Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Year winding down: Reflections

There are only about 60 hours left until the calendar turns to another year. In nature, this means nothing. For example, our cats give no thought to anything so artificial as the division of time into measurable units. They only know that we humans do roughly the same sorts of things on a regular basis (i.e., wake up, feed them, leave the house, come home, feed them, take showers, turn off all the lights and go to bed), and because they are genetically programmed to adapt their needs to those of the creatures they're mooching off of, they pay attention to that and come to expect it.

We humans, on the other hand, practically let the clock and calendar rule our lives. It's a constant struggle to balance the natural with the artificial. We can plug in and apply imaginary divisions all we want, but in the end we are physical, aging, changing bodies.

So on the one hand, I mark "the end of the year" like everyone else does, but on the other hand, it doesn't really mean anything beyond remembering to write "2011" on checks and letters and looking at a new Cat Lovers Against the Bomb calendar every day.

This same dichotomy between what actually is, physically, and how the actual is labeled, described, and divided threads its way through everything people do. I'm constantly aware of it in my musical endeavors. I think it's hard for a lot of people to on the one hand be in the moment with the music -- hear what you hear and feel what you feel -- and on the other keep enough distance to know that one day's practice, or even one year's performance, is only a small step. There is not one big goal, really, but rather many small ones that build up over time until the music is a part of how you think and who you are. I would equate it with learning a new language: each word, phrase, speech, book read or written, and so on, is a small goal on the way to becoming fluent, and becoming fluent is a means to being able to communicate in a new way, with people who would not have been able to understand you before (and vice versa).

Even something like learning to communicate in a new way is not necessarily the real goal, though; it is more that human beings seem to have a need to channel their energies into more than mere survival. To me, going through life without striving for something greater than the bare necessities seems like a waste.

I close my probably trite musings with someone else's similar thoughts:

Through the corridors of sleep
Past the shadows dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don't know what is real,
I can't touch what I feel
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion.

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

The mirror on my wall
Casts an image dark and small
But I'm not sure at all it's my reflection.
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction.

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

It's no matter if you're born
To play the King or pawn
For the line is thinly drawn 'tween joy and sorrow,
So my fantasy
Becomes reality,
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow.

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

--Simon & Garfunkle, "Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Beethoven's birthday!

The e-cital is up:

Ludwig van Beethoven: Celebrating 240 Years

My contribution here:

Sonata Op. 2 No. 3, First Movement

One thing's for sure: you can tell I didn't pirate this from a professional recording. But when I listen to this and remember how I was struggling with most of it a few months ago, I'm amazed. That's the magic of practicing.

If I had only done more slogging away a year ago, I might have been able to play all four movements by now.  But as I said to my husband, "It's a start."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Slogging away at Beethoven

A year ago, someone at Piano World decided to set up an online recital in honor of Beethoven's 240th birthday on December 16. I blithely signed up to play all of Op. 2 No. 3.

Months came, months went, and I still hadn't started working on it. I finally began focusing on it sometime in the summer. This is not an easy piece! I mentioned some of the difficulties with it here. The first movement alone has a whole bag of tricks you have to learn, with a first theme composed of a fidgety, nearly impossible motif involving double thirds, and a recurring bridge of trills in octaves, capped off with a closing figure of double broken octaves. Just that opening alone makes this one of the most impossible sonatas to manage reliably.  And that's just the first movement.

By October I shelved the idea of learning and recording all four movements for this occasion and have been concentrating on the first. With only a few days left to get something in digits, I am resigned to merely scratching the surface (if "scratching" is the right word here -- maybe if this were on the cello?).

The main thing I logged on here to say, though, is that even though my efforts fall far short of the ideal, just having the goal (date set to record and post) and some points of comparison (e.g., the Perahia recording I've been listening to) have pushed them way farther than what they could have been. Knowing I would have to sit down and play through the whole movement, with the repeat, without stopping, at somewhere near the preferred tempo, and have a permanent recorded record of it, is quite the motivator.

(And knowing that the professional recordings probably involve at least some amount of splicing and doctoring eases some of the frustration.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the archives: Bach on the cello

I was browsing through our iTunes files this evening and came across a recording of me playing Bach on the cello in 1985. That was the year I gave a recital for what was a soon to be aborted attempt to earn a doctorate from a well-known conservatory. I won't go into the gory details here; suffice it to say that a number of unpleasant things happened that year, and the upshot was that I left and did some other things for a year or two before trying school again. The second time was the charm -- or at least, I got through the graduate program at another school without embarrassing myself too much.

The original recording is on a cassette tape. My husband and I were experimenting once with transferring tape to digital format, and this is the result. It has a kind of fuzzy, distant sound quality.

Bach, Prelude, Suite No. 5 in C minor for solo cello (beginning cut off)

I remember those little slips feeling like the most godawful messes at the time, but they are not so bad. Listening to this now, I wish it had been more graceful and a bit less on the scratchy side, though there's a lot of strength to it.

(For visuals, just imagine me with a perm. It was the '80s, after all.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, a day late . . .

. . . and a dollar short . . . like Virgil Starkwell . . .

(Speaking of dollars, I wish I had one for every time someone has mentioned this movie to me when they found out I play the cello.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cello section!

The chamber orchestra I'm in played its second concert of the season this afternoon. The program was a bit more substantial than some we've done. It opened with "Tales From the Vienna Woods" (with two violins substituting for the zither part Strauss scored originally); next was Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, which never fails to remind me of youth orchestra concerts, though I think our version was a little more mature; then after intermission, we played Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Greensleeves"; and we closed with Borodin's Symphony No. 2.

There was the usual quota of missed notes and missed connections and the familiar frustrations of playing in the poor acoustics of the church. But it felt good to play a concert nonetheless.

One of the other cellists just sent me a picture of the section, taken by my husband at intermission, with a request to post it on my blog, so here it is:

Tom, Liz, Karen, Liana, Frank, and Harriet
One little side note: for this concert, the orchestra hired a harp player (such are the ways of community orchestras that one reason for the choice of repertoire was to make sure each piece had a harp part). I was surprised to find that the harpist was someone I played with maybe 15 years ago with a chamber group. At the time, she was a star high school student, heading off to Curtis (which, in case you didn't know, is a crème-de-la-crème music school in Philadelphia that is full scholarship for all students, all four years). One would think that such a student would graduate and have offers pouring in for orchestra jobs (unless one knew that offers never pour in for orchestra jobs). But this harpist now plays with a local regional orchestra, does weddings and other gigs, and gives lessons. I suppose if she's happy that's fine, but it seems a little sad, somehow. She's still a very good player.*

*Someone pointed out to me that this could be interpreted as harsh. By "sad," I'm not talking about this person's life, which of course is not sad, but about the state of music education -- that even someone with the most stellar credentials has no particularly stellar place to go careerwise when they get out of school but must make his or her way just like the rest of us not so stellar ones. Biographies of famous musicians rarely describe providing background music for weddings but instead make artistic success sound inevitable. Maybe things are different now than when I was in school, but I never had a teacher who mentioned the cold realities one would face once one graduated.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review of Emanuel Ax recital (Washington Post)

FWIW, here is reviewer Anne Midgette's reaction to the recital I mentioned in my last post:

Music review: Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

"Though Emanuel Ax captured a singing artlessness in the Schubert selections, the Chopin pieces were at times muddy." 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Small rant about recital programs these days

When I was in school, I enjoyed choosing recital programs. It was like coming up with good double features. I would think about key connections (pairing a major key with its parallel or relative minor), forms (e.g., playing two pieces with fugues), and contrasting styles (something detailed and classical paired with something lush and romantic; something lush and romantic paired with something angular and modern). The trend these days, though, seems tending toward programming entire recitals of one or two composers, with no composers who lived after 1900, and nothing too challenging or "out there."

