Wednesday, February 27, 2008

 

Fumbling around


After two rehearsals this week (orchestra and Cellocracy), I am quite frustrated and rather disappointed with my performance. It's not as if I was sight-reading; I've been working on most of this stuff for months, if not longer. But I played as if I didn't know which notes were which. At least, when my fingers (rightly or wrongly) went to play an E - or whatever - the sound was at least a "clean" E. Worse, not only did I mess up the notes, whenever there was a significant rhythm change, I fumbled it. Whew. Not good.

I confess. I have not been practicing these on a regular basis, usually only the day before and the day of the rehearsals. I feel guilty each day as I put away my cello, knowing I should have spent some time on them. Yet...

So today, I forced myself to stop my warmup/scales after a half-hour and to stop working on the Suzuki material after 45 minutes. That left me at least 45 minutes to go through my orchestra material. Today, I went through everything, playing pizzicato slowly, and going back to mark the remaining trouble spots. Tomorrow I'll focus on the remaining trouble spots, and most of the old trouble spots. I've found that these issues sometimes resurface when I'm tired or when I get flustered for whatever reason, so it helps to refresh them on a regular basis. Friday, I'll play all these pieces with my bow, slowly. Saturday, I'll work on bowing the trouble spots. Sunday and Monday, I'll work on playing everything at full tempo. Monday's rehearsal should reveal the remaining weak spots, which I'll readdress on next week. [I'm writing all this down here in lieu of a practice log, mostly to document for myself what I intend to do.]

I really hate to back off my Suzuki/Mooney work, because I have been making steady progress there. Still, I have to be able to hold up my end in these two groups, and my recent neglect has become painful.

Last night a fourth cellist came to our Cellocracy rehearsal! That means we should be able to add some quartets to our repertoire. She already has commitment for the day of our upcoming concert, and won't be here this summer for our summer concert either. But it sure is nice to hear four cellos together...

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I've been listening recently to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' 2007 album, Raising Sand. What a fascinating and surprisingly pleasing collaboration! Apparently, T-Bone Burnett came up with the idea of pairing them together and then persuaded them both to give it a shot. David Dye recently presented an interesting interview with them on "World Cafe". My only regret is that Plant turned down a reunion tour with Led Zeppelin in favor of touring with Alison ;) [not that I'd ever get a chance to see Led Zeppelin live, but I was sort of hoping that a tour would rekindle the spark and they'd come out with some more of their signature style of rock].

Comments:
Thanks for your input on BFS&T! I'm still figuring out all the differences between Blogger and WordPress. :)

I made a change that I think will make life easier for you. Give it a try and let me know if I tweaked the right setting.

Off to throw the cello in the car and drive for an hour to a gig. In rush hour traffic and pouring rain. Good thing we love it so much, eh?

:)
 
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Saturday, February 23, 2008

 

It sure takes a lot of time


and computer power to convert LPs to MP3s. After playing around with Audacity, I ended up switching back to Cakewalk for recording. A lot of searching led me to finally figure out that USB Audio Codec does not have a volume control for recording [gee, thanks a lot for that, Microsoft.] It turns out, though, that the first two records I had selected from the top of my "pile" for trying out this whole system were recent garage sale finds that had been sadly abused by their previous owners. I wasted a lot of time last weekend trying to clean them up, but the finished product was so lousy, it was tough to listen to. I was pretty dang disappointed with the whole idea and almost gave up, regretting the waste of $.

But then, a few days later, I picked up several of my own records from the pile. I've always been rather careful with them, replacing my needle often, never leaving loose albums laying around, always storing them vertically in their cases, using a velvet-covered dust cleaner before playing, etc. They did appear to be in better shape.

Still, I decided that since this was for *keeps*, I should wash each LP before recording it. A search of the internet [wow, there are some real hard-core vinyl enthusiasts out there! *oops, that's probably going to draw some interesting google searches*] led to a homemade cleaning solution of 3 parts water, 1 part isopropyl alchohol, and a squirt of Simple Green soap concentrate. I used a soft paint brush to apply the solution and then rinsed the record clean with warm water - avoiding getting the center label too wet in the process. Finally, I patted it dry with a paper towel.

After this laborious process, I recorded a couple albums, and amazingly, the resulting MP3s came out really nice - as good as any I had on my computer already. The waveforms were clean, and Cakewalk easily removed the few slight background noises.

