Thursday, October 16, 2014

Concert nerves

About a year ago (shortly after I became more at liberty after I left my full-time job), I was asked to play in a trio -- flute, cello, and piano. The flutist is principal in my orchestra and is an excellent player, as is the pianist, so I agreed. Earlier this year we began rehearsing a short program with the plan to play it once in October and once in November.

The October performance is upon us, and I do not feel 100% ready. I wonder if anyone ever does, really? There's so much that's unpredictable. But aside from that, I'm now wishing I'd practiced the music more -- a lot more. We did a run-through of the concert this past weekend at my house in front of about a dozen friends and family, and though it was a nice social occasion and we generally played well together, I had too many wobbly moments (at least based on my listen to the recording), and gee, my sound wasn't all that good! I just got back from a string-buying expedition; fresh strings should help quite a bit with response and tone. I hope.

Ah, well. It's all a learning experience. I doubt anyone is going to listen to me more critically than I do. But there's that not-so-hidden desire to play not just adequately but superbly.

Here's a taste of the program: a trio by George Alexander Macfarren (1813–1887). I do think I improved somewhat as I warmed up (which I didn't have a chance to do in the couple of hours before we played). I felt sorry for the pianist having to play this on my Baldwin upright (the living room piano; I keep the grand in a more climate- and sound-controlled space in the house).

(Note that there is a bit of silence at the beginning. The piece is about 9-1/2 minutes long.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cello Tales

I have a video recommendation -- this documentary:

Cello Tales

The blurb at the above link:
Four strings, a wooden box that has lived for 300 years.
The cello is the most human-like of all musical instruments in shape, size and sound.
A daughter searches for her father's stolen instrument for a decade. An artisan looks for the best way to craft the perfect piece of wood. A soloist travels the world playing. A copyist recreates the sound of the great masters.
The cello. More than just a musical instrument.
It's about an hour and a quarter, mostly in German, with English subtitles. I didn't try to download it and just watched online.

It's both educational and nicely done, with some good music. It approaches the "cello mystique" in a non-mystical way, which I liked very much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bad, bad blogger: Updates

I apologize for the radio silence these past two months.

I've been doing a number of musical things, but every time I have started to write about them it all seemed too complicated to explain and not terribly interesting to anyone but me.

So herewith some brief updates:

The first week in August, I attended the Bennington Chamber Music Conference (linky here) as an auditor for five days -- basically, I read through a lot of chamber music with random pickup groups, but I wasn't assigned to a set group and didn't get coaching (except for one session when I filled in for a bassoonist in the Schubert octet). I am seriously considering going back for a full week next year. When I first heard about it, it didn't sound appealing (haven't I had enough chamber music coaching in my life already?), but there was something very pleasant about the experience as a whole.

I had a whole month of no piano lessons because my teacher went on vacation (one reason I decided to go to Bennington) -- the longest since I started with him in January 2012! But I kept practicing as usual (maybe a little less diligently on the scales :)). I've been working on Bach (B flat partita), Chopin (Op. 25 No. 1), Brahms (Op. 79, Nos. 1 and 2, and Op. 119, No. 1). Everything still seems like a struggle, but I have noticed that when I do play easier music, I play it much better than I used to. I'm much more aware of the sound that's coming out of the piano. At my first lesson after the break, my teacher suggested we start a new piece, and he chose the Mozart Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. Holy whatever! It's 30 or so pages of finger twisters thinly disguised as sedate classicism. But I'm game.

On the cello, I've been reading string quartets with one of my teachers from college and his wife (a violinist and violist). We've been getting together about once a week for some months now for approximately 2-hour sessions of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and so on. He retired some years ago, but he's played and taught just about everything, so what he lacks in finesse at this point he more than makes up for with intimate knowledge of what these pieces are all about.

I'm in a trio (flute/piano/cello) that is playing a couple of concerts this fall, and we've been rehearsing about twice a month since the spring. The other players are both excellent, which makes it a bit challenging.

I've also been attempting to give my cello practice some structure with two newish things. A while back, I heard an interview with Marta Casals Istomin in which she talked about Casals's late-life daily routine. She said that every day, he worked on a different Bach suite: Monday was G major, Tuesday D minor, and so on; the D major Sixth Suite he would do on both Saturday and Sunday because it's the most difficult. So I decided to try this myself. I had forgotten how hard those last two suites are! I have to confess that I haven't been able to do this every day, and I don't have a set routine, like, if it's Wednesday it must be Suite No. 3, but it's been a good refresher course.

