Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy new year!

Okay, this is corny; what can I say?


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I'm playing this week

This is probably getting a bit boring to read. It's a bit boring to write, too. Practicing just isn't all that exciting on a day-to-day basis. Sort of like watching paint dry.


Dvorak, in the final week before the first orchestra rehearsal. I probably mainly need to repeat, repeat, repeat. Not sure if I'll play it from memory. I'll have to see how I feel.

Orchestra parts (Brahms second symphony, etc.).

Etudes and Bach for general physical fitness.


Bach Prelude and Fugue, WTCII. I attempted to play the prelude at the in-laws on Christmas (brother-in-law has a nice Yamaha upright that has just been tuned and voiced, and he wanted me to try it) and it fell apart. Possibly because of the three glasses of wine I had with dinner.

Gershwin preludes.

Brahms Op. 118. Playing these slowly with the metronome is helping tremendously. I have a fond memory about No. 3: During my first year as an undergrad music major, I usually sat on the steps in front of the music building waiting for the orchestra rehearsal, and almost every time, someone would be playing Op. 118 No. 3 in the classroom on the second floor just above the building entrance.  Years later, I figured out what the piece was and kept thinking that surely I could learn to play it, but it has evaded me -- until now (I hope).

Chopin: still picking away at Prelude No. 8 and the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2, but thinking of trying to record a couple of pieces for the ABF's e-citals this spring in honor of Chopin's 200th birthday in March. I couldn't seem to think that far ahead when they were planning this last summer, so most of the pieces were chosen before I even considered doing this.

The issue of deciding what to play, though it seems simple, is fraught with meaning. The vast library of music for the piano is overwhelming. It's like facing a buffet loaded with all your favorite dishes and knowing that you can't come to this party again. Unlike a buffet, though, you can't eat just one bite -- you have to have a full serving, so you have to choose.

There are so many elements to balance, like level of difficulty, musical worth, and how one piece complements other pieces learned or in progress. If you have only limited time, is it better to stick with the basics or learn something new or unusual? Should you learn several short pieces or one longer piece? Once you've learned something, when should you move on to something else? Is it worthwhile to return to a piece already learned or to keep learning new pieces?

When I was beginning my return to the piano five years or so ago, I was stymied by these questions, but I finally decided to just choose something, anything, to get myself started. I've had to invoke that a few times since.

A teacher theoretically should help with all this, but I've seen and experienced the fact that it does not. The teacher can only guess what is going to both appeal to you and help develop your playing, and some are not very good at guessing.

Having a sense of which material is best suited to one's self-expression develops over time, through experience and education, but it is also based on instinct and personal taste. Choosing what to play may seem mundane, but even the greatest players must be selective. They make their choices seem natural, universal, inevitable. This is part of their art.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holiday music

My parents weren't religious. I suppose they could be described as agnostic Jews. They did the whole Christmas tree thing with my older sisters, but by the time my younger sister and I were born, they had decided this was hypocritical and had begun some basic Jewish observances to at least connect us with our cultural heritage. These included my mother lighting candles and singing blessings over grape juice, candles, and homemade bread on Friday nights before dinner; making Hamentaschen (small triangular pastries filled with raisins and poppyseeds) at Purim; and lighting a menorah and exchanging presents during the eight nights of Chanukah.

However, for most of my life, I have sung or played in some sort of Christmas program every year. I always felt sort of torn about it. On the one hand, I loved all the Christmas carols (most of which are based on old English folk tunes) and even the tacky holiday songs like "Little Drummer Boy" and "White Christmas" and "Silver Bells." On the other hand, my parents obviously did not feel comfortable with all of this religion-related stuff, though they never said I shouldn't do it.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher decided for some reason that I should sing "The Chanukah Song" as a solo on the Christmas concert. I don't remember being nervous or afraid; I just stood there in front of the glee club holding a paper menorah and singing:

Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, come light the Menorah
Let's have a party; we'll all dance the hora
Gather round the table, we'll all have a treat
Sivivonim to play with, livivot to eat.

And while we are playing
The candles are burning low,
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago.
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago.
One of the local TV stations actually recorded this and broadcast it on the evening news. The other kids were delighted, I'm sure.

Once I started playing in instrumental groups, I was involved with some sort of Christmas concert -- usually more than one, and sometimes a large number of them -- every year. During college and beyond, I was generally paid.

Over the past decade, I have done fewer and fewer of these. This year, the only holiday-related music I played was for the English and Scandinavian dances I've described in previous posts (though really, the only specifically Christmas-y number we played was "Santa Lucia" at the Scan dance, which usually accompanies a young girl walking around the room with candles on her head distributing saffron buns, but this year the candle-wearer was a small adult from the band because we couldn't find a willing child). I didn't even play in a "Messiah." We did go over to the in-laws for Christmas dinner, and I played the piano a little bit, but I don 't think slaughtered Bach and crippled Gershwin counts, exactly.

All of these winter holiday festivals are just a way to brighten the shortest, darkest, and often coldest days of the year, and the music helps. So not being involved in anything makes me a little sad because no matter what my personal beliefs, I have always derived some pleasure from participating in such a benign and peaceful traditional activity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the cello:

Dvorak Silent Woods: Yesterday, I tried playing it in D major instead of D-flat. Ah! So easy. Dvorak could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he'd transposed it officially. Yet the five flats do give it a more mysterious, covered sound (and more mysterious intonation to match).

I'm hoping that my continued feeling of uncertainty about intonation and rhythm is just a sign that my awareness is heightened and it's actually improving.

Popper: High School of Cello Playing, Nos. 35 and 39; also doing a bit of No. 13 (an almost Paganini-level etude full of octaves in thumb position; at one time in my life I was practicing this one every day).

Bach: The three-flat suites, especially No. 4 in E flat.

For all of this, I keep the tuner on and study it while I'm playing to see the tendency of each note.

On the piano:

Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor from WTCII. These are coming along, a little better than last week.

Gershwin Preludes: ditto.

Brahms Op. 118: I realized that what I really need to do here is practice very slowly with the metronome. Much more enjoyable than stumbling through faster.

Chopin: Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2: am continuing to do a bit of work on this; also Prelude No. 8.

I had a snow day yesterday, so I was able to practice quite a bit. I spent about 2 hours or so on the cello and at least that much time on the piano as well. For some reason, though, my hands wouldn't get warm, and my fingertips were hurting. Suffering for art . . .

Monday, December 21, 2009

Being pretty

There was a little dust-up over at Piano World this weekend. Some idiot made a nasty comment about Angela Hewitt's Bach, several other people chimed in to either agree or disagree, and someone posted a picture of her for some reason. The first idiot then made an even nastier comment about her appearance.* The thread degenerated further (if that is even possible), and the forum moderator locked it so no one could post anything else on it.

Hewitt is a highly accomplished pianist who has recorded a serious body of work and sells out concert halls all over the world. She runs a music festival in Italy every summer, and I believe she teaches as well. She is also a very attractive woman with a lithe figure (she was once a ballet dancer), clear skin, nice hair, and a warm smile. Yet some little twerp, protected by the anonymity of the Internet had no hesitation about saying some vile things about her playing and her looks.

Men do often seem to feel free to criticize a woman's appearance as a way of keeping her in her place and reminding her that if she's not attractive, she's not worth much. I was actually told by a male teacher once (while he was criticizing the way I dressed -- when I was a 22-year-old poor student in jeans and T-shirts) that women need to look better than men because there is a double standard.

I've never (not once -- really!) seen or heard a male performer criticized for his looks or the way he dresses, but it happens to women all the time, and not just performers. Women reading this, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? If someone isn't saying we're fat, they're calling us ugly or saying we don't know how to dress.

Sure, appearance is part of performing, but only part. Playing an instrument is hard enough without having to worry about whether you will get arrested by the fashion police.

*I'm not repeating what he said in either case because I don't want there to be two Internet hits on it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Good and bad

Good: Finally, I made a recording of the Dvorak that sounds decent. The slow practice seems to help a lot. I will keep doing it. So many times in the past I was not able to think both critically and constructively about how to improve my playing and got to the performance without really being ready. I don't know if I'll be ready for this, but at least I'll be readier than if I weren't trying to solve this.

Bad: My new strings arrived. I put them on as I usually do, one by one, starting with the lowest string (C). When I got to the highest (A), I hooked the end onto the tailpiece and threaded it through the hole in the peg several times in an effort to get it seated so I could tune it up. I finally got it in place, and was carefully pushing on the peg when I heard a "snap!" -- the stupid thing had broken at the wrapping at the top -- defective! I called the place where I bought it, and they will send me a new string and an envelope to send the broken one back. But darn.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What I'm playing this week

I've had to get stricter with myself: no piano until I've practiced the cello!