Over the past year or so, my husband and I have been treating ourselves to piano recitals by some big names in the piano world. We've heard, among others, András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel (his last concert in the United States), and last night, Emanuel Ax. These are people with the stature to play anything they want, yet many of them are presenting the same thing over and over again. This year, we've been treated to multiple concerts featuring the same pieces by Schumann and Chopin (in honor of their 250th birthdays). In a previous season, no less than three pianists played the same Beethoven sonata.

Some of this probably is because the presenters don't want to take chances with programming. I believe (and someone correct me if I'm wrong) that the performers offer lists of works that they are playing in a particular season, and the presenters choose one from column A, one from column B, and so on. They end up choosing what they think are the safe crowd pleasers. I do understand that they need to think about ticket sales, and let's face it, most of the people who shell out money to go to concerts are not edgy hipsters and musicologists but older people with disposable income and conservative tastes. At every one of the concerts we've attended in these piano series, most of the audience looked to be retirement age and up. But here's something to think about about: maybe they would get BIGGER audiences with more interesting programs. They sure weren't sold out last night. A sure sign of a small audience: they didn't open the coffee bar in the Grand Tier at intermission.

It's not that there's anything wrong with any of the music we've heard; it's just that I have always felt a recital should be more than the sum of its parts. Pieces played in proximity to each other can highlight qualities that are not apparent when they are played in isolation. Where is the creativity when a program is simply a selection of works from one composer? You might as well go out and buy a CD by that performer of the complete works (which in fact is usually for sale at intermission). And when a number of concerts are presented as a series, that is another opportunity for imagination in programming, with each concert being part of a whole.

As for last night's concert, my impression was that it was professional and workmanlike but rote and somewhat boring, and the programming was a big part of the problem. The first half was Schubert: the four impromptus from Op. 142 and the sonata in A major, Op. 120. The second half was Chopin: the Barcarolle, the four Op. 59 mazurkas, the two nocturnes from Op. 27, and the B flat scherzo.

The Schubert especially didn't work well in that big hall; the sonata is a simple one and seemed more suited to a student recital than to a concert like this one, and the impromptus, though certainly not easy, are for the most part also simple in form and content. All that simplicity and repetitiveness in one 40-minute-or-so block of time, however cleanly performed, was too much. The Chopin pieces worked much better as a group; Chopin was a more inventive composer altogether, in my opinion (particularly in terms of pianism), and his music is just easier to bring off in a performance. However, by the time the second half rolled around, the performer seemed fatigued and the audience restless.

For encores, Ax played Schumann (I think it was a movement from Waldszenen, not sure -- I know Schiff played it last month) and Chopin (the "grand waltz" No. 1, I believe). Overall, it was interesting to finally see and hear him in a live performance, but it wasn't enlightening in any other respects.

There really is a benefit to hearing live music, but I wish the people who design these concert series would be more imaginative. Creative programming doesn't have to be ugly.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Addition to the practice routine

If what I do can even be described as a "routine"!

I am right-handed. I work on a computer all day, and to try to balance out overuse, I keep the mouse on the left side of the keyboard and in general try to do things ambidextrously as much as I can. But my right hand still bears an extra burden in terms of fine motor tasks. Then I go home and practice the piano, and it's a fact that most piano music exercises the right hand far more than the left.

So I've been noticing over the past few months that my left hand feels slighted in terms of how much exercise it's been getting. I've noticed it especially since I started working on the Bach D minor prelude from WTC I, in which the right hand gets a significant workout while the left hand just plays a walking bass in eighth notes. After an hour of practicing this piece, my right hand and arm feel pretty buffed, whereas my left hand feels like it's been taking a nap. So I decided to add some left-hand-alone work to make up for this deficiency.

My first piano teacher did this. Part of her standard assignment would be an exercise out of Hermann Berens's "Training of the Left Hand: Forty-Six Exercises and Twenty-Five Studies for the Left Hand Alone."

Here's a sample page (courtesy of SheetMusicPlus):

Naturally, with the callowness of youth, I didn't appreciate this much at the time, though I did like some of the studies -- they are musical. I may even get old Berens out of the music stockpile. But last night, I turned to Brahms's arrangement for left hand alone of the Bach Chaconne in D minor. I read through the entire piece (the first time I've ever been able to do that!), and sorry, Herr Berens, but this piece is in a different universe.

Brahms said of it (in a letter to Clara Schumann),

The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad. If one has no supremely great violinist at hand, the most exquisite of joys is probably simply to let the Chaconne ring in one's mind. But the piece certainly inspires one to occupy oneself with it somehow . . . There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from the piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone . . . The same difficulty, the nature of the technique, the rendering of the arpeggios, everything conspires to make me-feel like a violinist!*

I'm not sure I want to feel like a violinist, but I think that tackling the technical challenges involved in bringing this very familiar piece (I've not only heard it performed but have lived through various friends learning it, on both violin and guitar) to life will be very helpful, beyond simply exercising my left hand.

So I will add this into my mix and will see how it develops.

*From La Jolla Music Society, Copyright 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What I'm playing this week

I haven't done one of these in quite a while, mostly because it was getting monotonous. But because I have a few new things, I thought it might be at least a little bit interesting to mention them.

On the piano:

I'm starting a new Bach prelude and fugue, WTC I/6 in D minor. I chose this to work on because it's simpler than the A major set, and I thought it would be good to learn something that I would not have such trouble memorizing so I could focus more on being musical. The prelude and fugue are also both appealing: the prelude has that fun forward-propelling texture with rhythmic bass in the left hand and fast triplets in the right hand; the fugue has some beautiful moments, and there are also some technical challenges with regard to playing the trills in the subject just right.

Beethoven, Op. 2 No. 3. I am continuing to make progress on this. Listening to Murray Perahia's recording has given me a lot more ideas on what to work on. I know I will not be able to play all the little technical flourishes as quickly and cleanly as he does, but it still helps to hear it done. I have a goal for this, which is to record as much of it as I can for a Piano World recital on Beethoven's birthday this December. I think I can do at least the first movement.

Brahms Op. 118 Nos. 3, 4, and 5. I finally came to the conclusion that No. 3 is just damned hard. What does it is all the jumping around, especially in the left hand, and having to land on thick chords at the ends of the jumps. It's almost impossible for me to play it up to tempo without looking at my hands.  No. 4 is interesting because it's the only one of the set that is not in A-B-A form, but sort of A-B-C instead. The A material does show up in the C section, but greatly altered. The B section is tricky because it requires precise pedaling. No. 5, the Romanze, has a pretty difficult B section, embellished with runs and trills, so I'm focusing on learning that first.

I have really missed playing Chopin, but I can't quite settle on a piece to learn. Another prelude? (I have really fallen down on the job of working my way through them.) Another Nocturne? Something else entirely?

And then there's so much more that's tempting . . . but I know my limitations.

On the cello:

Rehearsls for the second orchestra concert of the season start next weekend, so I pulled out the music and started looking at it. The program is Johann Strauss, Tales From the Vienna Woods; Rimsky-Korsakov, Capriccio Espagnol; Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on Greensleeves; and Borodin, Symphony No. 2. To be honest, none of it is that interesting to me. But I will do the best I can with it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bach recording (sigh)

I've been working on the Bach prelude and fugue in A major from Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, for six months now. For some reason this piece has been especially difficult for me. Sometimes I have thought that it doesn't engage me much emotionally, so my mind wanders while I'm playing it. (I find myself thinking all kinds of things -- some very far afield!) I have a vague mental picture of the prelude being something pastoral and the fugue being something along the lines of a hunting song, or a jig (or should I say "gigue"?), but I couldn't seem to get deeply into it.

Anyway, I told myself I'd work on it until I could produce a reasonably okay recording and then move on. About a month ago, I made a recording that sort of met that criterion. In fact, the fugue came out especially well. I wasn't satisfied with the prelude, though, so I figured I'd work on it a little more and maybe rerecord the prelude.

