Friday, October 31, 2008


Uncomfortably Numb

Last night I sat in along with Cellocracy's Cello3 for an hour-long rehearsal with the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra [that's Mt. Redoubt in my masthead]. This group consists mostly of local area members of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, which normally draws about half its players from this area and the rest from the Homer area - more than 90 miles away. The RCO appears to be casual and informal. They don't get together very often - usually in the fall to prepare for a christmas concert. Out of 25 or so players last night, only seven were strings (including we two novice cellists).

Whoa, what a ride that was! No slow rolling here, we jumped right in at full tempo on all the pieces (I think). It wasn't long before those jumbled minuscule notes began to look to me like rows of ants that began to move around as I floundered along. On a few of the pieces the trombone part (and a good trombonist) sometimes mirrored the cello line, letting me at least hear what was going on and see what I ought to have played. Some of the pieces we whipped through were carols with a few familiar phrases, and I was able to hit a few notes once in a while...

I spent several hours yesterday morning before the rehearsal trying to review some of the pieces, and realized the fingerings were going to be a bit more complicated than what I was used to. I was able to figure out what fingerings I "ought" to use, but it's not something that comes readily to me at this stage without a lot more preparation and practice. So even though I'd gone ahead and marked the fingerings on some of the pieces, it didn't help much at the time.

I recall John Holt telling about joining groups of players who were far more experienced than he. He described feeling overwhelmed and totally incapacitated, at first; but then found himself able to finally come up to speed (more or less). Well, maybe that last part will come for me sooner or later.

Today, I slowly went through some of the pieces that we covered last night and felt a faint glimmer of hope.

Still, there are some pieces I simply won't be able to play at my current level. I'm trying to decide how to handle these. Of course I could devote some of my limited practice time for the next several months attempting to learn them - and end up playing them poorly at best. On the other hand, I could better use that time to really learn the pieces that I think I'll be able to play at least passably well. In that case, how do I handle those pieces I decide to "neglect benignly"? Air-bow the whole piece? Or should I spend enough time on these to at least learn the "first notes" of each measure?

What do I do about that loud voice in my head that's telling me I'm in way over my head, and to back off for now? My plan had been to try to join this group sometime in my fifth year (more than a year and a half from now). Even then I'd expected it to be quite a challenge. The timing was theirs, however... their only cellist left for college this fall and they needed a balance. So they approached us to see if we'd sign on. Of course everyone is saying "not to worry", "it's only for fun", "you'll pick it up soon enough". But... we cellists are the only "beginner/intermediate" players in the group - by a mile. And some of those pieces we covered last night had cello solo parts!!

Meanwhile, I'll talk with my teacher next week to see if she has any suggestions.

I have the same feeling currently in my chinese class. It's a stop gap until my teacher gets back from maternity leave. The rest of the group are about 2 years ahead of me.
They're very kindly, but I get the feeling they're inwardly rolling their eyes everytime I try to speak.
It doesn't make me feel good about myself and it's not terribly motivational.
I'm only sticking it out since I have one more lesson left otherwise I would have quit.

I was also once the worst player in an orchestra. But I was at the back of a group of 8 very competent and kindly fellow cellists. If I couldn't do it, I faked it for the audience and they made up for it.
My teacher did all my fingering for me during the lessons, but then my lessons couldn't progress at the cost of the orchestral work.
Orchestral playing is a fabulous thing to to, and can be very motivating.
But it sounds like you're between a rock and a hard place.

I've discussed this item with my ex-cello teacher (can't afford lessons for me and the kids) and he says one of the fundamental problems with amateur groups is that they pick stuff that is way too hard for them. They need to hit the middle/low road and cater for the common denominator which would result in a far better group all around.
Just some thoughts, but no solution.
Hi qweipo! It will be interesting to see what my teacher has to say.

I fully understand your feelings about your chinese class - ten years ago I was "seconded" to a company in Argentina where only spanish was spoken (with some occasional broken english). I was frantically taking lessons and trying to come up to speed so I could be effective in my job. The sink-or-swim approach and the desire to keep my job sure was a good motivator to learn. I'm not sure how well I'd have done otherwise.

As for this orchestra group - as best I could tell, no-one else seems to have any difficulty with the repertoire. I'd sure hate to be the cause of their common denominator dropping...
Two of my granddaughters (a cellist and a violist) and this cello playing grandma just watched your Sarah voting in Wasilla. We were privileged to be among her gathering of 7,000 supporters in our Henderson, NV Pavillion (where we regularly attend our Henderson Symphony). Pam
Oh I could just march right up there and give you a 3 hour class on getting faster and the art of the Orchestral Fakeando (technical term, my friend). Maybe after the Haydn video series I'll address that.

