Thursday, November 30, 2006
Thinking out loud...
It was so cold for so long, that it was almost a relief the other day when it finally warmed up and snowed - just a couple of inches. The papers were threatening that it was going to warm up and rain on top of all the ice - yck.
When it suddenly warms up after a hard freeze like we just had and then it rains, everything quickly glazes over with a growing layer of bumpy ice droplets - each raindrop freezing before it can flow out flat; and depending on how much rain falls, the drops pile on thicker and thicker. Of course all of us expert winter drivers think we can continue to scream along in our large four-wheel drives at 65+ mph on the icy roads, but it turns out that too many of us aren't as skilled as we think. The auto repair shops do well this time of year. Some years the temps then go on up into the 40s for a day or so and it rains more and freezes onto the cold roads... more work for the wreckers.
Sometimes it quickly gets cold again and another layer of snow falls on top of the ice. Now the real fun begins. Walking on the snow-dusted glazed-ice is unbelievably treacherous. Even though you know it's going to be real slippery, you still don't believe it will be that bad. Eventually, you're going to take at least one splat - unless you stop to strap on ice grips. But that's too much hassle for only a brief venture out into the elements to dash to the car; so you try to shuffle along without lifting your feet, taking very small steps from one relatively secure balancing point to the next.. "only twenty more steps to my car, I'll make it".
This time, the prognosticators were lying again, and it got cold again - back to zero. But it's supposed to warm up this weekend - with snow again. Oh boy! Another three weeks of increasing darkness before the turnaround... With time appearing to pass at an ever faster rate as I get older, at least the winters seem shorter now - unfortunately so do the summers.
These temperature and humidity swings do havoc to my poor cello. The humidifier puts out a gallon or so a day, and I refresh my two dampits daily after practice. No matter, when it gets this cold it dries out and the sound gets "tight", a little nasal. This past weekend, when it finally did warm up some and snow, the cello immediately played mellower, deeper, richer. At orchestra, everyone had to work hard to tune their violins and violas and cellos because of the suddenly higher humidity, but I felt like we all sounded better.
I had to skip a day's practice this week, even as it was once again getting colder and colder. Today, my d-string was so uncooperative that I soon quit in disgust and almost put it away. But after a break I started up again. For some reason, that wolf reappeared, lurking around the edges of the first few notes on the d-string. Each time I tried to muzzle it by sliding the eliminator up and down the string, it would slink over to a different note. Not as bad as before, but I'm beginning to think I should have kept a heavier eliminator for days like this. Somehow, I'm going to have to get used to these humidity swings. Part of the problem is that I listen too much for the quality of each note, at the expense of appreciating the rhythms and even the relationships between the notes.
You have probably guessed by now that I wasn't very satisfied with my practice today. Maybe I deserved it for skipping yesterday's practice and for cutting Tuesday's short. Still, I did notice that my "tough segments" seem to be improving steadily, even if the quality of the sound kept me on edge. The note groupings are starting to flow together like they're supposed to. I am rigorously avoiding trying to play them at anywhere near the proper tempo, yet, until I can first play them right, slowly.
Doing those slow repetitions today made me realize I am not very good at instructing my right hand on bow actions. On the other hand ;-) I seem to be gaining more control over which fingers to play when and how to direct them (more-or-less) to the proper spots on the strings. But when I want to tell my left-side hand/wrist/arm to quickly lift the bow up while crossing from the d-string to the a-string, it's as if I don't yet have the right neural pathways mapped out for sending out the right instructions to fully direct the bow's action on the string. Just starting to think about it has helped a bit.
Now that I look at it, most of my tough segments are "tough" not because of fingering as much as because I'm not able to control the bowing. So, another adjustment in my practicing regimen. It helps to read other cellists' descriptions of how they practice and how they break it down into focused steps.
Wow, me too. I think that's why my playing always sounds so slow to me when I record it and play it back.
I never considered that humidity affected the sound of the instrument. I notice the strings expand and contract enough to go out of tune with temp changes though. Interesting.
And yup, it's all about the bowing, usually.
Sorry I won't be helping you out with any descriptions of my focused practicing steps. I've been thinking about GGP's challenge to post our scale routines. Mine is so un-routine, it's almost comical.
actually i always feel that my cello sounds bettetr when its drier. maybe when i say "drier" it means "a little wet" in Alaska.
We got almost a foot of snow yesterday... lots of shoveling to do.
PFS, I too am reluctant to describe my scale routines, they are so haphazard compared to GGP's. Each variation in my practice routine is struggle enough, so a formal scale routine is just going to have to wait...
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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
One Year Playing the Cello, One Year Blogging - Post #216
Also, in my first post one year ago, I noted that my grand-daughter turned 3. Today she turns 4.
Time passes so fast.
I was going to write a long rambling stream of consciousness piece about time and our perceptions of it ...
But I don't have the time...
I guess you were too busy to catch my show last nite.
Was recorded and will be on the archives soon.
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Saturday, November 25, 2006
Ours were Magellanic Penguins
About two to two and a half hours' drive - no enforced speed limit :) - north on Ruta 3, from where we lived in Rada Tilly is a small sign indicating a turnoff to Cabo dos Bahias, near Camarones. After a 15 minute drive east, the paved road ends at a gate that is usually open; beyond, the road is sand. In the open desert beside this track we usually see guanacos, ñandues, maras (a rare large relative of the guinea pig), occasionally a zorro, and rabbits. At another gate and we stop to greet the park caretaker - if he's around (he takes care of a few orphan baby guanacos and sometimes he lets us pet one), and then we continue a few more kilometers to a parking area a quarter-mile from the coast.
If the season is right, between us and the coast are tens if not hundreds of thousands of pinguinos. A rundown fenced-in boardwalk leads down to a viewing area just behind the beach itself. The surrounding fields are completely filled with burrows dug a foot or so into the sandy soil with one or two (sometimes with an egg, sometimes with a baby) penguins at each hole. As far as you can see, are nests with one penguin sitting halfway out of the hole and another standing beside it. And everywhere you look there are penguins on the move, heading toward or away from the beach. At times a handful of the somewhat larger ñandues would wander completely unmolested through the colony, carefully stepping around the burrows and any marching penguins.The ammonia smell is almost overpowering. The noise is almost deafening. Unlike the Emperor Penguins, which appear to hum, the Magellanics bray more like donkeys - and just as loud.
As we walk down the boardwalk to the beach occasionally one might step into our path and prepare to defend its nearby nest from all intruders. After braying and preening, it snaps its beak and might even nip at our clothes as we gingerly ease past. The path ends at a point overlooking the rocky beach and small bay with several rock islands just offshore. Long lines of penguins waddle to and from the beach, sometimes crossing the overlook right beside where we are standing. On the beach itself, are thousands of penguins right up to the waterline. In groups of five to ten, they fall into the water together and swim away. For every group that jumps in, another group staggers ashore. On one visit, we notice that the beach is unusually crowded and none of the penguins are in the water. Then we see a group of "lobos marinos" (literally "sea wolves", but we know them as sea lions) laying on one of the rocky islands just offshore. Nobody wants to be eaten, so they just patiently stand waiting until one of them is dumb enough to blunder into the water and satisfy the hungry sea lions or the sea lions finally give up and move on.
This preserve is so "off the map" that few people even know about it and many times we are the only one visitors. How strange to be alone with this noisy pulsating colony of unusual creatures! We couldn't get enough of it and used any excuse to go back again and again. A larger, more "touristy" rookery is located further north near Punto Tombo just south of Puerto Madryn. Just north of Puerto Madryn we can sit on the beach and watch the ballena francas (southern right whale), one of the largest creatures on earth, swimming just a few yards offshore, sometimes rolling to show their fins, sometimes turning out to sea with a slap of their tails as they dive deeper for food. They gather by the hundreds in this bay annually for mating. On the northeast side of the bay is Punta Piramedes, where we see large colonies of lobos marinos and elefantos marinos along the shore. In an interesting turnabout often some of these colonies are huddled on the beach, afraid of the orcas waiting just offshore for their meal.
Once in a while, during their migrations to and from their colonies along the coast to the north of us, some of the penguins would pull into our bay at Rada Tilly and wander onto the beach. They'd rest for a bit near the waterline, then turn around and head back into the water to continue their trek. But one fall afternoon we noticed a distant small black shape come out of the water at one of the extreme low tides and slowly meander up the beach to the road and cross it right into our driveaway and up onto our lawn. Then it stopped and stood motionless. To keep any curious dogs away I carefully closed the gate on the driveway and we called animal rescue. A roll of film and one hour later, the penguin remained unmoving until the rescue group arrived. They carefully approached the little guy with a net and gently herded it into a cage. They said they would transport it to the Cabo dos Bahias preserve. What an experience for 6-year-old Z (and for this 48-year-old)!
