Thursday, January 10, 2008


Minor Trio-bulations

Cellocracy consists of three cellists (at present). Cello1 is a high-school student who's been playing for 6 or 7 years, but has not been able to take lessons for a year or so. We have the same teacher, but she could no longer manage the 200 mile round-trip drive every two weeks for lessons; although she hopes to be able to resume them some day.

I guess I am Cello2.

Cello3 is another late starter who's been playing about a year. We've been getting together weekly for an hour or so at Cello3's house since September. She also can't make the long drive to Homer for lessons, so she is currently taking lessons from our string orchestra conductor.

Since Cello1 is busy with lots of activities (sports, clubs, etc.) she's had to skip several sessions and she wasn't able to play at our alternate Christmas concert. So our strings orchestra conductor, a violinist who is currently learning the cello, sat in for Cello1 at that concert.

Also Viola1, a flautist who's been learning the viola for about a year, has come to some of our rehearsals. We were working on a four-part piece for our Christmas concert, Carol of the Bells, arranged for us by Terry, but since our main gig was canceled we didn't get to play it. We decided to keep working on it, and might play it at our orchestra's spring concert in April.

Cello3 and I are also working on the LeClerc/Rameau duet, Tambourin. We might eventually play it somewhere, someday...

Quite some time ago, we noticed that Cello1 was getting a lousy sound from her A-string. Her D-string sounds OK, and her C and G strings are really nice. I remember her saying the A-string had snapped last year and she'd ordered a new one from the local music store (not a strings shop - there aren't any of those around here). She does seem to be pretty frustrated with her A-string tones and always appears to be hunting for a better sound.

Finally, one evening I casually asked her if I could look at it, and I noticed that her bridge was way out of alignment - almost half an inch off on the upper string side. She said it might have slipped when the string broke. I told her the misalignment would probably affect the A-string sound (I really didn't want to imply that her sound was off)... and suggested she ought to either reset it herself, or take it to a luthier. She was not comfortable resetting the bridge herself and has not been able to take it to Anchorage, so she has been struggling on.

So I asked my teacher about it. I've often talked with her about the technical setups of my cello and mentioned that I wouldn't think twice about resetting my bridge if needed. She said she has had to adjust her younger students' bridges - which frequently get knocked around when carried in soft cases. She suggested I could offer to Cello1 to do it for her - just loosen the strings a bit, ease it into its proper place and carefully re-tune it. So a few weeks before Christmas, I told her I'd be happy to reset it for her. She didn't seem to be very interested, but in any case she was in a hurry that evening and had to leave.

So, here's the rub... Her A-string really doesn't sound very good. Last night, at our first get-together since then, it sounded even worse - if that's possible. I'm pretty sure it would improve a lot if the bridge were adjusted. I'm guessing she's not very comfortable with me resetting it for her - after all, what do I know? In her place, I'd also be a little uneasy about some guy wanting to fix my cello. I don't want to push it, so I've decided to wait another week or so and then offer one more time.

Now, we're looking for some new trio pieces to start working on. Any suggestions?

Just for the record ... I'd have no problem trusting you to reset my bridge. Maybe "cello 1" needs to read your blog to see how competent you are.

For music suggestions: Well, I don't have any specific suggestions, but would recommend getting a copy of Shar's string sheet-music catalog. It's quite comprehensive. And they list pieces for 3 cellos. However, I haven't had much luck using their online catalog search engine.
Maybe you should just tell her outright that her cello needs work, or offer to take it (or it and her) to your teacher next time you have a lesson?

For trios, you might try Twenty Trios for Young Cellists or Folk Strings for Cello Ensemble (Martin). Folk Strings is for cello quartet, but you could omit either the more challenging descant-like second part or the easier fourth part, depending on your group and the particular piece. These books also come in versions for violin and viola, so your violist should be able to join in if they are in the same keys.

Another series I like is Cellobrations (from which my cello ensemble took their name). There is a Cellobrations and a More Cellobrations, and, just now searching the Johnson String site for options, I found another one called Easy Cellobrations. These are also quartets, but maybe a part can be transposed for viola.
If you watch Fawlty Towers, you could give the cello the thrashing of its life.:)

Here are my suggestions, if you haven't already worked it out.

1) put a Larsen soloist A, "mittel" on there. I have yet to find a nicer sounding A string for most cellos.

2) the soundpost might have been bumped in the same mishap that moved the bridge. I had no idea how finicky that bugger was until a transatlantic flight shifted mine and created a series of wolfs and chirps on my A string.

3) switch cellos and make sure it's not pilot error.

4) make sure her bow isn't rolling. You know how temperamental the A is. If she's not playing on an ideal setup, that makes a precise bow technique (flat of the hair, smooth changes, no crazy angles) even more important.

Thanks for the snowy picture, btw. It's raining here and I am in heaven!
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