So, on the cello:

Dvorak, Silent Woods

BTW, I know I've been inconsistent about this title. Original was "Klid" in the piano-four-hands version, which is Czech for peace. Then it was translated into German as "Waldesruhe," which literally means something like "Peaceful Forest," or "Forest of Peace" (because Waldes is what in English would be the possessive of Wald [wood or forest]). So I've been thinking of it as "Silent Wood," though it seems to be spelled "Silent Woods" everywhere else. So I will try to be consistent for the next month while I pound my head against the floor trying to learn it.

I still haven't figured out the best way to record the cello and piano parts together, though it seems easier to record the cello part first and then accompany it -- if I can only get my tempo steady enough.

My husband made the very good suggestion to practice it extremely slowly, even though it's already slow. So I've been playing it about half tempo and then moving that up. This seems to help with both bow control and having a sense of the microrhythms.

I just ordered a new set of strings. This is a big expense for cellists. A violinist can get a set of excellent strings for less than $50, whereas a cellist must spent at least $150. Even the cheap cello strings are more expensive than the good violin strings. That's a lot to blow on something that only lasts a year at most. I am not very good about replacing my strings; I am rather ashamed to say that the last time I did so was more than two years ago.  Old strings lose their elasticity and just start to sound bad. They are also much harder to play in tune than fresh strings. So the new strings should help.

Along with the piece, I'm still practicing some Popper etudes in keys with a lot of covered notes.

On the piano:

Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor from WTCII. These are coming along. I have the prelude mostly memorized.

Gershwin Preludes: No. 1 is memorized and I'm working on cleaning it up. No. 2 is about half memorized. No. 3 is still way too slow.

Brahms Op. 118: I didn't work on this very much this past week, with everything else going on. I'm not giving up on it, though.

Chopin: I did decide to start learning the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2 in E major. It's so gorgeous, though I don't want to drop Prelude No. 8.

I wish I had something pleasing ready that I could just toss off when people ask me to play something on the piano (as they occasionally -- very occasionally -- do). But I haven't had anything like that at hand for quite a while.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I play intermittently with a group of amateur folk musicians that has been around for about 30 years. I got involved because several of my neighbors are in the group.  Everyone knows the tunes well, and most have been both dancing to them as well as playing them for many years. For the time I've been involved, the playing has been notable more for enthusiasm than skill. Anyone who fancies playing has been welcomed no matter what their musical ability. There is a core group of accordion, recorder, marimba, and a couple of fiddle players, with a few others who show up occasionally -- concertina, guitar, mandolin, and cello (for the past five years or so, that would be me).

Last night, the group held its annual Christmas dance. I was surprised when another cellist arrived whom I had never seen before and who proceeded to set up with as much authority as if she'd been playing with the group all along, though -- in the typical sign of a clueless string player who thinks it will help hide their bad playing -- she put on her mute.* She hadn't brought a music stand and didn't have any music. I shared mine with her, but throughout the evening, she really didn't look at it but checked the key and just sort of played things at random.

I was kind of steaming about this all evening. It struck me as incredibly rude of someone who obviously has no chops to plunk herself down to perform at a public event that is not an open mic night and that people are actually paying to attend. Now, I admit that I haven't been to any rehearsals of the group in a long time, but in my defense, I have played all of the tunes many times and can play plenty well enough for occasions like these without rehearsing.

I was also steamed at the guy who invited the cellist. He is a violinist who joined earlier this year. He always comes on time with a stand and his music in a neat binder with each piece in a plastic sleeve. He always plays very out of tune and with no musicality. He apparently had no idea that playing the cello in this band required any particular talent. Or maybe he's interested in this woman socially.

So I've been trying to analyze why this bothered me so much and why I couldn't just laugh it off as one more idiocy in this crazy world -- at least until I got home and laughed about it with my husband. I suppose it's been ingrained in me to view any performing seriously -- probably too seriously. Maybe I should not bother with this group anymore. I have often enjoyed it, though, because I like the music and felt appreciated. Last night's situation made me wonder if anyone really cares or can tell the difference between my playing and that of any random cellist off the street.

The de facto leader of this group is the accordion player, who is a typical absent-minded scientist type and doesn't exercise any quality control, either because he doesn't believe in it or is oblivious. And perhaps it's all fine. I don't really quite belong in this environment, and last night made it obvious.

Tonight we are playing a Scandinavian dance that is a somewhat bigger event. We rent a nice hall, provide refreshments, decorate with candles and greenery, and bring in an instructor and caller. I noticed last night that the accordion player handed a flyer to the cellist, smilingly inviting her to join us. I am so not looking forward to it.

I suppose my irritation is compounded by the fact that I am struggling to practice for next month's concert and bring my playing to a higher level, plus I want to practice my piano pieces. Every hour away from both of these projects seems like so much wasted time if I am not at least enjoying myself.

I do not want to discourage any amateur musicians from pursuing playing, but if anyone in that category is reading, I ask you to please consider the big picture. Sensitivity is always a good idea.

*A mute is a little gadget that hooks onto the bridge that is used to change the tone color by quieting some of the vibrations of the bridge. It looks like this:

It does not really "mute" the sound. Even the heavy practice mutes, which look like this,

do not turn an instrument into a "silent" violin or cello. It's still perfectly audible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Every time I have a pending performance on the cello, I become anxious. This can start long before the date, and depending on what else is going on can bleed into every aspect of my life.

I wish I could figure out what to do about this. The sad truth is that I feel so much better when I don't perform; during the times when I have had nothing coming up, I have been free of this feeling, and it's been a wonderful thing.

Origins of this surely lie in how I was trained by my most influential teacher. She was extremely critical -- not without reason, because I was not the greatest student, and she was probably frustrated with me -- and I seem to have imbibed the idea that only if I am equally critical of myself will I not fall into my natural slothful and sloppy playing habits. I have had the experience of using this habit to goad myself into producing good performances, and at times have been almost superstitious about having to practice things in a certain way and having to put in a certain amount of time.

I am almost afraid to have a positive approach. I do I have a goal of how I want to sound, but I fear falling far short of that goal, as happened when I played the Saint-Saëns concerto two years ago. I have the lingering suspicion that that happened because I wasn't diligent enough. I can almost hear my teacher's voice in my head, saying something scathing.

There is also my desire to impress people. I want that little thrill of praise. I know, intellectually, that this is silly. Tying myself into emotional knots over it is worse than silly. The fact is, most people don't pay that much attention and will say nice things as long as you don't fall off the stage. So I'm seeking validation from other people that generally doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot.

It's almost worse playing something simple like the Dvorak "Silent Wood," for some reason. Perhaps because there's so little there to distract from the pure elements of tone, intonation, deep rhythmic pulse, and feeling.

So some of my doubts and fears:
  • Am I doing all I can to prepare?
  • Am I missing something in technique, interpretation?
  • Do I even know enough to play this?
  • Am I good enough to begin with?
I wish I could figure out what to do about this. The sad truth is that I feel so much better when I don't perform; during the times when I have had nothing coming up, I have been free of this feeling, and it's been a wonderful thing. On the other hand, performing well is intensely satisfying. After it's over, the memory of the anxiety fades -- until the next time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What I'm playing this week, with a sigh

Still slogging away at the Dvorak. This is a stage I hate, when I realize how precarious the whole thing is and can't stop feeling I should be able to sound like Yo Yo Ma, even though I know I can't. And I wonder, why do I need to practice so much just to sound okay, not even great? It's discouraging.

I tried recording the piano part and playing the cello along with it. This was much less successful than the other way around. It's too hard to hear what I'm doing on the cello when I'm listening to the piano part through headphones, but when I play the recording through the computer speaker, it's not loud enough. I don't know how anyone ever got much satisfaction out of those "Music Minus One" records.

Most worthwhile use of my time seems to be practicing with the metronome. I'm trying setting it to click on each sixteenth note and then each eighth note to really get a sense of what is inside of each main beat.

On the piano:

Bach prelude and fugue in c minor from WTC II
Gershwin preludes
Brahms Op. 118

Some sight reading

I've been listening to the Chopin nocturnes. I'd really like to learn another one, but I can't decide which.

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's the rhythm, stupid!

This evening (after procrastinating all day) I recorded myself playing the Dvorak "Silent Wood" and then attempted to accompany myself on the piano while listening to the cello track on headphones. Tone and intonation weren't bad, but I could hear clearly that I need to keep a steady pulse throughout this piece and not use so much rubato.

Particularly irritating to me as an accompanist is that almost all the places where I as a cellist have been taking time -- stretching ends of phrases and so on -- are too much. That is, I as pianist need to stop in my tracks and wait for me as cellist to continue, obviously distorting the pulse. But then there's one place with a tricky shift that I have been rushing through every time.

In the middle section of the piece that is intended to be played at a slightly faster tempo, there are about a dozen measures that encompass an accelerando. I have been taking way too many liberties with this; it needs to be much steadier or the orchestra and I will never be together.