Friday, November 24, 2006
la Patagonia, Part 3
The three of us had left our former home Alaska in the middle of a cold dark winter, finding ourselves just a few days later standing with our mountain of bags in front of the small dusty airport on a warm, windy, Sunday afternoon after the last flight of the day. All the taxis had already left for the day by the time we realized our promised ride wasn't going to show up. (We eventually got used to this sort of unfulfilled promise or commitment - rather than say they couldn't or wouldn't do something, people would nod their heads and agree, and then just not do it.) After a while, we persuaded a (haltingly) english-speaking ticket agent to call a cab for us (it took three trips for all of our bags) and eventually we found ourselves stuffed into a small, dark hotel room that reeked from the smell of strong cleansers,whose only window looked out onto the small air-shaft in the middle of the building. We listened all night to the cacaphony reverberating from the other 20 rooms facing the same narrow air shaft. The next morning I asked for a better room and was told, "sure", but why hadn't we asked for one when we checked in (heck, we assumed all the rooms were like that)? We were soon shown to one of their three "premium" rooms - at least it had an external view - on an upper floor.
What was my reaction to our new home, supposedly for the next three to five years? What had I expected, after all? From this point many years later, all of my preconceptions have been overlayed with the realities. Still, we didn't go into this all naive and wide-eyed. Both our families had lived as expats; we actually met while our families were living in Jamaica in 1970, and we returned there a few years later to teach. We knew to expect many things to be different. We weren't at all surprised that time moved at a different pace, that getting things done would take much longer and only after several tries. We expected to have to stand in long lines at banks, post offices, government offices, stores, etc. We had already run into some of the bureaucratic excesses just getting the paperwork together for the visas and work permit. We expected things around the house not to work, and we expected major challenges trying to find competent repairmen to fix them. We expected to have to get used to a new diet, that grocery shopping would be an adventure, only occasionally marked with a rare discovery - like the time we found a few kilograms of cheddar cheese, and the time we found a jar of peanut butter!
I really didn’t expect so much trash everywhere, or the uniformly drab houses. Nor had we expected that much wind and dust. I didn’t expect the cars to be so small, nor so old and underpowered. We didn't expect the people to be so friendly. One thing we had been assured of was not there - other expatriates. Not that it really mattered in the end, but our high priced "orientation" by Brand X, and even my Brand X boss in Buenos Aires had repeatedly told us that a small but thriving expat community existed there - and most importantly, there was supposed to be an expat run school. After a few days, we realized that we had been misled (inadvertently), their small expat community had left several years earlier when the one international oil company sold its holdings and left. No one remained. So, no school, and no english-speaking welcome wagon to help us settle in.
We were surprised and obviously disappointed. We knew expats tended to rely on each other for support in dealing with the variety of cultural, linguistic, and economic differences - this was doubly important for new arrivals. Six months after moving there, another expat couple moved to the area, and we were able to offer them the sort of initial support that we missed out on.
In hindsight, it turned out to have been a lucky thing for us, although it wasn't much fun at the time. It forced us to work harder to learn spanish, just so we could get to know our new neighbors and my new coworkers. It forced us to try harder to fit into the local culture, where we learned so much more about the Argentine people than if we had sheltered behind the buffer of an expat community. We found the local people to be exceedingly friendly, open, warm, and sharing. Many of my coworkers had indeed studied english in school and hesitantly began to try out a few phrases with us. Our social calendar soon filled with invitations to one "asado" (more about this later) or another, almost every weekend. We learned to drink mate.
We eventually found a school that supposedly offered instruction in english as well as spanish, although Z was their only real english speaker for most of his first year there. Z learned to read and write and do basic addition in spanish before learning these things in english. Within a few days he'd found a group of friends, initially communicating only with facial expressions. But within six weeks he was chattering away with them as if he were a native. By the end of a year, most people meeting him outside of the home were surprised he spoke english so well, and really surprised again to learn he actually was estado unidense.
We immediately began househunting with a realtor (who did not speak english), using electronic translators and lots of sign language. She had been instructed by my new Argentine boss (yeah, two bosses - but it worked) to show us a set of middle to upper quality houses. Most were quite uninspired, but we really were trying to be positive. But one house sat near the top of the pile, a big recently renovated house on a large fenced-in lot on the beach in a nearby town called Rada Tilly. We really liked it, but it was renting for almost three times the average that we'd been shown. My Brand X boss flew down from Buenos Aires and was quite apologetic upon learning of the expat situation. He asked about our house hunt, and we showed him the most promising ones. As soon as he saw the beach house, he called the realtor and rented it for us - saying it was the least he could do after misleading us about the expat issue! He also told us to furnish it with the best stuff we could find (locally) and send him all the bills. In a few weeks we found ourselves living in one of the nicest houses in one of the nicest locations in all of Southern Argentina.
For the next year and a half we lived on the waterfront of the seaside beach resort (villa balnearia) called Rada Tilly; named after an 18th century Spanish sea captain, the Marques Francisco Everado Tilly y Paredes, who defeated a Portuguese armada near Buenos Aires in 1795. A Spanish sailor, Juan de la Concha was the first to anchor a small ship in the small semi-circular bay (rada), and now has a street named after him. Rada Tilly is a bedroom community for some 3,000 people from the upper middle classes of Comodoro Rivadavia, 15 kilometers to the north. It sits along a 2-kilometer crescent-shaped bay, carved out eons ago by water runoff from the high desert and by tidal action against the sandy bluffs. The beach, and thus the town, is bounded on the north and south sides by 200-foot high cliffs (Punta Marques and Punta Piedras), which abut the water’s edge. These flat-topped “cerros” are narrow fingers of land that retain their original height, somehow having avoided the wind and water erosion that carved out Rada Tilly, and neighboring depressions up and down the coast.
About 75 houses were “en frente la playa” (facing the beach). Another 300 houses were located within a few blocks of the beach. These constituted the “classiest” homes in the entire Province of Chubut. The rest of the houses lay further inland. The town served as "the resort" for the rest of Comodoro’s 150,000 people. On those rare combinations when a weekend coincided with warm weather, low tides and most importantly low winds, the beach at Rada Tilly was packed with thousands of people. On weekdays or when the winds are up, the beach was deserted.
The combination of greater tidal ranges at these higher latitudes with the geological history made Rada Tilly's beach quite interesting. With a long slow drop off and a high level of silt mixed in with the sand, the beach at low tide was at least one kilometer deep, flat and hard-packed like concrete, enough to ride bicycles and drive cars. With the desert behind the beach stretching 200 miles to the west, the strong winds coming off the desert brought tons of dust, but as they blew through town, they also picked up all the loose trash and dumped it onto the beach. At high tide, the waves washed away much of the trash, sandcastles, vehicle tracks, dog litter, etc. But in those places along the road where the normal high tides did not reach, the wind-blown trash would quickly build up, until a rare extreme tide washed it away, or someone cleaned it up. Unfortunately neither happened often enough, and the small scrub bushes along beach next to the roadside were usually coated with plastic bags and whatever.
The long deep beach at low tide served as the summer promenade for all of Rada Tilly and much of the town of Comodoro, when the winds didn’t blow. Few people used the beach in the mornings before 11:00. But on a warm sunny weekend afternoon, when the tide was out, you would see up to 10,000 people of all sorts on the beach, from the local characters who took a daily swim in the cold (polluted) water, to the joggers, walkers, bicyclists, “paddle” and volleyball players, dog-walkers, bird-watchers, wind-surfers, sand-sailors, motorcyclists, families out for a stroll, large groups of teenagers on-show for one another, sports teams doing workouts, musicians, extended families gatherings, mate-drinkers, beer-drinkers, sunbathers, waders, swimmers, lifeguards, surfers, fishermen, boaters, and people-watchers (but interestingly never any picnickers). Accompanying the crowds on the beach were the cars cruising the front street, hundreds of cars an hour, crawling slowly through the streams of people coming and going on foot to the beach.The massive beach parties usually lasted late into the evening around numerous bonfires. However, if the wind came up, the stinging sand quickly drove all but the most dedicated walkers off the beach and indoors.
We were fortunate to have one of those few houses “en frente del mar” facing the ocean, set on a small rise from the road, with a large enclosed yard and a front deck facing the water. Immense 10’ x 7' windows dominated each end of the house. Our front window offered more entertainment than the television, with ever changing tableu of the beach, the ocean and the sky. From bright crystal-clear mornings with the sun streaming in, to dust-laden sunsets that reflected all shades of red and purple off the clouds and even the air itself onto the water, to the people using the beach, our vista changed every day.
The waters of the southern Atlantic are quite cold, fed by currents off Antarctica, so swimming was not the major activity. The waves were generally mild, most of the time, usually less than four feet. But a few brave neoprene-clad surfers were regularly in attendance in the afternoons and weekends. With the strong winds blowing seaward, the waves would often curl backwards as they lifted up on their ascent of the beach.The beach would occasionally be covered with trash washed out of the city’s landfill a few kilometers north or tossed from passing freighters. Other times kelp and algae would cover parts of the beach, usually after storms. One week the beach was covered with thousands of jellyfish of all sizes. It usually took several days for the tides to clear away this stuff. The unseen pollution from the cities’ sewer plants was of even greater concern - for swimming or for eating any fish or mollusks.
