Sunday, March 22, 2015

Still Misbehaving....

What a chameleon my cello has become since its repair for its open seam.  First of all, the sound is different, louder, more hollow, and more inclined to being screechy.  The maker who repaired it did a sound post adjustment, which helped, but it's definitely not the same mellower cello I am used to.  I'm torn between using my Coda Bow (better handling but definitely sharper sounding) and my old student wood bow (much clunkier, but quieter sounding).  For most of the music I am working on, the Coda handles much better and I can play better in higher positions on the G and C string; however, I have to be so careful about my bowing angle. I will try for another sound post adjustment this summer when the humidity edges upward, but for now I'm just hoping the cello will settle down.  I may try changing some strings.  I already replaced the Evah Pirazzi A with a Jargar A, which did quiet down the A string.  I may try replacing the lower Evah Pirazzi strings with Belcantos and see if that helps.

I'm working on Popper #16 now and enjoying it.  It has an interesting thumb position section that ends on the high harmonics of the G string: fun!  Even though I'm playing a 7/8, the stretches at the beginning of the piece on the G string are hard for me.  My teacher doesn't want me to shift for the high note, so I've been working on trying to reach the notes with my thumb at the base and all my fingers down.  My small hands just have troubles with stretching and keeping my fingers down, but I am trying to satisfy my teacher's directions.  Other than that, I'm enjoying the etude.  I like that Popper keeps forcing me to learn the notes on adjacent strings high up on the fingerboard.  Gradually I'm getting to know more of them.

I've started learning Faure's Elegy, a lovely piece which I heard Amit Peled play so beautifully in the concert detailed in a previous post.  I'm about half way through the piece, getting to the fast runs which will be hard for me.  Good practice for me on intonation and vibrato!  I'm enjoying my work on it.  I'm going back every couple of days to Paradis's Sicilienne, as that is good vibrato practice, too.

I'm still plugging away on playing the Allemande and Bouree's from Bach's 3rd suite from memory. (By the way, Happy Birthday to Bach yesterday!) When I play them from the music, I feel free and can work on the sound and feel of the music, but when I play from memory I'm still so focused on knowing which note comes next that my mind ignores the musicality of what I'm playing.  The Bouree's are better, easier memorizing and thus I'm less focused on that all the time, but the Allemande is so intricate that I'm not there yet.  The memory work has made me much less enthusiastic about playing them; I used to just love playing through the movements but now it's always a struggle and there's much less joy.

Group work on the Stradella is going pretty well.  Everyone is finding the Allegretto and the Allegro movements much easier to play and we are enjoying the work on them.  The first and third movements, with the difficult harmonies of the Grave's and the tricky rhythms of the Poco Animato's are a lot more work.  I think playing with others is the true joy of cello playing.  Whether it's cello and piano, cello quartets, string ensemble or orchestra, the beauty of the harmony makes me smile when we are doing it right.  A friend who plays in a local baroque group and I were talking a few months ago, and we agree that without group playing we'd probably quit.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Alessandro Stradella

Our cello choir (of six who love to play together) has been working on a work entitled "Sinfonia a Tre" by Alessandro Stradella (1639 - 1682) and arranged for three cellos by Valter Despalj. The first movement (Grave and Poco animato) has been a challenge!  Cellos 1 and 2 are in tenor clef and the high notes have to sound good.  The rhythms are tricky and alternate between the parts.  What has helped is counting in 8 (1x, 2x, etc.) as we are learning it, helping us to keep the parts together.  I think we finally have mastered it to the point where we can start to speed it up and start to count in four.

We practice on our own most weeks, meeting with our teacher (coach) once a month.  At our last coached meeting we got the music for the last three movements.  The Allegretto is a swinging little syncopated movement and we sightread it without too much difficulty this week.  It's in 3/8, but we will eventually count it in 1.  The third movement is another Grave/Poco animato, also difficult for its changing rhythms and lines.  I think it will take us some practice to get "together" on that one.  The final movement, the Allegro, is very straightforward 4/4; we were able to sight read that one pretty successfully.  The group likes this piece enough to put in the practice necessary to play it.  We are enjoying working it.

The other piece we are working on is Telemann's Concerto for four cellos.  That one is much easier for us, one that several of us have played before and one that we can play with a little more authority!

All this has been a nice counterpoint to my work on the third suite and Popper #11.  I like Popper #11: it is easier than some of the other etudes (for me) and has been really helpful in understanding how to travel up and down the fingerboard across the strings.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

That's never happened before!

I was practicing last week and put down my cello to answer the phone.  When I came back and looked down at the bottom of the back plate, I could see that the varnish had cracked.  Looking closer, I could see that the bottom of the back plate was separated from the rib; pushing on the back plate moved it up and down toward the rib...  Yikes!

