Thursday, April 27, 2006

 

Suzuki Volume 2 !!


Today, I began working on the first piece in Suzuki Volume 2!

It's like a promotion or graduation day!

I started playing exactly five months ago today. Honestly, it's hard to believe that my teacher suggested starting Volume 2, after my lousy performance in rehearsal and then in class today (Lesson 7).

Whew!

Was I bad!

I couldn't find the notes, I couldn't get the rhythm, I couldn't keep the timing; not in any piece we played. All I could do was fumble through it as quietly as possible.

I sat on a very low chair (I'm going to buy a portable stool at WalMart this weekend), and no matter what length endpin I tried, it didn't feel right, and I couldn't seem to find my place on the strings. Before we started playing, I tuned with my electronic meter; but then again the teacher went around and retuned all the cellos, sharpening mine quite a bit. The room was pretty cold, which probably also affected my tuning.

Whatever the cause, it made it hard for me to find my fourth finger location on any of the strings; that caused all my notes to be off; which put my timing off; which made me lose my place. It happened on every song. Normally, when I sit down to play on my stool at home, my left hand "knows" exactly where to go to find those ringing octave tones with my fourth finger. Because I couldn't hear myself, I couldn't even figure out if I was sharp or flat! The only thing I knew is that I wasn't where I was supposed to be.

I even had trouble playing the "G-A-B-C-slide" eighth note combination on the D and A strings in the MariZuki piece. I'd practiced this one slowly for quite some time the other day.

The lousier I played, the worse I got.

In my opinion the group as a whole didn't sound as good as the time before. One of the stronger players from last time wasn't there today either; surely that affected our sound. The missing student from last time was here today, a 15'er working in Volume 3, who also comes from Kenai; with a nice cello.

Afterwards, I mentioned to my teacher that I had played poorly; she diplomatically expressed surprise. I told her I hid out by playing quietly. Then in class, I didn't play much better. I kept missing notes. No matter how good I play it at home, I can't even get close in class. She pointed out that she's not that worried if I miss a note or two. At home I can at least play the correct notes, although occasionally sloppily and not always the best rhythm.

In spite of all that she did say I had made good progress in the past few weeks - I explained I had been playing all the pieces slowly, working diligently on the tougher parts.

Eventually I relaxed somewhat and by the end I was doing better. We played Rigadoon, Happy Farmer, and the Minuet. As we worked through them, we went over a lot of technique improvement suggestions - some I think I'll be able to do easily; others look more challenging.

I'm holding my left hand too flat; I should hold the hand perpendicular to the side of the fingerboard, bringing my left elbow forward and to a slightly higher elevation. That will straighten out my twisted wrist (making it a more relaxed position). Then, while keeping my thumb relaxed, I need to curl my hand closer to and above the fingerboard so all four of my fingers drop straight down onto the proper locations on the strings. This should let me unlock my fourth finger, which will give me better control over it. This isn't easy, but I think I'll eventually be able to get it. I just have to work at it...

She suggested I lengthen my endpin quite a bit, with the top of the cello quite a bit higher on my chest, and the C key somewhat higher above my ear. This will help, too, in holding my hand square to the fingerboard.

She suggested I lower my right wrist and loosen my right fingers' grip on the bow. Particularly the little finger. One idea to try was to hold my little finger - tip down - against the top of the bow. Let the strings take most of the weight of the bow. She gave me a few simple bowing exercises to try out.

Finally, the biggest challenge was trying to control my bow at the elbow. I had a lot of trouble with that one. I couldn't seem to pivot my elbow without moving my shoulder. She said she would talk to her husband to see if he had any ideas that would help. On the way home, I realized that I could pivot at the elbow if I held it on a table or against a wall. As I sit here now I can pivot my elbow as much as I want.

I can't figure out why I was such as spazz today...

She showed me a good string crossing exercise to work on: play the note, stop, move the bow, then start the next note. Do it slowly, over and over again; and do it on open strings. It's important to work on one thing at a time. Then apply it to some of the more complicated string crossing segments, still playing stepwise and slowly.

A few other minor notes: my trills on the Minuet need to have equal emphasis on each note, I drift off on the third one; don't lift the bow off the strings on string crossings.

At the end, we played some of the fiddle tunes. I asked her to play the first four of them through so I could hear what they were supposed to sound like. I didn't do too badly on very slow version of "Hunting the Hare".

Finally, she said I was ready to begin Volume 2! The first piece is "Long, Long, Ago" in the key of C major (Volume 1 had it in G major). After getting the new key sorted out, the variation involves turning the first quarter note into two eighth notes slurring down to G (sometimes up to the higher G) and playing the second pair of eighth notes stacatto on the same bowing. It doesn't look too difficult.

The next rehearsal is Monday. I am really going to focus on these few pieces...

