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.