Friday, April 18, 2014

Working up a Piece for Performance

I'm thinking this morning about the value of performing a piece, rather than just learning it well.  For me there is an additional level of learning that takes place when I prepare for performing a piece.  Of course, I'm thinking  about performance right now in the context of this week's spring Ensemble concert, but I'm casting my mind back over the various works I've studied and comparing the ones I've learned (albeit very well) and those I've learned and then worked on them to perform them (either in public or for my teacher).  There's a difference and I think it helps me to understand why performing is so valuable to a student.

When you're not just playing for yourself, you pay much more attention to timing and intonation.  Someone else is going to notice that note that's a little sharp or flat and rhythm that's not quite right.  So you do a lot more careful listening to the notes that you're playing and maybe you practice with a metronome to be sure that the timing is correct.  Not that you don't do this normally, but you do it with more attention in preparation for a performance.

I guess I should pay close attention to dynamics in my regular work, but often I neglect it in deference to just being able to play the piece. But performing for others, the piece has to "sing" and have sections that are soft and lovely and sections that are more strident and loud.  I want the listener to like the piece and be drawn into it.

When I'm learning a piece, most often I don't focus on knowing it from memory.  But for performance, even if I don't learn the whole piece from memory, being able to play the important phrases from memory frees me up to focus on what I'm doing, frees me from the notes on the page.  If I work on the piece long enough, some parts just naturally seem to get memorized, but dividing the piece into phrases and being able to practice each phrase without looking at the music seems to enhance the sound.  That said, even though most of the piece is in my memory (both muscle memory and intellectual memory), I play better when I have the music in front of me.  I may only refer to it it intermittently, but removing the stress of having to rely only on my memory for the piece results in playing that is more relaxed and natural.  Plus, if you are playing with others, all of you may find the score a relaxing prop.  Knowing the other parts is really important in listening for entrances, etc.  But having the music there is a great stress reducer (and I find emotional stress and nervousness do not help a performance).

Performing makes you take the music to another level.  More preparation enhances that level.  I know I'm ready to perform a piece when I can just sit down and play it without worrying about notes or measures that might be problems.  Not that I always get to that point!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Listening for intonation

I've worked really hard learning a trio piece (two cellos and piano) and will perform it in about a week. But, I knew the intonation was sometimes right, sometimes not quite there, and my recent preparation was mostly playing with my partners or (at this point) playing through the piece. My husband came down the stairs last Saturday and said, "You know, that one section, it's not right, the notes are off."  At first I bristled a bit; I really have been working so hard on the music for the concert.  But then I started remembering our muddiness in practice (when things are not quite right, you really can't hear the harmonies); I decided that the problem was at least partly me.

I spent the weekend working through my part, slowly and carefully.  I separated the track for my part from my Finale master,  lowered the speed, and put it on a CD.  With slow careful play through with the CD, I then could identify those scattered notes that were just a little off.  At my lesson yesterday, my teacher worked with me on some of the shifts; she also found my finger spacing between the third and fourth finger was a little too big at several points, enough to make a couple of notes flat.  I think I finally have my part much more solid (intonation and timing wise), so when we have a joint practice and coaching later this week I will be able to carefully tune to my trio partners.  It's amazing how one note, just a little sharp or flat can muddy up the sound--or in the case of ensemble playing how a little up or down can clear the harmony.

I love what William Pleeth ("Cello", edited by Nona Pyron) has to say about ensemble playing at the beginning of a section on intonation in ensembles:

"Intonation is not the absolute that many people often imagine it to be. For the string player there are not twelve notes within the octave, but an infinite number.  Depending on the harmonic setting and the textures which are put against a note, one may have to move the finger quite a distance (within any one pitch) in order to 'fine tune' the note and enable it to fit into it's tonal environment……….. 'Basic intonation', i.e. carefully spaced fingers, even in a relatively perfected state, is only the first part of the journey.  It is when the notes you play are put in the harmonic and textural context of the complete piece of music that the additional fine adjustments begin to make themselves apparent….This is why fine tuning becomes so crucial to good ensemble playing."

When I'm typing an ensemble piece into Finale (which I do to hear the other parts together), I often proofread to catch incorrect notes by listening to a playback of the piece.  It's amazing how a wrong notes stands out; a section sounds jarring and I'm sure that there are many notes to change.  So often it's just one note in one measure.  I'm smiling as I write this, because I'm thinking about how the coach of our string ensemble can so easily pick out just one wrong note!!!  Last practice one F# instead of an F by the first violin was so, so quickly pounced upon!!!