One thing to keep in mind is that we are all at some point in over our heads. Parenting provides a particularly vivid illustration of this. Yet, we can't quit, and because we barrel through due to love, obligation, and genuine concern, we grow as people and contribute to the world in a substantive way. Sure, you can walk away from the cello (or at least give it a dark thought)...cello is optional. But just because you are more keenly aware of how over you head you are doesn't mean you're in a bad place in your progress. You're looking at the road head: how about considering the path you have already blazed? You are more than halfway there if you know your notes and can play roughly in time. You have, what, 25% to go until you are "advanced"? And what then? As you advance, each step is harder, more subtle, and leaden with difficulty. Let's say I only have 2% to go before I am as good as Yo Yo Ma or Isserlis. I'll never get there, because that 2% is a lifetime's work. But I'll enjoy spending the next 50 years on .04% of progress. And a newsflash: a lot of really good orchestral players are giving it everything they have each performance, just to stay on time and in tune. Persist, and focus on this day. Looking months in advance only makes you hold your bow funny and freak out in upper positions. Am I right? :)
That Emily sure has some perspective.
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Sunday, October 26, 2008


Between the notes

Watching my teacher play the Breval Sonata last week was an eye-opening experience. I couldn't stop thinking about how easy she made it look. But more than that, I was interested in how she seemed to have all the time in the world to make string crossings and change positions, and so on. All the while her left hand is vibrating on most of the notes. Whew. I struggle just to find enough room between notes to be able to grab for the next one. This started me thinking about my approach to those tough parts of my lessons.

I spend my practicing time trying to learn how to play the notes, but nowhere near enough time thinking about what goes on "between the notes". I fuss a lot about each sound that I make, but not enough about all those little spaces before and after. This is not about the measured rests with their programmed durations. It's those minuscule pauses while I reset my fingers and retake the bow.

There's so much to do during these intervals. The bow usually has to stop moving; the left-hand finger has to release pressure on whatever note it was stopping; a finger has to move to the next note and apply enough pressure to stop it; meanwhile the bow has to reset on that new string (for string crossings); and then it's time to make the new note. [In fact I'm sure there are many more steps involved than this.]

Making the more complicated fingering changes uses up all of that space (and more) that exists between the notes. Then when you think about bowing slurs across strings or across positions, the complications increase as the available time between the notes decreases.

Of course my practice regimen often focuses on making those specific changes rapidly and fluidly, and practicing them over and over and over eventually works. As I'd worked on the first string crossing passage in the Breval piece, I felt I wasn't really getting anywhere. At my last lesson we talked about breaking this passage down into individual micro-steps and working on various aspects of them. All along I'd been trying to do everything at once, and of course, way too fast.

Way back when I was an industrial drone, one of my projects was setting up a program to analyze and write industrial operating procedures, such as how to start a pump, how to shut-down a compressor, etc. It wasn't as easy as it sounds, because any one of these involved dozens of critical steps that had to be done in a precise order. If a step was done out of sequence, or skipped, or done improperly, the pump or compressor could be wrecked, the unit could trip off line, etc., etc. Long before we actually started writing our procedures, we spent quite a bit of time carefully identifying these steps and figuring out which ones were the most critical.

So with a little time and focus I've started to apply this approach to my music. It will be interesting to see if it helps any.

have your read the practise revolution? I'm finding it very helpful for the practise sessions with my kids...
I also like the fundamentals of piano practise, which is a web book / podcast. it is about piano but says good things about practising and rhythm etc.
So much of you reminds me of me. I recognize the same kind of thinking, and I feel that we are following very similar paths; I started first but you'll soon pass me by. Maybe already. Whishhh.....

Without taking away any of the validity of the point of your post, though, I'm now finding myself more and more in a different place, where's it's not about analysis, but rather synthesis, and letting things happen by themselves. Momentum and flow. Momentum, or a loss of control, is becoming more and more what I crave.

Walking is a complex act, but we don't control each muscle and action, in a set sequence, like in the manual. We just let it happen. Consider the difference between an instruction manual on how to waltz, and what we might see from expert dancers at the local Country/Western bar/dance hall. Worlds apart.

I think we admire skill sports, like figure skating and gymnastics, not for the control these athletes exhibit, but for the vicarious thrill we get when they surrender control, and momentum takes over. So too with cello?
Terry, that's going to be the topic of a future post... reaching a point where you can let go of all those details and just play. The best athletes are the ones who manage to make it all appear so effortless, as if spinning on one skate tip while holding your partner above your head with one hand was not any big deal.

It's clear from watching my teacher [and for that matter the guest soloists I've been fortunate to listen to, and in fact most of the YouTube stars] that she's not caught up at all by the details of how she is playing.