So the answer is lots and lots of metronome practice. And then next step, perhaps, will be recording the piano part and playing the cello along with that. I'm glad I have a month before the concert.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Angela Hewitt and the Goldberg Variations

My husband and I went to hear Angela Hewitt play Bach's Goldberg Variations at Strathmore last night. What can I say about this except that it was a great concert? How often do you get the chance to hear a musician in her prime perform a major work that she knows inside and out? I will just comment with a few observations and leave the detailed analyses to those more expert than I.

We splurged on front orchestra seats on the keyboard side, so I had a clear view of the pianist's hands, body language, facial expressions, and even feet (though these were obscured somewhat by her long gown). The piano was a surprising Fazioli; I've only seen Steinways at this hall. We were wondering if this is a preferred piano for Hewitt, given her connection with Italy (she has a home there and spends summers running a music festival in Umbria, according to the program notes). The Fazioli did sound wonderful: so clear and smooth, without the boomy bass of the typical Steinway.

My husband remarked on how Hewitt moved her hands -- like dancers, especially in virtuosic passages that involved lots of leaps and cross-hand playing. She seemed to play without tension and with enjoyment, always producing a rich, full sound from the piano.

Hearing this made me want to play! This piece, of course (maybe one of these days), but just about anything else as well. Someone like Hewitt makes it seem like the simplest thing in the world: Just learn the music and play it -- no problem! And then I go home and slave over a couple of measures of a fugue, without quite getting it. Sigh. But just trying is worth it.

I was impressed that this large concert hall was almost full and that the audience listened with rapt attention for the almost hour and a half of the piece, with no intermission. There is at least enough civilization left for that to happen.


Just adding: There was a rather grumpy review in the Washington Post that did not reflect my experience as a listener. The reviewer also gave a pedantic title to the encore, which was in fact an arrangement (I believe the famous one by Myra Hess) of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" from Cantata 147.

Music review

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the cello:

I'm still practicing the two Popper etudes that are in D flat major, and I think they are helping me to center on that key.

Another thing that helped was watching a YouTube video of Yo Yo Ma playing Waldesruhe. Sometimes pictures are just the best thing. It helped a lot to see what bowings and fingerings he used, more than just hearing it would.

On the piano:

Brahms Op. 118
Bach prelude and fugue in c minor, WTC, Book II.
Gershwin, three preludes
Chopin, Prelude No. 8
Piano accompaniment to Waldesruhe

Plus a bit of sight reading

Wish I had more time, but I do what I can!

A note about money

After I wrote my last post about the financial dealings around my cello, I started worrying that some people might think I was some kind of little coddled princess, with parents who showered me with gifts of expensive musical instruments. I know some of the people I came across in the years I had that cello thought just that. 

But here's the deal: I didn't ask for much in the way of material things. I wasn't interested in clothes or going out to expensive places or going on vacations or in having nice cars. I didn't even go away to college -- I lived at home for most of the time I was an undergrad, and tuition was cheap back then. The good cello cost about what a modest new car would have cost. In today's dollars, it would have been around $24,000. It was a tool that I needed for what I was doing at the time. And unlike a car, it appreciated in value (or did until it was stripped of its name, at least).

If you're interested in a comparison, take a look at this article that appeared on a few years ago. It was startling to me to what lengths these parents went to spend money on their musician children.

Exceptional costs of exceptional kids

Anyway, I thought I should clarify that, for whatever it's worth.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to sell a cello

Short answer: With great difficulty.

Long answer:

I had owned my Italian cello for about 25 years by the time I went about trying to sell it. People had always expressed admiration for this instrument, and even some envy. I had it appraised every few years for insurance purposes, and the value went up every time. My parents paid around $8,000 for it in 1979; the last appraisal was for $35,000.

I was surprised, then, when sometime in the 1990s, I took it to one dealer who flatly refused to sell it for me. He seemed suspicious but didn't give me any concrete reasons for his suspicions -- at the time, I thought it had something to do with the condition of the instrument -- and I didn't pursue it. I hadn't entirely made up my mind to sell it at that point, so I put the idea back on the shelf for a few more years.

In 2004, I contacted an online auction company that had been holding some well-publicized successful auctions of large numbers of stringed instruments, getting good prices. Selling an instrument like this on consignment from a shop usually takes many months, or even years, whereas an auction is a way for many people to see the instrument in a short time. The auction company physically collects the instruments and puts them on display for a week in a rented showroom; they also issue an online catalog. People can come and play the instruments and then, when the auction begins, bid online.

After I contacted them and explained what I had, one of their people arranged to stop by my office downtown and look at the cello. He was impressed, and went back to his office in New York and wrote up a contract. In it, he described the cello as "Italian," and suggested a value of between $30,000 and $50,000. A month or so later, he came by my house to pick up the cello.

The week before the auction arrived. I looked up the catalog, and my cello wasn't in it. I had not heard anything from them, so I called to find out what was going on.

The same person who had met with me twice and who had written up the contract very calmly told me that their experts had been unable to authenticate the cello, so they had decided not to sell it. I was shocked -- both at this pronouncement and at the fact that they hadn't seen fit to even drop me an email to let me know. If I hadn't called them, what would have happened?

Apparently, the cello was decidedly not characteristic of the maker whose name was on the label. Several of the experts doubted that it was even Italian. I did a little research and found that a member of the labeled maker's family was still in the luthier business in Italy, so I emailed him some photos of the cello. He agreed that it was probably not made by the person named on the label, and that it was possibly German.

Now, this does not have the same implications as, for example, a cello labeled a Stradivarius  being exposed as a fake. The maker on the label of my cello was considered fine but not at the highest levels of the art. It's like someone who always thought they were John Smith finding out that Mr. Smith wasn't his father and that his father might possibly be Mr. Jones instead. John Smith still has all the same talents and attributes, just another name -- and oh, yeah, he won't inherit Mr. Smith's estate after all. So my cello wasn't a Smith but possibly a Jones, and wasn't worth $35,000 but maybe $15,000.

The dealer who originally sold the cello to us had died a number of years before, but his son had maintained the business and happened to be at the auction checking out the instruments. Because his shop's name was on many of the appraisals, they had consulted with him, and the upshot was that he volunteered to bring the cello back from New York. I eventually talked to him on the phone. His only explanation for the poor ID on the cello was that it was a long time ago and they didn't have the resources available now to check things out. Um, yeah, okay.

He obviously felt some responsibility, because he said he would fix the cello up for me (clean it up, put new strings on it, etc.) and would sell it for me without charging a commission. He did say, though, that it was a really fine cello and that he thought I should just keep it. I decided to bring it home and see how I felt about it.

Fate seemed to be checking to make sure I really wanted to go through with this. There I was, with the two cellos side by side. I didn't even have the incentive of making a big profit on selling it -- and in fact, wasn't even sure I wasn't being scammed about this whole thing. In the end, though, I still liked my new cello better than the old one, and still didn't like playing the old cello anymore. I had moved on.

I eventually took it back to the shop, and six months later, someone bought it. I used the money to pay for most of the cost of my new piano. I still consider it more than a fair exchange.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I've always loved musical instruments, that you could hold or touch this finely made object and use it to make nice sounds. Maybe because I was always so shy and quiet, speaking through an instrument was compelling.
Pianos didn't seem like instruments to me when I was a child -- they were more like furniture. I didn't exactly relate pressing the keys with the idea of a hammer striking the strings to make sound.

Fourth grade was when, in the DC public school system, kids could start learning a musical instruments. I knew I wanted to play the clarinet. But at the last minute, we were told they'd canceled the program. We did get classes on the tonette, a little plastic thing that was a cross between a recorder and a pitch pipe, but sad to say, I didn't become a tonette virtuoso.

We didn't have another chance to choose an instrument until seventh grade -- junior high. This time around,  I picked the cello. At first I borrowed one from the school; then my parents rented a three-quarter-sized cello from a Music and Arts Center. All I remember about it was that it was shiny. After about a year, I had grown enough to need a full-sized cello, so my mother and I went to Chuck Levin's to pick one out.

The store sold mostly guitars and band instruments, but they had a small selection of strings for students. My mother was pushing for the cheapest one, a plywood Kay.  It looked like this:

though of course it had a tailpiece, bridge, and strings; the name was emblazoned in chrome script on it:

I somehow knew that a real wood cello that was a copy of a Stradivarius would be significantly better. I think it was about $10 more than the Kay, so we bought that.

Other instruments acquired during this time:
  • A metal clarinet that had been used in a marching band by some relative of my piano teacher; I futzed around with this instrument for a while but couldn't get more than a squawk from it.
  • A nylon-string guitar from  Sears that I had a lot of fun with, playing chords and singing along.
  • A soprano recorder that I taught myself to play.
During my second year of junior high, I became interested in the flute and borrowed one from the school. Again, I taught myself to play it from a beginner's book and even played in the all-city band one year (last chair). I really, really wanted a flute, but my parents said they'd already bought me the cello, and that was enough. I kept looking at flutes for some years but eventually lost interest.

