Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Some worthwhile books about playing

I've read a few books that have rung true for me about some aspect of the musical experience. I thought I'd share a few of them here, with my impressions, in no particular order.

A Mixture of Frailties, by Robertson Davies. This is a novel, published in 1958, about a young Canadian woman who is given an unexpected chance to go to England and study singing. It's the third book of Davies's Salterton trilogy, centered around a cast of characters in a small town in Ontario. Relevant to a musician is the depiction of how, ideally, a singer might be educated, given unlimited time and funds. It also touches on some of the moral trade-offs that inevitably need to be made.

Hilary and Jackie (originally titled A Genius in the Family), by Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré, which is of course the memoir about their sister, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. The book, and especially the movie that was made from it, were controversial. It was not the usual fawning "everything was wonderful" memoir about a musical celebrity. I do think the writers' intention was honest, and that they really wanted to portray both the good and the bad. It shows so clearly that simply being a fabulous performer is not enough to make you happy. Whether you will agree with that or not, it's a fascinating description of the training of a famous and familiar musician.

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall, is the book that finally made my husband realize everything I had told him about being a musician was true. This is an excellent and riveting description of what it's really like to be a music student and freelance musician. Tindall is an oboeist who went to the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school and then to Manhattan School of Music, and she stayed on in New York for 20 more years, freelancing and earning pretty good money at it, but finding it all less and less satisfying as the years went on. Even though I was never quite in the author's position with regard to the more attention-grabbing stuff she describes (the sex with inappropriate people, the drinking/drugs), I certainly observed it. What I particularly value in this book, though, is how she shows so clearly that the pursuit of a career in music can yield a certain spiritual emptiness if not undertaken thoughtfully.

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz, has some similarities to Tindall's book, but from a more studious perspective. The author majored in guitar at the New England Conservatory, and he worked very hard at it, but he never managed to get good enough to be the great guitarist he imagined he was. He had some lovely musical experiences as a student, but after he graduated he became disenchanted with it and quit almost overnight. This passage tells the crux of it, when he was riding home on the train with his girlfriend Christine after a concert he played at an art gallery in Graz with a friend:

After a while I began to talk about the concert, about the passages that had worked onstage but that now fell flat in memory. We'd done an adequate job, I said. But something was lacking. Marcus had seemed distracted, and I was dissatisfied with my solos.
"You sounded like a good musician who doesn't practice enough," Christine said, looking down.

It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you. Since I was twelve years old, I'd dreamed of living the life I heard, living an artist's life. But I'd misunderstood myself, my desires, my ambitions. I misunderstood what it meant to be an artist.

In fact, I was just beginning, just learning how to conduct myself as an artist in the world. But this wasn't the world I'd been working toward. And in that moment, I saw that the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be was impossibly long. It sank in that I wasn't ever going to arrive, and so it suddenly felt like I was nowhere. all the pent-up bitterness of a desire endlessly deferred broke loose. It devastated my dream world of music. My fingers hadn't failed me; my technique and talent were not to blame. I'd just imagined the artist's life naively, childishly, with too much longing, too much poetry and innocence and purity. And this image ruined music for me.

When I looked up at Christine to reply, I no longer knew why I was a musician. She was going to succeed. But I wasn't. I'd known it for years. All my work had come to nothing.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, leaning over next to me. 'I shouldn't have said that."

The story of my practicing came to an end. The guitar had been the instrument of my dreams. Now the dream was over.
Now that I've assembled these tiny snapshots, I realize that what I take away from these books -- and in some way find comforting about them, whatever that says about me! -- is the shared experience with the actors that music is compelling but that a life in it is hard, and that it is not enough in itself to nourish both body and soul.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


My first piano teacher preached thusly: Practicing consisted almost entirely of repetition of the entire piece. The magic number was 10: You played everything 10 times, with the metronome -- five times slow, three times faster, and two times fastest. Each week, the metronome marking was advanced to the next notch. Memorizing was a mysterious process that just happened after you had played something enough times. She used to write in my lesson notebook, "In Repetition There Is Security!!!" Well, okay -- I guess you would kind of learn a piece this way, more or less, eventually.

Playing the cello, in contrast to playing the piano, really forces you to take music apart and look at its separate components. There's no way around it. When you play the piano, you sit at this big machine and press the keys and the sound comes out, but you don't have to think about it much. When you play the cello (or any stringed instrument), you are more intimately connected with how the sound is produced. The left hand and right hand do completely different things. You have to learn to listen to the results of what you do with each hand: The right hand, so that you pull the bow in such a way that you don't get squeaks and scrapes, and the left hand, so that you put your fingers in the right place and produce the right notes that are in tune.