The other is that I decided to work my way through the Popper High School of Cello Playing -- 40 etudes that are the closest thing cellists have to Paganini. I learned a few of them when I was in college, but I never treated them as music, and they really are. Inspired by this guy, I'm also attempting to memorize them. I realize that as a somewhat old lady I will never have the sex appeal of a Gen Y-er videoing himself playing Popper while sitting on the edge of his bed, so I don't know if I'll ever record these at all, but I do like working on them.

Then there's orchestra, which is gearing up for the season's first concert this month.

I'm still teaching a few students. I haven't tried to find more yet. I do enjoy teaching, but not the competition with other teachers, plus I'm not willing to take on just anyone. I don't think my forte is very young students, or hooking kids' interest by being an entertainer.

There are a few other odds and ends, but that should do it for now. I hope to be more inspired to write in the months ahead.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Old -- eight eyes?

I've worn glasses since I was 8 years old. At first I would sometimes forget to put them on when I went to school; as time passed and I became more nearsighted, they progressed from optional to necessary.

When I was about 20, I started wearing contact lenses, which worked for me until sometime in my 40s, which was when I became deeply embedded in my job that involved staring at a computer all day in a dry office. The contact lenses were more trouble than they were worth.

About 10 years ago, I noticed I was having trouble reading at close distances -- enter progressive lenses. These have served me pretty well. I eventually acquired prescription sunglasses, also with progressive lenses (after an ophthalmologist told me that if I didn't protect my eyes better I'd end up with cataracts sooner rather than later).

Sometime in the past month or two, I noticed I was having increasing difficulty reading music at the piano. I could see the music, but I couldn't focus my eyes well enough to take in its meaning. This really evidenced itself when I was playing piano duo music -- I was straining my eyes so hard that I felt dizzy. So back to the eye doctor, who, after some testing, wrote me out a prescription for "piano glasses." Within a day, I had my new glasses in hand.

They do indeed enable me to read music on the piano, and it's beautifully clear. But it's disconcerting to look across the room (to see what time it is, for example) and see -- a blur. At first when I tried them out for reading music while playing the cello, they they didn't work, but as my eyes have become accustomed to them, they help with that as well. I doubt if they would work in an orchestra situation because it would be hard to see the conductor. So I may not be done with adding eyeglasses to my life.

I have noticed, even in this short time, that in a strange way they help me focus on what I'm doing at the piano because I can't look away. I can look either at the music or the keyboard, but nowhere else. It made me aware how much I look around the room or away from the piano when I'm playing. With the glasses on, I become more tunnel-visioned on either the music or my hands -- and I think this is a good thing.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What happened to June?

I woke up yesterday and realized that it's now July and that I didn't write a single blog post in the month of June. But things have been going on -- in fact, this past weekend ended the month in a veritable whirl of musical activity.

On Friday, I drove out to the far reaches of Virginia for not one but two rehearsals. The first was with a pianist I've been working with on chamber music. For her benefit, we are doing some cello-piano duos, and for mine, some piano-four-hand duos. On this particular day, we were preparing three movements of the "Dolly Suite" by Fauré for a recital on Sunday. It's not terribly difficult, but playing four-hand piano is new to me and gives me a new perspective on the piano.

After an hour or so of that, I had to rush over to a rehearsal for a concert of Piazzolla tangos with a small string ensemble. This was the same group I played the absurd concert with in May. For this gig, we were playing about 20 different pieces with a bandoneon player, which was logistically challenging, and they were not all that easy, either. We rehearsed for 5 hours and didn't exactly polish everything, although I was again impressed by the level of playing.

Saturday, after teaching a cello lesson in between some frantic practicing, I put on some dressy black clothes and set out for the tango concert. This time we were in a beautiful performance space (a converted movie theater that now features semi-pop groups) with a great sound system. The gig itself was at 8:30 p.m., but we were supposed to be there at 5:00 for a sound check -- which meant a couple hours of cooling our heels until performance time. The one-hour sound check ended with some warm words (well, actually, yelling) between the conductor and the soloist. I never found out what it was all about, but by the time of the concert, everything was fine again. There were a few wobbly moments here and there, but overall it didn't sound too bad.

