Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

Review Time


Lesson 9 last Saturday, at the teacher's house. We worked through the basic pieces - she played harmony, and we identified several issues that I need to attend to:

Play with the middle of the bow; I'm primarily using the lower third. This should allow my hand to loosen up a bit and involve the weight of the bow on the string - practice on open strings.

I am not holding half notes and dotted notes for their full count; one approach would be to count out the rhythm, aloud (without singing).

Stacatto: We talked about notes with dotted and dashed lines. Dots above or below the note should be played with a rapid initial kickoff with a rest inside the count. Dashed notes (Tenuto) are started the same way but held for their full length. [I picture the count for each note divided roughly into fourths. A full note sounds for all four parts (S-S-S-S). A dot below the note sounds for one fourth followed by a rest for the last three fourths of the count (S-r-r-r). So, a hooked bowing with two notes dotted would be (S-r-r-r, S-r-r-r).] I should also be letting my wrist "flick" a little bit at the end of each stroke. In the "Long, Long Ago (in C) Variation" the hooked bowing needs to be more emphatic.

My bow grip needs to become a bow hold; I'm clenching the bow too tightly. It should "float" in my fingers, and I should feel the bow move around in my hand - differently on the up bow than the down bow. I have to hold my right hand flatter - curving the second and third knuckles to straighten out the back of the hand at the third knuckles - in line with the wrist. The forefinger should control the force of the note - pushing into the string as needed for volume and intensity.

I have to lift my left arm a bit more - with the hand more parallel to the wrist and forearm. But not overdone, either.

At the lesson, I kept hitting the first finger notes a bit flat (at home, it's more often sharp). To help find their home position, I should listen for the ringing of the A-note on the G string, and the D-note on the C string.

Finally, I've memorized one sequence of the Andante wrong, but it's been easy to fix.

I'll spend the next several weeks fine-tuning all these basics, before moving on to the second position. So far, I'm successfully applying most of these fixes in the past few sessions; but a lot more work is needed.

It's been difficult finding a window to play every day with school out and lots of activities. Lately, I've not been too happy with the sounds I'm getting, and my left fingers don't seem to be finding their right spots on the fingerboard. It makes it hard to keep up a full two hour session on days like this.

Last week our contractor put in the driveway and pad at our new one-site campground on Tustumena Lake Road. The pad is on top of a little hill. To the east we have a nice view of some of the Kenai Mountain Range as well as a glimpse of Tustumena Lake . To the west we can see Mt. Iliamna, Mt. Spurr to the north, and we have a partial view of the Caribou Hills in the south.

We parked our MH up there for several days this weekend. It was nice. We planted ten Larches and a few Scotch Pines on the south face of the hill to screen us from the subdivision road (there are sure to be some neighbors one day.) We're waiting for Homer Electric to install a power line sometime in June and we'll put in an RV connector box with a 50-amp plugin. Then we'll spread some calcium chloride on the pad and drive and some grass seed in a few other places to control the dust.

We spent an afternoon clearing out some of the brush on the west side of the hill. There's a lot more to do, with a handful of dead trees to cut down as well. Eventually, we're going to bring out a cement mixer to install some posts for a driveway chain, a mounting pole for the dish antenna, and a post for the RV outlet box. Finally, we're going to build a "floating" 12 x 12 deck and a picnic table. Eventually (next year), we're going to build a gazebo with removable glass "walls" (with screens) and finally install our parrilla. It will also serve as a heater letting us enjoy the property well beyond the normal camping season.

This week the contractor is going to overhaul the driveway at the house.

Saturday evening I went to a recital by nine students who had recently performed in concerto competetion sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. Three winners were chosen from the twelve participants, and they will perform with the Orchestra in the fall. By far the most outstanding, was the final pianist, Jessica Schallock, who played a wonderful piece by Mozart. She completely mastered the piece technically, and it was easy to see her passionate involvement in the music. It was a long piece (maybe 10 to 15 minutes) and she did it all from memory. Really masterful! The cellist, who also won, did not perform in this recital. I was really disappointed at the poor turnout. Aside from immediate family members, I doubt if 20 people were present (although it was a beautiful warm sunny evening, in the middle of a three day holiday weekend.)

Comments:
Hey, does this include lavish praise for myself? Thanks for the kind words--I didn't think I played that well at that recital, but sometimes we just have to relax and play the music. --Jessica Schallock
 
Your performance was indeed worthy of lavish praise. You are definitely going places. (BTW I really liked your non-fiction piece in the Homer News.)
 
