Friday, May 29, 2009



Chris made an interesting observation in his comment to my post yesterday regarding musicality. He noted that I haven't really written a lot about "musicality and the feel of a piece".

My first reaction was to say that it's all about musicality, but then deep down, I realized that he's right. I do shy away from this subject. I think I am probably afraid of this subject, although I'm not really sure I understand why...

From the first day I've focused all my attention on the technical aspects of learning the cello, fretting over intonation [first and foremost; and still... (: ], then stressing over shifting, and of course bow control, and so on. Each issue has demanded so much repetitive effort - practicing over and over and over, to the point that I lose sight(?) of the music itself, and I no longer really see(?) it as a piece of music. Instead it becomes a series of individual technical challenges - this shift, that string change, this hooked bowing, that rhythmic segment, etc. So, success comes when I finally do succeed in playing an entire piece without stumbling over any of these issues. Then, immediately behind each "success" the next piece always waits to be tackled.

I guess I've assumed that I won't really be able to play a piece with a whole lot of feeling or quality until I've attained all those skills and a lot more experience. This is why I focus on all those technical things; the musicality will come with time.

Back when I was still working in Suzuki Book 2, I'd play all the older pieces every day, gradually perfecting them as I honed whatever skill sets were presented by them. Then after I moved into Book 3, the daily load became too much and I had to back away from playing every piece every day. For a while I tried to play everything at least every other day, alternating odd- and even-numbered pieces. But after a while I gradually let them all slide, and put all my attention on the current lessons, the current etudes, etc.

Late last year when I ground to a halt trying to master that first piece in Book 4, I found myself wanting to feel as if I could succeed somewhere (at least). I started going back into my previous lesson books to take up a handful of the older pieces with an eye (ear?) on bringing them up to performance quality. Not surprisingly a certain amount of rust had accumulated in my brain, and I had to start out re-learning whatever tricky passages that I'd previously struggled with. It didn't take that long to bring them back up speed (so to speak) and then I was able to start working on tempo, fine-tuning rhythms, and quality.

But, do I feel as if I'm achieving any sort of "musicality"? No, not really, not yet...

On the other hand, in both orchestra and Cellocracy, musicality is obviously a top priority, since we'll be performing for others, including my partners in both groups. Since these pieces aren't supposed to be technical learning exercises, I can usually quickly solve the fingering, shifts, and bowing requirements, and I am able to immediately focus on fitting in with the other players and with the conductor. Feedback is usually instantaneous (no, not dirty looks, but my own ears telling me I'm on or off as we're playing).

OTOH, it's usually pretty obvious when we've got one right. That's such a fine feeling!

At a recent orchestra rehearsal I was the only cello present (usually there are at least 2, and often 3). I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was easily able to hold up my side of the music throughout and the pieces sounded pretty good.

I guess I haven't really delved into my deep misgivings about my inability to ever be musical; maybe another time...

I'm working with a number of students at various levels on just this thing. Remember when you had the first glimpse of better bow technique? Didn't it feel simpler, more natural that what you had been doing prior to then? The same is true of emoting and playing "musically". It's already there, but you have to allow yourself to play that way.

I rarely support the silly adage that kids have it easier than adults in the learning process. One thing that young enthusiastic kids get (that the ones who are being forced to play do NOT) is uninhibitedly over dramatic. My first string recital was on violin, and even though we were playing Hot Cross Buns, I was up there like frickin' Gil Shaham. Furrowed brow, moving, breathing, generally freaking out. I was excited!

There is much to be said about looking the part. I find that unlocking your butt from the chair can also disable the barrier between technician and artist. Rock from one side to the other. Shift your weight. Move with the bow. Breathe with the bow. Pick a note and play it 700 times if you need to, but see if you can make it sad. Or optimistic. Or lonely, cloying, etc.

It's there. You do not have to learn how to feel, and you don't even really have to learn how to telegraph that onto the cello. Where words fail, technique and patience and maybe a little vulnerability excel.