When we finished up today, my teacher told me that I had quickly come quite a ways already and that I was obviously going to continue to improve. It was just going to take time...

Yeah, it feels good.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

 

Pablo Casals


I just finished reading "Joys and Sorrows" by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn, an autobiographical memoir by Casals of his long and fascinating life. The man was awesome, and his legacy is such an inspiration! Here, he describes his (re)discovery of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello at age 13 with his father in Barcelona:

Then we stopped at an old music shop near the harbor. I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suties by Johann Sebastian Bach-for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody-not even my teachers-had ever mentioned them to me. I forgot our reason for being at the shop. All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. That sensation has never grown dim. Even today, when I look at the cover of that music, I am back again in the old musty shop with its faint smell of the sea. I hurried home, clutching the suites as if they were the crown jewels, and once in my room I pored over them. I read and reread them. I was thirteen at the time, but for the following eighty years the wonder of my discovery has continued to grow on me. Those suites opened up a whole new world. I began playing them with indescribable excitement. They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years. Yes, twelve years would elapse and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites in public at a concert. Up until then, no violinist or cellist had ever played one of the Bach suites in its entirety. They would play just a single section-a Saraband, a Gavotte or a Minuet. But I played them as a whole; from the prelude through the five dance movements, with all the repeats that give the wonderful entity and pacing and structure of every movement, the full architecture and artistry. They had been considered academic works, mechanical, without warmth. Imagine that! How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.

I have only heard Yo-Yo Ma's version of the Six Suites (and Andrew Cook playing part of the third suite in a live concert last week), but the attraction to a cellist is profound. Bach! Solos for the cello! How excited he must have been! We all owe Casals such a debt of gratitude for his reintroduction of these masterpieces to the world.

Of course Casals did so much more than that! He completely changed how we play the cello, with open arms and obvious passion. His inspiration generated so many new cello pieces composed by the geniuses of the time just for him (and now us) to play. Such a giant!

I look forward to his recordings...




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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

 

Reflections on learning the cello as an adult


I'm 55. I started learning the cello five months ago. I play 2 hours every day, without fail. I take lessons from a cello teacher twice a month. I have a wonderful cello that sounds rich and projects well - I really love it!

I learned to read music in high school (with a clarinet), and I've been able to adapt to the bass clef without too much trouble.

I have a good musical memory. I quickly memorize pieces I'm learning - too quickly, I'm afraid - and I can recall most of the tunes I heard even when I was very young.

My sense of rhythm/tempo is not that good, which is quite frustrating; but so far I have been able to work through that with some effort.

I damaged my left forefinger in a tablesaw accident about 25 years ago (which forced me to give up the violin I'd been tinkering with), but I feel that I've gotten past that by using a succession of thinner and thinner fingercots. Yesterday, I played without the fingercot. But today it was pretty painful, affecting my playing; as soon as I put it back on, it was OK.

My left little finger locks up on the fingerboard, so I'm having trouble "curling" it as I should. My teacher has suggested some ideas about hand-positions to try to work past it - I do find they help, but I can only do it for short periods at this point.

My musical ear is pretty good. I can readily tell whether or not I'm hitting pure notes. This is helping me to improve my intonation. I've not yet reached the point where I can tell what note is what by listening, but I can almost feel it when a note isn't pure....

Every morning when I sit down to play, I find myself quickly entering a zen-like state where I become conscious of tensions throughout my body - but mostly in the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, neck and jaw. Then I start working through a relaxation process that includes cracking all the related joints. The toughest problems are my thumbs, but after five or ten minutes of playing they finally relax. Within fifteen minutes of starting to play, I am physically very relaxed and comfortable. After that, I periodically have to remind myself to sit straight.

In five months I've worked through Suzuki Volume 1. Recently, I've "gotten" the Schumann piece and am close to "getting" the Bach Minuet #2 (by "getting", I mean I can play through the piece without errors at more or less the expected tempo; but it doesn't mean I am getting a beautiful sound all the way through, yet). I'm hoping I'll start Volume 2 at the next lesson. I am also working on some fiddle pieces she gave me. I find that the ones that I've heard before (way back when I was young) are much easier to play, since I "know" the rhythms. The ones I've not heard before are far more challenging.

Although I know it is the best way to learn (and I've used the techniques successfully, several times) I have a lot of trouble playing new pieces slowly, and breaking them into smaller sections for focused drilling. I still find myself wanting to rush on through, and trying to fix the errors on the next run-through. (The term "run-through" is apt.)

I understand the various learning processes, especially when it requires more than simply cramming information into my memory (which is how I got through school, and how I did pretty well in my career). Muscle memory training takes repetition, time, and patience.

Playing music, like speaking spanish, requires taking memorized information and doing something with it - such as using my vocal chords; or placing my fingers in the right places on the strings at the exact moment my other hand moves the bow across the strings. The only way to do that well is to do it over and over and over and over and over... Supposedly, the muscles learn just as well, when this repetition is done slowly.

