Sunday, June 29, 2008


New Strings

Yesterday I installed a new set of strings on my cello - Larsen A & D and Jargar G & C. Rather than experiment with anything new, I simply replaced what's been working fine - the old ones had been on for almost a year. It didn't take me long to switch them out, I guess I've done enough now that it was no big deal. I even rough-tuned them by ear, after first tuning in the D with a tuner; then I used octaves.

So today I fine-tuned it and started to play. A noticeable difference! Rich, warm, nice. I had purposefully left off the wolf eliminator just to make sure I still needed one... No surprise, it was lurking around the E, as before. I decided to try a lighter eliminator (the 5 gram one). It seemed OK, but then I noticed the Ds were "booming". I slid the eliminator up the string a sixteenth inch or so. That worked; the wolfy tone moved off somewhere between C# and D. All was well. I thought.

A half hour of playing later, I noticed a glint of shiny metal at the top edge of the eliminator. Dang, when I slid that eliminator forward, the sharp edge apparently cut the thin silver winding on the string and it was starting to unravel. I replaced the 5-gram eliminator with the original 7-gram one (which is a little longer) taking care to secure the cut edge inside the tensioned part of the eliminator. It was OK. But afterwards, I put the old string back on and sent an email to Ellen at Cellos2Go ordering a new one.

I'm slowly getting back into my practicing groove after a chaotic month.

So far, summer in Alaska has been lousy. Normally we can expect more than a dozen days above 70F, sometimes even breaking 80F. But this summer, so far, we've only seen one or two days above 60F. Lots of cold wind and clouds, and a few drizzles. Bummer. This is the time of year, with 19 hours of daylight, that the sun should shine brightly for all of those 19 hours.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008



A dizzying two weeks of intense effort (that shifted into hyperdrive these last three days) on two major projects has left me frazzled and frankly pretty numb. But with the delivery of the final box of reports this afternoon, I am now free!

Tomorrow I go back to regular cello practice. I sure need it.

My few feeble attempts this past week left me feeling as if I've regressed six months or more. For quite some time I've been feeling as if I'm up against a wall. My teacher suggested we hold off moving into Book 4 for now and spend some time working on a few issues - including presentation. I have to agree. I've been having trouble playing through entire pieces without stopping to correct errors. Usually they're the same old stumbles, but lately, errors have started popping up in the strangest places. My teacher says I should play on through these errors and just keep on going. But the OCD in me wants to get it right. Besides, if I mess up a note or a fingering then my bowing gets out of sequence and at that point it's all over.

I've overcome this problem for the most part in orchestra, because they keep on playing with or without me (and I can't hear my intonation that well), so I've learned how to jump back in after a stumble. Besides, most of our orchestra pieces are fairly simple.

I suspect I'll never be very good at improvisation. Apparently, I'm driven to (try to) play whatever piece - accurately and precisely.

I realize, as I'm writing here, that I've lost my focus again. Rather than simply enjoy playing, I'm obsessing about not being able to play better. I have to figure out how to get off this improvement treadmill for a while and take pleasure in just playing music.

Z told me that his teacher briefly played some bagpipes today after their guitar lesson! (He was surprised at how loud it sounded.) I've always liked bagpipes, and I'm hoping to get a chance to persuade him to play a bit after Z's next lesson.

Playing chamber music helps, too.

Playing run-throughs of your pieces with a recording is also an excellent way to practice "going on," and experiencing the piece as a whole. There are ensemble arrangements for Suzuki books 1-3. Invest in those, program the accompaniment parts into your notation program of choice, and voila, instant practice partners.

Yes, this does count as review time, and the best thing is that none of your "partners" makes mistakes, so it's all up to you to keep going. Occasionally just dial the tempo up and go along for the ride!
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Thursday, June 19, 2008


What I did this summer...

Recent visitors from out of state meant taking the the usual group trips to all the usual tourist haunts - Homer, Seward, Anchorage, Mt. McKinley; etc. We saw plenty of critters - brown bears, moose (and their newborns), caribou, foxes; and even this blackie munching on ferns beside the highway on the trip up to Denali Park. Also, lots of dinners out, eating mediocre food in high-priced restaurants. What I wouldn't give for a decent pizza place!

Evenings were spent visiting instead of blogging, or even practicing :(

Then, unexpected changes to two of my consulting project deadlines popped up even while the visitors were here. There goes all my free time until the end of the month, at least. Most of the work is fairly straightforward, but some of it involves some politicking... Oh well, the money's sure welcome as I start getting ready for the shock of the next refill of my heating oil tank =0

Uh oh, I feel a rant coming on:

I've got to hand it to our current and previous government leaders for their well-thought-out energy policy. (Isn't it comforting that these same clowns are ably attending to our impending Social Security & Medicare fiasco.) I think I finally got it figured out - why use up our own oil first? Let's mortgage our future by shipping off our dollars to all those corrupt dictators and kings and whatever. Then after we've used up all their oil and the price gets really high, somehow we'll overcome all of our silly self-imposed restrictions and start tapping our own resources. Makes sense to me.