I called the luthier my teacher recommended and the next day drove (an hour--our closest luthier) to the outer Cape to get the cello reglued (and checked out).  I picked it up Sunday when we were on the outer Cape to attend Amit Peled's concert with the newly refurbished Casals cello (the program is one that Casals played 100 years ago).  Quite a wonderful concert that Amit Peled and his pianist, Noreen Polera, are taking on the road this winter and spring.  They are presenting it in Baltimore this week and were interviewed about the concert on NPR this morning.  If you get a chance to attend one of the concerts, don't miss it!!!

My cello is now reglued, and I'm playing it to see how it sounds.  I think the luthier may have adjusted the sound post, and I'm not sure I'm happy with the adjustment.  My A string is harsh and loud, so much so that I can't play the cello with my Coda bow, which always plays much more brightly than my older (and clunkier) student wood bow.  Even with the wood bow the A string sound is harsh.  I took off the A string and replaced it with a Pirastro Passione, usually a mellow A string on my cello.  Still very harsh and screechy.  The luthier's workshop was very warm (wood stove going) and there was no humidification.  It may be that my cello really dried out in the 5 days it was there.  I have it in the case with humidification now and am hoping that will help.  I may try a Jargar A string this weekend if the harshness persists.  I may end up having to have a sound post adjustment, but I hope the cello will settle down and readjust.

Well, at least my cello is intact and I don't have to worry about injuring it when I practice.  These wooden instruments are very much alive, aren't they????

Thursday, January 29, 2015

On to a more cheerful Popper etude

There's nothing like a blizzard to trap you inside and force you to think of things to do.  Two full days inside resulted in a whole grey fleece being spun and lots of cello playing being done.

After weeks of struggling with Popper #3 and that awful key of Bb Minor (the etude wasn't terribly hard, but reading all those flats and hearing in my head how the music was supposed to sound was a difficulty for me--and the music was unhappy, dreary and not very melodic), I am on to Popper #11 which is in the key of F (lovely key, only one flat, and major sounding).  Happiness is an etude that I can hear as I look at the music.  The string crossings for many of the notes is excellent practice for me and the shifting patterns across strings are interesting.  My teacher is having me work on scales that are related to my etudes, so of course I'm doing F major (easy, as it's a scale I know) and the relative minor scales in D minor.  Those I don't know so well, so its good practice.

I'm reaching the end of Suzuki book 7.  My favorites are the Paradis Sicilienne and the Popper Gavotte.  Strangely they haven't been too hard to memorize and I enjoy playing them from memory.  I'm going to keep doing that every other day, so I don't "lose" them!  I'm working now on the Bach 3rd Suite Bourree's; I have the first one memorized and am working to memorize the second.  Then I will be finished with the book.  It's been a nice, challenging set of pieces. I'm feeling a good sense of accomplishment with all of the pieces in the book.  I like them all and enjoy playing them.

Below are some snow pictures!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Favorite new book about the cello

I just purchased Phyllis Luckman's book "Handbook for Cello Students".  It's not a new book, but it was new to me when it was recommended on the ICS message board. Phyllis describes the book on her web site like this:

A new music theory and instruction book for cello students and cello teachers is now available. This reference handbook provides valuable information on cello playing, cello repertoire, and music theory for cello teachers and amateur and student cellists of all levels.

The Table of Contents of the book is linked here.  You will see that there is a lot of basic information about the cello and about playing it, but the best part of the book, for me, is the extensive discussion of music theory and how it applies to playing the cello.  Some of the information I know from my lessons and research about how to do things (some things that were quite difficult to ferret out when I was looking them up), but other things  are new to me and will be very helpful to me in my practicing and playing.  I'm just beginning to work my way through the book, but I know already that I will use it a lot.  Available at the web site are other useful resources (a free Cello repertoire list, information about the author, an essay called "Why do I have to Learn all that Stuff", and sample pages from the handbook). It's a self published book, so you have to contact Ms. Luckman by mail or email or phone about ordering.  I wish I had had this book 5 years ago, but I'm glad to have it now!!  Thank you Phyllis for writing it and making it available.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holiday Music

Playing holiday music is always fun and uplifting.  Two years ago a friend and I played a duo program of mostly holiday music and it was great fun.  I went back today and played through some of the music and it was a real lift to my spirits.  I'm fighting a cold and have ever so much to do, but what a lift to play such lovely music.  Now these are mostly duo arrangements, but the parts played alone are lovely in themselves.  I have two books of these particular duos that use early recorder and flute tunes as  harmony for traditional carols.  The sound is beautiful and the parts are not difficult.  All 1st through 4th position, but the harmony of the melodies is particularly nice.  I recommend these if you have a holiday gig and want some special and different music. They are available from Johnson Strings and also, I think, from Shar.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Treading water

Lots of criticisms of my playing at lessons this fall.  Perhaps it's that I'm trying to learn too much music in the practice time I have available (1-2 hours) and perhaps it's that the level of difficulty of what I am doing is high (for me) and perhaps my teacher is upping her expectations of me. Also I'm not doing any ensemble playing this season and I'm missing the joy of harmonizing with others.  So, I'm feeling unhappy with my playing and finding my enthusiasm, usually always there, evaporating.

