Sunday, November 28, 2010


Five Years

Five years ago I was approaching 55 - a milestone I guess; an appropriate time to do a self-assessment: "Had I done what I wanted to do with my life, so far? Had I pursued enough of my dreams? Was I satisfied with my life to this point? Did I have any regrets?" My answers were generally positive. My older children were leading successful lives with good jobs. My youngest was doing well in middle-school. I had one granddaughter (and a year later, a grandson). I'd had a good career; worked hard; saved some money. I'd been fortunate to travel extensively, even spending several years living overseas. Best of all, I retired early.

We'd arrived in Alaska 35 years ago at the crest of the pipeline boom, flat broke and hoping to "get on" with someone. After a few years working in the oil fields, I got a job at one of the local salt mines. We made a small down-payment on a 10-acre lot several miles off the highway, down a long gravel road, way outside of town. We put in a gravel driveway and brought in an ancient 14-foot travel trailer and put up a small A-frame cabin with plastic-covered windows for that first winter. Fortunately electricity arrived just a few months later; it took eight years for the phone company. Most of our paychecks for the next 20 years went to boards, nails, windows, wires, pipes, sheetrock and paint as we slowly expanded, and modified, and upgraded that first small cabin into our current house. Last month our dusty pot-holed road was finally paved - next summer we'll finally be able to ride our bikes on it, maybe even rollerblade!

By the time the downsizings started at the salt mine, I'd already read the tea-leaves and had run the numbers. I could see that the [mis]managers were going to drag the whole place under with an endless round of "right-sizings", "thinking outside the box", "doing more with less", "optimizing to strengths", and other such absurdities. I jumped at one of their employee buyout offers. We initially thought about relocating "outside" somewhere, but in the end we decided to stay right here - a good school for Z was our number one priority.

So in November 2005, I was in a good place. I couldn't complain. I'd accomplished pretty much what I'd set out to do with my life to that point. But I did have one regret - that I'd never learned to play music. I had started playing the clarinet in junior high, but I didn't stay with it. Then I bought a cheap violin in my early 30s and spent several months trying to make it sound nice. I remember thinking then how much I'd have preferred to be playing a cello instead. I didn't get very far before I mangled my left forefinger in my workshop, putting an abrupt end to my dreams of playing music.

So, at 55 with a little time on my hands, I started thinking again about my old violin; which quickly led me to think about a cello. I began to recognize and focus in on the cello parts in random music. I watched Yo-Yo Ma on TV, and started wondering about what it must be like to be able to play one. Was it too late to start? Would my forefinger be a problem? Could I stick with it? Did I have it in me? I seriously considered a viola I saw in the classifieds, but since it wasn't a cello...

Then one night I saw a clip in the news about a guy who'd just graduated from medical school at age 72. He said something that caught my attention. He said that back when he started med-school he clearly understood it was going to be a long hard road, but his kids had tried to talk him out of it - pointing out that he'd be 72 before he got his MD. But, he said, he realized that regardless of whether or not he went to med school, soon enough he was going to turn 72 anyway. So what would he rather be at 72? a doctor? or just some old guy who'd let his dreams slip away?

The next morning I drove to Anchorage and rented a cello.

So now, today, I've spent five years learning the cello. I think I'm giving it a good effort. I take lessons regularly. I practice [almost] daily. I play in a local strings orchestra. My skills are growing slowly but steadily. Pieces that frustrated the heck out of me a year or so ago aren't that hard anymore. I really enjoy learning new pieces.

Still, I wish I "felt" more musical after all this time. Most days I seem to run out of "musical energy" after a few hours. I wish I were better at sight-reading. I wish I could pick up rhythms more easily. I wish I could play faster. I wish my vibrato was better. And double-stops, and... I wish my left thumb and right shoulder didn't hurt while I play (although at my last lesson we may have finally figured out what was behind the thumb problem).

Well, that's how it goes. I've learned this much at least: The more I improve, the more I find there is to work on. Progress is slow and hard to recognize. Instead of suddenly being able to play something well that used to be impossibly hard, improvement is gradual and almost imperceptible. Although once in a while, I'll realize that "something" seems to be a lot better. But there will always be so much more that I could learn.

For many years this was the time I wrote out various musical goals for the next year. It has turned out to be more useful for looking back to see where I was and where I thought I'd be. So, here's what I've done with last year's [5th Year Goals (posted 12/2/2009)]:

Finish Suzuki Book 4 - I'm about half-way through Book 5.

Complete 2/3 of the [Percy Such] Position Etude Book - I'm about half-way through this one.

Return to the [Mooney] "Double Stops" book - Not yet, but I did return to Mooney's "Position Pieces".

Work on playing faster - Some improvement, but this is still my biggest challenge.

Improve sight-reading skills - ?

Use vibrato while playing - I have not done much on this in the past year.

Continue learning Tenor Clef - I've gotten reasonably comfortable with Tenor Clef, but it recently took a while to reacquaint myself after several weeks of not playing in it.

On my quest to complete 10,000 hours of practice: in the last year I've logged another 500 hours or so, bringing my total to about 3,500 hours. At this rate it will take at least another 13 years.

I don't think I'm going to do "goals" any more, I'm just going to keep on playing my cello. And I expect that I'll keep getting better at it, however slowly. There's so much more to learn. But I do [finally] feel like I've come quite a ways after all. I feel I am finally a cellist.

This is my 560th post on this blog. I'm thinking it will [probably] be my last. Thanks for reading.

It was inspiring to read your blog! Keep on playing!
I am so glad you followed that dream. I'll miss you if you don't post again, but if the blog has served its purpose in helping you record your evolution, then it's done what it set out to do. It sounds like you're steeped enough in the cello that it's become part of your life that won't fade. Congratulations!
Oh no! All my favorite bloggers have slowly stopped. I really enjoyed reading everyone's trials and tribulations because I often was dealing with the same issues. I will miss your insightful comments. Keep on celloing!
Loved reading your story--even though it sounds like it might have been easier to become a doctor than a cellist. :-)

I hope you will continue blogging. I appreciate the detail and the honesty in your postings.
I hope you don't stop . . . playing cello or blogging about it.
You are living an interesting life and building your dreams. Hope to keep hearing about your progress. All those little things do add up.
Best wishes and happy holidays.
I felt the same about the violin. On the other hand I stuck with clarinet. Sight reading improves with sight-reading and vibrato is nearly impossible it seems to me. I suppose I'll get it eventually. The last several months I've barely blogged, thought I'd chuck it, did give up one but am back on it! It would be a shame to see you go. You have so much to say as evinced here, and you say it so well. Reconsider. Oh, and yes Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was delightful, oh to find another book as fresh and gallant. I AM NOT erasing you from my blogger roll. Write if only occasionally.
You have been a positive influence over the years, even though we haven't agreed on everything.

I hope you start a new blog or keep writing here if only occasionally. I'm getting the sense you have nothing much more to offer, and perhaps life is logarithmic - the next five years may have less information than the previous five put together. But it's still worth letting us know how things are going.
One of the highlights I remember from your blog was your replacing of your own soundpost.
Found your blog when I learned someone found mine via a link on yours. Thanks! Just like you, my blog started off about cello, but quickly became about my life in general. Once my life calms down a bit and gets back to normal, I'm hoping to get the blog back to me and my cello.

Take care!
Well done: you started something pivotal in so many people's lives, and this blog has been a gift to me and my students. I'll get up there soon!

Much love,
Hi there, I also blog look for the web site
Now you have done so much and you are evolving as a performer (not just a cello practiser). I think you are wise to have a period whereby you don't have such high targeting goals such as your practise hours. Much can be done in small amounts really if focused and really specific in what you are trying to achieve.You've worked on some lovely pieces and I hope that the desire to play even more lovely music will be an incentive to continue. Surprising as it sounds many professional players have never performed the very pieces that inspired them to take up the instrument they have chosen to study.Other issues have taken over.It happens for some people like that. I am fortuneate and I have performed some wonderful pieces with people who also loved them. Why not get into a small chamber group 3or 4 people to start and so on. That would be fun too!It might be a drive away but worth it.Forgive me for advising but you have done so much to date.Do continue
After the whole "Chinese mother" wsj thing, I've been thinking of the good and the bad of things, including music and practising. Funnily enough, I'm also reading some stuff by American Psychologists about output failure in kids and the things that stick out from what they are saying is the difference between success and failure is
* identifying what's getting in the way
* working on it persistently and consistently
* Setting long and short term goals
* achieving them

and then moving on to the next issue.