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Sunday, May 21, 2006

 

Black Bear!


We were driving on Skilak Loop out to the highway from the Hidden Lake campground yesterday morning. The road was still pretty bad from breakup, so after we had slowly driven up a hill about a mile from the campground entrance, we came around a corner near the crest and saw a huge black bear standing in the middle of the road. [We didn't get a picture of it, so I downloaded this image from Google].

This was one of the biggest black bears I'd ever seen! (I've seen dozens along the roads in Alaska and Northern Canada over the past 30 years - but this one was big!) After looking at us for a minute or two, the bear slowly ambled off road and quickly disappeared into the brush. It's kind of eerie knowing that this monster was less than a mile away from where we had been camping overnight. About a half mile further up the road, at a pullout for a trailhead, a van full of hikers was gearing up for a day's outing. We stopped to warn them of the nearby bear - but they didn't seem that concerned.

Although the Hidden Lake campground is only an hour away from home, it really feels like one of those campgrounds in the Smokey Mountains - Cade's Cove was always one of my favorites - that we used to go to every other summer when I was a kid - peaceful, quiet, well laid out, lots of trails and rocky outcroppings to climb. We burned a fire all afternoon and evening, until the wind finally drove us indoors just before bedtime. The fire did keep the early season bugs away. I really like this campground, we'll try to go back at the end of the summer (after the tourists and fishing crowd has thinned out).

I must have inhaled too much smoke standing around the fire all evening, because my sinuses were all closed up and I woke up yesterday with a splitting sinus headache that lasted all day. That meant I wasn't able to play my cello yesterday :(

Friday I polished my cello for the first time since I'd bought it. Ifshin Violins had included a small bottle of polish and they recommended I use it no more than once a month. So, after three months, I finally worked up the courage to try it. The cello sure was thirsty! But the polish quickly rubbed in with a nice rich lustre. Wow! I sure wish I had done this before the recital last week.

Today, I played more than 2-1/2 hours. It was a good session, the cello sounded so nice today (the polish?). I found all sorts of sweet notes with ringing tones. I like how some notes vibrate against my chest and others against my knees. Lately, I've been warming up playing each of the scales: D, G, Cx2, and F. I play them slowly at first, seeking out those mellow ringing tones. Then I pick up the pace, and try different rhythms, etc. Then some arpeggios.

I can't quite put my finger on what was different today, but I really felt as if I'd made a breakthrough. For the past few sessions, I've been concentrating heavily on the "tough passages" such as the G# fourth-finger extension on the Bach Minuet, the C# fourth-finger extension in Parson's Farewell, and the F# fourth-finger extension in Galopede - a tough one. Also the "D (1/4); C (dotted 1/8) - D (1/16); C (dotted 1/8) - B (1/16)" passage in Country Gardens, which has several rapid string crossings.

Whatever, it was immensely satisfying today to play several of these pieces cleanly.

No lesson tomorrow, and we haven't yet scheduled the next one. I'm waiting to hear from my teacher... Yesterday, coming home from the camping trip, we stopped in town to buy some of the 4H trees (arbor day - a little belated). [We got a handful of larches to plant on our new property after the driveway is put in - supposedly next week.] One of the 4H kids helping out was the cello student from town who played in our recital last week (I'd only met her once before at a rehearsal). She told me she's been learning the cello for five years, driving 150 miles roundtrip to her lessons every two weeks! She said there was an adult cellist who apparently lives north of town somewhere, but didn't recall the name.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

 

Moving on


With the recital finally behind me, I can now move ahead with my studies. Although I did play through those recital pieces yesterday (to at least get them right once!), I decided to stop playing them for a while. So today, I skipped them! I felt a bit guilty, but also relieved. To celebrate, today I started a new "fiddle" tune, an English reel called "Galopede", which uses a lot of "eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth" combinations in 2/4 time. I slowly played it pizzicato several times, and then counted the rhythm several times. Then I bowed the rhythm on open strings for a few times. Finally, I played through the first section very slowly. Tomorrow, I'll go through the same process again.

