Wednesday, February 24, 2010

 

Something different


How many times have I groaned on about how poorly I played something at my lesson, considering how well I could play it at home? I had come to expect it.

So I've been floundering on three or four segments in the Vivaldi Sonata for several weeks now. This week, my practice sessions were really frustrating. Yesterday, after just twenty minutes I gave up and put my cello away. This morning it felt like I had ten thumbs. Nothing went right.

At today's lesson, we began with one of my latest etudes in the Percy Such book. I did so well that there weren't really any "lesson issues" to go over. Then when we picked up the Vivaldi piece, we went directly to my first stumble point, and slowly played it together - with no problems. We backed up and played the entire phrase, and that too was good. So, we moved on to my next stumble point, and again all went well. Next we went back to the beginning and played it through just fine; not polished or "pretty" yet, but not bad at all. Finally we turned to the last few lines of the second part, which I'd just started, and plucked through it cleanly, without problem.

This is the first time I've ever played better in a lesson than at home!

Comments:
Driving home last night I heard John Walz playing that Vivaldi Sonata on the radio, but with the piano accompaniment arranged for orchestra. Really, really nice. For a taste, go to http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/johnwalz and listen to the sample labeled "Concerto in E Minor for \'cello and orchestra: Largo".
 
Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

 

All Pizz


This morning I had to choose between not practicing at all or playing VERY quietly. I decided to leave my bow in my case and just use pizzicato. I went through my complete daily routine - playing all my scales, the etudes, a handful of pieces from Suzuki Book 4, and the new Vivaldi piece.

What an interesting experience!

Almost everything I play has some sort of stumble point, such as a shift in the middle of a scale, or a string crossing in an etude, or a fingering combination in one of the Suzuki pieces. I'd gotten into the habit of just playing through them - assuming I guess, that I'd eventually fix them by simple dogged repetition.

What these stumble points really need, however, is some focused attention. I soon realized this morning that this was going to be an ideal opportunity to work on these tough spots. Since I didn't have to think about bow hold, bow position, bow styles, etc., I was free to concentrate on my left hand.

I set the metronome on "normal" and plucked each scale, etude, and piece all the way through. After each one I went back to any trouble point, and slowly and carefully worked on them. I lost track of time and ended up practicing an extra 45 minutes today.

I've learned not to expect instantaneous results, but I'm pretty sure that this approach will pay off.

This isn't the first time I've had to try to practice quietly, but now maybe I can turn it to my advantage.

Comments:
Certainly sounds like a good way to focus. My advisor has often mentioned that pizz-ing is a good study tool. I just find it painful myself.
 
A band director a couple years ago drummed into us to forget the parts you know and just work on the stumble points during practice time. I finally got it through my head and it made a positive difference in my playing.
 
I like using pizz. It gives me a chance to learn a piece of music without letting my bowing mistakes get in my way. I don't start with pizz too often anymore, but if I have a piece that I just can't get...for whatever reason, I'll put down the bow for a little while and then go back to bowing. It helps me sometimes to really get a feel for the music.
 
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Saturday, February 13, 2010

 

Bah


I like the winter Olympics. But I really detest NBC's coverage of it. Am I the only one who doesn't like the way NBC anoints a handful of "stars" to follow around for two weeks, essentially ignoring everyone else? And those incessant interviews and the sob-stories... aaagh!

A friend's son has competed in four successive winter games. Last night we'd hoped to get a chance to see him in the opening ceremonies... Did NBC even once pan slowly through the crowd of US athletes? All we saw before they cut to another commercial were those four or five stars mugging for the cameras.

It just sticks in my craw, year after year... Why can't they just show the dang events without creating a lame little "story" for each one with struggling heroes and heavy-handed villains?

Comments:
I never really thought of it before, but yes, come to think of it, I do agree. Well put.
 
I have totally tuned of the Olympics. 20+ years of waiting for it to get better will get to a guy.

Off topic, but how's the Erhu studies going? You have piqued my interest, as I have been listening to much Chinese classical music lately.
 
I agree! This is NBC's last year for covering the event, so I've heard.
 
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

 

Getting past those five measures


Two entries in two days! No, I'm not going to try to follow Eric's example; besides I already did post an entry a day for the first year of this blog - no way I'd do that again...

At my lesson this afternoon, we talked about those five measures (actually there are only two really hard ones) in the Vivaldi Sonata. My teacher reassured me that this was the hardest part - for everyone. We played it through - slowly, and I did it OK. We also spent a few minutes working on the string-crossing eighth notes in the second part. So we sight-read through the rest of the piece (I have barely looked at half of it), and it went really well. We figured out several practice points and talked about a few fingering options. Of course eventually, I'll need to be playing this much faster, but I feel a lot more positive about this now.

We also picked out the next etude to work on from the Percy Such book. I had mentioned that I wasn't satisfied with my 4th position intonation on the D string, so she found an etude to help. I'm also starting another etude by Sebastian Lee.

I told her about my visualization revelation. Although we've talked about bow weights off and on for years, I explained that all along I had been trying to visualize a bow arm/weight pathway through my neck and shoulder. But when I started imagining this from my back beneath my scapula, something clicked.


