Sunday, November 30, 2008


Electric Cello Redux

After several months I pulled out my Yamaha electric cello today for practice. We had visitors staying over so I wanted to practice without disturbing certain late-sleepers. I was pleased with how it sounded - through the headphones. As I played through my current routines - scales, vibrato exercises, Percy Such's "Position Etudes", Mooney's "Double Stops", "La Cinquantaine" and the Breval "Sonata" - I realized my "sound" has improved more than I'd thought. I even went back and played the last two pieces using the cello's reverb features - that was fun.

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Friday, November 28, 2008


Three Years

Today marks three years since I drove up to Anchorage on a whim and rented a cello. I had planned to give it a few months just in case this was nothing more than a passing phase. Within days I was completely hooked; and started thinking about taking formal lessons. It didn't take long before I began looking for my own cello to replace the crappy plywood rental. By the time my new Jay-Haide a l'ancienne cello arrived in late February I think I finally began to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge I'd taken on. Now, 2,300 hours of practicing later, I still see myself as a novice with so much more to learn.

This all takes so much self-control. It's hard setting aside two to three hours a day, every day, and not succumbing to all the other temptations that seem to spring up. There have been many days when I felt like skipping it "just this one time". But (almost) every time I've managed to convince myself to get everything out and get started. The hardest part, after the setup and tuning, always seems to be those first ten minutes of warmup - doing those long bow strokes on the open strings and then starting in on the scales. Somewhere in doing those scales, I lose track of time and I find myself fully immersed in the process, concentrating on the quality of each sound and the accuracy of each note. Two hours pass rapidly as I work on my lessons. Usually I'll stop at that point, but once in a while I'll turn to something different and lose myself for another half an hour or more, before I have to give up in exhaustion.

Progress has been slow and uneven. Some techniques come rather quickly, while others continue to elude me even after hundreds of repetitions. Once in a while one of those impossible segments just "pops" in. This week after months of working on those Breval string crossings, they finally came out right. What a rush that was - the best part was this happened during a lesson! Most of my progress has been achingly slow and mostly unmeasurable (to me), but some of that progress has been these types of "jumps".

I've come to understand certain things about myself these past few years as I struggle with my cello: humility, patience, persistence, endurance, denial, laziness, fear, frustration, anger, boredom (and so on). Studying the cello has helped me find and expand some of the strengths in myself and to chip away at some of those failings. I think I've overcome a lot of my self-doubts. I do know where I've improved, for the most part. I think I understand what learning methods work for me and what don't seem to work, and I admit it still takes me a while, sometimes, to acknowledge certain deficiencies in technique and apply myself to the painstaking work needed to fix them. On the other hand, I have no illusions of how much more I have to learn, and I think I know where I'm still not ready to go, yet.

One thing that I'm quite sure about - I am fully invested emotionally in what I'm doing, and I have no intention of slowing down or deviating from this path I'm on. I have no idea what else I'll be doing a year from now, but I know I'll still be studying the cello.

This also marks three years for this blog. Today's entry is #458. I only posted 95 entries in the past year. For some reason blogging has become more and more complicated...

Progress Report on Year 3 Goals and New Goals for Year 4

These are the goals I listed one year ago for my third year of cello playing. Some of them, as I quickly figured out, are actually long-term goals. As I've discussed so frequently, being able to measure these goals is not that simple. Finishing a lesson book doesn't necessarily mean I don't still need to continue improving each one. It might be more realistic to look at these as skills I want to improve each successive year.