And then, once you've gotten some ability with all of that and are playing real music, you find that in an orchestra, for example, your part is just one small component of the whole, and you have to learn to count and feel rhythm so that you can play with the other people in the group. I think learning a cello part is more conducive to understanding the guts of a piece than learning a first violin part because cello parts are almost always bass lines -- which are the foundation for everything else. Even when you play "solo" cello music (unless it's truly solo, like the Bach suites), you are humbly beholden to the pianist or orchestra that is accompanying you.

So in my case, learning all of these things, though I learned them slowly over many years, gave me much more understanding of what practicing is for and how to do it. My first cello lessons as a music major were something of a shock. Again, my natural talent was far, far ahead of my knowledge or discipline. My teacher and I had many a struggle before I started figuring things out, at least a little bit.

Even after earning three music degrees and performing in many concerts, I don't think it was until the past five years or so, with my return to the piano, that I have really learned how to practice. Although I knew some of this before, it has only been recently that I've come to feel it viscerally. What I understand now is that learning a piece of music is a combination of close attention to thousands of small gestures while developing a concept of the entire sweep of this piece, what it means, how it flows, the harmonic structure. You draw the outlines and slowly fill in the details.

In a sense, my first teacher, was right, though the way she taught it was crude. Ultimately, some form of mastery comes from spending time with whatever it is you want to master, and the more time, the better the result. However, how you spend that time is as, or perhaps more, important.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What I'm playing this week

I'm still working hard on the Chopin Nocturne so I'll be able to record it in two weeks. I did my first test recording, and it wasn't terrible, so I'm hopeful it will come together. I also have parts of it memorized.

When I start working on a piece, I go through it and find the most technically challenging sections and practice those first. Such a simple approach, but it really works. It is expounded on in a classic book for amateur pianists: Playing the Piano for Pleasure, by Charles Cooke, who wrote for the New Yorker magazine. It was published in 1941, so in some respects it is dated, but the overall advice is excellent, and given in the droll New Yorker "Talk of the Town" style. I first read this book when I was a teenager and my mother checked it out of the public library. I remembered it over the years, and finally bought a copy five or six years ago.

A few key concepts:
1. Choose pieces that are within your grasp as an amateur. There's so much out there that even though you can't play Rach 3, you won't be bored.
2. Practice the hard parts first. Cooke used the metaphor of "setting fractures": If you find the weakest spots and practice them the most, they will end up being the strongest spots.
3. Memorize everything, and try to keep a minimum of pieces in your current repertoire so you have something you can play for people -- but only if they ask!

I mentioned this book once to a professional pianist friend, and she made a face and said, "I hate that book." Whatever. I can see its worth, despite pianist snobbery.

One of the best tools I've ever used for practicing, btw, is this little digital recording device: Zoom H4. It's small and light, with the microphones built in, so all you have to do to record something is turn it on and press a button. Then you can load the files onto a computer and listen to them. My favorite way to use it is to practice something to a level at which I'd consider performing it and then record it. I learn right away what needs fixing -- both because it serves as an audience (bringing on performance nerves) and because I can listen to the resulting recording objectively. It's almost better than having a teacher.

In this nocturne (Op. 27, No. 1), there's a stormy middle section that's meant to be played fairly fast. I zeroed in on that right away, and started practicing it with the metronome, trying to arrive at a tempo that would convey the agitato mood but that I could still play cleanly. The outer sections feature a flowing bass line with wide jumps and quick chromatic shifts. This I also turned into a mini-etude. Those are the immediate difficulties. The other point I'm working on is making the tempo changes -- the accelerandi and ritardandi -- sound natural.

I'm still working on the C-sharp major Bach prelude and fugue. I'm having trouble making myself practice it slowly; I get impatient and am thinking about my limited practice time and start rushing through it, and then I make too many mistakes. The reason I say "too many mistakes" is not just because it offends the gods of music but because once you make a mistake several times, it becomes ingrained and takes much more work to eradicate than if you had played it correctly from the beginning. I tried to record this last night, too, but the fugue fell apart.

I started practicing the other two Gershwin preludes this past week. I found this review of a CD of Gershwin music: "George Gershwin: The Original Manuscripts" played by the pianist Alicia Zizzo. I thought the following was interesting:
The three Gershwin Preludes have been much played in their original piano versions, and in innumerable transcriptions for various instruments. (I once played them in a recital in college.) Who knew that Gershwin - inspired by his main influence, Chopin - originally planned to created a parallel set of preludes to Chopin’s 24 (which had been in turn inspired by Bach’s)?  He was going to dub it The Melting Pot.  In his premiere performance of 1926 Gershwin played not three but five preludes. One was later used as a song and another became the opening of the last movement of his Concerto in F.  Zizzo gives us eight separate tracks here, though some are as short as :27. I never realized that the second and third Preludes had special titles: Blue Lullaby and Spanish Prelude, respectively. 
Many students play the second prelude, because it's slow and much easier than the other two, which seemed impossible to me for so long. I'm psyched that I can now actually figure out how to play them.


