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.