Then there's the faction that's gloating over our high prices - finally we're all going to have to sell our SUVs and start riding bicycles! (Try explaining that to the guy who has to use his pickup truck to carry his tools for his work.) Sure, you'll see their talking heads on TV crying crocodile tears and blaming everybody but themselves, but this is a classic case of having their cake and eating it too.

But back to the other side: That same greed that has driven up oil prices goes hand in hand with the reason the price of gasoline in Alaska is the second highest in the country (behind only California). The same oil that is extracted from Prudhoe Bay, piped to Valdez, and loaded onto tankers for shipment to the lower 48 where they manage to refine it and sell it for as much as 60 cents to $1.00 less than we pay, is also shipped a couple hundred miles around the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to our local refinery. Their gasoline is then trucked to Anchorage (175 miles) and sold there for 30 cents less than we have to pay just 10 miles away from the refinery!

Alaska has two refineries that make more than enough gasoline to supply our local market. So, for a new supplier to enter our market, they'd have to ship their refined product 1500 miles or more across the Gulf of Alaska. They'd have to build a tank farm somewhere and get dock space (good luck getting all those permits). And they'd have to setup their own in-state distribution system. I have little doubt that our two refineries know exactly how much this venture would cost, and exactly how much this new potential marketer would have to charge for his gasoline to justify his investment. Because that is exactly how much they charge us for the gasoline they sell. If they charged much more than that, the potential marketer would have a reason to go for it. And what fool would charge any less?

End of Rant

Now for something completely different (a near-disaster):

Although I missed too many days practicing my cello so far this month and a couple rehearsals over the last two weeks, I did manage to get back into it this week. A little rusty, but not too bad. Yesterday I had another lesson (#52).

I always lay my case on the floor to lift out my cello. Of course I've seen many others stand their case on end and open it outward. But I found this upright way too awkward. I've also always closed the velcro strap around the neck when I put it away.

That is, until yesterday. As I got to my lesson, there wasn't much room with the other student getting ready to leave, so I stood my case against the wall and opened the "door" - and out tumbled my poor cello, right onto the floor. First it landed on the bridge and then rocked onto the neck and ended up tilted to one side. With a loud bang! The loudest sound I've ever heard - at least it seemed so at the time.

Gasp! Heart attack! But in fact, mostly I just felt so stupid...

Fortunately - unbelievably - all was well: no dents, no cracks, the bridge was intact, the soundpost was not sticking out through the back, no seams had opened. I checked it all out - carefully... All I had to do was readjust the bridge; it was knocked a couple millimeters to one side and a few millimeters toward the neck. And, of course, retune.

Still, I spent that next hour fretting about what else could be wrong. Cursing myself and feeling pretty foolish for not closing that velcro strap after our trio rehearsal the night before. It was just not possible to concentrate. We went back to the beginning of Book 3 and starting playing through the pieces. But, in my distraction, every incorrect intonation was a symptom - something had to be wrong... how can you tip over a cello and not damage it? So, I played as if I'd lost a whole year of progress. I should have just paid her and left. The longer it went on, the worse I played.

By the time I got home, I was ready to log onto eBay and give it all up. Today, it wasn't a whole lot better. I started out making a detailed, closeup (magnifying goggles) inspection of every part of the cello. The bridge was still just a little off, but otherwise it was physically OK. But I still couldn't stop diagnosing each raw sound as a symptom of damage. Maybe tomorrow...

Wait, here comes another (minor) rant:

It sure hasn't been a good week. In order to log into one of my client's systems, I have to use a fairly sophisticated security system. Actually, I'm pretty impressed with it.

But yesterday afternoon, I logged into their system after more than a month offline and found that in order to get into their archives, I had to download a new program. The download and install took just a few minutes, then after the obligatory restart, I finished my business and turned the computer over to Z for his game-playing on the big-screen monitor.

Usually, this is when I switch over to my laptop for the evening. But for some reason, I couldn't log into the desktop to get at my files. A little troubleshooting on the desktop revealed that that $%@^# program I'd downloaded was somehow hung up trying to install itself again(?). Windows Uninstall told me to wait until that install was completed before I could uninstall that $%@^# program. Gee thanks, Microsoft, that was helpful! Eventually a "Program not Responding" message showed up in that install box.

Hmmm. Several failed restarts later, I started trying to remember how I used to get at the system files so I could try to do a manual delete... (config.sys? no that's DOS. And so on.) Finally, I remembered it: MSCONFIG. That let me get in and uncheck that $%@^# program from the startup list. That let me start it up fully, at least.

But it still wouldn't uninstall. Now what? Oh yeah, then I remembered: REGEDIT. Whew! I quickly deleted all traces of it from the registry and the problem appears to have been solved. Now, that $%@^# program no longer appears anywhere, although I'm sure traces still linger and will probably show up sooner or later.