I kept that first cello until I graduated from high school. There was another cellist in the youth orchestra who also studied with my teacher and who was the same age as I. She was his most serious student and wanted a career as a cellist. He had picked out a cello for her when she was about 15 years old, a German-made solid instrument by W. Fuchs, with a dark, rather ugly reddish varnish. She hated it, and I think she must have pitched a number of fits until her mother bought her a better cello. The Fuchs was then passed around for trial among the teacher's other students and eventually ended up with me. I hadn't even thought about getting another cello, but for some reason my parents decided to buy it for me.

I don't remember thinking much one way or the other about the quality of this cello. It was a sturdy thing with a strong sound but not a lot of complexity or refinement, much like my playing at the time, so it was a good match. I kept the Fuchs for about five years, until my second year as a music major, when I started shopping for another cello. At that time, before the availability of inexpensive, well-made instruments from China, it was difficult to find anything decent at the price we were thinking of paying. I eventually tried a cello in a local shop that had an Italian label; It had a light gold varnish and a sweet tone, like a high operatic tenor. My teacher liked it right away; we even took it to another dealer to have it evaluated (though I suspect he wasn't likely to say anything bad about it because his shop was in the same building as the seller's). So my parents bought it for me. My teacher said this cello would last me through any career I would have -- and so it did.

I toted that cello around to every venue and location -- North Dakota in the dead of winter, Texas in the height of summer, playing indoors and out, in Carnegie Hall, on the street, on a boat, in nightclubs. It survived all that well. I always got compliments on its sound, and in fact, it was a bit of a joke to me, and sometimes irritating, how often people would say, "Your cello sounds really good!" (as if it played itself).

I had thought I'd never sell it. Italian cellos are not that easy to come by and are expensive; I knew I'd never be able to afford another one. Even though after I finished graduate school I was playing less and less, I kept thinking, what if I was asked to play someplace where it mattered? What if I had to play a concerto with an orchestra or a solo recital? None of these theoretically important events materialized, however, and for some complicated reasons I developed an antipathy to my cello. I could barely stand to play it at all.

At this point, I came up with the idea of buying a cheap cello to see if it would be adequate for my needs and then selling the Italian cello. I started haunting Ebay and various Internet discussion boards. I even considered, out of some twisted nostalgia, buying a Kay. During this time I thought more about cello construction, tone, and aesthetics than I ever had before.

This was also the time when I was taking viola lessons. I'd made a few forays into Internet buying, ending up with a Gliga viola (made in Romania; not at all bad, but nothing special). I finally gathered up my nerve and made a trip to a string shop to try their lowest priced cellos. Why did it take nerve? I suppose because the string world is small and gossipy, and I knew it might become "known" that I was downgrading, or something like that, but at that point, I didn't much care anymore. But the way I explained it to the salesperson was that I was looking for a second cello.

I tried all of the cellos they had that cost less than $10,000 (which, for those who may not know this, is considered a small sum to pay for a stringed instrument; it's what an okay cello for a young student might cost). There were several possible candidates, but then I saw one more sitting in a corner. It was a larger model, with a warm brown varnish and a smooth, deep, clear sound. I couldn't believe it, but it was actually perfect! I took it for a week's trial, but I knew this was the one.

The shop had put its own label in it, but someone had written "Snow Violins, Brooklyn, NY" on the edge of the label. Turns out that Snow is a Chinese luthier who makes a line of high-quality student and professional level stringed instruments: Snow Violin

One of these days, I want to take the cello up there and ask them which model it is (I'm sure it is one of their basic ones) and what it was doing in the shop here. My impression was that the local shop was having a hard time selling the cello because it was so large that young students and amateur players were not interested in it. They sold it to me for a very modest price and gave me a big discount on the extra-large case I had to get for it.

Next step: Selling the Italian cello. To be continued . . .

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

I started working on the Bach c minor prelude and fugue from WTC II. I have to admit, these aren't as interesting as some of the others, but I'd still like to learn them. I'm hoping this set doesn't take me eight months! The other day I listened to the entire Book II on my Ipod while I was at work -- so many beautiful pieces there.

Gershwin preludes: getting a bit better. I still have a few crash-and-burn moments when I try to run through the first prelude.  This probably means I need more slow practice. (That's usually the answer.)

Brahms Op. 118: I'm kind of jumping around in these, working on the most difficult spots. For some reason, the first one is giving me tremendous trouble, even though I had memorized it earlier this year. So frustrating.

Chopin preludes: The other night, I played through the first seven. They are still pretty solidly memorized, though the faster ones aren't as good (3 and 5). I still can only play No. 8 very slowly.

This evening, I worked for a while on the piano part for Waldesruhe. It's humbling to think of all the pianists who accompany people; their parts are always much harder than those of the instrument they're accompanying, but they usually don't get many kudos for doing a nice job. I feel embarrassed about how I took the efforts of so many pianists for granted all those years.

I had a little taste of this last year two years ago (how time flies! I didn't realize it was so long ago until I looked at the dates on the recordings I posted). I expressed interest to the person who organizes those chamber music concerts (one of which I just bailed out on -- see yesterday's post) in reading through the Mozart trio for clarinet, viola, and piano. I practiced it quite a bit for several weeks -- not long enough, but that's all the time I had between when we set it up and when we got together. Considering that I've never played any chamber music on the piano (I think I can safely discount my teenaged Mendelssohn disaster), I didn't do too badly, though I had a tendency to rush. I know because I recorded it. I even fixed up the recording enough so it was audible (I had to put the recording device some distance from where we were sitting, so the levels needed adjusting, and I had to do things like cut out talking, etc.), posted it online, and emailed the other players about it. Response? Complete silence. No followup about actually performing it. Sniff. Oh well.*

On the cello:

Popper and Duport etudes: I'm still practicing some of these to see if they will help with playing in a not-comfortable key. I can't tell if it's working.

Dvorak: Still working on this, not sure if it sounds good or not. I'm wondering if I should go to someone for a lesson. (I haven't had a cello lesson since the early 1990s.)

Brahms 2nd symphony: Trying to figure out how to advise the other cellists on this when we get together on Sunday. It's really pretty difficult.

*Recordings here, FWIW:

Mozart 1st movement
Mozart 2nd movement
Mozart 3rd movement

Monday, November 23, 2009

Something I've never done before

Last night, I canceled on the Spohr concert. I feel so guilty, but also relieved.

Every other time something like this has come up, I've just gritted my teeth and stuck with it, but you know, life is short. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. In similar situations, the different outcome I was hoping for was the experience turning out to be enjoyable in some way that I couldn't predict on the basis of the initial impression. And you never know -- maybe this would have had such an outcome. But thinking about going through four months of rehearsals for this was like wearing a lead hat.
A few years ago, this same person organized a concert at Strathmore mansion that was supposed to include the Beethoven septet. This is a piece so popular during Beethoven's lifetime that he arranged it for several other combinations of instruments. It's possibly one of the most beloved chamber works of all time. The violinist was a young medical researcher who was frantically practicing to learn the piece. He was pretty good, for an amateur, but it almost seemed to get worse from week to week. We started discussing which movements to cut, but nothing made sense. I finally said, "Why don't we just play the first movement and do it well?" The violinist was stricken, but the bass player (who was a music teacher) backed me up. (Even the first movement was a squeaker, but at least it didn't last long enough to be an ordeal for the audience.)
On that occasion, at least the music was worth suffering for, at least a bit. But Spohr -- when I could so much more profitably spend my time at home practicing Chopin, Brahms, and Bach (or even cooking some good meals to share with my husband) -- not so much.
The other benefit of doing these things is social. It's good to be in contact with people who share one's interests. I tend to get isolated, especially with regard to communicating with other people who are interested in music the way I am. But you know how it's not a good idea to keep dating someone you're not interested in? Both of you could be out finding your soul mates instead of wasting time on an unsatisfying connection.

I've spent too much time on these chamber music dates that lead nowhere. Maybe it's a case of, "I'm just not that into them."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sublime to ridiculous

Here's a compare and contrast:

1. Last night, my husband and I went to hear Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. We decided only yesterday afternoon to do this because a friend found out some good seats had opened up and were being sold at bargain prices.

This was an especially interesting show because Howard Levy, the virtuoso harmonica player who was in the band originally, was going to be playing with them instead of the saxophone player who has been in the band since Levy left.

I have to admit that during the first half hour or so, I nodded off a few times, but then the music got more interesting. The playing was on a very high level. Probably the highlight was an extended harmonica solo -- about 10 minutes of some amazing stuff. They also did some good bebop style numbers, and even the Beatles' "Michelle."