From start to finish it takes about an hour per record (not counting the actual recording time), which means I'll be lucky to record more than four or five albums a day. This is going to take a long time. Most of this is the final conversion to MP3s, which appears to take a lot of CPU capacity. I decided not to burn these files to CDs - who needs it? Most of the time I'm only able to listen to this kind of music when I'm in my car - which has an iPod connection (and a great sound system).

The nice part about having all these tracks as MP3s is that I can easily call up any song, album, or artist, and within a few clicks, it's playing. Also, while I'm converting the files, I can delete those tracks from the albums that I never liked.

Eventually, I'm probably going to start burning my CDs into MP3s as well.

Comments:
Thinking of converting over 200 LPs and 2000 CDs to mp3s just boggles my mind.
 
I just converted about 375 CD albums to digital files, so I know your pain. Luckily, I've never owned an LP so I didn't even have to think about that. Knowing a lot about compression schemes, one suggestion that I might make (before you get too far into your collection) is to digitize your albums as lossless files rather than mp3s. FLAC is the format I used for my CDs. You may not notice the difference from mp3 on your iPod or car stereo, but if you ever listened to those files on a home theater system you would probably be disappointed. And if you encode to a lossless scheme (FLAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless) you can always use a media player that re-encodes the files to mp3 on-the-fly as you transfer them to your iPod.

Since you're going through so much trouble to get the audio quality the best possible from your LPs to the computer, you might as well go the extra mile and use lossless, IMHO. If you're worried about storage space, worry not since storage is cheap these days. My whole collection takes up only 100 GB as FLAC files (ripped with Exact Audio Copy). I take comfort in knowing that those files are exact copies of each track in my collection, so I will never have to rip those CD albums again, despite what new technology comes along.
 
One thing I forgot to mention--you can't use FLAC with iTunes at the moment, so if that's your media player of choice go with Apple Lossless.
 
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Now, a car that lets you leave your cello case at home


Thanks to oboeinsight for this link: AdGabber

Who knew? Think any cellists will run out and buy this car, now?


While I'm at it, look what Lone Oboe linked to a few days ago: FoxTrot

Yeah, Cello Hero... now that's just what I need.


Hmmm, why is it that oboe bloggers find and post so many links about cellos?

---------------------------------------
EDIT

Also Cello Centered (and later Musical Assumptions) recently posted another interesting "Cello Hero" game: Berliner Philharmoniker

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 

Same old practice issues


Once again I've run up against the same old practice problem of trying to cover everything I want to each day, which means I really don't feel as if I'm getting much done at all. I've focused a lot of my practice time on the Humoresque, going through the shifts over and over. In recent days I'd finally started to work on the last two shifts - up to 5th position A and 7th position C. Of course, at today's lesson (#46), I wasn't able to get anywhere close to what they should sound like - my lesson gremlin struck again - but I was able to play through most of the rest of the piece, more or less. In the second part, where it shifts from F# on the D string to F# on the A string (in upper third position), I should use my thumb as a guide for locating the shift. In the shift to seventh position, I should let my thumb slide around to the side of the neck as I locate the A-harmonic with my first finger, and consider my hand shape and what part of my hand "rests" against the edge of the cello; then watch where the third finger plays the C. The Bb should be fairly straightforward after that.

Prior to getting into that, we played through the Gavotte in C-minor, and aside from one stumble on a descending C-minor scale portion, it went quite well. I like playing this piece - a lot. My homework from this is to play just that third position extension and the shift back to first position, over and over.

Then we opened the Scherzo. For all my other successes, I've not been able to "get" this one, yet. I usually work on it three or four times a week, but I can't really say I've made a lot of progress. If I pay attention to my bowing (which still isn't right on this one), I start messing up the notes. If I concentrate on the notes, my bowing sucks. It's gone back and forth this way for months now. My teacher suggested I put in some time playing the Suzuki Book 1 Twinkle, Etude, and Perpetual Motion pieces with the fast double-16th notes, using these to work on my bowing arm [aack, even more stuff to try to fit into my schedule]. Also, she suggested I play my scales with this same bowing technique. Meanwhile, I will also work on the Scherzo at a pace just slow enough to completely lock in the right notes.

Since my progress on Humoresque was so good, she asked me if I was ready to start the next piece. But I hesitated, because I felt I have enough yet to do on my current pieces. So, she suggested instead that I work on several pieces in the upper third position section of Mooney's "Position Pieces" and we'd go over them at the next lesson.

