Saturday, September 30, 2006

 

She gets a job!



Where's your paycheck?


Did you get some
beer?

What's for supper?


Comments:
OK, here's the scene:

Y arrives home from her first day at work after 14 years. As the new "house-husband", I met her at the car wearing my bathrobe, torn tee-shirt, shorts and ragged slippers, unshaven...

She enjoyed it.
 
Sexy. Next time do a full-on June Cleaver with vacuum, martini pitcher, and freshly baked cookies. I'm sure Mrs Guanaco would love that.
 
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Thursday, September 28, 2006

 

Another first!


After listening to that blasted Suzuki CD more than a hundred times, and Rodney Yarrow's companion CD for a while last spring, I always assumed that it would be years before I would be able to actually play along with any of the pieces. It didn't bother me too much, I knew that eventually I'd get there.

Our string orchestra is going to play a relatively simple piece, "Knock on Wood", as our contribution to next Friday's "Evening of Classics" fundraiser for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. A last minute change, we had only begun to look at it last week. While it's all straightforward pizzicato, it's packed with rests and counterpoints. We hesitantly picked our way through it that first time. Right away, I knew my big challenge was going to be counting through all those rests, especially since the cello's rests are different from everybody else. Every day, I've been working on it along with my new partner, the metronome :) I counted it aloud; I whistled it (I don't sing); I spoke the notes aloud; and so on and so on. And at this past Monday's rehearsal we played through it several times, fairly slowly. I did OK.

The conductor had given us a link to the JW Pepper sheet music site which included a RealAudio download of that piece, so Tuesday I pulled it up and listened to it several times to find out how it's supposed to sound. Meanwhile I went back to my metronome and worked on that piece, a lot, mostly at around 72 beats per minute. Yesterday I was able to play through it accurately; I had found its rhythm somewhere inside me. So I sped up the pace to 80 bpm, and played through it OK; then 88, then 96, then 104, and then to 112! Imagine, me playing anything at 112 bpm! It seemed the faster I set the metronome, the easier it was to "find" that rhythm among all those rests.

So today, I went through the same process, starting out slow and gradually increasing the speed back to 112. Then, almost offhandedly, I played the tune off my computer. It was only a little faster than I'd just played it myself, so after listening a few times, while reading the notes and counting aloud, I played my part against the recording. And I managed to keep up!

Later, I reduced the bass range on the clip using RealAudio's basic equalizer, to where I could only hear the mid-range and treble parts; and I played it through again, essentially on my own against the rest of the parts.

Three conclusions:

First, the metronome has obviously made a difference.

Second, I've actua
lly played against a recording!

Finally, I'm beginning to feel that I might be able to pull it off next Friday after all.

Comments:
Yay! Congratulations, Mr. 112+ bpm. All that ticking and perseverating is paying off.
 
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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

 

it won't stop ticking


each step on the treadmill
eating
a rock caught in a tire tread on a trip to town
even sleeping

i hear that metronome

tick tock
tick tock
tick tock
tick tock

captain hook in another dimension

Comments:
Maybe you've just tapped into the pulse of the Universe.
 
Guanaco, you're perseverating.
 
I had to look that one up. Thanks for the new word!
 
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Sunday, September 24, 2006

 

It just keeps on ticking


It's only been a week and a half, but it feels like playing with a metronome is actually helping. It's not like it should be a surprise. What I'm struggling to understand, though, is why it took me so long to accept that I needed it.

For the past several months, I've sort of assumed that I could just power my way through it by playing through each piece over and over until the timing and rhythm problems somehow worked themselves out. Lately, though I had begun to sense that my teacher was getting a little exasperated that I still couldn't hold those dotted quarter notes in Happy Farmer long enough; or even the dotted halves in Rigadoon. Finally, she said quite directly (I recorded it with "Audacity") that at this stage, my intonation was actually pretty good, and that my second position shift was also pretty good, but that it was time that I started paying more attention to my bowing. The bow draws the sound out of the strings, it controls the tempo and rhythm, and dynamics; it handles string crossings, and the slurring, staccatos, spicattos, and tenutos. As she put it, "the right hand does all the work". I could only get so far focusing on my left hand, before I would eventually stall out.

Since my next lesson wasn't going to be for four weeks, I finally accepted that I really had to shift focus in my practicing or I was going to show up at the next lesson with the same deficiencies and no progress towards fixing them. The other catalyst was the orchestra rehearsals, where I realized that if I couldn't get the tempos and rhythms sorted out, I wasn't going to be able to cut it.

So: tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. I'd bought a mechanical metronome that I have to wind every half hour or so. Tempos are adjusted by sliding a weight up or down the bar; each little click is two beats per minute. The beats per minute scale is so small that I can't see the numbers, even with my reading glasses on, unless I squint and look at it under a bright light. I probably should go electronic...

I've reached the point where I can play the basic pieces that use half notes, quarter notes and eighth notes, fairly well. But when the piece starts on an upbowed eighth note, or includes eighth rests on the beat, or dotted quarters, I struggle to match my rhythm to the metronome's incessant tick-tock, tick-tock. I don't understand why I can't just kick off that note AFTER the tock, or hold it past the next tick but not all the way to the following one, etc. Today, I sped up the metronome (not double, but a lot faster) and started playing at an eighth note to a beat (is that 8/8 time?) That seemed to help get the off-beat notes and rests OK, but instead I was challenged to hold the quarter notes for two full beats. It will come...

So now, life with a metronome... In some ways it's a restriction that I didn't expect, but at the same time it's a tool that will help me develop my internal rhythm and tempo. Today, I was really pleased with my version of the Bach Minuet #2; playing with the metronome seems to have helped me work out whatever was holding me back on it. The metronome has really helped me with all four of the Bach pieces in my current repertoire.

Tick-tock, tick-tock

Comments:
I tapped my foot while playing flute, but as that's hard to do with cello, I just move my toes to the beat. I find writing in where the beats fall in a bar (I use vertical lines above the notation) helps me when I've got dotted quarter or eighth notes I'm not holding to their full value. I don't know why, but seeing where the beats fall helps me keep it under control.

Playing with a metronome is vital to practise sessions I think, though I hate hate hate the thing. I find it hard to play musically while listening to it, but that's not the point is it? Once you get the tempo and rhythms down, then you can 'feel' the piece anyway.