Patience is my greatest challenge! I want to learn faster. My lack of patience actually inhibits my learning, because I try to push my limits by playing too fast. I think patience is the biggest problem for most people who are challenged to learn physical skills - whether it be an instrument, a keyboard, a sport, etc. Some kids don't even want to try new skills because they aren't immediately good at them.

As an adult, I know - intellectually - that skills can be acquired by repeating incrementally small steps until they become part of your muscle memory. I know that I can achieve a lot this way. I also know that old muscles are much harder to train than younger muscles - maybe because there is so much accumulated muscle memory that is not geared toward fingering the right places on the strings or bowing the right strokes. You can't unlearn these muscle memories, you can only imprint over them.

Since my finger/hand/arm/"ear" coordination for the past 55 years has not included playing the cello, they've always coordinated with each other in vastly different ways (although there was some clarinet, piano, violin training; which has to be helping my cello learning). It's not that I have to unlearn these long-standing coordinations, I just have to instill the cello coordinations on top of them. There are also plenty of purely physical limitations related to 55 years of bone growth, ligaments and tendons, and muscle use.

On another front, researchers are suggesting that intellectual stimulation retards the aging process (as well as staving off the onset of degenerating diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzeheimers, and other dementias). The more you stimulate your brain, making yourself think, learning new things, learning new skills; the longer you stay "young", the longer you remain in control of your faculties. Is this one of my reasons for starting the cello? Obviously, I am certainly happy about challenging myself this way, and if it helps me stay "young" so much the better; but I really don't think that is why I started this. Needless to say, I am proud of myself for taking on this challenge.


Wednesday, April 26, 2005

But for me, it is answering a call that has haunted me all my life. As long as I can remember, I've wanted to make music, starting when I was very young - at six I had a small accordion, which I played with until one of my brothers destroyed it. At nine or ten, I was drawn to my mother's piano (she was quite good, but rarely played - she loved singing in a community choir for many years, and at church; my father also played quite well, but I can only remember a few occasions when he actually did - apparently he didn't enjoy it that much). So the piano sat largely unused in our living room. On my own, I found some books and started to learn the basic keys and began to pick out simple tunes. But my parents never once encouraged me, at all; never. I vaguely remember my mother sitting with me once or twice when I first started, but not for very long. At some point I stopped.

In 7th grade music class, my teacher noticed that I had a musical "ear" and encouraged me to pick up the clarinet, so my parents rented (rent-to-own) one for a school year. Unfortunately, 13/14 is a tough age to discipline yourself to the rigors of practicing a half hour a day(!!!), and I don't really remember my parents ever commenting on the obvious fact that I wasn't practicing at home (I faked my mother's initials on my weekly practice card). How could they not know? It didn't help that I had three brothers and a sister who took every opportunity to ridicule my efforts and groan about the noise. My band teacher, who had been so encouraging the year before, gave me absolutely no support or encouragement; he never once commented that I could/should be doing better. So at the end of the 8th grade band, I simply didn't sign up for band the next year. My parents never said a word. They returned the clarinet without ever even commenting. Such support!

So that was my exposure to music as a child. I still dreamed of playing, but the lack of support along with laziness and impatience got in the way. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if anyone had actually supported and encouraged me to keep playing.

When I was 24, I bought another clarinet and spent a year or so trying to pick it up again. That was interesting. We were living on the top floor of a large old duplex house with high ceilings, wooden floors, and a swing on the front porch overlooking downtown Baton Rouge - a fantastic location near the capital and city center, busy in the workweek, but remarkably quiet after hours and weekends. The clarinet resonated throughout the house. But one day I noticed that the neighbors were closing their windows every time I started playing - it was hot and none of us had ACs. That freaked me out so much that I could no longer practice unselfconsciously after that. I later sold it in a garage sale.

After moving to Alaska, I was still feeling the call to make music, somehow; although having kids, trying to build a house, a job with irregular hours, and a serious lack of space were major obstacles. About the time I was 32, a friend sold me a starter violin for $100, along with some lesson books. I spent about a year working at it - for an hour or so a day (with no formal lessons). Every once in a while I actually got some sweet sounds out of that little plywood cigar box, and could play a few tunes. This was when I first noticed my musical memory bringing songs up out of my past and expressing them through my fingers - almost as if I were just an observer.

