Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Er.. who?

Currently we are visiting B and family near San Francisco for Thanksgiving. We've visited the area several times, but we'd never been to Chinatown. So today we drove into the city and strolled up and down the streets for several hours. It was interesting navigating through the fresh food markets as the morning deliveries were being made, and watching all the locals grabbing up the fresh (live) fish, and all the unusual fruits and veggies.

We just happened to stroll down a sidestreet and came across "Clarion Music Center", which was filled with chinese musical instruments. I was most interested in trying out an erhu. These are sometimes called chinese violins, with a small octagonal box fitted to a 2 1/2 foot stem or neck. Two strings (tuned to A and D) are stretched between the box and tuning pegs at the top of the neck. A bow is fitted between the two strings, the top side of the bowhair plays the A string, and the underside of the bowhair plays the D string. The bow is held somewhat like a bass bow. The bowhair is normally slack and is tensioned by the player using the forefinger. The erhu is fingered with the left hand, quite similar to playing the D and A strings on a cello.

With a little encouragement by the owner, I was able to produce a couple satisfactory notes on the erhu. Enough to convince me to buy one. I'll have to rely on You-Tube and the like for lessons, but I'm reasonably confident that I can use some of my cello skills to eventually be able to play this haunting instrument.

Interesting-looking instrument! It does look like it would be similar to a cello to play.
How fun. Tried to talk my hubby into buying one when we were in China.
My co-worker, who knows I play cello, came by to share some erhu music with me. The bow-hold does look totally different. I also showed him your blog and your erhu post.

I think as the cross-cultural pollenation between Americans and Chinese continues, opportunities cellists and erhu players will also increase.

Your seizing this cultural opportunity seems high in possibilities.

I hope you have a happy holiday season.
I hope you see that there should be a "for" between "opportunities" and "cellists" in my previous comment.

What sorts of scales does one practice on the erhu?
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Fiddling cello

There was a cellist, a fiddler, a double bassist, a banjo player (banjoist? banjist?), and a singer... Last night Z and I joined a few hundred other folk music enthusiasts who came out on a cold night for a terrific concert by Crooked Still. Several times each year our local impresario Mike Morgan, of "World Music for the Kenai", manages to snag a class act like this for a brief diversion from their nationwide tours to give a concert in our humble community. Last night's audience enthusiastically showed their appreciation for this rare opportunity to hear a top notch performance by this gifted group.

[One anecdote: Corey DiMario, the bassist, commented that the first time he'd ever heard of Soldotna was while listening to NPR's "Car Talk" earlier this year, when a caller from Soldotna phoned in for advice on how to protect his car's engine if our volcano exploded. None of us were surprised to learn that that particular caller was actually present in the audience. So Corey gave him a CD. And yes, as advised he did stretch panty hose over his cars' air intakes - we all did.]

Since we sat in the middle of the audience, rather far back from the stage, even though I could see the four standing performers quite well I wasn't able to watch Tristan Clarridge's terrific performance on his cello. From where I was sitting, I couldn't see his bow arm... but at times he was playing those notes so rapidly, I'm not that sure anyone could have seen it.

Tristan came to Crooked Still a few years ago after one of its founders, cellist Rushad Eggleston, moved on to form his own group, leaving some pretty big shoes to fill. From what I could hear last night, Tristan has more than met the challenge. Tristan's cello and the Brittany Haas's fiddle (also a newcomer to the group) were fully synchronized, and several pieces in the set showcased the cello against the banjo, played by Gregory Liszt.

From the beginning I've tried to imagine being able to play the cello like a fiddler, and last night was the first time I'd actually seen it done. As I struggle along my slow journey, I am newly inspired, no matter how long it takes to get there.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009


Bailing out

After a grueling effort to try to master the repertoire in time for the KPO's Halloween concert, I decided not to go through it all again to play in the *Redoubt Chamber Orchestra's "Evening of Christmas" concert next month. This was not an easy decision, and I spent quite a bit of time looking through the music selections and reviewing several of my old blog posts discussing goals, etc., before finally making up my mind.

After looking through the RCO folder, I realized that even if I worked all month at three hours a day, I'd still never get far enough to be able to hold my own and enjoy the experience. While it was challenging to be able to play with the KPO last month, I just didn't feel like I was ready to be there, and most of the time I wasn't hitting the right notes anyway. In hindsight, the experience wasn't worth all the time and effort and stress I put on myself.

The bottom line is I am just not ready, technically, to play at this level. The RCO only has two (possibly three) cellos, so my inabilities would be difficult to mask. When there were seven or eight cellos, it was easy to lay low in the crowd.

My cello abilities are improving - slowly and steadily. I've thought a lot about what I want to get out of cello playing, and playing in the RCO and KPO are definitely included; but not until I'm ready - technically. I have a good idea of what I should study during the next year in order to get there - this includes work on pieces in Bb Major and Eb Major, rapid bowing exercises (that B part of L'Arlesienne makes a good etude), playing rapid scale and chromatic runs, and generally working on fast tempos. I have no doubt I'll see gains in each of these areas over the next year, especially if I post these goals on my music stand.