The chamber orchestra I'm in does four concerts a year. For each concert, there are five rehearsals, scheduled for the two weekends preceding the concert (one Saturday, one Sunday each weekend) and with the dress on the Friday before the Sunday afternoon concert.

As in many amateur orchestras, the wind section is fully staffed with a big proportion of musicians who have been to music school, are music teachers, and/or are employed in military bands. Competition is often fierce for these spots.

The string sections, on the other hand, are small, the players weaker. This is the result of a basic supply-and-demand situation: More players are required in string sections, so there are fewer violinists, violists,  cellists, and bassists who are competent and "at liberty" (as they say in the International Musician). Most people will opt to play for money if they have the opportunity. I suppose I'm one of the few who does not.

Over the past 10 years or so, I came to realize that the amounts of money I was earning through playing were insignificant and that I would be better off playing only when it was something I would enjoy in some way. For me, that includes not spending an hour each way driving on freeways during rush hour to get to rehearsals, and not being treated like a lower form of life (sitting in the back of a section of people who play worse than I do). On this last point, I wish it did not matter to me where I am seated, but it does.

The current orchestra rehearses a 15-minute drive from my house, and not during the week except for the dress rehearsal, so those are both pluses (even with that, the weekends when I have these rehearsals fly by and I don't get too much else done at home). Another plus is that I am the section leader, so I decide on the bowings, suggest fingerings, and play any solos.

So Saturday, the whole orchestra met and played through everything on the program: Brahms Academic Festival Overture, Haydn London Symphony, a Gluck piece for oboe, a Bloch piece for flute, and a Dvorak Slavonic dance. Sunday was strings only, and we had sectionals, so I met with the cellos, we went through the technically difficult spots in each piece, and I suggested fingerings and how to practice them. Then for the last hour all the strings got together with the conductor and worked on the Brahms. We had only two first violins, four seconds, four cellos, and no violas or basses. Such is life in an amateur orchestra.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


An orchestra was a mysterious thing to me for a long time. I was kind of plopped into them when I was just learning to play the cello, and I didn't understand how all the moving parts fit together. I had rarely heard an orchestra before then and didn't know anything about the music we played.

One thing I didn't understand was what the conductor was doing up there. I had only the vaguest idea of beat patterns, meters, how tempo changes work, and how to watch for the downbeat. I just followed along with what everyone else was doing and tried not to come in in the wrong place. I probably did this for way, way too long -- but it's why playing in an orchestra is fun for string players who don't play so well and frustrating for those who do: One can mostly get away with this, and no one will notice (except your stand partner). Now, of course, I am a sophisticated, educated musician (cough, cough) and far better than that.

Several years ago, I was asked to play principal cello in a small chamber orchestra, and I've been in the job ever since. I'm paid only a small gratuity (shh! don't tell the musician's union!). There are many such orchestras, composed of a combination of volunteer and paid, amateur and professional musicians. Why, I often wonder, do people put so much time and effort into sustaining a group like this when there are more than enough professional orchestras giving concerts and making recordings? There's so much music-making going on that someone could listen to it all day every day. It must be because people find greater satisfaction in playing than in listening.

I've been in a lot of groups like these, both as a volunteer and as a paid professional. This is the first time I've been principal cellist for an extended time, and I like being able to guide (at least a bit) what goes on musically. When I was younger, I didn't appreciate how much work goes into putting a group like this together and organizing the musicians, the scheduling, the music, the venues, the money. I cringe now over how cavalierly critical I was about the groups I was in were run.

All I can do now is try to have a better attitude -- and not agree to do things I don't want to do.  Both were hard for me when I was a struggling freelancer. I like having the option now to say no.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Where I'm coming from, Part 3: College

I started college just before I turned 17. My parents somehow arranged for me to graduate from high school a year early. As I said, they were not today's helicopter parents, but they were tired of paying private school tuition for high school and thought it would be better spent on college tuition instead. At that time (1974), college tuition was a mere fraction of what it is now. At George Washington University, which I attended for three years, I remember paying a few thousand dollars per year for full-time tuition. It was a different world.

There were also many schools that would admit you if you had a high school diploma and were breathing. GW was one of them, and those were pretty much my attributes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dance music

Last night, I played the cello at an English country dance. One of my friends has described English country dancing as "contra dancing on Quaaludes"; it's definitely not as brisk as contra. If you've ever seen one of those Jane Austen movies, you've seen English country dancing. It's couples dancing, but the couples form lines, circles, or squares, and they follow sometimes intricate patterns as couples move down the line or around the circle or square. The music is from a vast inheritance of tunes from England, Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere, many of them gorgeous.