About a year into this, I signed up for an evening woodworking class at a local high school, and within a few weeks I did a stupid cut on the tablesaw, which kicked back and dragged my left forefinger backwards over the blade. The saw cut through fingertip and fingernail with an 1/8th inch gouge through the fingernail just into the tip of the bone. Surprisingly, I felt no pain - just a jolt, like a single sudden shock of electricity. I compressed the wound with my right hand for the twenty minutes that it took to rush over to the ER and wait for a surgeon to arrive. He sized up the fact that a significant amount of material was missing altogether, and decided to simply try to pull the two remaining halves back together, with a couple of stitches. My own doctor was quite disappointed with that action - he said he would have done a better job, leaving me more of a fingertip. After three weeks of intensive daily hydrotherapy, he stopped any further "healing" with a few drops of silver nitrate (y-e-e-o-w, that hurt more than anything I'd ever felt - it still hurts just to think about it!), and the wound was allowed to grow closed.

The healed fingertip is about a 1/4 inch shorter than it was, missing most of the "meat" at the tip. There is apparently a sharp edge on the cut bone, which can be pretty painful when it is tapped against anything. I have two "half" nails that overlap one another. That put an end to my violin playing. I just couldn't bear the pain of pressing the strings against the fingerboard. So, reluctantly, I eventually sold it.

Now, more than 20 years later, that pain is much less of an issue. I still can't forcefully tap my finger against something, but it no longer hurts to press with it. Having retired (more or less voluntarily), I found myself with plenty of free time and began once again to feel the strong pull to make music. Off and on for a few years I considered a piano, and even a saxophone, but we don't have enough space for a piano.

Then, in late November, I saw an ad in the paper for a viola outfit for about $600. Although I wasn't certain I could even play it, on an impulse, I arranged to meet the seller the next day and try it out. But then that evening, I started reflecting on my long-time pull towards the cello. There's no way to describe that feeling. Even when I was playing the violin, I found myself drawn to the lowest registers, and I remember wishing I were making a much deeper sound. The cello itself seemed so exotic (and expensive), but I sure liked its sound whenever I heard it on records.

One big advantage the cello has over the violin and viola is that although the strings are thicker, they are spaced further apart, which would let me use a fingercot on that bum finger. (Although the initial fingercot was quite thick, I found I was able to use it to stop a single string at a time.) I called the violist and told her I wasn't interested, but I thanked her for triggering me to go for the cello. I called a violin store in Anchorage the next day and arranged to rent a cello and began this long strange strip back into music.

Comments:
Interesting story about your left index finger. I was using one of those gullotine papercutters in my early twenties and did a good slice into my left index finger. With a run to emergency room, they had me sitting for quite some time. Happily I had only sliced through the nail bed down to the bone. They had a plastic surgeon come and stitch it up so that the nail bed would grow normally. I'm very lucky that I never took woodworking.
 
Your story is so inspiring.
I had similar story with yours. I learned piano and guitar way back in my junior/senior high, and left them completely just after I could play songs and sing along with friends.

I love cello's sound.
it's so beautiful. And just last month, I decided to play cello. I have a teacher, he comes once a week. I am so excited, though I know cello is probably a difficult instrument to play. Especially for 54 year old woman.

I wonder how you're going these days with your cello.
Would love to read more of your days with your cello.
Thank you, Guanaco.

best,
r
 
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Sunday, April 23, 2006

 

du Pre


I'm currently reading Carol Easton's biography of Jacqueline du Pre. I've never heard anything by her, but I've heard so much about her. Of course there's the movie "Hillary and Jackie", from 1998. I've not seen the movie either, but I'm looking forward to it. I'd already planned to buy some of her recordings... at least her Elgar Cello Concerto, from 1965. It's interesting to see the other side of the British musical scene that was going on at the same time as the tidal wave of rock and roll: Daniel Barenboim (of course), Zuben Mehta, Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman, as well as Casals, Pleeth, Rostropovich, and on and on. What a combination!

With my cello, I am steadily sawing away at the same old pieces, taking them slowly, part by part. It appears to be working. Problem areas have "appeared" that I hadn't realized I'd been glossing over because of my too-fast playing. For example, I ran into trouble with the first bar of the B part of Rigadoon. I thought I'd done it fine, but when I started slow playing, I realized I had been having some trouble with the 1-2-4 finger placement at the eighth note speed. Now I'm working through this and other areas and I'm finding the pieces are beginning to sound even better.

Lately, I've been warming up playing scales - primarly C (two octaves), G, and D. Then I've been running through basic chord/arpeggio progressions in each of the scales. I've noticed that I'm getting sweeter sounds out of each note - clearer with more ringing. I'm hearing cleaner vibrant notes, such as E and F# (on the D string), and B and C# (on the A string) that I'd not been able to find before; and I can immediately tell when I miss a note, and by how much.

I switched back from the Dominant A string to the Spirocore A that came installed on the cello when it arrived from Ifshin. It's not quite as "bright" and seems to match the Spirocore D, better. Now that it has been broken in, I'll carry the Dominant as a spare.