Back on the practice timing problem, we talked about setting up a formal rotation plan - using 3x5 cards or something. That will help...

Comments:
I keep an excel spreadsheet on the pieces and exercises I'm working on so I can tick off the days that I actually practice them. Maybe something like that will work for you. I usually just concentrate on the measures that give me trouble, sometimes breaking them down to just two or four notes at a time.
 
I *love* the toads! I'll be interested in reading about what kind of system you come up with. Trying to practice everything every day is death by Resistance for me, as I am discovering again this week.
 
Yep, something there is that's hypnotic and relaxing about that Gavotte. DowuwuwuDooduwudo...
 
What works for me is concentrating on working on one thing every week. One week it may be working on relaxing and curving my thumb on the bow, another week might be shifting; this week all I've been doing is trying to improve my vibrato. I may stay on that one thing for a few weeks, then I'll switch and concentrate on something else. I find that working on one thing at a time helps improve other skills, plus most weeks I feel like I've made progress (even if it's a tiny amount) on something.

I hope you find a way to practice that works for you! Your dedication and thoughtfulness about your playing never fails to impress me.
 
I'm not at the excel spread sheet level yet but have started making a chart of everything I'm working on. Yep, too much for doing everything everyday. I have one piece that is "resting" for the moment. I try to play it through at least once a week. Some of my duet and orchestra music need some minor work so they get worked on a few times a week. I found some days the scales only got 10 minutes and the other pieces got a lot of detail time. Other days I swap it out a bit. And then last night I sat down and ended up on one piece for two hours. Just couldn't quit. Best of luck with coming up with a system.

As for shifting, I'm currently working on a piece that has a very high E-flat. Taking my teacher's advice I noted where my thumb was and other fingers to make a mental snapshot of where the note was so I could easily find it again. The rest of the notes further along in the piece didn't seem to be matching with my E-flat. I took out my tuner and checked; C-sharp! Delete my mental picture and start again. Shifts!
 
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Friday, February 15, 2008

 

Cakewalks through time


I finally bought an Audio-Technica USB-Turntable so I could convert my vinyl LPs to .mp3 files for uploading onto my iPod. The turntable is reasonably high-quality with a built-in preamp (thankfully, since the new audio system amplifiers no longer include dedicated phono inputs). In addition to the amplifier cables there's a USB cable that connects directly to the computer. It did take a little finagling to sort out all the sound-card settings on my computers (it requires using the USB sound codec for recording).

So after a bit of assembly (I had to use a USB cable extension, since my computer station does not sit next to the stereo system), I installed the included Cakewalk Pyro 5 software. It's a lot like Audacity, except it records everything as .wav files and then burns them to CDs. It is quite easy to use. After navigating past a few menu selections, just create a file name, set the needle on the record, and start recording. Like Audacity, the screen displays the waveform for each track. I've only had time to record a few tracks, which were pretty clean - no hisses, crackles or pops, but apparently there's an option to "clean" these type of annoyances from the recordings. An entire album side can be recorded into a single file, which can then be split into individual tracks for saving. Due to lack of storage space I'll probably convert all the .wav files to .mp3 files and delete the originals.

Since the system records at real-time speeds, it's going to take quite some time to convert 250 or so LPs. But it sure is going to be a interesting trip down memory-lane, listening to all my music from the late 60s and early 70s. Within a few bars of each "new" tune, my musical "memory" brings it all back - often accompanied by intense images of where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing when I first heard it.

Comments:
Thanks for the review - I've been thinking about getting something like that. But don't overdo - too much nostalgia in one sitting can be toxic!
 
I've been thinking of getting something like that too, but we got a regular turntable about a year ago, and I still almost never listen to those records. :-)

And I have not yet mastered the iPod.
 
I spent a few days attempting to make reasonably "clean" recordings using the Cakewalk software, but it suffers from several flaws - first, using the USB codec (required for the type of turntable I bought), there is no volume control on the recording, so it all comes in LOUD with lots of distortions. Also, the noise reduction plugins are poorly documented and rather complicated to use.

I decided to try the latest version of Audacity - v. 3.0, and was pleased to see an input volume control, and the noise reduction plugins are somewhat more user-friendly.

There is only so much you can do, though, to "improve" the sound.
 
