Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Working on another piece

I started working on the Breval Sonata's "Rondo grazioso" a few weeks ago. My teacher suggested (for the umpteenth time) that I make sure I learned the rhythms and timing first, then worry about intonation and bowing. OK, it's not that I've not heard this before. I guess I just never really accepted that I really would have to change something in my behavior enough so this could happen. This time I did.

Before picking out the first note, I spent several days just tapping out the rhythm of the "A" part while counting aloud the tempo. Eventually (it took a surprisingly long time), I "got" it. Then I set my metronome to 92 bpm, beeping every third beat (the piece is in 6/8 time), and started plucking out the notes. After getting the intonation and fingering worked out I finally started bowing it - still at that same plodding tempo. After several more days, I upped the metronome to 96. I was soon comfortable enough with the flow of this piece to start in on the "B" part - using the same process (tapping/counting, plucking, and then bowing). At this slow pace I'm able to consider each note, to think about how it's supposed to sound, how long it's supposed to play, how it ties into the ones before and after it, and how it fits together with the whole.

I've been looking forward a little more enthusiastically to my practices each morning, like a new bounce in my step. Because I can actually hear my progress on this piece. And I'm look forward to moving on into each new step.

I started taking an Advanced Music Theory course as a followup to last fall's Basic course. We began with melodic analysis and arranging (I chose the Breval Rondo for my first analysis homework). This is going to be a tough course; it's far more challenging than I'm used to, with lots of homework.

The ads for "The Soloist" movie have started showing up on TV. I'm hoping it measures up to the book.

Oh, I almost forgot. Check out this link ... It came to me via 'Google Alert' the other day. Other than the english text of the entry, everything else is in chinese (I think). The narrator reports starting the cello "6 years ago", studying under Wendell Margrave, a cellist who was rather prominent in Washington D.C. in the 1960s and 1970s, but died in 1985... I can't tell whether this is a short-story, a movie review, a personal and fanciful blog entry, or what, but it's quite profound in any case. Consider just this excerpt:

Surely the most abominable recognition of middle life is that we are
past changing. Oh, we switch salad(沙拉) dressings and mutual funds but
we don't change. We do what we can already do. The cello was something
I demonstrably(确然) couldn't do. Yet each Tuesday I could not do it
slightly less.

Nice, huh?

Her approach is very Suzuki but it works. That's why they insist you listen to the CDs that go with the book. Once it's in your head the rest is easier. Enjoy!
Sounds like me. :) I hope.
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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Another burp

This afternoon, while heading home from visiting my brother, we saw this ash-cloud rising above the western horizon and slowly drifting to the northeast, towards Anchorage. This particular eruption occurred at 3:30, sending a plume to 35,000 feet.

These shots were taken by my cellphone as we were heading west into Soldotna and then one in town. The volcano itself is hidden in the haze just to the left of the base of the ash-cloud.

Yes, we are hearing and reading about the eruptions but not getting any pictures.
Oh my! I heard about this yesterday. Stay safe!
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Friday, March 27, 2009



Several more eruptions over the last few days (one just a few hours ago). The ash from most of these have been dispersed by the prevailing winds to the northwest, away from any populated area. But the ash from one large eruption Thursday morning was carried southeast to Homer, which forced me to cancel my cello lesson there.

Although we have been under a constant alert, we weren't supposed to get any ash-fall here, so far. But Thursday afternoon, while the sun was shining and the sky was clear, we noticed a fine gray layer starting to buildup on the cars. We couldn't see any ash as it was falling, nor were there any visible clouds. Strange. Anyway, the winds overnight blew most of it off.

Not Pompeii, yet!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Redoubt rumbles, turtles tremble

Redoubt rumbles, turtles tremble

We're waiting it out, while we're hoping the winds won't turn and dump ash all over us. The higher level winds are now blowing to the east - towards us. The lower winds are still blowing to the north and west. After Sunday night's small eruptions, there were two minor "explosions" today, but no ash cloud was detected this time.