One winter Sunday, we watched a very rare lightning storm work its way down the coast, with dozens of strikes onto the water and beach only meters from our door. You could hear the sizzle of the strike and smell the ozone afterwards. Another time a lost penguin staggered onto the beach, across the road, and into our yard (we called animal rescue). A few times saw orcas, and once a few of the large ballena francas (southern right whales) spouted and rolled not far offshore. A colony of lobos marinos (sea lions) lived on the other side of Punta Marquesa just south of Rada Tilly, and frequently they’d swim up and down the beach in small groups, stopping at times to examine us.
I never tired of the view out our front window, or from sitting out on the front deck on calmer days. A fair trade-off for the trials and tribulations of a demanding, frustrating job in an alien world.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Two Memorable Thanksgiving Feasts
Thursday, November 28, 2002 we sat down in the early afternoon for our usual pig-out, with most of our extended family present - the three of us, my 80 year-old mother, my wife's 75 year-old mother and father, my brother and his wife, and my brother-in-law and his wife. We had just sat down and begun passing around all the platters, when the phone rang. It was our second son, B, calling from Phoenix to proudly announce over our speakerphone the birth of his daughter, our first grandchild. More importantly she was the first great-grandchild for our parents. I distinctly remember the look on their faces on hearing the news. For them, it was maybe more momentous because at their advanced age and declining health, they had to be wondering if they'd be around to see another great-grandchild. The atmosphere for the rest of the dinner and that evening was more emotional than normal - we all felt a satisfying and joyous feeling of passage. But also a semisweet feeling, maybe, that we were also sensing the real meaning of life.
Indeed, in the four succeeding years no more babies have been born to our children or any of their many now-adult cousins - until now - B's second child is due in another month.
But, my wife's mother died suddenly, a month later; her father and then my mother both died within the year. That was our last family gathering. Now, Thanksgiving brings up both fond memories along with a little sadness.
Thursd... er, Saturday, November 28, 1998 (it was not a local holiday) we sat down for our most unusual Thanksgiving dinner, (very) late in the evening at our massive dining table that seated 20 in our casa grande in Rada Tilly, Argentina. Joining us were new friends from Indonesia, India, the US and of course many from Argentina. There were 22 of us, plus a handful of kids. Only the three of us and the newly arrived expat couple from the US had any sense of what Thanksgiving was really all about, but we had come to know all our guests quite well in 11 months we'd lived there and wanted to share something special with them. So many of them had opened their lives to include we three norteamericanos, inviting us to asado after asado (a uniquely Argentine barbecue). It was time we showed them an American feast. Of course everybody knew something about the US custom of celebrating Thanksgiving, and more-or-less why (the long arm of the media). They were eager to join us.
We persuaded a local butcher to secure two large pavos (turkeys - they were so large I wasn't really convinced they weren't ñandues - the small wild cousin of the ostrich). We scoured the shops of the city (and raided a few pantries) for essential ingredients. By the time the day rolled around some of these shopkeepers had called after dredging up another "find". We eventually managed to find or substitute (except for marshmallows) all the essential ingredients for the traditional meal, but everyone also offered to bring something from their own kitchens. We had been convinced to try drunken turkeys - by injecting cognac deep into the meat before cooking. Of course we drank too much ourselves and overdid it, and we were lucky that the other American couple had cooked a third, smaller turkey at home. In deference to our Argentine guests I also fired up our indoor parilla and prepared an asado. The strong winds had fortuitously died down, so we had all the doors and windows open for the cool springtime seaside night air.
Eventually we gathered, and took our seats. Before we started passing the platters up and down that long table, I took a moment to thank all of our guests (en español, even!), and briefly explained the origins of the feast (they called it "el dia de acción de gracias"). Then I told them how thankful we were for their friendship and for how they had welcomed us foreigners into their community and into their lives, making us feel at home. Following a moment of mutual reflection, and then a heartfelt round of toasts, we dove in.
Everybody bravely sampled each other's national dishes (including that intoxicated turkey). Everyone partook of the numerous bottles of wine (dinner guests always bring wine and chocolates). We even persuaded our Argentine friends to taste some of the pies. None of them had ever tried a pumpkin pie before. Pies were not in their usual diet, and certainly never eaten at night (sweets similar to pies are eaten for breakfast, or occasionally lunch). Conversations in at least three languages. As the wine flowed the translations became easier and more fluid. The kids had long ago abandoned their side table and were running wild through the house and in the yard. The party lasted until well after three a.m. (not unusual by their standards).
Even now, years later, we trade emails with many of those guests, particularly at this time of year, reminding each other of that most unusual international thanksgiving fiesta.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Upon further reflection
Usually, I have found that playing the cello is a powerful relaxation process. When I start playing, various tensions sometimes show up in my fingers and hands, and I'll do some sort of mental imaging of the various connections to the muscles in my shoulders and neck and head; which somehow leads me to let go of that particular tension.
This morning, though, I realized that I wasn't able to sort out my left side tension like I normally do, and my intonation and fingering was just not up to par. Now I realize this whole thing was coming on yesterday morning, but I didn't figure it out until this morning's frustrating practice session.
OK, so I'm letting myself off the hook for yesterday's miserable effort.
Still, next time...
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Not again :(
I started off showing my teacher the highlighted sections (little stickies before and after each "tough" segment - to block me from playing on - thanks again to Gottagopractice - trouble is, I've already memorized them, so the little stickies really don't do much except remind me to stop there.) She seemed pleased that I was using a more organized approach (she'd only been telling me for months to just work on hard parts). So we jumped right into the tough parts on "Witches' Dance". Only a few hours before, I'd played these fairly well (not perfect, yet, but at least I hit the right notes, and got the basic bowing right). But not now. I felt like I was playing with five thumbs. Nothing went right. I missed notes, I missed bowings. I stopped for a moment and vainly tried to clear my head (a vague zen-like thing that usually works at home) to let loose of whatever tension had found itself into my back and arms. (I'm not exactly sure where all this tension came from. Even now, hours later, it's still lingering.) It was only after four or five attempts that I could finally start playing these sections like I'd been doing at home.
I assume all teachers see this at one time or another. Maybe I was nervous that she'd think I hadn't improved enough since the previous lesson. I had begun to feel that I had really made some significant improvements over the last two weeks. You sure couldn't tell from my performance today. She was patient as I worked my way out of it. It took most of the hour before I felt relaxed and played a little closer to normal. Although I still made a few stupid mistakes on places that I'd long ago thought were sorted out.
Because my head was full on all those inner-dialogue comments, I really didn't retain many significant technique recommendations from the lesson - other than trying to simplify the "tough parts" a little more; set some specific practice goals - such as play each segment 20 times right, or to make it even more challenging, play each segment 20 times in a row right, and if I mess up, start over; etc.
After some messy screeching on my g-string while playing some Mooney pieces, she had me do some string crossings (g-string to c-string) and back, she pointed out that I was not lifting the bow fast enough and then I was letting it go too far, so that the bow dragged on the c-string as it left and then went over to just tap the d-string. After several slow, stepwise movements, I was able to see some improvement. But my mind was still trying to figure out why this was happening - at home it doesn't... (at least it almost never happens).
No new assignments, just work on the tough parts. Next time, she'll bring in some Christmas music to work on. I told her I'd ordered a rhythm book and would bring it next time to see if we can work it into our lessons. She suggested trying at first, at least, to not use the cello while counting, clapping, tapping, singing, or whatever. Only bring in the cello after I'd really sorted out the rhythm.
Gack. I wish I hadn't wasted my lesson this way. I'll have to process this some more.
The other thing to bear in mind is that you will rarely perform as well as you practiced. When I was preparing for my concerto concert, my teacher instructed me to play my concerto from start to finish (it's 15 minutes long) about ten times, or until I was completely exhausted. She said that the 8th or 9th time would be about the way I'd perform it. Everything adds up (the different place, maybe a different temperature, the risk of playing for someone), and you probably won't perform as well as your best practice session. Sometimes it happens that you perform better than you'd practiced. It's fun when that happens, but it doesn't usually. The answer really is to practice until your worst practice session is good enough to be your medium to good performance.
Also remember that it's just a lesson. It's a performance, but not really a high risk one. It's all right to tell your teacher that you feel a little tense (she knows it sounds better at home; it works the same way for her, and for everybody else). They're not "stupid" mistakes--you're just discovering the parts you don't know as well as you thought you did, and often the only way to discover them is to perform, or play at a lesson.
Music is not an easy thing to do, nor is it scientific. You can't practice and prepare and then go perform and have it work perfectly. Some days will feel terrible for no reason. But some days will be magical, everything clicking into place.
I really do feel as if I've made some really positive improvements lately, but I am frustrated that I couldn't demonstrate that in the lesson. Today's practice was not good either, and I finally had to set it aside for the day.
Part of the problem is that my expectations are way too high, and when reality intrudes, I get frustrated, which causes me to tense up; and then it all spirals downhill from there.
