Saturday, October 31, 2009



I haven't worn a Halloween costume for more than 25 years - that was for the final community Halloween carnival at our local elementary school. At that time, the school carnival was the social event of the year in our small community. Everyone joined in - many in costume - regardless of whether they had kids in the school. I wore a full-cover hazardous waste suit I had borrowed from work. [The next year "Halloween" was redefined by the new principal, who decided to host a "Harvest Festival" (no costumes allowed). That lame substitute ended several decades of school-sponsored carnivals.]

I was invited to play this year's Halloween concert with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, and costumes were "expected". At first I wasn't going to dress up, but eventually I decided to become a mummy. This was not going to be a simple task, so I consulted the internet:

First, a trip to Salvation Army for a white dress shirt and white pants.

Then I ripped two old bedsheets into 1-1/2 inch strips, and soaked them for several hours in a solution of hot water and 40 bags of black tea. The dried strips were varying shades of reddish brown off-whites, with darker edges.

After a brief sewing lesson about which buttons to push [but primarily to make sure I didn't screw up the machine] I spent the next several evenings stitching the costume together.

I ripped out the inseam of the pants to lay each leg out flat, and started sewing on each strip, beginning at the bottom and overlapping each successive layer like shingling a roof. Every few rows I left the end dangling to make it look as if the mummy's wrapping was falling apart. After the legs were done I sewed the inseams back together and finished layering the rest of the pants up to the belt.

For the shirt I cut off the cuffs and collar and then ripped open the seams of the sleeves before sewing on the layers of wrapping. After reassembling the sleeves I removed the buttons and sewed the lower two-thirds of the shirtfront closed. Then I finished sewing on the layers all the way up to the neck.

For the headpiece, I cut the bill off an old white ball cap and used a hot-glue gun to layer the strips around the hat. Three or four extra layers were hung from the back of the hat to cover the back of my head.

With the antiqued colors and dangling strips of cloth it began to look pretty good, but it seemed as if something was still missing. I also needed to figure out what to do about the wrists and neck. Then I stumbled across a bolt of gauze in the sale bin at Jo-Anns. After cutting it into strips and dying them in the tea-solution I used the hot-glue gun to tack pieces of gauze so they would stick out below random parts of the layers around the hat. I hung a three-foot loop of gauze from one side to the other and tacked pieces to the collar and cuffs. These were for wrapping loosely around my neck and ears.

Tan-colored socks and a pair of tan loafers completed the costume.

Then the makeup: I ordered a Woochie "wound" to show the mummy's face in decay. I painted the blood-red areas of the plastic wound black (since mummies don't have blood, of course). I applied woochie wounds to my cheek and chin with spirit glue. Then I painted black grease-paint makeup around my eyes and used white grease-paint to cover the rest of my face and feather the edges of the wound. And then, black lipstick.

Finally, I prepared some grey fingernail polish using some black and white polish that came with the makeup kits, because mummies' fingernails would also be decayed, right?

With two concerts scheduled (last night in Homer and this afternoon in Kenai), I had to costume up twice, taking about an hour and a half each time. But, even if I say so myself, I think the costume came out pretty good.

I'll post something about the concert itself in a day or so, after I've had some time to relax and reflect. [All in all, they both went really well. I came up with a action-list of several areas to focus on in my lessons for the next several months.]

That is an amazing costume. Did you get any cello action shots?
Wonderful costume--very creative and thorough approach! Wish I could have seen the concert!
This is scary! I wonder how you played cello with the costume.
Good to see you got a chance to, umm, unwind!
Leave it to you to do it right! :)
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Monday, October 26, 2009


Coming Soon

It really has been a BUSY month. The rehearsals are all over. The concerts are Friday and Saturday. I'm about 60% ready. I'm actually surprised I've reached that level.

We're supposed to be playing in costume. I haven't dressed for Halloween for more than 25 years, so of course I'm going all out.

I'll put up a full report, with pics, after Saturday's concert.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009


Master Class

Alexander Suleiman and Patricia Hoy gave us a fantastic concert last night. I particularly enjoyed Beethoven's Sonata #3 in A Major for Piano and Cello - the cello seems well suited for this one. I also enjoyed Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano (and particularly the "Andante"), which gives full voice to both the piano and cello.

Mr. Suleiman hails from Germany but currently lives in L.A. where he teaches at USC. He tours worldwide (primarily in developing countries) between class sessions. He was quite willing to hold a Master class today for just us four cellists (the entire cello section of our community strings orchestra), ranging in age from 10 to 58, and experience from 7 weeks to 6 years (not in that same order). We met this morning at Cello3's house along with a few family members along with two local music teachers. Alexander was very personable and easygoing with us and we were all quite soon relaxed and comfortable.

Not surprisingly I entered this with great trepidation, as I'm usually too uptight to play well in this kind of setting. I got up quite early today and spent a few hours practicing our pieces before the class, then I arrived early and we spent another hour or so rehearsing our duets together. [What is it that makes us want to play perfectly for a teacher? If we could play perfectly why would we need the teacher?]

