Wednesday, December 23, 2009



As we drift through another dreary winter solstice, once again I find myself struggling against Seasonal Affect Disorder. It's not enough that the days are so short, but every year it seems to coincide with a two or three week period of clouds and snow or rain: long dark starless nights and short gray sunless days.

The concerts are all done and I've put away my Christmas music for the next ten months. This year, for the first time, I realized that I don't remember a lot of performance details from the two concerts. I knew the music well enough to be relaxed about the notes and the tempos. We'd rehearsed them enough that we were pretty solid. After the first concert some of my fellow musicians were commenting about missing this measure or losing track at that point, but I couldn't recall making any obvious mistakes at all. I knew I successfully got through the handful of stumble points that I'd been working on, but I don't think I missed any notes, and I know I did not get lost or skip any repeats.

A few household issues came up this weekend that caused me to miss several days of practice, but today's session went really well. In fact the Bach "Minuets" went far better than before. I've been concentrating a lot on the 'B' part of "Chanson Triste". This is going so well, that I'm a little suspicious. Playing in tenor clef has not been a problem, and those sixth-position Bbs are spot on.

I'm trying to fit in a few minutes each day playing on the erhu. For now I'm concentrating on the D-major scale, getting used to the "violin" style of fingering. The odd bow hold is hard on my thumb and wrist, so I'm not pushing it. I'm studying a lot of YouTube videos to look for improvements. The bowing technique is probably the toughest challenge. The unique sound produced by the erhu has led me to improvise a few basic melodies that seem to go well with this instrument.

hi keith, i wonder if sometime....if we all have the time....we should try to play some string quartets? i would play viola and we surely could snag a couple violinists? with you and mary not having a third cello, we could maybe do a quintet, but playing quartet music. what do you think? xooxx mla

happy holidays and -- groan -- yes i feel the same way about this warmish dreary weather.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Sad song

I am a voracious reader, even as a small kid. I remember in elementary school coming across a biography of Pyotr Ilyich Tchiakovsky in the school library. I soon read through their entire biography collection before moving onto books about auto racing or something. But that first biography stuck with me, and I've been a fan of his works ever since. I still stop and listen whenever a melody from "Nutcracker" is used in a commercial - even for the thousandth time. Although I've never had the pleasure to see the entire performance live, I know most of it by heart.

So, I was quite pleased this past week at my lesson when my teacher suggested I begin working on the final piece in Suzuki Book 4, Tchaikovsky's "Chanson Triste"! Since I'd spent quite a bit of time this fall on Bizet's "L'Arlesienne", I was already familiar with tenor clef, and we were able to spend the last part of the lesson playing through the first three lines. Suzuki calls this a tonalization piece. [Suzuki's concept of "tonalization" is 'the student's ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tone quality on their instrument.'] My teacher suggested I should start out playing this with the bow - not too fast, but not that slow. Wherever I encountered something "tricky" I should go ahead and slow that part down and use pizzicato, if needed. I've been surprised [so far] to find that not only have I not needed to slow down or use pizzicato, but I've managed to produce a satisfying "tone" on those first three lines - even where it goes up to that Bb in 6th position. The second part isn't quite as straightforward as the first part, but I've made reasonable progress here too.

I've been working for a few minutes each day on my erhu [pronounced "ahr-hoo"], mainly on tuning and some basic scales - also "Twinkle". The hardest part is getting comfortable holding it in my lap and getting the bowing technique right. It's not easy, but I'm seeing some progress. It's interesting, too, playing primarily with my first three fingers, instead of using my pinkie.

I enjoyed reding your post! I will be taking cello lessons this Spring and hopefully, can catch on as well as you have....
baby boy miles is my grandson...I don't know how to put this blog in my own name!!! Guess i should build a new blog spot? Cathy
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Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Trying to Refocus

Over the past couple months I've spent way too much time fretting about what I can't (yet) do rather than face up to the long slow learning process in front of me. This negativity has led to a whole lot of abruptly terminated practice sessions. [It's been many years since I took out my frustrations on whatever inanimate object was at "fault" - I remember long ago slinging a cheap plastic circular saw way off into the woods after failing to produce a half-way decent bevel on a 2x6 framing piece.] Obviously I respect my cello enough to not do anything stupid like that, even though I won't deny that a tiny part of me has been tempted.