I think what I love most about ensemble playing is the beauty of the harmonies when one is playing.  But it sure takes hard work to end up with such beauty instead of the more easily accomplished 'mud'

One more week to go; here's hoping the ensemble can achieve some of that harmonic beauty!!!  Our Trio is playing Handel's Trio Sonata for two cello's and piano as well as a trio version of Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Winter's Willow".  The full Ensemble is playing pieces by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Washburn  and Strauss, finishing with Souza's "The Stars and Stripes Forever".

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fall Ensemble Concert

The string ensemble had their Fall Concert almost two weeks ago.  It always is a joy to play with this group of musicians who play so much for the love of the music.  Something new this time:  Three of us played a couple of trios to start the program, and then the whole ensemble took over for the remainder of the concert.  The trio is an unusual one, two cellos and a piano; we find we love the sound of this combination and this winter we plan to learn more trio pieces.  We will, I think, learn the second movement of the Vivaldi Double Concerto and one of the movements of the Handel Trio Concerto. Lots of music making to look forward to this winter!  We had only a small crowd there (almost no publicity), but the joy was in the music making.


After the holiday's my lesson work will include the Eccle's sonata for cello and piano (at least the first two movements, but maybe I will do all of them…. Amit Peled has posted all four movements on YouTube and they are compellingly beautiful!)  I'm also plugging away in Popper's HS of Cello Playing.  The etudes are stretchingly difficult, but every one leaves me with the ability to do something new with the cello.  I think I must end this post with a Christmas thank you to David Popper for all he has done over the years for cello students!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Use of Memorization in practice and learning

Gemini's question about memorization inspired me to return to this subject again (I've written here about memorizing the Bach Suites, for example), because using memorization seems to create another level of knowledge and understanding of a piece of music.  I've done some thinking since that question about how I use memorizing and some of the things that result in memorization. 

Years ago learning the piano, I never thought much about memorization; learning and playing a piece just seemed to result in the ability to play it without music. But it was an incomplete process: if I stopped in the middle of a piece, I often couldn't go on, and to do it I had to start at the beginning and run the whole piece.  It was almost like a tape playing a bit automatically.

Learning the cello as an adult has been so complicated and involves so many different skills that for a long time I didn't even think of memorizing the music, although rote muscle memory of pieces was certainly happening.  My first teacher used Suzuki books, but did not teach her adult students the Suzuki technique of memorizing each piece as it was learned.  Several years ago I started lessons with a new teacher who uses the Suzuki technique and she has been encouraging me to use memorization in my learning.  I've tried doing this in several different ways, but the most effective, for me, is the process below.

First of all, I need to thoroughly know the music before trying to memorize it.  By that I mean I need to be completely accurate with the notes, the rhythm, the intonation and the fingering.  Otherwise, I would be memorizing mistakes!  So first things first: I like to be able to play the piece properly using the music, using the metronome so that rhythm and evenness are there in the playing.

Next, I divide the piece into phrases that make sense, maybe 4-8 measures.  The idea is to memorize just a segment of the piece at a time.  I take the segment and analyze it: I might sing it and look at the notes, being sure that I can say the notes that are in the phrase.  I look at which strings the notes are played on, which positions I'll be playing with the left hand, any string crossings to be negotiated and the rhythm.  I'll also look at the dynamics; is this a quiet phrase, is there vibrato or is it a loud phrase with accents? Here's a four measure clip from Vivaldi as an example:

 Next, what is the bow doing in the phrase?  Are there long bows, short bows, detache or staccato, on the string or or bouncing?  Which are down bows or up bows; which notes are slurred?  Should the bow be played near the bridge with a loud harsher sound or close to the finger board or in the middle.  My teacher always suggests bowing the measures on open strings without fingering the notes.

Finally, and this is all being done in my head rather than while playing, I see if I can visualize the music, the shape of the line and the notes to be played. 

The last step is to play without the music.  I start with one measure, see if I can play it, referring back to the music when I can't. Once I can do one measure I'll add another and then another until I can play the whole phrase without the music.

The phrases can be learned in any order.  I like to learn the first phrase in the piece first, but then I might go to the last phrase and learn the ending.  It's fun to work backward, learning the next to the last phrase, and then the one before that.  If I've learned the last two phrases, then I might try playing them together.  The best thing about this method is that once you've learned all the phrases you can pick up and start playing anywhere in the piece.  When you play the whole piece, you go from phrase to phrase using the phrases as landmarks to ease the way through the piece.