I'm convinced, just from watching other students in my orchestra, that various aspects of playing music come easier to some of us than others, and that the younger you are [the closer you are to first learning how to walk :)], the easier it all seems to be. That, or their expectations aren't getting in their way as they so often seem to do with me.

The trick, at least for me, is learning how to play these notes and spaces between the notes, before I can begin learning how to do these things without thinking about them. I have to say that my hyper-analytical approach these past few days has done wonders for my string crossings in that Breval passage.

Erin at Fugue State often posts about the concept of being able to play without thinking of all the things you have to do in order to be able to play. I'm hopeful that at some point I'll move beyond this analytical stage to the more difficult stage of letting all that go...
apparently there are 4 stages:

unconsciously unskilled
consciously unskilled
consciously skilled
unconsciously skilled

it appears you're at the 2nd stage and working your way to the 3rd.
The performers you are referring to are at the 4th stage.
It's just a matter of time and practise. Just like learning to drive a car.
Keep at it.
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Friday, October 24, 2008


Lesson 59

I love to watch my teacher play her cello.

It's fascinating to see her fingers move from place to place so fluidly, so effortlessly - as if there was all the time in the world to find their next notes.

And to see her bow float across the strings - the sounds so clean with none of the scratchy growly undertones that I get.

Eventually, I'll get there... I suppose.

Every once in a while I'll notice that I'm actually able to make one of those effortless position changes that I'd long struggled with. It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, yet. But when it does...

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Sunday, October 19, 2008


Cello Hero!

We've all done our share of "air bowing", but this takes it to a whole new level...

Intonation looks easy - it appears you only need two fingers. And then there's the animation at the end - an odd looking character plays the cello standing up....

I suspect Wii won't be selling a whole lot of these.

Absolutely mad mental... don't get me wrong I love guitar hero for about 2 days then got bored but at least you were playing a guitar type thing.... this is sooo weird! LOL :)
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Saturday, October 11, 2008



We first took up this piece early this year and realized it could be a nice performance piece for us. Although it's for a cello trio ("Tempo di Minuetto", by Rudolf Matz), when Cellocracy became a quartet we decided we could double the Cello 1 part and keep it at the top of our repertoire. In May we met with our coach, Maria Allison, and started fine-tuning our presentation. Even though one of us was out of town this summer, three of us played it at our summer lunch concert. It went OK, but we stlll needed to improve it, so a few weeks ago we met again with our coach for a polishing session. Tuesday, we had a final rehearsal, and it felt good. Just for fun we played it through at a screaming hot tempo, and even that was good - clearly we were ready.

So, last night was the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra's annual "Evening of Classics" fundraiser. Cellocracy was scheduled after intermission, leaving us plenty of time to listen to all the top-notch performers ahead of us. Previously that would have put me off my game, and I would have started comparing myself to them and asking myself what the heck I was doing there. But this time, I felt confident and relaxed. Our string orchestra played a brief piece right after intermission (not bad, either) and then we were on.

So, it went great! Our rhythm was steady and we immediately found ourselves in a "groove". Here are some of the random thoughts that came up as I played - usually, the panic in my head is so loud, I'm lucky to be able to play my own part, much less think about anything else:

"My bow feels like an extension of my hand. I'm using lots of bow on the legato quarter notes, and making clean transitions as I change direction (this, thanks to my last lesson where we talked a bit about this)."

"My notes feel deliberate and sound spot on."

"Those one or two weak spots that I'd been focusing on these last few weeks were gone. Yeah, even that one pizzicato to arco transition was flawless!"

"I feel in sync with the others, and I'm not having to think about making any minute tempo adjustments to stay with them. Nor, for that matter, does it sound as if they were having to adjust to match me."

"I'm able to carefully listen to each part as needed for their cues."

"I'm also able to widen my focus to listen to the combined piece."

"I'm in no hurry for this to end."

"This is why I wanted to play the cello! What a rush! This is why!"

I don't know if the audience actually heard anything like what I felt we were playing. Sure, their applause was strong and sustained, but this may not be a great measure, audiences in Alaska are usually pretty enthusiastic, anyway. As we gathered in the green room to put away our cellos it was obvious we were all sharing the same positive feeling about our performance, so maybe I wasn't dreaming.

The evening was a success, and I am glad to have been able to play a part in it.

To top things off, I scored a fine 10x50 binocular (it feels more comfortable to say "pair of binoculars" but the term "binocular" is apparently correct) in the fundraising raffle after the concert.

congratulations for a fine performance! That's why we play the cello!
Lovely. What a grand way to soar.
You may think I'm a crack-pot, but I'm a believer in music-telepathy, that is, I think music can allow a listener to sort of read the mind of the performer, to feel what the performer is physically feeling. Somehow, "feeling waves" get transported via the sound waves.

