Sunday, July 30, 2006


Bowing the Cello

I've struggled for months to understand the various bowings and musical notations. In large part, my difficulty is internal. I just didn't know enough about the cello (actually, the bow) to be able to comprehend the explanations so patiently given by my teacher, as well as the more complicated (and rather disjointed) explanations given by Lous Potter, Jr. in his book "The Art of Cello Playing".

I remember the shock of opening a college calculus textbook at the beginning of the school year and looking at one of the chapters near the middle. It was like a foriegn language I'd never seen before. Even though I could read and understand each of the words by themselves, their meaning - the combination of words - just didn't make any sense to me. I probably could have read those words over and over and over until I memorized them, and still I wouldn't have been able to understand the idea they were meant to convey. I just wasn't ready. I hadn't yet absorbed the basic concepts outlined in Chapters 1 - 14, which were necessary to understand the concepts in Chapter 15.

So it is with the cello. I've read the Potter descriptions many times, and I understand all the words, but until I've accumulated enough experience with the basics of the cello and specifically of bowing, there is no way I could understand what Potter was trying to say. Now, after 8 months (!) I am finally beginning to be able to make sense of it.

Of course there's no way to appreciate the finer points of moving the bow across the strings until I'm able to hold the bow properly, with the right amount of looseness and control in the forefinger and thumb, the right amount of relaxation in each of the other three fingers, the proper angle of the wrist, using the muscles in the forearm, properly using the elbow as a hinge, a relaxed shoulder and neck and back, the proper posture, etc., etc., etc. In many ways I haven't gotten most of these figured out yet, but I have progressed far enough to be able to begin to understand more of the terminology and detailed explanations of bowing techniques.

There's a tendency to assume that we learn things in a discrete sequential manner - step by step. First we master one step, then we move on to the next step, etc. That may be true for mathematics, but for the cello, at least, learning is more gradual and accumulative. By that I mean that there is a vast amount of "knowledge" or information that we work at grasping slowly over time. At any one moment, we may be working on dozens or hundreds of particular skills. We don't simply "master" one skill and then move on to the next. Instead with practice and patience, we slowly get better and better at these skills (or particular pieces), and at some point, we finally realize we have made a step-change, and (for a while) it feels as if we have finally "gotten" a particular piece. Then we realize how much further we still have to go with it...

Meanwhile, though we don't just stall out, we continue to move on and work on other skills. At any one point in time in the learning process, there will be some skills we've more or less mastered (never perfectly, though), some skills we've gotten pretty good at, some we are just beginning to show capabilities with, some that we are struggling to grasp, and some we can't believe we'll ever be able to do. We have to continue to work on all these levels, gradually moving into new skills as wefinally conquer the older challenges.

Sometimes, it helps to put aside a piece that seems insurmountable - for me it has been the Bach Minuet #2 in Suzuki 1. Even now, after working on it daily for more than four months, I am still struggling with that 9-note opening sequence. I've played it over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over. I've broken it down into pairs, triplets, quads, etc. I've played it pizzicato. I've played it s-l-o-w. Still, it just doesn't work right, yet. Of course, I am playing it better, but not yet good enough. I've decided to put it aside for a while... for a few weeks, at least.

At the same time, I am finding I'm learning the other Bach pieces (the two newest ones in Suzuki 2, the Minuet #1 and the Minuet #3) which both have second position shifts, and so far I haven't run into any stumbles like those infamous "9-notes". I'm really surprised how easily I've picked these two up, so far. Of course, the Minuet #3 is very familiar, and has always been a favorite; which may be helping.

The ringing tones in my second position intonations are starting to fall into place; this new training is also helping my intonations in first position. I've adjusted my practice schedule so I get to the second position exercises after about 45 minutes, so I'm fully warmed up but not yet tired. I'm really pleased with the quality of the ringing tone I'm getting for "E" on the a-string.

Bowing Definitions

These are taken from the Potter book, and are listed here primarily for documentation and future reference. A few comments are added, in italics.

A dot placed above (or below) a note means to play it short (staccato) and detached from the adjacent notes before and after.

And then there's this (added later), from "How to Read Music", by Len Vogler, page 81: "Staccatto: One of the most commonly used accent marks is the staccato. The staccato mark is a small dot above or below the note head; this indicates the note is to be played short and abrupt. Generally the staccato note is held for less than half of the note's value. It is easier to read [music, where] the notes are staccato than the sixteenth note - sixteenth rest - eighth rest combination."