Today, I worked fully through The Happy Farmer without error, and more-or-less at proper tempo! I know I've said this before, but today it felt right, finally! I still have a few weak parts in the Bach Minuet #2, but I'm getting better and better as I slow-play each of the tough sections. At the end of each session, I'm working on two fiddle pieces (Hunting the Hare and Country Gardens). I'd never heard the first one, and I am struggling with the rhythm. The second one is quite familiar to me, and I found I was able to play it quite quickly as soon as I realized what tune it was (and after I got the first few notes and the basic rhythm). I've got a long way to go before I can play these at proper tempo, but I'm encouraged...

Friday night I went to a cello concert by LA cellist, Andrew Cook, sponsored by our local Performing Arts Society. I even enticed Z to come along. I didn't expect to infect him with classical music, but I did want to expose him and let him make up his mind based on a real experience rather than rely on hearsay from his peers (he paid careful attention throughout, asked some interesting questions, and seemed to enjoy it). We sat in the second row on the right side at the center aisle, giving us a clear view of the cello, his bowing and fingering.

Cook was scheduled to play the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite #3 in full. At the beginning, he announced he'd only be playing three of the five parts due to a recent injury that had been acting up. This was my first opportunity to see a cellist playing solo since elementary school (I'm not that sure I even saw one back then, but our school had many concerts - unlike today's education system). I think he had a small problem with his A string - as if it had loosened slightly as he played. I heard a few notes that just didn't sound quite right to me. I noticed he also shook out his left hand several times between movements. Clearly it bothered him.

In spite of all this I was captivated by the sound and by watching his hands and fingers. I noted how he held the bow - a lot lighter than I hold mine, yet he pressed it quite firmly into the strings as he played. But of course watching his left hand flying up and down the strings at dizzying speeds had me spellbound. It was over all too soon. (As soon as he went out of the hall into the lobby, I heard him retuning the A string...) I bought his CD at intermission...

The next piece was a sonata for Cello, Clarinet, and Piano by Beethoven. Wow, was it different! I'd never heard a cello and clarinet together, anywhere. There were several points where the two sounds merged into a wonderful new combination - especially in the lower registers. After a few years playing the clarinet, I had some doubts about how it would work out with the cello, but no longer. The final piece, a Piano Trio by Clara Schumann featured Andrew Cook on cello, Maria Allison on the piano (more on her later), and Emily Grossman on violin - wow, she is good! I'd never before heard this beautiful piece, with a lot of expression and variety. It gave each player several opportunities to "take" the lead and soar off on their own for a moment before bringing the other two back in.

Afterwards, I went up to Andrew and introduced myself as a novice cellist - "Never Too Late". He said he'd understood there weren't any cellists in the Soldotna/Kenai area; I told him I had to go to Homer for my lessons; he knew my teacher by name saying he'd met her years before (she didn't tell me that when I'd talked to her about this concert). I asked about his cello - it's an Amati model (slightly smaller than the Strad); about 10 years old; he also owns a 1790's cello but was worried about Alaska's dryness and cold so he doesn't bring that one up here. I commented that the back looked like it was made from a single piece of wood; but he said it was actually two - just carefully matched up; I also commented that I'd noticed him shaking his left hand and asked about his injury - he said he'd had surgery about 8 years ago and was told he wouldn't be able to play again, but he'd persisted and came back; but now it was causing him trouble. He said he'd been playing too many concerts lately and should be resting more.

All in all, I found it very captivating and am even more motivated to continue my meager efforts ... Even though I don't see myself ever playing that sort of venue, I sure would like to be able to sit down and play with other musicians in a friendly setting. I'd guess I'm many years away from being able to do that much.

Comments:
I don't think you need to be years away from playing with other musicians! I've only been playing for 6 months or so and I'm playing with an amateur string ensemble. I'm a bit over my head, but it's a good challenge.

It depends what you want of course, like you said in one of your other posts. But for me, playing with other musicians gives me the motivation to keep working hard on my own.

I have a copy of that du Pre Elgar concerto. It's so emotional, though I've heard the cello she recorded it on (Yo Yo Ma has it now) was one she didn't get on with, she fought it apparently. Interesting to think about having such an intense relationship like that with an instrument.
 
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Monday, April 17, 2006

 

My first group session - a rehearsal


We were nine cellos (celli, I know :) and one viola. A 4/5'er playing a quarter size cello currently finishing book one after a year or so; a 7/8'er beginner with a three-quarter sized; a 30s/40s'er, who started a month before me (who already plays the piano); me; an early-30s'er whom I'd called in early Feb about Stringworks cellos and shipping issues with a couple years experience; an 8/9'er with two to three years experience, an 11/12'er with somewhat more than that, and a 15'er who was quite good. The 15'er violist was quite good too. Plus the teacher.

We setup in the church altar area - two on the back row, three in the middle and four down front; we beginners filled the left two chairs on the front two rows (the kids down front; I was outside left, on second row). The teacher sat facing us.