My teacher also tells me to stop stressing about my left hand. It will take care of itself he keeps saying! I think he's right though - I can feel it in orchestra rehearsals when I'm thinking about nine hundred other things. Also, he makes me play stuff just concentrating on where my bow hits my strings, and my intonation is better than when I'm really thinking about it.

Thinking without thinking I suppose. Easier said than done!
 
I just set my metronome to some speed, then practice with one tick per smallest note (like one tick per 16th, if the piece has 16ths). This usually makes the piece go way slower than actual tempo. Since my teacher is big on having me practice at 1/2 or 1/4 of actual speed, this kills two birds with one stone.

I'm also getting pretty burnt out on the non-musicalness of playing with the metronome though. Tonight is my first lesson since working in earnest with the thing. I'm going to be pretty PO'd if teacher doesn't notice any improvement in my rhythm.
 
Your teacher is bound to notice you've been working with the metronome, PFS!

My teacher is always urging me to slow down while I practice. Using the metronome for eighth note or even sixteenth note beats sure seems lika good way to get there.

I'll try noting the beats above the bar, like you suggest Erin. I've tried counting them aloud (even just "aloud in my head") while I play, but that seems to get in the way and I miss notes, lose my place, etc. As much as I try, I find by the fifth bar or so, I've stopped counting.

It's just going to take more patience, practice and persistence, right?
 
While playing along with a metronome does prevent most rubato and taking time at the ends of phrases, etc., you can still play musically when using one. It just takes a little more effort. But there's nothing preventing you from playing with expressive dynamics (provided your metronome is loud enough - if not, and it's electric, you might be able to plug it into speakers), vibrato (unless you haven't learned it yet), and articulation.

It's kind of like poetry. If you have the constraint of having to write in iambic pentameter, or haiku, or some other form, it restricts you, yes, but it can also make you work more creatively.

Though it's true that most times you're working with the metronome you're probably just focusing on rhythmic issues. :)
 
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Peter and the Wolf


Last night, I took Z and his friend to see the Arctic Chamber Orchestra perform Prokofiev's children's classic, "Peter and the Wolf". I first remember seeing/hearing this when I was in the second grade [sorry PFS, no personal pic from that era is ever going to surface]. Our entire school was bussed across town to the Louisiana State University campus where we were treated to this wonderful piece, probably played by a University orchestra. The hall was like a large school lunchroom with a low ceiling (and lousy acoustics), folding chairs and a portable stage. But what a way to introduce the classical instruments! The next day, I remember my teacher, Miss Sonji, showed pictures and playing recordings of the principal instruments from that piece. I also remember someone coming to the classroom to demonstrate the French Horn. I was really taken by all the music. My parents bought me an LP of that concert and I still have it in a box (somewhere).

[I've got hundreds of LPs from the early 1950s on. What am I going to to with them all? I inherited most of my parents' collection several years ago, which I boxed and stored away. And just this week, I finally put away my large, eclectic vinyl collection to make room for our new guinea pig ("Floyd", and his eyes aren't really red). Imagine, a whole era of rock music - starting with my first purchase, Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow in 1966, all the way through the late 1980s, when I finally - belatedly - switched to CDs, all displaced by a guinea pig!]

It was that French Horn that got me into Jr. High School Band. In 7th grade I took a music appreciation class (it was that or art), and in the first week, while listening to the Grand Canyon Suite, I was the only one who could identify the French Horn. The teacher told me I had a musical ear (based on that!) and asked me which instrument I wanted to play. I said: "the cello". He laughed and said: "Son, this is Louisiana. Our high school music program exists for one purpose only... to backup the football team. We are a marching band, and strings don't march. Try the clarinet." And I did, for one year... but that's another story.

The performance last night attracted quite a few families with young children - predominantly preschool and early elementary, although there were quite a few kids all the way through HS. The Prokofiev piece was clearly a hit with everyone. After a short intermission, the orchestra played Beethoven's Eroica symphony. This was a curious choice, since it clearly went way over the heads of most of the younger members of the audience, and the subsequent squirming and restlessness caused many families to slip out before the end of the second movement. Which is too bad, since I suspect much of the audience only recognized this piece at the start of the third movement. Z and his friend admitted that they really enjoyed Peter and the Wolf and they both highlighted the third movement of the Eroica.

But within minutes of leaving the concert, their discussion turned to the latest on-line quest/adventure game "Guild Wars" that they've been playing for the last few months. It's really cool that they can do the same thing together while sitting on their respective computers at home 25 miles apart. They can see and talk to one another's avatars and face the same perils and challenges together. In fact when they do visit each other in the real world, they usually bring along their laptops and log-in to play the same game on their own computers; except that they are now sitting side by side and can share more verbal commentary.

I can remember a lengthy discussion on CompuServe's bulletin board back in 1984 [when it cost me $18 in access fees and long-distance charges for one hour online] about the "impossibility" of ever transmitting a picture over the telephone - it would just take up too much bandwidth. Instead we downloaded alphanumeric "drawings". Twenty years later, people can simultaneously "experience" intensely realistic graphical worlds wirelessly!

We have so few opportunities in this area to experience live classical music, and sadly, few people take advantage of it when someone does come to town. I am glad so many did show up last night. Hopefully a few young minds were infected, even if Z and his friend do remain at best casual observers.

Comments:
My husband and I both play an online game very similar to Guild Wars, called World of Warcraft. It's addicting, but because of all the human interaction it's a lot less isolating than your average video game I would say.
 
what a cute guinea pig! I've never seen a gray one before
 
I've not been able to focus the time and energy needed to play any of these types of games. It may be that I'm afraid I will become addicted to the detriment of everything else, including, now, my cello.

Guinea pigs are so cute, aren't they? We especially liked the gray one since he matches our cat. It's the first gray one I'd ever seen.
 
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Saturday, September 23, 2006

 

Metronomics


Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock
Tick -Tock

Comments:
OK Guanaco I'm starting to worry about you. You're speaking Metronome instead of English.
 
I admit, that dang thing may be getting to me. I'm even having dreams in rhythm. Now if I could only get past 72 bpm...
 
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

 

Performance


In three short weeks, our string orchestra will be playing one piece as part of a local "Evening of Classics" series in Soldotna. The string group from Homer was originally going to join us and we were to join them the next night in Homer for another recital. Then the Homer concert was cancelled, and today we also learned they weren't going to join us at ours. That left us a little short-handed, since there were only 9 players at last night's rehearsal - 7 violins, 1 viola, and only 1 cello :( Four of the players were new last night, with three missing from the previous week.

