Wednesday, April 30, 2008

 

To My Teacher


I just realized that today was our 50th lesson!

This is a good point to thank you for all your patience, encouragement, and guidance. When I first started this journey almost 2 1/2 years ago, I had no idea where this was going to take me. A lot of my initial expectations were quite unrealistic, but it didn't take long to put those aside and get to work. This whole process has been quite fascinating and rewarding.

As I've come to understand how much effort it takes to gradually improve my skills, I've gained a new respect for all musicians, for our patient teachers, and for the music we make.

So "thank you" so much for these 50 lessons! I look forward to many more.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

 

Coaching


Our first coaching session with M tonight was really interesting. I'd been looking forward to this all week - as it turned out, we all admitted to being excited about this. She's such an accomplished pianist and musician, and such a nice person... Playing this way just for an audience of one was a little intimidating at first, but we all soon got into the zone. We started out with our set from the last recital. There are still a few bugs to work on, but she pointed out where and how we ought to focus our practices. We brought out one new piece we'd just started working on to show how we typically learn a new piece.

She commented that we seem to be pretty good at listening to each other as we play, and she noticed we were all making slight adjustments as we're playing in order to keep together. She suggested that we should get used to using a metronome at least some of the time, and learn to let the bottom-line hold the beat for us. She also suggested that when we learn a new piece, we ought to play through each part all together a few times in order to get a good feel for what each other is playing.

We'll practice together for the next three weeks without her, then meet with her again in a month.

This is going to be fun.

Comments:
Isn't it fun and educational being coached? I learn so much from an outside observer because we're so into our music.

Good suggestion about the metronome. Get one with a loud beat. (Dr. Beat is loud.) I was in a piano quartet and was shocked how we had learned to adjust to everyone. Our tempo was all over the place because of it. And just that "fix" made an amazing difference to our pieces.

Have fun with your group.

Noticed your ticker; this Friday will be my 3rd anniversary of playing the cello!
 
Metronome suggestion. Most metronomes have an audio out. Plug this into your stereo system and then you can really up the volume. This is great because otherwise it is difficult to hear the metronome over the cellos.
 
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Saturday, April 26, 2008

 

The cost of gloating



This should teach me not to gloat (today at 8:00 am).





At least my grandchildren are enjoying spring in their part of the world (tending to the ladybugs, and worried that one got away).

Comments:
Great post! Your grandkids are adorable.

Hang in there. Spring will come.
 
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Friday, April 25, 2008

 

Snow, iPods, and Bears


This morning we drove to Anchorage for a shopping expedition. We left home expecting a little rain on the way. But as we rounded that last curve of the highway along Turnagain Arm and drove into the city, it started snowing. Hard. Large, heavy wet flakes. After an hour's shopping we emerged from one of the BigBoxes to that all-too-familiar world of white. Four inches of wet slushy snow covering everything. It kept on snowing like that all day, with the slush on the city streets getting deeper and deeper, and all the budding trees drooping from the weight of all that wet snow. Fortunately, everyone seemed to take things in stride, slowing down, anticipating stoplights, etc. We didn't see any accidents.

Not surprisingly, we left for home quite a bit sooner than planned (driving in a whiteout at 30 to 40 mph for the first hour or so). By the time we got to the mountains, the roads were merely wet, although some snow was sticking to the trees. By the time we got home, the ground was dry and the skies were clearing. It was sort of like we had entered some sort of space/time warp or something for half a day. Weird.

C'mon, its almost May!

------------------

I really <3 my iPod. Usually that 6-hour roundtrip drive involves dragging along a bunch of CDs and fumbling around (safely, always) trying to change them as I drive. This time, however, I just plugged in my iPod, set it to "Shuffle All", sat back and let it entertain us all the way there and back. Since most of my playlists are from the 100 old LP albums that I've recorded (so far), I really felt transported back in time (as well as space - that snow thing).

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Now, for a purely "Alaskan" news story (and a rant): The father of our 16-year old Cellocracy partner, Cello1, was attacked by a brown bear this week as he went out for his morning jog. With several deep bites - all the way through his shoulder and butt - and a torn scalp, he somehow managed to get back home where he stood out on the porch and called for Cello1 to "bring out some towels". She coolly handled that unimaginable situation, gave initial first aid, and then got help. (He'll be OK, thankfully). By the time we met up for our trio's rehearsal the next evening, she was amazingly calm as she described trying to deal with all the press attention. The national news even picked up the story.