Time went by without my getting around to it, and in the interim, I had the piano tuned, so the possibility of joining the older recording of the fugue with a new recording of the prelude was less likely to be convincing (i.e., the latter was going to be significantly sharper than the former). I spent some frustrating hours trying to get a decent recording of both prelude and fugue, but nothing came up to the level of the version I recorded a month ago, so I decided in the interest of my sanity (or facsimile thereof) to throw this up here and call it a half year and move on:

Bach WTC I/19 in A major

I apologize in advance for a couple of oopsies in the prelude. This does have the virtue of having been recorded in one take, though!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Music in Maine

This past weekend we finally made it to Maine. The original plan, two years ago, was for three of us (the three women who are in our neighborhood folk-ish band) to travel there to play with an accordion player the recorder player has known for 30+ years. He used to live in this area and retired about five years ago to Maine. But then the violinist had a family emergency and couldn't go, and we canceled it.

In the middle of last week, the violinist came down with something, and she still didn't feel good by Friday, so she again ended up not going. But because our spouses were coming along and we were all looking at it as more of a general vacation than an all-music kind of thing, we forged ahead this time.

Part of the deal was that I had to pick up a rental cello on the way from the airport, so each couple rented a car and drove separately. One of my imaginary friends from the Internet lives sort of on the way, so we decided to stop in and see her and her husband. I was totally zonked from getting up at 5:00 that morning, but we had a nice visit, and I played a little on her Seiler grand.

(That's my husband sitting on the couch in the background.)

She also has a fractional-sized cello (maybe a three-quarter-sized one?) that she wanted me to check out -- her husband picked it up for her on a whim from a pawn shop years ago. It is not bad sounding but needs new strings and some tweaking. (It was tuned a half step flat, and I was afraid to tune it up because the strings looked like they were about to pop.)

Back on the road, we headed for Glen Cove and Woodsound Studio, a nice little shop that services and sells mostly stringed instruments, with a few folk-oriented ones as well. They gave me a very good-sounding Romanian-made student cello, and judging from the way the cello was set up, they know what they're doing.

We then continued on to Southwest Harbor. Our B&B faced a picturesque tree-lined street, and from the back of the house, you can see the water. After a quick dinner at one of the restaurants up the street, we went down to the basement of the B&B for the first of what turned out to be only two sessions with the accordion player. He was really busy and couldn't give us much time. We played through some of our repertoire for about an hour, and then he had to leave. So that was Saturday.

We met again on Sunday morning for about two hours. We decided to liberate ourselves from the dark basement room and started out playing outside on one of the porches:

However, it was really too cold to play outside, so we moved indoors and played while the cleaning person and other guests picked their way around us.

It was bothering me that I'd rented this cello to play it for only three hours, so on Monday evening, I suggested to the recorder player that we play as a duo. She asked our hosts at the B&B if it would be okay, and they got excited and asked if we'd like to entertain the other guests at an impromptu cocktail party. So while they shook up some Cosmopolitans and set out dishes of tapenade, we set up in the dining room and played for a while -- quite a bit different without a rhythm instrument, but it wasn't too bad. We wound up our session and then drove down the road to visit the accordionist's wife (he had had to go out of town that morning, but she invited us over for a short visit). It turns out that she was a music major at Wellesley back in the day, though she doesn't play much now. She has a baby grand piano -- a Hardman -- and she asked me to play a bit. So I played my Bach prelude and Brahms Op. 118 No. 2 (the latter with a big brainfart hole at the end, unfortunately; I wonder why that happens?).

The rest of the time, we did vacationer-type things like going on hikes and eating seafood. The weather was beautiful, aside from a little rain on Monday morning.

It was a pleasant trip, and I liked getting in some playing (I always feel better when I can play music), though renting the cello was a bit of a pain. I suppose I could have bought a seat for my own cello on the plane, but that is always an iffy proposition (sometimes the airport people won't let you bring it on board if the flight is crowded), and then I'd have had to worry about it the entire time. I've done my share of traveling with a cello, and it's a hassle however you arrange it.

If money were no object, I'd get one of these: That Carbon Fiber Cello

But with my traveling-with-cello career as limited as it is at the moment, I can't justify it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Slow progress, or the magical powers of lack of speed

Over the summer, I spent several months flailing at Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3, his grand C major sonata, learning the notes but not playing them very well. When I finally buckled down and started practicing the Beethoven at a relaxed slow tempo (not painfully slow, but slow enough to attend to every note), it got better miraculously, in just a session or two.  This sonata, for those not familiar with it, is written in a virtuosic style, almost like a concerto. It's Beethoven at his most cheerful, as well as Beethoven showing off his chops. There are both pianistic and compositional flourishes throughout. The main theme is particularly devilish because it features four 16th notes played in thirds in the right hand on the third beat of the first and third measures. It doesn't look like anything much, but it's quite difficult because it forces you to play these rapid notes in thirds with emphasis on the fourth and fifth fingers -- the weakest ones -- right at the beginning of the piece. Also, the Allegro con brio temp compounds the difficulty.

I may have mentioned that I worked on this piece a little when I was 17 with a teacher I had for only a short time. He assigned it because I had worked on Op. 2 No. 2 for years on end with my previous teacher, so with his logical Germanic mind, of course I needed to continue with No. 3. I struggled with those first measures. When I asked him how one could possibly play them, he said, basically, "Practice." I finally gave up on the piece because I could not play those measures. Well, I didn't know how to practice then -- but I do now.

My fancy-pants ABRSM edition by Barry Cooper helps. Back when I didn't know any better, I was using Schirmer, which is chock full of horrible overedited anachronistic markings. I'm pretty sure they had those first measures slurred. Cooper points out that the 16th notes are actually NOT slurred into the two eighths at the end of the first measure, nor are the eighth notes slurred into the second measure. So if you play this figure fairly crisply and separated, it not only sounds better but is easier.

My slow practicing is also soothing all the muscles and tendons in my overstrained right wrist. Shortly after I began working on this sonata, I started feeling a lot of pain there -- not carpal tunnel type pain, but a definite and severe pain on the outside of that wrist. In the week or so that I stopped trying to force it in a fast tempo I can't play yet, the pain has eased.

So -- here's to slow progress, though I continue to wonder why it's so hard to make myself do it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Blogaversary and goals

It has been a year since I published my first post here.

I tend to take stock and compare with the year gone by more at this time of year than when the calendar turns in January; maybe it's my Jewish heritage coming out, or maybe it's just that I spent so many years in school. In any case, I've been thinking about what I've learned this past year and my musical goals for the near future.

Aside from a lot of pondering on philosophical questions, what I've actually done amounts to this:

September 2009: I played the cello at one of the English country dances at Glen Echo. I like doing these because the other musicians are usually very good, and it's a chance to practice improvising skills.

October 2009: I recorded Chopin Op. 27 No. 1, playing from memory. I felt that this was a good start on this piece. I think if I ever relearn it, it will be much better. I also played a concert with my chamber orchestra.

November 2009: I recorded the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major, Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, No. 3. I felt pretty good about this one. This is one of those pieces that I couldn't even imagine being able to play, let alone memorize, back in the day.

December 2009: I played the cello at two holiday folk events: an English country dance and a Scandinavian dance. These were with the large and loosely (very loosely) organized group that's been around for about 30 years, and they were what they were.

January 2010: I performed Dvorak's "Silent Woods" with an orchestra, playing from memory. This was one of the more satisfying cello performances I've done. The sound was close to what I imagined it should be, I felt comfortable in front of the audience, and I felt well prepared. This is also the first solo piece that I prepared for an important concert completely on my own from the beginning. It made me feel like a pro. On this same concert, we also played Brahms's Symphony No. 2, for which I coached the cello section, and I think we acquitted ourselves very respectably.

February 2010: I relearned and rerecorded Chopin Op. 55 No. 1. I felt good about how quickly I was able to redo this piece; however, I was not very happy with my performance. Though clean, it was just too, too fast. I should have recorded it a few more times, at least, to try to create a better interpretation. I think I was just feeling burned out about it and like no one really cared.

March 2010: I played the cello at an English country dance ball with two excellent folk musicians. I did a decent job, but nothing amazing. Not a high point of the year, though I'm glad I had the chance to do it.