We'd worked quite a lot on "Swedish Rhapsody" for the recital, and I thought we were getting closer to a decent run-through. But with only two more full rehearsal sessions and then a brief rehearsal the evening of the recital, we were probably reaching quite a bit. I guess the Homer group was going to fill in the gaps. With their absence, our conductor decided to set aside Swedish Rhapsody and instead play something quite different - "Knock on Wood", which is all pizzicato for all players. We'd only looked at it the first time last night. My challenge is accurately counting all the rests in the piece. I worked on it briefly this morning - and did well enough, I guess. I had put a lot more effort into Swedish Rhapsody, and was actually beginning to think I might be ready with three more weeks of dedicated practice.

As we played through several pieces in last night's rehearsal I noticed that every time we started a new section, EVEN THOUGH I'D WORKED ON THESE PIECES AT LEAST SEVEN SEPARATE TIMES IN THE LAST WEEK, I would first mess up royally, sometimes just stopping after getting totally lost. On the next runthrough, I'd at least get the notes right; and finally, if we played it a third time, I'd even get the timing (more or less). What's new for me is hearing others playing something different - not only different pitches, but different timings. I think it might help if I could listen to the first violins a few times separately, while reading along in my score. Then the rest of us, playing together without the first violins, so we could hear our part. Then all together.

Each day, after warming up with a few scales and shifting exercises, I reluctantly start up the metronome (on slow, although today I increased the speed one notch - 4 bpm). Why do I dislike the metronome so much? Maybe because it's such a struggle to play against. It takes several tries before I get there. Several times I had to stop, count it out loud against the tick-tock, play pizzicato a time or two, and then I'd pick up the bow and it would come together. Using the metronome has really helped me with the Bach pieces. With a little effort they come out pretty good! So, why doesn't this positive feedback (admittedly from my own ears - but aren't we our own harshest critics?) make me more enthusiastic about the metronome? In a way, because I'm having to flail around with rhythms and tempos on pieces I'd "thought" I had long since mastered, just trying to stay with the metronome, it feels as if I've taken a giant step backwards.

Two cello references on TV recently. The new Studio 60 had a character mention something was "as unlikely as me suddenly learning to play the cello". Tonight's episode of House began with the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Comments:
That metronome is just an evil little task-master, if you ask me!

I didn't realize your orchestra was strings-only. An all-pizzicato piece sounds like fun, but I would think it would be difficult to stay together. I hope you'll get to play that Swedish Rhapsody again someday.

Hey, I think your last post Cellonightmare affected my dreams-- I had a cello nightmare of my own. All I remember is some guy tossing my hardcase (cello inside) down a cliff, and me watching it tumble, wondering how broken the cello would be at the end.
 
Your nightmare reminds me of a real-life nightmare that happened to Memo Ma earlier this year in Boston. Apparently he had just parked his car and stood his cello case with his new Jay-Haide cello on the street while getting something else out of the car. The case fell over, breaking the neck of his cello. We had just been comparing notes about our respective cellos. I think he's since had it repaired.

I'm also hoping we'll continue with the Swedish Rhapsody regardless of the concert. The cello part isn't that challenging, but the piece sure sounds good when it all comes together.
 
Dang, what's the point of a hard case if a simple little tumble like that will break the poor cello's neck? Poor Memo Ma!
 
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Sunday, September 17, 2006

 

Cellonightmare


I figure I dream as much as anyone else, and no doubt I get my share of bad dreams. But dreams normally don't mean that much to me and I seldom think about what I dreamed, nor do I remember many details. Whatever is going on in my subconscious brain is obviously beyond my control; I suspect that my subconscious is trying to come up with a storyline to try to explain the random neuron flashes going on, calling up various images and experiences from my archives.

I awoke briefly at about 4:00 this morning and lay there a while before dozing off again. After a while I drifted into my first cello dream, the first I can remember at least. I'm supposed to play a piece for a bunch of former coworkers at my old job; they're led by the brightest guy I'd worked with (I haven't seen him in 15 years); when my turn comes he tells me that the previous performers haven't been that good and he expects me to do better; I go off looking for my cello but then I can't find the music; someone tells me that I ought to be able to play it from memory; then, just as I get to the stage to play I see that my cello is damaged and unplayable. I awake in a sweat... Was I sweating my pending performance or my poor broken cello?

It's an obsession.

Someone posted a question on Cello Chat recently asking what other people felt they gave up in order to take up the cello. Answers ranged from "exercise" to "a life". As I read it, I realized that all I've given up is having to make up excuses not to play the cello. So many years of wanting to, but thinking it was too late, or that I was too busy. To support these arguments I told myself I didn't have any talent anyway, so why bother?

I'm still working with the metronome. I'm still not playing in time with it, but it is getting easier. Often I find myself getting ahead (never behind, for whatever reason). But more and more I end up playing in sync for a while. In a way, I hear the music differently, and I'm starting to be able to pay attention to more than just the intonation. It's helped me a lot with the Bach Minuet #2; maybe all I needed was just that last little step to finally get me playing it right.

Learning with the metronome right from the beginning has really helped me work out the new orchestral pieces. I should be able to play them reasonably well at the rehearsal tomorrow evening. Not perfectly, yet by any means, but passable enough for now.

Comments:
Re the ICS thread: So you gave up avoiding pursuing a dream. Good choice! It takes a lot of energy to avoid pursuing dreams, doesn't it?
 
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Friday, September 15, 2006

 

Minor Accomplishments


I just watched several episodes of a show that I had TIVO'd (sorry, Dish Network I meant DVR'd) from IFC called "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman " created by, written by and starring Laura Kightlinger, as Jackie Woodman, a way off-center and over-the-top film rag writer and screenwriter wannabe on the edges of the Hollywood scene. Her sidekick, Tara Wentzel, superbly played by Nicholle Tombridge, is a low level functionary at a film production company. They come across a bit like the "Absolutely Fabulous" duo of Patsy and Eddy merged with Lucy and Ethel with a touch of Wilma and Betty. They screw up everthing they get involved with, are usually in the process of getting drunk or stoned; or in one wild episode, getting blasted at a peyote ceremony that Jackie is supposed to be filming. They end up tripping in the open desert in a gorgeous psychedelic sunset and finally drift off to sleep beneath a stunning starry sky. In the morning, however, they wake up spread out in the middle of a cactus patch, full of thorns, bloody and bruised. They are loud, brassy, pushy, selfish, prejudiced, very opinionated (and usually wrong), accident-prone, slutty, witty, and funny as hell... How unusual to see this kind of show on TV! They only made eight episodes - I wouldn't hold my breath for a second season, but this one will become a cult classic.