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Saturday, November 18, 2006
"Cellopro" posted a cool topic on CelloHeaven.com listing dozens of cello videos available on the internet - mostly YouTube - ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Pablo Casals, to Rasputina. There's even one with a theramin cello. I've since wasted a lot of time on that site.
Just now, though, I stumbled across Van Morrison playing on Austin City Limits . Wow, he sounds exactly the same! How does he maintain that growl after forty years? I've been a big fan since I first heard "Gloria" by Them in 1965 (Patti Smith's 1975 rendition of "Gloria" on her "Horses" album, is also outstanding. I've always wanted to compile all the various versions through the years). Some of my favorites include "Wavelength" and "Tupelo Honey", but it's one of his more obscure mid-60s cuts, "Spanish Rose", that I've always considered his best. I'd love to hear a duet performance by him and Emmylou Harris.
So, I have to put this aside for a while...
An hour later...
Nice performance tonight by a top notch showman. He even sang "Gloria", and he played his sax on one piece. At one point in the late 60s he was so affected by stage fright that he dropped out of sight for years, refusing to perform. I'm sure glad he found his way through it. Dish Network's PBS channel repeats this Sunday night, if anyone is interested.
Normally, in the evenings, we've got the TV on in the background - sort of listening, sometimes watching - while Z uses the desktop and Y and I are using our laptops. Usually we're all somewhere in the internet. It would be funny if we crossed paths somewhere out here. Z is usually plugged into his second life as an avatar warrior in Runescape . Y is usually reading through her various sewing / machine-embroidery / quilting forums. And me - I'm either blogging, monitoring the cello forums - including CelloHeaven, or reading other blogs (that [Next Blog] button! - it offers so much promise but seldom delivers - still, maybe the next one will be good... I usually have better luck clicking peoples "favorite links"). When I have a deadline, sometimes I'll actually do real work in the evenings.
In our online world, we are nearly complete Googlers: between us we use the original Google search engine, Google Images, Google News, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Groups, Gmail, Blogger, Blogger beta, Google Notebook, YouTube, Google Sketchup, Google Docs&Spreadsheets, Google Chat, and recently Googlepages. I wish I'd bought their stock back when. I wonder how long before they come out with a browser? At some point, I expect I'll let go of My Yahoo homepage.
Today's practice was really satisfying. Tomorrow, I'll have to devote a little more time to my orchestra pieces for Monday's rehearsal.
Google stock, sigh. Another one of those startup regrets. When I'm 80 I think I'll still be hurting over turning down a job with Qualcomm in '91.
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Friday, November 17, 2006
Rhythm and Intonation
I find myself spending an hour or so each morning working just on intonation. I'm playing each note a lot slower than before. (Since I'm using long even bow strokes, trying to keep each note even, I guess I'm working on several bowing issues too.) This all came on with the introduction to the extensions, and a feeling of awkwardness (especially in orchestra) trying to play the fourth finger extended, and not being able to find my way back home. I listen to each note carefully, trying for ringing sounds and purity. I start with the on-screen tuner to see how close I'm getting on each note, but after a while I don't seem to need it.
Then, I start working on all of the various fingering combinations for the first two positions with extensions. Next I play up and down the first eight semi-tones from the open string to the fifth, using all the different combinations of fingering. At first it was surprisingly hard to do this smoothly. I had to stop and "tell" my fingers to do it all differently. But after a while it came more readily.
Between notes or sets, I often move my hand back to first position. I'm trying to consciously picture in my mind where each finger is and what I did to make it go there, whether I also move my thumb and/or other fingers, what wrist and elbow/upper arm movements I might use (such as first finger extensions). At the same time, I'm trying to imprint each tone in my head. Then for a while I do some random open fingering, listening to various intervals and combinations. I want to teach my fingers all the ways to make each note. I am paying a lot more attention to my thumb and how far I move it on the back of the fingerboard as I shift to the other positions.
After a while, I switch on the metronome and try different speeds.
After nearly a year(!) of trying to learn how to tocar el cello ("touch the hoop") it's really the first time I've approached the fingerboard so analytically. Yet, I have always been analytical - even obsessive about the details. My analytical nature is what drives me to blog all this in the first place. I was trained as a chemist drone, where it was important to carefully follow each step of an procedure in a precise and repeatable manner. In my later jobs I adapted these skills to tackle challenging situations by breaking them down into smaller pieces, and trying to figure out how and why they fit together. This would often lead me to a big-picture sense of it. Of course I was always more successful when I knew a lot about whatever issue was at hand. Unlike the cello.
After a short break (coffee and the internet), I work through a few pieces of my basic Suzuki repertoire, playing each one a little slower than before, but thinking about the sounds. After this, I excerpt just the tough parts from each of the four or five newer pieces and focus on carefully working them out. I'm doing these slowly and purposefully for 6-10 different segments, with lots of repetitions, (trying to think about where my fingers are going, etc.) I'm trying not to think yet about how these parts fit back into their respective pieces. I worked on these at least an hour yesterday and today.
Then another short break, and I work for a while on my orchestra pieces. These are all challenging rhythmically, for me, and I have to concentrate a lot on counting and resting. Finally I reluctantly put it away.
The other day I mentioned I felt a bit aimless about my cello playing, but I think today I have a better sense of what I want to do. It occurred to me that my previous goals, while generally appropriate, were too focused on moving through the Suzuki program as fast as possible. I've come to understand that getting to book four (or wherever) is going to be much more complicated and challenging than I had been assuming, and that I was concentrating too much on just "picking up" each piece quickly rather than learning to really play them well.
I also like the spot method you linked from your blog. It looks like a good procedure to use before hiding the easy parts with the stickies.
I do like the idea of that rhythm book, which I'm contemplating getting. Thanks for bringing that to light.
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Thursday, November 16, 2006
la Patagonia, Part 2
It was early on a typical January morning during a frigid Alaskan (-35F) cold snap, when this familia norteamericano loaded our six massive suitcases into my brother's truck and cautiously navigated the dark empty roads to the airport - all we needed was to slam into some poor moose trying to cross the glazed highways. Having bid goodbye the night before to our friends, our families, and our home of 22 years, we cautiously stepped aboard that small commuter plane and began our 28-hour trek across the full lengths of two continents, from the top of the world to the bottom of the world.
And jointly breathed a huge sigh of relief. We'd not had a moment's rest in the six short weeks since accepting the new 3-5 year assignment. The non-stop helter-skelter of creating lists; making decisions; letting go of our daily routines; sorting through 22 years of accumulated belongings - what ships air-freight, what goes by slow boat, what goes into storage; trying to order 220 volt converters and adapters (which, by the way weren't the right ones); closing up the house; finding someone to routinely check on the house and plow the snow; farming out the dog; storing the cars; renewing subscriptions and then arranging for mail forwarding; setting up Electronic Fund Transfers to automatically pay the residual bills; getting ATM cards; buying clothes, shoes, and various household supplies that we (rightly) feared would not be available.
Pulling all the documentation together - sending off for freshly certified birth certificates and a freshly certified copy of our marriage license, even my college diploma, then having all that translated into spanish, and then having to have the translations all notarized again; getting pictures, passports and visas. Getting complete physicals along with dozens of vaccinations for every possible disease except Japanese encephalitis and then trying to get the vaccination records translated and notarized.
Somehow finding time to take trips to the Brand X headquarters for their useless and misguided "overseas family orientation" (no one in Brand X had ever lived where we were going, nor, as it turned out, did anyone know much about what it was really like), and then on to the Argentine consulate in Los Angeles to pick up the all-important work permit and sign our visas.
During all this, I was also closing down my office and turning over 22 years of accumulated files to what was left of my department that had started to disband after the internal takeover months earlier; trying at the last minute to identify and reassign all the responsibilities that I'd taken for granted for so many years; sorting out what books, manuals, guidelines, files, etc. to take with me; negotiating with the IT guys for a computer. And somehow cramming in as much self-study spanish lessons as possible. Attending a nostalgic and touching farewell roast with a roomful of 40 of my soon-to-be former employees and coworkers.
Then, in the last days, waiting around for the movers to haul everything to storage that hadn't already been shipped, then draining and blowing out the water lines, boarding up the windows and doors, turning the heater thermostat to 50, and securely locking up before driving away from the security of our nest.
And, knowing that we probably would not see our folks for at least a year or so, we also tried to spend as much time with them as possible, especially over the holidays.
A last minute rescheduling the afternoon before now routed us through JFK, adding four more hours to the ordeal, but at least the long overnight haul to Buenos Aires would be via first class on Aerolinas Argentinas instead of the business class seats on a suddenly cancelled United flight out of Miami. Although I'd flown at least a million air miles by then, I had rarely gotten the chance to fly with my family. The trip itself was actually relaxing after the intense chaotic efforts to get ready (we actually completed every single item on those checklists). Five-year old Z was too keyed up by the adventure, and hardly slept. I have never been able to sleep on an airplane...