According to "some" in Alaska, if you are attacked by a bear "it's your own fault". There's even an subtle undertone of having "asked for it", simply by living where the bears are. [Sure, there was that nutcase who put himself and his girlfriend in harms way a couple years ago by living among a group of bears in the foolhardy belief that they were just big, cuddly, and sadly misunderstood; they both ended up as dinner. But that's a different story.]

Could he have done things differently? Sure. He was the first to acknowledge that he did what everyone says you shouldn't do - he panicked and tried to run. Maybe if he'd stopped/dropped/and folded, or wore those little jangly bells on his ankles, or whatever, things might have turned out differently; but maybe not. The Fish & Game guys say that the bears are attracted to the homes with livestock (chickens, rabbits), chained up dogs, compost piles, smokehouses, unsecured garbage, and so on. Possibly so, in many cases. Horses and cows are also fair game. But bears are big enough to go wherever the heck they want to go. I've seen several bears running through my yard over the years and I don't have any of those things around my place.

But the inference in this case, which I find offensive, is that the bears have more "rights" to this land than we do. I'm getting a little sick of that whole attitude. For better or worse, there are more than 6 billion humans on the planet. "Some" would have all of us huddled together in those monstrous soviet style housing blocs in vast gray cities, in order to ensure the bears can roam at will. Sorry, I don't buy that. There are millions of acres of vacant land up here, forever closed to human settlement; plenty of room for enough wildlife to coexist within their own great circles of life. Sadly, some of those bears (and moose, and wolves, and caribou, and foxes, and lynx, and whatever) do occasionally meander into our communities - sometimes with tragic consequences. We probably cannot prevent these sort of bear/human interactions, but blaming the humans doesn't help. [It's only a matter of time before they'll announce their grand solution to global warming - all of us should just hold our breaths and stop exhaling all that dang CO2.]

-------------------

The hardest part about today's trip was foregoing a day of practicing.

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A Tragedy Foretold


Sometimes you read something in the news that catches your attention, and makes you stop and rewind to make sure you saw/heard it right.

Several days ago I came across a news item about a priest in Brazil who tied a thousand shiny helium party balloons to a chair and lifted off in an attempt to set a new world's record for time and distance aloft (the current record is 19 hours). His previous attempt in January using 600 balloons carried him above 17,000 feet and lasted four hours. He landed safely that time.

Well, this time, the winds carried him out over the Atlantic where he soon lost radio contact. A massive search and rescue turned up several bunches of deflated balloons floating in the water, miles from shore. But no trace of the priest.

A paraglider instructor who'd given the priest lessons several years ago called the priest's disappearance "a tragedy foretold". He explained that he warned the priest that his personality traits - headstrong, anxious, always in a rush to get things done - were not the ideal profile for a paraglider, so what has happened now comes as no big surprise.

Apparently this all stems from the guy in LA who made the first balloon/lawnchair flight many years ago. The stunt fired the imagination of lots of people in South America (for some reason), causing many to attempt to replicate this feat.

=======
Later, I googled the phrase and found it used several times (most recently, in reference to Bhutto's assassination last December). Oh well.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

 

Spring... not yet


Spring (or what we call breakup) is really late this year. After a cooler than normal winter, with somewhat more snow, I guess it's no surprise that there's still a lot of the winter snowpack still on the ground. There's also a lot of ice on the lake; in fact, last weekend I saw a pickup truck driving out on it (a risky venture this late in the season, IMHO). Today, though, we had a lot of sun with temperatures in the upper 40s, and we're hoping breakup will be finished in another week.

With the high oil prices, Alaska is awash in royalties and getting ready to spend a good part of that windfall on capital projects. I sure was surprised to open the paper the other day to find that the legislature had allocated money in this year's capital budget to pave our humble road!