May I hazard to say that your setting goals may be an important factor in your success?

And blogging is a way to publically announce your goals and remain accountable for them...
I love this blog. Incredibly inspiring. Sad to see you end it, but 5yrs is a great innings. My only thought is that it's a pity others will miss out on your journey as this page fades into web ether. There aren't enough books about adults learning musical instruments. Perhaps this should be one.
I'll be 52 soon, luckily haven't yet retired, been with cello for nearly 2 years. Apart from learning cello I also wanted to go back to piano when I have more time after retirement.

BTW I was search for Percy Such and I found you!
I am just 41yo and it's inspiring to read your blog. I loved to play some kind of instrument since young, but could not due to financial situation. But right now, i am thinking of learning the piano! After reading your blog, I am no longer apprehensive of the challenges ahead! Jo from Singapore
I found your blog just a few months ago, right after (in the first week of February) I had bought and touched for the first time in my life, a bowed string instrument—in my 70th year!

Congrats for getting as far as you have, starting at 55—I have a long way to go, and I'm going to go as far as I can by myself, with all the resources available on the 'net, it shouldn't be impossible.

Not enough $ for lessons; trying to live on SS and VA disability. I'm making it, but just barely.

The 'cello is a beater I got for $200, put 200 more in it at the luthier, then got and installed by myself a set of Pegheds® tuning pegs—love 'em (not a commercial, just sayin').

When someone asks me why I chose the 'cello, I pause dramatically and say... I _didn't_ choose the 'cello—it chose me! And it's true.
When asked how long I've been playing, I glance at my watch, and guestimate..."Oh, 'bout fifteen hours now." :-)

I went to LA in March for the Cello festival, and it was a wonderland of delights, I heard six 'cello concerti, all six of the Bach Suites, and a master class by Lawrence Lesser! Fantastic!!

It's only been playable for about 5 weeks now, and I can do a C scale pretty much w/o looking, can play the first of TTLS, and am working on "The Swan" right now, figuring out the fingering & bowing by myself.

Anyway, I'll be checking out some of your former posts looking for hints & stuff. Wish me luck!

Thanks & regards
Bill Turlock
I am impressed with your progress, especially with starting at a later age in life. Playing the cello does take years to master; I have a huge appreciation for what fine artists have put into their art, and I am sure we both know that you can't appreciate that fully until you have tried.
I am totally impressed with your dedication and I presume that by this time you are very accomplished and hopefully satisfied that you met the challenge. I turned 90 a few days ago and am not musically inclined despite the fact that my grandfather Fred Geib was a rather famous tubist in the early and mid nineteenth century. His genes passed me by completely. I did try to please him by suffering through 6 years of piano lessons in my teens but can only play a poor rendition of the Edelweiss Glide.
Just like the others who wrote in your blog, I would love to see you return to writing more because it was fascinating to read about your earnest desire to persevere.
I so agree.. just like me, i have just discovered him/her. How i wish i can continue to be inspired by his present experiences, as im also an adult, 42, learning the cello passionately. Im in suzuki book 2.
Keep on writing, please.
I just found your note this morning, 6 years after your last post.
Please continue.

Your journey with your cello, inspires me. A LOT.
Thank you.

Very interesting story. Thanks for the post.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Thursday, October 21, 2010


It's been a while

I'm not really sure why. It's not that I've run out of ideas, nor comments on current events. I still holler at idiotic talking heads on TV as they parrot their daily talking points. I still grumble about lame plots, stereotypical characters, trite contrivances, and stupid continuity issues (how come so few TV characters use seatbelts?) I still look up into the night sky and ponder the universe. I still play my cello.

I originally started this blog to ramble about my cello. At first I posted [100] daily entries (I had a lot to get off my mind, I guess). Then it slowed down to once every day-or-so. Then a couple times a week. Now I'm down to just a few times a month. I'm guessing at this rate that I'll eventually just abandon this altogether. Ah well. There it is.

I'm just not as comfortable putting myself out there as before. I think it's because I've lost my anonymity. People I know read this. Back when my [three] readers were likewise anonymous it was easier to be open and honest, here. After we started commenting on each others' blogs - giving up a part our our mutual anonymity - the inhibitions began to creep in. I started to censor myself, deleting things, and putting more and more subjects off limits. I still read all the cello blogs I can find, although fewer and fewer cellists are blogging anymore, and most are posting fewer and fewer entries. I wonder if blogging has run its course, and is being replaced by things like twittering and texting?

OK, about the cello: I still practice almost every day - although I skip out more often lately, and I seldom last beyond an hour or so. This is going to play havoc with my annual 10,000-hour goal assessment. For a variety of reasons - primarily scheduling problems, I've only had three lessons since April. I am currently working on a challenging piece for our next orchestra performance at the end of the month - "Windjammer", by Carl Strommen. It's one of the toughest pieces we've ever tackled, and not only because the tempo is 132. We're a large, diverse group this season and we're making good progress. I'm confident we'll play it well.

I'm still working on "Danse Rustique". I've not had much trouble mastering the shifts, and lately I am focusing on increasing the tempos. However, the last time I tried playing it with my teacher, I blew it pretty badly; and I was pretty disenchanted for a while. I haven't opened my etude book in several months. It's not that I've lost interest or anything. I don't think. It's more of a disillusionment, a vague sense of failure, feelings of inadequacy, frustration at my current level, and so on. Some days it is a lot harder to pull out my cello and sit down to practice than it used to be.

As I approach the end of my fifth year studying the cello, I've realized several things about my journey. I am not as good as I'd hoped I'd be by now. I haven't overcome my a-rhythmic issues. I am a weak sight-reader. I still need a long lead-time to learn a new piece. I'm too much of a perfectionist. I don't have enough confidence in my own abilities. I don't want to perform a piece until I can play it well. Fast tempos are really tough for me. On the flip side, I've lately become quite comfortable moving around in the upper positions - all those years of daily scales are paying off. I can quickly see alternative fingerings in new pieces that make it "easier" to play. My intonation is not bad. My bowing is improving.

In the past year or so, I've struggled a lot with cello-related "injuries" - primarily my left thumb and my right shoulder. But in recent weeks, these seem to be improving.

I'm still an optimist, I think, about all this. I still believe I'll be a good cellist, one day. But I also have fewer illusions about how good, or how soon that will happen.

I just finished reading a profound and unforgettable book: "Matterhorn - A Novel of the Viet Nam War", by Karl Marlantes. It opens with a raw second lieutenant as he takes over a marine rifle platoon heading out into the jungle just below the DMZ to take, abandon, take, abandon, take and once again abandon a hill code-named Matterhorn. They suffer from leeches, bugs, jungle rot, immersion foot, physical and mental exhaustion, every possible infestation, snipers, booby traps, and fraggings; they slog along without food, water, or ammo; and they suffer massive casualties as they try to follow one inexplicable order after another sent down from their Battalion HQ. This magnificent narrative gets the details right. It brings the reader along for the ride to witness their bravery, their fear, their suffering, their futility, their rage, their heroism, their deaths. It's been a long time since I've felt so drained and so disturbed after finishing a book. Nice work Mr. Marlantes; you have laid it all out there; presenting the Viet Nam war in a way no one else has. This should become a classic.

We are still trying to get used to not having Z around. It's been tough to let go. At least we have Skype. And we send lots of care packages. He does seem to be doing well, his mid-term grades are quite good. He's in a good school, living with his best friends. We have no doubt he'll thrive there, but I sure wish he was closer to home. He and three of his friends are driving the 500 miles home for the weekend. It sure will be good to see him in person.

Cellofamily synchronicity strikes again: I was thinking about you just this morning and wondering how you were.

Sometimes I think the more we know about the cello, the harder it is to get ourselves going.
Cello enthusiasm runs in cycles, just like everything else. Don't despair, and don't quit. That's the most important thing. Don't quit.

As for blogging, yup, the hay day is past, but so far as one group lets their blogs lapse, another group starts up.

And yes, there is an active #cellofamily on twitter. You should stop by. Us oldtimers are there: @EmilyCello, @gottagopractice, @owldaughter, @Michael_Tuchman... at least enough to have an encouraging quorum. And there's a real art to microblogging in 140 chars.
Yours was one of the first blogs I stumbled upon when I started playing cello just over a year ago. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading all your entries and though I pop in less often than I used to, you're still one of my favorite cello-related bloggers. No matter how you're feeling about your celling at the moment, consider your blogging a massive inspiration to
future cellists of America like myself!