He started out working with our youngest member and patiently and carefully brought her through a few technical issues. He was kind and supportive as she capably incorporated each suggestion. After an hour or so, he worked with her mother, who had just started learning the cello. Within a few minutes he had helped her make significant improvements in bow control and sound. Then we took a break for lunch and chatted with him about his recent tour through the mid-east and eastern Europe and about his views about music "pedagogy" - primarily the importance of matching teaching techniques to the student's particular skills and abilities rather than a "one-size-fits-all" approach. He told us about his appointment as director of the Arts Academy in Bremen, Germany to develop a program to train promising artists from developing countries.

Cello3 and I then played one of our duets, the infamous LeClerc piece (which turned out to be Le Tambourin by Jean-Phillipe Rameau, arranged for two cellos by Jean LeClerc). We'd recently spent a few of our weekly sessions working out the fingering and timing, but really didn't have it ready for any sort of performance yet. However we both like playing it and were looking forward to Alexander's input. His first comment to me was that I should try to relax my overly technical - and tense - approach and infuse some passion and feeling (how quickly he sized me up!) So he suggested we ease off on the staccato and for now the trills, and then speed it up - a lot! After several tries (along with some suggestions on fingering and shifts) we ended up playing it lightning fast - way beyond anything we'd ever considered before. I re-met my old stumble points, but mostly worked through them. Then we talked about articulation and intonation. By the end of 45 minutes it sounded quite different from where we'd started. Gone were the slow, slightly spooky, but rather plodding cadences; in their place was a light, airy "crowd-pleaser" with plenty of room for interpretation and ornamentation. We then spent worked on one of our Matz duets, which focused on technical issues.

Finally we all played one of the pieces we're preparing for the community strings orchestra part of the KPO Halloween concert. That was fun!

After four hours, we were all exhausted but feeling pretty good about the day. Alexander turned down our offers to pay for the class, suggesting we donate the "tuition" to the Performing Arts Society, which hosted their visit to our area. He and Patricia Hoy are staying over through Monday so they can play for two local schools.

Now, back to practicing for the KPO concert in two weeks...

Sounds like a really productive session!
...and really fun, too.
What a great learning experience!
Aargh, blogger ate my comment. I had a whole amusing story about that LeClerc piece. Two teachers have now hated my Halloweeny interpretation of it.
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Sunday, October 11, 2009


First rehearsal

It wasn't nearly as bad as I had dreaded. I've gotten to know many of the players over the last few years - people who in one way or another have supported and encouraged me in my own personal quest. It was gratifying to finally be able to join them (even if part of me still doesn't really think I'm ready).

It helped that I've done a lot of work on these pieces these last five weeks. Listening to those recordings repeatedly - first at slowed-tempos and then at normal speed - while following along in the score, let me get familiar with my expected role. The trombones behind me on the right sure were loud, but they did help me stay on tempo.

There were lots of places where I got completely lost, but I now know these pieces well enough to be able to find re-entry points. There were several places where I realized I would have to focus on learning just the quarter notes (particularly in the Brahms "Hungarian Dance #5") and simply let all those super-fast eighth notes go by. I also realized I ought to go ahead and start learning several parts (at least) of the Bizet "L'Arlesienne".

We rehearse again next Sunday.

and sitting in front of trumpets is even worse! Have fun!

Try playing just the first note of the eight note run or only the the down beats until you get acclimated to the speed.
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Thursday, October 08, 2009


Tormented by tempos

I am really struggling to increase tempos on the concert pieces - we have our first full rehearsal on Sunday and I am nowhere near ready. I "know" the notes for most of the pieces, but I'm still way off on tempos, way off.

I'd begun early last month learning the pieces by playing through them slowly, making small tempo changes every three or four days, and practicing at each new speed until I'd overcome all of the tricky passages. Then I ratcheted up the tempo another notch. This worked fairly well until my teacher commented to me that at this next full rehearsal we'll be playing at or near full tempo, so I should probably start jumping more than one notches each time, and that I should also start playing against the recordings that I'd downloaded.

Our arrangement of Pirates includes the basic "Jack Sparrow" tune, with a brief excerpt from "I've Got My Eye on You", then back to the last half of "Jack Sparrow". I ripped these two songs from a Pirates music CD into my Cakewalk software (which came with the turntable I bought for converting all my LPs to mp3). It took a while to figure out exactly where to cut and where to insert, but I ended up with a clean mix of the arrangement that we'll be playing.

But when I tried sitting down to play with the tune, I realized I was still hopelessly far away. So I imported the mixed-mp3 into Audacity, and used one of its "Effects Tools" to reduce the tempo by 20% (while preserving the pitch). Then I saved this as a "slow" version.