Yesterday we (the cello and I) sounded pretty bad, no matter what I tried. I spent a long time trying to find the sweet spots for each note. It didn't help much then, but today, for whatever reason we really sounded great! Ringing tones for most of the notes, with no squeaking or whining. I played several of the pieces slowly and easily, and I played their tricky passages slowly and repeatedly - dozens and dozens of times. I broke down the signature nine-note passage in the Bach Minuet #2, slowly playing them over and over again - first in sets of three, then the first four notes, then five, etc. It was hard to stop, and I ended up playing well beyond my two hours.

It sure is nice to have an up day!

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Monday, May 15, 2006

 

Evil Kitty!



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Sunday, May 14, 2006

 

Recital!



It's finally over!

Whew!

I worked on those $#%@*^ pieces incessantly for the past few weeks, and still I blew the start of the 9th, 13th, and even the 17th measures of Rigadoon! At least I caught up and finished the last part, more or less in tune with the group. In the blues piece, I blew the G-A-B-C-slide combination several times. Overall, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. After that, it went well, and I was really happy with my playing by the final tune...

At least my suffering was mercifully brief.

Over 150 people (parents and siblings) were in the audience. Knowing they knew more or less what to expect helped me relax a bit. The program began with two "twinkle" cellos (3 year olds?); they were cute. Then eight cellos (one was sick) and a viola played a sequence of six songs. We were followed by a string quartet with the viola, one of the cellos, and two violins, playing two pieces - they were nice! Then about 25 violins - starting with six or seven "twinkle" violins - played eight or nine pieces. And it was over. About an hour and a half, altogether.

What could I have done to make myself play better today? Practice more, I guess. Even though I really felt I knew these pieces, I have to admit I had been having some "issues" with those same measures in Rigadoon. I guess, as long as I was still having issues anywhere in those pieces, that meant I needed to work more on them. Practice till I have it perfect! Still, I'm going to let these pieces slide for a while - not play them for a few weeks. I sure am tired of playing them over and over.
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Last Thursday was the worst day so far in my quest to become a cellist. For whatever reason, my mangled left forefinger had become hyper-sensitive; it felt like a subcutaneous part of the callous, - just in front of the sharp saw-cut edge in the bone - had become inflamed... After about 45 minutes playing, I had to quit. I daubed a glob of Aspercreme on the fingertip and shoved it into one of my used fingercots. After an hour or so, I removed the rubber cot and rubbed in the remaining cream. I did this twice.

It was fine by Friday morning, and I played two and a half hours without any pain.

Nevertheless, Thursday was a low point. I started thinking that my bum finger was going to prevent me from playing the cello. But Friday's session sure felt good; I was relieved that I wasn't going to have to abandon my musical journey, after all.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

 

Lesson 8 and Our Final Rehearsal


The church was being remodeled, so at the last minute we setup in a small room in the basement. Although the room was crowded, the closeness helped us hear each other and the whole group better. I played A LOT better today - maybe because of the different, more intimate setting; or maybe because I have practiced the hell out of these pieces over the last week. I found my octave notes with my little finger more often than not, which let me find the rest of the notes when I needed them. Normally at home, my second finger intonation isn't that bad, but I was quite a bit sloppier in the rehearsal - I could feel the difference, and was sometimes even able to correct it.

There will be over 200 people attending - in addition to we nine cellists, there are at least 20 violinists, with a duet and a string quartet as well. Wow! At least the cellos go first, so I won't have to sit through all the other performances dreading my turn, and I might even be able to recover enough from my debacle to enjoy the rest of the program.

In my other life, I gave many hour-long presentations (sometimes followed by active question and answer sessions) to large groups of people - usually professionals, peers, sometimes hundreds of them. When I first started, I was scared s....less! But after a while, I was able to do it effortlessly, and usually off the top of my head (talking off a handfull of slides that only showed key points). I began to enjoy the challenge, and, as long as I was well prepared, I "performed" quite well.

This recital is the same thing in some ways, but also different. I probably still have some nervousness about being on display - same as when I first started my public speaking in the late 80s. But the difference is that when I gave presentations, I knew my topic better than anybody else, often I was The Expert. All I had to do to prepare was to decide what I wanted to get across, write up some key points on a few slides and then talk through them - relaxed, walking around a bit on the podium, looking around the audience, etc. The difference with this recital is that I am NOT EXPERT in the pieces; far from it, I'm only barely capable.