I just had to put up another picture of that giant guinea pig - actually it's a capybara. Not your average housepet - but then again, I've mentioned Jessica the hippo, and the other day we watched a special about a white rhino baby that was raised in someone's home (it was eventually released into the wild along with his best friend, a warthog.) This guy's name is Caplin Rous, and he has his own blog: "Capybara Madness".


Comments:
My hubby has always wanted a capybara for a pet!
 
Fourth? Gosh I wish. I'm still in first on cello. I seem to be refusing to leave first on violin too, and I've been playing that one for too long to still be in first.
 
That is a giant guinea pig! WOW! Are capybaras easy to hand tame?
 
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

 

Five Measures


I've been working on the same five measures in the Vivaldi Sonata (the second five measures in the first part of the piece) for almost two weeks, now. Today, it all finally clicked - sort of. I realized a few days ago that I had skimmed over the rhythm step of my learning process - this passage starts with quarter and eighth notes, moves into sixteenth notes and even adds a few thirty-second notes. So I put down my cello and spent a day just tapping out the rhythms with my metronome until I got it all patterned in my head. Yesterday I finally started bowing it and was soon able to start attending to the slurs and trills.

This one has been tougher to learn than the Tchaikovsky piece at the end of Suzuki 4. To me, it seems as if the fingerings are a lot more complicated... I've also been working on the eighth note string crossings in the second part. Also, I'm nearly done with the Sebastian Lee etude in my Percy Such book, and will soon be ready to move on.

Our strings orchestra is playing several new things this season - some of these are much more challenging than we've played before. One is a medley of Mozart pieces - which sounds pretty good, but the cello part is mostly complicated rhythms (lots of rests, some counterpoint with the violas, etc.) I was surprised to that I was able to pick up these rhythms on the very first read-through. We are also playing an arrangement of the "Brandenburg Concerto", which for some reason was really hard for me at first. Now, its OK.

What's left of Cellocracy has started up again. We'll be working on duets for now, but it appears we might be joined by the other two cellists from our orchestra next month!!


Visualizations

The other day I was reading an article in the January 2010 Strings Magazine titled "Transform Your Sound by Controlling Arm Weight", by Leah Swann (page 33). One passage in particular jumped out at me: "Imagine that all the weight needed for sound production is stored in the muscles of your back, beneath the shoulder blade, and that you can release various amounts of weight for various sounds. The weight is there all the time, but you must decide when and how to use it." I need to back up a bit and try to explain why and how this was a revelation to me.

At a recent lesson, my teacher and I talked at length about improving sound quality. I'm at a point where my left side technical skills are somewhat more advanced than my right side skills. Seeing as how for the most part, my left hand determines the notes to be played while my right hand/arm actually produces the sounds via the bow, I have been thinking a lot about how I can put more expression into my sound. For the most part I've been so intent [obsessed] on accurate intonation that I've more or less just let my right hand drag the bow back and forth - as long as the note was accurate... But, the bow should really be an extension of my arm sliding over the strings, and I ought to be able to "feel" the strings through my bow. I've spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to focus more of my mind's "eye" [ear?] on my right side as I play.

My bow-hold is actually pretty good, and during my daily scales I try to concentrate on using full bows, keeping my wrist loose, using the paintbrush, keeping a flexible arm, keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings, etc. As soon as I start working on my lessons, all that seems to go out the window. Of course on these pieces I'm stressing about fingerings, shifts, string crossings, etc., but I still ought to be able to put some more attention on the bow, shouldn't I?

So as I read the passage quoted above, something about those back muscles beneath my shoulder blade really struck me. I immediately closed my eyes and sat up straight, and I was able to visualize a "neural" pathway from those particular muscles through my shoulder and down my arm through my hand and fingers and out to the bow. Somehow, something clicked! As long as I was able to keep a part of my mind in those muscles, I felt as if I could tap into this pathway. [I'm not sure I'm making a lot of sense trying to put this into words.] But when I started playing the next morning I was able to recreate this "awareness" and feel/hear my bow with greater sensitivity and control. I still have to work on bow weights, but this initial "aha" moment has really opened up some new doors for me. Now I'm going to have to make sure I "open" this pathway every time I play, until it becomes ingrained - another item in that long list of things to do while playing without having to think about them.

Comments:
My teacher and I had a discussion recently about the order of pieces in the Suzuki books, prompted by my whining about how much more difficult memorizing Breval in Bk 4 was than memorizing Squire Tarantella in Bk 6. It seems the major ordering factor is simply the number of positions or the amount of shifting required. An earlier piece may have more difficult rhythms, key signatures, tonalization, or complex organization than a later piece.

Chanson Triste, at the end of bk 4, is labeled a tonalization, which I think is fair. It is very simple musically, a couple of lines of slowly moving notes repeated over a whole page. Paradoxically, it is very difficult for a typical Bk 4 student to play it with the musical expression and passion it demands.

Congratulations on discovering the mine of bow weight under your scapula!
 
Oh, and that's an awfylly big 'pig. What do you feed those guys up there?
 
Yes! That Swann quote is really good. It is not what the ordinary man-in-the-street or woman-in-the-street understands as "weight". That's why I really dislike the word weight. What's us students supposed to do? Eventually, years later, figure out what it really means?
 
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