Sunday I participated in the final AMSF public recital of the season. My adult cello student played a Vivaldi sonata, and I accompanied her on the cello. Vivaldi wrote nine sonatas for cello and continuo, with the latter part being simply a bass line. The player of the chordal instrument (e.g., harpsichord, lute) was expected to improvise an accompaniment. So we were in fact playing the piece exactly as written, though maybe not as intended!

My piano duo partner and I played our three movements of Fauré also. In this genre of music, the "primo" is the person who sits at the high end of the piano, and the "secondo" sits at the low end and works the pedal, so the latter part is usually more difficult though perhaps less obviously so. I was playing the primo part.

My piano teacher attended the recital and made the interesting observation that I did great things with my very easy primo part, which consists mainly of the melody in octaves, so he was wondering how to get me to do the same thing with all of my music! We spent a good chunk of my lesson a few days later working on this with the Brahms Intermezzo I'm learning (Op. 119 No. 1) -- not just bringing out the melody line, but also shaping and adjusting it in context, and learning how to treat it as the vital element that it is. For some reason, this gave me a lot of insight into things we've been talking about for the past 2+ years. It's one thing to say "bring out the melody," but you have to experience what that means to be able to do it.

Speaking of doing, it's now been exactly a year since I gave notice at my job. It has gone by awfully quickly. I keep worrying that I'm wasting this beautiful time that I have now; I never feel like I'm accomplishing enough. But I have no regrets.

Friday, May 30, 2014

And what of the piano?

I haven't mentioned piano in a while, but rest assured that I am still taking my weekly lessons and practicing diligently every day.  My current program:
  • Scales, arpeggios, broken arpeggios, chord progressions (one key per week)
  • Three-finger exercise (where you play 1-2-3, then 2-3-4, then 3-4-5 for an octave, up with the right hand, down with the left hand; first white keys, then chromatic, then whole tones)
  • Trill exercises
  • Bach (we've moved on to Partita No. 1 after my teacher decided I was bored/frustrated with No. 2 after working on it for a year)
  • Chopin étude Op. 25, No. 1 (the "Harp" -- or as my teacher calls it, "Harpy")
  • Brahms Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1 (though I haven't entirely put aside the B minor Rhapsody -- in fact, I find it interesting to go from Op. 119 directly to Op. 79 since they are in the same key)
  • A prelude by Ruth Crawford [Seeger] (I put "Seeger" in brackets here because she published these pieces between 1924 and 1928, before her 1932 marriage to Charles Seeger, father of the later famous folk singer Pete)
  • Piano duo (currently, some movements from Fauré's "Dolly" suite -- not exactly a favorite of mine musically, but pleasant enough, and a good introduction to playing four-hands piano)
Also, I try to play/practice the Beethoven sonata about once a week so I don't lose it entirely.

My teacher and I have had some discussions about how to improve my technique, especially how to achieve greater clarity, after I complained about how unevenly I was playing in the Bach (though probably in everything else, too; it's just more obvious in Bach). A lot of it lies in knowing when to lift my fingers higher and when to use more wrist. Scales are good for working on this, though it takes a lot of patience. I am so in the mindset of wanting to get to the music -- and if I have limited time, that's what tends to take precedence. But I do notice that I play better when I've been doing scales and exercises every day.

I have to persist in the face of the feeling I'm not "getting anywhere" with all of this -- though where exactly I'm expecting to get, I don't know.

From time to time, I do a little practicing of the WTC I/2 (the prelude and fugue in C minor that I set aside more than a year ago) to see if I feel like I can record it. It's still not quite there, believe it or not. My standards have definitely changed since I started that project!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Oh, the absurdity

The latest orchestra gig was oddly stressful. Going into it:

I didn't know the conductor.
I didn't know how big the group was or who else was in it.
The rehearsals were all in the far reaches of northern Virginia and required driving in rush hour traffic.
We were only going to have three of them.
The third rehearsal was going to be a recording session.
The music was really hard.
I was playing principal, so I had to put in bowings and generally be more prepared than usual.

In my old life, I certainly would not have taken this job at all. But now, I think I need the stimulation of interacting with other people, especially musicians. Plus, there was something appealing about it; maybe it was because in the initial email I got from the conductor, he said, "I know that you are great musician." Who could resist that?

