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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