Like GGP said above, enthusiasm waxes and wanes. It's all part of the game. Last night standing in the kitchen i asked TBF (who gave me my cello a year ago) "Would you feel disappointed if I just decided it(cello) wasn't for me?" I've been struggling a lot with bowing lately. He told "Even if that thing becomes just a something we hang on the wall (i.e. art) it will have been worthwhile." Of course this morning I was back at it and I didn't embarrass myself too much in my lesson today :-)

I do love Twitter. Sometimes I just can't get up the word count for an honest to goodness blog post, so at least with Twitter I can check in with others and update my practice status (or play traffic cop).

Hang in there. Hope to see you around for a while longer!
Five years already? I came upon your blog four years ago. There's a lot to be said for striving to be better. Obviously, you have less to say about your journey as it becomes a daily slog. It's no longer new and exciting. Still there's pieces to perform, technique to embrace, progress to report. Keep up the good work.
Hey Guanaco, "MagicBunnySlippers" here. I was just making the rounds to see who was still blogging. I've let mine lapse again, and haven't made the jump to Twitter.

I'm glad you haven't given up cello entirely. I'm still keeping up with lessons, string ensemble, and practice, though at a reduced frequency. Progress is slow but still noticeable.

I had a shoulder injury and a finger injury, not sure if either was actually related to cello, but they sure wreaked havoc with my practice. Not being able to play at all for several weeks made me realize I really do still enjoy it, so I'm struggling to keep at it without reaggravating those injuries.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!
funny how we all seem to have lost our anonymity around the same time. Is that the natural course of blogging?
I really enjoyed reading this - happened on it by accident. I'm playing the cello again after a career change and eight years with no instrument - I used to do it for a living. Having caught the blogging craze, I've gone out looking for blogs by other cellists. I hope you're still at it.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Sunday, October 10, 2010



Maybe today, 10/10/10, we'll find out if Douglas Adams was right.

Perhaps the answer will come from the child who was born at 10:10
Hello, I am a 60 yr old man and also thinking of takeing the cello an piano. When I came across your blog. It looks to me like the road is long, very long and hard. But all I have is time. What is your suggestion. At church Im just mesmorized by the sound of the cello. Please advise. Philip Ferland. e-mail is
I am a 60 yr old man retired, who would love to play the cello an piano. But it seems the road is very long. What is your advice. Phil
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Bailey and Bach

It was a blend of the old and the new. The music was all Bach - Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello - performed in one sitting by Zuill Bailey.

To keep the program under three hours, he left out all the repeats - but who noticed? The house was packed - at least 300 or so in Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall (a wonderfully intimate setting, perfect for this type of concert). I sat in the middle seat of the third row and was at eye-level with the cellist, and only 15 feet away. He came out on stage just as a final audience member was being slowly guided to her seat. Bailey adjusted his endpin a few times and sat patiently for a few moments as she navigated down the steep stairs in the semi-darkness. Realizing this was going to take longer than expected, he eased the tension with a joke (something to do with pianos and mine-shafts).

Then, when everyone was finally quiet, he dove into the First Suite's Prelude with passionate abandon, playing it much faster than I'd heard before. After a slight pause, he played the Allemande, and so on. He ended the Gigue with a flourish, then looked up and grinned as the audience roared its appreciation. For the most part, I suspect most of the audience really didn't know what to expect. Bach, of course; but beyond hearing that Prelude in a handful of TV commercials, it's likely that few if any in the audience had ever actually listened to these Suites as a set [although I and the other cellists in the group probably have at least four or five versions on our iPod playlists; one girl sitting a few seats down from me followed along in her own copy of the score].

But then, rather than just move on to the Second Suite, he relaxed and began to talk about the program and what it means to him. He recently released a recording on 2 CDs of the entire set, and has been playing them at performances across the state as part of the "Sitka Summer Music Festival's Autumn Concert Series". Bailey was recently named Director (in waiting) of this Festival, to replace its founder, Paul Rosenthal, in 2012.

Bailey explained how the Suites were organized - the Prelude and each of the dances; and he pointed out their differences. He explained that his cello, a Gofriller, was made when Bach was only 6 years old, and could have very likely been used to play the Suites (except for the Sixth) in the years after they were first introduced. He pointed out that in the years after they were composed, all the cellists knew these suites as etudes... Until Casals. Bailey commented that as a student, he himself learned them as "studies" and only heard them performed live once or twice. No one ever performed them as a full set. The first time he heard the entire set performed, it was presented by six different cellists.

Then he began the Prelude of the Second Suite, stopping after each movement to explain its nature and relation to rest. At the end of each suite, he returned to his personal narrative. As he was preparing to recording these suites for his CDs, he began to think of them in a different light. He realized these Suites symbolize the evolution of the cello itself: its growing influence in music; and how Bach brought the cello out of the closet - from its early use as a "church bass" to a full orchestral instrument in its own right.

A break followed the Fourth Suite, and then he began the Fifth Suite, explaining how Bach expected the A-string to be tuned down to G, although Bailey chose not to do so. Finally, before beginning the Sixth Suite, he explained that he also chose not to use a fifth string, contrary to what Bach apparently intended.

At the end, he returned to the stage to replay the Prelude to the First Suite, a bit slower, and more intensely; holding that last note - and the audience's collective breath - for several beats before lowering his bow, bowing his head and leaving the stage.

I've attended many concerts where the performers talk about the music, sometimes about the composer, sometimes about the historical setting, and sometimes about the nature of the music itself. This is usually low-key and brief. Bailey, however, did much more than that. Not only did he provide ample context for the Suites themselves, he also personalized them in a way few performers ever do, allowing us a rare opportunity to get to know the performer as well as hear these complex pieces in a new way. I've not commented on his technique or any technical aspects of his performance. His sound was pure; his intonation accurate; the acoustics in the hall were excellent...

I look forward to seeing much more of him in his role with the Sitka Music Festival - each year they put on a Winter Music concert in Soldotna.... I have long been a fan of Bach and of the Six Suites; what cellist isn't? This was a wonderful concert, one I'll long remember.

That sounds wonderful! I'd have loved to attend that. And you know, I'd forgotten that I listened to extracts of his Bach before it was released and had meant to buy it when it came out. Thank you for reminding me.
question: Is it kosher to use barre fingering on cello? I'm working on "Minuet" by Boccherini in Suzuki book 3. I find it works beautifully going from the E (D string) to the A(C string) and would be most helpful in an accompaniment to an anthem our choir will be doing in the winter.
This question ought to go to Emily at The Stark Raving Cello Blog. My teacher tells me to use fingerings that work (and sound) the best for me; and that other cellists might choose other fingerings...
Hi, Was anxious to hear about the concert. I was sure it was amazing. How have you been? Have not seen you around lately. Were you at the EOC concert? Hope all is well. xoxo
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Finding the tracks again

On the internet the other day, I saw a bunch of pictures of trains travelling through the streets of some eastern European city; not commuter trolley cars, but real trains. It got me to thinking about where I've been the past few months with my cello. Without the discipline of regular lessons, I've been wandering somewhat aimlessly all over the road, generally going in the right direction, but drifting off through the occasional side street and even running out of gas a couple times.

My biweekly lessons are my tracks. I need these tracks in order to ultimately get where I want to go.

With so much else going on this past month, my cello has been sadly neglected. I was lucky to find even 30 minutes a day to practice: ten to fifteen minutes for scales and the rest of the time for "Danse Rustique", (if I had an extra fifteen minutes I'd work on parts of the Verdi piece). I focused on just the first page, and was able to play it at yesterday's lesson quite well. We spent the first part of the lesson working on some of the downshifts - nothing new, but a reminder of techniques we'd talked about many times before, things I'd simply forgotten in the chaos. The rest of the lesson we devoted to playing through the second page, highlighting any tricky sections.

It looks like it will be another month before my next lesson, so I guess I'll be trying to drive on my own for a while. Of course, somewhere down the road I want to be able to deliberately steer off of these tracks once in a while and explore new directions with my cello.