I'm working on Popper HS etude 3, which is in Bb minor (5 flats), so I've also been assigned the Db major and Bb minor scales. The scales are hard for me (intonation, particular on the C and G strings), so it's lots of work to get them sounding good.  The etude is one I really don't like.  Some of the Popper etudes (like #6) are joyful and melodic and I love putting in the necessary time to do them well.  This etude is sad and dreary and it's hard to get into it.  I have made it to the point where I'm playing the whole etude though, rather than just 5-10 measures, so I'm starting to feel a little better about it.

I've been working on Suzuki Book 7 pieces and on parts of the Bach 3rd Suite.  My teacher is requiring that everything (even work in lessons) be done from memory.  I am able to commit these pieces to memory, but it is hard to hold them in my head and also play with release and relaxation and musicality.   The Suzuki pieces are easier to work from memory than the Bach.  For example, the Popper "Gavotte", while two pages long, has lots of repeats and the segments of the piece make sense.  The memory is there and I'm having fun playing it, in spite of unevenness in the thumb segments and thumb double stops.  Same with the Paradis and the first Eccles sonata piece.  The Bach is another story. I have the Allemande from memory and am practicing from memory at home, but I'm still at the point where if I don't play it for a day there's always a memory slip and so much of my mind is focused on where I am in the piece that the musicality and dynamics just aren't there yet.  I've just started the Bouree's (they are part of Suzuki 7, too) and here the memory and the fact that my bow work (stop bows, etc.) isn't satisfactory yet is holding me back.  Practice has to be very slow in small segments, so I'm losing the feel of the dance.  I guess it will come, but the discouragement is there.

Always before, I would work a piece in a detailed way using the music and only when I felt that it was almost performance ready would I add playing from memory.  This is the way that I learned the Paradis and Eccles pieces and it worked.  The dynamics and musicality were there before I started the memory work.

A plateau I guess.  Hope it doesn't stretch out for too long a time.
"Dancing Cellos" ©Carol Ann Knox 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Inspirational Concert

I love going to concerts, seeing musicians perform in real time and responding to the audience.  Particularly nice are the small chamber venues where the audience is "up close and personal" with the performers, can see closely the instruments being played and enjoy the reaction of the performers to the audience.

Several years ago a young Boston cellist, Sebastian Baverstam, filled in as an emergency replacement for Lynn Harrell at a Cape Symphony Orchestra concert.  He brought down the house playing a difficult concerto and I hoped at that time to be able to see him again.  This past Sunday was my chance.

Sebastian playing Bach Photo by George Dalin
Highfield Hall in Falmouth hosts a series of intimate chamber concerts on Sunday afternoons, bringing talented musicians into a setting where the audience is only a few feet away from the musicians.  The piano is a large historic Steinway, worth a visit in itself.  The past Sunday Sebastian Baverstam was joined by his piano partner Constantine Finehouse for a program of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, with a modern piece in addition with the Boston composer there to receive applause.

I especially enjoyed the Bach First Suite, because I have learned it and enjoy playing it myself.  I had true admiration for the playing of Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, a very difficult piece which was executed with great feeling and wonderful technique.  I've tried learning the Brahm's 1st Sonata, but have never felt I have mastered the playing of this piece (maybe someday in the future I will feel comfortable with it), so it was inspiring to hear Sebastian's beautiful rendition of this piece.  The pianist was very good, too, but his playing, to me, felt a little heavy and loud for the room and the cellist, especially in the quieter sections of the pieces.

A very inspiring afternoon.  I've been working on the third suite this year, but the concert sent me back to the first suite to practice it again.  Lovely concert.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Duets with a recorder… an old friend becomes an adult learner

We had a long time friend (from high school days) stay with us last weekend on his way to visit his grandchildren.  He arrived with his newest hobby: a recorder.  He remembers his mother playing the recorder in church years ago, and he decided that he wanted to add some music to his life.  He bought a recorder and a "how to" book and started learning how to play.

Now, this is beyond my experience.  I've learned three different instruments (piano, pipe organ and cello) and always worked with a teacher.  Years ago, when my daughter played the flute, I bought a lovely pear wood alto recorder and tried to learn it on my own, but was not satisfied with my progress.  I could play some basic tunes, but then the tunes got more difficult and I didn't really have the skills to keep going.  I finally gave it away. (Too bad… I could have used it last weekend!)