April 2010: I recorded both the Bach Prelude and Fugue from WTC Book II, No. 2, in C minor, and Brahms Op. 118 No. 2. The Bach left a lot to be desired -- I think I just did not work on it correctly. I did too much fast playing and not enough slow playing. The Brahms, on the other hand, was gratifying because I finally memorized it and played it as well as your average anyone else. I continue to have the sneaking suspicion that I'm getting away with something by not having a teacher and not doing things the "traditional" way -- though of course, there are as many traditions as there are people, which is to say, a lot. I also played the third concert of the year with my chamber orchestra.

May 2010: I performed the Brahms on a recital. I didn't post the recording here at the time, but actually, I like it better than the one I did post here in April. It was more musical, even with the oopsies. I also played a long gig on the cello with our neighborhood group, where I felt I honed my improvisation skills a bit.

June, July, and August: In June, I played the final concert of the year with my chamber orchestra. In July, I played the Brahms in a master class for my old friend Brian Ganz, which was an interesting experience, and in August, I played the cello in a very large DC Youth Orchestra reunion concert at the Kennedy Center.

September 2010: Our neighborhood group played a gig that was relatively polished (if one can describe folk music as being "polished").

What I am happy about, looking at the list above, is that I continued to apply myself, both to continuing activities and to learning new things, throughout the year. Every month I did at least one musically engaging activity.

So what do I hope to accomplish in the coming year?

1. I'll continue to practice the piano every day. This seems to be a good thing to do. Though I heard this for years (i.e., "practice every day!"), what got me to actually do it was the MOYD challenge started by a Piano World member a few years back.

Click here for the link to the PW thread.

So there is some worthwhile stuff on the Internet.

2. I would really, really like to get better at performing on the piano. To that end, I will schedule at least a few performances on AMSF recitals. I can never decide whether it's better to do as many as possible, even if I don't feel prepared, or to play only when I feel as ready as possible. There are pros and cons to both approaches. One pro to doing lots of these is that you get a lot of experience at dealing with nerves and learning what to do to combat them. OTOH, bad performing experiences can have a detrimental effect on one's psyche; if you continue to have them, that's what you're practicing rather than playing music for people. So it's tricky.

3. I'm still going back and forth about taking lessons. What I'm contemplating now is going to someone to get help with specific pieces -- for example, the first movement of the Beethoven sonata I'm working on, which I would like to play on a recital in about two months, has multiple technical issues that I could use help with. And I'd like to see if there's a better way to learn Bach than what I've been doing. My experience with lessons throughout my life has not been so great overall; for one useful comment, I've had to put up with months, or even years, of not-so-helpfulness (or worse).

4. Other than that, I plan to just carry on carrying on.

If anyone is still out there reading (I know a few of you do check in from time to time), I hope you find at least some of my musings interesting, entertaining, or useful. Let me know! Comments are always fun to read.

So here's to another year.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Musical Saturday - update (recording added)

 This morning was the first rehearsal of the season for the chamber orchestra I'm in. I have to admit that I'm disappointed with the choice of rep for this concert. The "big" piece is an arrangement of Debussy's "Children's Corner," which though charming for solo piano is more than a bit weird for orchestra. Then there is Beethoven's overture for "The Ruins of Athens," a double flute concerto by Cimarosa, and Haydn's symphony that is nicknamed "The Bear." Oh, well; at least I don't need to practice much for this concert.

Then this evening, our little neighborhood band had a gig. Our recorder player is friends with someone who works for Hostelling International, and we've played a couple of times at the hostel in Baltimore that he's involved with, which is a 19-century mansion downtown. We've enjoyed playing there because the main room has really great acoustics. Here's a picture of us playing there last year (love those big windows!):

The event tonight was a social part of a meeting of the organization, and they hired us to provide background music during a (nonalcoholic) cocktail hour, with a break in the middle while they made a presentation.

It was generally a good gig, but the room got so noisy we could hardly hear ourselves. However, several people told us afterward that they enjoyed hearing us. One guy staked out a spot next to us and asked us if we had a CD. Well, I did say it was noisy in there. I think it was good for us as a group because it prodded us to put together a nice playlist that seemed to work well -- a combination of slow and fast, folk and jazz-lite -- and we managed to hang together pretty well.

But I am so tired now . . .

Here's a recording (first number, before the noise level went up); there's some room noise at the end that I didn't have a chance to edit out. Also, you may notice that the guitar is loud and the cello is soft (for a change); that's because we put the recording thingy next to the guitarist so it would be out of the way. I was on the other side of the group.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

International cellist of mystery


We watched the movie "Billion Dollar Brain" (a piece of Cold War over-the-top silliness from 1967 with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer; the "billion dollar brain" is a giant mainframe computer with probably less memory than your iPod -- my husband was laughing at the punch cards) over the weekend, and of course I was most struck by this:

Director Ken Russell is full of flourishes and Francoise Dorleac's cello playing is sub-par . . .
I've been searching around all day, and cannot find out what was behind this. If anyone out there knows, please do tell.

Friday, September 3, 2010

I'm dancing as fast as I can

It is so easy to succumb to the temptation to practice fast. You sit down to practice the piano, and you only have an hour, and there's all this stuff you want to get through -- so if you play it fast, you will get more done, right?


I do think there's a place for playing things fast. You need to do it to make sure fingerings work, to figure out what tempo you are aiming for, to get the flow and mood of the piece. But wow, one hour of slow practice is worth three of fast, at least. In fact, three hours of fast practice might even have a negative effect because you are simply playing from muscle memory without much intellectual involvement. Plus, you are often practicing mistakes, or glossing over any potential intepretive niceties that you might otherwise be able to add.

I can't even begin to recount all the times this has hit home. Most recently, my husband made the mistake of wandering into my practice room the other night, so I told him to sit down and listen to me play Bach. Talk about a shaky, messy, uneven train wreck. The prelude wasn't bad, actually, but the fugue fell apart completely. I did a lot of stopping and restarting and had to take a lot of running leaps to get over all the humps and make it to the end. And the thing is, I've been playing this through reasonably well for the past month, but having any audience brought my performance down to its true level.

I have been planning to schedule this piece for an AMSF recital soon, so this was a wake-up call to go back to the basics: small sections, fix stumbles by isolating them, hands separate, voices separate -- and all of this slow, slower, slowest. The metronome is my friend here. I've heard some people say they never practice with the metronome, but I think there's no better way to internalize a steady pulse. One's biological pulse is erratic and tends to speed up under stress, so it's not a reliable guide.

Further, I realized I've been pushing all of the pieces I'm working on, trying to play them up to tempo without preparing. What happens is my muscles can sort of do it, but there's not enough input from consciousness, so when something goes awry (a finger slips, I play a wrong note, etc.) I don't really know what I'm doing enough to stay with it. There's no real control.

This is of course a common problem. The difference in my case from the average amateur is that I do know how to avoid it; I've just been lazy while at the same time desperately wanting to just be able to play this stuff already, dammit. But there really are no shortcuts.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Even though technically speaking there are three more weeks of summer, now that school is starting and it's getting dark at 8 p.m., it feels like it's over. I've been thinking lately of how different summer was when I was in my seemingly endless years of school. I remember this feeling that finally, I could spend all my time practicing so I could really dig in and learn something. There were summers when all I did was practice and do wedding gigs (back when my rent was only $120 a month!).

And then there were summer music festivals. I attended a few of those, though not the really prestigious ones. My one summer at Aspen was the closest I got to the big time, though I was but a tiny cog in the huge wheel of musicians. That was pretty much a waste, musically speaking (I was in the most boring orchestra -- it was a chamber orchestra for the people who weren't big enough star students to get into the top chamber orchestra but who were better than the people in the so-called "Festival Orchestra" -- wow, haven't thought about all this ranking stuff in years), though it's a nice place for a vacation. And that was also when I decided not to go back to North Dakota, where I had been playing in a regional orchestra and teaching the previous season, but to go to graduate school in Cincinnati instead. It seemed the entire string faculty from CCM was spending the summer at Aspen during those years -- they jokingly called it CCM West -- and they had scheduled a block of time for official auditions, so it was easy for me. The teacher I was studying with taught there, and it was just a charmed moment for me to get in with a full scholarship, even though a few years later it became much more competitive.