Usually TV can't tolerate anything so radically different; look what happened to "Arrested Development" . I was surprised to see a second season of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia ", another edgy show on FX, even funnier this year with Danny Devito, in a perfect fit into the program as Frank Reynolds - purportedly, Dennis and Dee's father. Another over-the-top hilarious show that apparently was yanked by BBC America in its prime, was is the Canadian import, "Trailer Park Boys ". I have never seen a stupider (more stupid?) and more clueless character than Rickie on TV.


Now for my minor accomplishments:

I played through most of my repertoire this morning using the metronome. I rushed through my warmup, spending more time trying out bowing variations, letting my left hand do what it wanted with scales and shifting exercises. As I played I worked to focus on what my right hand was doing, while benignly neglecting my left hand. The result was interesting.

It took a while on each piece to really incorporate the metronome into my playing. I finally had to place it rather close to me so it would intrude on my hearing; then I had to count the rhythms out loud at first, before adding in the bow. It really went well. I even had a decent runthrough with Bach's Minuet #2 in Suzuki 1. I'm really motivated to do it again tomorrow.

Using the metronome, I then played through the three orchestra pieces several times and found a few "issues" that I could work on before Monday's rehearsal.

Comments:
Good boy, working with that metronome! Mine has been neglected lately...

Your description of the peyote trip made me laugh :D
 
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

 

A-Rhythmic


I am a-rhythmic. I've got no rhythm.

As much as I try, I really have to work hard to find and then be able to play the rhythms for each new piece - even for the simple tunes (unless they're tunes I know from somewhere in my past). In order to work them out, I have to slow it way down in my head and count/tap it out. Then I have to do it over and over several times before it stays with me. This makes it tough to sight-read. I can read the notes and almost automatically finger them properly (after the initial panic attack). But the challenge is to be able to immediately "feel" the rhythmic relationships between those notes.

I guess I am a-tempic, too. I've got no tempo.

When I'm playing I have a hard time counting in my head. My attention is so full of the notes themselves, and where to finger them, and how they sound, that I have to struggle to hold them for their proper times. Usually I can hold the quarter notes for their designated beat (unless the piece is full of sixteenth notes), but I tend to underplay the dotted quarters and half notes, and I tend to overplay the eighths and sixteenths.

Today, finally, at the oft-repeated advice of my teacher, I refocused my attention to tempo, rhythm and bowing. Going back to some of the easier pieces in Suzuki 1, I played them slowly while counting aloud; I played them pizzicato slowly while counting aloud; I "sang" them (softly - I really can't sing) while tapping out the beat; I tapped out the beat with my right hand while saying the tempo aloud. In the end, it seemed that doing a combination of these methods helped. Then I moved on to the newer pieces and tried various combinations of these methods. Then I added the metronome, on a slow tempo, and added various combinations of tapping, singing, counting aloud, and pizzicato.

It's too early to tell if all this has done any good, or what combination is going to work best. I'm really hoping it will pay off - today, I "felt" as if I had made some progress.

Meanwhile, I worked on my bow hold, as well. I'm trying to keep my hand and fingers loose; to draw the bow parallel while keeping it midway between the fingerboard and the bridge; to put it on the right string before starting the note; to keep it on only one string; to maintain an even stroke - or not - as required. There's a lot to work on.

Comments:
Uh oh, another storytime. During my high school and college days, and off and on after that until I was about 40 I played trombone. I also sang in the Penn State Glee Club and off and on in church choirs and never felt I had a rhythm problem.

Then I started cello at 49. My rhythm ability seemed to suddenly take a huge hit. Over 35 years with rarely a rhythm problem, suddenly I can't hold notes their full value, can't keep time with a metronome, Aaack! wazza-matter with me!!!!

Julie Lyons Lieberman has an explanation in her DVD on rhythm. Rhythm is maintained on the left side of the brain, pitch on the right. Because we must listen to and fine tune each fingered note, in violin (and cello) our right side tends to shut off the left side of our brains.

Practice, and as the left hand (which is controlled by the right side) requires less concentration, the right hand (which is controoled by the left side) can becaome more rhythmic.

You will probably find that rhythm is far far easier if you are playing the rhythm on open strings with your left hand at rest.
 
Hmm. Trombone. I have a friend who is quite talented with the trombone. His current goal is to play Bach's Cello Suites!

I figured there had to be some sort of left-brain/right-brain factor involved in all this. It was (may yet still be) a future blog topic. Now I see why my teacher has pushed me so hard to learn the rhythms on open strings, before worrying about intonation.
 
But wouldn't the listening to the pitch thing come into play with the trombone too Terry?

What a funny thing rhythm is. I don't seem to have much trouble with it yet - meaning the problems I have are the same ones I had with flute and saxophone. Rushing when I know a passage well, etc etc.

The problems I have are due to my own bowing screw-ups, like running out of bow or ending up somewhere backwards or whatever.

My husband, who is learning cello as his first instrument now, is having a bit of trouble figuring out how to internalise tempo or rhythm. I'm no help!
 
With a trombone you intonate with your right hand (left-brain) only, while your mouth (both brain halves) controls rhythm, dynamics, etc. - correct?

Switching to the cello, where the left hand (right-brain) controls intonation and the right hand (left-brain) replaces the mouth in controlling rhythm and dynamics, should be quite challenging to the previously established left/right brain functions related to making music.

Even with a flute or clarinet, etc., where both hands intonate while the mouth handles dynamics and rhythm, a cello would challenge these established brain processes.

Are there any other instruments besides the string family that so clearly separate which part of the brain handles the intonation and which handles the dynamics and rhythm?

Maybe music educators should screen young string wannabees to see which ones can pat their heads and rub their stomachs at the same time?
 
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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

 

Lesson 16



Panic Attack


Have you ever walked into a situation where you suddenly felt (at least momentarily) that you had absolutely no business being there? [Aside from a major life-changing event that sure felt like the wrong move at the time - when we moved to Argentina in 1997 - but that's another story] last night at the first Orchestra rehearsal, there was a thankfully brief period when I first looked at the score (Swedish Rhapsody) that I wondered just what I had gotten myself into.

