobiographies of great cellists such as Feuermann, Casals, and Starker.
Having met Casals and worked with Starker, I have a deep appreciation of how much they gave. 

CG: Name three New England artists, creative businesses, or cultural nonprofits we should all know about.


  • AcrossRoads Center for the Arts in Waterbury, VT.  As Vice President I am presently helping establish a quarterly concert series.  Musicians in Vermont are always looking for places in which to perform.  We’re preparing to make the Grange Hall, a space connected to the Arts Center, available for use.
  • Vermont Symphony Orchestra. A wonderful orchestra. I perform with members from the orchestra occasionally in Vermont Virtuosi. This is a group of VSO members and non-members that play chamber music in Vermont. 
  • Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. I am the principal cellist of this exciting community orchestra. It often performs new music. 

And a few more great New England creative organizations:

  • Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA.  I love this place.
  • Marlboro Music Festival in Marlboro, VT. The best musicians in the world come here to play chamber music.  I visited as a young cellist, saw Casals conduct the orchestra and give a master class many years ago.  I often tell my students stories about him.  I observed there as a young cellist. 
  • Tanglewood in Lenox, MA.  This is an exciting place in the Berkshires that I attended as a Fellowship student. The atmosphere is electric and the very best come to play and teach.  I had the opportunity to play with Andre Watts in the Braham’s piano concerto no. 2.  The cello solo is beyond beauty. 

CG: What was the last New England creative business or cultural nonprofit you visited and what did you see? 

SS: A Chamber Music Concert - Vermont Virtuosi - in April in Montpelier. I have performed with a member of this group in February and will again in April, 2019.   I also recently played in a performance of “The Four Seasons” Farm to Ballet Project, which was delightful.  

CG: Why should New England artists, creative businesses, and cultural nonprofits be listed on CreativeGround?

SS: CreativeGround has a broad outreach and gives artists, and all members of the creative industries, a chance to connect and collaborate. That opportunity is hard to find anywhere else. I think it’s wonderful. 

Thank you, Suzanne, for taking the time to help us get centered on CelloChanWoods and sharing your experience as a New England creative professional.

Stay tuned for the next installment of "On the CreativeGround with…" Until then, enjoy digging into CreativeGround!