The concert was at Strathmore Hall, which is a beautiful place acoustically and aesthetically. Almost every seat in the place was filled.

Anyway, it was rather inspiring. When we got home at 11:30, I practiced Brahms for an hour.

2. Tonight, the group that is planning to play the Spohr Nonet got together. This is the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass group I mentioned. It's been a while since I've done something like this, and it was something of a shock.

The violist couldn't find a babysitter, so she brought her 2-year-old daughter, who is very cute but spent most of the rehearsal rolling around on the floor at her mother's feet, knocking the music off her stand and shrieking, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" This was happening directly to my right.

On my left was the bass, with the f-holes pointing right into my ear, so it sounded way too loud to me, but probably was not. Between that and the screaming kid on the other side, I could barely hear anyone else. What I could hear was out of tune and not together.

The piece is kind of pleasant, but it's certainly not deep. The slow movement is disappointing and boring. The cello part is completely uninteresting, but it has several very hard licks in it that I will have to practice a lot. It's also mostly doubling with the bass, and tonight, at least, we were extremely out of tune with each other.

So I came home frustrated and wondering if I should do this concert at all. I've gone through this before, and each time, I'm torn between wanting to fulfill what I've promised to do and not wanting to suffer unduly. In the meantime, I act grumpy and the other players probably think I'm some old grouch (well, maybe I am, but still), and my husband gets annoyed about my complaining.

It's nothing against any of these players -- they are all doing their best, and they are way, way better than the average amateurs. It's more a question of what is the best way to spend my time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

Bach WTC: I chose a new prelude and fugue to work on: #2 from WTC II (C minor). These are both short -- just a page each -- but dense and highly chromatic. This should be fun.

Gershwin preludes: #1 is improving a lot; #2 and #3 are coming along, though they're not memorized.

Brahms Op. 118: still grazing on these pieces.

Chopin Prelude No. 8: this is actually improving slightly. It doesn't seem quite as impossible as it did.

On the cello: To prepare for playing "Silent Wood," I'm still exploring ways to develop my tone in a key that's not terribly sympathetic to the instrument. I had thought a Popper etude might help, but although his etudes are good studies for the left hand, they do not do too much for the right. I just don't want to spend the time it would take to make one of these sound good.

Last night, I played some Duport etudes, and these are a bit better, but not much. The musical part of them is so bad that again, they don't seem worth putting that much of my limited time into them.

Maybe I'll try practicing short sections of some of these etudes in detail instead of slogging through a whole one. That might get equal or even better results.

As for the piece, I think it's improving. One thing that's difficult about it is that it's marked mostly pianissimo, but a true pianissimo is not going to be heard above the orchestra, especially in the lower registers, so I will need to play with more sound but with the feeling of pianissimo.

It's always a struggle to get to practicing. It's not that I don't want to, but more that I have too many other tasks hanging in the background. Even when I have a whole day free, such as on a weekend, there are always a lot of other things I need to get done, and I don't feel entirely comfortable shutting myself into the practice room until I do at least some of them.

So that's why I usually don't practice more than about two hours a day, on a good day. Last week, when I had a holiday in the middle of the week, was unusual in that I was able to spend most of the day on my recording project (resolutely ignoring thoughts of laundry and dust bunnies).

It's easy to think that one day's practicing isn't important and that it would be better to do _________ instead. If there are too many of those days, though, months and even years go by and you haven't learned any more music, but those hours spent doing _________ are gone. Sometimes _________ turns out to have been really worthwhile, but more often than not, it does not.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

ABF recital

The Adult Beginners Forum (ABF) at Piano World is loosely aimed at any adults who are not professional pianists. Most are not exactly beginners (and when does "beginner" status end, anyway?). There have been discussions over the years about changing the name, but the upshot has been that most people like ABF, inaccurate as it may be.

Four years ago, someone came up with the idea of having an online recital, with people submitting recordings of their playing that would then all be posted together on the same day. It was such a success that after much discussion, the group decided on a frequency of four times a year. It's gotten more sophisticated technically -- there is now a website someone set up that enables people to upload their files directly and provides streaming audio. The field also has become more crowded. There are 66 entries this time, at all levels from true beginners to advanced players, and with music ranging from classical to pop to improvised.

Another aspect is that a thread is set up for people to give comments. Most are reluctant to criticize, which is probably a good thing. This forum is an oasis of civility in the wilds of the Internet.

I've participated in some of the recitals, starting with my first primitive recording using the laptop mic, when I wasn't even sure if I sounded like a pianist at all. This time, as I've been writing about here, I submitted my recording of the Bach prelude and fugue. I feel like I've come a long way in these four years.

Recital #16

Thursday, November 12, 2009


On the Tuesday morning after President's Day of this year, I woke up with the feeling that my right ear was badly clogged up. I'd had problems before with earwax, so I put some drops in, but I was still so uncomfortable that I called my doctor and went in that morning. There were a bunch of people waiting, and I felt a little foolish about rushing to the doctor over something like this, so I ended up making an appointment for Thursday and left.

Wednesday evening I was standing at the stove cooking when I felt a wave of dizziness and next thing I knew, I was on the floor. What? But the dizziness passed, and I felt okay, really.

On Thursday morning when I went in for my appointment, the doctor cleaned out my ears, but I didn't feel any better. He suggested that it might be allergies (allergies? in February?) and gave me a sample pack of an antihistamine. I had a rehearsal that night, and didn't have any trouble, so I started thinking maybe the antihistamine was helping.

But on Friday, I felt worse as the day progressed. By the evening, I was almost panicking because I felt like I was going to fall. I even called my husband during my walk from the subway to my car, but he was 20 miles away, and what could he do, anyway? So I soldiered on and walked very slowly, making sure there was a street sign or lamppost or something to grab.

By Saturday afternoon, I was feeling so dizzy and sick that I couldn't eat and could barely get out of bed. On Sunday, my husband called the doctor again, who called in a prescription for dramamine. We also posted a note on the neighborhood listserv asking for ENT recommendations, and by Sunday afternoon had made contact with an ear specialist who told me to come in first thing Monday morning.

By then, I'd lost almost all the hearing in my right ear.

The diagnosis was sudden sensorineural hearing loss: basically, sudden hearing loss that can't be explained by obvious outward factors. The supposition is that it's caused by an infection of the inner ear, but because the inner ear can't be examined, that's only a supposition. The only medically sanctioned treatment for it is a high dose of prednisone, taken in pill form. A somewhat more experimental treatment is injection of a steroid solution through the ear drum into the inner ear. So I did both. I started taking the oral meds that Monday morning, and went for the injection on Tuesday. A week later, I had a second injection.

I slowly started to feel better, though for about a month, music sounded like it was coming through on one of those tinny little transistor radios. The piano sounded horrible, but I still wanted to play, so I closed the instrument  up completely and swaddled it with quilts, plus I put an earplug into the bad ear. This made it barely tolerable. I canceled all my cello gigs, though I got together with my small folk group a few times during this period (putting in earplugs before we started playing).

At the beginning of this thing, I tried to prepare for the worst (i.e., that this would never heal), so I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that after about six weeks, my hearing was back to normal. Some people do not recover. Others recover without treatment. Perhaps what helped me was getting treatment within a few days. So anyone reading this, take note: If something like this ever happens to you, go straight to an otolaryngologist (ENT specialist).* If that's not available, at least mention to whatever doctor you do see the possibility that this could be what ails you. But in any case, do get medical attention for it as soon as possible.

*Corrected per Mark's comment below.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I spent my day off working on getting a usable recording of the Bach. After giving it some thought, I decided that one problem with the way I was playing it was I was not getting enough tone out of the strings because I was not getting the key all the way down to the key bed. So I spent several hours this morning practicing really digging into each note, with almost a bounce. I alternated between playing half tempo and full tempo. And darned if it didn't help. The music seemed to wake up and start to sparkle a little bit.

I'm also getting used to the sound of the piano. I have had the whole thing closed up (lid completely closed, two quilts on top, music stand on top of them) for about nine months -- more about why some other time -- but for recording purposes, this didn't allow the sound to reverberate enough in the room. So I opened the lid after the second tuning last week, and it sounded especially loud from the bench. But I don't think the piano sounds harsh on this recording. (My playing may be another matter.)

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

And yes, I know there are a few fumbles here and there. Considering I'm not a world-class virtuoso with a recording studio on hand, it's understandable.

Edit to add:

After I read Russell's comment below, I did a little search on the 'net and found this interesting video of the pianist Eduardus Halim talking about piano tone:

Producing good tone on the piano

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What I'm playing this week

This is getting awfully monotonous to read about, I'm sure, but I'm still trying to get the Bach prelude and fugue into a recordable state. I just don't seem to have the technique to play this complicated music quickly and cleanly. I had a really good practice session on it Saturday, but the past two days have not been so productive. I have the day off of work tomorrow, so I'll try to hone in on this somehow. This has possibly been the most discouraging thing I've worked on thus far, or maybe it's just that I've developed higher expectations of my piano playing.