I guess it goes without saying, you should start with a short piece, not try to memorize a very long piece for your first one.  But if you work in phrases, even a long piece is possible. I hope I've given Gemini some new ideas about memorizing.  Whatever works for you is the method you should use.  These are just a few ideas, some that I've gleaned from my teacher (who is amazing), that I have used with some success. 

Happy Memorizing!!!!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Performing and Motivation and Pressure

As I practice diligently for our upcoming String Ensemble concert, I've been contemplating the influence of the pressure of a concert on learning.  I always work hard on the pieces I am learning, even memorizing pieces like the Prelude to Bach's 3rd suite as a way of knowing the music completely.  And all this work does result in knowing the music better and better playing.

However, as I look back over the pieces that I can go back to and still play with a reasonable amount of facility, it is uncanny how many of them are pieces that I performed for others.  Not just learned well and played well for my teacher, but pieces that I worked up to another level to be able to perform them for strangers, to know the music in a way that results in what I might call 'stage confidence'.

So, that is what I am doing now as I practice for next Wednesday's performance.  What's different?  I have been doing what some call 'woodshedding': taking small bits of pieces and playing them in different ways and rhythms until they start to flow more easily as I play them.  I've used my beloved Finale to create wav files that I can put on a CD to play along with at various speeds.  I've also put piano accompaniments on my Yamaha piano (as midi files) so I can play along with a real piano sound.   I've been playing using my metronome, starting with slower tempos and working my way up to tempos that are just beyond my skill level.  Every time I do this, the higher tempos get a little bit easier.  And I've been working extensively on intonation and sound, using my bow close to the bridge for a louder sound and closer to the finger board for a sweeter, softer sound.  My trio partners and I (working on two extra pieces to open the concert) have been getting together twice a week for two hour sessions, spending an hour on each piece, playing for intonation, sound and working to develop the ability to anticipate each other as we hit fermatas and other transitions.

One thing that I have been doing, I see, is spending much more time on the music.  Much more than if I was just working the music for my teacher.  And I have been approaching the pieces in many different ways, practicing all parts of the music with a focus on timing, sound, and speed.  I have been writing critical fingerings and tempo/dynamics in the music, sometimes highlighting them in color so that they become part of the playing.  I have not attempted to memorize the music, since there is so much to pay attention to including the conductor and the other player's parts.  I don't have the time to achieve this level yet; however, I can see that being able to play from memory would be the next step to attain (I know the pieces in terms of muscle memory, but I still need the music for reference).

This is so much more than I ever pour into a piece that I am learning for regular lessons.  I imagine it is what a pro pours into every piece, and it explains my ability to go back to earlier performed pieces and play them with more facility than the pieces I have not performed.  Performance demands that extra level of motivation and practice; I guess that's why I like performing in spite of the stress of playing for others.  I guess we should all do more of it!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Bach Cello Suites

The September issue of Strings Magazine has a large section devoted to playing baroque music on the cello with an emphasis on the Bach Cello Suites.  Every cello player who loves Bach will want to own this issue!  There's an article by Laurence Vittes on two very difference approaches to playing the cello suites, featuring Jan Vogler and Pieter Wispelwey and how they approach the suites. This is followed by an article by Corinne Ramey on Carter Brey's performance of the cello suites, using baroque bows and how he used a five string cello in playing the 6th suite.  Then there is an article by James McKean on the construction of a five string cello for Carter Brey, followed by an article by Sarah Freiberg on the option of using a five stringed cello for the sixth suite.

This is just the featured series of articles in the September issue; there's lots more of interest to cellists including a discussion of the importance of scales, etudes and studies and building a more direct and reliable practice technique.  This issue also includes the 2013 fall college guide and an article about successfully building a school orchestra.  I'm really delighted at the way Strings Magazine of late has been including more articles on the viola, the cello and the bass and not limiting themselves to just articles on the violin.

I've spent part of the summer playing and enjoying the prelude to the third suite, so how could I not like this issue.  Ah, it's now September and lessons and string orchestra are starting up again.  Time, again, to make regular practice a part of each day.....

