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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