I've spent a lot of time this past week trying to convince myself not to quit - just sell the cellos and move on... Why put up with all the aggravation?

I've been here before, of course, but this time it's been pretty tough. The trouble is that this all comes after a positive sense of growth over the spring and summer, followed by several months trying to get ready for that Halloween concert. At first I was really flattered to be invited to sit in with the orchestra. But although I devoted an awful lot of time trying to learn the music and get them up to speed, in the end, the concerts were not an enjoyable experience. Whether it was due to excessive perfectionism or simply a heightened self-consciousness about displaying my abilities (and lack of), I just wasn't able to relax and have fun. After that I bailed on the upcoming Christmas concert, and quickly found myself in a spiral of critical introspection.

So why, then, am I doing this? All of a sudden nothing sounds good, my intonation is sloppy, my timing is off, my speed sucks, and my sight-reading is worse than ever.

Today, I took just one piece (one of the Bach Minuets in Suzuki 4) and worked through it measure-by-measure, first pizzicato then bowed, starting slow and playing it over and over, each time increasing the metronome by a notch. It was not a perfect practice session, but I hope assume it will pay off eventually. Tomorrow is my next lesson...

My erhu arrived in the mail today. I was able to spend just a few minutes trying it out - poor Matilda, she howled on every note.

I have been playing the mandolin for about the same amount of time as you've been playing the cello and all fall I was in the same place you write about here. The anger, the feeling overwhelmed, the desire to quit. I think this is part and parcel of the learning process. For me, realizing the normality and almost inevitability of my frustration helped me get beyond it, mostly. And I got most of that realization from reading your blog. So, thanks, and keep on playing. Play for yourself; play to enjoy the process of playing, without worrying about "getting better". Just keep playing.
I hope you don't quit! The beginners who look up to you need you!
Thank you for your 'encouraging' comments; although they may be an expression of frustration for you, as a beginning cellist (I hesitate to even use the word - this is my third year of lessons) they help me to see that my meager progress is not a sign of 'basic inability' but rather homage to the difficulty in learning to play such a wonderful instrument!
I have a true story for you:

I still have to work on my intonation. My bow will still skate from time to time. Cello is hard. :)

I'll give you two things to think about going forward.

1) the cello reflects us. I don't know if the negativity is because of the cello, but rather part of a cycle. I find that if I am already negative and not open to dealing with it, then my sound is not rewarding, the physical experience of playing is not good, and then I feel even worse. And although I would never take anything out on the cello, there is a page in my favorite edition of the 5th Suite with a hole in it from a sharp whack from a bow.

2) As you progress, your standards go up. What was once acceptable is not good enough for the more sophisticated ear. Not only that, but if you're not really mindful about your technique, it is completely possible to have a great sounding session one day and a lousy one the next. How? If you do something great accidentally then it's hard to reproduce. That's why practice should be about the details. If you are aware of your technique, then when the sound suddenly tanks or becomes crystal clear "tonalization" heaven, you can see it's because you did x, y, or z.

Don't give up. Just add this experience to the landscape of your cello life. It makes it deeper, richer, to suffer with it sometimes. Practice for me! I'm going to be out of commission with this dang surgery for at least a month. I'd give anything for a magically healed ulnar nerve.
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Four Years

Another year, already: a year of progress; a few new skills learned, a couple other skills improved on; a new method to learn new music - which works for me; getting reacquainted with my metronome; finding out about certain physical limitations; an unexpected invitation to play in the orchestra, along with a sober realization of how far I still have to go before I'm ready to do that again; and changes in Cellocracy - we are now a duo. Probably the most interesting (and frustrating) thing this past year was finding out about certain personal limitations, and eventually realizing that a considerable amount of work will be needed to overcome them.