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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

 

Help around the house


When it comes to lawn and garden chores, we strongly believe in local hire. Here are a few examples.


Surveying the Job


Mowing the Lawn


Trimming the Bushes


Break Time


Entertaining the Cat


Car Wash!


Comments:
Very amusing photos! Life sure is different in Alaska!
 
That's great! How awesome!
 
Man, when I was in Alaska, we kept looking for moose. Finally gave up and went to a zoo to see some. Now I know where they were hiding.
 
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Friday, February 08, 2008

 

At odds with myself


I felt so disjointed when I began to play during Wednesday's lesson (#45). I had tried to warm up at home earlier that morning, but that dang phone kept interrupting, so I never was able to get into the groove. We started out playing some of the Book 2 pieces, which I regularly play at home; but for whatever reason, it seemed like I was sight-reading brand new music that was way above my level. I kept messing up on even the simplest things.

I was getting more and more frustrated and even briefly considered abandoning the lesson. But with her patient encouragement I persisted. By the time we began Gavotte in C-minor, I was finally playing better.

We turned to Humoresque. Last weekend I decided I needed to put down my bow for a while to focus on all those shifts, pizzicato. Suzuki introduces upper-third position in this piece, and I was floundering around trying to find that F# with my pinkie, and later on the F with my third finger. So, we worked through these slowly, pizzicato, several times. She said that I was just stabbing in the dark trying to make those shifts. So we went over which fingers should actually make the shifts - and on which strings - before actually playing the desired note. It made a huge difference.

Now I need to just find the time to practice.

Comments:
Hello there! Even if the finger isn't going to be held down, I find accuracy and strength in thinking of where 1st finger is going. So, if you need that 4th on F#, 1st should aim for D#, which is how far from where it was before? Then it's science as opposed to optimism. But there's a lot of that needed, too. :)
 
I have a different system, one that sounds complicated but I feel works for me. The cello, you see, has 5 magical imaginary "frets": the fifth (D on A string), seventh (A on D string), tenth (G on A string), twelfth (A on A string), and to a lesser magic extent, the second (A on G string).

Each of those imaginary frets have notes that match an open string. If, after a few years, I've practiced many times finding the magical frets, I might know very well only where just 5 frets are on the cello, but I can accurately find any note up to mid-string thumb position.

So F# has 2nd finger on D string A (or A string E).

Ok, I'll stop being weird now.
 
I guess I do something similar to what Terry does. I imagine where the first finger sits in fourth position as an "anchor spot." Then I "feel" the placing of another finger on that spot, depending on what note I need.
 
I find those days so frustrating, when I don't play well; I know I've played whatever it is better; and no matter what I do my playing just isn't on that day. I guess the flip side is that it makes those days when you are playing well and it feels easy so much more special!

As for shifting, it really helped me to take the 'scientific' approach like Ms. Emily recommended - I wrote about the shifting exercise I was doing for weeks in this post - it really helped me develop a feel how far to shift for all sorts of combinations of notes. Good practicing!
 
Them again, there's some days when I show up for a lesson and, yep, I forgot how to play. My mind is too wound up from a day at work or other problems and I can't seem to settle down and find the cello part of my brain.
I guess we just need to forgive ourselves and let it go. Next time will be better.
 
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Thursday, February 07, 2008

 

What an evening!


The Sitka Summer(!) Music Festival's Winter Concert enchanted a woefully small audience of about 75 fortunate listeners with:

Khachaturian's Sonata-Fantaisie for Solo Cello played by Mark Kosower;
Rachmaninoff's Selected Preludes for Piano, Op.23 played by Jee-Won Oh Kosower;
Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor, Op.50 played by Mark Kosower, Jee-Won Oh Kosower, and Paul Rosenthal on violin.

Almost too much...

I sat in the front row - only a few feet away from the musicians. It was like being inside the music. I'm still listening to the echoes in my head.

I can't even begin to find the words to describe this interesting combination of pieces. I was really impressed with Kosower's presentation of Khachaturian's cello solo. The Tchaikovsky trio was just wonderful!

Once again, thanks to Paul Rosenthal for again bringing a pair of fantastic performers to our frozen land (it was -30F yesterday morning) year after year. He must have some magical power of persuasion: "how about coming all the way to Soldotna, Alaska in its coldest month to put on a concert for only 75 people?"

Comments:
Does "Mrs. Guanaco" join you on these ventures? Sounds like it was wonderful.