You wouldn't have any of those handy, would you?

I won't repeat on Emily, because I pretty much agree with everything she say - Its like growing up in music. The difference between being a technician and focusing on "how" as apposed to being at a point where the technique is more or less in your hands, blood, body and you can focus on the music. A bit like the difference between Men and Boys..
Just wanted to say I came here again looking for some summer-practicing inspiration, and I enjoyed your discussion here. I can relate completely to working so hard on one sequential piece of music after another that it becomes just a set of challenges -- even when they are enjoyable and fruitful I sometimes forget that it's music, because I'm too caught up dealing with my technical weaknesses, shifting, what is my bow angle, trying to make corrections etc. to spend much time on the overall musicality/interpretation. There are always glimmers of musicality, of course, but ... well, you said it all better. And as for Emily's comment: it's true, when I let myself rock back and forth (in the privacy of my home) and enjoy dynamics, for example, I do sometimes hit the musical sweet spot and forget about my failings -- briefly.
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Thursday, May 28, 2009


muddling along

For some reason I find myself unable to start into my lesson work until I've spent at least 20 to 30 minutes playing through all the scales - all those I've learned so far - in all the possible combinations of strings and positions. Now that I've begun working on the third octave of the D-Major scale on the a-string, I added the F-Major scale on the c-string, C-Major on the g-string, and G-Major on the d-string. I've tried skipping the scales and jumping right into my double stops or position etudes, but something compels me to go back and do all those scales nonetheless.

After a month of playing the Marcelo Sonata Allegro, pizzicato (with the metronome, always with the metronome...), I started bowing it yesterday and this morning I was able to play it through without any errors! Now to increase the tempo...

I had to go back and spend several days re-working a couple passages in the Breval Sonata Rondo, particularly where those Bbs show up; but today I was finally able to increase the tempo another notch.

Lessons resume in July; I'm hoping to be ready to demonstrate these two pieces to my teacher, and that I will have made some progress on the first part of the Marcelo.

Hi Guanaco,

Quick question, I've been reading your blog quite a while now, and really enjoy it. One of the things that I struggle with as a late learner, and have to really work on, is musicality and the feel of a piece. I don't see you mention that much, do you spend much time on that?
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Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Classical Jam

A few months after I began attempting to play the cello, I mentioned my folly to a friend who has played banjo for many years. Immediately he suggested I sit in at their weekly bluegrass jam sessions. Since I was really struggling at that time just to play "Go Tell Aunt Rhody", I quickly laughed off the idea... "Maybe someday," I said. As my rate of progress slowed and I found myself constantly struggling just to meet my lesson goals, I began to understand that for me at least, it will be a long haul before I'd ever be ready to play any sort of cello-improv.

Last fall I started taking a music theory class from our local musician extraordinaire, Maria Alison, along with a small group from our orchestra and a handful of other musicians in the area - a total of 16 students, at first. The eight-week course covered the standard theory curriculum, finishing up as we reached 7th chords. Although the course required a LOT of homework (I was putting in as many as four hours for each 1-1/2 hour class), the classroom sessions were challenging but informative, and really quite fun. I got a lot out of the class, but I wanted to go further.

In March we began Level 2 Music Theory with about half of the original group. We wanted to focus on harmonization and arranging. This time, Maria asked us to bring along our instruments; these class sessions were going to be hands-on. Our group included two cellos, several violins, a French horn, a guitar, and Maria on the piano and viola. Soon we were taking simple melodies and writing our own four-part arrangements, transposing parts for the French horn, writing out the viola part in alto clef, and so on.