We were one of the first half a dozen families to re-settle this area in the mid-70s. We'd escaped as far as we could from town while still being able to commute every day to my job. In those early days I was the only car on the highway at 6 a.m. on that long 35 mile drive to work, often making the first tracks through the overnight snows. Although the area was first "opened up" by homesteaders in the 50s, few remained by the time we showed up. At the time, our gravel road was barely two lanes wide, but with so little traffic, it was in good shape. Over the years, we've watched more and more houses and subdivisions spring up around here as the state's population increased and people realized the 20+ mile trip to town was more than worth the benefits of living out in the bush. But that growth has taken its toll on our once-isolated country road. I'd sure be glad to see the last of the dust clouds, the ever-present potholes and the worn-out suspensions; and waiting weeks for the grader to finally smooth it all out just as it begins to rain and turns to muck.

I'm trying to imagine having a place right here to rollerblade and ride my bike! After all these years! Still, I'm not ready to believe it will actually happen. The governor has yet to sign off on the capital project list - she was quite scrupulous last year about trimming out all the fat. Even if our road project survives her veto pen, we'd still have to get DOT to actually do the work. As the primary agency responsible for most capital construction in the state, they've become bloated, arrogant, and generally non-responsive - usually taking many years to get even the most simple projects done. If only one of their supervisors lived down our road and had to drive it in and out every day... that would do the trick.

Still, wouldn't it be nice...

I've spent the last several days using Finale PrintMusic to consolidate the three parts of each of our trio's current pieces. The OCD part of me really likes this kind of detailed work - carefully checking to ensure every note is correct, that all the dynamics and markings are accurate, and that the finished product is a faithful reproduction of the original scores. At the same time, I've continued to record and convert my LPs - I've done about 100 so far.

Tomorrow the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra will play a wide selection of pieces in its spring concert. As I get to know more and more of the people involved with the KPO, each of their performances becomes more interesting to me. I'm still hoping to become part of their music one of these years.

I've mentioned several times here about how much I enjoy starting out on a new piece in my lessons. I just started working on the last piece in Suzuki 3, Allegro Moderato. Although my learning process evolves with each new piece, the basic steps still include working on small phrases one group at a time, patterning the shifts, and repetition, repetition, repetition. It's so neat to hear the music coming together, and that feeling of accomplishment...

Comments:
I enjoyed your story about settling in the wilderness. It sounds exciting, but it is really not for me--it is supposed to be 80 degrees here tomorrow, and I think I prefer that. :-)

Thought you would enjoy this article:
vinyl
 
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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

 

Moving along


We played La Cinquantaine together today in Lesson #49. I played it smoothly and, best of all comfortably, with only a few errors. It took me a few measures to get past hearing it played properly right beside me. But I told myself to relax and play it as I have been doing at home. Surprisingly, that worked. I made it through all the tricky sections (not exactly cleanly, but evenly at least). After complimenting my progress she brought me back to those tricky sections and we discussed how to improve them.

Then we talked about vibrato and she showed me several practice routines I should do each day - focusing on the elbow first, then moving on to adjusting hand angles and using the first finger joints. She advised me to take my time with this, a good vibrato will take a lot of patient work. I've started some of these exercises before, but didn't stick with them. I'll try again. We also briefly talked about scales and fingering in the upper positions.

She turned the page to the final piece in Suzuki Book 3, #10 Allegro Moderato, by Bach. She asked me if I was interested in learning the new fingerings or the old ones; that either version was fine, but the older fingerings are usually more challenging. I said I'd try the older version. We went through the piece and discussed the advantages/disadvantages of each version - in a few instances she recommended the newer fingerings, but for the most part I'll use the old ones. She flagged several of the practice points and we talked about the bowing challenges.

After that we went to Mooney's "Position Pieces" and played some of the upper third position tunes. These pieces bug me for some reason, I just can't get them to sound good. Anyway, we talked about finishing all the pieces in Mooney before starting Suzuki Book 4.

Also, I should be working on all the etudes and scales in the back of Suzuki 3.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

 

Yeah, it's like that...


...sitting down to play my cello in front of a few hundred people... it helped to be one of three cellos... since cellos sound so fine together ...

We did good on our three pieces; we started together; we arrived at the end of the phrases together; we finished together; we had no obvious stumbles or misplays; we were in tune; our chords sounded sweet. I played the right notes, mostly (although there was that opening C on the Matz piece that somehow I played as a D...???), and my bowing was good. The audience was appreciative, and we got several nice compliments afterwards.