A slur and dots above (or below) a group of notes means to play these in one bow direction, but detached from each other. See hook bowing and martele bowing.

A horizontal bar above (or below) a note means to broaden it or play it well-sustained. I think this is tenuto?

A dot and a horizontal bar above (or below) a note means "accented but sustained"; played with a marked pulse on each note. I'm still confused by this one, I need to better understand what is meant by a pulse.

De'tache' bowing... a series of detached notes played with separate individual bow strokes, but without the bow leaving the string. The bow is changed smoothly, without interruption, but the effect of each note played with a separate bow is quite different from the effect of groups of notes played in slurred bowings. The latter effect is associated more with legato, sustained playing. The detache' stroke can be played in various parts of the bow, with different lengths of bow stroke (depending upon the tempo, note values, or dynamic strength involved), and at many different bow speeds. It is most often executed in the upper part of the bow, or about at the middle, using a good forearm movement from the elbow. The wrist, however, must not be rigid or stiff, even though the basic motivation of the bow is from the forearm. The tone must be even, the bow moving back and forth straight and on a level plane (like a tabletop, not in an arc), without a change in pressure.

Staccato bowing... Related to the portato as well as the hook bowing... A succession of miniature martele' strokes on the string, played on one bow direction, either up (generally preferred) or down bow. As to impulse for the bowstroke, there are two approaches, largely depending upon the tempo... Unless the speed of the notes is quite fast, the impulse is a lateral movement of the wrist, aided by the fingers, particularly the first finger. The bow is firmly pressed into the string - by the first finger especially - and as the bow stroke is initiated, the pressure is suddenly released: "press-release, press-release" in rapid alternation to accomodate the note values and tempo. The second approach, with a very rapid tempo and/or very quick note values - which make the press-release method impossible. The impulse for each note comes from the forearm, by actually tightening the muscles and pushing (or pulling) the bow by a series of short, rapid, "nervous" jerks. I found early on that I could do this latter style without much difficulty, although sustaining it for very long is hard.

Hook (or link) bowing... A method of connecting tones in one bow direction, which, however, will sound detached, where the rhythm and articulation of the musical passage are better served than with separate bowstrokes. The bow is stopped between each note under the slur - indicated by dots over (or under) the notes. The amount of space and articulation is dictated by the style and tempo of the musical passage, as well as by the taste and discretion of the performer.

Portato (or loure') bowing... A series of two or more notes slurred in one bow direction, but with a slight spacing between each note. The effect is more a smooth "pulsing" of tones rather than a "staccato". The slight spacing of the notes is accomplished with the hand and wrist, the arm motion is "carrying through".

Martele' bowing... de'tache' bowing strokes (on the string) which are not connected, but which start and stop abruptly (each note individually articulated). There are varying degrees of articulation and spacing between the notes, and of dynamic strength applied - according to the tempo, the note values, and the spirit and style of the music. In general, the martele' bow stroke is associated with a marcato, energetic style of playing. In execution, do not relax the bow pressure (or intensity) between or during strokes. This ensures a clear, incisive tone beginning an even tone duration. The arm movement should be active and decisive. The bow pressure is not relaxed druing or between the strokes, there is a slight "shock-absorber" or "recovery" in the hand and fingers, cushioning the effect of the sudden stopping of the bow on the string. This helps prevent extraneous gritty sounds during the spaces between the notes. The bow intensity is maintained into the stick - by the first finger and thumb - between the strokes as well as during the strokes. In that way the bow and fingers are already prepared during the silent pause between strokes to produce an immediate, incisive tone beginning on the next stroke - with a good "bite" or "click".

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Thursday, July 27, 2006


Finally, I'm playing again

I'm back after a too-long break from my cello. I had been afraid I'd lose some ground, but I was relieved to find the contrary. Within a few hours of getting home Wednesday morning, I hauled my cello into my bedroom and spent several hours just playing, only focusing on getting the right tones for each note. After clearing out a little rust from my finger joints, things went quite well. I was especially pleased to find those second position ringing tones with little trouble. My hand still has to get used to the open-hand stretch (C to E on the a-string, for example.)

Today, I returned to my more focused workout. For a while, at least, I felt I was even getting the right durations on the longer notes. I'm working on two new Bach pieces, Minuet No 1 and Minuet No. 3, in the Suzuki 2 book. Learning these has been fun - they aren't that difficult, they are familiar tunes, and they both use second position shifts, which are fun when I get them right. I'm also enjoying learning the basic Mel Bay fiddle tunes - I'm on the fourth one. They are simple, easy to pick up, and sound good.