The next morning we stumbled zombie-like off that plane into the 95F heat and chaos of the Buenos Aires airport, getting swept up by my new Brand X boss (we'd only met by phone a couple times), and driven out into the mad scramble of their "freeway" system for a long trip into the city. We were whisked off to our new luxurious hotel near the city center, which catered to international business travelers on unlimited expense accounts (importantly to us it had a "north american style" breakfast menu). We slept for more than 20 hours and awoke to a hot, muggy summer morning, eager to head out into the streets to explore this new world.
We were three country hicks on the loose in a exotic foreign megalopolis, with no ties or connections, not knowing another soul (except the tenuous link to my newly met Brand-X boss), barely able to communicate with anybody. In a way, it felt like we were under water or wearing earplugs, because we really couldn't understand what people were saying to us - contrary to the Brand X indoctrination few people actually spoke english. I felt like a sponge trying to soak up every impression, to catalogue every new and different sight. Not far from the hotel we stopped in one of the ubiquitous corner cafes, hoping to find breakfast. It turns out the typical breakfast was coffee (strong - espresso) and medialunas (small sweet croissants); not much else. Lunch proved to be even more challenging, although a few days later we found a McDonalds in their pedestrian-only shopping mecca - Avenida Florida, which finally quelled Z's desire for something more familiar.
We were curious to investigate the multitude of little one-room shops that lined the streets, which were somewhat intimidating, because they weren't really setup for casual browsing. Typically a customer would come in and spend ten or fifteen minutes discussing family, weather, etc., before telling the shopkeeper what he wanted, and waiting for him to fetch it and hand it across the counter. The shopkeepers would try to convince us to buy something; we learned to smile but shake our heads a lot; our first spoken phrase was some version of "solomente mirando" (just looking).
Late in the afternoon, after having walked for miles, we found ourselves across town, and way too tired to walk back, so we hailed a taxi to return to the hotel. My Brand X boss was aghast. "You don't take taxis in the city. You'll get robbed." He immediately hired a remise (a private car) for the rest of our week-long stay. In the mornings, the patient driver would drop us off at whatever location we were curious about, and while away the hours chatting with the locals as we continued our explorations. Then we'd stumble back to the car for a mad ride through the congested streets back to the hotel. We kept this up for nearly a week. We walked for miles and miles (sorry, kilometros y kilometros). Although we didn't stray very far from the general area of the city center, we saw it all.
We knew that our brief expense account extravaganza would soon come to an end and we'd have to climb aboard yet another plane for the last leg of our journey, to start trying to assemble our new life in a new home with a new job in a new world. Our destination lay another thousand miles to the south, on the South Atlantic shores of la Patagonia...
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
I've felt sort of aimless about my cello practice. Not negative, though, just unfocused. I have lots to work on - maybe too much at once. I'm still adjusting to the new strings. They do sound better, but more importantly they sound different, and they'll take some getting used to. In my warmups, I am drilling both first and fourth finger extensions on each string. Along with some new shifting drills, which are starting to help me find third position more accurately for a couple of the orchestra pieces. I'm still way too focused on intonation. I'd really like to let go of that for a while, and concentrate more on bowing and tempo. I am also working a lot on rhythms, and feeling pretty good about my progress.
Motivated by Gottagopractice's recent blog, I've started trying to analyze the little segments of my new pieces to figure out what I'll have to do to learn them properly. Paganini's "Witches' Dance" has some interesting dotted-eighth, spiccatto-sixteenth hooked note combinations, which I'm working on, one-at-a-time. The whole process is all still a little vague and unfocused; maybe that's why it all feels a little aimless.
It also doesn't help that I'm also sitting beside my computer, listening to that little inbox chime on my email, pausing to answer one and then checking some of the (too) many blogs and forums I'm trying to follow. I suppose I could shut off the browser and email and leave only the tuner onscreen... I am also listening again to the Suzuki CDs between pieces.
Rehearsal continues to be challenging and invigorating, although we seem to have lost two of our players. Bummer.
Still having crystal clear, cold (although now windy) weather. Overnight temps at minus ten, with intense moonless (star-filled) night skies. This cold snap seems earlier than usual. I suspect I grumble about that every year.
Is that a blue-footed boobie? A penguin in socks?
Fascinating little critters.
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Tuesday, November 14, 2006
la Patagonia, Part 1
The Patagonian desert is unlike any other place I've ever seen. While you can find many physical similarities to the desert-southwest of the United States, there’s so much more out there that is different, often quite unusual. You’ll encounter exotic animals in the desert, such as the free-roaming ñandues and the curious guanacos. There’s a sense of agelessness in the desert, with constant reminders that these lands are even now being sculpted by wind and waves, a process that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years.
What you notice first and foremost is the absence of other people. You can drive all day on the backcountry tracks and never see another soul. An expedition into the desert on these “roads” is often a journey into the unknown. You never know what you’ll encounter next. A flat tire becomes an adventure, two flats can turn into a disaster. Even as you drive the main north-south highway that parallels the eastern coastline, you’ll get glimpses of vast empty canyons off to the inland side of the road, some which may never have been explored by man. Only a few years ago, the government announced the discovery by a lone gaucho roaming through the desert of a previously unknown petrified forest with the magnificant remains of enormous "trees" frozen by time. The paleontological journals are peppered with stories of discoveries of remains of gigantic creatures - sometimes exposed by the winds, or by a rare torrential rainstorm - in various locations throughout the region.
For all their emptiness, the deserts of la Patagonia are not public lands, but are fully divvied among the absentee owners of the great estancias, most of whom only leave their mansions in Buenos Aires for an occasional trek into the southern regions to inspect their vast herds of sheep. Lately these great estates are being bought up by wealthy norte-americanos hoping to escape for a time the Northern Hemisphere winters for a brief summer’s stay in that empty land.
The few people you do encounter in the desert, whether they too are just passing through or whether they are the owners or workers from the estancias, are very warm and friendly, and eager to share a bowl of maté with you or give you a lift if you’ve broken down.
The one thing no one ever can forget about la Patagonia is the wind. Constantly howling out of the west, thick with dust picked up from the slopes of the Andes, the wind dominates the landscape and controls every part of its geology, geography, and history. It molds the culture and lifestyles of those who endure in that extreme climate.
There is no letup. It blows day and night. On those rare instances when the wind slacks off for an hour or two, everything else suddently falters at the unexpected change in their rhythm. The sheep, long accustomed to bracing against the wind, are suddenly unsteady on their feet and momentarily look up from their grazing. Los desiertos, always looking for an excuse, stop whatever they were supposedly working on and step outside to enjoy the few moments of the tranquility and silence. All too soon, el viento se vuelve, the people reluctantly return to work and the sheep go back to nibbling on the sparse grasses and thorny bushes.
The southern cone of Patagonia extends down into the farthest latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere to the tip of the continent. You could board a ship in Rio Gallegos and set sail to the east in a straight line for nearly 20,000 miles around the globe before hitting land again, only 300 miles to the west on the Chilean coast, near Punta Arenas.
Out over the south Pacific, the cold air currents coming off the vast icefields of Antarctica mix with the warm, moist air rolling southward from the East Asian tropics, forming into massive storms that roar across the Pacific unhindered until they slam into the Chilean coast with a vengeance, dumping all their moisture on the narrow strip of land on Chilean side of the Andes. The Andes hold fast against the storms, stripping out their moisture, but the winds sweep up over the tops of the mountains and howl down across the eastern deserts, meeting little resistance as they push on to the Atlantic coast. It’s not hard to imagine these same winds continuing out to the east across the Atlantic and circumnavigating the southern part of the globe to try again and again to wear down those mountains and scour clean the Patagonian deserts beyond them.
Out in these deserts, small rocks and pebbles are gradually exposed as the wind blows away the sand and dirt. Eons of polishing by the wind-borne sand give these rocks a high luster on their exposed surfaces, making them glisten and sparkle in the sun. The flip side of these pebbles is still rough and drab gray or brown in color. Liberally scattered among the rocks you can find numerous reminders of the ancient incarnations of the land. The winds expose small pebble-sized pieces of petrified wood, and fragments of the quartz crystalline geodes that were ejected from prehistoric volcanoes that have long since eroded away. The winds also lay bare fossils of shells and the fossilized bones of the dinosaurs. Mixed in with these are the bones of more recently deceased critters that gave up their struggle to survive this harshest of climates.
These empty deserts stretch from the Andes in the west to the eastern coast. A single paved highway, Ruta 3, runs north-south, parallel to but only occasionally actually beside the coastline. The few cities and towns along the coast cling to the long straight stretches of highway as if it were a lifeline keeping them from blowing away. Thousands of kilometers of beaches along the coast of Patagonia lay well to the east of Ruta 3 and are not accessible by road. Indeed, it’s possible that some stretches of this coast have never have been combed by man at all.