Learn vibrato - I am doing drills daily; I've started playing a few scales with vibrato; and I'm getting closer to being able to actually use it while playing;

Finish Suzuki Book 3
- I finished this last summer; but I'm not satisfied with many of the pieces, so I've been working to refine them, one-by-one;

Improve bow hold
- I'm practicing the "paint brush" hold, using my wrist and shifting balance on up vs. down bow;

Relax bowing arm
- I've had some improvement; this will be a permanent goal - always room for improvement;

Improve sight-reading skills
- Well, just a little; especially since I've started working on the etudes;

Improve intonation
- I am better at this at home than during lessons(?); this is clearly a permanent goal;

Develop an awareness and control of breathing
- Not much progress yet;

Start playing in the "upper" positions
- I've started playing a few phrases in 5th with some forays into 7th, also scales;

Learn thumb position
- I'll probably start this somewhere in the coming year (?);

Tenor clef
- This comes at the end of Book 4;

Experiment with the electronic cello
- Not much progress;

Practice 1,000 hours in Year #3 (working on that 10,000-hour goal)
- I practiced about 850 hours in the last year, for a total of 2,300 hrs;

Growth with the Central Peninsula Youth and Community (strings) Orchestra
- To date we've given 11 performances of varying types; this group varies in size and experience from season to season; for the most part, I find it challenging but within reach;

Growth with Cellocracy
- To date we've given 8 performances including a really successful performance in October; and we have at least three Christmas gigs scheduled;

Join the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra (eventually)
- I sat in two times in October, but I decided I was not ready to join them yet, maybe next year...;

Join the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra (some day)
- this is a long, long-term goal.

(NEW) Complete 2/3 of Position Etude Book

(NEW) Complete 1/2 of Mooney's Double-Stops Book

(NEW) Rhythm studies - Clapping exercises from Music Theory book

(NEW) Play faster with accuracy

(NEW) Relax while playing (goes with breathing)

(NEW) Increase stamina (goes with relaxing)

(NEW) Improve overall quality of sound (goes with intonation, bow control)

(NEW) Music theory - Understand the structure of music (in progress)

(NEW) Improvisation

Thanks for your blog. It´s interesting to read all your feelings with your cello. I am learning too.
Phew. What a list. And all those practice hours! I came today looking for inspiration and I found it. I am trying to determine my own next year's goals and I needed some ideas.

Was there a reason you set 10,000 hours as one of your longest-term goals? (You probably explained elsewhere on this site but perhaps you could point me toward it.) I think Malcolm Gladwell's new book, which I haven't read, talks about that number as an essential mastery number in many areas.
This is definitely the place to come for cello inspiration!

Way to go, Guanaco!
I haven't read Gladwell's book yet, either. There was a lot of discussion in some of the music blogs about his 10,000 hour theory when it was first published. Assuming I can keep up my current practice schedule, I'll reach that mark in just nine more years. :)
Congratulations on your third year. Your blog is an inspiration and where I come when i start thinking about throwing in the towel. Thanks!
It sounds to me like you're doing a wonderful job learning the world's most beautiful musical instrument, and it's even better to read that you still enjoy it despite occasional frustrations. Thanks so much for writing about your experience.
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Thursday, November 20, 2008


Closing in on the Breval Sonata

We started out with the Breval Sonata at today's lesson (#61). I played it a whole lot better today than I ever have - even at home. That first triplet run followed by the string crossings were almost perfect - finally! I stumbled a bit on a few bowings in the next section and didn't quite get those dotted-eighth-32nd-32nd-quarter note groupings right. Although I still had a few more minor "issues" here and there after that, it went really well up to the last line with the whole-note slur and two more dotted-eighth-32nd-32nd-quarter note parts. I still have a problem with endurance - I'm not sure I'd be able to play the entire piece at tempo with all the repeats. My left hand did start to cramp - so we talked about relaxation in general and about how I'm using my thumb. Although I'm still not ready to start on the next movement of this Sonata, I sure feel good about today's performance.

Practice points for the next few weeks will focus on:
  1. those four segments, working on rhythm/tempo, and making sure the fingering is right - slow it down for a while, first;
  2. improve articulation on the sixteenth-dotted-eighth phrases, making sure the bow bites into the string on the sixteenths and eases off through the dotted-eighths;
  3. practice wrist action to articulate the short upbow runs of hooked eighth notes °;
  4. work on the transitions into the triplet runs, especially at the end;
  5. practice the whole-note D/E trill at the end;
  6. overall relaxation and breathing - try playing it only with the left hand fingers tapping onto the strings as I watch my breathing patterns.
Next we began to play through La Cinquantaine... but I must have used up all my good karma for the day, because I couldn't even find that first shift. I was able to play with appropriate rhythms, etc., and eventually I got my intonation under control. but this wasn't my best effort, by far... We also worked briefly on the Double Stops book and my teacher gave me some pointers on ways to practice these... she emphasizes getting comfortable (fingers, hand and arm) with all these new finger placements; taking them one at a time; and separately working on the double string bowings one by one.

