Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A curious phenomenon

I've performed for quite a lot of people in quite a lot of venues (aside from school recital halls and churches, I've played solo and chamber music in places like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall). Admittedly most of my performing experience has been with the cello, but even on the piano, I have been brave enough to play in front of a number of audiences with a certain amount of musicality. But what has proven to be a high hurdle is playing my brother-in-law's Yamaha upright in his music room while the family listens. Somehow, when I sit down at that piano, bungling is the name of the game.

We were over there yesterday for Christmas dinner. I brought my carbon fiber cello along to show it to them because they had been curious about it:

I played a little Bach and a holiday-themed request ("O Holy Night," by ear, in C major), and then put the cello away and repaired to the piano. I pulled out the Villa-Lobos piece I've been working on (the Preludio from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 4). At home I can play it from memory, and even at my lessons I can play it pretty fluently by now, but here, even with the music in front of me, most of it was a disaster (my husband very helpfully asked "what happened?" as we were driving home later). My sister-in-law's innocent comment was that it was "scary" -- coincidentally, the same thing she said about the Brahms I played for them at Thanksgiving -- not exactly the vibe I'm going for! I followed up with some Bach, and that went better, but I was still stumbling over myself in a way I don't elsewhere.

What is it about this situation that causes me to regress to an almost nonperformer level? Part of it is the piano, which is serviceable but not inspiring (it has such a light touch that there's almost no resistence -- it booms if you breathe on it), and the bench, which is too low for me. Part of it is the negative feedback loop of hearing bad sounds that causes my playing to deteriorate as I go along. But another part, the more interesting one, is my awareness that I'm playing for people who listen mostly for the melody and who understand nuances subliminally at best. When you play the piano, the supporting material is usually what is difficult and also so very tempting -- all of those countermelodies, inner voices, bass lines, and special effects -- but listeners generally don't care about all that. They don't appreciate all of your struggles; they just want to hear the tune.

When I play for fellow piano students, or even for my teacher, I know they empathize with the difficulty of what I'm trying to do. Or when I play on a better piano in a bigger room with the audience farther away, the physical situation is more forgiving. But I feel it's a real weakness that lack of these things has such a powerful effect. I keep imagining that a true artist at the piano can compensate enough to have a musical experience no matter what. So if I can ever figure out how to play well at the in-laws', I will feel confident that I can play well anywhere!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New love

I recently stumbled across the cello concerto by Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) and have been fascinated by it ever since. It was written for cello, wind band, and classical guitar.

I saw it described here as "a pioneering work of jazz-rock-classical-marching band fusion," which is about right. I love the way Gulda created a melting pot of styles, plus the audacity of his sticking a solo cello in front of a wind band and drum kit, and making it all somehow hang together. He also wrote some beautiful music for the cello.

The first movement (Overture) starts out very rock 'n' roll; here's a great performance by Gautier Capuçon. Note that I'm having trouble getting these videos to play today, and this first link may actually go automatically to the rest of the concerto:

Gulda Concerto First Movement (Overture)

Here's Capuçon playing the second movement (Idyll), which has whiffs of Dvořák (to my ear) and maybe even Mahler (I believe this link does go on to the next movement):

Gulda Concerto Second Movement (Idyll)

And here's Heinrich Schiff, for whom this piece was originally written, tearing up the last three movements (Cadenza, Menuet, Finale) with the composer conducting; unfortunately, the very end is cut off in this video:

After hearing this playing in my head for about a week, I broke down and ordered the music and a recording. It will be fun to play around with it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What I'm playing this week: Change of course

At my piano lesson a few days after I wrote my previous "what I'm playing this week" post, I broached to my teacher the idea that perhaps I was working on music that was too hard for me. I've sensed from him that he hasn't been entirely convinced that I should be working on all of this stuff but that he didn't want to discourage me, either. I felt this particularly with regard to Kinderszenen; that is, I know he had some specific reasons for starting me on "Of Strange Lands and People" and a few of the others, but he wasn't enthusiastic about my continuing with the whole set though he didn't say so specifically.