I've been playing this type of music for about six years.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where I'm coming from, continued

Now that I've been thinking about this, it's clear that my parents saw that I had talent at music and did their best to nurture it. After all, they sent me to piano lessons and cello lessons, they rented a 3/4-sized cello for me shortly after I started, and then bought a cello ($250 at Chuck Levin's, bow and canvas bag included). My mother drove me to McLean, Virginia, for my cello lessons every Sunday morning. And they were not the helicopter parents of today; they subscribed more to a laissez-faire philosophy (expressed in the title of book we had, How to Raise Children at Home in Your Spare Time).

But they really didn't know anything about it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where I'm coming from: musical beginnings

We always had a piano at home. The first one was an ancient upright, black and decorated with carving, pushed into a corner of our (damp) basement. I believe it came with the house. I'm sure I must have played it, but the first piano I remember playing on was a small baby grand that my parents bought at an auction and installed in the dining room when I was around 5 years old. I was fascinated with it, and quickly learned to read music and play the pieces in the beginning piano books we had around the house from my older sisters' lessons.

It wasn't until I was 9 that I was sent for lessons, too, to the same teacher, chosen because (1) she was the only teacher my parents knew about and (2) she gave discounts for siblings and had a policy of never raising her rates once a student had started.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:
Bach Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Learning Bach preludes and fugues is an ongoing project of mine. I've been memorizing everything I learn, so I can spend six months or more on each of these sets. The key has made this one difficult -- I really have to think hard about what the notes are (lots of double sharps). I've been working on it since March, and finally feel like it is memorized. Sad to say, once I stop practicing one and move on to another one, I forget the previous one. But Bach didn't intend them to be memorized anyway. (No one performed from memory before Clara Schumann.)

Gershwin Prelude No. 1
This is one of those pieces that always seemed impossible when I would try to read through it way back when. I decided that it wasn't impossible -- and in fact, I'm getting it. Gershwin put in a metronome marking of quarter note = 100; I have it up to around 72.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1 in C-sharp minor
I am learning this because I volunteered to record it for an online recital over at Piano World. A group that spends much time discussing Chopin and his music has been organizing these around various themes (there was a prelude recital, an etude recital, several mazurka recitals, and now a nocturne recital). Everyone lays claim to a particular piece and agrees to learn it and make a recording of it by a certain date. A volunteer collects all the recordings and posts them. This recital (as you will see if you click on the link) is supposed to go live on October 17. I really procrastinated on this one and didn't start learning my nocturne until August, but it's getting there.

Chopin preludes: another ongoing project is to learn, eventually, all 24 of these. I have the first seven, more or less. Number 8 is a bear (link is to a pretty nice video that also includes No. 3). So I'm picking away at it, and also every few days play through 1-7.

I've found that both the Bach and the Chopin projects have helped my technique tremendously. You will notice that I don't include scales or exercises in my list here. I decided that (a) I spent enough years practicing scales and (b) I have so little time to practice that I'd rather spend it on real music. I am an amateur, after all.

On the cello:
I confess here on the Internet: I only practice the cello when I have to. This week, I'm scheduled to play at an English country dance, so I will probably play some scales and look through the play list (if the caller sends me one). When I play at these dances, I improvise my part by looking at the chart (melody/chords), so I can't exactly practice; I just need to keep my fingers nimble enough so I can keep up.

We also have the first rehearsal of our chamber orchestra next weekend, so I need to spend some time on the parts. I am principal cellist, so need to lead the section and may have to do a sectional.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I am an amateur musician.

Amateur has a negative connotation: It is often used to describe someone or something lacking in training and skill. I like to think of it more in the original sense: A person who does something for the pleasure of it.

In that sense, I am an amateur musician.

I do have a lot of training. I attended music schools over a period of almost 20 years, eventually earning a DMA in cello from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (an awfully long name for a school; just call it CCM for short).

I have played for money, and still do, though I certainly need to keep my day job. I'm in a chamber orchestra (TCO), and I also play occasionally for the English country dances at Glen Echo. The photo I've posted shows me playing for a local opera company a few years ago.

Over the past five years, I also have rekindled my childhood interest in the piano. In that, I definitely am an amateur in both senses. My playing makes up in musical understanding what it lacks in technical expertise, at least, or so I'd like to think. Here's an example (recorded in my practice room at home -- almost a year ago, I'm sorry to realize now):

Chopin, Etude Op. 25, No. 7

I've had some periods of time when I did not play. After all those years in music school, I felt kind of like "if a teacher doesn't hear you play, are you really playing?" I have realized, though, that music is a major part of my life. I have a visceral need to keep at it, to play every day, to set goals and continue to work on my playing. That sounds grim, but the ongoing process gives me great satisfaction. It's fun -- for me, anyway.

I hope to write in this blog about my musical experiences, both past and present, and share thoughts, recordings, and other items of interest. At least, I hope they are of interest to someone!

Thanks for reading.