The conductor introduced everyone and made sure we were all comfortable and at ease, and she laid out what we were going to be doing and how we'd tackle it. Then just before we actually started sight reading the score, I looked at the page and saw only a jumble of dots and lines. I blanked out. My reaction was pure panic:

What notes did all those dots represent?

Which strings should I play them on?


Which fingers did I need to use?


Where the heck were my fingers supposed to go to play these notes on my suddenly unfamiliar fingerboard?


Wait a minute, these were double-stops! I've never played them before.


Everybody is going to expect me to do
something. I've got to show them I'm not a total klutz...

Oh, hold on, these double-stops are open strings. Whew. I can do that, I think.


After one or two false starts we were off. In all, I was generally satisfied with my efforts (with a few exceptions), and I realized that I can do this. For sure, I was going to need a lot of practice to be able to hold up my end, but I could do that too.

But just for that brief 30 seconds before we started playing that first note, I was totally lost.


Lesson 16

I recorded today's lesson, again. This time I turned up the gain for the microphone and made sure it was at full volume. But when the lesson was over and the next student was setting up, in all the confusion I just turned off the computer, naively assuming the files would be saved. When I got home and turned it back on, Audacity warned me that there were unsaved temporary files and did I want them deleted. Fortunately, I clicked no. Then I went online and downloaded a neat file recovery add-on for Audacity, which recovered the one-hour recording in just a few minutes. Whew!

Something my teacher said at today's lesson really hit home. I'll have to go back through the "tape" to find the exact words, but in essence she said that my fingering and even my intonation was pretty good, and that I shouldn't worry as much about them. Instead I should spend more time thinking about my right arm. It does all the work in making music with the cello - it draws the sound, it manages the tempo and rhythm, it handles all the dynamics. All the left hand has to do is press the strings at the right time in the right place and in coordination with the bow.

This came at just the right time for me. I obviously need to continue working on intonation - but when I commented that I wasn't satisfied with my second position pinkie sounds, she asked me to play them and they came out almost perfect. (Imagine, in a lesson no less!) But even though my handy on-screen analyzer has been saying that I am hitting the right "frequencies" (more or less), they just haven't been pleasing. So, bowing...

Running out of time, tonight.... But the other big item I'm going to have to sort out is counting and rhythm. We spent most of the session talking about this. She asked me to think about what I see when I look at a measure - do I consider the rhythm or the notes. Obviously it needs to be both, but I've been putting way too much emphasis on the notes at the expense of the rhythm. There's not much point doing accurate intonations if I can't find the rhythm. Find an internal beat to work from; if necessary count out loud for a while until it becomes internalized. Use the metronome. [Why is it that she has to keep telling me the same things over and over. It's not like I'm not hearing her - heck, I'm even writing it down after every lesson. But somehow, in spite of all her advice, I continue to get hung up on intonation.]

Finally, practice s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y and work on small sections at a time.

Comments:
Well, problems with intonation tend to bother one's ears more than problems with rhythm, so it makes sense that you'd get distracted with that. :)

As for double-stops in orchestral music, it's fairly common not to play both notes, but to only play the top notes if you're sitting in an odd-numbered chair and bottom notes in an even-numbered chair. Sometimes it's hard to tell when to play both and when not to if it's not explicitly marked "divisi" or "non divisi", but certainly when sight-reading it's safe enough just to play one note. Then later when you're more comfortable, you can try playing the double-stops.
 
I totally have periodic panic attacks playing music - I always have. But it tended to be in those sight reading situations, or early on in rehearsing with a new group. Once I get used to a piece/conductor/group I'm okay. I think once you know a piece your fingers just keep going even if you're freaking out.

Jennifer knows loads more than I do on this one, but recently we had the same thing sight reading something with double stops (for the second violins, not for the cellos) and our conductor just told them to play the top notes for now, or to play the double stops if they felt like they could do it. At our level of amateur orchestra it's completely fine to just ask the conductor what they want you to do I would think. We're all muddling through together - especially sight reading!

Now when I come up to a 'divisi' marking I'll know what it means though, thanks Jennifer!
 
Fortunately, in the first piece we're playing, the double-stops are all adjacent open strings, and I was able to do fairly well on them. In one of our later pieces the "divisi" notation shows up on the doubled notes. I hope the other cellist shows up by then to carry the other half...
 
OY! Did you get my comment awhile back about cheap plastic penguins?
 
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Monday, September 11, 2006

 

Orchestra


Well, it wasn't bad at all. Not like I'd imagined. We were a small group, just one cello tonight - but there's at least one other cellist who will come in next week, and maybe a third... Also, there was a handful of violins and a violist. There will be several more violins coming in next week. Some of us were rank beginners, and others were much more advanced.

We started off by sight-reading a handful of pieces. We will play the first piece, "Swedish Rhapsody" in a "Evening of Classics" performance on October 5! The cello part isn't very hard - all first position, lots of open string double-stops. There are a few measures where the cello takes the melody. I actually played this piece fairly well. As with a lot of the music in the beginner's repertoire, if I've heard it enough somewhere in my past, I seem to "know" what's coming next and can play it reasonably well after a few run-throughs.

My biggest challenge was keeping up with the rest of the group. Since the violins weren't playing the same notes and sometimes not even the same rhythms as the cello (at least the viola was, most of the time), I had to try to figure out where everyone was by counting. That's something I've not had to do since 8th grade band - I didn't do very well on these parts.

We also sight-read "St. Lawrence Overture" (again, I did OK except when it was important that I keep up by counting). Then we picked up "Pachelbel's Christmas", with a "rest-eighth-eighth-slur-eighth" combination that was new to me, and I kept getting lost. Since there was no other cello to hide behind or pickup from, I just had to sit there feeling kind of inadequate. Fortunately, the atmosphere is pretty light and relaxed...

We meet every Monday. With so few opportunities for amateur beginners to get together and play, I really admire the effort the two Orchestra leaders are putting into organizing and supporting this group, which is now in its third year. There's nothing like playing with others to motivate.


And another bear!

Yesterday, coming home from Anchorage, we saw another bear, a full-grown black bear this time, cross the highway in front of us. We've only seen seven bears "in the wild" in more than 30 years living here - with three of them just this summer! Plus the fresh tracks of another bear. Further, we've hardly driven anywhere this summer compared to past years. Are the bears losing their fear of humans? Or have their numbers increased dramatically? That may explain why we've seen fewer moose than normal.

Comments:
Lucky you! Sounds like you have a good group to play in.

