Sunday, August 20, 2006


Still struggling

I haven't gotten "it" back yet. Today was no better, maybe even worse. I just can't get satisfied with my sound, again. I guess having heard myself for real (after recording it) several days ago, has made me too acutely aware of my sound as I'm making it. Now it all sounds harsh, scratchy, grainy, uneven. I realize my bowing is off, but I've not been able to figure it out yet. This has gone on for six days now. The humidity has been very high this past week or so (it has rained incessantly - except for a brief lull yesterday afternoon and evening with a fantastic sunset last night around 10:00). Since we normally have very low humidities, I'm guessing that my cello will be affected by the change. I can blame the weather, right?

I have put a lot of effort, these past two or three days, into fingering drills. I started by playing the fifth interval scales on each string; e.g.: D-open, E-1, F-2 (or F#-3), G-4, and A-open; then repeating it in second position: D-open, E-1, F-1 (or F#-1), G-2, and A-4; then merging it all together: D-open, E-1, D, F-2 (or F#-3), D, F-1 (or F#-1), D, G-4, D, G-2, D, A-open, D, A-4; and then back down again; also with other similar variations. I played these over and over again until my fingers just began to fall into place automatically. Then the same with the other strings. After these drills, there wasn't much time left for playing my repertoire - but what I did play sounded pretty poor. I think this is due in large part to bowing. I'm not sure where to improve - clearly it's time for another lesson.

This brings me back to my discussion a few days ago about quantum mechanics. Each tiny movement, or position is a microskill. There are thousands - maybe tens of thousands - of such quantum skills involved in properly playing that A-4 on the d-string. In general, we can only be conscious of a few larger combinations of these skills. We can't be aware of every one of the muscles involved in curling the pinkie tip just right and pressing it down with the right amount of pressure to stop the string. As we play this note, our feedback loops probably tend to refine the point on the string, what part of the finger actually presses against the string, how the other knuckles in that finger are bent, what muscles in the forearm are used, etc., etc. In addition, there are all the other instructions just to that left hand, wrist, arm, elbow, shoulder, that are involved in making the note ring true, and then there are all the muscle instructions going on with the right fingers/hand/wrist/arm/elbow/shoulder in order to pull the bow across that string to produce the note.

Obviously, the more we can control each of these quantum movements and positions, the better our skill will be and the more we will be able to produce quality music. The trouble is that even the best of us is unable to completely master all of these quantum skills. I doubt if anyone would even be able to fully identify all the quantum-skills involved in just this one action of playing A, much less be able to consciously refine more than a few of them. But, clearly, the more we can do so, the better we'll sound. If this many quantum-skills are involved in playing just that one note, imagine how many are involved in playing a symphony!

So is this the difference between a good player and a mediocre player? ...that the better player has mastered more of these tiny quantum skills? and is thus able to apply these skills in a way that better pleases the ear?

Yesterday, Z had several friends over for a belated birthday party. I was appointed driver. Since once friend lives in Kenai, another in Sterling, and another beyond Kasilof, I ended up putting about 150 miles on the car just collecting everybody, taking them to the house for the afternoon, then dropping them off at a movie, and finally, after a long day, taking everybody home. I quite enjoyed it. Since I was a necessary chauffeur, they eventually forgot I was even present in the car with them. It was nice to be able to listen to the group laughing and joking and jesting with one another. Clearly they enjoyed themselves a lot. It was interesting and really gratifying to experience this small glimpse into the lives and interests of 14-year-olds.

School begins next week. Three of these kids started kindergarten together 10 years ago and have been friends ever since. Unfortunately, this year, they are splitting up into different high schools. I sure hope they can find a way to retain their connection. It really shouldn't be as hard as it might have been just a few years ago. They have spent much of the summer together on-line, where their avatars team up against beasts and enemies of all types in the various on-line role playing adventure games. These games let them "chat" with each other as they play. And they also stay in touch by instant messenger when they are online. Even when they are physically together, they often will go online into these worlds and play side-by-side.

I did notice one other interesting thing from yesterday: between their iPods, MP3 players, and laptop computers, they never seemed to listen to a complete song. They'd call up something from the menu, everyone would comment, "yeah, I like this one...", or whatever, and then after 45 seconds or so, they'd open another one. In nearly three hours of driving around yesterday, I don't think I heard one complete song. When I first began listening to music, we had 45's that we stacked on the changer and would listen to the whole stack in sequence. Eventually we moved up to the 33 1/3 albums, which lasted up to 20 minutes per side, but I seldom remember swapping from album to album in mid-play - even if that meant enduring the cuts that I didn't really care for.

Maybe it's the combination of availablity and the ease of access to mp3 files that has led to increased sampling, and less focus on the song in its entirety. It could also be due, in part, to the quality of the music itself... some of what they are listening to is really quite good; a larger part is generally anonymous and disposable; but I was surprised to hear more than a few interesting songs in their playlists from 30 and 40 years ago.

It's true that there are tons of "microskills" involved in playing an instrument, but I think your subconscious mind probably manages to learn them better than if you tried to consciously concentrate on learning them all individually. Not that you don't need to concentrate, but sometimes just letting go is helpful.

By the way, do you practice in front of a mirror? Because it's a great feedback tool.
"Letting go" ssure isn't as easy as it sounds. I realize I'm trying too hard - expecting too much before I have mastered enough of those quantum microskills.

My teacher has been suggesting using a mirror for quite some time now...
I think it's that whole 'playing without thinking' thing again. Have you ever tried just going at one of your favourite pieces full speed and full of emotion, disregarding all the errors? I've been told many times I'm a much more emotional than technical player, but I find I can get to the root of the sound I'm looking for on a few of the notes at least when I do that. Maybe because I'm not thinking of all the little bits I'm doing wrong? I'm not sure.

It helps me when I'm getting overwhelmed with all the technique stuff.
I tried to subscribe to your blog, but it doesn't appear to support xml. You should "feedburner" your blog so it's easier to subscribe to. It's really easy, and free.
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