It is this sense of isolation, of being in an unforgiving alien place, far from the trappings of civilization, that sets the region of Patagonia off from the rest of the world. Everybody who lives there feels it, and everyone copes in their own way. Some are so intimidated by the desert they never venture out into it to experience its vastness, its emptiness, its timelessness; huddling instead in the few small communities along the coast; longing to escape to the crowded cities of the north. A rare few embrace the desolation and isolation and never even think about places like Buenos Aires, Cordoba, or Mendoza.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
At some point in my career, I realized I was one of the fortunate few - I actually loved my job - as a matter of fact I thrived on it for almost eight years. It started off poorly, though. Before being knighted, I'd watched my boss-to-be climb the hive's ladder to become the imperial queen bee. Over those years, we seldom saw eye-to-eye on things and we usually went our separate ways. I was a low-level drone with no prospects, waiting for a reason to move on. Then an unusual opportunity fell into my lap and very quickly I was riding the crest of a tidal wave of change flowing through the entire apiary including our hive. Within a few years I was knighted into the ranks of this guy's direct reports, with my own areas of responsibility and my own staff.
My new boss was an overbearing hardass who ruled with anger and intimidation, as did his boss, and his bosses' boss, etc. In his mind he was always right, but wanted to make it look like he was "open" to input from his employees, especially his senior staff. So, whenever a major issue came up affecting the hive, he'd gather his "team" into a "round-table discussion". He'd start it off by telegraphing his point of view (and eventual decision) to the group, and then sit back and listen to everybody parrot back their slavish agreement in one form or another. Then he'd "make the final decision."
At first I just lay low in these meetings, keeping my head down while I was figuring out the group dynamics and the general lay of the land, etc. But rather than mimic yes along with everyone else, I usually said little or nothing, unless I actually did agree. One day in a rare mood of benevolence he went around the table one by one, asking each of us what we thought about whatever issue was ripe at the time. When my turn came, I hesitated only a moment before blurting out that I totally disagreed with "whatever" and explained why. The room got real quiet. Barely concealing his surprise, the boss went ahead and announced his decision and ended the meeting. The climate in the comb was pretty chilly for a few days, and I was pointedly left out of his next meeting.
So one afternoon, I stopped by his office on my way out and asked him if he had a minute. I shut the door and told him that I really liked my job and why. But I explained that I believed I could not do my job properly or fairly if I didn't tell him exactly how I felt about issues that affected my particular piece of the turf - good or bad, like it or not. That if he really didn't like hearing what I thought, he should replace me with someone who would agree him instead. I reminded him that I was really doing a great job, helping the beehive to be competetive and profitable, and most importantly what I was doing was making us all look good.
Of course my discussion went against his imperious nature, and I remember he reacted pensively at first. Then he visibly relaxed his guard and explained that he had grown up in the old school and was not used to dealing with employees who openly disagreed with him, but otherwise didn't play games, kiss butt, connive, or try to evade responsibilities. He admitted he didn't like me at first (I didn't remind him it had been mutual), and that his boss had pushed him to promote me, but then he quickly added that he was well aware that I approached my job with a sense of purpose and integrity. He candidly admitted that he had come to respect me and he did not want me to give up on him. He admitted that it wouldn't always be easy.
I realized that I would have to restrain my normally disrespectful and contentious nature. If I wanted to be successful, I would always have to make sure that I if I did not agree with him that I would at least have to disagree thoughtfully.
Diana's comment made me remember this.
Within a few years we had gained a mutual respect for one another and we actually made a strong team. I had become his trusted advisor; eventually we became good friends, and spent much of our free time digesting and debating world events. I always told him exactly what I thought about things, respectfully but directly, and he began to seek out my opinion on most of the issues that came up regardless of whether or not they involved my part of the honeycomb. I had the ability to see the big picture, especially when external challenges came up that affected the whole hive. While everyone else worried about the impacts and details at their levels, I could take a "thousand foot" view, seeing nuances or strategies that would otherwise not be considered. He learned to trust my opinion, in which I made sure I point out all the plusses as well as all the minuses.
As he gradually evolved into a modern manager, some of the rest of his staff caught on and adapted, a few others continued to toady. It probably helped that never once did I have the slightest interest in taking his job. I was happy and successful doing essential work that in its own small way might have made the world a little better.
After eight years, we had become an effective and successful management team (in many ways a model of how our kind of hive should be run). That year was our most productive and profitable ever. Then suddenly we were usurped by an inter-divisional corporate takeover that occurred several levels above our pay grade. Within months my boss took early retirement. I stayed on in a different role for a year or so and then escaped to Argentina on a timely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that fell into my lap. A few years later I came back to a job in a different layer of the same hive... but now I was once again a drone. My job no longer included changing the system itself, just being a docile and compliant part of it, and I mostly kept my opinions to myself.
Looking back on those years, I realize that I was extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon such a dream job that paid excessively well (thank you, Brand X), where I had lots of responsibility coupled with a lot of freedom to decide how to do my job. I traveled all over the country with occasional trips overseas. I met with Senators and Congressmen. I gave presentations to rooms full of executives. I served on national committees and state commissions. It was all first class in those early years - airlines, hotels, restaurants and rental cars. None of my fellow drones in our hive had anywhere near as much variety and high profile high risk challenges to deal with. No two days were ever alike. I never got bored. Each day offered something new. I thrived on constant adrenaline, always aware of the risks, but confident that I was able to do it well. Even as it was happening, at least I was fortunate enough to realize and appreciate the rarity of that job.
My last five years in that hive gradually became boring, routine, tedious; time slowed down, the long afternoons dragged out in a dull monotony till the end of the workday. But in some bizarre quirk of corporate cubicle-ism, my pay continued to be quite good, so I stuck it out. Until one day I just couldn't stand the deadheadedness any longer, and I bailed out.
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Friday, November 10, 2006
More blogging cellists
It's going to take a while, but wouldn't it be cool if this group of bloggers starts connecting through our common passions (cellos and blogging) and getting to know and share with one another?
Celladonna, my bookmarks are cluttered with links to a bunch of blogs (in addition to music) that I've found, commented on, and thought I'd like to add to my monitoring list. But then I forget which is which.
No doubt someone is already writing a plugin comment tracker for us commenters.
Another audio host that looks promising is Odeo. It looks more oriented toward podcasting than music sharing. I may switch over to that one soon.
PFS, I checked out Odeo a couple of days ago. I like the blog plug-in player. But after joining I couldn't find where to upload audio, only link to it uploaded elsewhere. Did I miss something, or do I also need to find a host server?
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Thursday, November 09, 2006
I did this carefully, even taking the time to clean the old strings with an alcohol wipe first, so I can save them for reuse if needed. I started with the g-string, replacing it with an Evah Pirazzi Medium, which I got free six months ago after completing an on-line survey at Pirastro. I used a pencil to "lubricate" the notch in the bridge and at the nut before carefully winding on each new string. I tightened it up to F# using my portable tuner. Then I replaced the d-string with a Crown Medium that I'd bought from Cellos2Go several months ago, and tightened it to C#. Then I replaced the c-string with another Evah Pirazzi Medium, and finally a new Crown Medium on the a-string.
I started out trying to do this all myself, but finally realized it works better to have someone hold the string out from the fingerboard - putting a little tension on it - to help in winding it onto the peg, until it was set comfortably on the bridge and nut. That made it easier to smoothly wind the strings onto the pegs. After everything was replaced I picked up my bow and used my on-screen tuner/analyzer to finish tightening these strings to their proper tuning. Then I put it away until this morning.
Today, I only had to make a few minor adjustments with the fine tuners to get it in tune. Then I rosined the bow and dove into my normal warmup routine. It was really different. Invigorating.
The Evah Pirastri c-string is thinner than the one I'd been using, but my fingers didn't seem to mind. The open C was strong and clean - the old string's C always sounded sort of muddy and black (isn't it funny how musicians seem to resort to visual concepts to try to describe sounds?). I had always assumed it was a cello-quality issue related to the low, low frequency - it was technically a C but it really sounded blah, the new one sounded like music. The first-finger D was also really nice - and rang clean with the d-string, but the F and G on that c-string weren't quite as pretty as the C.
The change in the g-string was a little less dramatic, but it did sound cleaner. By far, the biggest change was a sparkling quality in the new d-string. Clean, with good ringing tones, the E sounded nice. The a-string sounded nice too, a little brighter. I also liked how much easier it was to locate and appreciate the second position fourth finger notes on all the strings. The open strings all seem to ring more than before. In general, the cleaner the note, the easier it is to find it while playing (especially hearing when I missed it, thus making me work harder to find it the next time).
It was so gratifying to hear my whole repertoire with this new set of strings. After nearly three hours, I finally had to make myself stop playing today.
This whole string issue is probably the most confusing thing about cellos. There are so many choices out there, not just brands, but types: gut, synthetic, steel, silver, and so on. There doesn't appear to be a single best brand. String discussions are one of the most common threads on Cello Chat's Instrument Forum. There are lots of commenters (a few can get pretty rabid about their particular preferences), but I don't see a consensus about which is best. It all depends on the cello, the player, and what type of music is being played.
