Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's so cold out there...

This cold snap comes right on the heels of ten inches of snow on Christmas day. The next morning the sky was clear and we were treated to the first sunny day in weeks (all five hours and forty minutes of it). Still warm enough that day (+20 F) to plow the drive and shovel the deck before the cold settled in that night. Each day it's a little colder. This morning it was -25 F. Tonight we're supposed to see -30. And there's no end in sight.

I just love the sunrises and sunsets this time of year. Of course if the sky is clear it's also going to be very cold... but it's worth it. The night sky starts turning from a shiny black to deep dark blue around 9:00 and gradually lightens through all the shades of purple, blue and yellow until the sun finally appears on the southeast horizon at about 10:30. The cold, dry air intensifies the winter light that is even brighter than normal as it reflects off all that fresh white snow still clinging to all the trees. For the next few hours the sky is so clear, the blue so intense, everything so sharp and so crisp. The low sun creates long shadows. Around 4:00 the sun dips below the southwest horizon leaving another palette of colors ranging from the yellows at the horizon through pink then blue and all the way to the purples in the east. These gradually darken over the next hour as the sky becomes black.

Tonight there was the barest sliver of a new moon in the southern sky that gradually grew brighter in the darkening sky. By 6:00, when I left for our cello group rehearsal the full circumference of the moon was quite visible - earthshine reflecting back off the moon (I'm told). Supposedly the moon is on a rare close approach to the earth, making it appear larger and brighter in the sky. Venus was hovering to the left and above the setting moon.

By the time I left town two hours later and headed south for home, the temperature was already down to -20. As I crossed the first hill blocking the glow of the town's lights behind me, the stars began to pop out from the night sky. I pulled over for a moment, cut my lights and stepped out into the cold - and looked up! All those stars! The moon had set, making Venus appear even brighter in the south. Sadly, no auroras yet; recent sunspot activity has been low.

It was way too cold to stay out for long, so I got back into my warm car and drove the rest of the way home with one eye on the road, another watching out for moose, and yet another looking at the sky.

When I got home and came into my warm haven from the cold, my attention turned back to all those practical things that go along with this cold weather. Checking the faucets to make sure they were all still flowing - just a trickle, but enough to prevent the pipes from freezing. Ordering the poor dog out into the cold for a few minutes one last time. Checking all the doors and windows. Making sure the cars are plugged in. Topping up the humidifier, and refreshing my cello's Dampits. All the while hoping there'd be no power failures overnight that would shut off the water pump and let all the pipes freeze up, not to mention letting the house get cold...

These extreme cold spells usually last only a couple of days. I remember one year we had a three week cold snap that stayed in the -40s, accompanied by an extreme high pressure cell that settled in above the state. The barometric pressure was so high, they had to cancel all the flights for several days after realizing the altimeters weren't calibrated for those pressures. After a while we actually began to hope for clouds...

Wow, this is the Alaska I'd love to see someday. Being there during the summer/early fall just isn't the same. I am surprised one can drive a car in -20 degree weather.
Nice post. You can keep the cold, but I would love to see the stars. We just got our son a beginners reflective scope for Christmas. Cannot wait until we get a nice clear starry night in our part of Midwest suburbia.
I bought a nice telescope ten years ago, but when the sky is clear it's just too darn cold to take it out and use it very often. Nor do I get to use it in the summers, when it is warm enough, thanks to our extended daylight hours.

We're hoping for clear skies early Saturday morning - there's supposed to be a rarely visible meteor shower right before dawn...
I can't even begin to imagine that kind of cold! I get really excited to see a tiny bit of snow....
I can imagine the warmth of your haven home and the stars.
The must look the same in Alaska as in a desert.
Happy New Year!
As a pilot-wannabe, the most exciting part of that was the altimeter issue. Wow! Nicely written post; I felt as if I was there. :)
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Friday, December 26, 2008


Body Beat

Santa Claus brought me a "Body Beat" metronome yesterday and I got a chance to try it out this morning. I've used a Seiko dial metronome for a couple of years but I find the clicking to be so distracting and annoying, that I tend not to use it very often. I have been diligently using it for my vibrato exercises these past few months; increasing the tempo by a "notch" every other day or so. But I usually shut it off afterward, even though I know I'm supposed to be using it...