And then he told me to work on the Brahms Op. 118 No. 1, and the shit hit the fan. This piece has highlighted my weaknesses as a pianist, as only Brahms can do: the big chords, wide jumps, and wall-of-sound washes of arpeggios, against which the pianist has to bring out the melody and make it expressive. I attempted this piece on my own a few years ago without much success, and this time around it has again been a struggle. It's hard to say whether I even like it or not; maybe I do in the sense that a gymnast likes her routine on the parallel bars -- not necessarily something you'd do for fun, but something that advances your technique and lets you show it to the world.

Anyway, the upshot of our conversation was that I have dropped the Schumann and Chopin for a while and am working only on Bach and Brahms (this piece plus Op. 116 No. 6 and 117 No. 2), plus a new piece: the Preludio from Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. I could see instantly why he chose it: It has the same big leaps and balance issues as the Brahms but is much, much simpler musically. (He also told me to stay away from YouTube and use my own imagination to come up with an interpretation.)

So that has been my task for the past couple of weeks. The big technical challenge for me is to learn how to let go of notes once I play them. My instinct (and I suspect this is probably common for a lot of people) is to hold onto everything even after it has sounded, even though this is often counterproductive. Once a note sounds on the piano, the only thing that affects its continued sound is the pedal; your hands have nothing to do with it after the hammer hits the strings. If you play a big chord, for example, and continue to press down the keys with the same force, your hand is in a position of tension, and it's also more difficult to move to the next note. But at the same time, one's instinct after grabbing something with effort is to hold onto it. Thus, quite a bit of retraining is involved here. We'll see if I can do it.

I also started another Bach prelude and fugue, the C minor from WTC I. I learned this set five years ago and never recorded it, so it's good to relearn it. I don't exactly feel "finished" with the D minor set, but when would you ever? I was able to play through both the prelude and fugue very cleanly and from memory at my last lesson and even got a couple of  "good"s from my teacher, so not so bad, right? Maybe I will try to record it again so I can compare it with my previous version.

On the cello: I am contemplating how best to proceed. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Another orchestra concert

Yesterday, my chamber orchestra played its second concert of the season. The program was all short audience pleasers. Well, of course we always hope that our programs are audience pleasers, but this one was especially so: Humperdinck's overture to Hansel and Gretel; Smetana's "The Moldau," Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," Mahler's Adagietto from the fifth symphony, and selections from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite.

"The Moldau" is special favorite of everyone, including me. One of my earliest memories of listening to classical music as a child was the set of "great classics" purchased one at a time from the A&P, stored in a fat binder covered in red leatherette, with heavy marbled paper sleeves for the LP records. I don't know what orchestra was playing the stuff, but I loved this piece. My resident critic (aka my husband), opined that this one went especially well at our concert. (We were kind of stretching the definition of "chamber orchestra" with the full brass section, including tuba.)

The Ponchielli has a rather challenging cello part, with a full page or so of the cellos carrying the melody. And it's a cool piece, too, despite the collective consciousness of dancing hippos and nerdy Jewish folk singers it evokes.

The Tchaikovsky, as I mentioned in an earlier post, includes a big cello solo, a duet with the first violinist, and I was a little nervous about this. Six flats, lots of big shifts, very emotional. Imagine my horror when on the first measure of my solo, my endpin slipped!* But I yanked the cello back into place without missing a note, and everyone said they saw it happen but didn't hear it (maybe they were being kind).

(I think our cello section actually sounded better than the one in this video, which I think was the Philadelphia Orchestra. I guess standards were lower in 1939.)

*For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the endpin is that sharpened metal spear that holds the cello in place on the floor. If the end gets too dull, it sometimes doesn't stay in place even on carpet, and this can really mess you up. I usually use a little device I made myself out of a piece of wood, some cup hooks, and some plastic rope that hooks around the chair legs, but I didn't use it yesterday, unfortunately (thinking the carpet was enough of a holding surface).