My reference recording is the Naxos set by Jenö Jandó, who is a phenomenal pianist. He's recorded a huge number of works --  solo, chamber, orchestral -- and they are all wonderful. Sad to say, I would probably feel more inspired if I heard someone play it who was not so good, though I enjoy listening to this.

I'm nibbling a little at the Brahms Op. 118 pieces, realizing once again how difficult Brahms is to play on the piano.

On the cello, I committed myself to play a chamber music concert in the spring, and I'll be getting together with the group to read through the Louis Spohr Nonet (for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass -- quite a crowd, there!) next week. The TCO will be playing Brahms's Second Symphony on the January concert, and I decided to herd the cello section together for a practice session this month, which means I need to practice the part myself.

And of course, I need to practice the Dvorak Waldesruhe. What I'm finding difficult about this is that the piece simply requires beautiful tone and secure shifting, but because the notes are not that hard, I'm having a hard time pinning it down. That may sound strange, but I've found that when something has a lot of technical hurdles, they make me practice more, and more carefully, than when a piece is easier. I decided to try practicing some etudes in the same key (as it happens, the same key as the Bach I've been sweating over, or it's enharmonic equivalent -- D flat major) to see if that helps me get more grounded in the tones of the piece. So I'll see how that goes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

You can tune a piano, but you can't tune a fish

The player of a stringed instrument has almost total control over intonation. Each string can be tuned, as well as each note. Even varying bow pressure and speed affect intonation.

One has no direct control over the tuning of a piano unless one is specially trained. A piano has 88 notes; the two lowest octaves usually have two strings each, referred to as bass strings, and all the other notes have three strings each. All of these strings need to be tuned. A further complication is deciding on a tuning system that is the best compromise between exact scientific tuning (which will not sound in tune) and some sort of "well-tempered" system, in which any note can be played with any other note and sound harmonious. This is a vast oversimplification of a hugely complicated topic. One interesting reference is a book by Perri Knize, Grand Obsession, in which she describes her search for a piano, which in turn leads her directly into the tuning topic. The frustrating fact is that how a piano is tuned is intimately connected with how it sounds and ultimately how musical a performance can be, but the performer is dependent on a technician to achieve the desired sound of the instrument.

The main thing a piano owner can do to keep the piano in good shape, besides having it tuned regularly, is to control the humidity in the room where it's stored. Because a piano is made mainly of wood, humidity (and to a lesser degree, temperature) affects everything about it. I keep my piano in a closed room. It is on the basement level of our house, so I run a dehumidifier in there except in the driest weather. I also have a heater bar installed under the belly of the instrument that supposedly keeps the soundboard from becoming damp; it turns on automatically when humidity in that area rises above 50%.

I can hear whether a piano is in tune, up to a certain point, but after that point it becomes a matter of judgment.  Because I am not a very hardware-oriented person, I have always tended to leave this judgment up to the technician. I am realizing, though, that I need to get more involved. This was reinforced by my recent tuning experience (what inspired me to bring up this topic here). After a routine tuning about a month ago, I went to play my piano (eagerly anticipating the fresh tuning rush) and was disappointed to hear it sounding sour, dull, and clangy. I tried to stick with it for a few weeks, but finally called the shop that had sent out the tuner. I bought the piano from them, and I have used only their tuners in the time that I've had it. As I explained to one of the owners, this is the first time I've had a serious complaint. The upshot was that they scheduled the tuner to return and touch up the tuning.

He ended up retuning the piano, spending an hour and a half. It sounds much better. However, I am still unhappy about the brightness of this instrument. "Brightness" refers to the ringing, piercing qualities of a sound; obviously, some brightness is good, but I'm starting to wonder if this piano is just too bright. It's certainly overwhelming in its small room unless I keep the lid closed and muffle it with quilts. Piano techs can do something that's called voicing, in which they tinker with the hammer felt, fluffing it up with needles to soften it and injecting chemicals to harden it, but there's a limit to what that can achieve.

Do I need to shop for a different piano? Or just a different technician? Something to think about. In the meantime, I'll keep the quilts on it and keep practicing.

Friday, November 6, 2009


As a child, I didn't think much about tuning. I knew the piano needed to be tuned, but actually, I barely listened to it. There's a way of playing in which you are listening to what you are doing in a sort of remote way but not truly hearing -- or maybe it's vice versa.

I knew how to tune a guitar, but it wasn't until I started taking cello lessons, after I 'd played the cello mostly on my own for a year, that intonation was brought to my attention. My first cello teacher taught me to check as many notes as possible against open strings, which on the cello would be A, D, G, and C. "Checking" means either playing a double stop (e.g., playing a C on the G string with the fourth finger and playing the open C at the same time) or plucking an open string with a left-hand finger while bowing a covered note (e.g., playing the C above middle C on the A string with the third finger and plucking the open C with the first finger). Slightly more sophisticated was checking other perfect intervals -- fourths and fifths (e.g., F with the fourth finger on the G string in fourth position against open C).

Another little trick was checking a covered note with a harmonic. On a stringed instrument, there are points on the string that are natural harmonics; the string only needs to be touched, not pressed down, to sound the note. So for example, if you're playing the A above middle C on the A string, you can lift your finger and merely touch the note to compare your covered A with the harmonic A.

I supposed I surmised from all this that as long as those notes were in tune, everything else would fall in line and was okay. And I do have a pretty good ear, so that was often more or less the case.

A turning point for me was during my second year of graduate school, when I was working on my master's degree. I was preparing for that year's recital, which included Beethoven's A major sonata, Op. 69. This is a particularly tuneful member of the Beethoven cello/piano lineup. In fact, my first teacher introduced it to all of his students fairly early on, though few of us ever played it with piano (I hadn't, until this time I'm describing here). Because it's in A, many of the "important" notes can be checked in the way I was taught by my first teacher. However, it also features rapid scales and other figurations featuring all the other notes in between, and my teacher really got down to brass tacks on this stuff, showing me many more ways to test intonation than I had ever realized were possible. To test an F sharp, for example, she had me check the G above it and the F below it and then place the F sharp between them. Working this way made me aware of intonation in a new way, and I started hearing more acutely whether something was in tune.

Years later, when I was trying to learn the viola, I was finding it very difficult to hear intonation on the higher notes on the A string. I constantly played them sharp. It was during this time that I acquired my first electronic tuner. These are nifty little devices that can be had for about $20, like this one (which is what I have):

They act sort of like biofeedback: you play a note, and the needle veers left if it's flat and right if it's sharp, and there's also a light that shows red if the note is off at all and green and if it matches the frequency setting of the tuner. This particular one can also be calibrated, so you are not stuck with A 440.

It took me a fair amount of time to learn how to use this thing, but it's invaluable to me now. I keep telling people it's better than most teachers. Between this, a metronome, and my recording gadget, I have no excuses!

Until I try to get a piano in tune . . .

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Practicing Bach

This evening was a fairly typical one for me. I stayed at work until around 7:15. I took the subway to my stop (about 15 minutes, during which I wrote in my notebook and then read a book), walked the mile to my car, and drove home, getting here around 8:00. I fed the cats, started some rice cooking, chopped vegetables for a stir-fry. My husband got home around 8:30, changed his clothes, and stir-fried dinner (I always leave the frying for him because he does it a lot better than I do). We ate, chatting about this and that. He cleaned up the kitchen while I went to the computer and tried to write something on this blog. I drank some coffee, ate a piece of cake, and read. When it was almost 11:00 I finally went to my practice room and worked on the Bach I am hoping to record this week, the C sharp major prelude and fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

I've been working on this piece since March of this year. It seems to take me about 6 months to learn and memorize each of these pairs; this one took longer because the key is so puzzling -- I mean, it has B sharp in the key signature! So lots of double sharps when it modulates to other keys.
I really ought to know all the technicalities of fugue construction, but I don't. I basically can follow the theme when it comes in, but that's about it. I know that my appreciation of this music would be enhanced significantly if I would only spend a couple of hours reading about fugues and applying that knowledge to the piece. Now that I've written it down here, maybe I'll finally do it.

This evening, though, I just concentrated on playing it slowly, in short sections, from back to front. When it was feeling fairly secure, I turned on my recording gadget and made my first recording, prelude and fugue in one take. The fugue fell apart in a couple of  places, so I recorded it again. Then I put Bach aside and played some Brahms for about 15 minutes. By this time, it was after midnight. I put the piano to bed for the night, came back to the computer, copied the files over to the hard drive, and listened to them. The prelude, which I had thought went pretty well, sounds stodgy and fumbly in a few places. The second take of the fugue is actually not bad. But a lot of work yet to be done on both of them. Sigh.