A few weeks ago I sent our friend a couple of easy violin/cello duets, but he found them intimidating and not easy to play (the timing wasn't all that easy and one had faster notes than he is used to).  We tried one of them together and did finally manage to play it passably. Then he got out his recorder book and insisted we play some of the duets in that which he had been learning.

Well, those duets were in the G clef of course.  And I had to oblige (he was so enthusiastic), but WOW what a stretch to sight read up there in thumb position (and my cello, which is very much a student cello, doesn't sound all that great way up on the A string).  I tried transposing in my head an octave down, but doing that on the fly wasn't easy at all.  Playing the violin part in thumb was what I ended up doing.  Didn't sound all that great, but it was fun to see our friend get joy out of an instrument he has started playing as an adult.

Music provides so many pleasures, and playing music yourself adds another layer of pleasure and understanding.  Well, and pain, too, as you struggle to do things that are incredibly difficult.

I was a little envious of our friend being able to blow into that recorder and hit the right note every time! I'm reminded again of the time and effort playing a fretless stringed instrument requires.  Well, my husband has a wonderful saying that is very appropriate to this discussion: "It's never easy!"

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Back from Summer Vacation

I had ambitious plans for my cello progress this summer.  Unfortunately many trips and activities (on which I couldn't take my cello) meant that my practice was limited to my time at home.  While I practiced diligently when I was home, if I'd been away and not practicing for several days to a week, it took me almost as long to get my playing back to where it was when I left.  I felt as if most of the summer was a treading water occupation.  I don't think I did too much backsliding, but I certainly didn't forge forward in my playing.

I worked on various movements of the third Bach suite over the summer, and I did start to learn the phrasing and fingering.  That will make it easier to work successfully on them this fall.  But I didn't go on to memorize any of the movements and without any teaching help I was more or less playing through them without knowing the best way to proceed.  Now that I'm back to lessons, I'm starting to memorize the Allemande from the 3rd suite and am getting help with the bowing and shifting.  That piece is starting to sound better already, particularly the first few staves which I have memorized.  I also am working on Popper #36, which according to various sources is supposed to be preparatory for the 3rd suite.  It is really helping me to work on long slurs and double stops so far.  The more difficult sections are still to come, as I've only learned 1.5 pages of a 3 page etude. I love Popper in spite of the challenges!

I had a bit more success with the Suzuki Book 7 pieces I worked on this summer.  I did much of the fingering of Paradis's "Sicilienne" myself and was able to play most of it pretty successfully for my teacher when I returned to lessons.  I have some timing issues in the second half to work out; I've started to memorize that piece, and have the first half already memorized and the second half partly done.  I worked on all four movements of the Eccles Sonata over the summer, memorizing the first movement.  My teacher wants me to leave that piece for now to concentrate on other pieces in book 7.  We've started working on the Popper "Gavotte"; I did look at that this summer, but left it for this fall because of the difficult thumb sections, high harmonics and double stops (last section).  I've been working on that the past two weeks.  I have the first section (which repeats throughout the piece) memorized and am working on memorizing the first thumb position section.  I really like this piece and am enjoying playing it and learning it.

I dropped out of the Conservatory String Ensemble for the fall term.  It was a long drive, the music hadn't been that challenging the past few sessions and the conductor didn't seem to be enjoying the group as much as in the past.  Plus the cost of the 9/10 week program (the performance counts as one of the weeks) increased 20% from last spring.  It's a 45-55 minute drive in traffic each way for 1 1/2 hours of playing (that's if the group that has the room first gets out so the chairs and stands can be set up in time). And it's later in the evening than it used to be (we're playing second fiddle here to the youth program) so it's late when I get home.  I'll see how much I miss it this fall; I can always decide to join again for the Winter/Spring session.  But so far, it's been really nice not to have that long drive for a very short playing session.  I wish there were ensemble opportunities closer to home, but there aren't.  Too bad for me.

Last spring I was really enamored with the Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold A string.  I liked both it's loudness and it's sweetness in comparison to the other Evah A strings (regular and soloist).  But over the summer it has begun sounding as harsh as the regular Evah A string.  Well, when I next change my A string, I think I will pay the extra money and get the Larson A string again.  It's worth it for the sweeter sound.  The other A strings I've used are okay, too (Jarger, Passione); they don't have the harshness of the Evah A's on my cello, but they lack that silvery sweetness of the Larson.  I've stuck with the Evah A strings this past year  because of their loudness; I had been playing some cello/piano pieces, and the Evah A had a nice loudness that you can hear easily above the piano.  But I haven't been playing any cello/piano lately so it begins to make sense to go back to the nicer sounding A strings.  My other Evah strings (D, G, and C) are all good on my cello.  So I can't complain too much!