Before that, I spent several summers at the Waterloo Festival in New Jersey, which, looking back on it, was a great deal: It was all-scholarship, including room and board, for two months. There was an orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz (a well-known conductor, formerly a successful trumpet virtuoso), with weekly concerts, plus chamber music and master classes (I even got to attend a master class given by Josef Gingold!). Because it was so close to New York -- at the time I went, it was housed at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison -- most of the teachers and guest artists were big-name musicians in groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. I'm not really sure how I managed to get into this place. I guess it was just a fluke that the recital tape I sent them in 1979 was so good; once you were in one time, you were in any other time you wanted to go, so I was able to go back a few more summers. I did like the experience, but I didn't entirely appreciate it at the time, nor did I take advantage of everything it had to offer, particularly in the area of networking. Ah, well. I believe the festival is long gone, no longer being held.

In addition to the long festivals, I've been to a number of shorter festivals and workshops, including some Suzuki teacher training courses, a couple of chamber music festivals, and even (much more recently) the New Directions Cello Festival for nonclassical cello playing.

For all of these, the hallmarks are sweat, way too much proximity to other musicians, and (for some) way too much partying. The big festivals were fun for me when I was younger, as someone who had never lived in a college dorm before. (I remember, with some shame now, participating in the vandalism of a dorm room: the guys who lived in it invited everyone in to draw and paint grafitti onto every wall in the place. They did paint over it all before they left, but it was a big mess. Yikes. Kids.)

Now that I'm working full time like a normal adult, that summer magic is gone -- it's just like the rest of the year, only hotter. Still, every June, I have the fleeting sensation that I've just been let out of school and am on my own.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


This past weekend I participated in a musical event that raised a lot of wistful, nostalgic feelings.

I came home one day earlier this summer to find a message on our answering machine about a concert that would take place on August 21 at the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the DC Youth Orchestra Program, and they wanted to know if I could play. I am an alum -- enrolled in 1970 and emerged in 1974. Before then, I hadn't been connected with sports or clubs or summer camps (I don't really count a forgettable couple of years in Girl Scouts, where we met in a church basement and did craft projects and brought snacks from home), and our family didn't belong to any organized religious group, so this was my first involvement with a group activity that was both voluntary and demanding, and one that involved music. My piano lessons, as I've mentioned, were unconnected with the larger musical world, so DCYO was the place I learned some of the elements of performing.

The program was free to anyone, with no restriction on the basis of residence; you could sign up no matter where you lived or what school you attended. If kids needed instruments, they were provided at no charge. (In later years, the program started charging a modest tuition fee, but that was after my time there.) I started in prep classes, then quickly moved through Elementary and Junior orchestras, and a year or so after I started, I was promoted to the DC Youth Orchestra itself. I traveled across town to Coolidge High School, in northwest DC, on Saturday mornings and one evening a week during the school year (various parents arranged a carpool with kids from our neighborhood, and later on I felt very grownup about taking the bus), and daily during some hot, sweaty summers, for four years. The orchestra has also traveled overseas many times, and I went with it to the Von Karajan Festival in Berlin in 1972 and to Scotland and London in 1974.

I was NOT a star. I was a reliably okay, middle-of-the-section player and was not one of the notables for my personality, either. But I must have made a decent impression, because in the early 1980s, I returned to the program as a teacher and worked there for several years, until I decided that I needed my Saturday mornings back. And then in 1989, they asked me to go on a trip to Spain with a chamber orchestra, which of course I did. (Lest you think this involved a lot of glamor, however, you have to know that our accommodations were in a dorm with no air conditioning, sleeping on little cots, with a shared bathroom and continental breakfasts, and then long rides on a bus, also not air conditioned. But it was still fun. The kids were all really bright, great travelers and performers.)

Last year, NPR did a story on the orchestra. This definitely jibes with my memories:

Success on a Shoestring

The real kicker about this program is how, deceptively blandly, it disregarded the social canards of this town. Back in 1960 when the program was founded, DC was a city segregated by race and class, and the idea of offering classical music training to the have-nots, and bringing together children from all groups to learn music to the same standards as the privileged, was a radical one. Rich white kids from Bethesda sat next to poor black kids from Southeast, and no one made a big deal over it except for the press, when a reporter would poke his or her head in to observe.

Over the years the program was attacked from all sides. I remember in the 1970s a loony DC Public Schools superintendent who railed against providing funding for a program that taught black kids "white" music. But somehow, the program managed to limp along on the financial equivalent of band-aids, duct tape, and chewing gum. The physical plant was decrepit even back then, and I'm surprised Coolidge High School hasn't collapsed on its own already. (A few weeks ago, they finally moved to new digs at the renovated Eastern High School on the other side of town. Though they desperately need a better building, there are a lot of happy memories in the old place, and I hope the new neighborhood is as hospitable as the old one was -- it's a bit sketchier over there.)

Preparation for the concert on the 21st was three three-hour rehearsals at the Kennedy Center -- and a memory lane trip, seeing people I hadn't seen in many years (including one guy I went to junior high with!). For some strange reason, everyone looked 40 years older than I remembered them looking.

There was a one-hour time restriction on the concert, so they programmed only a few short works: after "The Star-Spangled Banner" (which opened with a group of young violin students playing the tune without accompaniment) came Wagner's overture to Die Meistersinger, an arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," a new piece by a former orchestra member (John Christopher Wineglass's "Portrait in Themes"), the Andante from Hansen's Symphony No. 2, and "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Somehow the organizers wrangled the services of Marvin Hamlisch as MC and to conduct the Gershwin. The founder and longtime conductor and music director of the program, Lyn McLain, who retired in 2006 (and who is now 82 years old -- unbelievable), conducted the Hansen. Even though I was not in the inner circle back in the day and so never was chummy with him, Lyn was as familiar to me as a relative, a feeling I'm sure was shared by many of those who participated in this event. He has grown rather frail and is having trouble with his eyesight these days, but he rehearsed his piece meticulously and with his familiar down-to-earth demeanor of a jazz band leader (with wry whispers around the orchestra of, "He's still the same!").

The orchestra was excellent. There were so many great players there, and together we produced a magnificent sound. There's a video of the whole thing here (though unfortunately, the sound quality is terrible):

DC Youth Orchestra reunion concert (video)

Although I enjoyed playing in a large, very good orchestra for the first time in a long time, I was reminded of why it's not my favorite thing, either. Lost in the middle of a cello section, you can't hear yourself, and you have no say in how things are done or what musical decisions are made. Because this was an extremely short-term situation, these conditions didn't bother me, but I knew that for the long term, they would be onerous. However, this was altogether a stimulating experience, both from the musical standpoint and because it reconnected me with parts of my past.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I have decided not to go to school.

I gave it very serious consideration, but it came down to the fact that this particular program is not going to offer me enough to make up for its inconvenience. Travel time alone from where I live to the school would be a minimum of 40 minutes each way, more if I took public transportation, so one and a half to two hours, two or three times a week, which adds up -- and it's time I could put to better use. Plus the three hours a week of orchestra rehearsal, which was not something I had envisioned originally.

And then the other thing I realized is that I don't want to be that regimented. I've been there, done that, got the degrees. What I want to do is play the piano, and that's something I don't need a school to do. I still think a teacher is a good idea, but even without a teacher I believe I've done pretty well.

I also have other interests and want to feel free to follow and enjoy them.

I started investigating this thinking that I needed to challenge myself, but I'm actually pretty challenged now (!), and there are many other ways and paths I could use for this that won't lock me into something that's not exactly what I want.

So, fresher ideas to come . . . stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the piano: I am making good progress on all my pieces.