After six days of resting inside its case with three dampits, my D string was very sharp(!), but the rest of them were pretty closely in tune(?). I tuned down the D, and haven't had to tune it back up in five hours of playing. The three dampits were completely dried out. Temperatures were apparently a bit warmer while we were gone...

Again I scored a bunch of low priced used Cello CDs at Title Wave:

1) A six CD set by Jacqueline DuPre: "Les Introuvables de Jacqueline DuPre" (I'd already bought the second half - three CDs in a case - a few weeks ago, but I really didn't expect to ever find the first half by itself, so it was worth buying the whole collection; hopefully I can resell the second half back to Title Wave, next trip);
2) Yo-Yo Ma with Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2;
3) Alexander Rudin, playing Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 by Kabalevsky;
4) Tim Hugh, playing the Walton Cello Concerto (combined with Dong-Suk Kang playing his Violin Concerto);
5) Andres Diaz playing pieces by Bernstein, Barber, and Footz in a CD titled "American Visions".


For a long time, I've tried to stay generally anonymous. Although many bloggers use their real names, I initially felt I wouldn't be able to be completely open and honest if I knew my friends, family, and former coworkers were reading me. I felt it would inhibit me, making me censor my thoughts... I'm sure that if someone who knew me really wanted to dig out my identity, they wouldn't have too much trouble; but I really don't expect that to happen.

Then I got a comment from someone I'd mentioned in an earlier post: my cello teacher's daughter (a wonderful pianist, and a very talented writer). So now I've been unmasked at least to my teacher. I was a bit concerned, at first, thinking she'd be able to read my thoughts and interpretations regarding our lessons; I worried that I might start censoring myself. After a few days, I relaxed. I have a lot of respect for her and greatly appreciate her efforts to help me learn; and I'd have no problem if she wanted to correct any of my many misconceptions about the cello.

One of my main reasons for this blog was to try to sort out what I'm doing; to rehash what I think I understand as it happens; and for me, writing is the best way to do this. Over the months, I've gone back and made several corrections to some of my posts (one today, even), fixing misconceptions, etc. While I don't expect that I'm getting everything perfectly the first time I hear it, I'm not really that worried that my teacher would disagree (at least not strongly) with anything I've written about the cello. As for my other rants and more personal stuff - I am who I am; I do not feel the need to seek anyone's approval; nor do I expect anyone to agree with everything (or anything, for that matter) that I've written.

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Monday, July 24, 2006


Road Trip

Friday we left on a 4-5 day road trip to Chena Hot Springs. I like their new outdoor soaking pool, "Rock Lake". Quite large, from 4-5 feet deep, bordered with a jumble of large rocks, an average temperature of 105F, with a couple of really nice features. Best of all is the water-jet; a large stream of warm water jetting out of a pipe located 10 feet above the pool. What a massage! It makes me want to take the shower massage off my shower at home... Also, in the middle of the pool is fountain using a fire nozzle pointing directly upward, causing large droplets of cooler water to rain down onto the pool around the pipe - it's like being in a heavy tropical rainstorm.

It was a bummer that they restricted the new outdoor pool to adults over 18. Z sure wasn't happy about that... I can understand the wish to keep a quiet, calming atmosphere for people to enjoy their soak. But it's not fair to kids. At the least, kids over 12 with direct parental supervision ought to be allowed to use it for an hour so in the afternoon and/or early evening.

Their camping area was marginal, but at least we had a good site. The worst part is their generators running day and night. It wouldn't take much to put up a small baffled wall on the west side of their generator exhaust stack. That simple, cheap addon would cut decibels at the campground by huge amount. The generator running the ice house is also annoying, because it is so close by. It's right next to the canvas-sided yurts, which they rent out for $65! Gee thanks.

Coming and going (we're here tonite,as I write this), we've stopped at an RV park between Denali Village and Healy. Nice enough, but surprisingly empty for a Monday night. Traffic has been light. I bet tourism is really off this year.

Saturday afternoon, while cooling on a rock at the Hot Springs lake, I overheard a couple of guys talking on the neighboring rock about the Fairbanks Arts Festival. It finally became clear that one of them was their guest cellist, David Chew, from Rio de Janero. They were discussing their performance the previous night. I wish I had known. I might have found a way to attend. It seems a group of the guest artists had come out by bus for the afternoon. I debated introducing myself as a cellist wannabe, but decided instead to allow them their peace.

