A concert for cows? Unable to perform during the pandemic, a cellist in Denmark turned to an unusual audience, an experience so rewarding that he is continuing even after concert halls have reopened. “Playing for cows is a continuation of what I’ve always done in my solo career: I’m passionate about taking classical music out of the concert hall,” Jacob Shaw said.
The British musician, who is also a professor at the Marshall Academy in Barcelona, has set up a cello school in the rural countryside in Stevns, an hour south of Copenhagen, performing throughout the region. “During corona, of course, it wasn’t always possible and we decided to move on to the next best thing: playing for animals,” the 30-year-old said.
In autumn last year, he convinced a music-loving farmer to expose his beef cattle to classical music to improve their welfare.
“When he told me about it, I didn’t think it was crazy, but rather exciting. I feel the calming effect of music on my own body, so I thought it would be the same for the cows, and I was right,” Mogens Haugaard said.
The cows were first introduced to the classical repertoire through loudspeakers installed in their barn in the winter, but it quickly seemed to strike a chord with the bovine audience.
“Everyone could see from the first time that they liked it, so we continued. Now they are getting used to it and the result is that they are fantastically pleasant and healthy animals,” said the cellist, who also runs a music festival in France’s Charente department.
“They are calmer and more relaxed. They are easier to approach,” Haugaard said.
Cattle even have their preferences, even if the subtlety might escape the layman, Shaw said.
“They react differently to different pieces, we played something that was slightly catchier and a bit more modern, and a lot of them didn’t like it and left,” he said.
“I think the type of piece that is closest to their voice, their mooing, is actually similar to the sound of a cello, which is why it’s so popular with them,” he added.
While he sometimes comes to play alone, the cellist is also often accompanied by one or more musicians who have come to spend time at his institution, the Scandinavian Cello School, which opened in 2016.
Playing in the open air in front of this perhaps less discerning audience helps visiting artists relieve some of the stress of a performance, Shaw said.
“If they get a chance to play in front of the cows, I think it allows them to relax and enjoy what they are doing more,” he said.
Roberta Verna, a 22-year-old violinist, came to Stevns to “get a different perspective on things.”
Holding a Stradivarius, Verna, together with Shaw, played pieces by Reinhold Gliere and Bela Bartok for the ruminants, who were seemingly as moved by the beauty of the melody as they were by the distribution of food.
“It was a different situation than usual, but not worse. It was really interesting because they really listen, and they respect us,” the young musician said.
At the end of the fifteen-minute concert, the second of the day for the cattle, calves and cows calmly graze the pasture awaiting the next recital.
“I think it’s going to be very interesting in the next few years: Their children and their children’s children are going to grow up with classical music … the normal thing for a cow in this field is to listen to music,” Shaw said, adding that he has no plans to stop.