So after two frustrating hours we were all back in business. Too bad I can't charge that time to the client.

Aha! MSCONFIG! I'd been meaning to look that up for a month.

Sorry about the cello bonk. I always access mine with the case upright (I think because of my fear that the hatch will close unexpectedly on my fingers if someone bumps it) so my velcro is always closed, since it must be to close the case. But mine did take a header the other night when it got bumped off the stand. Actually, the latch was closed and the whole stand got knocked over. I think it might be a risk of leaving the endpin out - and bad kitties.
I am a strange creature: the True Conservative.

Meaning, conserve. Everything. Judgement, oil, governmental power, taxes, everything. These days I'm politically like that mom who walks into a room full of badly behaved 6 year olds at a party and yells, "KNOCK IT OFFFFFF!"

Have you ever seen such a wreck? And it's everyone's fault! Everyone! But this is what we have to go through in order to manifest the next generation of great American innovation. I'm growing some veggies, planting trees, recycling, even getting a motorcycle license so I can run errands on L's Vespa. I hope the captains of industry realize that you can be a greedy bastard in the field of green energy, too. That's what will make the change.

And if global warming ends up to not be our fault, it's still best not to be wasteful, simply as a virtue of it being the responsible thing to do. Gas prices, schmas prices. Let's drive demand so far down they won't know what hit them.
I once leaned my cello against a sofa, just for a second, and it fell over onto the floor, on its side, and got a couple very small dings. That was the last time I touched it after having a drink. I still feel horrible about it.
Oh, and I have had 2 cellos that were in my care, but not mine, smashed. I'll write a post soon. The best part was the collect call to the owner to inform her that her cello had been wrecked. Awesome.
Ahh, yeah, I've knocked my cello over before (and had it knocked over once or twice...). Thankfully, it's still in very good shape, although there are a few scrapes in the varnish. Still, Franz sounds beautiful!
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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Great coaching session last night

We spent the full session working on two pieces. The process was really informative and enlightening. The Rudolf Matz trios sure are interesting to play.

Although we haven't verbalized formal goals for these sessions, we agree among ourselves that we're gaining a lot from the process. Since we're still in the early to middle learning stages (meaning that I, for one, make more than a few mistakes), I imagine it might be somewhat challenging for our coach to figure out what to do with us. It certainly is good motivation for me to diligently practice all these trio pieces...

There were actually four of us last night. Since Cello1 is leaving next week for a student summer abroad program, our orchestra conductor (a violist who is currently studying the cello) will fill in during her absence, and maybe even continue on with us after she returns - making us a cello quartet.

It was nice hearing four cellos together.

It's strange this world, I was looking for some scores (Vivaldi Sonata 6) and I bumped into your blog: I am 54, I retired and three years ago I decided to follow my dream and study the Cello.

Sounds familiar?

Sorry my blog is only in Italian and I don't talk just about cello and music but all the things that come to my mind.

I share your same happyness and frustrations and I really enjoy playing with the kid's orchestra at my school (See excerpts of our last concert on YouTube ).

I just wanted to say hello and let you know that there are other "Silver players" around the world.

Have fun.

Gigi Tagliapietra
Lake Garda
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Monday, June 02, 2008


A busy lesson (#51)

Scales - start working on the E-Major and Ab-Major scales. Work on the minor scales.

Extensions - keep the thumb loose and use it as a guide when making extensions.

Shifts - pay more attention to the target notes, even if they aren't played. Practice moving to these target notes.

Vibrato - work on fourth finger "owees", use the elbow.

Bowing - keep the bow perpendicular to the strings and try to stay within a small band between the bridge and fingerboard. Use a mirror for a while to watch my bow.

Bow with intention - I'm too hesitant - this causes squeaks, scratches and a thin, tinny sound.

Bow the Moody harmonic pieces with more force. [Edit (see Terry's comment below): Also, harmonics must be bowed closer to the bridge.] The fourth -finger -extended -third -position harmonics are not as strong as the octave and fifth harmonics.

Begin working on the first three or four pieces in Moody's "Double Stops" book. Take my time and concentrate on accurate intonation and intervals.

Hold off on starting Suzuki Book 4 for now; work on getting the final pieces in Book 3 "performance ready".

(Also a lot of discussion and tips about the various sticking points in some of the pieces.)


Bow harmonics with more force? You probably know this, but just in case, or for other readers, the point-of-contact for those harmonics must be much closer to the bridge than if you were fully stopping the string with the left hand. Instead, the point-of-contact should be the same as if you were playing that high note way up the fingerboard.

Higher notes require a bow that's closer to the bridge; we can't escape it by playing it as a harmonic.
Thanks, Terry.. My teacher had discussed this point about bowing harmonics, but I'd forgotten to include it here. (I've now edited that in.)
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