Thursday, April 30, 2009


Lesson hiatus

Today's lesson (#70) was our last for two months while my teacher takes a summer break - too bad for all of the halibut and salmon in Kachemak Bay...

I've made a lot of progress with the Breval Sonata - Rondo. Since last lesson I've increased the tempo several "notches", and we played it today at my current pace; then we reviewed a few minor issues. I've only got a handful of measures left to sort out. Then all that's left is continuing to increase the tempo. My teacher commented that one of her primary goals is to teach her students how to learn on their own... and it appears she has [finally] succeeded in my case.

We set-up a two-month practice plan:
- Start studying the next piece in 'Suzuki 4', the Marcello Sonata[!] (it's important to apply my recent "revelation" about how to learn new pieces - take it slow and steady without the bow, working a few measures at a time, until I have the rhythms and fingerings all sorted out);
- Begin listening to the Bach Minuet in G on the Suzuki CD (as well as some of the solo recordings);
- Start familiarizing myself with Tenor Clef... Tchaikovsky's Chanson Triste is just around the corner;
- I just began working on the fourth-position etudes in the 'Percy Such Position Studies' book, and should press on;
- Mooney's 'Double Stops' - um, well, keep at it; and for filler
- Continue optimizing various 'Suzuki Book 3' pieces.

This is going to keep me busy.

Some local news of interest this week; Zuill Bailey will take over as director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival when founder Paul Rosenthal "retires" in 2010 2012. This summer's festival is spread out over three weeks in June, and Bailey will be there for most of it, as will Armen Ksajikian. Unfortunately the town of Sitka is really quite far away and not accessible by road - so I won't be able to attend. However, each winter Rosenthal takes the show on the road, visiting several communities throughout Alaska - including Soldotna. We're all hoping Zuill will continue that tradition.

We found out this week that our own local summer music festival (the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Summer Music Festival) will include having our string orchestra and Cellocracy play two noon-time concerts this year.

My newly rebridged cello is sounding great!

Mt. Redoubt has quieted down lately. I didn't see any plume for the first time in months as I drove to my lesson in Homer today. Maybe that's all over... till the next time, anyway.

I haven't written a lot about my music theory classes. We're just about finished with our second round. What a remarkable experience! For the past several weeks, we've been arranging assorted melodies to be played by string quartets, and then we've been playing them together in class - fortunately we have two violins, a viola and two cellos to make this work. On a few occasions other instruments, including a flute, a french horn, and a guitar, have sat in with us to produce some interesting music. Not only are we learning about music, we're also playing what we're learning. I'm hoping we'll be able to restart this again in the fall.

I love seeing the Festival mentioned in blogs! Thank you! 'Just wanted you to know that Paul Rosenthal does not retire until 2012 (his 70th Birthday...) & we have every intention of keeping our tradition of our touring concerts! To keep track of what we are doing, please subscribe to our blog:

Thanks for the correct date. I'm really happy to hear there are no plans to stop the touring. I'm a huge fan of these and of Paul, himself, and his friends.
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Thursday, April 23, 2009


Going Green

Our new organic lawnmower:

Looks self-propelled. Very convenient!
It also does the fertilizing and watering...
Haha, the slow way but as long as you don't have to do it ...
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When I grow up

When I grow up I want to be a Mythbuster.

me too!
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Saturday, April 18, 2009



"Not bad for a beginner, " he commented with a smile after hearing my tale of woe and looking through the f-hole, "you got the soundpost almost exactly right." Nevertheless, my luthier quickly unwound the strings and removed the bridge, and with his special soundpost tool he lifted out the errant soundpost. Upon a detailed inspection of the soundpost itself and the dimples inside the box, it appears I had slightly mis-aligned the bevel angles with the shape of the box. That might explain the pinched sound I'd recently been hearing on the upper strings.

Overall, the cello is in excellent condition - no cracks, no open seams, no apparent physical problems. The scoop on the fingerboard is OK... a little too far up on the neck near the nut. This won't be a problem until I start playing more in the upper ranges. He commented that I should plan to have it replaned, eventually.

The bridge, however, was warped and quite flexible - especially at the top. This made it behave like a spring, absorbing part of the sound that ought to be transferred into the cello. I asked him to replace it with a spare bridge that came with my new cello. He quickly measured it, cut it to size, planed it, and fit it into place. He reset the soundpost just a little closer to the fingerboard and slightly further inboard, with its bevels properly aligned.

Upon restringing and retuning, the cello played well and sounded nice - in his shop. I haven't tried it out at home, yet. He commented I might find it a bit bright in the upper strings; if so, I could consider alternative strings. The curve of the new bridge is a little different - flatter, better matching the curve of the fingerboard. I might have to get used to bowing the G and C strings a little more carefully.