Monday, November 5, 2012

What I'm playing this week

It's been a crazy week. After our trip to New York, because of the hurricane we had two days off of work, one of them without electricity. And yes, the András Schiff recital on Tuesday was canceled. :( So you'd think I would have gotten a lot of practicing done, and I did spend quite a few hours, but it seems the more time I have, the more the practicing spreads out to fill it.

On the piano:

Continuing with one scale per week (though I was told to spend two weeks on E flat minor, which I dutifully did). We're working through them chromatically, so I'm up to E minor now. I also practice the corresponding chord progression (modulating up a fifth and back, then down a fifth and back).

Bach Prelude and Fugue in D minor from WTC I, working on playing the right-hand triplets with complete relaxation and a light touch.

Chopin, Preludes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 22.

Brahms, Intermezzi Op. 116 No. 6, Op. 118 No. 1, and now Op. 117 No. 2. My teacher asked me to record Op. 118 but I'm still struggling with it, and I'm too dissatisfied with my attempts to share them with anyone. Those "two innocent-looking pages" (as he described them) are a [fill in whatever NSFW word you prefer]. I can't figure out why this piece is so difficult, but there it is. As for Op. 116, the main problems I'm having are keeping it from sounding muddy and keeping it flowing; it's easy to get bogged down and oversentimental. And then Op. 117: really beautiful, really intricate. But maybe in a way more straightforward than the other two in terms of voicing.

Schumann Kinderszenen: I'm starting to think this is going to be another one of those lifetime endeavors. We've worked up through No. 7 (Traumerei) in my lessons, and I'm slowly picking my way through the rest to get them to a point where I can play them at all. But that's as far as it goes, for now.

I'm getting very frustrated with myself over the issue of memorizing. I'm falling into that trap of playing most of these from memory when I'm practicing but then chickening out at my lessons  and using the music without even testing myself, when the lessons would be the perfect opportunity to do so. I guess I'm not totally committed to the idea that I should play from memory, even though that's one of my goals for my piano playing. I know I can do it, but it takes a certain fortitude to carry on with it.

On the cello:

We have an orchestra concert in a couple of weeks. It's really sort of an old-fashioned pops concert -- no show tunes (thank goodness) but a raft of chestnuts: the overture to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite, Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from La Gioconda, Smetana's The Moldau, the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. These are kind of hard chestnuts, so I must practice to avoid embarrassing myself. We had another one of those dispiriting rehearsals yesterday with a full wind and brass section pitted against a meager measure of strings (four first violins and no concertmaster, six seconds, four violas, four cellos, one bass). Oh, well; I can only try to do my best.

I'm also working a little on the Schumann concerto.

And here it is election day eve -- and it's supposed to freeze tonight, so I went out in the yard after dinner and picked these. Don't know what I'll do with them, but there they are.

Monday, October 29, 2012

András Schiff and the Bach Project

The pianist András Schiff is presenting a series of concerts in which he is playing all of Bach's major keyboard works, including the Well-Tempered Clavier. He has also released a new recording of the entire WTC. This past weekend, my husband and I traveled up to New York City to hear him play Book 1. 

Some people to whom I have mentioned this have dismissed it as being tedious and boring to listen to, but I found it anything but. Each of the 48 little pieces in each book is fresh and inventive no matter how many times one hears them, and hearing them played as a group in a packed concert hall was especially interesting. Schiff performed them with only short pauses between pieces; maybe because I have listened to them so many times, the progression between each sounds inevitable to me. There was an intermission after No. 12 -- as the New York Times reviewer suggested, maybe more for the audience's benefit than for the performer's:

I didn't totally like all of his choices of tempi, but the thing about Bach's music is that it can be played just about any way, and it survives. And there's no way one can't respect a performer who can play through all 48 preludes and fugues from memory with subtle musicality and technical mastery.