There were two monster pieces on the program: The serenades for strings of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Parts of these I simply could not play when I first tried them. I had to get out my metronome and slog through some tortured work, and it took a couple of weeks to get them more or less under my fingers. I didn't know if this would be a big group with a bunch of cellos, or just me, or something in between, or the group was going to be dreadful or good, but I had to prepare. I didn't want to look (or sound) like an idiot, just in case it mattered (though I thought it unlikely that it would be some astonishing but unknown local version of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra). As I was practicing the music for this, I reflected that I could consider this penance for all the many times I was unprepared and coasted on the preparation of others but still got paid.

Plus, the driving. I have structured my life so that I don't have to drive much. I kept my last car for 18 years and it only had about 75,000 miles on it when I traded it in on a new car (I would have kept it, except the exhaust system was a mess even after a new muffler, and the whole car was disintegrating a bit every day). But for this gig, I had to drive about 60 miles round trip for each date involved.

So before the first rehearsal, I was quite a bundle of nerves. I left the house around 5:45 for a 7:00 start time; I didn't get there until probably 7:15 because of just horrendous traffic (i.e., the kind where you sit there inching along for an hour to get about 5 miles down the road).

The orchestra turned out to be a group of 13 string players: seven violins, two violas, two cellos, two basses. They were all quite excellent players, but only a few had played together before or knew the conductor, who was a personable but rather intense guy who doesn't talk much -- perhaps because his English is a bit spotty.

This conductor had an interesting way of doing things. For example, he started with the slow movements of both the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Also, he tried out different tempos for everything. I could tell he was really listening to what was happening and was trying to figure out how to make it sound better. It was sort of refreshing, in contrast with most conductors I've worked with who put on the pretense that they are infallible. On the other hand, when people asked him questions, he kind of ignored us, I guess with an eye on the clock.

Anyway, what with the driving, the nerves, and the demanding music, I found the first rehearsal exhausting. But I felt like I fit in. In fact, I am still marveling at how this guy found so many good players and got them to do this job.

For the second rehearsal, he asked us all to stay an extra hour (until 11:30 p.m. -- that's four and a half hours, folks!) because we were going to start recording. The evening started out with all area drivers in a panic because of pending rainstorms, resulting in more bad traffic jams -- but I actually got there on time because I left even earlier and took some back roads. Somewhere around 11:00, my arms and wrists burning, I said, "I can't play anymore!" I felt like such a whiner because I was the only one who protested, but geez, I wasn't about to give myself carpal tunnel syndrome over someone else's emergency, you know? But with everyone staring down at their shoes, I was persuaded to do one one more short piece and then he let us all go. I drove home through a raging downpour and didn't get there until after midnight.

The third rehearsal was supposed to be shorter to compensate for the extra hour, but it was not. It was another four hours (at least this time in the afternoon). By this time, I had given up practicing between rehearsals to save my poor arms and hands as much as possible. I lost count of how many times we recorded the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. As I was leaving that day, I asked the recording guy, who was sitting outside the practice room, how it sounded. He kind of made a face and said, "Oh, okay, I guess." I said, "Not ready for Deutsche Grammophon?" He said, "Not exactly."

The big finale of all this, the concert, took place on Saturday afternoon, outdoors at a park in Frederick as part of an Italian festival. It was a gorgeous day after all that rain. We got in the car (husband came with me) and headed out -- only to run into another huge traffic jam, so we took a detour and got there about a half hour later than planned. But the first hour was only supposed to be dinner (a little perk for the musicians), so that was not a problem. What was a problem was that the small stage we were to play on was set directly in front of the truck with the generator for the lights and sound system. This was probably why the band playing before us was playing so loud. When we finally got up there to play, we could hardly hear ourselves, let alone manage any nuances.

It was also rather chilly (though I suppose preferable to being hot) and breezy. I'd brought a handful of clothespins, which came in handy for holding the music on the stand. By the time we started, most of the crowd had left. Those remaining seemed to enjoy the music, though no one announced what we were playing so they probably had no idea what they were listening to -- except maybe for the waltz theme from "The Godfather." We went through the entire Tchaikovsky (four movements), then some of the shorter pieces, then the Dvorak (but skipped the slow movement), then a few more shorter pieces, then done. By the time we were finished, the crowd had thinned out even more. We all stood around waiting to get paid (the conductor handing each of us his checkbook and asking us to write our names for him to save time), then drifted off.

And so, after all that work, finis.

By way of celebration/consolation, my husband and I stopped at an excellent Turkish/Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Frederick and had some food (and I had a beer) before getting back on the freeway and wending our way home.