I haven't played my cello for four days. I really miss it. I won't be home for another day, yet.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006


I used to think it was the destination that was important, now I realize that it's the journey

When I first tried to learn the clarinet at 14, I focused so much on wanting to be "good" at it, and since it really doesn't work that way, I ended up quitting before I ever really even started. Same with "trying" to learn the violin.

But it has been different with the cello. Recently, I've started playing some simple American fiddle tunes adapted for the cello (Mel Bay) that I found on Amazon. So far I've only tried a few basic pieces, but I've been surprised how quickly I'm picking them up! I've a long way to go, but already they sound nice and I like hearing them as I play them.

With this Blog, I'm reporting my progress along this path of learning. As I've recounted my struggles, my successes, and my occasional flashes of clarity (as well as more than a few rants about various things that are wrong with this world), I've come to understand that it is the learning process itself that is driving me, rewarding me, making me proud of myself, and sufficiently motivating me to keep on working at it. I've known from the outset that I couldn't begin to expect to become a concert cellist; that I might never play well enough to even play in a chamber group, or a struggling quartet, or even in a jam session. All that mattered was that I wanted to learn to play the cello. Although I have no idea where this process is taking me, I've at least figured out that the more I play the better I get - it's that simple. The best advice I've heard was: "The only way to learn to play the cello well is to keep working at it."

It's the journey... not where I'm going, but how I'm getting there...

Unfortunately, I don't think we spend enough time appreciating our journey through life. As we grow up, we focus on the destinations - crawling, walking, controlling our bladders and bowels, talking; later - reading and writing, then math; later - finishing school, going to college, becoming a "worker" (engineer, lawyer, doctor, plumber, waitress, etc.) We are always worrying about the results, and our world becomes "results-oriented". As we become worker drones, our lives become even more results-oriented: do these tasks, then you are rewarded with praise, promotions, money, even just self-satisfaction. Throughout or lives, we measure our worth with these results. But we never really take the time to appreciate the process - the journey - itself.

When my third child was born, 15 years after the second one, I was at a point in my own life to be able to take the time to really appreciate the various stages of his passage through life. Never once did I feel any sense of urgency that Z had to be able to advance before he was fully ready - never: "if only he could walk, talk, dress himself, tie his shoes, etc., now." Instead, I enjoyed him as he was, every day, while teaching him to do all these things. I enjoyed as much his continued efforts to master these tasks, as I did his eventual successes - even as I also enjoyed watching him enjoying his own success (which is life's best reward).

In my former life as an oil company drone, I suddenly had to learn spanish. To understand, read, write, and even speak it in as short a time as possible. At 47, I hadn't had to deal with any foriegn languages for more than 25 years. I even escaped part of my college language requirement by taking Appreciation of Russian Literature - a wonderful course, by the way, that stood out as one of the most influential from my college years. Learning spanish as an adult, in a hurry, with the attached importance of being able to do my job better if I did, was quite an experience. There was a clear goal, but it was hard to find defineable measures of success. I began to understand that it would be a long, long time before I would ever become fluent, but along the way, I continually got better and better - as long as I worked at it. When the master bees decided to reassign me to another task in a different part of the hive, I no longer had any need to know spanish, and I immediately stopped trying to learn it, and I soon began to forget most of what I'd struggled so hard to learn up to that point.

With the cello, it will be a long time before I can say I'm "fluent". But rather than HAVE to learn the cello in order to do my job, or play in a symphony, or a chamber orchestra, quartet or jamfest, I am learning the cello merely to be able to play it as good as I can at the time.

I discovered your blog when I was googling myself, and was really surprised that you've kept such great records of your lessons with my mother! Great blog, great job. Keep up the hard work.
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Monday, July 17, 2006


Iran's Miscalculation

We are finally beginning to witness the extent of Iran's involvement with the worldwide terror networks, and to observe their cynical willingness to sacrifice them to advance Iran's own agenda. Hezbollah is fully a product of the Iranian madness that arose with their revolution; its fanatical followers can barely be restrained from surging across the border into Israel flailing their swords (and RPGs) taking on all comers. They have been fully indoctrinated into the fundamentalist mania that Iran's immans devised to create blindly loyal followers eager to die for no reason, and just as eager to sacrifice their own families in the process.

As the pressure slowly began to build on Iran to stop their nuclear development program and Russia began to cave in to international pressure to sign onto the latest plan, Iran started making vague threats against Israel and the US. On the very day Iran was supposed to respond to the latest package of incentives and obligations put together by the western powers and endorsed by their Russian protector, they unleashed their bulldog, Hezbollah, onto Israel's northern border.