One interesting note. Upon returning home after a week, the first time I picked up my cello, I was struck by how nice it sounded: rich, deep, large, whole tones. And my intonation (according to both my ears and my tuner) was quite good. Although I hesitantly played that day through my current pieces, they sounded so nice! At first I attributed it to the cello drying out - since I wasn't home to change the dampits. But my teacher suggested that more likely I was hearing myself with fresh ears and that "maybe... [I'm] actually a better player than I've been giving myself credit for."

I am seeing a doctor tomorrow to see if I can figure out what's going on with my left thumb.

On the homefront, we are all slowly adjusting to our new lives. We're not there yet, but eventually we'll get used to our new reality.

Hi, I wanted to message you directly but I'm not sure how this blog thing works or if that's possible. I'm 25 and have never played cello before in my life but I've always wanted to ever since hearing Peter and the Wolf as a kid. When I googled to see if I could find anything about the cello bits in Peter and the Wolf, your blog came up. It seems that that part of our stories is similar! I've just started reading your blog and have finally gotten up the guts to email a local cello teacher. Any advice to an enthusiastic newbie?
Thanks for writing such an engaging blog and thanks in advance for any insights you might have!
Hi Jenny! Welcome to the cello. It's been a long time since I wrote about that "Peter and the Wolf" concert...
I don't really feel qualified to offer any advice since I still feel like such a newbie myself, but here goes:
Practice EVERY day, even if for only a brief period; be patient - don't give up, even if it feels like you're not getting anywhere; progress will not really be noticeable on a day-to-day basis, but you are actually getting better each time you practice. In short, enjoy the ride!

Good luck!
I LOVE me some Danse Rustique. That's one of my "go to" pieces when I'm frustrated with new stuff or just want to rock out.

And I get the time issue. I'm a Elementary Music teacher and I have a hard time after all of my other musical endeavors finding time.

Keep working hard, rest that thumb occasionally. No hitchhiking! :)
Hi. I've been having left thumb pain as well. I've been working on keeping my 1st finger straight when in extended position and I think I'm straining my thumb in the process. Was wondering how your doctor visit went and if you arrived at a diagnosis?

Thanks. Nancy in Atlanta.
My doctor's appt. was cancelled at the last minute. I'll try again in a week and a half...
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Sunday, August 29, 2010



?? What's wrong?
We just dropped off our son at college...
gotta be a bright side...

empty nest = more room & time for cello?
Wow, big changes. Hate to see the sad face, but I guess a little ennui on dad's part is to be expected. Go get'm, Z...
I know you will miss your son. It is a huge change in life. We can relate.
A week or so later, how ya doing?

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Monday, August 16, 2010


Your Turn

Now it’s your turn. Your turn to move away from home and make your way in the world; to find your own path; to leave your mark; and try to make the world better.

You are now 18. You have finished high school and are soon leaving home for college. Taking this step so suddenly will be quite a challenge. You are responsible for yourself, now; you will have to make your own choices, abide by your own decisions. In many ways you are now officially an adult. Now you can vote. You can also be drafted. You can get married. You can sign contracts. You can work in a bakery. You can buy a car. You can take out a loan. You can get your own credit cards. (You cannot drink alcohol...) If you screw up you can also go to prison. In reality becoming an adult doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that continues for the rest of your life (according to Judge Judy, males don’t really reach adulthood until “maybe sometime in their 50s”).

My turn came at the end of August 1968 - 42 years ago - when I left home and went off to college. It was really hard leaving home, heading off to a completely new environment, alone. But I was ready, I guess.

My Dad, James, turned 18 in 1936. I don’t know when he left home. He never talked much about himself. Times were hard; he would most likely have found work nearby, living at home to help out. He did start college sometime after high school, but he couldn’t afford to stay. In 1939, he joined the Army Air Corps and was among the first groups sent overseas after the war broke out. When the war was over, he went back and finished college.

His Dad, James, your great-grandfather, turned 18 in 1905. He was living in Nebraska but eventually moved to Washington state where he met your great grandmother. He was a carpenter. And his Dad, John, your great-great grandfather, turned 18 in 1870; I think he was living in New York; he moved to Nebraska and eventually to Juneau, where he died in 1931.

John’s Dad, also named John, was your great-great-great grandfather (five generations back). He turned 18 in 1842 in Wigtown, Scotland. He left there a few years later with his new wife, bound for Australia. But they literally missed the boat and had to settle for the next one out, finding themselves in Canada in 1848; eventually settling in New York state. Before that, William, his Dad, (six generations back), turned 18 in 1812 in Wigtown, Scotland.

You should know your ancestry. I wish I knew more to pass on to you. Through time, there have been so many people involved in bringing about your existence. Contributing their DNA, or in some way contributing to the survival of the contributors. Each new birth adds a whole new universe of gene contributors to the family pool. Your ancestral gene pool is twice as large as mine - you share only half of my genes, as I only shared half of my father’s genes.

For each of us - your ancestors - there came a point in our lives where we reached adulthood. We no longer needed active guidance from our parents, we had to start living up to our own moral code, to figure out our own rules of behavior. It was time to take complete responsibility for our own actions, to be accountable first to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Time has brought you to this point in your life; and ready or not, you are leaving. Do I think you’re ready? Absolutely. You have grown up fine. I’m unimaginably proud of you. I think you’ll do very well out there. Parents want their children to do better than themselves, to get a better education, to have a better job, to earn more money; to be more “successful”. I see you accomplishing all that, and more.

It will be hard letting you go, though. From the day you were conceived your upbringing has been one of the most important things in our lives. A sacred responsibility, an obligation passed down to us from our ancestors. As you developed you gradually grew away from us, struggling to establish your own identity in the midst of all our attention. But we were OK with that. We knew to expect it. It wasn’t always easy, but we adjusted. We learned to let you go, as we knew we had to.

But this time, it is different; this is not just another step for us, this time it’s a whole staircase.

On your 15th birthday, three years ago, I wrote this for you:

15 trips around the sun

In December 1991 I had just turned 41. Our two boys were 14 and 15; both were in high school and doing great. I had recently been promoted and had seen my income more than double. My job was fun, challenging, rewarding. I enjoyed going to work. I liked and respected (most of) my coworkers and subordinates. I was usually flying off somewhere for some sort of high-profile meeting once a month. We were living the dream, and it was pretty good. Still, in just four years our home was going to become an "empty nest". We weren't necessarily looking forward to that, but that's the way we assumed it was supposed to go.

Then Y told me, somewhat cautiously, that she thought she might be pregnant.

Conventional wisdom says I was supposed to get upset, angry, rage against the idea, etc. - at least that's how Hollywood usually portrays it. Obviously, the last thing I expected at that point in my life was to be raising another child.

But... I was elated! I could not believe our fortune. Without a moment's hesitation I was coming up with possible names, wondering about the actual birth-date, etc.

I can't claim to have been a great father to A & B; after all, my parenting skills came from a twisted mother and an emotionally distant father. I had more or less come to terms with my parents' effect on me in my early 20s and I felt I knew what to guard against in myself so I wouldn't pass all that on to another generation. Still, once in a while the 'dark side' would start to come over me and begin to affect my attitude towards my kids. As often as it appeared, I fought against it and pushed it away. In spite of that, something in my psyche prevented me from getting close to my kids and being an actively loving father. I wasn't a bad father, just more distant than I wanted to be and I hadn't been able to get past that.

With age comes maturity. With maturity comes a realistic self awareness. I knew I wasn't perfect, but I also believed I could now do it better.

Immediately, I bonded with Z in the womb. I studied the sonograms and diagrams and I could locate his head, elbows, knees, and feet simply by massaging Y's stomach. I communicated this way (by massage) a lot. As soon as he started squirming around, I felt as if he were responding to my presence. As he came nearer to term, if I gently pressed on Y's stomach, Z would push back with a knee or elbow... as if we were holding hands...

Within minutes of delivery I held him in my arms, and he opened his eyes and smiled at me. He was saying hi!

Becoming the father of a newborn at 41 was a chance to do it all over again. A chance to do it right. To be close. To love my child intensely and actively. To take an active role in parenting. And I think I have done so.

Naturally Z's arrival was not the same for A and B. They were embarrassed to have a baby brother attending their school functions. They were also somewhat jealous that he was getting so much attention from us and from everybody else. They felt left out. Yet in many ways, my newly unleashed parenting "skill" spilled over into my relationships with them as well. I couldn't fix the past 15 years of benevolent distance, but I sure could try to be better. I hoped it wasn't too late to start showing them the same sort of love and affection that I'd always felt but couldn't express. I like to think that I was able to improve things with them. It wasn't easy. It was probably quite a bit harder for them, I'd guess, because they didn't know how to deal with my new-found openness and attention.