* The Redoubt Chamber Orchestra is a local version of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. About half of the KPO orchestra is based in Homer and half in the 'Central Peninsula' area - Soldotna and Kenai. The RCO appears to be made up mostly of this central peninsula half, and in recent years has only gotten together for the Christmas concerts.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009


Halloween Concert Report

Concert Notes

The best part: I played the entire "In the Hall of the Mountain King" piece at tempo with no mistakes! I've mentioned before that this piece was my first "classical" favorite - from second grade. Being able to actually play this particular piece - with its intense cello part - in my first performance with a full orchestra is a milepost of sorts in my cellomania. Yeah!

Another high note - our strings orchestra's two pieces, "Joust" and "Deep Sea Fandango" went really well - the best we'd ever played them.

My costume did not interfere with my playing, I made sure to keep it loose and to avoid possible entanglements of the cloth strips in the strings. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of me playing the cello in costume. If I do this again next year, I think I'll try something a bit less elaborate.

I didn't do that well with the "Funeral March for a Marionette", but not really so bad. Also, "Pirates of the Caribbean" was OK. I avoided some of the runs in Brahms' "Hungarian Dance #5" and most of "L'Arlesienne". The rest of the pieces were fine...

What I Learned

I don't feel as if I'm really ready for this level of performance, yet. It was gratifying to have this chance to play, and for a few brief periods I actually did feel like I belonged...

I devoted two full months of two- to three-hour practice sessions - at the cost of my lessons - along with lots of additional rehearsals. I did manage to "learn" all the pieces, but I wasn't able to get them quite up to speed. At the rehearsals and the two performances, I easily played the slower parts, but when we got to the fast sections my fingers seemed to forget where they were supposed to go. For most of it, the sound of the full orchestra was distracting (especially the five trombones and the tuba just behind my right ear - especially in "Pirates"). On several occasions, I couldn't even see the notes - they all seemed to blur together...

At my lesson this past week, I spent quite a bit of time fine-tuning some fingerings and bowings, but mostly we discussed my list of "issues" that I've been putting together:

1. My first finger extensions (x1) to Bb/A#, Eb, and Ab; and my fourth finger extensions (x4) to Eb, G#/Ab, and C# are sloppy. Worse yet are the transitions from x1 to x4. I need some etudes, I think...

2. I have difficulty playing scales and chromatic runs rapidly, going up and down. The problem seems to be both with coordination of bow and fingers and with the left-hand fingers simply getting in the way of each other.

3. I have trouble with rapid bowings, such as repeated short strokes - even on the same notes.

4. I need to work on ways to increase tempos, although I did succeed with "Hall of the Mountain King".

5. "L'Arlesienne" will stay on my music stand. It's a familiar tune, the cello has a strong role, at least half is in tenor clef, there is a lot of position work, and one part is made up of rapid double-stroke chromatic runs.

I took the day off, today, from my cello - it's funny how I felt so guilty skipping practice. Tomorrow I return to my lessons. And at tomorrow night's rehearsal of our strings group, we'll start working on Christmas music.

Playing in an orchestra at beginning and intermediate levels can be a real trade-off. One might achieve "better" long-term growth by continuing methodical skill building in lessons. OTOH, playing fun music in a social setting can motivate creative work and sticking to it. I think the balance is what you have discovered - pull out the important "next step" technical stuff and work on it in lessons, letting the rest go for now. Oh, and my cardinal rule is to never ask my teacher to work out fingerings during lesson time. As I discovered with T1-, that is a total waste of time on both parts.
You may feel you aren't ready to play in an orchestra quite yet, but I disagree. The reason you feel not ready is because you have never done it before. The things you cited as being troublesome (the sound of the orchestra, couldn't see the notes) will not be helped by additional practice by yourself, you need to throw yourself into the new experience...its hard sometimes, but it will become easier the more you do it!
The best of way learning is by doing. Having a real life goal of playing a piece in an orchestra and being able to participate in a concert and feel part of a group just doesn't have the same bang for the buck as studying an etude. True, it's a "real dinner party" versus a controlled "how to cook" course (Today's lesson is on how to slice onions). There will be plenty of room for improvement. But it sure is nice to have that moment or two where it all comes together where you enjoy playing the music.
Really enjoyed the concert! The musice was great, and the "plot" was clever and festive. Your costume was ghastly (that's a compliment)! I was encouraged to see so many cellos in little ol' Kenai! I'm still screeching away on my own, but hope to have a violinist over for tea soon to pick her brain (no zombie pun intended) about what I'm doing right and wrong.

Thanks for a great performance!

Our band played a couple of those songs as well for our concert. Wish I could have heard yours!
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