Bach WTC I/19: This is now memorized. I'm still feeling like I am not doing this methodically enough. With this piece in particular, I just kind of bludgeoned my way through it until it started sticking, which did not seem like a good way to go about it, but I had a hard time intellectualizing. Anyway, I'm hoping to try to record it in the next week or so.

Brahms Op. 118: I've mostly been working on No. 3, and this, too, is memorized. It's also getting easier each time I practice it, though it's still pretty clunky. So I now have learned half of the set in this opus number group. Of course, Nos. 4 and 6 are the hardest ones . . .

Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3: First movement is also mostly memorized. This means I can play through most of it with only a few peeks at the music now and then.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but memorization always means major progress to me.  Even if I can play something musically and technically well, if it's not memorized I don't feel I have plumbed the depths. And conversely, if I at least have a piece memorized, I know I have more than superficial acquaintance with it. Perhaps this is not true for people who memorize music more easily than I do. When I started practicing the piano again (about six years ago), I had to make a conscious effort to memorize. I still do, though it has become a slightly more natural process. I'm sure if I practiced more it would go faster.

On the cello: Um, not doing much. Slap me with a wet bow hair.

Just wanted to share this

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Electric Land

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the problems with playing the cello is that it's not the most portable instrument. Though you can pick it up with one hand and carry it from place to place without too much difficulty, it's bulky and awkward, and it's really very fragile -- one wrong turn, and you can knock a hole through it, slam it in a door, tip it over and watch it go crashing to the ground. Traveling on public transportation can be something of a nightmare, or at least expensive (when you have to buy a seat for it).

About 30 years ago, I was in an airport somewhere with my cello, and a man came up to me and asked if I'd be interested in a cello you could fold up. As a matter of fact, I told him, I'd played on one once and hadn't liked it. Well, it turned out that that man was Ernest Nussbaum, the inventor of the one I'd tried, something called the Travielo. It was basically a fingerboard, strings, and bridge mounted onto a wooden frame, fitted with a pickup and primitive amplifier. The whole thing could be dismantled and put into a small wooden box within five minutes.

About a month ago, NPR did a story about Nussbaum and the current incarnation of this instrument, the Prakticello. It's similar to the one I played on all those years ago, but minus the electronics.

You can read about it/listen here:

Cello in a Box

Shortly after this story was broadcast, we decided to go on the trip to Maine that I mentioned last week, and that started me thinking about the possibility of acquiring a cello for travel. Although I am kind of a Luddite, I'm not a purist. I'm not against something that serves a useful purpose. My main interest is in portability, but in addition, if I ever get into playing more nonclassical music, the possibility for amplification would be nice.

Any cello can be electrified with a pickup and amplifier, but those designed to be electric have certain features that are appealing from a portability standpoint. Electric cellos are much smaller than traditional acoustic cellos because they don't have the large resonating body; they are generally just simple sticks, with a fingerboard and bridge on the front and electronics in the back. They incorporate various design elements that are either practical (to provide the traditional contact points -- chest, left hand, and knees) or aesthetic (cool-o rock band shapes and colors).

I've spent some time searching the Internet for information and opinions, but nothing beats actually holding the instrument in your hands, so I searched out some local options. First, I emailed the creator of the Prakticello, Ernest Nussbaum, and asked if I could arrange to try one out. He said he would have one available soon and promised to call me when it was ready.

Yesterday I made a trip to Chuck Levin's. They carry two brands: one made by NS Design and one made by Yamaha. Each has several variations to choose from. NS Design cellos are available in four-, five-, and six-string versions but with the same body design; Yamaha offers different body designs, all with four strings.

The salesman showed me a five-string NS Design cello and the most basic Yamaha model, SVC-50. I went in with high hopes for the NS Design cello: it's very attractive, made out of a solid piece of maple with a sort of folky look to it. Here's the five-string model:
It's designed so you can play it standing up, either on a heavy metal stand (which is included) or on a strap around your shoulders like a guitar, or sitting down. The stand can be adjusted for the seated position. There is also an optional endpin, but they didn't seem to have one in the store. My assessment, albeit based only on noodling on it for 10 minutes: nice sound, weird and uncomfortable playing position. The fingerboard feels very short, and the only stand-in for the shoulder on the left side of the cello that provides a reference point for shifting out of first position is a small metal nub on the back of the neck. I think it would be hard to go back and forth between this and my acoustic cello. There wasn't a four-string model for me to try, either, so I don't know if that might feel a little more natural. It's also heavy, especially with the stand.

The Yamaha model I tried is very plain. It looks kind of like a giant praying mantis.

But as you can see, the playing position is natural and the proportions of the instrument are the same as an acoustic cello. I liked this instrument a lot -- its simplicity, its design, and its clean sound. It's also very lightweight, at about seven pounds. The knee contact piece just screws on, and it's easy to install and remove. Yamaha calls it a "silent" cello, but it actually has a pleasant, though soft, acoustic sound when not plugged in.

Ernest Nussbaum had called me Friday evening to tell me the cello was ready, so my husband and I went to his house this morning. He had the cello waiting for me in his study. I was able to pick it up and start playing it, with virtually no adjustment other than the one you normally would have for a different cello. It has a similar acoustic sound to the Yamaha, though perhaps more resonant.

Here's Nussbaum with his invention (photo from the NPR story):

Here's moi, from this morning:

This cello has the best portability of all of them. It doesn't have any built-in electrical components -- Nussbaum said he gave up on that when it became apparent that the main utility for this instrument was as a practice cello when traveling or when living in close quarters with other people whom you do not want to disturb. However, one could easily use a pickup and plug that into an amp, just like one of the electric designs.

And the amp is the rub: if you want to use one of these cellos for performing or rehearsing, you need an amplifier, and they are complicated and expensive. The cello may only weigh 7 pounds, but add a 22-pound amp and you're getting back up to the weight of an acoustic cello (though at least it's not all in one awkward, fragile package). I looked at some at the store yesterday, but they are in a different department than the band and orchestra instruments, and they didn't offer to let me play the cello with one.  So although there was a big heavy amp in the room with the cellos, I wasn't able to find out how it would actually sound with something more like what I would want to buy. I did play the Yamaha for a minute with headphones, but I can't see myself using headphones much.

While we were at his house this morning, Nussbaum showed us an old Travielo he has, and he explained that he made the amplifier himself -- just a little thing, with no container -- because he couldn't find anything else that would work at the time. I didn't get a really close look at it, but I believe it was something along these lines:

Image from this site:

He claimed that one would need only 1 watt for most purposes for this instrument (something like what's in the picture here), but I wonder about that. I'm not planning on playing Flight of the Bumblebee with a heavy metal band any time soon, but I'm thinking at least a little more power than that might be necessary.

In any case, I've got a few things to think about here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

Bach, WTC I/19 in A major: Still struggling along with this one, especially the fugue. I know I'm practicing it too fast and in chunks that are too long. I'm also straining something in my hands, which is really not good. The solution is obviously to SLOW DOWN, pay attention to what my hands are doing (am I using good fingering so that I'm not stretching unnecessarily? is everything relaxed?), break down into smaller sections, and SLOW DOWN.

Brahms Op. 118:
No. 3, Ballade: I'm making good progress on this. I have all of it memorized and am working on getting it faster and cleaner.
Nos. 4-6: I'm dipping a bit into each of these. They seem so much less difficult than they did even six months ago (though of course not easy).

Beethoven, Op. 2 No. 3: This is another piece for which it would behoove me to SLOW DOWN and practice in smaller sections. But it is not nearly as difficult as the Bach or the Brahms pieces I'm working on.

The past couple of weeks I've been making a conscious effort to simply increase my practice time whenever possible, and it definitely helps. I'm still considering pursuing the school thing, but before I do, I want to see if I can actually practice at least three hours a day more than every once in a while. So far, I have not been able to do so, which makes me wonder if I'm really up to this.

Yes, quality time is important in practicing, but amount of time is also important, especially if you are learning new skills. Experienced musicians who are just maintaining do not need to practice that much, but even they, faced with learning new music, need to increase the hours they spend.