We've had to deal with ash-falls several times in our 34 years here in Alaska. Nothing close to the mess they had in central Washington after Mt. St. Helens blew up in 1980. Still, enough to make us miserable for a few days or weeks each time. Our second winter in Alaska brought 1/2" of ash after an eruption of Mt. Augustine to the southwest of us. The world turned from pure white to dark gray and the dust blew around on the roads for several days before a fresh snowfall covered everything up, for a time. But after the snow melted in April, the ash was once again in our hair, our throats, our teeth, our eyes, and of course our air-filters. Although our houses are sealed fairly well to keep out the cold, the dust still found its way inside, coating everything.

Augustine erupted ten years later, again in the winter, but that ash-fall was pretty light. Then, Redoubt Volcano erupted in 1989, covering the area just to the north of us (where I was working at the time) with a relatively heavy dose of ash, but we only got dusted here at home. The summer rains cleaned it all up fairly quickly. Mt. Spurr had a few minor eruptions in 1992 just as the snow-melt was flowing into the gutters and ditches, so most of that minor ash-fall was quickly washed away. Since then we've been lucky.

Now, I am worried our luck is about to run out.

Z got his driver's license this past Monday. We had more than 50 hours of one-on-one lessons over the past 9 months, driving on all the worst possible road conditions - from dusty and muddy gravel roads to patchy ice, wet ice, deep snow, slush. Then, he attended a driving school to learn all the finer points. I think he'll be a pretty good driver.

This is hard for me, because this is such a big transition in our lives. He's already driving to school and even went to the library after school, today. Who needs parents anymore? Fortunately he's a good kid, and his excellent grades (and that driving course) helped reduce insurance costs, a lot. Before we know it he'll be off to college...

Nothing like having children to make us aware of the passage of time.

Hope the volcano calms down.
I posted a good comment and then *poof* Did it show up on your end?


PS: ha, ha. word verification is "downbra"
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Sunday, March 22, 2009


Why I'm not posting much anymore

I've only posted a few times this last month. I can't claim not to have the time. I guess maybe I've just run out of things to say.

Several times, I've opened GoogleDocs and sat here looking at the blank screen; then after a time I close the window without writing anything. A few times I have written down a sentence or two. But whatever inspiration that got me started evaporates, leaving me empty; and I end up exiting without saving it.

Some of this may have to do with my awareness that one or two people actually do read this. While that initially was good for the ego, at the same time it has become a little intimidating. Rather than write what's going on in my head, I end up worrying about what you few readers might think about what I've said, and then I start censoring myself. I obsess about not offending people, or worse, simply boring them. I've ended up pulling my punches, leaving out any strongly-held feelings, avoiding controversy.

I started writing this blog to document my experiences as I learned to play the cello. At first there were a lot of wide-eyed impressions to record as I struggled with each new technique and surprised myself with new and better sounds. Each lesson was a fountain of topics to report on as I tried to dissect all the minute adjustments and patterns I was trying to learn. But gradually my lessons and my practices became less eventful and more routine. There are only so many ways I can write about practicing the same technique or passage over and over and over and over until at some point I finally get it. Sure, every time that I realize I've finally gotten there is a victory; I guess I've run out of adjectives to describe them.

There's a bigger issue, too. I've been feeling as if I've run into a wall; that I'm not ever going to be even competent at this. I am rarely satisfied with my playing, and am constantly frustrated at not feeling able to improve. When I sight-read a new piece, I fret so much about intonation and fingering that I'm not able to think about the rhythms and timing. After I've worked out the fingerings, I am eventually able to start trying to concentrate on rhythms. Rhythms, aargh...

Nevertheless, I continue plugging away at my two-hour a day practices. I do see progress as I move through the etudes, but seldom in the Suzuki pieces - where improvement is so agonizingly slow. Today, I did realize I had finally made a significant step-change on that eighth-note run up the A-string (A-B-C#-D#-E) and back down the D-string (B-G#-E) in "La Cinquantaine"; my last major stumbling block on that piece. This week I returned again to the Boccherini "Minuet". There still plenty of room for improvement, but it does seem a lot easier to come back to than I thought it would be. I am really struggling with the Mooney "Double Stops" book, but I still work on it daily.