In the lesson, we played through the three fiddle pieces I'd been tackling. In "Hunting the Hare", I've been having trouble playing the quarter-eighth, eighth-eighth-eighth, combinations. She suggested I play the quarter notes as two hooked-bow eighth notes, so it's "paired" eighth note gets the right amount of emphasis. But this should only be done briefly, until I've gotten the rhythm - then I have to recombine them back into the appropriate quarter notes as soon as possible. She also suggested I try counting aloud as I play - using some of the mnemoics - such as "mis-sis-sip-pi" or "straw-ber-ry", etc.

In "Country Gardens" I'm also short-shrifting the dotted eighth note and putting too much on the sixteenth. She suggested I try it slowly, counting (or saying) the four-beat aloud, with the dotted eighth getting three beats and the fourth for the sixteenth. Also, work on the three or four difficult passages, separately, using pizzicato.

In "Parson's Farewell", just keep working on it. Count, play pizzicato, and then slowly, slowly, slowly.

We also played through the three rehearsal pieces, several times. At one point, after I felt I had really blown it on one piece, I told her I could do it better, and played through it again, far better. We worked on "Happy Farmer". I have to practice all the string crossings, slowly, not playing the new note until the bow was properly set on the new string (I'd been starting the new note before completing the bow change) using my elbow more to move the bow in these crossings.

Then we worked on the new piece, "Long, Long, Ago" in the new key (C Major); I played it OK and then muddled through the variation - not that badly. She was complimentary that I already had it memorized. We worked on the hooked bowing - playing slowly on the up bows, bite the bow into the string, move it enough to push out a brief sound, stop, reset the bow (when needed) and then bite into the next note as before. The idea is to leave a small pause after each note, while keeping the combined note and pause within the allotted beat. Each spicatto note should be short, quick, and momentarily intense.

We talked about using all of the assorted rhythms from this and the other pieces on the various scales. It will be nice to have something different to break the monotony.

All in all, I feel pretty good about today's playing, both in the rehearsal and the lesson.

I told her about the drones I'd found on the internet (I told her about downloading 30-second MP3 snippets and playing them on repeat with Windows Media Player - I agreed to send her the link). She showed me drones in her tuner. I asked if it was OK to play against it. She said she practiced with drones in college, and thought it helped with intonation. For now, at least, I'll use them during scales and warmups.

Concert next Sunday! I am supposed to arrive about 1:30, or so.

Comments:
I really enjoyed reading your blog. I just started cello again after 30 something years and have found that it's not like driving--it doesn't "come right back!" Congratulations on your new Jay Haide, thankyou for standing up for the conservatives on the cello boards, and can you please give the story behind the giant rabbit--they don't make them that big in South Carolina! Hope your recital goes well!
 
Thanks for the feedback. As for the giant rabbit, I found the picture on the internet during Easter season. Apparently the guy is a rabbit breeder from Germany. I'd never seen a rabbit this large before - I'm still not 100% convinced it isn't a kid's stuffed toy.
Recital in a few hours....
 
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Sunday, May 07, 2006

 

"Halfway House" by Katharine Noel


This wonderful debut novel describes a family dealing with a daughter who develops bipolar disorder in her late teens. The story is told from the points of view of each family member - the father is a professional cellist in a small New England town, his wife is the much younger daughter of his former mentor, and there is a son a few years younger than the daughter.

The story covers a period of about 8 years as the family slowly falls apart from the stresses of dealing with the daughter's episodes that drag her through a series of mental institutions and halfway houses as she tests and rejects a variety of medications. Eventually everyone attains some sort of equilibrium in their lives.

Only a small portion of the story deals with the cello, such as the father retreating into his music in times of agitation, with some brief descriptions of giving lessons, listening to various concertos, life in an orchestra, escorting a "famous" soloist, etc. Here is one interesting excerpt about adult learners:

He (Pieter) usually loved teaching adults; their ambitions were small, they practiced dutifully, and they didn't expect unrealistic progress. They would frown as they played a difficult passage, one they'd struggled with for weeks maybe, then beam at his praise....

Pieter said, "I know that I'm pushing you very hard [after his impatient behavior during her lesson]. But it's because--" Because his soul rattled in his body, dry and trapped? Because she'd filled one more hour that would otherwise have been spent knocking blindly around his house? "You have talent," he lied.

She looked at him. "Really? I thought... I always sound so bad."

If he said, "no, no, you truly have talent," he'd inspire her for weeks. He wasn't able, though to give her more than, "Those cheap rented instruments." He pulled his lips back: a smile. "Next week?"


Clearly the author knows the cello and knows something about life as a cellist - whether it be herself, a family member or close friend.