We tuned up (she went around tuning each cello - she sharpened my A and D quite a bit) played a scale and then the French Folk Song. We played it through four times - we weren't very coordinated; but not really that bad either. I had just a little trouble finding the tempo and occasionally even the right notes - I sure could hear my sour notes - I played quietly, but I "felt" every miss. Yet, it really was nice those few times that I did get my notes to match the rest of the group.

It would be nice to have a playing partner to spend some time practicing together. Knowing so little about music education, I wonder if there is a method of teaching that pairs like-abilities and encourages them to learn together. If your partner is truly simpatico, and just as eager to learn, it seems like it would be beneficial to have someone to bounce your sounds and experimentation off of, as well as someone to motivate you to keep up with.

We played through the other two pieces, pretty successfully I thought, and then started working on the Mary-Zuki piece - it was a bit complicated and we knew we didn't get it right, but we did agree to keep it in our program. We quickly went through the Pachelbel piece (I get to play a few bars from Twinkle) and then the advanced students played a Bocherini piece accompanied by a piano (the other beginning cellist). They were pretty good. It will be a good program!

It was fun, but also really daunting. I know these pieces inside and out, my intonation is usually pretty good, and I don't feel challenged by the tempos (tempi, I know :), so my real problem is just nervousness and being overly self-conscious. If I can get myself to just relax, I know I'll play fine, which sure would let me enjoy the experience a lot more.

I've been playing my pieces v-e-r-y slowly the past several days, breaking the difficult parts down into small three- to four-note segments and playing them slowly over and over again, patterning the finger muscles and coordinating the bowing. It seems to help. I've used it with all the pieces, now, slowing them down just enough to play them through perfectly without missing a note or intonation. This helped me identify the problem areas, which I then focused in on and repeated over and over and over and over (up to 50 times for some of them). Then I added it back into the section, playing it until I had it right; then finally the whole piece. I've done this with all of the old tunes in Book 1.

After dissassembling The Happy Farmer and working the trouble spots, I am in the process of putting it back together and am able to cleanly play it through (quite slowly). Still, each day I start by replaying several of the tough parts for a while, before picking up the whole piece. I haven't yet reassembled the Bach Minuet, but I am playing most of the individual segments pretty good. I am in no big hurry to put this one back together yet.

I've started working a new piece from the Fiddle book, "Hunting the Hare", an english jig in 6/8 time. The sequences are simple and repetitive, but I've been challenged by the rhythm ONE-two-three, FOUR-five-six, and so on. I'm working on each three note group, one at a time.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

 

Lesson 6


I finally got some additional music to play around with, yesterday. My teacher brought some fiddle tunes arranged for cello. Most of the songs seem to be relatively "easy" first-position pieces. We "walked" through a few, and I told her I'd work at three at a time until I got them really good. I think she was impressed that I was immediately able to finger the first tune by sight-reading.

I didn't play very well at all, even though I'd been working two hours a day every day, on the same pieces. She was positive, even though I felt like I was fumbling all the notes. I did have a better intonation - hitting cleaner ringing tones - except for C on the G string. The bigger problem was I felt as if I was too frequently just hitting the wrong notes altogether. We discussed this a bit. She suggested that I was trying to play the pieces too fast; until I get the fingering and bowing down perfectly, I should not be playing at tempo. Even the masters learn new pieces at a slow tempo, breaking them down into small segments, concentrating on the tricky ones.

This isn't the first time she's said this, but I sure have a hard time incorporating that into my playing.

I've put together an organized approach to learning new pieces:
1 Read through the entire piece, fingering the notes one at a time;
2 Tap/count the rhythms - slowly - saying /singing the notes (try playing on the keyboard);
3 Identify and mark new and/or tricy passages - string crossings, unusual bowings, etc.;
4 Divide into work areas for individual concentration;
5 Play pizzicato - repeatedly;
6 Bow open strings, while saying/singing notes;
7 For each segment, carefully combine bowing, fingering, rhythm - slowly - use metronome to help set the pace;
8 Start combining segments, a few at a time;
9 Identify troublesome combinations, and refocus on them;
10Don't increase tempo, until the whole piece is working; then work up gradually...;
11 Come back to each piece frequently to work through it and maintain freshness.

We worked through the pieces for the recital - fortunately, she said that we would not play them at the tempos on the CDs. What a relief! I told her that I'd been struggling trying to get up to speed with the CD. She gave me some suggested tempos (tempi) for the pieces, and I will start practicing them at these rates.

We worked on the Happy Farmer and the Bach Minuet - but I was fumbling so badly that I can't be sure that I had demonstrated any improvement since my last lesson. OK, maybe a bit. We played the tricky parts pizzicato, and with slow bowing - especially the bowing style: On the Minuet, I should set the proper bow angle, set the fingers, draw the note starting hard and finishing softer; STOP; reset the bow then fingers and draw out the next note; STOP again... Slow, slow, slow, slow. Work the triplets and the 4th extension (move thumb, keep first three fingers on string but not pressed.)