But I was able to do it right with Z, from the start. It may have helped a lot that he was a happy fun-loving kid, open to everything that life would offer. I cherished every moment with him. I found myself jealously limiting how much my work interfered with my time with my son. Travel became a burden. I never failed to call home at bedtime just to reread him one of his storybooks over the phone (from memory). It wasn't long before I started sending subordinates on business trips that I used to so eagerly take myself.

I remember every stage of his growth and development. We both were so much more relaxed this time... we'd experienced all the normal parental anxieties twice already, and we knew for a fact that indeed each stage of development would come in its own time and that us getting worked up about it was not going to help. Instead, I fully appreciated each of the struggles and challenges he had to undergo - learning to sit up, to crawl, to stand (that was so cool!), to walk, to talk, to ride a bike, and so on. I celebrated with him, each achievement. But I was also careful to fully embrace the times before each of these changes, because they were so brief and would never come back. Each stage of growth was another stage of independence and, because we'd so recently experienced it with A & B, another sign that our time together would come to an end all-too-soon.

Time has gone by so rapidly. I still see his innocent happy smile ever time I look at him. We enjoy a good, comfortable relationship. I trust him. I respect him. I ache for him. I worry about him. I am so proud of him. I want only the best for him. I love him unconditionally.

In some cultures the 15th birthday of a son or daughter is a "coming of age" and is celebrated in a grand way, attended by the extended family - some traveling great distances to attend - friends, parents of friends, friends of parents, coworkers, neighbors, etc. The celebrant is feted with lavish gifts, a catered feast, live music, dancing, and toasts. These parties rival the more elaborate wedding receptions we celebrate in our culture.

We celebrated the completion of Z's 15th journey around the sun today by eating "lunch" together at Coldstone Creamery, by going to see "Stardust" together, by having his favorite dinner together, by spending the evening together. Not as flashy as others may do it, but it worked for us.

Incidentally, Y and I also celebrated our 36th anniversary today. We still consider Z's arrival 15 years ago to be our best anniversary present.

So now what?

* About the cake. Once again, inspired by "Ace of Cakes" and "Cake Boss" I attempted another one. This measures about 26 inches long and about 9 inches wide. I baked two 9" x 13" cherry cakes. I drew a template, using a pantograph with a photo of one of Z's guitars - clumsily - I ended up free-handing most of it. When the cakes were cool. I pinned the template to the top and cut out the pattern. Then I "dirty-iced" the assembled cake with whipped frosting. To cover it, I found an interesting recipe for fondant using marshmallows and powdered sugar. This was quite an ordeal. I had to use a lot more shortening in order to keep it from sticking to the counter as I rolled it out. Also, coloring fondant is not as easy as it sounds, and by the time I got to this brownish pink I gave up. I used thin spaghetti for the strings, and marzipan for the tuning knobs. Covering a cake with fondant is hard work and mistakes are hard to conceal, but I'm pretty pleased with how it came out.

Truly amazing. You, Z, the cake, and everything!
You really put a great deal of thought into this intergenerational letter. I've always wanted to write something like this.
Fantastic. I wish my folks were as able to articulate emotional stuff as you are. Z will never have to guess how much he is loved, and when he ventures into the lower 48, you can bet the CelloFamily will be there to support him!

Now I'm going to go bake something. :)
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Friday, July 30, 2010


Finally, a lesson!

Since my last lesson at the end of April, I’d focused on learning the last two parts of the Vivaldi Sonata in Book 5, and I was hoping I could play them at Monday’s lesson without messing up. Although that didn’t happen I was pretty satisfied with how well it went. First though, we talked about my ongoing left thumb pain and possible causes. My teacher suggested a few changes to my left hand and thumb posture, including raising my left elbow more when playing on the C and G strings and altering my first finger extensions. These already seem to be helping.

After a half hour or so on those two sections we turned to the next piece in Book 5, “Danse Rustique” by William Henry Squire. It’s a fast light piece; the rhythms aren’t too complicated, but there are several shifts up to A and Bb. I’m sure glad I’ve been working on my Bb scales this past year. I began working on the opening section - pizzicato at 80 bpm (per eighth) - playing it over and over, steadily increasing the metronome step by step up to 120.

I’ve been surprised all week at how quickly I’m picking this up. Then I slowed the metronome back to 80 and started over again using the bow. At the same time I moved to the next segment (which opens with several interesting measures played with a D-string drone). After four sessions, I’m already bowing the first 28 measures at 92 bpm.

Have I mentioned before how much I enjoy learning a new piece from scratch? How each phrase comes together, and how it then fits in with the one before it and the next one? I appreciate how important this first step is - if I take it slowly and carefully, spending lots of extra time on those tricky parts now, here at the beginning, I’m sure that I’ll have a whole lot less trouble with them later on.

Every once in a while I get an anonymous comment, most likely from fellow cellists who happen to stumble across this blog, referencing my attempt to record my cello journey here. I forget sometimes why I started writing this in the first place. I do remember being overwhelmed at how hard it sometimes felt, how slowly I thought I was progressing, always doubting my ability to stick with it long enough to ever really “get” it. But today, more than four and a half years later, as I was playing through the first section of the Squire piece, I realized how far I really have come. Not that I actually see a light at the end of the tunnel, but maybe I’m sensing a dim glow up ahead there, somewhere.

well done! Keep it up. I must say I've not touched the cello in months and months, spending too much time on Chinese, blogging and supervising my children's practising! I have half a hope that when my daughter starts with her new Suzuki teacher I can secretly try and keep up with her with my own practising!
Squire should wrote some fun stuff. 28 bars, hmmm.... I hummed it to myself and counted it out. Oh yes, I remember that sticking point. A tough spot, but I'm sure it will yield to your persistence soon.
Hello Guanaco,

This is my first greeting at your blog.

I started getting cello lessons 6 years ago in my late 40's.

I sometimes visit here and read articles with deep interest. Actually, you always are ahead of me.
In my case, "Since my last lesson at the end of June, I’d focused on learning the last two parts of the Vivaldi Sonata in Book 5, and I was hoping I could play them at September’s lesson without messing up." (^^)

Your practice method, use metronome and first play by 'pizz' then with bow, is very good hint to me. Steady speed is always problem. Thank you for sharing this.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Where did summer go?

I took advantage of a recent three-day break in the rains to paint about half of my house - the hardest half. I don’t like heights, and the higher those 2x12 planks are on the scaffolding, the narrower they seem to get. By the time I’ve climbed to the top rung of the third scaffold level, it felt like I was standing on a tightrope. Then, to paint under the top of the eaves, I had to tape the brush to a pole and blindly reach up over my head as far as I could. Although it only took a few minutes to get that area painted, it felt like hours. Whew, the worst is over.

The next day it started raining again. I’m going to need another three days to finish the house and at least a week (or so) to dry out and paint the deck. I’m not so sure we’ll get that this summer. Too bad I can’t send some of our rain and 50-degree days to the east coast in exchange for just a few 70-degree days.

So how come after a judge sentences someone to 90-days in jail, the jail gets to decide to let her out after only 14 [oops, now it’s down to 12] days? Makes you wonder who’s actually in charge, doesn’t it? For that matter, how come when judges sentence someone to [say] 120 days in jail with 110 days suspended and after that person is released and is arrested again for the same crime, he doesn’t have to go back and complete those suspended days before serving a full second sentence? In my area, the judges never reimpose that earlier suspended sentence and then they go ahead and suspend 90% of the second sentence as well. What a system! I guess that’s why we need so many lawyers.

While I’m on a roll, how come when TV cops approach a suspect to arrest him/her they always announce themselves far too soon, leaving the guy plenty of room to run? Why don’t they wait until they’re close enough to grab him?

I’ve worked through the rest of the Verdi piece in Book 5, and now I’m working on tempos. My teacher cancelled today’s lesson - it would have been the first in almost three months. It’s been hard to keep at it every day without the motivation of a pending lesson, but I’ve managed, more-or-less, to keep on track. I’ve kept my focus by stepping back occasionally to rework the trouble spots, and then returning to my tempo work. I have slacked off a bit with my etudes, but I have been working on several new orchestra pieces that we picked up a few weeks ago.