We had arrived at the church hall an hour and a half early to help with the setup and then we took the opportunity to run through our pieces a few times, trying to get past the distraction of hearing all those wonderful cello echoes and reverberations. Our last run-through was the best. A few hours later, we finally went on. Our three pieces lasted less than 10 minutes. I felt good. We all felt good. We sounded good. What else matters?

At the conclusion of several more individual performances, our orchestra then gathered to played our five pieces. This too was good. We'd been working on these since Christmas, so I didn't miss any notes, although I did slip out of tempo momentarily at one point and I heard a few squeals on some of my open As (I forced myself not to cringe - I think it's time to replace that string).

The orchestra has been invited to play at a dance troupe performance in mid-May.

Cellocracy has been rehearsing weekly for the last year or so. We meet at Cello3's house and we mutually talk our way through each piece. We have worked well together this way and we have enjoyed it. The challenge has been that it's so hard to hear ourselves in combination, and harder still to figure out what and how to improve. While we eventually get "there", we've talked about getting some outside assistance. So, Saturday we found a coach who will meet with us (at her new studio) on a monthly basis. She teaches piano and is quite an accomplished performer; she also plays viola and violin - although she reminded us that she does not play (or teach) the cello. But she has played with so many different performers - including lots of cellists - both locally and across the country. We're excited to be working with her. Our next scheduled gig is at the end of July.

Today, I returned to my lessons after a week devoted mainly to rehearsing for this concert. I'm afraid I won't be able to show much progress at my next lesson.

Comments:
Exciting that you will be working with a coach. It's fun to have one who is not a cellist. Instead of focusing first on the technical problems, you get to hear what the music needs, then invent some way to get the job done on your own (before you give up and take it to your teacher). A lot of growth potential there, and fun, too.
 
How Wonderful! I agree with GGP, it's nice to just focus on the music -- the balance, phrasing, dynamics, etc.
 
Congratulations on your successful performances! And have fun with the coaching. We (my various groups) do that occasionally, and I always find it helpful.
 
Glad to hear your performance went well. That's always a great feeling.

And I agree, working with a coach will be a good experience for you all.
 
Thanks, everybody, for your good wishes and for your kind feedback.

We are really excited to be working with our area's most accomplished and most dedicated musician. We're lucky she agreed to take us on. It seems there's quite a waiting list of new students for her piano lessons.
 
So glad that it all went well. "Feeling good and sounding good" truly sums it up and validates all the time and effort. This is why we do what we do.
 
congratulations on your performance! It's a great feeling to know you've played well.

My group had a coaching session with our conductor (who is not a cellist) right before our first performance and it was extremely helpful. He made a few suggestions that really helped us to sound better. I think it will really help your group play better together!
 
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Thursday, April 10, 2008

 

Where the author prepares to display his paltry musical skills once again


Saturday, our orchestra will perform five pieces as part of a group recital. Cellocracy will also play three pieces - a fiddle tune, one of the Matz trios, and a showtune. They all sound pretty good.

I used Finale PrintMusic to combine the two parts of the showtune into one score to help us coordinate with one-another. The way Finale arranges the measures, it's easy to count the beats and see what I'm supposed to be playing in conjunction with the other part.

At my last lesson, I asked my teacher to recommend some bowings for the Matz piece, and I've been busy trying to incorporate them. Today, finally, I got it all right. Whew, I'd begun to worry I wouldn't be ready with this one.

I really enjoy playing with my trio partners. We work so well together with a lot of respect for each other's abilities and efforts.

It was helpful to listen to Emily's podcast this week about performance preparation. The key message I took away from that was to know my parts completely, inside and out so I could play them blindfolded.

Well, I think I'll be ready.

Comments:
Best of luck with your concert! It sounds as if you are well prepared. I did listen to Emily's podcast and I've been there, done that. My worst recital "messes" have been in the easy sections. I'd better go practice those sections as I have a recital in just over two weeks. I've also heard that skipping over the rests will also get one in trouble. It's a habit now, not to "rest."

Looking forward to hearing all about the concert!
 