After revising my process for learning new pieces earlier this past year (which I've blogged about previously), I really thought I was ready to take on all the new pieces for the KPO Halloween concert. I wasn't. I spent more than 150 hours preparing for that concert - at the cost of any regular lesson work during that time. But although I was able to learn nearly everything well enough to play them more-or-less accurately - at home, on my own - I really wasn't ever able to play them fast enough for the concerts [with the exception of "In the Hall of the Mountain King"!!!]. While it was gratifying to be invited to play along, I was more frustrated than anything else at my inability to keep up.

Still, I do believe that I will eventually reach a point in my studies where I can reasonably sight-read through a new piece and be able to quickly come up to speed along with the group. All that, and be able to incorporate all the last minute additions and deletions to the playlist in the weeks ahead of the concert.

This also marks four years for this blog. This entry is #524. I only posted 66 entries in the past year (the year before it was 95.)

Goals Carried Over From The 3rd Year

Here are all the goals I had listed for my third year (and carried over into the fourth year) of playing the cello. More and more my goals are becoming an narration of the various skills that I want to improve.

Learn vibrato - Every day for almost 8 months during this past year I did vigorous vibrato drills with the metronome - ten to fifteen minutes at a time - gradually increasing the metronome speed every few days. But I guess I overdid it. This summer I started experiencing severe pains in my left elbow. My doctor and my teacher suggested I stop these drills for a while and see if it improved. Within a few weeks, the pain was gone. I'm definitely on the right track with my vibrato technique, but I need to work on integrating vibrato into my routine playing.

Finish Suzuki Book 3
- I'd already "finished" this in Year 3, but I spent several months in the past year reworking several of them.

Improve bow hold
- I spent time focusing on finger pressures (how the fingers control the bow on up and down bows). I find it easiest to concentrate on this while I play my daily scales.

Relax bowing arm
- My recent focus has been on controlling my forearm and pivoting elbow as I play out towards the tip.

Improve sight-reading skills
- There have been a few (rare) times that I've been able to sight-read and go with the flow, but mostly this is still a struggle.

Improve intonation
- Not really a serious issue anymore in the lower positions; I continue to work on intonation in the higher positions.

Develop an awareness and control of breathing
- No progress; I really haven't spent any time thinking about this, yet.

Start playing in the "upper" positions
- Coming along OK.

Learn thumb position
- Not yet.

Tenor clef
- This is coming at the end of Book 4; I presume I'll start learning this piece in a few months. I spent a little time working with flash cards, etc., but the biggest benefit so far came from working on the Bizet piece, "L'Arlesienne", for the Halloween concert.

Experiment with the electronic cello
- I didn't do much with this in Year 4.

Practice 1,000 hours in Year #4 (working toward that 10,000-hour goal)
- I practiced approximately 800 hours in the last year, for a total of about 3,000 hrs so far.

Growth with the Central Peninsula Community Orchestra
- Yes! I look forward to our weekly rehearsals, and our occasional concerts are always fun.

Growth with Cellocracy
- This past spring, our first cello decided to stop playing cello. After that we spent most of our time prepping for the KPO concert at Halloween; now we're working on Christmas duets.

Join the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra (eventually)
- I recently decided not to play with them for their 2009 Christmas concert; I still don't feel I'm ready...

Join the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra (some day)
- I did play with them for the 2009 Halloween concert, but at this point, I'm not ready to become a regular player in this group.

Specific 4th Year Goals (Listed 11/2008)

Complete 2/3 of Position Etude Book - I've only completed about 1/3.

Complete 1/2 of Mooney's Double-Stops Book - I haven't worked much in this book in the last six months.

Rhythm studies (do clapping exercises from Music Theory book) - Nothing; although since I've started working more regularly with the metronome, this has become less of an issue.

Play faster with accuracy - This is my biggest stumbling block in orchestra.

Relax while playing - I've got a lo-o-ong way to go.

Increase stamina - The orchestra preparation was helpful.

Improve overall quality of sound - This is hard to measure; I "think" I sound better...

Music theory - I took classes last winter and spring; but haven't done anything since then.

Improvisation - Nothing here, yet.

Specific 5th Year Goals

Finish Suzuki Book 4

Complete 2/3 of the Position Etude Book

Return to the Double Stops book

Work on playing faster

Improve sight-reading skills

Use vibrato while playing

Continue learning Tenor Clef

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