Ok, then, here’s why one has to bow more slowly on the A string: “A cello bridge is like a leaf rake.”

Both a cello bridge and a rake are class 3 levers. I didn’t have this thing about levers before cello, honestly, but so much of cello seems to make more sense when I think of it in terms of leverage. The bridge is a lever, the bow is a lever, the fingers are levers, the hand is a lever, the arm is a double lever, each part of which also acts as two levers simultaneously. Learning cello is learning how to get the right kind, amount, and direction of leverage and applying it musically.

The bridge is a lever with the soundpost as the fulcrum, the bass bar as the load, and the bow as the point of effort (See the diagram in the MIT doctoral thesis link posted by Andrew Victor 8/28). A rake is a lever with the hand near the end as the fulcrum, the tines as the load, and the hand in the middle of the rake as the point of effort.

If my hands are close together I can move the business end of the rake much faster than if my hands are far apart. However, I can’t move my hands as fast as I could if my hands were far apart.

So it is with the bow. The A string is near the fulcrum so it rocks the bridge very quickly but the bow must go slower than it would on the other strings or the bow loses its grip. It has leverage for speed but not for power.

Since the bridge/soundpost/bassbar is a rather stiff mechanism, it does not respond easily to the A string. Bowing energy is more easily converted to higher overtones and more reflection off the nut and bridge than in rocking that bridge. A heavier string, or a cello with a more easily rocked bridge/soundpost/bassbar mechanism will have a less bright A because more energy gets pumped directly into the cello body.

So the pressure-speed balance changes for the A string. The bow has to go more slowly for a given pressure. But don’t apply much more pressure because it’s easy to crunch the light string.
 
Congratulations on the orchestra practice. Sounds like you did really well. I'd be scared to be playing any kind of solo part in a group like that.
 
I think I understand what you're saying, Terry...

The bass bar brings out those deep rich (cello) tones that we all seek, and the bridge "actuates" the bass bar by rocking back and forth (vibrating) on the soundpost/ fulcrum... Since the A string is located on the bridge right above the soundpost, it's ability to rock the bridge on that fulcrum is minimized, so its action on the bassbar will be the least of the four strings...

It makes sense.

Thanks for the feeback, Terry and PFS about the Orchestra. It really was OK. I think I'll enjoy it.
 
Yay! I'm glad orchestra practise was good - it gets more fun when you're all not sight reading everything.

Besides, counting and playing in a group gets easier over time. I found myself a bit rusty on that bit too.

Good on you for managing it all by yourself!
 
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Sunday, September 10, 2006

 

Missed a day's practice.


It was hard just knowing I was missing a day's practice. On a moment's notice we decided to go to Anchorage yesterday, and stay the night. Since I usually practice in the mornings, I felt like I was missing a second day of practice while we were driving home this morning. After we got home, all I could think about was finally getting in a few hours playing this afternoon. It's funny how I almost felt driven. Does this mean I'm hooked?

Driven or not, I sure wasn't very happy with my playing this afternoon. The cello (and bow) sounded pretty good with rich, warm, clean tones, etc. But my fingering wasn't going right today. They just wouldn't do what my brain was telling them to do. Rather than fret about it (fap!), I slowed wa-a-ay down and worked on some of the tough spots - over and over.

I'm getting more comfortable with my second position accuracy. As with all aspects of the cello, there's an initial learning curve figuring out where the new locations are on the finger board, then to start hearing where they are, and then to train the fingers exactly where to go to make it sound perfect. That last step takes a lifetime, I guess.

I don't like the A (4 on the d-string). [No surprise, I guess; it seems cello beginners often initially dislike even the open A (0 on the a-string). I noticed beginner violinists often seem unhappy with their open E on their e-string.] I have to work on curling my fourth finger more and away from the open a-string, that will help me "hear" the exact ringing point with my pinkie. Every day, as part of my warmup I've been practicing running up and down the fifths on each string, anywhere from 10 to 20 times, first shifting with one finger, then another, and another.

No surprise - practice, patience, and perseverence do work.

Tomorrow evening is the first session of the fall season of the Central Peninsula Youth/Community Orchestra. I am actually looking forward to it. Normally, by now I'd have worked myself up into a lather of nerves and dread, and started dreaming up possible excuses and imagining oncoming ailments. The organizer of the Orchestra told me that I may find myself among only a few adults, but I'd already accepted that situation way back when I started playing, and again at the May recital. I can't believe I just wrote "way back" - but I guess it has been more than 9 months. : ) I wouldn't be surprised to be the least capable player there, as well as the oldest. But, if I'm not willing to put myself out there in this type of venue, why am I doing it at all? As I said, I'm looking forward to it.

Then, another lesson on Tuesday.

Three more cello CDs from Titlewave Books:

1. Yo-Yo Ma with Seiji Ozawa playing Strauss' "Don Quixote" and Schoenberg's "Concerto in D Major for Cello";
2. Yo-Yo Ma with Bobby McFerrin (!) in "Hush"; and
3. Erling Blondal Bengtsson with Nina Kavtaradze playing Rachmaninoff's "Sonata for Cello and Piano in g-minor" and Shostakovich's "Sonata for Cello and Piano in d-minor"

Comments:
Oh good luck on your rehearsal tomorrow! It will be fine.
 
Thanks, Erin.
 
Yup, you're hooked. I'm afraid to travel now that the cello bug has bitten me-- how will I last a week without it?

I don't like my open A much at all. I did not know this was a common thing.
 
I don't know if the open A thing is a fact, or anything, but I've noticed from the forums that a lot of beginners seem to search around for a better A string (I did). After a while, though, it seems they become more comfortable with what they have. For me, when I play an open A, I hear all my bowing inadequacies magnified.
 
Wow, can I relate to the erin-guanaco-PFS trio! You all are going through what I did, 2-3 years ago, except it seems you are all faster and smaterer than I was.

I took my cello to a shop over the A string and was told the sound post needed to be moved a little. He did, and it helped a good bit, although it was still bright. Apparently they all are. Gradually I came to an understanding, perhaps erroneous, of why the A string is like that and how it needs to be bowed. I'm reluctant to post any of it on CBN for obvious reasons.

On my new cello the A string is even less bright, only just a bit brighter than a fingered A on D string.

I could go into my theory sometime, but maybe y'all have your own by now anyway.
 
Terry

I am interested in your theory about A strings.

I promise I won't turn you in to CBN...
 