I've been working on vibrato almost daily for a couple months now, and I briefly demonstrated what sort of exercises I've been doing. My techniques are good, although I do have to make a minor adjustment to my fourth finger vibrato. I'm taking this slow and easy working steadily up the metronome. I've still got a long way to go, but it appears I'm definitely on track. I'll also start playing scales using vibrato...

I left the lesson feeling pretty good - with renewed confidence.

I started cello lessons a couple of months ago, just finishing up Suzuki book I, well, the older one seems the new book one is twice the size.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008



So we're being asked to bailout a company that thinks we'd want to buy things like this?

Completely insane.
I agree its kind of ridiculous...but remember that our administration for the past 8 years has given tax breaks to people who buy SUV's and breaks to companies that produce them as well...doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it? The idea to take the money already set aside for more "green" car production and put it towards to bailout doesn't make a whole lot of sense either...since it would keep the car companies from going in the correct direction...we do want to get these gas guzzlers off the road, right?? so why should we take away the funds that will help do just that? probably aren't looking for a political discussion here, but I just can't help myself sometimes...and sorry for my past comments, I can get very passionate about this stuff and get carried away sometimes...these little white boxes don't let me hold back!
I bought a gas-guzzler SUV (Ford's biggest monster - the Excursion) in 2000.


What a mistake! Not in the least is the insane oil price runup, which has led us to sideline the beast for several years now - we only use it in heavy snows or when we want to haul a lot of people or a big load. The real problem was the poor quality of the thing starting the moment it came off the lot. After the warranty expired, even minor repairs have been ridiculously expensive. About half the problems we've had with it were due to poor workmanship, but the other half were caused by poor engineering design and material quality issues. IMHO, both the company and the unions are responsible for this piece of junk. Consequently, I don't have much sympathy for either party in this current debate.

We considered selling it, but couldn't find any buyers at a reasonable price (and I wasn't looking to make any money off of it either). It's more useful to me to have it sit in the driveway until those few months each winter when the weather sucks bad enough to use it.

Over the years I've bought one vehicle each from Chrysler, GM, and Ford. None of them were any good and I've never even considered buying a second car from any of them. On the other hand, I have a 1992 Subaru that is in great shape and still runs fine after 150,000 miles. I've only had to do minor maintenance on it - in fact I've spent more money on tires for it than repairs.

It will take a major shift in Detroit's conceptual design and quality for me to ever consider buying another "Big-3" automobile. These companies have simply ignored the need for fuel efficiency AND vehicle safety in their designs time and again. Where's the evidence to justify letting them off the hook now that the consumers have gotten tired of being burned on repair bills and low resale values and have decided to walk away from their crappy products?
Actually, that's one of the first new American car designs I've really liked in a while. But I bought a Toyota.
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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


TV Dancing

Is it just me? I really detest those TV dancing/reality shows. Ugh.

In fact, I can't stand any of the reality shows, not a single one.

For one season I did watch Hell's Kitchen, but even that one became too much...

The thing that gets me is the overproduction, with all the trite little setups forced on the participants. Worse are those "confessionals" that accompany each scene. To add drama, the producers push the "contestants" to be as nasty as they can about each other. Don't these people have any shame?

LOL I'm quite partial to Stricly come dancing here in the uk... and we had maestro here in the autumn when clebs learned to conduct... that was wonderful... but I do get what you mean! I like Gordon ramsay but can't watch hell's kitchen due to the constnt recap after recap like everyone is really stupid and can't remember what happened before the commercial break!
I wonder how much of a difference there is between british and us tv!
I watched Hell's Kitchen briefly, with my daughter, and I could not remember what happened, even with recaps. :-)

I watched Dancing briefly with my husband, but couldn't remember who were the stars and who were the dancers.

