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.

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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