However, a simple incursion meant to deliver a strong message to their Western adversaries went out of control when Hezbollah took two Israeli prisoners back with them, and triggered a massive response by Israel that has all but destroyed Lebanon, once again, and brought the entire region to the brink, once again. I have little doubt that Iran did not expect this turn of events and has been scrambling to deal with the consequences.

Hezbollah cares little for Iran's larger agenda, being so focused on their own rabid hatred of Israel and their desire to jump into the fray to steal some of the limelight from their main rival, Hamas. Iran and its puppet Syria have created a monster that neither can fully control. Hezbollah is the largest and probably the most radical terrorist group in existence, more than willing to take on whatever adversary and accept whatever losses come with it. Their dominance of Lebanon, directly supported by Syria, means Lebanon is a simple pawn in the bigger game between Iran and the West.

So now what is Iran doing? After getting over the shock of Hezbollah's over-the-top raid into Israel, they quickly tried to capitalize on the international implications by suggesting they had organized all this as a warning to the west. If they hoped to enlist the support of the staunch Arab countries, they appear to have miscalculated. Most of the Arab countries have long ago accepted the reality of Israel and were well along on the path trying to finally resolve border and security issues between Israel and Palestine.

Then, with the full support of Iran (and Syria) along comes Hezbollah (and Hamas) to completely destroy the status quo and bring the entire peace process to a grinding halt (and then two giant steps backward). No one (except perhaps Iran and Syria) wants to see Lebanon once again fall into civil war and wind up once again under the "protective" wing of Syria. The Arab states had become tired of funding a corrupt Palestinian government, carrying their payrolls and various welfare programs. A stable Palestine was finally going to free them from this long-standing financial burden, and peace, finally, in the middle east would encourage more and more investors to locate industrial facilities in the region.

Now, it all starts over once again. The peace between Israel and Palestine is wrecked. Lebanon's democracy is crumbling. Worst of all, Israel has got to be rethinking its recent withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza (not to mention the impending plan to pull out of most of the West Bank). And peace and prosperity, just recently around the corner, are now once again a long way off.

Of course the Arab states have to oppose Israel, especially since Israel is going to respond by going after the terrorists who so cowardly hide behind their civilian populations. They have to go through the motions. But they can't be happy to see this all coming apart. Iran may win (temporarily), but everybody else loses. They can't be very happy to see Iran meddling in their affairs.

This may be Iran's undoing. Without the Arab governments' backing Iran will be unable to advance their agenda as they had hoped. They will first have to take on, and eventually take down, these Arab governments, and replace them with islamist theocracies subordinate to their own. Even if they do succeed in pulling down these old institutions, it is unlikely that the replacements will be any more willing to subordinate themselves as vassals of Iran. Syria's pitiful example of lap-dog-ism can not be very encouraging to these neighboring states - regardless of who's in charge.

So how should we (the US - acting alone if necessary - but preferably along with the rest of the "civilized" world) now deal with Iran?

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Sunday, July 16, 2006


My Cat, "Big Brother", WWIII

My cat is really aggressive with other animals. It's fun to watch him go after my brother's dogs, when he stops by. His hair on his neck and back stands up and his tail turns into a thick brush. He goes into attack posture (picture the classic halloween black cat: standing sideways with back arched, ears laid back, teeth showing, hissing), waiting for an opening. Suddenly he'll fly across the room at the offending dog and start biting him on the leg or ear or wherever. Then he'll flee to relative safety under the kitchen table, to lurk around the legs and rungs of the chairs, watching for his next opportunity to attack. The poor dog hasn't got a chance; even if he dares fight back, the cat just gets more emboldened. Finally, we'll have to separate them.

I've watched every Big Brother season since it began. BB7 is turning out to be quite interesting; bringing back some of my favorites - George, Will, Janelle(!), and best of all, Howie. It was so funny watching him go after one of the other players last year (I don't even remember which one). This season, he's going after Will - flirting with him, and doing an aggressive "in-your-face" gay sort of come-on, really pushing for a physical/emotional reaction. Will tolerated it at first, but lately he's started to wear thin, lamely using a "I'm -the -smart -sophisticated -rich -guy -patiently -having -to -deal -with -this -obnoxious -overbearing -dumb -jock -bumpkin" response to him. But Howie is undeterred. The years haven't been good to Will. His snappy-insider-joker personality of Season 2 has turned sour. Botoxer indeed! What a skimmer! Let's not even talk about "Boogie".