It was an interesting visit. I got to try out a cello he recently completed (#52), which cost about twice what I paid for mine - really nice; a deep resonance. He also showed me his latest cello under construction (#53), with a one-piece poplar back.

The rest of our first trip to the big city in more than six months was quite interesting (and far more expensive than the luthier). We saw "Spamalot" with John O'Hurley. Z and I have long been fans of Monty Python's Holy Grail. Z can quote entire scenes. Shopping at all the big stores took up the rest of our time and money.

I'll report tomorrow how my revitalized cello plays at home.

I'm a little afraid of this course I'm doing this summer. My aim is to be able to do some good rehairs, but I have this little dream of a shop in the garage and the smell of wood glue. We shall see. Your adventures have me inspired.

hee hee. word verification is "capooli" .
My luthier works out of a small shop in his basement, complete with wood shavings, tools, and parts of several instruments under construction - including a corner devoted to bow rehairing.

My rebridged cello sounds wonderful, with more power and projection. I suspect I'll be replacing my bridge much more frequently than before.
What big city are you talking about?? and who is the cello maker?
In southcentral Alaska the only accessible city is Anchorage... quite small compared to a metropolis like Seattle, but it's all we've got. The cello-maker is John Osnes.
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Friday, April 03, 2009


A fool for a customer

A musician (wannabe) who acts as his own luthier has a fool for a customer.

My A-string has been sounding "pinched" lately and I noticed the string was practically buried in the parchment tab on the bridge. So, in a classic example of picking the worst possible time to do something about it, I decided to replace the parchment tab before our spring recital tomorrow [my orchestra and Cellocracy will be playing].

Replacing the tab is not really a complicated task, I've done it before:
So, after I cut off the old parchment I noticed the bridge was leaning slightly toward the tailpiece. I've realigned my bridge several times, but always with all four strings holding it in place. This procedure is also fairly simple, although a little more risky. From the bottom of the cello facing the tailpiece side of the bridge, I grasp the bridge with one hand on either side, bracing the feet with my pinkies and ring fingers at the base on the fingerboard side. Then I use my thumbs on the tailpiece side to gently push the top towards the fingerboard until it's perpendicular.

Without the downward pressure of the A-string, I apparently braced with a little too much force and pulled the base of the bridge back toward me: suddenly everything collapsed with a loud bang - followed by the sound of the soundpost gently rolling back and forth inside the cello case....... :(

Most fortunately there was no physical damage. This Jay-Haide cello is already antiqued (a l'ancienne) with lots of nicks and scratches, so one or two extra nicks wouldn't even be noticeable. The bridge was OK, the carbon-fiber tailpiece was OK (and the fine tuners didn't gouge the face of the cello), the strings were OK but slack. The big problem was the soundpost. What to do?

I'm no luthier, nor do I have one of those special soundpost setting tools; even if I did, I had no idea where exactly the soundpost was supposed to sit. I knew that in general it should stand somewhere near the A-D foot of the bridge. There was no mark on the inside of the case to show where the soundpost had previously been. It had never been adjusted since I bought the cello just over 3 years ago.

The nearest luthiers (there are two) are in Anchorage, 160 miles away. Even if I had scrambled everything together, by the time I got there, they'd would have closed for the weekend. I was on my own; it would be up to me to make this cello playable in time for tomorrow's recital. In my shop I found a pair of laboratory tongs, that looked to be the right size and shape to fit through the f-hole, grab onto the post and maybe manipulate it into place. But where to set it?

"Tipbook: Cello" was no help - all it said was that this had to be done by a skilled luthier (thanks, guys, I think I want my money back). "Comprehensive Instrument Care" was no help either. Then I remembered that unusual booklet I bought a few years ago, titled "The Health of the Violin and the Viola and the Cello: practical advice on the acquisition, maintenance, adjustment and conservation of bowed instruments" by Lucien Greilsamer. Written in French in 1910, it was translated into English by Henry Stroebel in 1991. This has a wealth of technical information and measurements about all these instruments as well as an interesting discussion about buying old instruments. Here's what Greilsamer says about the soundpost (p. 17):

The position of the post and its length play a great part in the final adjustment. The center of the post should be on a line parallel to the axis of the instrument, passing through the middle of the right foot of the bridge (on the side opposite the [bass] bar), 4 to 5 mm behind it for the violin, 5 to 5.5 mm for the viola, and 7 to 8 mm for the cello. Its length must be such that, placed perpendicular to the two tables, it will stay in this position without force.

After discussing the theoretical adjustments, he presents the following principle of adjustment:

If the post is moved toward the bridge, the higher strings gain in brilliance to the detriment of the lower, and if it is moved away, the opposite happens.