I can't say at this stage whether the ones I just put on are the best for my cello. Heck I can't be sure they are even better than if I had just done a like-in-kind replacement. Maybe my anticipation (and eagerness) for improvement affected the quality of my playing. When these strings are ready to be switched, I think I'll take it to one of the luthiers in Anchorage for some expert advice while getting its overall setup checked. Barring any unexpected developments, the next maintenance issue will be rehairing my bow; which I can do by mail.
There's an interesting thread in the CelloHeaven forum that started off talking about the (lack of) quality in the Suzuki CDs. I have been griping about the tinny piano accompaniment that often drowns out the cello altogether in those dang Suzuki CDs since the first day (and I admit, I added my two cents to that topic). Andrei Pricope has put up a some videos of himself playing a couple of these pieces on his website (one of the best cello sites out there, with a lot of information and downloads); and it seems he plans to do several more.
Today, one of our members, who is a professional cellist and a teacher in Florida, posted to say he is going to record the entire Suzuki set (those that are not copyrighted). Even if you aren't learning with the Suzuki method, it doesn't mean you won't eventually add most of these pieces to your repertoire. This will be a tremendous resource for teachers and students. Thanks so much, Paul! I know I will make full use of them.
Lots of new blogging cellists coming online. My sidebar currently lists 16 that I know of so far. I've added Terry, a long-time commenter to this blog; Cellodonna; Star Skimmer; Vito; Rico. Also GottaGoPractice recommended another long-time blogging cellist, AMK. If anybody knows about another one, please pass it on. Not all of these blogs are necessarily about playing the cello, but they are all written by cellists.
One more blogging cellist for you: Mr. L's Practice Room at http://mrlsroom.blogspot.com/
He hasn't posted in almost a year (life circumstances) but the archives and podcasts are fun for a quick read and listen.
You named your blog rada tilly because you loved it? haha, just a superstition. Well, sorry for my BAD BAD english, you know, i know english, just a little little.
My strings have been there since the early 90's, or longer. I think some of them came with the cello. They're Jargars and Dominants. I've been afraid to change them, and confused about what to buy, but you may have just inspired me to do it. I think I'll wear safety glasses when changing them.
Lovely, Terry's blogging, will go check it out now.
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Tuesday, November 07, 2006
We played the LeClerc piece that Pink Puffy Slippers sent me. She had not seen it before but said she really liked it. Of course she played it much faster than I'll be able to for quite some time. This is a good one for a cello duet - really good for Halloween, too. I promised to send a copy to her.
We played through Bach's "March in G" - I did well enough. :) Then we moved on to talk about some of my problem areas in the new pieces - particularly "Witches' Mountain" and "The Two Grenadiers". I have a lot of work ahead of me on these. We played "The Moon over the Ruined Castle" and talked about how to play the piano and pianissimo dynamics. We finished by playing my "nemesis piece", Bach's "Minuet No. 2". This was the first time we'd played it together (as a duet) where I felt like I could finally handle it. I really feel good about my progress on this one. She commented that I was forcing those darn opening eighth notes too rapidly...
We spent a lot of time talking about first finger and fourth finger extensions. I had been doing these all backwards. So here's what I think I understand to be the right way:
For the first finger extensions (Bb, Eb, Ab, and eventually C#) I had been sliding my whole hand - hitting these extended notes relatively cleanly - but then not getting back to the right places afterwards. Instead the thumb doesn't move on the back of the fingerboard; the rest of the hand should be able to fall naturally back into its normal place; only the first finger slides up the fingerboard - it helps to move the left arm forward while extending.
For the fourth finger extensions (D#, Ab, C#, F#) I had been holding my thumb fixed (too tightly) against the back of the fingerboard, while lifting and rolling the top of my hand, trying to reach them. The result is I have been overshooting all the notes by at least half, and then not finding my way back. The proper way is to slide the thumb with the whole hand down (or is it up? I never seem to get that right... up the scale, but physically down the fingerboard... for that matter, I still have trouble figuring out the whole up bow / down bow thing...) to that half-position; except the first finger stays in its normal position, acting as an anchor. Now the fourth finger naturally falls onto the extended notes. It helps to visualize the third finger going to the target notes (D, G, C, F) and sometimes it actually does finger them when it is inconvenient not to move back to the normal first position. The first finger anchor guides the hand back to its "home" location.
Finally I asked about intonation. What can I be doing to improve it? That led to another lengthy discussion about fingering and practice techniques. I came home today with a lot to do.
This morning a fog bank rolled over the southern part of the peninsula, bringing a little snow (of course on a day I had to drive to Homer and back), but worst of all by afternoon it had put an (hopefully temporary) end to our recent streak of clear, sparkling sunny days and spectacular moonlit nights. Last night's full moon rose immense and very bright in the extreme north-northeast at about 4:15 pm, slowly climbing southward in the sky above the eastern mountains until it was almost directly overhead about midnight. By morning it was hanging above the hills in the western sky as it slowly drifted back northward, finally setting about 11:45 am in the extreme northwest. I guess it's no surprise that it was following almost the exact same path the sun takes through the sky near the summer solstice.
So, I keep finding good things to say about our winters. Maybe I don't hate them that much after all... Or, more likely, my struggle to stay positive with my cello is bleeding over into my real life.
Glad to hear things are improving for you. Keep it up.
I've been enjoying your interesting blog. You've made lots of progress in just one year.
I have a hard time with extended position also. Like you, I don't want to move my thumb, but it's supposed to always be behind second finger in the neck positions.
Glad you & your teacher liked the LeClerc piece.
I won't be posting every day. More like once or twice a week.
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Monday, November 06, 2006
A week of focused practicing with the metronome paid off. I was at least able to hold my own, for the first time. And that boosted my self-confidence enough so that I was able to do OK on a few of the new pieces that we sight-read. When we played "Palladio" I was able to confidently set and hold the tempo through all the various rhythm changes. Only five more rehearsals before the Christmas concert (we'll only be doing two pieces). Then we'll do our own complete concert some time in April.
I'd guess mine isn't the only silent voice yelling in my head during these rehearsals: "you sped up again on that passage, are you ever going to get it right?" or "wow was that B sour!" or "can't you keep up?" or "why can't you hold that dotted quarter longer?" It's funny how everybody blogs about experiencing the same highs and lows - during lessons, practice, rehearsals, etc. And how we all seem to be so critical of ourselves. Another blogger recently talked about being too critical of herself, which got me thinking.
This trait seems to be universal to some degree among all musicians. Self-criticism is an important facet of musical development. The problem is as a beginner, I think I set my standards way too high at first and then immediately began to beat myself up for not being able to meet them right away. I have to learn to channel this self-criticism into motivation to keep on working. Rather than dwell on the fact that maybe I didn't do as well as I wanted on a particular passage and accept that as proof that I'll never be any good, I need to get beyond that and figure out exactly what I have to do to make sure I do a better job on it next time.
Over time, I've gradually eased back on my expectations - actually mostly on the timing of when I should be able to play what, etc. I think I am only just beginning to understand how much effort it takes. Maybe Suzuki should offer a section to beginners on setting realistic goals, how to be fair in your self assessments, how to practice, how to prepare for a performance, etc. In fact I think schools ought to include these sort of things in their general curriculums as early as second or third grade.
I've updated my sidebar to show all the blogging cellists that I've run across. No doubt there are many more.
A: A baby hippo.
I think all those things you mentioned in your last paragraph (realistice goals, self-assessment, etc) are what was so lacking in my first effort at learning cello that I just gave up. I had no idea what was even possible as an adult beginner. I went from thinking I'd sound great in a year or so (ha!) to thinking I'd never sound acceptable. My first teacher told me he didn't know of a single person who had started as an adult and played well.
The internet (and that ICS board I love to grouse about) has really given me a better perspective. I still can't answer the question of when I'll sound "decent", but I do hear of other adult starters becoming good players.
That plus I've just decided, it has to be about the process, not about the result, because there's a lot more process than result involved in playing an instrument like cello.
Did you ever play an instrument as a child? I played a toy piano, and taught myself to read music with a color chart. I sure as heck didn't worry about how I sounded. It was just pure enjoyment of learning and making music. Now and then I remind myself to try and recapture that innocent state with my cello efforts.
Wow! Who could blame you for giving it up with a teacher like that. I can almost picture him rolling his eyes as you struggled with each challenge. With that sort of attitude he ought to at least have the decency not to take money from adult students. Heck, I wouldn't even want him teaching my kids.
When I was seven, my parents gave me an accordian, and I practically lived with it until my brother smashed it. I know exactly what you mean about that pure enjoyment of producing music without all the angst.
I've been looking for a toy piano (not one of those electronic simulations, but the real thing). I love that sound. Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, they don't extend into bass clef, so we probably wouldn't be able to use it in our bass clef orchestra (unless, maybe for rhythm?)
Oh, yeah, tell your inner critic to take a hike!
My teacher always tells me to look for the good things in my recent playing. Such as what am I doing better this time that I had been struggling with before?