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

 

Like a brand new bow


My newly cleaned bow actually sounded quite good. Not really knowing what I was doing, I could only hope I wasn't wrecking it by cleaning it the way I did. This morning, I rosined it very lightly and adjusted the tension somewhat looser than I'd used before, and jumped right in. The bow "bit" into the strings without any hesitation, there was less screeching and slipping around on the strings - all of which produced a richer, cleaner sound.

It's not as if I've stumbled onto any magic secret or anything: less rosin, less tension, regular cleaning with a cloth. I guess what I have learned is exactly what "less" means. I used to use so much rosin that my strings would become caked every time I played. Today, although there was some rosin on the strings after two hours, it was so much less.

At the same time I realized that I was holding the bow lightly and loosely, using just my forefinger to control the pressure. My wrist was also looser and the bow changes were smoother.

I only started playing the Bach "Minuet in C" ten days ago (we had skipped over it last spring and only just came back to pick it up), but today, as I played it through, I realized that my rendition sounded pretty good! I've already memorized it, and after a few days of extra attention to the rhythm, the intonation was smooth and the notes were cleanly connected. Then I went on to play through the two Minuets in Suzuki 2 and the Judas Maccabeaus piece with a similar sense of accomplishment. Maybe the bow has been (part of) the problem all along...

Still, I'm not yet happy with that ill-fated Minuet #2 in Book 1. I've been struggling with the opening sequence of this particular piece since the end of February - six months ago! I suspect I'll struggle with this for many more months until one day I'll realize that I finally "got" it.

Comments:
Boy, I feel like a true cello geek now, having a conversation about rosin!

It's funny you use lots of rosin. When I started I was very suspicious of it, and used almost none, or only the hardest kind that doesn't stick to the strings much. But-- I was playing way up near the fingerboard, where it's easier to get the strings vibrating. Once my teacher "corrected" me and moved me down near the bridge, it all fell apart and I couldn't grip the strings at all. Finally, I understood what rosin is for!

I'm still kind of stingy with it, as my bow was absolutely gunked up with the stuff when I got it (from being tried out in the shop I guess) and it took months for all the rosin to wear out. I don't want to over-do, and I'm way too afraid to do the alcohol cleaning bit.

Happy bowing!
 
The only thing missing from this cello-geek discussion is one of the ICS curmudgeons telling us we have it all wrong...

In hindsight, the alcohol cleaning project was very simple and only took a few minutes. I wouldn't have the slightest problem doing it again someday.
 
I've cleaned the hair with alcohol a few times in the last three years. Works great from what I can tell.
 
Terry, have you had to rehair your bow in those three years?
 
No rehairs, and no intention of getting one real soon. That said, I do have three bows. One is the bow I got with my 1st cello. Cello and bow were $139 (plas $40 shipping). I did decide, after a couple years to get a rehair since I thought I should and some hairs had broken over that time. The shop refused to re-hair it, saying the bow itself wasn't of sufficient quality to re-hair.

I ended up buying a bow I liked better from that shop for $79, so I feel they weren't trying to gouge me. The new bow cost not much more than a re-hair.

Then in May I got a new, quite good cello (that's what everybody that plays it tells me) and bow with it ($3000 + $700). Beacuse I do some chopping on occasion, I probably break more hairs than most beginner-intermediates and I'll get a rehair in a year or so.

That's how I consider myself, I'm just beginning the intermediate phase. In that way, I'll always be a beginner, and that's alright with me.
 
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Monday, September 04, 2006

 

Cracking Knuckles


When I was in my early teens, much to the annoyance of my mother, I picked up the habit of cracking my finger knuckles. Usually they were crackable only once or twice a day, but I persisted - and guess what, now some 40 years later, my knuckles haven't enlarged or stiffened - in fact I still crack them regularly.

What really happens when we crack our knuckles? I tried to do some research, but either there is some common terminology for this that I haven't heard about or it is one of those issues that has somehow stayed below the radar. There was surprising little available. What I did find suggests that the "popping" sound has to do with gas expanding suddenly in the cartilage - or something like that. Once I asked my (former) doctor, but he didn't know much about it - other than to repeat the mantra that "it probably isn't good for you."

After several years of popping my finger-knuckles, late one night while I was hunched over my desk cramming for a college exam, I suddenly sat back and twisted my neck and shoulders - to be rewarded with multiple cracks all up and down my spine. Wow! I was so surprised at how much physical and mental stress suddenly evaporated. From then on, I worked on cracking my neck and shoulders, my lower back, even my jaw. For some time I was able to crack those last spinal "knuckles" at the base of my skull - boy was that a rush! The more I did it, the better I got at it. Like with my fingers, though I could usually do it only once or twice a day.

The greater my stress level beforehand, the more completely everything seemed to crack. Accompanying the cracking was some type of mental relaxation - some sort of "letting go" of tense muscles. These muscles appear to be connected somehow through the "joints" that are cracked (maybe it's the nerves to these muscles? I don't know, I didn't study anatomy.) I do know that they are unconscious muscles that I do not have direct knowledgeable control over. These cause things like a perpetual frown or scowl (or smile), pursing the lips, clenching the jaw, hunching the shoulders, clenching in the belly, or maintaining a suction in the mouth with the jaw clenched and the tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth. We have hundreds of these muscles and we are usually unaware of whether we keep them perpetually tensed or not, much less are we able to relax them at will. Being able to identify and relax these unconscious muscles provided the positive feedback that made me keep on cracking.

Being a dedicated knuckle-popper, I often notice others who share my dark secret (for sure my mother tried to make me feel guilty about it - as well as everything else). Sometimes movie characters dramatically crack their necks as if to gird themselves to do something that is unusual or challenging. I used to sit in meetings and watch for closest crackers - not many did, but a few seemed to do it automatically, almost reflexively. My son, Z, cracks his lower back - dozens of pops. He says it feels good. I'm quite jealous - that's the one area I've never been able to crack.

At some point in my late thirties or early forties, I realized that my cracking "agility" had declined. My fingers were still crackable, but I was no longer able to consciously make my back or neck crack - except during times of unusual high tension (I learned that I had to mentally relax a bit first, then the cracking would usually finish the process). I really missed that. About five years ago, I noticed my knees, ankles, and even my hips would sometimes crack in the morning when I got out of bed. This too has been accompanied by some vague sense of tension release.