My husband was wondering if performers at that level are ever overwhelmed by having to perform a huge work like this. I suspect that if you are at the stage where you can realistically contemplate doing so, you are beyond more than minor nerve issues. We stopped by the hall to pick up our tickets about an hour before the concert, and as we were leaving, Schiff was just arriving -- and he looked calm enough to me.

We have tickets to hear him play Book 2 tomorrow night here in Maryland; I hope the weather we're having doesn't cause the concert to be canceled.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


My in-laws just got back from Paris, where they took this photo:

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Makes It Great? (Could it be the pianist?)

Yesterday, my husband and I went to a performance by the music appreciation guru Rob Kapilow. I've heard him on the radio (and if you're a public radio listener, you probably have, too) and have found his comments solid and insightful, but the main reason I wanted to attend this particular show was because the topic was Chopin's piano music and the performer was my friend Brian Ganz.

Here's the blurb from the Washington Performing Arts Society website:
In his acclaimed What Makes It Great? series, former NPR music commentator Rob Kapilow "gets audiences in tune with classical music at a deeper level than many of them thought possible"(Los Angeles Times). In a three-part format, Kapilow unravels and explores a great musical masterpiece with the audience. Next, the piece is performed in its entirety followed by a Q & A with the audience and performers.

"Not since Leonard Bernstein has classical music had a combination salesman-teacher as irresistible as Kapilow." ~ Kansas City Star

The performance at Baird Auditorium, in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, was sold out, and the place was packed, so we ended up sitting in the front row. I normally do not like doing this, but in this case, I enjoyed the more visceral experience of the piano's sonorities.

The pieces discussed and performed were two Mazurkas (Op. 7, No. 1, in B flat major, and Op. 17, No. 4, in A minor), a Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 1, in B major), and a Polonaise (Op. 53, in A flat major). A Steinway concert grand and a Yamaha digital piano were set up on the stage. Brian sat at the Steinway and Kapilow sat at the Yamaha, and as Kapilow discussed the pieces, he demonstrated a bit and Brian demonstrated a bit. After each discussion, Kapilow left the stage and Brian performed the work in full.

As to what makes this music great, I'm probably too close to the material to get a sense of whether this was conveyed in such a presentation. My husband, as a nonmusician, said he appreciated the way Kapilow took each piece apart, discussing first each form (what a mazurka is, etc.) and then how Chopin used harmony and melodic structure to create his effects. Kapilow certainly touched on all the important points: Chopin's ability to take small salon forms and embue them with color, interest, and imagination; his individualism (eschewing the large forms, like symphonies and operas, to focus on his strengths as a composer); and the technical challenges of playing this music. But Brian's wonderful performances were additionally persuasive.

As I mentioned earlier this year, Brian is engaged in a multiyear series of concerts, the Chopin Project, in which he is performing all of Chopin's music, so he has been immersed in this music, and it shows. I can't remember hearing such beautifully clean, yet relaxed and powerful, versions of these pieces.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Schumann concerto -- things to think about

I'm mostly writing this post as a note to myself, but I thought any cellists out there might be interested in this essay by the cellist Anssi Karttunen (no, I never heard of him before I found this, but he seems like an intelligent person!) on traditions versus what is actually in the score. The gist of it is that Schumann marked tempi that are very different from what most cellists use when they perform the piece, and it also mentions the difference between Schumann's chamber-sized orchestra and the usual full symphony orchestra.

I have seen similar discussions elsewhere, so it's not just this person's observations.

As I begin to delve into this piece, it seems less difficult than I remember it. This worries me! I must be kidding myself! But we will see ...

Thoughts about the unusual history of Schumann's Cello Concerto

Monday, October 8, 2012

What I'm playing this week

We had our first orchestra concert of the season last weekend, and it went well -- I think in many respects better than usual, mostly because we had an improved first violin section. It didn't require much practicing on my part; most of it went into the Strauss horn concerto, which has a few tricky spots.