My little finger won't stay curled. The second joint locks up. I will try rotating hand downwards to hold the finger above the string. Also, I am playing my left arm too high on the A string, I should try dropping it a bit; adjusting the arm for each string - highest on C (obviously).

Finally, to keep training my sight-reading skills, I should continue the finger exercises - play each one just enough to get it right at the proper tempo, but don't repeat them so often that I end up memorizing it.

There's been a lot of discussion about memorization on the Cello Chat forum, lately. It seems a lot of people have troubles memorizing pieces and have to focus on it. I am quite fortunate, it seems, in that I don't have any trouble with memorization at all (at least something I'm good at!) My bigger problem is keeping an even tempo and rhythms. I find myself wandering all over the map - especially adding in the dotted quarter and half notes and the rests. I'm using the metronome now to help.

The Cello Chat forum has gotten so weird lately; lots of bickering and sniping between the "regulars". Also, way too much politics - the "hate Bush" and "hate America" factions seem to own the board; I was getting more and more p....d off with all the tripe. For a while, I thought about taking them on, but I finally decided it just wasn't worth the grief. Instead, I've stopped reading it more than once a day - skipping the political threads. I'd become obsessed; I had been literally glued to it, checking every hour to see what was new; writing meaningless posts (but fortunately erasing most of them before actually posting them).

I was starting to spend a lot of time in the live chat room, too. That was OK, when there were two or three other people; but when six or seven showed up, I found myself shutting down, hesitating to say anything, not feeling good about what I was saying (in other words, my old intense self-consciousness and subsequent inability to relate to people that has dogged me my whole life). While a part of me did enjoy the dialogue, I decided to back off and get back to my regular life. I will continue to read the forum, because there is so much I can learn; but no more posts, no more chats, no more obsessive checking in.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

 

My cello sounded so nice today


I just seemed to get it right with clean resonating sounds. I found an E tone on the D string that I'd never quite gotten before. Why? How? I have started doing a few things a bit differently.

Yesterday I watched some videos posted on CelloJourney.com by a guy who I think is named Luke, showing him playing several pieces on his cello. This began with a link on Cello Heaven to a YouTube video. He's clearly just another slob like the rest of us, who is pretty good on the cello - in his 30s, I'd guess. He sure seems to get a lot of enjoyment playing it. Anyway, I was watching his bowing (because that's what I'm struggling with, lately), and I noticed he's holding his bow much further out on his fingers than I'd been. It looks like a lighter hold.

So last night I played an extra hour without following any regimen. I tried holding the bow further out on my fingertips. It did feel lighter but a few times I noticed I was pressing my right thumb pretty hard into the frog. Now it hurts a little. I also have a sore tendon further up in my arm. Was it my new bow hold or something else I was doing? I did a lot of open string bowing with this new hold, using my forefinger to forcefully bite the bow into the strings.

After a while, I was getting a stable, even note off each full bow, all the way from the frog to the tip and back again. It was nice! I worked on the open strings a bit, and then brought in some of the basic G Major and C Major arpeggio/chord sequences I'd recently been tinkering with. I repeated these sequences forwards and backwards for quite a while. My ear started directing my fingers to the exact places on the strings for the best possible sounds. I was really pleased to hear those resonant Es and F#s on the D string! I've still got a bit of work to do to continuously get that perfect C on the G string, but once in a while I think I got close.

The nicer, smoother notes acted as a catalyst for a more satisfying overall workout today. I worked extensively on the six eighth-notes in the first measure of the Bach Minuet. I broke it into two parts - the now familiar C, E, G arpeggio that I've been playing in warmups, and the hiC, D, B sequence. I played each one separately for quite a while at gradually increasing tempi. This new emphasis with those last three notes let me see the whole sequence in a new light. After a while, I added the two together and within a few minutes I was playing these six notes without any slips or mistakes. Then I added the last hiC, C-C quarter-note sequence from the second measure. This nine note segment is repeated nine more times in this piece. I played it over and over and over and over and over and over until I was numb.

But I'm not even close to being satisfied yet. Clearly though, it helps to break those troublesome sections down into their basic parts, work on them extensively, and then add them back together. I briefly tried this out on the hooked bowings from the Farmer piece with some noticeable effect.

Yesterday, after trying to play against the Rodney Yarrow Fat Notes CD - and finally stopping in disgust - I decided I needed to work on the tempos first. I've been sort of lazy about my whole and half notes and rests. For the next week or so, I'm going to play the four recital pieces with my metronome. Then I'll go back to the CDs.