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

New Blog to check out

I have to love Rhonda Rider's comments in the  Strad Magazine on learning the David Popper etudes.  Here's some of what she says in her article:

"To be able to play them, you have to know the fingerboard both up and down and across the strings. I think that’s what first struck me about them – that I had to learn how to get into and out of every position. And if you use Popper’s own bowings, the independence of the hands is just amazing. You’ve got long, legato bows, but within them you’re shifting up and down the instrument, trying not to make any break in the sound. And with some of the studies, you’re also crossing over a bunch of strings, having to work out rapidly where you need to be without hitting the strings in between.
One of the wonderful things about them is that they really teach you how to practise. You have to sort out what the problem is that you need to solve, and then figure out what you need to do to accomplish that. It makes you think of how you should be practising, and you can apply that to concertos and any other pieces you’re working on. For example, the dreaded no.33 is one of my favourites. You have to take it apart so that at first you’re practising just the thumb, then adding the octave, and then gradually adding the notes in between. You really need a practice plan for that study – if you don’t have the groundwork, it’s not going to work. But you learn that the hard way – and you might find out that you haven’t been practising properly for a long time. "

She's so right that they really teach you how to practice, and that they force you to know the fingerboard both up and down and across the strings.

Rhonda Rider also has a nice web site and a blog as part of the web site.  She has a great post on how to organize your practice time.
Rhonda Rider's Blog

Thanks Rhonda for all your helpful advice!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Nature VS Nurture

What happened to those 10,000 hours as a path to excellence?  While I heartily agree with those who say that persistent, thoughtful, effective practice over a long and regular period of time will result in a path towards excellence, as a trained biologist I know that we all have inheritable differences.  Many of those differences do affect our ability to perform various activities, including playing a musical instrument or performing in a sport.  We're just not all built the same and that does affect the way we perform various activities.

As one example, take hand size and cello playing.  The regular sized cello with its wonderfully resonant box has a fingerboard and string length suited to someone with large hands, something that all the stretching and practice in the world will not change.  When you watch a video of Rostropovich playing, look at those long fingers capable of stretches and placements that just not everyone can do.  I attended a recital of a very good HS student a few weeks ago; he played very well and as I watched I noticed his lovely large agile hands!  They did remind me of Rostropovich.  Those hands, indeed, are enhanced by his practice and technique, but what a wonderful starting point.  Of course, this is all spoken by a cello player with very tiny hands; I play a smaller cello (with the resulting less resonant box) and still struggle with those stretches.  I practice a lot and my playing is not bad, but those physical limitations will always be there to affect my ability to play certain pieces well.

There's a new book called "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein that was reviewed recently in the Wall Street Journal.  He tackles the nature/nurture debate talking particularly about physical competition, but what he says also speaks to the fact that not everyone is capable of being a Rostropovich or a Yo-Yo Ma.  Here's a quote from the review; I have the book on order from the library and look forward to reading all that Epstein has to say!
"In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence.

Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The "Learning Quotient"

From the author of the "Talent Code", a book that has been helpful to me in describing the learning process, come the following thoughts this morning on his blog.  I think these are wonderful guidelines to apply to leaning the cello or any other instrument.  I look at this list and see so many things that I can do to improve my practice and learning. Thank you Daniel Coyle for your books and your blog!

The Talent Code Blog

"I’d like to suggest an idea called Learning Quotient. The idea is that our ability to learn is a measurable skill, just like IQ.
Here’s how it might work: rate yourself from 0 to 5 on the following questions according to the usual scale: 0 for strongly disagree; 5 for strongly agree.
  • 1. You work on your skills for an hour or more every day
  • 2. You are focused on process, not the immediate outcomes
  • 3. You have strong relationships with mentors/coaches, and use them as models and guidance
  • 4. You are keenly aware of how much you do not know, and the gap between your present abilities and your longterm goals
  • 5. You can accurately and precisely describe the skills you want to build
  • 6. You think about improving your skills all the time
  • 7. You approach your daily work with enthusiasm
  • 8. You are balanced between building with repetition and seeking innovations
  • 9. You are comfortable going outside of your comfort zone
  • 10. You are constantly adapting and refining your learning process
By this yardstick, a perfect LQ would be 50: the heavenly realm of John Wooden and Goldschmidt. Below 15 and you’re either comatose or Allen Iverson (an immense talent who famously didn’t believe in practice). I suspect most of us would fall in the 25-30 range or so, which, among other things, speaks to the inherent challenges of creating a daily routine and sticking to it.
What I like about the idea of LQ, however, is that it is not a fixed quality. It can be increased and grown, and profoundly affected by environment and group culture."

"The brain is phenomenally plastic.  We construct ourselves
through behavior.  As Coyle observes, it's not
who you are, it's what you do."
--David Brooks, New York Times

Saturday, June 29, 2013

List of Favorite Cello Bloggers

I've posted a new list on my sidebar: a list of cello related blogs that I enjoy reading.  I'd love to have suggestions from readers about other active blogs that are written by cellists, particularly amateur cellists.  Please comment and suggest blogs that you like and enjoy.