Each week, we'd play out our homework assignments using whatever instruments were present that evening. It's always a challenge for me to play anything new without spending a little time on my own figuring out the rhythms and fingerings (sight-reading is not my strong suit). Usually the cello parts in these arrangements were not that challenging (except when the arrangements were done by the cellists), and after a few weeks I was pretty comfortable jumping right in. After each piece, we'd go over what worked and what didn't. This hands-on approach turned out to be a pretty good way to learn about leading voices, doubling the roots, chord progressions in major and minor keys, and so on. And it was so interesting... and always fun. Hearing a four-part arrangement for two violins, a cello and a french horn sure opened my eyes to new blends of sound. Maria invited a flautist to come in for one session and we got to hear a whole new blend.

For our final class of the season, we met at the home of one of us students. It turned into a pot-luck party [I brought some sinfully yummy coconut / chocolate / nut bars - that I actually made myself (!) using a recipe from a can of condensed milk]. Everyone showed up, including the guest flautist and a few other guests.

After eating most of the food, we set up a handful of music stands and started passing around copies of various arrangements. We started with an interesting Bach Minuet arranged for violin, viola, cello and guitar. Then someone passed out a "composition in progress" for two violins, viola, and two cellos, that we all played through several times until we got it right. I passed out copies of two hymns that I'd written out for four parts (one of these included a French horn part), and we played these for a while. Finally we turned to a Bartok melody, "Sorrow", that we had each taken a stab at arranging several weeks ago and had found to be quite fascinating. Although we did not all play off the same arrangement, each version was derived from the same melodic line, allowing us to blend guitar, several violins, the viola, the flute and the two cellos all together into a harmonious whole. Each time we played it, it sounded better and better (especially after a certain cellist - ahem - finally realized that that A# was the same as Bb).

What an entertaining way to finish this class! None of us had any idea how this class would eventually turn out, but we all expressed a great desire to resume this interesting experiment in the fall.

Gee, I wish my Music Theory class had done hands-on when we had harmonization. Sounds like you guys had lots of fun.
That is what it's all about! Milestones like this and tough classes are some of the most efficient means I know of to show us that anything is possible. Congrats on the growth.

And I contest A#. That note doesn't really exist.
Wow, terrific! That theory thing will make so much more of those cellos parts make sense.

Seems to me a newbee beginner, or someone contemplating beginning, should read your blog from beginning to end to see how it's done right, and what low points and high points to expect.
This newbee beginner has done just that, and it's been useful and enlightening.

This sounds like an amazing class.
My theory is woefully in need of upgrading...I so want to be able to improvise but I haven't enough depth of understanding of chords etc.
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Saturday, May 16, 2009


LEGO Cello

Nathan Sawaya constructs a full-size cello using LEGOs:

More pictures here.

Pretty darn cool... Great find!
His bow technique is better than some of my more stubborn students..
Cute - and amazing!
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Friday, May 15, 2009


Another Cello-Novel

"The Rose Variations," by Marisha Chamberlain, is the story of a young cellist/composer who arrives in St. Paul, Minnesota in the mid-70s to take up a position in a college music department. We follow 'Rose' from lover to lover as she "comes of age" while dealing with the all-too-predictable challenges of being a novice female composer in a rarefied world dominated by males. Don't expect to find any stirring descriptions of her passion or devotion to those deep rich tones she supposedly draws from her cello. For all that it mattered to the plot, Rose could just as easily have played the clarinet or trombone.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be to realistically portray the inner struggles faced by any musician looking for a break. Still, I wish we could have seen a little more of that side of Rose.

As a cellist wannabe, I have sought out and read just about anything that involves cellists (including more than 185 [active] blogs, a bunch of Google news alerts, and the like). So, even if I'd known beforehand how small a role the cello actually plays in this book, I guess I probably would have still gone ahead and read it anyway.

On another front, we're all hopeful that these last three glorious weeks of warm sunny weather are a sign that we can expect a great summer, for a change...

Thanks for your review. I have had this book sitting on my desk for at least a month, as I, too, collect cello books, or books is which cello somehow plays a role. I am sorry to learn the cello does not play a great role, but I'm going to read it anyway too. :-)
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