Cello note

I'm diligently working on my new second position exercises; trying to learn the relative finger locations using the sounds; patterning my muscles to move the exact distance from the various known first position ringing tones. Slowly it's starting to click. While playing the target practices and finger shift etudes, my fingers are finding their new spots on the strings more accurately, and I pick up the rhythm as I play them over and over and faster and faster, till my hands start to cramp up. Making progress, slow and steady.

Iran and World War III

I think Iran has been planning for this war since 1980 - the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, when they had to release the hostages from our embassy in Tehran. They knew Reagan would invade. They knew they would lose. But that would change. They vowed that the next time they had a direct confrontation with us, they would not be backing down. They were going to export their terrorist tactics across the muslim world to one day fight their war in a radically different way. They intended to breed and indoctrinate a whole generation of fanatical followers who would not care if they lived or died, and consequently would never retreat or give up the cause. Their global strategy started with establishing and funding charities to be run by local fundamentalist mosques, opening and staffing madrassas for the children, infiltrating the clerical ranks.

The Arab world was backing the PLO as the high-profile voice for the Palestinian movement, which has been the Arab 'cause celebre' since 1948. Iran was a relative newcomer to the field, having so recently devolved from a westernized capitalist powerhouse into a fundamentalist islamic theocracy; it had never commanded much respect in the Arab world. To advance their islamic agenda and eventually dominate the region, they had to slowly change the focus of the popular causes and regional strifes from the longstanding Arab vs. Jew to Islam vs. non-islam infidels. They knew it would take a long time time, a lot of careful planning, and an immense amount of patience to pull this off.

It appears that they now feel ready to fully assert themselves and take on all comers.

First, they needed to carefully ease the PLO off its perch. So these fundamentalist clerics looked through the rank and file mosques in the region and came across a few like-minded local mullahs to slowly encourage with charitable support along with weapons, training, and tactical advisors. In southern Lebanon, using their Syrian allies as a go-between, they setup Hezbollah. Across the border they quietly started building up Hamas into a force to be reckoned with.

Syria is the only Arab country which has switched sides and plays the quiet "little-brother" role in Iran's war plans. They are taking quite a payoff, and in return they've been given free reign to testout various terror tactics in Lebanon, as long as they keep up the pressure on Israel and in recent years on the US in Iraq. In previous blogs, I've discussed these hidden ties between Iran and Syria and how they've been cooperating in Iraq. Neither country bemoans the loss of Saddam Hussein for one second, no doubt they loathed him like everyone else did (Iran's disastrous war with Iraq nearly cost it a generation of children - used as human minesweepers to clear their battlefields before committing their armed troops), but after his downfall they found themselves in a fortuitous position to be able to use his "legacy" to field-test their various terrorist tactics against the US forces in Iraq, all the while appearing to be staying above the fray.

Al Queda was also a secret and indirect recipient of Iran's largesse. This needed to be kept under deep cover; I doubt more than a handful of people on either side of that deal know much about it. This has paid off for both sides. I'm convinced Osama is hiding out in the eastern Iranian desert along their common border with Afganistan. He's been there from the beginning. The western media has bought the ruse hook, line, and sinker. That's why we've never even come close to nabbing him. The US has no choice but to play along because up until now we haven't dared go into Iran looking for him, and the Pakistan cover story is all we have.

While Iran has become one of the most powerful influences on the planet, they operate best in the murky shadows of their principle benefactors, China and Russia. China and Russia needed a proxy to take on the west, and Iran was more than willing to destroy itself in the process, and they'll eventually do it with or without their help. That gives Iran an element of control over their relations with these military mentors. Iran successfully plays these two against the middle, allowing them to follow their own agenda, while letting Russia and China come up with their own reasons for protecting them at the Security Council of the UN.

I don't think the US has done all that well in dealing with these new tactics. It's not easy, since our culture is fundamentally repelled by their callous disregard for their own people, their own families, even. Look at Iran's use of its own children to clear minefields in their war with Iraq; blowing up innocent civilians in the marketplaces, mosques, and bus stations; basing their operations deep within their cities and neighborhoods, completely integrated into the population. This forces the west to face up to the difficult moral dilemma of inflicting civilian casualties while trying to root out and dismantle their terrorist cells. How else do you do it, if they are willing to use their own people as hostages, their own homes as bases to fire missles, store ammunition, and shoot at their enemies? To make it worse, they then cynically take full advantage of video footage of any civilian casualties as part of their all out propoganda war.