As they say, tomorrow is another day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What I'm playing this week

Bach Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major: I decided I'm going to try to record these for an online recital on the Adult Beginner's Forum at Piano World. I spent most of my practice time on them this weekend. I got the best results from slow practice (of course!) -- I set the metronome to the approximate tempo I want and then played at half of that. I'm trying to make bringing out the theme more natural instead of, "Whoops, forgot to bring out the theme again!" I am happy that I have been able to learn these at all -- this is one of the pieces that I would always skip over when sight-reading -- but I would like to be able to play them with more of a refined interpretation.

Dvorak Silent Wood: I'm learning the piano part along with the cello part. I still haven't explored the options for recording both parts, but I'm sure it can be done.

Brahms Op. 118: I decided to start learning all six of these pieces. I learned No. 1 last year, and have of course played at No. 2 for years. They are all beautiful, and they make a nice group, almost like playing a sonata.

Gershwin Prelude No. 1: Spent some time with this over the past week, and again, slow practice is the most productive.

Chopin, Prelude No. 8: I am determined to get this. It's improved from extremely halting to merely slow, but I have not been able to memorize it yet. Chopin is not hard to memorize, though. I'm not sure why.

Beethoven "Tempest" sonata: I would like to finish learning all three movements. I have the first movement from memory and dusted it off this past week but haven't gotten back to it again.

As usual, too much music, not enough time.

I was asked to play in an orchestra concert next Saturday, for pay. I considered it, but then thought about how tired and stressed out I would be from doing two evening rehearsals downtown during the week, after working all day, plus the evening concert, how I probably wouldn't have the energy to practice at all, and I turned it down. I have an almost superstitious belief that I shouldn't turn down paying gigs, but if it's something I really don't want to do and the money is not going to change my life appreciably, why can't I refuse?

Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm going to make a confession here that will sound strange: I don't like listening to music all that much. Oh, there are times when I can get into it, and I do enjoy turning on the radio and listening to the flow of programming, but in general, a lot of music just bores me. When I do listen, I prefer hearing either the best or someone who's learning -- I find both instructive. Many nicely polished performances are missing that spark of something real and warm that is so compelling in some of the old recordings, for example.

Few concerts actually appeal to me enough for me to spend the time and money attending them. The only reason I've been to as many concerts as I have has been because of my husband, who is an avid jazz listener and who also has wanted to hear classical music since he met me. But many times I have to get into a mood in which I close my eyes to the cost of the tickets and just go with the flow.

Why is this? Well, in the case of orchestras, I know most of them are just going through the motions, playing the classical top 40 over and over and over again, year after year after year. It's really a terrible shame that this is so, but there is little vitality to these types of concerts, despite the tremendous amount of talent that is often on display. They all seem to put together bland programs designed to appeal to the least ambitious, most conservative ticket buyer. I know this kind of thing has been said by many others more qualified to complain than I, but there it is.

As for soloists, recitalists, and chamber groups, it is more or less the same deal for me. Instrumentalists -- violinists, violists, cellists, wind players -- play the same handful of concertos when they solo with orchestras, and more or less the same group of sonatas and other recital pieces when they play accompanied by piano. There are some people I remember finding interesting for various reasons, or maybe it was just the circumstances under which I heard them -- perhaps if they were people that I knew, or they were playing a piece I was interested in because I was playing it, too. I always liked the Guarneri Quartet, for example, but I can't exactly tell you why.

But I must emphasize that I am embarrassed to be admitting this (on the Internet, where thousands of people can read it, yes, of course) and wish it were all different for me. I envy people who can listen attentively and then come up with incisive commentary afterward. I have never been able to offer a sincere yet thoughtful critique of other people's playing, which is especially awkward after a concert by a friend, or during a rehearsal. Every once in a while, if I'm tuned in to the piece or the performer, I can say something useful, but more often I'm standing there stammering, "Uh, that was really good!"

One exception to my listener ennui: since I have gotten back into playing the piano, I have been fascinated with seeing and hearing pianists play. However, I still don't know what to say to them after I have heard them play.

Criticism is something they ought to teach at music school. It should be a required course, along with the one in which they teach you how to earn a living.

The fact is that I'd rather play than listen.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What's going on here?

I seem to be developing a theme here -- basically, "Man (and woman) does not live by music alone." Am I still trying to justify quitting, or my lack of success at it, by pointing out these cautionary tales of truncated, empty lives?

Or am I trying to get at why I could never throw myself into it completely? Perhaps it was a self-preservative instinct that kept me from doing so. If you don't commit, it's harder to get hurt.

Perhaps the people who crash and burn give it their all, and then they don't have anything left when things get rough.

Then there's the question of what "success" even means in this business. To me, it's always been figuring out how to set up one's life with a good balance among all of one's activities, both those necessary to survive and those that serve to feed one's interests and passions.

I know now that I've set things up so that I can work on the piano any time I want to, playing the cello doesn't make me feel sad the way it used to. All of my eggs are not in one basket.

This is something I need to think about some more.

Geoffrey Tozer

I had never heard of this pianist until a few days ago, when someone on Piano World posted a link to a story about his memorial service. He died in August of this year at the age of 54 after years of decline following early successes as a child prodigy and young man. The medical cause of his death was liver disease, developed over years of alcoholic drinking.

You can read about him here and in former Australian prime minister Paul Keating's eulogy here.

I was struck, reading about this man so soon after seeing the movie I described in my last post, by the contrast between his difficult life and those of the accomplished amateur pianists in the movie. I keep thinking about how his early concentration on music crippled his personal development.

From my admittedly quick reading of the facts, it seems that Tozer followed some very bad advice and made some very bad decisions. For example, one trusted adviser told him he should skip high school and just play concerts and meet people, which he proceeded to do. I'm sure following this course of action enabled him to develop his artistry and technical skill to a high level, but at what cost?

And then when Tozer was in his early 40s, he came to Keating's notice and ultimately was awarded grants totaling more than half a million dollars over 10 years. He certainly did many worthwhile things with the money -- such as embarking on some ambitious recording projects -- but did not establish a stable life. The grants were given by one politician and taken away by another, so they were not something anyone should have counted on for the long term.

Keating, in his eulogy, laid heavy blame for Tozer's death on the failure of the musical establishment in his own country to support and nurture this artist, and he excoriated Australia's orchestras for not supporting their home-grown genius. His comments were ill-informed. Very few classical musicians -- only those at the very top of the heap, like the Yo Yo Mas -- are supported by such hiring, which only is financially significant if the artist performs constantly at first-class venues. Most full-time musicians, even the very successful ones, put together a patchwork of jobs and count themselves lucky if they can pay the rent. Even if Tozer had performed with every orchestra in Australia several times a year, though perhaps it would have supported him emotionally, it would not have supported him materially.

I do believe that governments should support the arts because they cannot flourish under capitalism. Just because something is commercially viable does not mean that it's good. So much dreck that is passed off as music earns most of the money, and most of the real artists, whether they play classical, jazz, or other creative forms, are left to flounder and make their own way.

Thousands of very fine musicians have the same troubles as Tozer and do not self-destruct. His story is a sad one, and perhaps even a tragedy in the classical sense in which the protagonist causes his own downfall, but I sense that his problems went much deeper than lack of recognition for his art.

Monday, October 26, 2009

They Came to Play

I saw this movie this evening: They Came to Play.

It's a documentary about the 2007 Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Held in Fort Worth, Texas, every 4 years, the competition chooses 75 pianists for the preliminary round based on recorded applications, narrows them down to 25 for the semifinals, six for the finals, and then awards three prizes. Amateur is defined here someone who does not earn their living from playing or teaching piano. The requirements are much looser than for professional competitions -- there are no repertoire restrictions, and music does not need to be memorized.

The documentary was fantastic. This was the premiere showing in a commercial theater (it has been shown at several film festivals and has won prizes), and the producer of the film was there as well as a couple of the competitors, who played after the screening. If you go to the film's website at the link above, you will get a taste of the look and sound of the movie.

What was especially interesting to me was that almost all the people in the competition were middle-aged, with full-time jobs, families, and other interests. Some were older and retired from long nonmusic careers. Some had had terrible setbacks in life, such as major illness, drug problems, family problems, and dislocation from their birth countries. But they were all highly intelligent, articulate, and interesting people who had made the best of their various situations. A number of them had studied piano seriously and gone to conservatories. They were all very good players, some excellent.

I guess what I'm driving at is related to my previous post: that it's possible to have a full life, not be a starving artist, and also achieve a high level of playing an instrument. Not doing it for money (the prizes in this competition are extremely modest -- first prize is only $2,000; the real prize is getting to participate) seems to enhance the experience.

One of the competitors in the movie quoted Stravinsky: "If you can make a million dollars doing something other than music, do it."

Another, berating himself for not playing so well after he came off stage, said, "I have to turn the switch and remember that I'm an amateur!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Never too late?