Cello issues aside, this is a good one!

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

 

A good buy on used Cello CDs


Title Wave Books, in Anchorage, has a great selection of second-hand classical music CDs, priced at about half the list-price. This past Saturday I searched through their bins for cello music. I ended up with two handfuls, and regrettably had to put back more than half of them. Tough decision.

I ended up buying:
1) a 2CD set of Pablo Casals (!) playing the Bach Cello Suites (recorded in 1930);
2) a 2CD set of Pierre Fournier playing the Bach Cello Suites (recorded in 1960);
3) Pierre Fournier playing Saint Saens' Cello Concerto (and The Swan), Schubert's Arpeggione, and Tchaikovsky's Variations;
4) Jacqueline duPre playing Dvorak's Concerto in B minor, and Haydn's Concerto in C;
5) Jacqueline duPre playing Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor, and Franck's Sonata in A.

Already, I've listened to Casals' Bach pieces, duPre's Dvorak Concerto, and Fournier's Saint Saens piece. Since I already had CDs of Yo-Yo Ma's Bach Suites, and Fournier's version of Dvorak, I am recognizing considerable differences between these famous cellists's renderings. I've nowhere near the "ear" necessary to make any substantial comments on these differences - some I like a lot, others are just different.

The best part of driving the 75 miles to my lessons every two weeks is that I get to surround myself with music. My old Subaru has a wonderful stereo system that fills me with the sound. I've always liked it better than my home system, and I used to preview new music in my car on the way to work, transferring it to the home system after I'd listened several times. Hmm... Maybe this is why I do so poorly at the rehearsals and my lessons - after filling my head with so much good music for an hour or so on the way down, I become far too self conscious of my own quality when I try to play. Then to compound my feelings of inadequacy, right afterwards, I once again immerse myself in great music on the way home.

Also, while in Anchorage, I bought a lightweight folding metal stool from WalMart for $11.45. When I got home I cut about 3" off each leg, lowering the stool to 21", which is just about the right height for me and my cello. I took it to the rehearsal. It worked great! Although it didn't help my playing (as if), at least I was more comfortable in my agony. I might have been a little better this time, but only marginally. I just don't get it. At home, I can play these pieces backwards, forwards, fast, slow, pizzicato, loud, soft, whatever. But as soon as we sit down together I "lose" my place on the fingerboard, I forget my bowing, I lose my place in the pieces... I don't think it's nervousness or jitters, but maybe... Once I can't locate my fourth-finger on the string - the rest is downhill. I KNOW that I'm off, and since my cello sounds so rich, I'm worried I overpower ther rest of the room, and then its over.... On the other hand, I sure can tell those rare moments when I doi hit the right note! It sounds so sweet!

The other day, I read a thread on Cello Chat talking about tuning systems. Someone mentioned they play against a drone, which helps them with their intonation. Tuners that play drone sounds apparently only play a single note. I remembered running across a website about Cello Drones . Their drone sounds (one for each key) are compositions of three octaves and two fifths, so they are quite a bit more complex and rich sounding. For each major key, I downloaded 30 second mp3 samples that I can play on Windows Media Player using the replay.

I started off running the D drone on the computer and then playing the open D string and then the D scale, and some D arpeggios (and later the same routine with G and C). I "feel" as if I can get a sweeter sound with the drone accompaniment; as if I can find the right spots for almost all the notes in that scale. Then I started playing through each of the pieces using the appropriate drone for its key. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I felt as if I sounded better... I'll have to talk with my teacher about this at my next lesson Monday. (I'm hoping she'll approve...)

I am getting pretty far along already with the first piece in Suzuki 2 (the variation on Long Long Ago). I'm playing it with pizzicato, then bowing the rhythm on open strings, and finally together, slowly...

Even though at any single moment in time, I can look at my playing and feel so inadequate, when I look back at where I was five months ago, I have come quite a ways. EVERYBODY says that practice and patience over time is the only way to get better. Even some of the most experienced cellists in the business comment about how they feel so inadequate sometimes and feel as if they've got so much yet to learn! Yikes! If I'm never going to be able to feel good about my playing, why am I doing this?



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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

 

Casals Video from YouTube


"When he's back home, in brief periods of rest, Don Pablo doesn't abandon the company and the relationship with his cello.

This is El Cant Dels Ocells, The Song of the Birds, song of Catalonian folkore, which the great artist has converted into a hymn to the yearning of his countrymen in exile."


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