I haven't seen a real toy piano for ages either. Here's some music trivia for you: Tori Amos used a toy piano on some tracks on her Under the Pink album.
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Sunday, November 05, 2006
A disappointing practice day. Too many distractions, including a fantatastic moonset this morning out my northwest window. Still, rather than give in, I persevered and ended up working extra on the basic rhythm orchestra piece "Palladio". I'm really hoping I can give a passable performance in tomorrow night's rehearsal.
Oh, here are two more cellists in the blogosphere: MiaCella, with her new blog, "Cello on the Roof", and Madeline with her new blog "Cello: My Anti-drug". There was also a new poster today on CelloHeaven who was wondering about starting a blog...
[This is my 200th post!]
To see just the cello entries click All my stuff, then the cello SuprTag. Unfortunately, I can't find the older archives online any more.
And I see you now have profile registered in the blogosphere!
(Hey PFS, did you notice Terry's description of the Thai Elephant Orchestra? See, it was a good idea!)
Thanks for the link to AMKuchling's Blog, GTGP, I'll add it to my rapidly expanding list of "Blogging Cellists".
Congrats Guanaco on Post #200!
And Terry, good job on the article. I hope to be at that festival next year.
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Saturday, November 04, 2006
Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Concerto Concert
The other two student concerto contest winners, 14-year old oboist Elyse Carter, and 17-year old cellist Reidun Todd also gave polished, moving performances. All three winners are from Homer...
I come home from these recitals - especially student recitals - strongly motivated and inspired to keep working. Now, after almost a year I can look back and see how far I've come on my own journey (even though it's hard to see the discrete changes). My biggest obstacles continue to be impatience and self-doubt, even though I know that improvement only comes with practice and persistence. Lately I've found myself playing longer and longer, three hours yesterday. I've been concentrating on the orchestra pieces; I'm looking forward to a better rehearsal, Monday. I haven't put as much effort into my Suzuki pieces as I should, and I'm sure that will be obvious at Tuesday's lesson.
My new metronome arrived today! It's simple to use. I like the down beat feature. With a big speaker, volume control, and a nice mechanical-sounding click, it can get pretty loud. Of course this means that tomorrow I'll play that much better, right?
Pink Puffy Slippers sent me an untitled copy of a haunting piece in g-minor that she had recorded (the score credits Jean LECLERC, 1700-1765). Thanks PFS! :) After a brief search, the closest reference I could find was a Sheet Music listing for a "Sonata in g-minor " by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764). The "Free Dictionary" notes: Leclair, Jean-Marie, 1697–1764, French violinist and composer. Leclair studied in Italy, and his music was strongly influenced by Italian models, especially Vivaldi, although it has its own distinct character. He composed much violin music and an opera. Leclair was murdered, possibly by his estranged wife.
[EDIT: PFS forwarded a link from Wikipedia that apparently refers to a different french composer, Jean Panteleon LeClerc, who reportedly lived from 1697 to 1760. I found only one other googlelink where he is mentioned, apparently as author of a manuscript found in the "The Music Library of Jean-Baptiste Christophe Ballard, Sole Music Printer to the King of France, 1750 Inventory of his Grand Collection". Although neither of these dates exactly match the dates on the score, I suspect PFS has the right guy. Still there was something exotic about that other guy writing such a haunting piece and then getting murdered by his wife...]
I played it through a few times - it sounded good. We've been talking about doing this as an internet duet. Of course I have a long way to go, I think it will only take a few months before I'll be ready to try recording myself (with great trepidation after last time). We should each be able to record ourselves using Audacity and then combine the two tracks.
We've been appreciating clear, intensely sunny days and bright moonlit nights, after almost two months of drizzle and clouds. Temperatures have dropped by more than 30 degrees, but it's worth it to have those bright blue skies. I especially like when the setting sun sharply backlights the volcanoes and the mountains across Cook Inlet, as the horizon glows yellow and then pink and then purple. This evening we went out to our "lookout" and enjoyed one of these sunsets as the full moon rose over the Kenai Mountains to the east. Even though we're just beginning another six month winter ordeal, I can appreciate the return of starry nights and the infrequent northern lights. At our lookout there aren't any natural lights around for miles, letting us see all the stars.
It must be nice to live someplace where you can see so many stars.
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Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Now picture Dilbert sitting at home at his computer, unshaven, in his "house" clothes... That's me! Right now. People actually pay me (pretty well, actually) to sit here in my own natural habitat to do what I do! Hooray for the Internet!
I've always been a computer junkie. I bought my first top-of-the-line IBM-PC in late 1983 (although I had been lusting for an Atari for several years before that), for more than $5,000 [really big bucks back then]. An 8086 with twin(!) floppy disk drives - remember those old floppies that held... yeah, yeah, whatever. Anyway, within a year I did my first upgrade with a color graphics card and a new IBM RGB color monitor. Was I living good! I learned to program in Basic, bought Wordstar and VisiCalc, and even started trying to comprehend Assembly language programming.
Then I started a new job assignment - this drone had moved over onto the fast track! The work involved a lot of travel, with lots of writing memos, documenting meetings, composing letters, preparing speeches, etc. I painstakingly wrote everything out by hand and turned it over to the ever-patient secretary for typing. Then guiltily I would proofread and make my edits (she really hated my red pen - she used to hide it from me!) and then hand it back to her for retyping. However, using Wordstar I started doing more and more work at home, after hours (at least I was going home on-time). My then 7-year old son, B, had already been eyeballing the PC and was beginning to explore it after school - this was many years before the mouse! He was always hanging over my shoulder watching me work.
My productivity really jumped, since I did all my composing after-hours, leaving me free to do so much else on the job. But one day, I decided I had enough. I talked to my boss about getting a PC at work. He reacted in horror. Engineers did not use computers - they were just toys. Furthermore, "engineers aren't supposed to type." He actually believed all that, too. Sad to say, this was a common corporate attitude in the early 1980s. I'm sure a few companies had already begun to figure out that there might be an advantage, but not my company... I told him what I had been doing with mine, and offered to bring in my own computer for a while as a demonstration. He was very reluctant, but finally (after checking with his boss, no doubt) he relented - as long as I kept my office locked after hours and bought an insurance policy for the computer.
That Saturday, over B's tearful protestations, I loaded up my PC, keyboard, monitor, and dot-matrix printer (I even had to bring my own paper) and hauled it all to work. I had to do a major reorganization of my office to accommodate a PC. Can anyone even picture what offices used to look like before PCs? My desktop had a calculator and a phone, a coffee cup and lots and lots of paper. Monday morning brought a crowd to my door - a PC in the workplace! The secretaries were envious - most of them, anyway. After a few days the furor died down and I was able to get back to work. I ended up figuring out a way (using a null-modem, I think) to link my PC to the secretary's IBM programmable Selectric typewriter and we began producing professional-looking documents. I had to run a cable over the wall into the secretary's office - the first network!
After a year, I again proposed to my boss that the company buy me a computer. I was able to show plenty of proof that my productivity had gone up, but even then, my reptilian bosses wouldn't hear of it. I was an exception to the rule. If everyone had computers they'd just spend their days playing games (how right they actually were - how many of us spend untold hours surfing the web at work or playing solitaire)! So, I got mad and took my PC home, and vowed to go back to the old system of handwriting, etc. B was elated! He soon took over the PC and now 20 years later is a computer engineer deeply involved in the world of computers.
Eventually, after lots of negotiation and behind-the-scenes discussions I conjured up an inane return-on-investment calculation(!) that had to go all the way up to the Board of Directors(!) They reluctantly approved a package of 5 computers - one for me, one for the accountant and three for the secretaries! This was 1986! Several years later we installed the first file-sharing network cable - again on a weekend - running it through the drop ceiling with feeds to several of the computer-equipped offices. I took a lot of heat for that, since it was done off the books and without approvals from the emerging group of corporate IT nazis. A little later, I was ordained into the ranks of minor powers-that-be, and eventually I was able to successfully push through the "PC in every office" philosophy and bring in the internet, etc.
Still, I admit I finally had to be dragged into the present, too. I had to be convinced to even try switching from my DOS/keyboard interface to Windows/mouse-keyboard interface, that most of us now use today. I was a late holdout against MS Office (I really liked WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3). [I still refuse to use Internet Explorer.] Somewhere during all this time, I lost track of my own PC-savvyness. From being a nascent programmer when it was all getting started, I've become a mere low-level user. I no longer look behind Windows at DOS (or whatever lurks back there now). Any programming I do is in Excel or on the web. I no longer even understand how PCs work - everything has evolved so many times, that I'm afraid to even crack the case open... I don't even care how the newest Dual Core processor works, or why it's better. I suppose I'll eventually upgrade. I still drop a small fortune every few years on the latest and greatest - usually after I get tired of waiting while my current system lags on a new application.
Funny how life pulls you down unexpected paths.
Mind you, there was a PC on every desk already, but this engineer was of the "engineers don't type" school.
Well now I've gone and made this all about me.
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