Then I started playing the cello. Almost immediately it was clear that my biggest obstacle (besides my inner critic) was tension - most notably in my fingers, but also in my wrists, elbows, shoulders and spine. Fom the first day I started cracking my finger knuckles, and surprisingly my wrists, and more recently my shoulders and neck (again!). Every morning when I start warming up, I find I have to crack each finger once or twice and both of my wrists a couple times, and sometimes my shoulders and neck. This seems to take care of most of the physical tension issues, leaving me to concentrate on the music.

I look forward to my daily practice sessions not only for the chance to make music, but also to experience that Zen-like tension reduction.

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Bow cleaning


First I stroked the hair of the bow back and forth on a clean cloth - a surprising amount of rosin came off. I guess I could be doing this simple step more often. Then I loosened the frog somewhat and wiped off a little bit more. Next I dripped some rubbing alcohol on a spot of a clean cloth and wiped it back and forth on the front and back of the bow hair, working on four-inch segments at a time. I repeated this with fresh alcohol several times. Then I loosened the hair - almost completely slack - and wiped it with some more fresh alcohol. I took a lot of care to avoid any alcohol contacting the stick or frog. Now the bow is hanging to dry. In the morning, I'll rosin it (a lot lighter than before) and see how it(we) sound(s).

Comments:
So how did the clean bow work out? When I got my new bow it was caked with rosin (I guess from folks trying it in the shop). It tooks months for the rosin to wear off. Now I'm very conservative with the rosin.
 
Surprisingly, it has worked out well. I used a very small amount of rosin on the cleaned bow, and it sounds pretty good!

I used to think that when "I" sounded bad, I needed more rosin. Often I applied it twice a day. Now I only use it twice a week.
 
Can I ask how you enjoyed Fireworks?
 
I really liked "Fireworks" a lot... It must be hard to write from this viewpoint (presenting an obviously distorted reality through the mind of the main character, without necesarily writing in the first person). Add to that the author was a female writing a man's point of view...

Two highlights - actually one highlight and a lowlight: The remarkable unpredictabilty of the narrative led me to suspect at first that when the protagonist found the neighbor child's notebook in his kitchen, that it was going to turn out to actually be his own - i.e., his real personality documenting his gradual fragmentation.

The lowlight was the reference to penguins and polar bears - they don't even share the same hemisphere - Coca Cola commercials notwithstanding. The editors should have caught this one.

I'd give the book a strong "A" and recommend it highly.
 
When I worked for Indian Arts and Crafts in Seattle, (they mainly sold to Alaska tourist traps) one of the cheap plastic things that was a big seller was a penguin.
Oy, I am still trying to sign up. Now there is a scroll bar...but no sign-up form.
 
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Sunday, September 03, 2006

 

Is it time to rehair?


I bought two bows along with my cello six months ago. I've used one of them exclusively for my daily 2 hour sessions since then. Yesterday, I pulled out my backup bow, rosined it just a bit, and started playing. The sound was immediately better! Significantly! Wow! It felt so good, I didn't want to jinx it by pulling out my other bow, so I wasn't sure if it really was the bow. Today it was still good, but I did try the other bow. I was able to tell a difference.

Bows need rehaired on occasion, but I'm not clear about how to tell when. Tipbook Cello says "Good-quality hair will last for years, and won't become wavy or brittle." Mine isn't brittle, but it is wavy when it is slack. Maybe I have been tightening it too much?

James McKean says in Commonsense Instrument Care that "Your bow will need rehairing when you feel that it is no longer digging into the string, or when you have lost a number of bow hairs, or when they just get dirty from use."

At my next lesson, I'll ask my teacher to do a comparison, and see what she thinks. Since I don't go to Anchorage very often, if it does need rehairing, I'll have to mail it off. In that case I may as well send it back to Ifshin Violins in Berkeley; after all they made it and stamped their name on it.

Meanwhile, I'm going to try cleaning it with rag lightly soaked in rubbing alcohol; I have been using too much rosin. And I'll continue playing with my backup bow.

I've practiced the second position shift so many times, that my #2 and #4 fingers seem to "know" where to go, finding ringing tones more often. I play lots of scales, arpeggios and little etudes using both positions. Until recently, I was feeling some strain between my thumb and forefinger when I reached for the new #4 notes, but these past few days the strain seems to have gone away. I've been trying to hold my left elbow a bit higher and curve my pinkie more above the fingerboard.

Today I played all the way through "Hunter's Chorus". Like all new pieces, it sounds so fine when I first hear it. I look forward to one day playing it well.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

 

Sunny Rainstorm


After dinner, since the evening promised to be clear and sunny, we drove out to "inspect" our land. Not long after we got there, a cloud drifted overhead from the north and a hard, steady rainstorm ensued. Yet, the sun continued to shine brightly beneath the western edge of the cloud. This sunny rainstorm lasted more than half an hour. How nice to see the two combined!

It reminds me of rainshowers in Jamaica. In 1970, Y and I met while we were both living in a small town called Mandeville, Jamaica. Our parents were expatriates working at the alumina plants in nearby St. Elizabeth parish. Mandeville was nearest "town", with a population of about 10,000. A quarter were expats; half of us were families of the expat employees at the plants, the rest were former British and Canadian civil servants and foreign service workers who had retired to paradise. The town itself was very British (its zenith was when Princess Anne visited in 1955 or 56); their main gathering place was the elite Manchester Cub, with golf, tennis, swimming, and of course snooker tables just off the very colonial bar. You can almost picture Ian Fleming sttreched out in an overstuffed chair in the lounge, holding his "martini, shaken-not-stirred".

Starting at Kingston harbor, the southern coastal plains stretch out to the west for 75 miles or so till they reach the base of a 1500 foot plateau covered with small rolling hills. Mandeville sits in the middle of this plateau, which tames the easterly Caribbean trade winds moderating the tropical temperatures (winters average 60F, summers stay around 75F). Just about every day, between 3:00 and 4:00, dark clouds - heavy with rain - would roll in from the east, entertain us with a brief intense lightning storm, and then deluge us with rain, quite hard, for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then, just as suddenly the rains would stop, the clouds would quickly dissipate and the sun would reemerge. Sometimes, if the rain was delayed until later in the evening when the sun was lower in the western skies, the sun would shine in underneath the clouds, illuminating the rainstorm with dazzling rainbows and sparkling the droplets as they fell on the lush tropical greenery. By sundown - which comes so abruptly in the tropics - everything would be dry, and the night skies would be crystal clear and filled with stars.

Tonight's sunny rainstorm was sort of like that.

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