My new Body Beat, made by Peterson Tuners, includes a small bar about the size of a bullet that is attached to a clip for hooking onto my belt. A wire connects the bar to metronome which is about the size of a large cellphone. It is also able to be clipped on my belt like those old pagers I used to wear. The "Vibe Clip" is supposed to be worn against the spine or hipbone. You set the tempo, select an accent and a subdivision (these even include dotted-eighth/sixteenth combinations), and just turn it on. The vibrator emits short noticeable vibration pulses that can easily be felt in almost any location against the body - I found I like it best against my hipbone.

It only took a few minutes to reconfigure my metronome sensory system from hearing the beats to feeling them. It was so nice not to have to listen to those clicks, but still have that steady tempo. That freed my ears up to listen to the music and pay attention to intonation.

I think this will work out fine for me.

"Sounds" interesting!
What a great idea! I hadn't heard of that before.
I've never seen this either, what a great concept. Too bad it's out of my budget at the moment.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008


Christmas music is over

No more Christmas music till next fall. Whew! I like playing it all-right, but since we have to start practicing as early as October, by Christmas I'm way past ready to move on...

We just finished our private party gig. Cellocracy played Christmas songs for an hour or so while the guests wrapped gifts, etc. Then, we replayed several of our favorites while the guests sang along. That was fun.

So, now back to regular stuff. I'm working on playing the Breval piece without using my thumb at all. GTGP suggests using a grape or a marshmallow, but neither option is very appealing - I sure don't want a squished grape spilling onto my cello and I'm not that keen on smearing marshmallows on the neck either. I was surprised to find that it really wasn't that hard to do - on the basic parts, playing slowly. At the same time, I'm trying to focus on bow-control - things like which phrases use whole bows, where to end a phrase near the tip, etc., all the while thinking about contact points on the strings and string tension control with my forefinger. This will keep me busy for a while.

I've been drilling vibrato (about 15 minutes a day) for a couple months and was increasing the metronome rate every other day. Then at my last lesson my teacher suggested some "minor" technical adjustments to my hand motion. They seemed quite simple at the time, but when I sat down the next day to practice it, I fumbled and stumbled around until it was all a mess. So I slowed the metronome back down several notches until I found a point where I could make it work, and have begun the long climb again.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Not a lot to say

This is going to be one of those lesson reports where I don't have very much to write...

Lesson #63 focused on a handful of technique issues that I've struggled with for months. I'm convinced they're standing in the way of finishing the Breval Sonata. I decided to narrow my focus over the next several weeks to trying to perfect at least a few of these, using various segments of the Breval score.

My biggest challenge is keeping my left thumb loose. I wouldn't be surprised if I've already squeezed a couple of dents into the back of the neck... I'm going to work on two measures at a time without letting my thumb even touch the fingerboard. As soon as I perfect these, I'll move on to two more measures. Then I'll go back and redo them with my thumb "resting" against the neck... I'm going to work my way through the middle section of the score this way... We'll see where this goes. In any case, at least I'll be doing some detailed work on the piece itself.

Friday, our orchestra plays a brief piece for the KPO Christmas concert - we're playing an arrangement called "Celtic Christmas", which gives the cello a lot of the melody. I think it's going to be good. We've worked on this a lot. Then Saturday our cello "trio" will play at a private Christmas party. That's going to be fun...

That's it - no more rehearsals, lessons, or gigs until sometime in January. It's been a busy month, and I'm looking forward to having some time just to work on my lessons and not worry about preparing for performances.

I've heard some recommend the technique of holding a grape between the thumb and neck while you play to give feedback on squeezing. If you press too hard - SQUISH! That could get kinda messy in the early stages of breaking this habit. Might I suggest a small marshmallow. Hold it lightly in place. If you feel the neck, you squeezed. When the marshmallow is squished, you have to eat it. Ick.
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Sunday, December 07, 2008


Christmas Gigs

I just finished a brief gig at a local High School choir concert. Our cello quartet played a handful of Christmas pieces while the audience was getting seated and the choir filed in behind us. Then we played our formal piece, "Carol of the Bells", which was arranged for cellos by Terry (also known as Chiddler in the ICS forums). That went well. Thanks so much Terry, from all of us. :)

Yesterday Cellocracy played for the better part of three hours a local Visitor's Center, while Santa was available for the kids. Sadly, not too many people showed, but we had a good time.

Two more events: one with our orchestra a week from Friday, and then Cellocracy plays a private Christmas party the next day.

Wow, y'all pulled CotB off? Who played the first part; I'm impresssed. I don't think I'd be willing to play that 1st part in public yet. Did he/she do it thumb position (that's how I'd do it), or up and down the A-string? Pinkie for the high Es, or shift?
We looked long and hard at that 1st part. In fact we first learned the piece with a viola taking the top part. But after she left and another cello joined us we realized we just wouldn't be able to play it that way; at least not in the near future.

