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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