Sunday, May 06, 2007


Celloblogging, Part 2

I honestly had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to pick up the cello at age 55. Of course I knew it would not be easy - that's why I had failed with the piano, the clarinet, and the violin. Still, I hadn't really understood how hard it would be has been is to really buckle down and do the work necessary to learn this powerful yet stubborn instrument. Little did I know that, 18 months into the process, I would still find myself stumbling over small fingering or bowing difficulties in old, familiar pieces - that I have played daily for months and months.

From the beginning, I note the date that my teacher "allows" me to start each new piece, as a way to track my progress. So, today, for the first time I played The Two Grenadiers, from Suzuki Book 2, without any errors. I started working on this piece on October 24 - just over six months ago. I finally got that one pesky rhythm segment (tricky for me, anyway) that comes about halfway through. I had isolated it many times and drilled it over and over, and each time I felt as if I had "gotten" it, but when I put it back into the whole piece, I'd blow it once again. Today, finally, it was different. To celebrate, I played the entire piece again - flawlessly again, and then again one more time just to make sure this wasn't some anomaly.


Still, what are the odds that I can do this again Tuesday at my next lesson? I know my a-rhythmic issues get in the way of my playing. Long after I know the notes, and can play totally from memory, I often find myself stumbling on simple rhythms.

So. The narrative above illustrates what I've tried to use this blog for - to document my cello learning progress; to try to put words to what I was doing, what I was struggling with, what I was frustrated with, what I was successful with. To somehow make tangible the intangible.

The engineer in me originally wanted to create a bunch of charts and diagrams, to try to find some logical measurement systems to track things. I considered keeping a logbook to document the number of hours I practiced - much as I had to do when I was 13 and failing to learn the clarinet (I did learn how to forge my mother's signature on my weekly practice record). Some of my previous blogs dealt with measurement issues, inviting an interesting series of comments - which I really appreciated. I finally worked some of that obsession out of my system, concluding that this type of intangible really couldn't be measured - that the more I tried to measure it, the further away I got from really understanding it - Heisenberg again.

In my first 100 days of blogging I wrote 100 blog entries. Almost always writing about my cello - what I was doing, which pieces I was playing, which artists I was listening to, which particular technical issues I was working on, which techniques I had picked up at my lessons. I also wrote a lot about my cello's sounds. Even knowing my technique was/is the major factor in sound quality, I still spent a lot of time trying out various strings, fussing about bow hair, and chasing that dang wolf (and his little brother). All that is archived here.

I also found myself using this blog as a place to explore other things going on in my head, and in my life. Some early posts included a lot of ranting about politics and social issues going on. I soon tired of that, even now, I get an awkward feeling when I go back and read some of that. It doesn't really fit with what I wanted this blog to be about. Leave the ranting to the 'experts', to those who want to antagonize each other. There was plenty of that stuff in the various forums and chat rooms. There are more than enough things going on in the world to fill a million blog entries without getting into things like that.

But I also used the blog to sort out my feelings about learning things as an adult - like how I had to suddenly learn Spanish at 47. That led me to write about our life's side trip, when we suddenly moved to Patagonia for a year and a half.

I wondered about things I wish my parents had told me about their lives, their ambitions, their dreams, their frustrations. Things they never spoke to us kids about (and never recorded for posterity). It seemed that their generation was not comfortable with this - that only "people of letters" wrote diaries. They are gone, now, and all that is lost to time. I will never know what my father thought about the gut wrenching terror of flying in bombers in the Pacific theater for three and a half long years, how he dealt with his fears, the loss of friends and companions, the dread, that surrender to fate. Other than a few vague memorabilia, I don't even know where he was stationed, which battles he took part in. How close had he come to being shot down...

Maybe some of that goes back to the stoicism of their generation. Maybe some goes to the awkwardness of writing with a pen on paper, compared to the freedom of editing as you type on a PC. Maybe with a handful of kids, a mortgage and a busy job he just didn't have the time or inclination to write it down.

As I blogged on, I realized that I really wanted to leave something more behind, for my kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even if they never take the time to read any of it, it should be available - at least for scanning and searching.

For the first 99 entries, I never got any comments. I hadn't even thought about comments. That wasn't part of what I was doing at the time. Then that first comment evoked a strange reaction in me - surprise, then just a little bit of pride - someone is reading me (actually I think he stumbled across me via the Next Blog button), but then apprehension - I hadn't really planned on anyone else reading this. I had come to think of it as a diary of sorts - holy crap, what all had I written? I spent some time going back through my archives, making a few edits.

A week or so later, I "met" Eric Edberg via a comment, and then I met Anne-Lise. After another month or so Erin, and Terry, and Pink Fluffy Slippers, and Gottagopractice. By the 150th post I was starting to get comments on most entries. In turn I was reading their blogs and tentatively offering a few comments on theirs. For several months I was checking all their blogs daily for updates. Then I found Google Reader, which updates automatically whenever anyone posts a blog entry or a comment (in some cases). Currently, I've got more than 250 blogs and comment feeds on my G-Reader list - at least 2/3 are cello related.

Then I got 'outed'. My cello teacher's daughter found my blog (I had posted a review of her piano performance and she found it through Google). A few weeks later my soon-to-be orchestra conductor found my blog and sent me a note inviting me to join. All of a sudden I was no longer anonymous. Things were different and I'd have to start censoring myself from then on. I had to consider that some people reading this now knew who I was, right?

