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!!


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.

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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