Israel goes after the terrorists wherever they hide, and chalk up civilian casualties as unfortunate consequences that cannot be avoided. The US is slowly and painfully learning this lesson in Iraq. Europe just doesn't get it and still considers any civilian losses as abominable. Russia clearly doesn't care much whether or not they kill their own civilians when they go after the Chechen terrorists. Look at the Moscow theater hostage situation several years ago, and just over a year ago the school shootout that led to the death of so many of the kids. China couldn't care less; to them, civilians are mostly a nuisance to be tolerated, anyway.

More later...

It's lame, I know, posting a comment in your own blog, but I just reread this post and realized I didn't quite get my point across about civilian casualties. There is no good excuse for civilian casualties, and yet I fear that we humans have not evolved far enough to avoid them. Certainly not if the fighters on one side use their own civilians as shields and think nothing of sacrificing them in their cause. The other side could very well be horrified (who wouldn't be?) at the very thought of this approach to war, but if they don't fight back, they will not survive.
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Monday, July 10, 2006


Sawin' on

I've got so much to work on that I run out of time in my two hour session to get through everything. So, I've started playing the first half of Suzuki Vol. 1 by playing the odd numbered pieces on odd days, and the even pieces on the even numbered days, just so I have enough time to work on the new stuff.

I've been spending a lot of time working on the "Target Practice" in the Mooney book, the basic Second Position Etudes in Suzuki Vol 2, and the Countdown Etude. This is all to learn the second position. At first I just played them by ear - trying to hear if I hit the right place. I realized this approach is sort of after-the-fact; if I miss the note, I make a correction with a slight adjustment of the appropriate finger. Today, I started consciously thinking about exactly where I was going to put my fingers - and then occasionally glancing at the fingerboard for a visual confirmation. It seemed to help a bit. Of course I don't want to develop the habit of looking at the fingerboard (again); it took so long to get out of that when I was working on first position. The biggest gain seems to come from the act of consciously thinking where the finger should go, rather than just let it "find" it subconsciously. Clearly that is the ultimate goal, but obviously, my fingers won't find where to go before they actually learn it.

Along with the target positions, I also started playing the new fourth finger notes on each string - listening for the ringing tones. The more I did this, the better everything sounded.

With the three new pieces to learn, along with the two (American) fiddle pieces from the Mel Bay book, the four (British) fiddle pieces I've been working on for a while, and (still) "The Happy Farmer" and "Bach Minuet #2", I have a lot to work on.

I'm still excited about being in second position.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006


What a difference the sun makes!

From gloom to ecstasy in minutes! For the past three days, it has been cloudy, cold (45F to 55F), and rainy. Today started off no different. The drive to Homer for Lesson 12 gave no hint that the day might improve. But by the time I left to come back home, the sun was just beginning to show itself on the Bay. It took four more hours for that better weather to finally arrive here. Now, the skies to the west are bright blue with a hot sun - in minutes the temperature rose to the mid 60s, and we are looking forward to a long sunny evening. How quickly our moods improve with the sun!

Lesson 12 went quite well. I was pleased (mostly) with my playing and we had a good discussion about second position fingering techniques. My work on the target notes for the second finger seemed to have paid off - I was able to find them fairly easily, and also the new fourth finger notes (E/A/D/C).

I have to work on moving my thumb in coordination with the whole hand, particularly to slide (loosely) the appropriate fingers on the string, rather than lifting my hand altogether and jumping to the correct position. This poses a challenge for my first finger, since the rubber cot won't slide. Maybe it's finally time to try playing without it.

We talked a lot about keeping the upper fingers loosely on the string while pressing with the appropriate lower finger (e.g. playing D on the a-string with the fourth finger, keep the first three loosely resting on the string but not pressing). The same goes for keeping the thumb loose - always. Release the tension!

This came up as a result of my concern about slurring. Holding my unused fingers hard down on the string makes it harder to lift them easily, for example when slurring down the scale. It helps also to make a positive step-change when going up the scale (this is harder to describe than it was to do). It will take quite a bit of work to consciously relax, continuously. She suggested I try slurring the four-note combinations as two sets of two - first, until I'm comfortable with them, then eventually I'll be able to combine them. Also practing slurring across strings using open strings, first. I should also play my scales using slurred couplets.

We played several rounds together by sight-reading. I did OK - usually needing one or two run-throughs to get it right. I have to try to always play from the music, not from memory - otherwise as the pieces begin to get longer, I'll not be able to keep it fully in memory. It also helps to watch the music for technical information such as, rests, bow changes, playing in rhythm, etc. This too, will be a challenge to keep in mind as I play.