Z leaves for college in just over a month... sigh.

You REALLY don't want the East coast weather, you really don't. I guess the only good thing is that we have tomatoes in mid July this year, but only with irrigation to prevent wilting!

I learned that Vivaldi piece on my 4/4 cello and struggled so with it. I went back to it last week with my 7/8 and found that is much more fun when I can reach the notes. Sorry you have missed that lesson you had been working towards. I really need lessons to keep me from repeating mistakes. Hope you can reschedule it soon!
Your journey as a cellist is inspiring! Thank you for sharing your progress.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Saturday, June 26, 2010



Last night the Central Peninsula Community Orchestra was invited to share the bill with the Young People's Symphony Orchestra. The YPSO, based in Berkeley, California, includes 105 musicians aged 13 to 22. I counted 16 cellists! Their presentation of two pieces by Dvorak and part of the Firebird Suite by Stravinsky was remarkable in its quality and professionalism. I sure am glad they included our community in their three-concert tour of Alaska. And it was free!  Too bad more people didn't know about it; our local paper doesn't seem to care much about this sort of thing - they're too busy writing the about which tourist caught the biggest salmon on the river this week to pay attention to something like this.

For our fifteen minutes of fame, we played four pieces including a Mozart medley and one of the Brandenburg concertos. We've come a long way in the last year. I missed a few notes here and there, but all-in-all I was really pleased with my part of the concert. 

Comments: Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Bach for bears

Check out Armen Ksajikian playing his cello for a bunch of brown bears! Armen is a frequent visitor to Alaska, frequently playing with the Sitka Summer Music Festival [too bad Sitka is so far away]. We've been fortunate that he has also come to Soldotna several times, most recently last fall.

Many years ago Sitka resident Les Kinnear converted a giant former pulp mill clarifier (essentially a 3/4 acre open-top water tank) into a unique habitat for rescued bears, called the "Fortress of the Bear" sanctuary. During this year's festival, Armen hauled his cello out onto the viewing platform and presented a concert for the bears. The photos and story immediately hit the wires. For more details, go here.

Who else but Armen would think to entertain the bears?

I think it's because Armen IS a bear. :)

PS: word verification is spershe. I think that's what I say when I sneeze.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Saturday, June 12, 2010


It's cold

Nearly halfway through June and we've not seen one day above 60F since that brief period in mid-May when the temps actually broke 70F for a few days. Our ten-day forecast promises more clouds, showers, and more highs in the 50s. Right through the solstice! This is global warming?

I'm supposed to paint the house this summer. The first step is to power-wash several years of road dust and residual volcanic ash off of the siding and the deck. My 1996 power-washer still works great, but the rotary "super" nozzle tip is broken, and no parts are available. So I looked for a new wand. Unfortunately, sometime over the past 14 years all of the manufacturers changed the way they attach power-washer wands, so nothing fits my old system. I finally located a replacement nozzle on the internet - for $90(!!) plus at least $30 shipping to Alaska. I could buy a completely new power-washer for $175! Here's to planned obsolescence! I guess I'll first try power-washing everything with the original low-power nozzle.

I did get the scaffolding put up and I've calculated all the square-footage for siding, trim and deck paints. I guess I'll start washing this week, rain or shine.

Without the motivation of lessons since the end of April, I've slacked off a bit on practicing, skipping a day or so each week, and I usually quit after an hour to an hour and a half. But I am making progress. A few weeks ago, I began working on the last part of the Vivaldi piece (the second Allegro) in Suzuki 5 and I'm already making those higher position shifts fairly well - at slow tempos. My daily scales work seems to be helping me reach those higher positions on each string with reasonable accuracy. I'm also still working on speeding up the first two sections.

Meanwhile, I'm also plugging away at four or five etudes in my Percy Such book. After weeks and weeks of no apparent progress, I finally "broke through" on a couple of them this week. Weird how that works.

Our orchestra is playing a concert at the end of the month in conjunction with the "California Young People's Symphony Orchestra". We've worked pretty hard all year on the four pieces, and we sound pretty good.

And we couldn't get below 100! Finally cooler here the last couple of days.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Monday, May 31, 2010


Read Emily's Post

My Dad flew aboard Army Air Corps bombers in the Pacific for three and a half years during WWII. He never told us about any of it. He wouldn't talk about his scars or his medals. After he died in 1989, we found a few mementos among his effects and were able to learn about some of his experiences. On one occasion, his plane was shot up by enemy fighters and crash-landed after limping back to base - he was thrown from the plane and severely injured his jaw, eventually losing all of his teeth. On a later mission, he was wounded in the shoulder by anti-aircraft fire. Each time, his wounds were treated and he returned to active duty. Malaria haunted him for decades.

I really appreciated the recent HBO series, The Pacific, for its portrayal of certain aspects of that terrible time.

Three uncles and two aunts also served in that war - one survived the attack on Pearl Harbor - and to my grandparents' great relief, they all came home. My older brother served in Europe during the Cold War, and my younger brother in Viet Nam. My wife's father, who I came to love and respect as much as my own, was lucky to survive after his ship was torpedoed and sank during the Korean war. Two of my wife's brothers also served during Viet Nam.

I narrate this to show how close my family came to losing someone during all those wars. It's easy to write about it from my perspective - I never served, I never had to experience that gut-wrenching fear and dread...

I wrote out a rough draft of a thought-piece about all that and what today means to me... After dinner, I detoured to my Google Reader before coming back here to start polishing. I came across this wonderful post by Emily that says everything I'd hoped to say and more. So, I deleted the rest of my version in exchange for this link to hers: The Stark Raving Cello Blog - Memorial Day.

Thank you, Emily! I couldn't have said it better.

What a huge compliment. Thank you so much.

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Thursday, May 20, 2010



Last night Z graduated from High School! I expected it to be hard, but wow, what an emotional moment...

Seven years ago, after escaping my old 9-5 salt-mine routine, I was able to become fully and actively involved in being a full-time father to Z as he entered the sixth grade. For some reason, I have always found it difficult to write here about my relationship with Z. I can't begin to explain how fulfilling this was for me - and, I'm pretty sure, for him. He's turned out to be a neat kid young man, and we're so proud of him - I have no doubt that he'll do well and be happy in his life. But, I still can't see how I'm going to let him go off to college in the fall (sob).

Congratulations, G! Parenting is a mystery to me but I have great respect for those who commit to the journey. Sounds like you did a good job of it.
I've enjoyed your posts for some time, as an adult learner of the mandolin, but just recently, the RSS feed has disappeared. This makes it much more difficult to keep up with your writing. Would it be possible to restore the feed (either RSS or Atom)?

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Thumb play

I've started using my thumb again. After spending the last few months relearning how to play without using my left thumb at all, my teacher told me at my last lesson that it was time to start letting it "touch" against the neck once more. But I had to make sure that I kept it loose and not go back to squeezing it again; and to remember to let the hanging weight of my arm pull my fingers down onto the strings to stop the notes. Also, it is important not to forget how I've been holding my cello without my thumb (more pressure with the knees, etc.)

I realized that I had to come up with some sort of mental reminder to constantly assess what my thumb is doing - for example, each time I change strings or shift positions, mentally check to make sure that my thumb is loose and not pressing against the neck. [Another thing to learn to do while not thinking about doing it...]

The first thing I noticed was that I was able to play those sixteenth notes in the second part of the Vivaldi piece faster, cleaner and more accurately. (Although it was really hard not to let myself start squeezing again.)

Since that was my last lesson until July, my teacher left me with several new assignments. First, the next part of the Vivaldi piece - another Largo, in tenor clef and 12/8 time. Then, two more etudes in Percy Such targeting upper positions on the G and D strings. Also a piece by Rudolf Matz, Andante and Rondo for cello and piano - this one has some parts that go up into fifth position. Finally Suite Francais by Paul Bazelaire. I'm starting with the second part, "Chanson d'Alsace" - also in tenor clef.

It's so cool to be working on so many new things at once. Of course, I am trying to follow my regular study plan: [first clapping all the rhythms with the metronome and figuring out string crossings and shifts; then identifying all the other tricky parts. Next, after familiarizing myself with all this, I'll start playing pizzicato, slowly, measure-by-measure, until it begins to make sense. Finally, when my fingers "know" the piece, I'll take up my bow and go back and slowly work through each measure using both hands.]
(Writing this out each time helps remind me what doing.)

