The Simpler Life

Nancy Green finds a more grounded existence by combining cello and yoga

Cellist Nancy Green has performed all over the world, her recordings have gotten exceptionally positive reviews, her extroverted style is often compared to that of Jacqueline du Pré, and she had a secure job on the UA music faculty.

But a year ago, she gave up the academic life and stopped traveling around. Right now, if you want to hear her live, you can find her every Wednesday night playing for a yoga class.

This is not one of those stories about how the mighty have fallen. Green is very carefully guiding her career in exactly the direction she wants.

"I took a leap into the abyss," she says of her decision to leave the UA a year ago. "With my son graduating from high school, I've had a feeling of crossing the finish line--all these years of single parenting took a lot out of me. I wanted to live a life that was more grounded. I wanted to do more playing, but I don't want to do a lot of jetting around."

Now, that can be a problem; it's hard to make a living as a cello soloist if you hardly leave Tucson. Green's strategy is twofold.

First, she's throwing herself into making more recordings, many of them with her cousin, pianist Frederick Moyer, on his own JRI label. Green has already recorded some of the standard repertory; a critic in Fanfare magazine wrote of her version of the Brahms sonatas, "Green's playing is nothing short of rapturous, and pianist Moyer attends with such rapport that both voices are as one. This is music-making of the highest order." But there's a finite amount of cello literature by big-name composers, so she focuses more on neglected figures like Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Anton Arensky, whose complete cello music she has already recorded, and early Romantic composer Ferdinand Ries, of whom Green has become a big fan. ("It's like having more Beethoven sonatas," she says.)

Second, she is finding ways to integrate her musical talent with her longstanding interest in health, meditation and shamanistic studies. Hence her appearance at Yoga Oasis every Wednesday as part of the acoustic world music duo Padma Soundsystem, playing what the group's Web site ( calls "healing music, music that was specifically created to alleviate stress and boost the body's immune system" using "ancient Tibetan Buddhist mantras and the even older sacred tradition of Nada Yoga, the yoga of sound."

Green's musical training was quite traditional, and she has an impressive pedigree. She studied at Juilliard with Leonard Rose and Lynn Harrell, and performed in the master classes of Mstislav Rostropovich. She won several prizes and other honors, including a Rockefeller grant to study in London with Jacqueline du Pré. She remained in London for some time, though she also studied in Germany with Johannes Goritzki, whom she calls her "real guru" and credits with awakening all the musicality in her. But back in London, she says, "I felt trapped, and finally a huge health crisis catapulted me back into this country."

Once she'd recovered and gotten her bearings, she learned of an opening on the UA music faculty. She got the job in 1995, but she admits that what pulled her to Tucson wasn't so much the UA as the opportunity to attend a series of workshops here with Carlos Castaneda, who wrote extensively on his personal experience with Native American shamanism; his first and still most popular book was The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

"I was obsessed with his books," says Green. Indeed, she ducked out of her first UA faculty retreat early so she could attend a Castaneda workshop.

Today, those interests rather than a music professor's ambitions are guiding her career. Once Green was free of the UA, her first inclination was to play Bach's solo cello suites at local spas. But soon she found a method of producing "healing" music in a way that connected more securely with her spiritual beliefs.

After hiring local publicist Lewis Humphreys to spread the word on her latest classical CDs (including a reissue of her feisty recording of the Brahms Hungarian Dances), she learned that Humphreys was also a musician whose health and spiritual beliefs nicely intersected with hers. Together they formed Padma Soundsystem. Instead of performing Bach, she spends a lot of time playing room-filling drones on open strings.

"It doesn't use my cello playing the way I've been trained," she admits, "but it ties in with my other interests. We're creating sounds that benefit people as they're lying there being worked on. We're using music as a healing energy."

Says Humphreys, "Nancy had never done any improvising, so at first, she was a reluctant partner."

"At first, I was absolutely set on Bach," Green says. "Bach is so healing and harmonious." But she quickly caught on to what Humphreys had in mind, even though it forced her to abandon much of her classical mindset.

"Classical music is about tight control," Humphreys says. "But in what we're doing, we have to abandon all thought and expectation."

Yet Green hasn't permanently cleared her mind of classical-music precepts. Her recording with Moyer of the Rachmaninov sonata has just come out, and in the works is a disc with UA pianist Tannis Gibson of challenging sonatas by Hungarian composers. When asked to describe her style in the classical mode, the first name Green brings up is Janos Starker. "We both have a tight, lean sound," she says. "But I'm more on the lush, rhapsodic side musically. I like to go out on a limb."

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