After discussions with our coach (a pianist and violist) we tried it with that first part taken down an octave. We all liked how it sounded, with the blended cello-y richness of four cellos.

We worked on this piece for quite some time and found a groove that seemed to work for us.

Again, many thanks for the score, Terry. :)
Great, it was smart to put that down an octave. At this point, for me, believe it or not, thumb position is getting easier and easier. It seemed thoroughly impossible when I started working on it, maybe two years ago, but for about three months I put in time on thumb position everyday. Even then it seemed to be coming slowly, but now when I come back to it, it's falling into place. It seems as if there's things we just have to forget and re-learn, and then one wonders why it was a problem.
Terry, would you be able to post that arrangement again, or send it to me directly? I checked the old links on Cello Chat but the linked page no longer comes up. Now that I'm working with other cellists again I'd love to take a shot at it... if not this year, then next!
Coming up, Ms. Owl. I'll put it into my blog, folkcello.blopspot.com, but that might not be for a day or two. I can email it to you if you'd like. I'd send you a response from terrygucwa - at - earthlink.net.

By the way, I also have an O Holy Night arrangement for four cellos (transcription is a better word for it, it's not terribly original). In that case, I think it's the 4th part, the low part, that's the most challenging. I've been meaning to record it. Maybe this year I'll get around to it.
Guanaco just e-mailed me the copy of CotB that he has! (Thanks, Guanaco!) But I'd love to see the O Holy Night arrangement too. I'll send you a message via e-mail for you to respond to. Thanks so very much.
For other readers, O Holy Night is now on folkcello.blogspot.com
Our cello quartet(The Cellobrations) performed the "Carol of the Bells" this past weekend at two 'gigs', one in South Yarmouth and the other in Dennis (both on Cape Cod). We love the piece and would play it again in a minute. I played the cello 1 part. I did it partly in thumb position; I did the high E as a harmonic with my third finger. We played it just as written by Terry. This was my first venture into thumb position in public, and, whew, it went okay! Thanks so much to Terry for the great arrangement. May he do many more!!!
cknox at nmhschool.org
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Thursday, December 04, 2008


We talked about vibrato

First, we talked about vibrato; we talked about double-stops; we talked about position etudes: I'm making good progress with my vibrato but feel as if I'm stuck on the double-stops, so my teacher offered a few suggestions to approach those from a different perspective. I was relieved to find out that she didn't expect me to play the (current) page-and-a-half long position etude without stopping - especially since my hand sometimes cramps up. Better to work on a handful of lines at a time focusing on relaxation and keeping my hand loose.

Next up in Lesson #63, was La Cinquantaine. A few times at home, recently, I'd begun to feel as if I'd finally somehow gotten inside this music - where I felt as if I were flowing with it, with plenty of time to produce each note's intonation, style and duration, and plenty of time to get ready for the next note, to calmly "reach out" and pull it into the piece. These were no more than fleeting zen-moments that nevertheless left me startled and a little breathless. This morning's practice wasn't quite like that; this afternoon's lesson was nowhere near that.

Finally we spent a lot of time talking about controlling the bow. She showed me how to firmly set the bow into the string and then push the bow and let the tenuto notes taper off, then immediately setting it into the string for the next note, and so on. This led to a review of the hooked upbow sequences in the Breval Sonata. As with my previous lesson, I left with several new fine-tuning techniques to focus on for the next few weeks.

It seems that Lynn Harrell is playing in Anchorage this Saturday night, but I can't go - our cello group has a gig playing background music for Santa on Saturday, and then Sunday we're on the card, briefly, at a high school Christmas concert. Maybe next time...

Speaking of double stops: For me, the big 'ah ha' moment was when my teacher suggested concentrating on the lower note, not the top. Be able to sing the lower line as well as the top line. Then finger the double stops with your left hand, but only play the lower note with the bow. Then add the upper note, but play the lower note much louder, as you did playing it alone.

Even if you play the lower note louder, the listener will perceive the two notes as being equal in presence. It will improve your intonation and make the harmony much richer. It works in chamber music too. For parts in thirds, sixths or octaves, the the lower part should always play out more than the top part, and the player with the top line should follow the lower player with the lower part.
Thanks for the tip, Blake. I'm looking forward to trying it out.

That Blake is a clever guy. Totally right about those double stops. Anyhoo, I just wanted to say that it's a good life when you miss Lynn Harrell because you have a gig. :)
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