Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Working on another piece
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:
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
Saturday, March 28, 2009
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.
Friday, March 27, 2009
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!
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
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...
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Why I'm not posting much anymore
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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!
As for blogging talk about anything, it's all interesting, gee, after all, you live in Alaska!
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Thursday, March 12, 2009
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Monday, March 09, 2009
Left Hand - Right Hand
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.
Well worth the read.
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Sunday, March 01, 2009
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?
It's very cool to be part of the long chain of musicians through time.
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.
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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