On the cello:

The cello has been getting an extended rest this summer. I finally dusted it off this week and creakily played through a few things. It wasn't too terrible, and it actually felt good physically: playing the cello seemed to smooth out some of the strain I was feeling in my hands from the three Bs I've been struggling with on the piano.

A few things on the horizon for the cello:

A reunion concert with the DC Youth Orchestra. This year is the 50th anniversary of the program, and they contacted a lot of the former members about playing in this. It will be at the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall on August 21. I agreed to do it, and the concert itself is fine with me (in fact, I'm looking forward to playing -- there are many excellent musicians who will be participating), but getting to and from the Kennedy Center with my cello is going to be a pain.

The first TCO concert is in September this year! It seems so early. They decided to redo the schedule to avoid having a concert in January when the weather is usually the worst we have here. So concerts will be in September, November, April, and June. I have no solos this year, though, so not much pressure.

A jaunt to Maine this fall with the ladies from my neighborhood band, to visit a friend who used to play accordion in the big folk group that we have all played in. He took early retirement and moved up there about ten years ago, and one of our group who has known him for a long time has been wanting to go up and visit him and play music with him. This is all fine, though again, there is the problem of what to do about a cello. I'm not buying a seat for mine on the plane for such a short trip; there's always a question of whether they will even let it on board (which, no matter the formal policy, is left to the discretion of the person guarding the boarding gate, who has the authority to summarily banish a cello to the baggage compartment). Driving up there is not an option. So I'm looking into others(portable electric cello? rent a cello there? find one to borrow?).

Anyway, that's what's been happening. Somehow the summer is flying by. But I am making some music every day.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Master class, finally

When the AMSF master class with Brian Ganz was first scheduled in February, it was snowmageddoned out; then when it was rescheduled in the spring Brian had a death in the family, and it had to be canceled again. It finally took place this past Sunday. It was bracketed by one of the hottest July 25ths on record and a short but incredibly destructive storm, which hit right in the middle of the class, causing the power to go out -- but our hosts cranked up a generator and lit some candles, and we kept going.

In any case, Brian was exactly as I remembered him from almost 30 years ago when he accompanied some of my student recitals: warm, enthusiastic, full of fanciful but helpful imagery, and extremely knowledgeable about music and the piano.

They put me first -- perhaps because I was playing the easiest piece, the Brahms Op. 118 No. 2. I played from memory, and it went well except for the pianissimo hymnlike section in the middle, during which I realized I had hit the sostenuto pedal instead of the una corde pedal, and it threw me off and I messed up the second phrase of it.

The things Brian talked about were understanding how Brahms developed the music, asking questions like, "What makes this version of this theme different here?" He talked about "juxtaposition," by which he meant playing related sections of music side by side to make these kinds of comparisons. He also talked about voicing, and suggested practicing something he called "ghost playing": sounding only one voice while lightly pressing the keys of the other notes without having them sound. He mentioned something suggested by his teacher Leon Fleischer when he was studying the opening of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto: imagine you have two cherubim, one tucked under each arm, and they are blowing on the keys.

The musical analysis he suggested is actually something I tend to do automatically, but it was nice having it reinforced. Any advice on varying touch, though, is really valuable; the piano's weakness as an expressive instrument is its percussiveness and the tendency for playing to be plunky. The ghost-playing technique is very difficult, requiring a lot of control, and it's something I'm definitely going to start practicing -- just a bit at a time, though.

In the interests of confidentiality (because I don't know how they would feel about having their performances analyzed on the Internet), I won't go into detail about the other five people who participated. Let's just say that they played interesting pieces and were well prepared. I also applaud the intrepid audience (including my husband), who sat through 3 1/2 hours of master class and were still awake at the end.

The buffet afterward was excellent, conversation was lively. So all in all, a good experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What I've been working on

I haven't been describing my practicing for a while because there hasn't been all that much to worth reading about, although I HAVE been practicing. I make it a point to play the piano at least a little bit every day unless I'm sick or traveling and not near a piano.

So my lineup on the piano has been stuck on the 3 Bs:

Bach, WTC I/19 (A major)
Brahms, Op. 118 Nos. 1, 2, and 3
Beethoven, Sonata Op. 2 No. 3 in C major
Scales and arpeggios

I've been working on the Bach for more than three months. The fugue in this WTC set is particularly difficult. As I've mentioned, the theme is always introduced in stretto with another voice (i.e., they overlap). It is also a jumpy theme, built on a broken arpeggio, so it's almost like two voices in itself. It starts with a single eighth note followed by three eighth-note rests, which I'm finding hard to bring out. I've resorted to punching at it in an attempt at staccato, which then leads to rushing, which then leads to a tangled train wreck.

Here's Rosalyn Tureck, playing it very slowly (I think too slowly, though of course it's beautifully clean):

And here's Kenneth Gilbert on the harpsichord (I like the tempo of the fugue much better in this version):

In the past week or so, I have finally been able to play bits of it from memory. I have memorized the prelude. I'm certainly not giving up on it. My experience with learning these fugues is that there is a certain amount of time (maybe a few months, at my practice rate) in which it seems I will never be able to play whichever one I'm working on, but then there is a breakthrough and it's suddenly in my hands.

The Brahms is developing. I am going to play 118/2 at the long-postponed masterclass with Brian Ganz next week. I had thought about maybe substituting another piece, but decided to go ahead with this one because it's the most polished piece I have at the moment. I have been working on 118/1 on and off for more than two years, and it still seems so hard to me, though I'm not sure why. It's short (only two pages), and not complicated. Maybe it's all the arpeggios. I recorded myself once a while back, and noticed that the left hand and right hand were not in sync -- the left was always a little bit behind. Frustrating!

Here's someone named Peter Rösel playing it very nicely (don't know what's up with the Classical Greek pose later in the video):

The Ballade, Op. 118/3, is awkward all over the place, but I think I'm finally getting it. I have it almost memorized, and I'm working on building up speed while playing it cleanly. It's difficulties involve mainly the thick chords, with harmony changing almost every beat in a fast tempo. As I mentioned some months back, when I was in college I used to sit on the steps in front of the music building waiting for orchestra rehearsal to start, and someone would be practicing this piece in the classroom directly above the entrance. I admired it then but never imagined I would learn it myself.

The Beethoven sonata, by contrast, is much simpler than any of the above, so it's been fun. There are a few tricky technical bits, one being the first theme, with the little double-thirds trill. When I worked on this piece briefly when I was 17 years old, I asked my teacher how in the world you could learn to play that, and he basically said, "Practice." So, I've been practicing. It's still not 100%, but it's somewhat better.

Here's a performance by Daniel Barenboim that is very much how I hear it (but wow, vertigo-inducing camera work here . . .). The first movement hangs over into a second video because it's longer than 10 minutes:

Those are a lot of videos for one post! One of these days, I'll record myself some more so I'm not depending so much on YouTube for entertainment around here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Practical creativity (a tribute)

I first was introduced to the work of Harvey Pekar in 2003, when the movie "American Splendor" came out. For those who might not know, he was a writer who had the brilliant idea of using the comic book form as serious essay and autobiography, with a little humor thrown in, too. Even though he had no drawing ability, he developed a way to work with artists who did to create his stories, beginning in the 1970s with R. Crumb. This evolved into a series of comic books titled American Splendor -- an appellation both ironic and heartfelt.

After I saw the movie, I read a couple of the book-length collections of American Splendor and developed an appreciation for Pekar and his achievements. On the one hand, he depicted the little everyday happenings of his life -- going to a boring job day after day, buying groceries, finding an apartment, fixing a car -- but at the same time, he was celebrating their beauty, and their sheer American-ness. Many have described him as a depressed crank, but I think he was just telling it like it was. He styled himself as full of problems, but really, he was a remarkably intelligent person living the life of an ordinary human being.