After trying out a set of Passione A & D strings for a few months, I got frustrated with a certain hollowness in the sound and ordered some Larsens from Cellos2Go. The improvement was welcome.

I'm excited for you!
The thumb has been one of my problems too, and for a long long time. But if I understand your blog correctly, you are making improvements very fast! Good luck with your Vivaldi, which piece is it? And enjoy your new strings, it's always heavenly to have new strings, I think. Have you ever tried gut strings, by the way?

Best wishes from a cellist from the Netherlands :-) xMM

My cello page in (my version of) English can be found here:
I was interested in your reaction to the Passione A and D strings. I've had mine on for several months, too; they remind me a lot of Jargars and they have the nice characteristic of staying in tune through a lot of playing. Like you, I love the special sound of the Larson A and D and will probably go back to them at some point. I do like the Passione's for Bach Suite playing. I have Belcanto Soloists on the G and C: what lower strings are you playing with right now?

I'll be interested to hear how you like your new pieces, the Rudolf Matz, "Andante and Rondo" for cello and piano and the Suite Francais by Paul Bazelaire. I have a recording of the Suite Francais, I love the music, and would like to learn it. The Matz piece I don't know, but I like the Matz etudes and duos that I have played.

I've been meaning to say this for a long time: thanks for a great cello blog. It's been helpful to me so many times.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Aligned again

As I was getting out of bed the other morning I rolled onto my left hand and heard / felt a sharp "crack" at the base of my thumb. All the pain I'd been feeling in my thumb for the last few months was gone, just like that! It hasn't come back.

I'm guessing that there must have been some triggering event earlier this year that caused the misalignment - probably aggravated by all those years of the cello death grip. It took a few days of Ibuleve (thanks E for the tip!), applied generously to my thumb, to relieve the inflammation enough for the spontaneous realignment to occur.

Maybe I should have gone to a chiropractor.

I will continue playing thumblessly until I've completely broken the habit.

As an adult beginner, I enjoy your blog. I have problems with my joints but I figure that I am just arthritic and clumsy. LOL.
Ouch, super ouch...but at least the pain is gone.
Dear god...
You play thumblessly? How long have you been at it?

I must commend you because playing without the use of your thumb is quite an acheivement but the damage it can leave is permanent.

My suggestion is that you play with your thumb on your neck. It's not supposed to hurt you to play to the point where you have to seek medical attention.

Stylistically, i suppose i can see where this might help you but it's not all that great for your vibrato.

I've been playing for five years and i know that you cannot acheive a warm, round, vibrato, by not using your thumb. Without your thumb more pressure goes to your fingers and you have to work more with your joints.

Use your thumb and clasp your finger on the string gently enough to put the string to the fingerboard. Make a full bow and roll your wrist forward and backward on the tip of your finger. This will help to strengthen your vibrato and overtime your fingers overall.

Whatever you do, use your thumb and keep it on the neck.

With the exception of the thumb position as you work your way into the upper register (if you are not there yet)

In the meantime, nurse your thumb back to health.

Plus, it might be a good idea to ask your teacher if your bridge is too high.
To see a very high level, Grammy-winning professional demonstrate playing without left thumb touching the cello, see talk 80 at

If it's ok for him to do some, and demonstrate to the world, and even recommend it if helpful to get a clean sound, then I think Guanaco is doing just fine. The thumb is useful in left hand balance but should never be used to oppose finger force.
My teacher has been encouraging me to let go of my thumb- with the goal of better intonation, and she is completely correct! Works for me in the lower positions. OTOH, I agree that you really need your thumb for vibrato. So it's not one of those hard and fast rules, but something to try, and use when appropriate.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Weight and Balance

I've continued to work on playing thumblessly, and I've reached the point where I no longer have to keep reminding myself about it. In fact, I now have to remind myself to go ahead and let my thumb touch the base of the neck as part of going to 4th position - then of course to let go again. The pain on the inside base of my thumb is still there, but nowhere near as bad. I've been "treating" it with ice/heat/analgesic salves and so on. I recently acquired a certain anti-inflammatory gel from xxxxxx which has really been helpful [too bad it's not available in our great country; maybe our new health care system will rectify that...] Best of all, playing (thumbless) does not aggravate it.

At my lesson today we started out playing a few scales, which led to a discussion about appropriate hand shapes. I then pulled out two Russian pieces I've been working on for the last month or so. [My teacher found these in her files and gave them to me to work on since I'd had so much fun with Tchaikovsky's "Chanson Triste". All the text was in Russian, so we had no idea what they are called or who composed them. A challenge! I eventually contacted one of Y's coworkers, who came here from Russia many years ago. She told me one piece is just titled "Romance" (no composer was listed), and the other is called "Kantilena", by Alexander Gideki, an early 20th century Russian pianist/organist.] The melodies are not very complex and both pieces are 'andante' and mostly stick with quarter and eighth notes, but they both make extensive use of third and fourth positions on the G and D strings, which is just the right thing for me right now.

I'd only begun to learn these 'the old way' so it wasn't very difficult to go back and start over thumbless. I'm almost at the point where I can start thinking about presentation - the rhythms and tempo are fine, the intonation is good, the shifts are almost all OK. So we spent quite a bit of time discussing how to play it, where to emphasize, where to use 4th, where to play in 1st, etc.

We talked a lot about keeping the left hand fingers loose unless they're actually playing. It's OK to let them rest on the string (if appropriate), but weightlessly. The weight of my arm can then be focused only on the finger that is playing. I'd been trying to "think" this as well as the thumbless thing, but not very successfully yet. She suggested I think about vibrating (even if I don't). But more importantly, keeping the weight and balance on just that one finger makes my hand flexible and it makes it a lot easier to do extensions or change positions.

Funny how we're both dealing with the same issue, yet a very different manifestation, at the same time. I, too, am working on weight focused on only one finger at a time, but one of those fingers happens to be the thumb. On notes other than the A-D line. Same issue, just on five fingers rather than four, so expect to re-visit this issue a couple of year down the line.
Just letting the fingers rest on the string when not in use is an interesting concept to try. I know all the instructors I have had tend to stress pressing down with all fingers (I have a tendency not to do that at all on violin so it carried over to cello). I do think not having the weight on all the fingers will make shifting easier as well.

Your instructor sounds very knowledgeable. Once I get through book three of my current cello studies I hope to be able to find a good instructor where I live so that I can continue to progress.
Thanks Guanaco - you've given me hope. My left thumb problem means I will have to learn to play differently, and it's good to know that's possible!
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Tuesday, March 30, 2010



After several days of consciously NOT using my left thumb on the neck of my cello, a couple of interesting things have become apparent.

This began last Wednesday with my teacher having to remind me dozens of times during my lesson to let go of my thumb, don't push the strings down onto the keyboard, but let the weight of my arm pull my fingers into the strings [later I read a comment somewhere that my wrist should be just high enough above the plane of the fingerboard to allow my curved fingers to move freely on and off the strings].

Since this is a major issue that if not resolved could lead to permanent disabling problems, my teacher told me to just forget about making progress in my current lesson pieces for a while, and focus instead on relearning how to finger the notes. I could use my lesson pieces if I wanted for practicing the new fingering, but I should not worry about tempos, and I should just slow down if I hit any tough parts.

I started out the first day with scales, slowly. As long as I kept my attention on my thumb, it was OK, but as soon as my attention drifted to note quality, my thumb gradually "wandered" back to the neck. I fixed it and kept going, though. Then I moved onto my current etudes [slowly] and a few random pieces I've been studying lately. By the end of my third practice I was able to not have to concentrate so hard on things thumb.

Since then, it's become almost "normal" to not use my thumb! It didn't take nearly as long as I'd feared to get used to it. So now I only touch the back of the neck when I shift beyond third position, and then only lightly to properly "locate" the hand. That's not to say I haven't still found myself starting to grip again once in a while - these mostly happen when I try to master a passage way too fast and then stress about it.

Last night at orchestra, I was able to play our pieces thumbless...

What's really surprising to me is how much more accurate my extensions are. When I was thumb-locked, I would lock my thumb into place on the neck and try to roll the rest of my hand forward or backward to reach the extended note - seldom far enough. Now I still keep my hand in the appropriate place and I still extend for the note with the first (or fourth) finger, but I let my hand go with the extended finger enough to ensure the notes are accurate.