I recently read an article by Alex Kelly in the December issue of "Strings" about harmonics ("Harmonic Convergence", page 30). I started spending a few minutes at the beginning of my daily warmup finding the harmonics on each string and playing them "meditatively". That's as far as I've gotten with Kelly's method, so far; but it makes so much sense. I think these basic harmonic points (1/2, then 1/3, 1/4, and eventually 2/3 and 3/4) should be taught very early.

I ran into a wall with my play when I was a junior in college...I just hated everything about it...and, hate to say it, those feelings stuck around for about two years, at which point, I finally got out of the funk. Don't take this the wrong way...but perhaps you should consider switching to a new teacher...there is probably nothing wrong at all with your current one, but it can be a good idea to just to get a new perspective and new ideas...every person has a different approach, and many of them are very good! it can be radically different even if they are both suzuki teachers. or try going back and forth week to week with two different teachers...

as for the nothing to write issue...I face(ed) that problem as well, and lately i have been kind of using the blog as a means to get myself to do things to write about...I know, its kind of lame to plan my life around my blog...but it does get me to do different things!!
I've run into too many walls to count since I've started the cello. I switched teachers (on my 6th teacher!!) and have taken many breaks. I think it's natural. Switching teachers does help with inspiration although I was switching because I wasn't getting the kind of instruction I wanted. Sometimes switching pieces helps too. The last wall I hit was about a year and a half ago and I remedied that by taking a 4 month break from lessons. I continued to practice and play in my quartet but the stress of needing to show improvement after each week's lesson was gone. And what happened? I improved when I went back to lessons! Or at least I felt like I did.

One other thing: I used to say to my teacher, "The more I practice..the worse I sound". And he replied..."Are you getting worse or is your ear getting better?" Since then, I've kept that in mind and it has helped me a lot.
Not sure how useful this will be, because you're quite far in advance of me (so it may be old hat for you), but I managed to get through my last slow period by rearranging my practising time, switching from an hour of playing something set by my teacher to spending 20 mins on a scale, 20 mins on a study, and 20 mins on something easy that I wanted to learn anyway. The latter adds a bit of fun, and is great for my sight reading because I never spend more than a week on any piece I play that way.

So, for example, last night I did E-flat major for 20 minutes, a thing called "Cantilena" from my method book for another 20, and then "Danny Boy" for another 20. (The latter has been my "me time" piece for just under a week, for the obvious reason :-)

Putting aside some time to really work on stuff that wasn't set by my teacher really worked for me. And I've been amazed at how hypnotic playing scales can be -- it's sometimes hard to force myself to stop and switch to the study...

Another thing you might find interesting, if you haven't read it already, is a book called "The Art of Practicing" by Madeline Bruser. I've been reading it recently, and while it's a bit more "new-agey" than I would normally like, it's got some ideas I found quite inspirational.
Personally, I find the pressure of a performance kicks me out of apathy. Just blog for yourself. If others enjoy your thoughts, fine. If they don't, why care. They can go elsewhere.
Hey--Don't quit! I've been slogging away for 1 1/2 years on the Suzuki and the Francis Grant series. I came to terms with the fact that I probably would never be good enough to do any real demanding works. I do have two friends (piano and cello) who like to get together and make music. We're all very unjudgemental, and the sheer joy of playing hymns, folk songs, and easy classics is worth all the work. Keep at it! love your blog; it inspires me.
Bill Supon
I agree with the others. Try not to be too discouraged, recognizing that cello playing, like all things in life, has cycles. Put your head down and enjoy wallowing in the downerness of it all.

I know what you mean about the blogging thing, though. It would be so much easier if no one read what we wrote - but then we'd miss out on the comment crack!
Every once in a while I stop blogging for weeks or months at a time. I just lose interest but I always get back to it and enjoy it. It's a creative process that always beckons me back. Relax in your departure from it, same regarding cello. I find that that a mogul in playing sometimes drives me away form the instrument but I get back to it knowing that practice, frustrating as it can be, always leads me over the mountain. Too, drop back and play easy stuff and remember how good you sound, recall how how it was at the start...it will all take you forward with a smile.