I'll be thinking of you today while I'm practicing. Enjoy your performance. (I'm out of the woodshed for just a few minutes this morning)
 
Good luck today! I hope it goes very well. I really enjoy playing anything by Matz, although I'm not familiar with the trios.
 
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Sunday, April 06, 2008

 

History Lessons


We've been entranced by the John Adams series on HBO. What interesting times those were!

Recently we watched the movie, Marie Antoinette, which sure presented a new perspective on her life.

A few weeks ago we saw a performance of Les Miserables by a local high school drama group (including several of Z's friends). It was pretty good.

At the same time Z was reading War and Peace.

[How I envy him that. I so well remember being captivated by that awesome epic of Russia when I too was 16. I read it cover-to-cover in less than a week. For a long time afterwards, I did not want to read anything else; I didn't want to let it go. I've never read anything else quite like it. It's amazing how much of the story came back to me, just from knowing Z was reading it. A few years later, I saw the 7-hour Russian movie of War and Peace (in two installments, one week apart), produced by and starring Sergei Bondarchuk. The hour-long Battle of Borodin used 120,000 extras! By the end of college I had read everything by every Russian author I could find.]

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

 

Between the notes


Much of today's lesson (#48) was spent on La Cinquantaine. I've just started this piece in early March, beginning by learning one measure at a time and then grouping them into six or seven distinct passages. Each day I've worked on one or two sections, trying to isolate the tricky parts (usually some of the shifts, but there are also a few rhythmic issues). I told my teacher it feels like it's "there" - just beyond my fingertips. I can play most of it in isolated segments, and they sound good; but when I try to put it all together it doesn't work yet... still, I can "almost" feel it.

So I started the lesson by playing each of these groups one at a time. Then we stopped to go back over some of the rough spots and discuss the various issues. The pianissimo parts should be played with long full bow strokes close to the fingerboard, using only the edge of the hair, with minimal pressure - just enough to draw out the sound. She demonstrated the shift from a half note in third position slurring up to an eighth note on the harmonic and then dropping back to fourth position after an eighth note rest. I also learned that I'd been playing one sequence of four eighth notes as a slurred set when they are supposed to be articulated - all on the upbow.

All in all, my teacher was very complimentary about my progress on this piece and commented that I just needed to keep working at it - that my learning approach has been pretty effective.

We turned next to Mooney's "Position Pieces" - I've been working on the "upper third" section. I commented that these have been surprisingly hard to learn to play nicely. What seems to be holding me back on many of them is the string crossings. These Mooney pieces seem to have a lot of awkwardly placed notes - intentionally it seems.

As we talked about string crossings, my teacher commented that a lot of what we do on the cello goes on "between the notes" - changing strings, changing positions, changing bow direction, circling the bow, breathing, and so on. Knowing what needs to be done between the notes and learning to do them quickly and seamlessly - seemingly effortlessly - is the key to improving quality. It is critical to properly "manage" the bow to allow these actions between the notes. And, of course, holding the bow loosely and comfortably is the key to managing it effectively.

Then we turned to some of the pieces I brought in from our Cellocracy group. We will play three pieces together one week from Saturday along with five pieces with our Orchestra. This will all coincide with the conductor's class recital. My teacher gave me some useful suggestions about fingering and bowing for these pieces, which I'm anxious to apply during tomorrow morning's practice.

Comments:
That "between the notes" comment is spot on. It takes no time at all to learn to play one note nicely. The trick is to play it nicely, and play the next one nicely, too. It sounds so deceptively easy.
 
BTW, what are your funny little nocturnal laughing creatures? I must be up too early, because I can just imagine them lying in wait under the bridge between two notes, ready to snag the unwary bow and destroy the transition!
 
You've been working very hard! It sounds like you know exactly what to do, the trick is to do it. Good luck with your recital!
 
Those critters sure are bizarre, aren't they. I like your image of them lying in wait to snag that transition.

I don't know exactly what they actually are. I found the picture on Avi Abrams' wonderful site, Dark Roasted Blend.
 
The little critters are some kind of shrew. They look tame.
 
Good job on the piece. My teacher just gave it to me, and I was like OMG! its the piece that Guanaco was talking about!! NO way!!! Sweet!
 
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