I recently ran across some postings on forums and blogs that made think about my motivations for playing the cello. One person talked about having a full time role in her family, yet needing to find just a little time every day for her cello. Another descibes wanting to play for himself alone; harboring some resentment towards previous teachers who had pushed him in a direction designed for aspiring young musicians - mastering Suzuki pieces, one at a time, with forced recitals every year among kids, and all the while just wanting to play for himself.

That got me to thinking about my upcoming recital. Do I really want to do it, or am I forcing myself to go through it because I think I'm supposed to? I still don't know the answer, yet. On the one hand, these recitals are a confirmation of progress so far, and consequently become a motivator to keep improving. For a fortunate few of the younger students, these recitals get them started on a lifetime of competitions for orchestras and music school, etc.

While I do want to be able to play with other musicians, I really am not seeking public acceptance of my playing. I don't care if anyone else ever hears me play.



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Monday, April 03, 2006

 

DST is here, but it's snowing again


Snow in April isn't really unexpected but it sure is hard to take. At least it isn't sticking. The sun doesn't set until 9:00 - but all that means right now is we get to look at the snow that much longer every evening. February, March, and April are the worst months. April can be OK if the weather warms up like it is supposed to, but some years April starts nasty like this one, and breakup is delayed until the end of the month.

We've got big travel plans for the month of April. Z has a track meet in Homer on the 13th and we want to drive the MH down and spend the whole day beforehand. Then, April 22, I want to drive up to Anchorage for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra's last performance (Paul Rosenthal is featured). He is so good. The night before, Andrew Cook, a cellist from LA, is performing in Soldotna! I can't wait for that one. It will be my first live cello concert!

I've been trying to play against the Rodney Yarrow Fat Notes CD. It sure isn't easy. I think I'm improving, but it's hard to hear my cello over the CD, yet if I don't play the CD loud enough I don't get the tempo right. What's working best, so far, is to keep the CD volume high, and partially uncover the left ear to hear the cello. I am really not satisfied with my cello's sound when I'm doing this, though. I have a LOT more work to do on these basic pieces...

Each day, I feel a little progress on Farmer and Minuet #2. On the Farmer, every once in a while I get that hooked bowing part to sound just like it does on the CD. Then, I start "thinking" it too much and lose it again. Also, the other part, which I was playing almost automatically before, isn't so good anymore. I feel like maybe I've started thinking too much about it.

But all in all, progress every day! On the Minuet, I got the initial licks just right at a reasonable (but still slow) speed. I'm even getting the motion for the fourth finger extension right (although I still have to work on hitting that exact note properly). I can see that I'll probably never get this perfect. Every time I play it, I will find some flaw that still needs fixed.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my motivations for learning the cello. I've spent a lot of time on the CelloChat Forums (41 posts, so far) and its chat room, and I've learned so much from other people about tips and techniques, etc. But on another front, I get discouraged sometimes when I think that some of these people have played for 3o or 40 years! I know that this shouldn't be discouraging, but it is. Is this envy; my usual sense of inadequacy that has dogged me socially all my life; or just a cold breeze of reality telling me that I'm way too old to be doing this?

Will I ever reach the point where I feel confident enough to say "I play the cello!" instead of "I'm trying to learn to play the cello"? Where I'd be confident enough to take my cello to a jam session and play a bit with some guitars, banjos and mandolins; and even some fiddles? Where I'd be confident to fill in for someone at a wedding or funeral, or something? Clearly, I need to be able to play reasonably in the first four positions, with a decent vibrato before I'd be that comfortable doing this. How long is this going to take me?

Yet, I do enjoy playing every day. I get a charge when I get something right; when the music rings; when the notes seem to "fall" out of my fingers. Even as limited as I am now, I feel that I am improving and that as long as I keep playing, I will continue to improve. I also realize there are no shortcuts, and that I will have to work my way up that long ladder of technical skills just like everybody else. The talent issue is deeper within me, apparently manifesting itself right now in the drive to learn the cello. Occasional glimpses of my "inner music" seem to come and go. But lately, I've tried to maintain focus on the fundamental techniques, using drills and repetitions.

About Suzuki. The method cleverly teaches a progression of skills, introducing one at a time, building off the previous skills. Initially, I quickly worked through the first 2/3 of Book 1 and have been working on the last 1/3 for some time now. The problem is, I am getting bored with the same 15 (or so) pieces, every day, day-after-day. It's hard to pay that much attention to them, and sometimes I get sloppy with my intonations or with tempo and rhythm.

I know I'm not ready to move onto harder technical skills, but it would be nice to be able to work a little bit each day on a new piece that fits into my existing skill range. Just one new piece at a time that I could add to my daily repertoire until I get it right. This would allow me to refine my latest skills while not stepping outside the Suzuki method. At our last lesson, my teacher said she was going to email me the name of a book of cello/fiddle music I could start working in parallel to my Suzuki progress; but she hasn't yet. I'm going to call her tomorrow.

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