I like your description that "It was like being inside the music." That's sort of how I feel when I play with my orchestra.
 
Usually, Y doesn't go to these. I did persuade her and Z to come with me to the recent Dvorak cello concerto.

In my orchestra I usually don't feel like I'm "inside" the music, yet. Instead, I feel like I'm part of the noise. Once in a while, though, it does turn into music, if only for a moment.
 
Sounds like a fantastic concert! and how wonderful to get artists like that clear up to you. I'm glad you take advantage of all those opportunities. Sometimes I think I take for granted all the concerts happening in this city.

I've not heard the Khachaturian, I'll have to look that up. Thanks!
 
Paul and Linda Rosenthal will be playing with the Simon Sinfonietta in Falmouth on March 22, and in the course of searching the web for information on these violinists, your blog post came up. Then I remembered that my very first concert review (2005) was of Paul Rosenthal playing with the Simon Sinfonietta. (I had mentioned the Sitka Festival.) He was very impressive!

I am not going to review the Paul and Linda concert though; I am turning it over to two violinist friends with whom I play because I have to cover another concert, and it turns out that the other person (Larry Zarella, folksinger) returned to the Cape after living for 16 years in Alaska.

Interesting Alaska connections! I wish I could go to the Rosenthal concert, but like the idea of having a "couple" of violinists to review a "couple" of violinists.
 
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Sunday, February 03, 2008

 

Progress report


I'm running out of time each morning before all my regular obligations intrude. I've tried to reset my practice routine so that I had more time to work on the newest pieces, but I still find myself getting lost in scales for up to an hour before I start going through a selection of my older pieces. Some days I spend half an hour or so just working on one old piece, trying to perfect one or two old trouble spots. Other days I play through four or five of them at an easy pace. Then I turn to the latest four or five pieces, working up to my newest one.

On this latest one, Dvorak's Humoresque, I'm working on rehearsing the shifts - first pizzicato, then with the bow. Here's where the time really disappears, and those other "intrusions" finally show up. The past few days, I've found myself "thinking/hearing" those fingerings, while driving or just before falling asleep. I haven't quite reached the point where I can actually play them smoothly without hesitating or stumbling.

That means I haven't been getting to any of the Orchestra pieces very often, nor to my trio pieces. Usually, by the weekend, I've begun to feel guilty and consciously set aside some time for them, so that by Monday evening's rehearsal I'm not too rusty when we start to play. One thing getting in the way is that we still haven't settled on our concert repertoire. The conductor gave us parts for a whole lot of pieces, but acknowledged that we will probably only play half of them, or so. It's hard to justify spending a lot of time learning the cello parts for a lot of pieces we won't be playing. Our spring concert is less than 8 weeks away...

So why am I so hung on those scales? It seems as if I need to work through each scale several times in order to loosen up my fingers and fine-tune my intonation. If I try to skip this step altogether, I then have problems with speed and accuracy. Somehow I've just got to cut back on that opening warmup. I really don't want to cut back on those reviews of the older pieces.


As we head into the third week of below zero temperatures, it's hard to take any comfort in the fact that we've gained two hours of daylight already. At least we're seeing starry skies at night and bright sunny days (when there isn't an ice-fog blanketing everything). But it's too dang cold to go out much.


We've been car-shopping for the last few weeks. Although we have several vehicles sitting in the driveway, only one of them starts when it's this cold, and it's now eight years old. Living this far out of town, we decided we need something a little more reliable, and it has to be AWD. We're looking at all the "crossovers" - such as Ford's Escape and Edge, Chevy's Equinox, Buick's Enclave, Mazda's CX-7 and CX-9, Nissan's Murano, Honda's CR-V, and Subaru's Outback, Forester and Tribeca. Currently, I'm partial to the CX-7, but I'm doing my best to stay open-minded about them all. We tried out a few at our local dealers this weekend, and Tuesday we'll go back to Anchorage to test drive several more.

Comments:
Hmm... I have sympathy with you over your practising habits, though I only spend 1 1/2hours a day usually. That is why I have booked a 1/2 day course in a fortnight's time that is devoted to practising structures. I am hoping it will make my daily sessions more time efficient.
 
Scales and scale-based exercises are taking up a lot of my practice time too. But since the disciplined practice of scales addresses shifting and intonation issues I think it's time well spent. It's just too bad there aren't a few more hours in the day.
 
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