Violoncello da Spalla | A Documentary Film

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Monday 9th March 2020

Today I am excited to share a little bit about a new documentary film project I am working on. Following the successful release of my documentary about British elite marathon runner Hayley Carruthers at the end of January, I have decided to pursue a range of new film projects on subjects I am passionate about, no matter how niche they might be.

A Summer on Track with Hayley Carruthers was my first foray into feature length documentary filmmaking after several years of almost exclusively filming weddings. During filming and post-production I worried that despite Hayley’s profile as an international marathon runner, athletics, and track running in particular, weren’t popular enough to attract a large audience. I am happy to say that the viewing figures for that film proved me wrong as the 47 minute documentary received 10,000 views in the first week, despite my YouTube channel having less than 20 followers at the point of release. While the film didn’t go viral by general YouTube standards, for me it was a great success and has given me a much needed confidence boost.

What I learnt from the release of A Summer on Track with Hayley Carruthers is that the conventional wisdom – make short films, with narration, on general interest topics – isn’t the only way to attract an audience. Smaller communities in sport and the arts are sometimes the most passionate communities, and heartfelt storytelling is a powerful way to connect.

Outside of photography and filmmaking, my other big passions are music, the arts, and the environment. 2020 is the year that I am going to dig deep and make the films I have always wanted to make, building an audience as I go. I’m nervous and excited in equal measure.

January 2021 edited to add: Oh dear, my optimism! We all know how the rest of 2020 turned out.

Paul Shelley is a violin maker based in Birmingham and, along with the violins and cellos he makes he has been spending a lot of time in recent years researching and making violoncello da spallas. Very briefly, the da spalla is a small cello played braced against the shoulder. It is tuned in the same register as a cello but has five strings including a high E. It is thought that Bach may have composed his famous cello suites with the da spalla in mind, though as with many aspects of music history this is a much debated subject.

I first heard of the da spalla when researching chin cellos and octave strings. I’m an amateur violinist and pianist but alongside my two instruments I have always loved the deeper voice of the viola and the cello. Outside of classical music I’m into punk and hardcore, so the alto and tenor voices of the string family really appeal to me. When I came across the da spalla I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about this instrument that I had never come across before. To my delight, I discovered that Paul, like me, is also based in Birmingham and has been working extensively on the da spalla for the past few years.

In February I got in touch with Paul to see if he would be keen to meet up to chat instruments and music with me, and to explore the possibility of working on a new film project together about the da spalla. Many hours of conversation and cups of tea later I realise I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, but I have really enjoyed learning more about the history of this fascinating instrument. The project is in the early stages at the moment but we are looking to tell the story of the da spalla as well as to showcase the instrument through performance.

On Friday 6th March I met up with Paul in his workshop to see the da spalla in person for the first time, as well as to film and photograph a little bit of the making process. As it was my first visit to his workshop I focused mostly on capturing stills to get an idea of lighting and camera angles for future filming. I also had a chance to play the da spalla, which was a lot of fun, although there’s much to learn and adjust to coming from twenty-five years on the violin!

I can’t wait to see the project unfold over the coming months and I will be sharing more here, on my website, as well as on Instagram. I will also be launching a page on Patreon very soon where I will share extra videos, photos, interviews and stories from behind the scenes. For more information about Paul’s work as a violin maker visit his website or his Facebook page which he updates regularly with his research findings about the da spalla, as well as the latest projects he is working on.

January 2021 edited to add: As a result of the pandemic, this project is currently on hold. I hope that Paul and I can pick up the pieces once we’re through the other side of rolling lockdowns and physical distancing restrictions, but for now filming for this documentary just isn’t possible.