So, maybe I do censor myself, now. Maybe the transition from being completely anonymous and unread to being known (to some) and read (by a handful of others) has changed how I write and what I write. Clearly, now, I am conscious as I write that others are sometimes reading this. I has got to be affecting what I write. But it doesn't really bother me. I don't feel constrained by that. I don't feel any less able to write what I want.

I started compiling a list of links to other cellists who blog, and "introducing myself" via the comments. Others found my blog from links on other blogs. This is growing into quite an intricate web of cellobloggers. The list now has 116 124 cellobloggers on it. There is also a link to another 124 Japanese cellobloggers.

This process of choosing words to try to sort out my experiences as a novice student of the cello has helped keep me focused on what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it. It carried me past countless roadblocks and low points that otherwise might have persuaded me to pack it in. My blog became some kind of self-fulfilling motivation to plod onward, despite the seeming lack of progress, the muscle tensions, the untameable screetches, the sore and fumbling fingers, the errant bowings.

As the cellobloggers network began to grow, I discovered an unexpected support network that I could never have imagined. Just reading the blogs of other adult cello students is motivation in itself. Even better is the sharing of kind and thoughtful comments with each other - expressing support and encouragement, celebrating one another's successes, commiserating for the hard days, and exchanging tips and techniques; reinforcing one another as we jointly pursue this fascinating challenge. I find so much inspiration and motivation from this group.

In this hectic world, where music students seldom even see one another unless their lessons are back to back, and orchestra rehearsals often end in a mad scramble to the parking lot, there isn't a lot of opportunity to sit down with other students and talk about our cellos. Especially adult students. Now, the internet has a few forums for cellists, like CelloChat and CelloHeaven. CC is interesting, for sure, but it's too big a group for me to post in; too large and varied, with too many conflicting opinions and disagreements. Celloheaven is much less negative, but it seems to cater to much younger players.

The blogosphere is no less public than these forums, but I find that comments are quite friendly and courteous. There are seldom any disagreeable comments (provided you use your spam protection). If people don't like what they read in a blog, they can simply stop reading it.

By writing it down, documenting it in this public way, I have somehow managed to become more committed to following through and practicing on.

I just spent the weekend with a girlfriend who thinks of herself as social but can not imagine writing blogs about personal feelings for just anyone to read. I guess one has to be comfortable with one's thoughts to keep a public diary. Perhaps bloggers are really reporters just stating facts from a personal viewpoint. Perhaps bloggers have a strong sense of self-censorship before putting anything down in writing.
Thanks for posting this thoughtful two-part discussion on blogging and cello playing/learning. I recognize much of what you write about in me, except that I told friends and family about it from the beginning to make sure I wouldn't say anything I would regret! I kept a private music diary for a year or so, and still occasionally make entries in it, but I do like the idea of communicating with others via bloggery.
This is a great post! I really enjoyed reading it, though you did scare me with the thought of people discovering my blog!
Great post(s). It was a blog, by an amateur viola player in Holland, that inspired me to take cello lessons as an adult, and gave me the dream of someday playing in an orchestra. Much to my surprise, I'm actually playing in an orchestra now.

However, my cello endeavors were for the longest time more a source of self-deprecating stories of failure and frustration on my own blog than anything else. That didn't change until I got the chance to interact and swap stories with other adult cellists. Two I met in real life, but as you mention it is not so easy - you only see one or two people at the most at your lessons, and orchestral interaction is also limited. It wasn't until I discovered your blog, and through you this large group of supportive other cello bloggers (this sounds so weird to me to type) that I began to take seriously the possibility of actually making further progress with the instrument, and increased my practice time and improved my practice methods. I still suck, but I've got a practice spot set up in the cellar where I can play as loud as I want, and I figure with time the increased practice hours will eventually pay off. So, thanks to you and everyone else.
For years I enjoyed keeping diaries and journals and even began a handwritten cello journal and practice log 5 years ago when I started my cello adventures in my mid-fifties. Then I found your blog. And then came the realization that I too could have a blog. Wow ... a journal with the added dimension of sharing experiences, feelings, and progress. All that ... and the anticipation of comments too. How could I resist? I sing my praises to you and to blogging. (although I may change my tune if our pops conductor discovers my blog!)
Great post, Guanaco. You've made me feel good about blogging. It's an adventure and a journey of discovery, isn't it?
On the "you never know who is reading" aspect, I have been writing detailed blog entries about the Anchorage Symphony, their rehearsals and performances, and their conductor, all discreet and with the understanding that it is published material available to everyone. A few weeks ago, though, I found out that both the public relations director and the executive director of the Anchorage Symphony have been reading my blog! It's a good reminder that it is pretty hard to be anonymous, but do we really want to be?
I guess you're never as anonymous as you'd like to believe. A friend I'd not talked to in seven or eight years called me today (with a possible job, no less). He'd tracked me down through Google, which had also linked him to this blog (that surprised me).

I guess as bloggers, we are reporters, aren't we (except that we get to interject opinions and rants and whatever)?

It is very gratifying to get comments on what I write, Thanks...
I am so glad you left a comment on my blog, so that I could trace you back here and read your wonderful thoughts on playing the cello as an adult. It's always interesting to see why others chose to start learning an instrument, particularly as an adult, and also why people chose to start blogging.

I get a lot of my support online from reading blogs of other musicians. And it's interesting in turn to see that I influence others, as I've discovered after concerts when people come up to me and say, "Hi, I read your blog".

I'll be bookmarking you, and am looking forward to exploring your blogroll! Thanks again.
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