On the Long, Long Ago Variation I have to work on my hooked bow stacattos. My bow stroke should be controlled by the forefinger - forcefully pushing the stick down onto the string in a short sharp stroke, taking care not to use my arm to control the pressure or the stroke.

Finally, I started a new piece - Minuet No. 1 by Bach. It looks rather easy with only three second position shifts - that's three into second position and three back to first. She reminded me to take my time as I learn it - to make sure I can play it right slowly before trying to play it fast.

At our next lesson, we'll do some review of Book 1 (that means keep up the practicing of all the old stuff).

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Monday, July 03, 2006


Yard work

After buying a new wheelbarrow on sale (which took an hour and a half to assemble and another hour to modify with a grinder so the dumper system would work - no wonder it was on sale), a new spreader, and a new travelling sprinkler, six bags of lime, four of fertilizer and a whole lot of grass seed, I will finally once again have a decent lawn. Along with the tractor rental and topsoil, this new lawn will end up costing almost $1,500.

Ten years ago I had to start cutting down all the trees in our lawn which had shaded us (quite darkly, we discovered). Year after year more trees died off from the spruce bark beetle epidemic and I had to bring them down. It was a lot of work cutting them into firewood and cleaning up the branches (by burning them each winter). Since there are tens of thousands of acres of dead trees, firewood has become quite cheap around here, and it was a challenge to even give away all the firewood to friends and neighbors. Now, after so many years, only a few hardy trees survive. Once the logging was over (at least around the house - there are still more than 75 dead standing trees off the hill in the creekbed which must eventually come down, but they can wait - we can't see them anyway); getting rid of the stumps became the next challenge. Each year, instead of staying home and working on the yard, we took off in our motorhome, and traveled throughout most of the US (and Canada). After a few years of this I began to neglect the yard altogether - it looked so tacky with all those gray stumps. Finally, this year I've done it.

Keeping a lawn in this part of Alaska requires a lot of dedication. The soil is naturally acidic (due to its volcanic origin and the dominance of spruce trees), so we have to constantly add lime (Calcium Hydroxide with a little Magnesium Hydroxide), and then a high nitrogen fertilizer. We also have to water it every three days or so, unless it rains... The real dedication is that because of the lime, the fertilizer and watering, the grass grows quite quickly under our long sunlight hours; and we usually have to mow every five or six days. Unfortunately, if we don't do the lime, fertilizer, water, mowing thing every year the lawn turns brown and dies out quickly. You can't win.

One reason we want a lawn is to reduce habitat for mosquitos - and aesthetic appearance, etc. Without proper tending to the lawn the weeds take over quickly and little alder trees quickly pop up - their root system is quite extensive and no matter how often you cut them down, unless you dig up the roots, the darn things keep coming back - good for the moose (and mosquitos) I guess.

Cello Musings

I'm working on second position, playing the various "Etudes" in Suzuki, the "Target Practice" drills in Mooney, and the "Countdown" exercise my teacher gave me - over and over and over. Every day, I spend about half an hour on this. Hopefully I'm training my second finger to find its new "home", and consequently all my other fingers as well.

I'm actually quite encouraged that I'm able to "find" the right place more often than not - and I can certainly tell when I don't! I'm not ready to admit to liking the new fourth finger notes - especially E (a-string) and A (d-string). It will take getting used to, I guess. I do hear ringing tones - even with the new high E (?) when I do get those notes just right.

Meanwhile, I've kept working on all my other pieces and lately I feel as if I've made jump-step improvements on several of them. Progress seems to come in fits and starts, rather than steadily. Some of these new pieces now sound quite smooth and clean. I'm able to play them at a pretty good tempo - especially the fiddle tunes. Also, working on second position has somehow helped me with intonation in first position.

How did you manage to retire so young? I'll be 55 in August. I think I have to put oin another 10 years, though.

I played studied and played bass when I was younger. I would like to play cello too, when I retire and have some time. I think cello would be best because I can read the bass clef and cello parts are a lot more interestng than bass parts.

How long have you been playing?


Hi Nick!
Thanks for your feedback. My retirement came by accident - my company was doing a major downsizing and rather than get caught by surprise, I volunteered. Fortunately the buyout package was quite generous, which carried me for several years.
I still hope to be working again, eventually, but for now, there are no decent jobs where I live, and I really don't want to move.

Learning the cello takes as little as half an hour a day - sort of like committing to an exercise regimen. You might not progress as fast as if you put in two hours a day, but think how far you'll be in ten years if you started now!

I began playing just seven months ago. In some ways it seems much longer, considering how much my life has changed because of it.

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