Years ago, my mother gave me a book titled Never Too Late. The cover had a photograph of a man playing the cello next to a little girl playing the violin, which is probably what caught my mother's eye.

The book was by a man named John Holt. Holt was an educator who wrote several influential books (including How Children Fail and How Children Learn). Early in his career as a teacher, he began trying to reform the U.S. educational system, but later came to believe that it could not be reformed and became one of the first proponents of homeschooling.

Never Too Late (this link takes you to a preview of the book where you can read several of its chapters) is the story of how he learned about music and took up the cello when he was 50. The comments I've seen about this book have been along the lines of "inspiring," "moving," "gave me hope."

I remember reading this book and thinking, "Well, okay, that's nice," but (you knew there would be a "but" somewhere in here, didn't you?) then I got to the end, where he had a list of all the things he had given up to pursue his dream of playing the cello. It was a very long list that included things like traveling, going to movies, socializing with his friends, and on and on. He acknowledged that he knew he'd never be that good a cello player but that it was worth it anyway.

I was shocked. It's all very well to want to play an instrument; I'm obviously in favor of that. But to give up every other enjoyable activity in your life? That's nutty, I thought at the time.

You have to have a balance. Even if you are a genius at music, you need to do other things that engage your mind or playing becomes a stale prison.

It's true that it's never too late to try, but to reach a level of proficiency equal to that of people who started when they were younger -- really, in whatever skill you're talking about, not just music -- it is too late. Maybe the nonmusician thinks that playing an instrument is like driving a car: you either can do it or you can't, like there's an on-off switch. Although to a car-driving afficionado there's probably all kinds of fine points of differentiation, even so, there's a point of competence at which a person has mastered the skills enough to turn the car on, start it, stop it, steer it, maneuver it in traffic, and park -- and you get a license attesting to all this. There's no license for cello playing (though maybe there should be).

I don't know if my mother gave me that book because she didn't understand what it was about or because she thought it would encourage me to be satisfied with amateur status. At the time, I was in the middle of all my battles and anxieties over my so-called career and wasn't ready to think about it that way. But I still think Holt was wrong to advocate forswearing every other joy in life. My conjecture is that he must have had some other issues that he wasn't willing to face, at least not in public.

The way I see it now is there is a long, long skill continuum. People can be musical at every point on it. The process of development is also a continuum, and the best way to learn is slowly and steadily. The most important thing is to keep at it regularly, even if you spend just a little bit of time some days. If you do this, you will learn and grow at your own pace. And live your life!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What I've played so far

I've been meaning to sit down and figure out what I've played over the past 5 years. So here it is, to the best of my recollection:

Granados, Valses Poeticos
Bach, J. S., Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (in the order I learned them):
D Minor (No. 6,  Book II)
B flat Major (No. 21, Book I)
A Minor (No. 20, Book II)
F Major (No. 11, Book I)
F minor (No. 12, Book II)
C Minor (No. 2, Book I)
C Major (No. 1, Book I)
C Sharp Major (No. 3, Book I)
Debussy, Children’s Corner
Mozart, Sonata K310 (A Minor)
Waltz (A Minor, Op. Post.)
Nocturnes 55/1 (F Minor); 27/1 (C Sharp Minor)
Preludes 28/1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 15, 21, 22
Mazurka 6/1
Etude 25/7
Tiersen, Comptine d’un autre ete; Valse d’Amelie
Beethoven, Sonata (“Tempest”; incomplete)
Gershwin, Preludes (incomplete)
Brahms, Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 1 (C Major)

A real moment of truth here. When I wrote it all down, a couple of things struck me. One is how short this list is, and how short most of the pieces are! I felt like I've been practicing for many hours over these 5 years. But if I'm honest, I have to admit that many days I either didn't practice at all or practiced for a very short time. I do have a full-time job, and I have also been busy with a lot of other things.

Another is how lopsided it is toward Bach and Chopin. I've gotten into this -- well, it's a rut, I guess, where I'm thinking that I have to press on in my quest to learn all of the Well-Tempered Clavier and all of the Op. 28 Preludes. On the other hand, these pieces really are my exercises. Learning them has developed my technique and ability to memorize, and it has been interesting.

So I really don't know whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. Should I branch out and try to make this more well-rounded? I have had fits of doing this, when I worked on Bartok or Scarlatti or Rachmaninoff for a while, but because I've been focused on the Bach and Chopin projects, those other pieces fell by the wayside after a week or so.

I suppose if I get to the end of my life and I've only learned the entire WTC and the complete Chopin Op. 28, it won't be a total loss.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Recognition: Other thoughts

My post yesterday sounded awfully preachy; I had some need to wrap things up with a moral, skipping over the darkest nights of the soul and all that.

One reason people crave recognition is it's part of the apparently wired-in need to compete. Picture cavemen sitting around the fire, and Ogg wowing the others with his ability throw a rock and hit the prey every time. Ogg not only gets to eat more often but people maybe give him stuff so he will bag them more food, too, or so he will throw rocks at predators and protect them.

With musicians, what happens is that first, you realize you love to play. Then, if you get good enough, you think that maybe you can do this all the time. You quickly realize that if you want to play for other people, you have to compete with other musicians for the opportunity. This is where desire for success starts to dilute love of playing. The deeper you get into competing -- for awards, for spots in schools, for jobs -- the farther you get from your original motivation.

If you suffer defeat after defeat -- as most of us do, for one reason or another -- you wake up after 5, 10, 20 years, or more, and realize that you don't love playing anymore or, if you do, that you hate this competition business.

Some do thrive on it. They have the constitution and the extroverted personality. As you can probably guess, I do not. I can handle a certain amount of socializing, but it's work for me; I am not energized by it. Competing, even when I am legitimately equal to or better than those I"m competing with, exhausts me and fills me with a deep sense of inadequacy. I'd venture that even an extrovert tires of the game eventually, but I get tired before it even starts.

Self-recognition is all very well, and certainly is necessary, but it doesn't pay the rent. Recognition by others doesn't always have much to do with one's playing ability, or even music at all.

I don't have a neat way to wrap this up, other than to add that this is a complicated topic that calls for careful consideration. Anyone who ventures into playing music must grapple with it at some point, at some level.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Part of why people do anything is to be recognized. They want other people to notice them.

One reason for the letdown after a performance is the feeling that you haven't gotten enough applause. I know I've been disappointed in reactions to my playing. With regard to my piano playing, those who know me well seem to expect me to be good at it, maybe because I'm the most expert music person they know. I can put a lot of work into learning a piece and play it for a family member, and the best they can say is, "That sounded hard."

Sometimes what is missing is self-recognition. Two years ago, I played a concerto with an orchestra. This was actually a big deal for me because I have never done anything like win a concerto competition or been chosen by a conductor to solo in a really big piece. I did play a Vivaldi concerto with the school Baroque ensemble when I was at CCM, and even performed the piece several times on a tour of Japan, but this is not one of those pieces that you study for years that is a backbone of the repertoire, and the director of the ensemble coached me on it down to every little ornament and wrote all the cadenzas, so it didn't seem like my piece at all.

I started learning the Saint-Saëns A minor concerto when I was about 15, and then "finished" it as an undergrad, so it's been part of my life for a long time. It's not the most difficult piece in the cello oeuvre, but it is one of the great Romantic concertos for cello. When the conductor of the TCO asked if I'd like to play a concerto with the orchestra, that seemed like the best choice.

So it was arranged, and then I immediately was filled with self-doubt. I had an almost visceral antipathy to putting myself through what I knew would be months nerve-wracked preparation. All kinds of imagined teacher recriminations floated through me, boiling down to: How could I possibly do this without practicing 4 to 6 hours a day?

As it turned out, I practiced a good, solid hour or so most days for 4 months, and it went fine. I mastered my stage fright and played musically, expressively, and in tune, with good tone. I had one little flub in the last movement, but considering everything, I should have been happy about it. I was, until the day after the concert when I listened to the recording. It was so draggy! It didn't have the sparkle, the joie de vivre, that it should have. It sounded like the conductor added an extra beat before each of my entrances (probably because I had pleaded with the orchestra not to push me). You can hear the first movement here:

Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, First movement

For a long time afterward, I berated myself: Why did I go through all that to end up with this mediocre (I thought) performance?

Why, indeed?

In the 2 years since that concert, I've come to terms with it and now look on it as a tremendously worthwhile experience. It forced me to tap back into all my training as a cellist and a musician, and I did it on my own, without a teacher or a coach. I developed an interpretation and came up with a strong performance, without shaking hands or wobbly bow.

I did get recognition from others for that concert, too. Everyone paid me a lot of compliments. But without the recognition from myself, it seemed it didn't mean much. There is sometimes a fine line between realistic self-esteem and delusions of grandeur. We all need to stay on the right side of that line.