Today, I started out by listening to the piece in segments, figuring out the [adjusted] tempos using my metronome, and simply counting out loud from my score as I listened. Then I went through it "singing" the notes from the score against the recording [note that I DO NOT sing, this was more like humming, or 'da-da-da']. This allowed me to start recognizing the cello parts, especially when the cellos are almost lost in the full orchestra.

Finally, I started trying to play against the recording. Even with all the preparation this was really challenging, and it took quite a few runs through each passage before I was able to start holding my own with its tempo. I'm kind of encouraged, even though I know that I'm still 20% short of final speed. I'm thinking about saving a -10% version for my next practice level before tackling the full tempo.

I learned that there are several passages that I may have to simply accept I won't be able to play fully, and I should just focus on playing the opening note of each group. These include several triplet runs that I could barely even play at slow-slow tempos, and I wasn't able to get them at today's -20% rate. That's OK, though. I spent a little time playing these passages using just the opening notes, and it went fine. Although I still intend to work on the individual notes in hopes of getting there in time for the concert, at least I'll be able to play something in case I don't.

I spent most of the day just on Pirates (literally most of the day - more than 4 hours today). Whew. Well, one benefit from these last six weeks of concert preparation is that I've significantly increased my stamina. Although my left elbow, wrist and thumb muscles are complaining.

I decided today to drop "L'Arleseinne" (Bizet). Even though I like the piece and really would enjoy playing it someday, I realized that I just won't have enough time to give it justice (it has lots of tenor clef passages - and I only started looking at tenor clef a few months ago.) With lots of shifts in tenor clef, I was having a hard time trying to simultaneously decode these two alterations from the basic "code" while worrying about tempos, etc. Also today, I began playing the Brahms "Hungarian Dance #5" with just the initial notes.

In spite of all the optimism in the above paragraphs, I am really struggling with myself right now. I'm asking whether I actually can pull this off, or have I hit some insurmountable wall, one I'll never be able to climb. After four years, a large part of me is wondering why I'm still doing this to myself.

It has been suggested that all music already exists as pure energy somewhere out there in the spheres and we mere mortals simply act as conduits to convert it into an audible form through our instruments. Some people are blessed with a natural ability to pull that music out of the ether and turn it into something exceptionally beautiful. While certain others may lack that "natural" ability, by working very hard for years they are finally able to achieve similar results. Still others (by far the largest group) struggle endlessly and manage only to produce minimal results. I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm way down at the lower end of this scale and that no matter how hard I try, I'll just never get to a point where I could be able to feel good about it.

Baloney! I don't believe it for a moment -- that you're on the lower end of the natural ability scale and all that blah, blah, blah...

My circumstances are such that I happen to see/hear a lot of people that start an instrument as an adult. For that matter, I get to hear kids, too. It takes years on any of them, but cello really is different. It's harder because we're big and low, almost like a bass, but we're violin/viola wannabes. Fiddlers take a long time to learn to play, and most never even shift an inch. And that great array of instruments with frets? Lots easier than what we have to contend with. And what other stringed instruments, other than string bass, have to shift just to play a simple scale out of 1st position (And string bass has the advantage on being tuned in fourths, so it gets easier in higher positions).

Cello was originally invented to play simple bass stuff. As time went on, the bar for cello playing was soon raised, so the learning curve is great.

Ah, but then, none of the others, not even viol da gamba, can sound like us.
I agree. But can sympathise also... my cello-ego is still in the doldrums after a guitarist uttered the cellists most loathed words to me... "that's out of tune". That was three weeks ago & even though I know a. my teacher assures me I have really good intonation & b. he obviously has 'fret-complex' when in the superior company of me and my baby : ), I am still recovering.
Ahh, it's a life of love and torment when one is a slave to the cello : ).
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Thursday, October 01, 2009


Music month

October is filled with music (and driving). Most of it will be preparation for the two KPO concerts at the end of the month - one in Homer on the 30th and the second in Kenai on the afternoon of the 31st. I'm currently practicing three hours a day, trying to nail down the tricky passages and increase my tempos.

The KPO has scheduled three rehearsals on successive Sunday afternoons, starting on the 10th. Because half the orchestra lives in Homer and the other half live 90 to 100 miles north in the Kenai-Soldotna area, the rehearsals are held in Ninilchik, a small town about mid-way between the two.

In addition to my biweekly lessons (in Homer) I'll be joining my Cellocracy partner for two extra joint sessions with our teacher. Since she is principal cello in the KPO, we're working with her on bowings and fingerings. We've also devoted our regular Tuesday evening Cellocracy sessions to concert preparation.

Also, as part of the concert our local strings orchestra will play three pieces; and we'll be busy rehearsing on Monday

Finally, on Friday the 16th, our local Performing Arts Society will host an evening with
cellist Alexander Suleiman from USC, and pianist Patricia Hoy. The next day
we're hoping to setup a master class with Alexander.
December is also starting to fill up with a variety of Christmas concerts and party gigs.

Sounds like a lot of things are happening your way! Very busy here in San Francisco as well.
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