Armed with this practical information, I slipped the tongs inside, grabbed the soundpost and maneuvered it out through the larger round hole at the bottom of the f-hole. The soundpost is beveled the same direction on both ends, and it had a gouge in the face from the first luthier's soundpost setting tool. The gouge was on the shorter side of the post (as defined by the beveled ends), which made it easy to see how it was supposed to be oriented inside the box. I used a ruler to guesstimate the center-line of the bridge foot and to find the center-point for the post, 7-8 mm behind it. Then I reinserted the post into the box and managed to stand it up, oriented in the proper direction. I removed the endpin to look at the post through that hole to check if it was perpendicular. More than a few adjustments finally made it perpendicular and left it more-or-less in the proper place. And, best of all, it "stay[ed] in this position without any force".

Then I reinstalled the bridge with its new parchment tab in place, and restrung it, carefully tightened the strings in order, each one a little at a time. As I was doing this I had to readjust the bridge a few times to keep it perpendicular to the face of the cello. Finally, it was all back together. After tuning, I hesitantly tried it out...

O..K..., well it sounds a little brighter, especially the D-string. A is OK, and C and G sound just fine. I ran a few scales to make sure it was playable for tomorrow and then put it away. Now, I'm going to have to schedule a visit to one of the luthiers in Anchorage in the next few weeks to get this adjustment fine-tuned by an expert. Until then, I'll have to live with it, because there's no way I'm going to risk making any more adjustments myself.

What a relief to have it all back together so I can play it tomorrow in the recital!

I read your post with eyes wide and hand over mouth from about the second sentence. Folks who live in the middle of nowhere must be resilient. Excellent save.
I am impressed with your resourcefulness! (and love that photo) My soundpost fell a while back, and I know the sense of doom, though there are far more luthiers around here than where you are.

Thanks for the detailed account, just in case any of us need to do the same one day. :-)
Oh my! You are brave!! Very impressive.
Wow, most of us don't have laboratory tongs lying around! You're a lucky dude.
The next morning I reinspected it and discovered the soundpost was still not perpendicular, so I loosened the strings, took my tongs and tapped it at the base into a place. The top strings sound a little diminished, but the bottom strings are really vibrant. I am resisting the temptation to tinker with it any further, and I made an appointment with a luthier in Anchorage.
I know it's lame to comment on your own post (twice, even), but...

I couldn't resist tinkering with my setup again, since I have to wait another 10 days before seeing the luthier.

The upper strings were sounding fuzzy - as if they were being muffled somehow. I noticed the bridge was positioned a bit forward (toward the fingerboard) than it had been before this all started. Remembering Greilsamer's comment about moving the soundpost closer to the bridge to brighten the A & D strings; today, I again loosened the strings and moved my bridge about 2-3 mm back (toward the tailpiece and closer to the soundpost).

I could hear the improvement immediately.
Oh my goodness! A fallen bridge I can imagine correcting, but a soundpost? It's like you performed home heart surgery or something. What a miracle of resourcefulness!
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Thursday, April 02, 2009


A Most Satisfying Lesson

Finally, another lesson (#68). I'd had such a frustrating practice this morning that I briefly considered canceling the lesson. But I already had to cancel last week's lesson due to the volcano, and I felt I really needed another one.

We started right in working on my newest piece (the Breval Sonata in C Major - Rondo grazioso). I explained my new approach - slow and deliberate from the start using the metronome; learning rhythms first.

So we started playing it... [now, here's where I usually complain about how badly I flubbed it - especially on the first run-through. BUT NOT THIS TIME!] Sure, I had a few minor problems, but managed for the most part to keep on going. I've only worked on the first half, so we stopped there and went back to go over a few issues, but there weren't that many, for a change. Then we started sight reading through the second half, and I managed quite well there too. Now, I think I'm ready to start working on it.

Finally, I talked about how those darn Mooney "Double Stop" pieces intimidate me. She had several suggestions that I'm looking forward to trying out, tomorrow.

It is such a relief to be able to show progress after so many frustrating months being stuck on that first Breval movement!

A joy to read. Myself, my ups and downs don't go as far as yours do, I'm almost jealous.

Y'know, that Breval Sonata, although easy by professional standards, is real music and a real accomplishment.
But I do know what you mean. I'm a big one for working on the same music for months (and months), but sometimes a piece does just start sucking the life out of me, and I kick myself for having waited so long to move on.
Greetings from Atlanta! Just found your blog and I enjoy it! Started playing cello 5 years ago at the age of 50! Changed teachers last fall and am playing Moody's double stops for the first time. VERY difficult! I've played lots of music (the Breval many years ago and I loved it) but those double stops really slow me down!
Of course, I meant Mooney! It does make me moody though!
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