As for blogging talk about anything, it's all interesting, gee, after all, you live in Alaska!
I am letting my punchier (possible offensive) side fly a little more these days, and people are into it! I say go! Go! You'll always have the Cellomania-loyal to be on your side anyways.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009


Next Step

 As of today (lesson #67) I've finally begun working on the next piece in Suzuki 4!

The "Rondo Grazioso" of the Breval Sonata...
I didn't realize they still had the second movement of Brevel in the suzuki books...I haven't heard anybody play it in ages!
I like the second movement, but I like the Marcello more. I was just thinking I might go back and work on that. I abandoned Suzuki a while back, but it is hard to get it completely out of your system. :-)
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Monday, March 09, 2009


Left Hand - Right Hand

I just finished reading José Saramago's "Death With Interruptions". This book came to my attention several months ago since one of the characters is a cellist. Saramago, a Noble prize-winning author from Portugal, has written a challenging book, both in context and format. It took a while to get used to his ironic style, as well as the long run-on sentences that sometimes go on for pages and his numerous digressions (some of them seemed to take pages to get through as well).

As the book begins, at midnight on New Year's eve, all deaths cease in the (unnamed) country of 10 million people. The first part of the story deals with the social/political consequences of that event. Eventually the story turns to death, herself, and her attempts to "collect" a cellist. [No more spoilers; read the book.]

Saramago presents the musical aspects of the cellist quite engagingly, but he makes one statement that got my attention and caused me to think about our craft. On page 192 of the Margaret Jull Costa translation: "She admires the cellist's strong fingers, she guesses the tips of the fingers on the left hand must have gradually grown harder [referring here to an earlier comment about death's own fingers just being bones], perhaps even slightly calloused, life can be unfair in this and other ways, the left hand is a case in point, for even though it does all the hard work on the cello, it receives far less applause from the audience than the right hand."

I used to think that too, when I first started learning the cello. So much effort was needed to teach my left-hand fingers where to intonate each note, then how to move fluidly between the strings, and later to move up and down the strings. Eventually they had to learn various refinements such as trills and vibrato and double-stops. No doubt the left-hand fingers have a lot to do.

But now I disagree with Saramago. I've realized that the right hand has just as much or more work to do in controlling the bow. Not the least of which is simply producing each note cleanly, then being able to play them legato, stacatto, tenuto, spicatto, tremelo, pizzicato, etc., and of course slurred. Learning how to hold the bow, how to use the fingers, wrist, arm and shoulder to control the bow, how to play loud, soft, fast, slow, long, short, and so on. Clearly both hands have a lot of hard work to do.

Of course the real learning challenge is within our nervous systems as a whole as we must integrate all these actions with all of the feedback coming in from the ears, eyes and tactical sources.

"Death With Interruptions" is not an easy read, nor did I find it to be all that satisfying as a novel; yet at the end, I am glad I read it.

As a beginner I find them both utterly essential each in their own way but I have to say it's the bow hand that gets most of my attention when veiwing musicians play.
I see you read The Soloist, how was it, I nearly bought in recently but it seemed too sad. And Shantaram, yes, indeed, great read.
I've read enough quiffy reviews of "Death with Interruptions" that I haven't been driven to read it yet, but I have read "Blindness," the book for which he won the Nobel prize. A very powerful book. So powerful that there is no way I am going to see the movie - some things are better left in imagination.
I read "The Soloist" last summer. It is quite an inspirational story. Although the book is presented as a narrative of the positive changes that occur in the life of the musician in question, on a second level it is also a story about the personal growth of the author himself.