The same goes for shifts. Rather than barely releasing my thumb just enough to let it slide hard back and forth with each shift (which, of course, led to crappy shifts), I'm focusing more on where the fingers should be going and just going there. I still haven't played anything very fast, and I am slowing it down for the trouble spots, but my thumb isn't sore after practicing, so I must be doing something right.

The other thing that's different is how the notes "feel" as I play them, pulling down into the strings instead of pushing down onto them. They seem to sound rich and pure.

This is kind of exciting. I feel like I've learned a new skill.

That is exciting, indeed. Go, you!

This is one thing I took away from my recent Emily lessons: Just Do The Thing. We can amaze ourselves with the speed of progress once we give up our need to focus on the piece and instead focus on The Thing.

If only I could remember that consistently!
Another advantage about thumblessness --- Go back to the Breval Sonata and try those trills with a relaxed, completely non-pressing thumb thumb; relaxed all the way down to the base (which extands almost down to the wrist). I'll bet you'll find trills easier.
Funny you should mention it, Terry - I actually picked up the Breval this weekend, but quickly realized I'll have to do a lot of refreshing before I can tackle those trills.
This is so very confusing. I keep reading things that say you should never play without the thumb, and now I read this and it appears there's no detriment to playing without.

I have to relearn my fingering. I started playing with my fingertips, but my instructor said that was wrong and insisted I play with fingerprints. Now I'm told that's wrong and I should be playing with fingertips. It would be so much easier if everybody would just make up their mind and stick with it.

Still, thank you for posting this. I think I will try to remember to try it and see if I am more relaxed and how my sound quality is.
Before the internet we had only on our teachers and lesson books to rely on for technical advice. With the internet we're seeing lots of conflicting advice about almost everything related to cello playing and technique. For example, my teacher advises using rosin sparingly, while David Finckle, in his "Cello Talks" promotes extensive rosin use...

The main reason I am having to learn to play 'thumbless' is because I acquired the damaging habit of gripping the neck with my thumb so tightly. My teacher had told me many times over the past several years to "relax my thumb", but until the recent advent of significant pains in my thumb I simply hadn't taken it that seriously. I probably wouldn't be having to learn this thumbless approach if I'd been able to just relax it more.

One thing I've noticed from watching various performing cellists, is that there is no standardized style or technique - that goes for posture, bow hold, fingering, vibrato, and so on. Each performer has developed his/her particular techniques after years and years of practice. But for us novices, we can't really know what works best for us individually, we just have to trust our teachers' recommendations.
Since there's already so much disagreement on the Internet, please indulge me while I add a little more. I find, when you look at the basics, there's actually a lot of agreement and similarity between cellists, considering there's so many thousands of cellists, separated by countries and traditions and "schools" of thought and musical styles. Somehow, you can sense right away from how one moves, when someone is at home behind a cello.
I should have been more specific. I was thinking mostly about postures when I wrote this last comment. Compare, for example the way Yo-Yo leans so far back in his chair and the way he holds the cello compared to someone like, say Armen Ksajakian, who seems to wrap his whole body around his cello. Or Alisa Weilerstein, who holds the cello more vertical, with the scroll high above and in front of her head. Some cellists use bent endpins, etc., etc.

You are absolutely right, Terry, that there are certain basic techniques that all cellists need to attain in order to make these oddly shaped wooden boxes sound any good at all. As we all struggle to advance from our initial clumsy scratchings (who doesn't remember their first sounds?) to master those basics, we each have to find our own path - what works best for us.

I recall a posting by one of us cellobloggers several years ago about how learning the cello was a process of two-steps forward, and one-step backward. As soon as you think you've learned a technique, you are then told it is all wrong and shown how to do it properly. But until you've first learned it the wrong way, you cannot possibly be ready to learn how to do it right.
that was me that posted about two steps forward, then one back. And I wholeheartedly agree with your next-to-last last sentence. This process has been a continual one of learning and revising and refining. I'm glad to hear that your left thumb pain is going away. I've been trying to get rid of right thumb pain. I ended up redoing my bow grip yet again, but this time it seems like I might have found a good bow hold that works for me without pain. It was really painful practicing through the months it took to fix, but the reward is a much better sound, better control, and a much happier thumb!
Hi Guanaco! I´m sure you´ll be very surprised when I tell you where I live.. I´m a 37 year old Venezuelan girl who finally, after many, many years, took the decision of learning how to play this magical instrument that caresses my soul every time I listen to it..I dream every day whith playing my cello. I allready have a teacher, and I´m looking forward to buying my own this month!! I found your bloggsite in the internet today, and it´s very inspiring. Thank you very, very much for those articles about adult beginners!! I promise I´ll keep in touch and inform you about my cello baby steps!!!
Oh, okay. Well I guess I'll leave in the thumb play. I don't have problems with my thumb. I have problems with my pinkie so I stopped pressing hard, but my instructor said I needed to press harder. I started pressing harder, and my pinkie started hurting again, so I stopped pressing harder. Not sure what to do other than not press too hard.

I only find myself gripping with my thumb when all of my other fingers are tense. It's like my entire hand tenses up and I have a really strong hold on the cello, and that's when I notice my thumb is holding on for dear life.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Playing Thumbless

After yesterday's thumb problems, I skipped my weekly Cellocracy practice last night and didn't practice this morning before today's lesson.

We spent today's lesson focused on my left thumb. For the next two weeks I'm not supposed to use my thumb at all [except when needed to move my hand to certain positions - and then immediately let it go]. While my thumb is dangling free, I'm supposed to consciously wiggle it slightly while playing. I'm supposed to think of letting the weight of my hanging arm pull my intonating finger into the string; instead of pushing the finger down onto the string from above. I'm supposed to center the weight on the finger that's playing the note. Any other fingers [as appropriate] should only lightly rest on the string.

As it turns out, when I think about vibrating that note, I'm doing it right.

We played through a few new pieces she'd given me last time and then worked on the Vivaldi piece. I played everything slowly, and at all times, thumbless. My teacher had to remind me, frequently, to let go of the thumb. By the end of the lesson, though, it seemed to be working.

No thumb pain tonight!

I shall be following your thumbless efforts with great interest. I tend to use my thumb to generate the force necessary for good intonation and as a result it is usually sore first thing in the morning. Each evening when I start practice I remind myself to not use my thumb but almost immediately I find myself squeezing with it again.

I'll have to try the conscious wiggling while playing to see how that works. I need to do something as unlearning bad habits takes far longer than learning good ones.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Tuesday, March 23, 2010



A sudden sharp pain at the base of my thumb - in the fleshy part of the palm! This afternoon, as I was slathering it with Blue Emu I found a rigid muscle in that area that seemed to be the source of it all.

I've been dealing with a lot of generalized pain in this area over the past four months - it came on rather suddenly. I couldn't really pin it down - where, exactly it was hurting, but I'm pretty sure I know why. It seemed to come and go; some days it seemed to be a lot worse than others; some days it seemed to go away altogether.

I've been working at trying to reduce my thumb pressure against the fingerboard, and recently I'd begun to believe I'd made some progress.

Then last night at orchestra I felt a strong "twinge" for a moment; it didn't last nor did it return. However, this morning as I was playing a piece with a lot of first finger extensions, that twinge returned - but this time it was more like a jolt. I looked at my thumb's location on the back of the neck relative to the first finger and I realized I have been locking the thumb in one place on the neck while trying to extend only my forefinger backwards to the Eb. We had talked about this at several recent lessons and my teacher told me I had to let my thumb move freely when I play these extensions. Easy to say, harder to actually do, consistently.

I hate taking ibuprofin for things like this; it seems so ridiculous to ingest large quantities of something that affects the whole body just to deal with a small localized issue like this. It would be nice to be able to rub in a small amount of ibuprofin-laced cream directly on the source. Lacking anything like that I applied Blue Emu. So now, about an hour later, the cream seems to be warming things up and it feels OK... But I can't trifle with this, so I'll probably go ahead and start taking ibuprofin too.

Oh no... we have ibuprofen gel here in the UK, but I know you can't get it in Canada. Not available in Alaska either I take it?
I had one granddaughter (and a year later, a grandson). I'd had a good career; worked hard; saved some money. I'd been fortunate to travel extensively, even spending several years living overseas. Best of all, I retired early. seo services

nice post
seo services

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home