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!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Navigating the summer break from cello lessons

With no scheduled lessons this July and August (my teacher is getting a much needed break from intense teaching), my teacher and I have been working on a plan for me to continue to work and improve over the summer.  It is so tempting, with no lessons scheduled, to backslide and arrive in the fall with a month or more of working to get back in "cello shape".

Much as I will miss my lessons, as a teacher myself for many years at a boarding school, I know how easy it is to 'burn out' from the intensity of teaching day in and day out.  The only thing that allowed me to keep teaching for so long with love and enthusiasm, was the summer break when I could rest, refresh, and then gradually begin to long for teaching again.

I guess my summer plan goes along the lines of "Something old, something new, something longed for, something with others".

The local chamber orchestra has a summer session where they invite all comers to a July reading session.  Very enticing to me, but in 5 sessions over two weeks they have scheduled a Beethoven symphony, Finlandia, and a Mozart piano concerto.  Lovely music and within my capabilities for sure, but there's no way that I could do more than stumble through it in a sight reading session.  Travel and other activities preclude me trying to do any practicing before then on my own (and I would have to put regular practice on hold).  So I decided that attempting that session would not be helpful to my progress.  I so love playing in large groups, but I like to be prepared before I do that.  So I crossed that opportunity off my list, with reluctance.  There's a chance that I might get together with a local quartet of cellists for a few practice sessions this summer; if that opportunity happens that will be great!

Something old?  One of the things that has been key to my progress this year is working on Popper etudes; they stretch my capabilities and without question make my playing better.  So far I have worked on three etudes from Opus 76;  I'm going to cycle through them at the beginning of my practices this summer, as they are varied enough to challenge me to improve many techniques.  I also may go back and play through the etudes in Opus 73 and 73a; I haven't played those in quite a while and they would be a good review.

Something new?  My teacher and I have worked through the fingerings for all of the pieces in Bach's Third Suite.  I have learned the Prelude, and have attempted a couple of the others not so successfully in years past.  I want to learn the Allemande, the Courante, the Bourees, and the Gigue well enough to play them through successfully.  I may memorize the Allemande and review my memorization of the Prelude.  Wait, this doesn't sound too much like a relaxing summer.  Oh, well….

Something longed for?  I've been working on the Eccles Sonata this spring (played so amazingly by Amit Peled on his CD "Cellobrations").  I love the piece and it has so much in it that is a challenge to good technique, both intonation and bowing.  I plan to practice it now with a Finale piano accompaniment (I type the piano part into Finale and transfer the midi file into my Yahama piano.) until I feel comfortable with the whole piece.  The slow movements I have mostly in memory, so it wouldn't take much to get them fully there.  Memorizing the two fast movements would really improve my mastery of them.  Two of the movements are part of Suzuki Book 7, so doing this piece is truly in my progress plan.  I'd like to work on Paradis's "Sicilienne" this summer, too; it's the last piece in in Book 7. The Bouree's from the Third Suite are also in book three.  So a longed for goal would be to have much of Suzuki Book 7 in hand by the fall.  Just the Popper left to do for the fall!!!  I love that piece, but there's no way to attempt that one on my own!

I look at my 'cello summer plan' with a bit of a smile; I probably won't accomplish all of these things, but the summer journey should be happy, challenging and good for my playing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Starker Master Class

I loved watching this recently posted video (on YouTube) of a masterclass of Janos Starker at Portland State University in 2004.  Starker is hard to hear in this video, but it's well worth the time.  The cellist is Sarah Stone and the piece is Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody.  She plays it well, but oh what Starker is able to do to bring her playing to a higher level.  He has a lot to say about the bow, holding it and using it in the difficult passages of this piece.  So watch it and enjoy!

I think my favorite part of the master class was when Starker recommended  Popper #6 as good practice for this piece.  Oh, yes, the Popper #6 that I'm working on right now!!!  Every Popper piece is worth the time and the effort it takes to play it, but I just love this one with it's wonderful melody, scales and arpeggios.  And of course there's the challenge of the first two lines of the second page; yes, students, you WILL learn that upper fingerboard!!!

Starker and Popper.  So much to learn from both!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Practice that works

The blog "The Bulletproof Musician" today (see the sidebar link for the full article) has an interesting essay on practice techniques that really improve performance.  Typically we all practice a segment over and over (10 times each day comes to mind), feeling that doing this enough times will cement the passage in our minds and muscle memory.  It does help, but it's not as effective as one might wish.

My teacher recommends practicing a passage using different rhythms each time; this can be difficult, but it does work.  I was reminded of this technique as I read the above blog post this morning, because it is about practicing a passage in many different ways as a path to mastery.  Here's a bit of what the post recommends:

"Remember that the progress you appear to make during the acquisition phase of a skill isn’t necessarily the best reflection of how much learning is actually taking place. It might feel like you are making rapid progress and be very satisfying, but don’t confuse the temporarily high “accessibility” of the correct motor program with the underlying “habit strength” of that motor program.

Don’t just practice with the metronome at one speed. Try practicing slower and faster than the target tempo. Louder and softer. With vibrato and without. Sitting and standing.
Change things up, throw in a range of variations on a theme, and enhance your ability to nail the passage even if the performance conditions aren’t exactly like the practice room (because when was the last time a performance felt like the practice room?)."
I like these recommendations: practicing at different speeds, practicing at different volumes, with and without vibrato, playing while seated in different positions or chairs; adding these to tempo variations seems like a great 'tool kit' for an increase in learning.  The article talks about research done with, for example, shooting baskets.  People who practiced shooting baskets from various places on the floor were more successful at shooting the baskets at one position than people who just practiced from that one position. This is counterintuitive, but then learning often is.  Please post a comment if you have other techniques for mastery of a piece of music!!!

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".