Monday, November 28, 2005

 

I started playing today and my fingertips hurt


Saturday, we drove the 160 miles to Anchorage where I rented a full-size cello from Petr's Violin Shop: fifty bucks a month, with the first 6 months' rent offsetting the price of a future purchase. I'd been thinking of buying a cello for some time, but with costs for a decent cello being so high and available funds being so low, I realized I ought to just rent one for a while and see what develops - if I'm not as fully engrossed with my cello as I hope I'll be, I'll return it and write it off as another fantasy attempted and set aside. It wouldn't be the first such failed musical fantasy by any means...

I first played a clarinet when I was in 8th grade, where I fortunately learned to read music. A severe case of mid-teen laziness took over and I dropped out of music after only a few years - I faked a lot of practice slips before I finally begged to stop it altogether. I wish my parents had pushed me just a little bit, but they seemed so disconnected from us; I don't believe it really mattered to them whether or I continued it or not. Anyway, after college and getting married I bought a used clarinet and tried again. I made some progress until we moved to Alaska and we quickly found ourselves living in a tiny travel trailer out in the forest with two babies and a house under construction. I didn't find much time to practice the clarinet, so I sold it for some well-needed cash.

A few years later (with the house well under way - even though it took me almost 20 years to fully finish that project) I bought a violin from a friend and spent a year or so learning the strings. Without taking lessons, I slowly picked up the basic fingering and was eventually able to produce a half-way reasonable sound from that old dawg. It didn't help that everyone kept telling me I was too old (at 33) to learn such a difficult instrument. After a year or so, I signed up for a woodshop course at the local school where I quickly managed to run my left forefinger across a table saw, slicing the fingertip to the bone - right across the nail. There's no excuse for it - making a dubious cut on an unguarded table saw, etc. It took three months for the finger to heal, but with a lot less meat on the pad and a slight chip in the end of the bone. After six months I tried the violin again, but I just couldn't use that finger - it hurt way too much. So, I sold it and put my musical ambitions on hold for the next 22 years.

I never stopped wanting to learn to play music. I fooled around a bit over the years with my kids' old electric keyboard, but it just wasn't the same. Once I thought about buying a bagpipe.

After a long Dilbert career, I retired early and found myself with time on my hands. I started tackling several different hobbies - woodworking, computer aided design (AutoCAD), and web-site design. I realized I still yearned to make music. I was interested in either the alto saxophone or the cello. Both are challenging, but with my background with the clarinet and violin, I've known that with persistence, I'd eventually squeak out a reasonable imitiation of music on either one. While I like the freewheeling, rambling sound of the sax, the violin hooked me on strings, and I've always loved the mellow voice of the cello.

It was an ad last week for a used viola that triggered it. At first, I thought I'd buy that one, but after sleeping on it I realized that I'd quickly end up wishing I'd bought a cello instead. After an intensive search on the internet I learned several things about buying celli:

1. If you are a novice, rent one first. If you still want to buy one after six months, you can usually apply the rent to the purchase price. Of course you won't get the quality of sound you might expect from a higher quality cello, but for the first six months you'll be lucky if you can produce any decent sound at all. Then, when you do upgrade, you'll really appreciate any quality improvements. Just make sure they'll apply the back rental to any cello, not just the specific one you're renting.

2. Don't buy a cello from Ebay. You can't be sure of the quality, no matter how many good comments their "customers" post about them - ebay is no different than anywhere else: you usually get what you pay for. If you "win the auction" on a cello for $229, you'll own a cello worth $229; you can't try it out beforehand; you can't - in most cases - return it if you aren't happy with it; you can't be sure of the origin or its craftsmanship; you probably won't receive the cello in playable condition, and you'll end up having to pay your local luthier to make it workable - all the while feeling like he's laughing at you for buying a cello on ebay.

3. There are some apparently reputable online stringed instrument stores, such as < http://stringworks.com/ > and < http://cellos2go.com/ >, that appear to sell reasonably good quality celli. You will still probably end up going to your local luthier for final setup and adjustments, supplies, and repairs, so it's important to develop a good relationship with one no matter where you end up buying your cello...

There are more than a few posters on the various cello forums who started playing their celli later in life and, in spite of stiffer bones, less gray matter, not as much usuable space on the old hard drive to fully imprint all the fingerings and playing techniques - not to mention the music itself, they seem to persevere. It gives me hope. I enjoy reading the postings from schoolkids as well as other old fogies like me. Egad! Clearly I have no illusions that I'll ever be good enough to play with others. I'll be happy just to make some halfway decent music for my own enjoyment. Many posters seem to be able to completely lose themselves into their celli. That's what I'm after.

So, Sunday, we went to see the new Harry Potter movie - both Z and I liked it, but Y didn't (she never likes these kinds of movies, but she still comes with us.) Since it was a spectacularly beautiful day - the first one in many weeks without any clouds and not too cold (only -5), we drove out to see if the 9 acre lot we've been thinking about buying had a decent view of the mountains. It turns out that from the hilltop in the center, we can see two of the three big volcanoes to the west across Cook Inlet, and much of the Kenai Mountains to the east, and the Caribou Hills to the south. After 30 years here, we'll actually be able to have a view!!! That was enough for us to decide to contact the seller and tell him we're interested. Much more on this, later...

By the time we got home it was too late to practice, so I spent the evening going through the various lesson books, and figured out some of the basic fingering techniques - honestly, I didn't have a clue where to start. I wish I could start with a teacher, but the nearest one is 60 miles away in Homer. Maybe I'll contact her in a few weeks, if I can get a reasonably good feel for it. First I want to see if I can/will put in the necessary time and effort (and overcome any problems with my finger) to make it work.

Finally, this morning I pulled it out of the case, rosined up the bow, and found a neat set of midi files on the internet < http://www.andreipricope.com/cello.html > that contained the basic tuning notes for each string. After a few tries, I was able to tune it to a reasonable facsimile of the CGDA notes.

One big challenge now is trying to hold the bow like they show in the pictures in my intro book. I just can't get the thumb bent right. I was able to produce some vaguely melodic notes, though, and after a few hours playing today I've already gotten the basic first position fingering sorted out, and I marked these "fret" positions with white tape.

This cello seems pretty good, for a laminated unit. I'm working on a name for it. I wonder what a more expensive cello might sound like. I'm also reasonably satisfied with my progress, so far, although my fingertip hurts. I hope a callous develops, quickly.

It's kind of interesting, writing a blog - especially since I know I'll be posting it out on the web for anyone else to see, and realize that I'm posting quite a few previously private thoughts. I've thought about doing this for years, but starting the cello seemed like as good a time as any to finally start blogging too. I'll probably write a lot about my cello. I was originally going to just write a private cello journal.

Time to bail, got a lot to get done yet this pm.

MY GRANDAUGHTER IS THREE YEARS OLD TODAY!

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