Although he kvetched about his job as a file clerk at the Cleveland, Ohio, VA hospital, he also appreciated it and stayed there until retiring at the age of 62. The job grounded him, provided a living wage and sense of security that enabled him to indulge in his creative pursuits on his own time. His third marriage, to a fan, endured and ultimately settled into what seems like a happy home life. A native of Cleveland, he lived there all his life and expressed a real love for the place. In addition to writing American Splendor, he was a respected jazz and book critic and continued to keep irons in the fire (an ambitious blog project, an opera).

Call me crazy, but I find him an inspiration: This is someone who was able to survive and not only keep plugging away at his creative work on his own terms but send that work out into the world and turn it into something concrete and real that communicated with many other people.

Harvey Pekar died yesterday at age 70. From one of the commentors on the article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Unlike some basketball player that just left, the loss of Mr. Pekar is a major loss for the city and literature. RIP Harvey
A very good obit here, from the Guardian.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drop the needle quizzes

For the generationally challenged, the "needle" here refers to a phonograph needle. A "phonograph" is kind of like those things DJs use to make scratchy noises at dance clubs (do they still do that?), except we used to use them to actually listen to music.

In the olden days in music school, teachers would turn on the phonograph and drop the needle on the "record" (you know, those round things made of vinyl) at random, and students were expected to listen to a snippet of something and either identify it or describe what they thought it was. In my later years in school, the technology moved on to cassette tapes (um, plastic tape coated with magnetic material containing the recordings wound on tiny spools in little plastic cases). I spent the entire 15 or so years I was in music school learning how to do this. It was part of the doctoral exams I took. I don't remember what pieces they used, but I did pass the test.

I mostly use this skill now to impress my husband when we're riding in the car with the radio on. "Tchaikovsky, 'Swan Lake,'" I'll say, or "Howard Hansen," or "Mahler symphony -- not sure which one," and almost every time, I will be correct. Some of it is just recognizing the actual piece, but part is also being able to place a style chronologically by noticing the instrumentation, texture (chordal, contrapuntal, etc.), and style. Most composers also have a signature riff that they always use -- a melodic turn, a chord progression, a rhythmic pattern.

Beyond its utility as a parlor (or car!) trick, I know there must be something useful about this, too. Maybe it's simply being able to listen carefully enough to distinguish different types of music, which probably helps in understanding, which ultimately helps in playing. In the confusing world full of all kinds of sounds, part of being a musician is being able to listen and discern one from another.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Real live practicing!

Well, actually, if you didn't catch it before midnight on July 4, you missed it.

Valentina Lisitsa is a wonderful pianist with a secure and relaxed technique. She concentrates on the solid, muscular romantics -- Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann. I had a chance to hear her live and attend a master class with other amateur pianists* a few years ago, and it was fascinating to watch and listen to her demonstrate and explain how to achieve something technically, from a legato line to double trills -- and in a completely matter-of-fact way, without pretensions.

Last week, she set up a webcam and did a live stream of her practicing for a week. I'll give you the link here, though there's not much to see at this point:

She described it this way:

Hi everyone :-)
I thought it kinda cute to let those of you who are curious - (or upsed at me not responding to messages on Youtube , Facebook etc LOL ) inside my practice studio.I am going to run live webcam for next 7 days-'till July 4th midnight to be exact.
I will be working on my recital and cocnerto programs that I will have to perform next month. I have 55 pieces to work on!!!!!!
Seriously. Some of them I have to revive ( like Chopin Etudes or Brahms #2)more than half is absolutely brand new . I am going to practice as usual -@ 13-14 hours a day., from around 9-10AM EST to midnight. Nothing exciting otherwise:-)
I was only able to see a little of this, though over the weekend I left it on for hours and listened to it in the background while I was doing other things. It was extremely interesting to hear how she went about drilling these pieces for many hours. She played small sections -- maybe eight to twelve measures at a time -- and cycled through them over and over with just a brief pause between reps. If something wasn't completely clear, she would do the section slowly once or twice and then back at tempo again. She always had the score up on the piano, and occasionally she stopped and wrote a fingering or note in the music. No metronome. No sitting and meditating.

Among other things, I thought about the intense boredom of this kind of practicing for the musician -- balanced, of course, by the knowledge that if she doesn't do it, the performance won't be secure and she won't be able to express what she wants to express, and won't be fulfilling her professional duties, either. As my first piano teacher always said (and wrote in my lesson notebook, in big letters), "In repetition there is security!!!"

Amateurs and nonplayers are dumbfounded by the "13 to 14 hours a day," but divide that among 55 pieces, each at least five minutes long, most more, and you end up with, what, about 15 minutes per day for each piece -- not much time at all. Perhaps enough time to make sure everything's in place in a piece already learned.

*I played in this class, an embarrassingly mediocre rendition of a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 6 No. 1). Pictorial evidence:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Instrument comparison: Piano versus cello versus . . .

I've been thinking lately about the differences between playing the piano and playing the cello (as my poor cello sits in a corner while I practice the piano). I came up with a list of my pros and cons:

Piano vs. cello:
  • It's a complete experience -- I do not need to depend on anyone else to play something. Think about it: On an instrument like the cello, you can spend years learning a piece, but then when you are actually preparing to perform it, you get what amounts to a few hours to coordinate with an accompanist, orchestra, or ensemble, and you are pretty much dependent on their level of expertise for the final result.
  • Vast choice of music (Chopin!). A lot of music has been written for the cello, but the literature is miniscule compared with what is available for the piano. Hundreds of pieces by Bach alone! And a large proportion of the piano literature is iconic, containing many monuments to civilization, or at least to Western art music.
  • Much more intellectually challenging. Even for the simplest piece or improvisation, the pianist needs to understand harmony and voicing (emphasizing one line more than the others). When you get into a four-voice fugue, or the thick chromatic harmonies of the Romantics, there is a world of mastery to challenge you. To really play a piece well, you need to memorize it (even if you don't ultimately perform from memory), and memorizing all this complexity takes you to a seriously higher level of mental acrobatics than memorizing anything on the cello.
  • Don't have to carry it around. You would be surprised how limiting the cello's size is on a day-to-day basis. It's small enough to carry, but too large and heavy to just sling on your back. If you want to travel with it, you either have to drive or buy a seat for it on the public transportation of your choice. It's not so easy to just take it to work for an evening rehearsal, so I always end up taking time off to go home and pick it up, or having to come up with complicated plans so I can get from Point A to Point B with the darned thing.
  • Preparation for playing is easy: Just sit down! For the cello, you have to get it out of the case, tune it, find a chair, make sure your endpin doesn't slip, get your music stand situated (and if you're using one in a concert, figure out where to place it so you can see the music but it doesn't get in the way; one of my cello teachers called the music stand "the fig leaf").
Cello vs. piano:
  • Does not require as much practice time. This makes it an excellent instrument for an amateur musician. Now of course, you could spend endless hours on it, but for even above average competence, the minimum necessary practice time is  much less than what you have to spend on the piano.
  • More of a social experience (because it does require collaboration). This is really good from a reality-check standpoint. I know I tend to get twisted up in knots about my playing when I don't have any interactions with the outside world. When I'm practicing the piano and don't play for anyone else or get any feedback, I can either under- or overestimate how I'm doing. When I play the cello in a chamber group, or even in an orchestra, I get an instant reality check both in terms of what I'm hearing and reactions of the other players. There is also a "greater than the sum of its parts" effect: In good circumstances, all of those human brains working toward the same thing can create a better musical experience than just your lone brain.
  • More directly expressive -- you actually touch the strings and feel them vibrate. You really do feel more like you are singing and like the instrument is part of you than when playing the piano, which tends toward the percussive and mechanical (though it doesn't have to, of course).
  • Always perform on the instrument you practiced on (as opposed to the piano, when you generally do not). This is something that gives you more control over what comes out at a concert.
  • You can tune it and do basic maintenance (change strings, adjust the bridge) yourself. With the piano, even when playing on your own instrument at home, you are somewhat at the mercy of piano technicians and tuners.
I think this covers the basics, at least in terms of my opinions. I'd be curious to know if any readers out there have thoughts on this.

For fellow statesiders, I hope you're enjoying the holiday today!