I guess reality tv is not for me.
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Friday, November 07, 2008


Not muddling through

So, I've decided not to join the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra, at least not right now. Although everyone has been very generous with their encouragement, I know I am just not ready... maybe next year.

I sat in on a second rehearsal last night. After more than a week of fairly intense practice (an extra hour or more a day - above and beyond my normal two-hour practice sessions) I was barely able to play a scant few parts of three or four of the ten pieces they've scheduled for their Christmas concert. Even if I did nothing else but work on these pieces for the next six weeks, I'm pretty sure I still would not be ready.

One problem I have with most of these pieces is their screaming-hot tempos (not to mention various unfamiliar keys and new fingering patterns). Now, I've been diligently working on the Breval Sonata (out of Suzuki Book 4) - every day - since early July, and I still cannot play it at any reasonable tempo. Of course I know there's a big difference between the Breval piece and these Christmas carols. But in the Sonata, the cello does play the melody... while with these orchestral arrangements, I'm often not really able to tell what or where the melody even is (especially as I'm trying to learn them at home). It's even worse with those wretched Christmas medleys (I really hate those). I suppose if I could hear these pieces in their entirety enough times, I'd eventually be able to figure out how my part fits in with the whole. But there's only four more rehearsals before the Christmas concert, and we've not yet been able to play through all ten pieces in one session.

I do realize there's a lot to be gained from playing in an orchestra like this, and that it would be an important part of my music learning process. And I'm sure that if I muddled along with this group, I might eventually pick up enough to get by or at least to more-or-less convincingly fake it. But I didn't start learning the cello in order to muddle along and just "get by". I want to do better than that. I believe that after another year of rigorous study and practice - including working on my position etudes and continuing with the Suzuki and Mooney repertoire, as well as sticking with my string-orchestra and with the cello group - that I'd be ready to join this group.

I've self-analyzed my learning process enough (that's one of the main themes of this blog, after all) to understand how I am best able to learn a new piece or a new technique. The one method that does not seem to work for me (at least right now) is to throw a bunch of new music on my stand (much of it in unfamiliar keys with unusual fingerings and new rhythmic patterns) and then sight-read it at screaming fast tempos (most, if not all, of the rest of the group has played these pieces many times before) and then go home and expect to be able to learn them all in six weeks with only four more group rehearsals.

Nope, that's not really going to do anything except frustrate the heck out of me. It's not that I'm not up to the challenge - heck, learning the cello at my age is already a challenge - it's more realizing what does and doesn't work for me, and recognizing where my abilities are right now, and where I'm wanting to go with all this. I do want to play with this group and I am looking forward to the time when I am ready to.

Equally important is the issue of time... Right now I spend two-plus hours a day practicing at home (three hours daily this past week or so). Once every other week I drive to Homer for lessons (a four-hour trip). Two evenings a week I drive to town for string-orchestra and cello group rehearsals (at least another two and a half hours each night). Then every other week I stay over after orchestra for music theory class.

There's only so much time... Z will be graduating and leaving home in less than two years. Time has sped by so fast these past years and he's grown up so quickly. I really want to be able to spend as much time with him as possible before he's gone. I can barely justify taking out two nights a week for my music... There will be plenty of time to add other obligations to my schedule after he's gone to college.

In the meantime, my cello studies continue. Now that I'm working on the Percy Such position etude book, I'm able to see slow and steady progress as I add a few new lines every few days. I often feel like I'm hitting the wall on the various Suzuki pieces, but then I'll realize I've crossed one minor hurdle and am tangling with a new one (I guess that's progress). The Mooney Double Stops book is really challenging, but when I stopped treating these as simple tunes (which ought to be easy to play, right?) and started thinking about the sounds, combinations, phrasing and fingering (and so on), I finally started making progress.

Good for you for respecting your (current) limits. I think I'd want to be able to keep up with at least seventy or eighty percent of the music to make it worthwhile to sit with an orchestra.
It would be nice if they could scare up even one advanced cellist to lead the section. That can make all the difference in the world when you are beginning to play at that level - because you never actually feel ready.
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