So, I have no doubt that the audience was able to receive and share in those positive feelings that you experienced.
Hurrah! I know professionals who never reach that level of being present. Now that you know what it feels like to more or less sustain it, you get to chase it throughout your playing.
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Thursday, October 09, 2008


Slow it down

From Lesson #58: Use the metronome and take that one passage in the Breval "Sonata" (that first run of triplets followed by those eighth-note string crossings) way down until each note is separate and distinct. Pay close attention to the triplet pattern vs. the paired eighth notes. On the string crossings, break the movements down into their individual detailed segments - set the bow, play the note, stop, rapidly reset the bow on the new string, play the next note, stop, and so on...

But first, take a few days where I don't play the piece through, but instead listen to it on the CD, and with the metronome sing/hum each note in proper rhythm and tempo. I've fallen into the habit of playing different tempos for different passages, depending on my comfort level with them. In order to put all the parts together I have to get used to hearing and thinking the right rhythms and tempo for the entire piece.

We also spent some time working on bowing. It's funny how I can easily do these motions at home, but during the lesson, my hand and arm feel so wooden.

I've made some changes to my daily practice routine, in part out of boredom, but also to deal with certain areas where I need to improve. I recently started playing minor scales for about 15-minutes in addition to my 15-minute warmup on the major scales. Then about half an hour playing second-position etudes in my new Percy Such book. After than I work on double stops for 15 minutes or so. Then half an hour in Book 3 and half an hour on the Breval piece. And since I work on orchestra/Cellocracy pieces for another half hour or so, my practice routine is now almost 3 hours a day. At least, as the darkness and the cold creeps up so rapidly, forcing us indoors, there does seem to be plenty of time available for practicing.

Tomorrow evening, our string orchestra and Cellocracy will each perform a piece at the annual Kenai Peninsula Orchestra "Evening of Classics" fundraiser. Cellocracy - as a quartet - has worked pretty hard on our piece (by Rudolf Matz), even rehearsing it with our coach a couple times. I'm pretty confident about it. I'm a little less comfortable with the orchestra's piece - it's a really fast Vivaldi concerto. On the whole it sounds good too, although I'm not as sure about my particular role in it, yet.

"set the bow, play the note, stop, rapidly reset the bow on the new string, play the next note, stop, and so on..." is what my teacher has told me too, not just for that part, but for other similar string crossing situations. It's something I don't do as well as I would like, but it gets better as the months and years go by. Maybe Emily could talk about this some day.
I will! Maybe that will be my next blogcast. One thing to do, that I think you are describing here is the following: make sure you're on the new string before you start playing on it. Sounds like common sense, but a lot of folks make the "new bow" (new bow stroke, or new note in the same bow) motion the same as the motion for your string crossing. There are two things going on, and you have to make that they both get accomplished. The smoothness we crave is what makes it blurry and sometimes inaccurate. Does that make even a little sense?

Fearless leader (with eyepatch and scar) :)
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Monday, October 06, 2008


If you haven't already made up your mind...

Consider spending a few hours reading this book:

John McCain: An American Odyssey

A remarkable and inspiring life story, warts and all.

I just lost all respect for your blog.
I'm sorry you've taken it that way, D. As you can see, unlike way too many bloggers, I didn't slime the other guy in any way.

All I suggested here is that if you haven't already decided which candidate to support, this particular book will help you understand one of the candidates a whole lot better.

I don't understand why this offends...
And you have gained more of mine. It is hard to disagree respectfully. Tolerance is a skill and hate is a reaction. My blog today addresses a little of this sentiment. I hope a lot of people read it.

The thing I don't understand is how people can't disagree with McCain and still see what an amazing guy he is. As you know, I am a conservative (but a Ron Paul conservative, not a Bush one) and still don't know who I am voting for. But what a life, what an interesting journey McCain has had. There is goodness in the man, if slightly more rare in his campaign.

There is goodness in your blog. You get my vote.
It's too bad some people can't get past stupid prejudices to read a great book. Props for the post- you get my vote too.
One of the glories of the Internet is getting to read or listen to all sides of the debate, and maybe coming together (or reaching across the aisle) to find solutions. If we don't talk politics occasionally, even on our cello blogs, there seems little hope. Discussion even helps us clarify our own opinions for ourselves, and even that is progress!
when you vote for mccain, you are voting for his ideas and his party...and not for his life story. I think this is something that many forget about when choosing a candidate. anyone who runs a campaign as hateful and full of lies as mccain has cannot be considered a respectable person in my eyes.
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