Well worth the read.
I am staggering through DWI (haha sounds like something else to stagger through) and it is a hard read. I have to say that I am insufferable in that way; whenever Data played his violin on Star Trek I had to avert my eyes, same with Jeremy Brett as the best Sherlock Holmes ever. Saramago's characterizations of the cello make me cringe in the same way. Must be the same for pilots who read my musings, I guess!
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Sunday, March 01, 2009



Wa-a-a-ay back when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I remember attending a school assembly featuring a local string quartet. They briefly described their instruments and gave a few examples of some of the blended sounds. Then they gave a short concert of various styles of music. I was captivated and went up afterward to look more closely at the instruments. When I got home I eagerly described all the instruments in great detail to my parents. They shrugged me off with a comment that I should learn the piano if I wanted to play music - and pointed at the three or four random lesson books in the piano bench (they didn't offer to provide piano lessons). The next year we went on a school trip to a concert (Peter and the Wolf) at the local university school of music. That was my total exposure to "live" classical music in my early school years. My parents did have a sizable collection of classical LPs, which I occasionally listened to in the dining room after school.

At open house in 7th grade, my general music teacher suggested to my parents that I ought to play some sort of instrument the next year in 8th grade band. They reluctantly agreed to rent a clarinet for a year but did not want to include any sort of lessons - I would have to pick up whatever I could through band class. I was excited, but wary. Band class was useful for learning the basics, but there was never much individual attention. The only external motivation to learn was so I could move up from 10th chair clarinet. My parents never pushed me to practice nor encouraged me in any way. At the end of the school-year I got as far as 7th chair; and I dropped out and returned the clarinet to the rental shop. I did learn a lot about the fundamentals of music theory and did learn to read treble clef.

Fast forward to this past Friday.

Cellocracy was invited to give a presentation at a local elementary school. We were asked to briefly describe how we make music using strings and then play a 20-minute set. To keep it informal, they set us up in the library and asked us to play two sets - one for the lower grades and a second for the uppers. In all, we played for about 150 students.

It went well (I surprised myself with some of my minor mistakes - but I did finally play Ash Grove flawlessly, both times). It was fun. The kids were so appreciative and so well-behaved. Several of them came up and thanked us afterward.

Is there any chance we inspired at least one of those eager kids to go home and talk to their parents about the cello?

This is what I do with my quartet all the time...the Arkansas Symphony sends us out to schools all over the state to do presentations for the kids...its always interesting to see how they take it. Sometimes they are so excited and ask tons of questions, but other times they seem to have no interest and don't pay attention at all. I wish that schools had a better music curriculum, there is no reason why classical music basics shouldn't be included along with all of the rest of the things the kids learn. Perhaps there would be more appreciation for the art form. We can all do our best to give great presentations and hopefully convert a few kinds over to liking classical music someday, but the we can only do so much, right?
I'm sure there was at least one. Between the undiluted celloey goodness (who needs those other instruments?) and the pleasure I am sure you were all projecting, who could leave that experience untouched?

It's very cool to be part of the long chain of musicians through time.
When I was in the 4th grade and the opportunity to learn an instrument was presented, my parents were supportive and that's when I started playing 'cello. It took you a bit longer but you're there now, and I'm sure that Cellocracy inspires as it goes. It's your enthusiasm and delight in playing that sells the idea to kids. That and a willingness for a bit of show and tell. It sounds like a great show you gave!
I love this story--it must have felt great, playing those concerts!

It is too bad your parents were not more supportive. On the other hand, I had lots of exposure to music when I was little, including supportive schools and parents, and piano, and flute lessons, but it still took me until I was well into adulthood to find the cello.
I've wondered why my parents were totally not supportive of our musical aspirations. My mother was a good pianist and loved to sing in the choir; and my father also could play the piano - although he seldom did (I did inherit his complete lack of singing ability).

Who knows, maybe their parents forced them to practice when they were children, and consequently they bent over backwards to avoid applying any pressure whatsoever?

I did nothing to encourage my two older sons, and they never became involved in music. On the other hand, I did actively encourage [prod] my youngest son to try something, leading him to take up the guitar, which he studies avidly.

I just started to learn to play the cello about a month ago; I am 47 years old. I have no other musical background at all, although I've wanted to play the cello since I was ten years old (my parents were not in favor, however) so this is a new adventure.

I just wanted to let you know that I'm enjoying your blog. Thank you.
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