So I was and am able to devote most of my practice time to the piano:

I'm continuing with the program of scales and arpeggios (E flat major this week). Last week's D minor was easy, and I was able to play the fast iterations without a lot of effort. Any scale with a lot of black keys suddenly becomes more difficult because those black keys are simply harder to hit accurately. There is also a trill exercise that I diligently run through every day, as directed (like taking a multivitamin). I hope it's helping.

I'm still working on the same pieces: Bach D minor prelude and fugue from WTC I, Brahms Op. 116 No. 1 and Op. 118 No. 1, Chopin selected preludes, and Schumann Kinderszenen (I'm continuing on with the set, learning Nos. 8 to the end). 

We've added another Chopin prelude, No. 22 in G minor. This is another piece that I learned on my own about 4 years ago. On my first go-round with it, I took great satisfaction in thundering those bass octaves in a way that would make my teacher shudder (so it's a good thing he never heard me do it). Someone on Piano World once described this piece (after trying to learn it and giving up in frustration) as "a thug in an evening jacket." I have more fondness for it. It's a dramatic Romantic piece with Brahmsian qualities (in a compact half minute or so).

On the cello, my rash resolution to perform the Schumann concerto next year is prodding enough for me start practicing it NOW. It feels daunting but possible, so I will keep at it.

The next orchestra concert features parts of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite, including the beautiful violin and cello solos from the White Swan pas de deux number (in G flat major!), so I have to practice for that as well.

Cello solo begins around 5:45 in this video:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Another recital, another Bach recording

This afternoon I played on another AMSF recital, which was held at a church in Northwest DC. It was a gorgeous fall day, and the sun lit up the stained glass windows in the sanctuary in a comforting way. The piano was a very nice Kawai baby grand, easy to play and responsive.

My husband took this photo of me as I was trying out the piano before the recital:

He also served as audio engineer:

My evaluation of this: though I definitely rushed in a number of places, and I hit a few wrong notes here and there, overall I think I got the idea. It doesn't meet my criteria for being fully learned because I haven't memorized it, but I will add it to the list on the side anyway, and if life allows it maybe I will be able to revisit it in the future.

P.S. No shaky foot this time. Heel down! Move from the ankle! Got it!

Monday, September 17, 2012

And now a longer term goal

Is a year out considered long term or just medium? Let's call it "longer term."

In any case, I am penciled in to play the Schumann cello concerto with the TCO on the first concert of 2013-2014 next fall. This came about because I approached the music director at our first rehearsal this past weekend with the thought that if he was considering having me play a solo piece next season, it might be a good idea to decide on it now rather than waiting until next spring, giving me a year or more to prepare it rather than a few months. He liked this suggestion, conferred with the orchestra librarian, and came back the next day to give me the okay.

We've been batting around the idea of playing the Dvorak concerto. Now, it's a great piece and all, but it's written for a large orchestra, which the TCO is not. It's played a lot -- and I've played it a fair amount (in bits and pieces, for auditions) as well as on a recital with piano, so though I hesitate to say I'm tired of it, I'm kind of tired of it. It's also a long piece, about 45 minutes, longer than almost anything else we've played, so it would need to be programmed as if it were a symphony.

The Schumann concerto, on the other hand, is written for a smaller, lighter orchestra, and it's a compact 25 minutes or so. I've worked on it but never brought it to a performance level -- and I never really understood it. I think I will be able to approach it much better now than I could have done in the past. Learning it will add so much to my technique and playing ability as well.

So although it's sad to give up the opportunity to play the Dvorak with an orchestra, the Schumann is an all-around better choice, so Schumann it is.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A thought on practicing

Sometimes I feel like such a total geek for practicing the piano every day. It's not like it really matters in the sense that I have obligations to fulfill, a reputation to uphold, or fees to earn. It's not even exactly fun, though it's certainly absorbing.

At the same time, though, once you let one day slide, it's a slippery slope to not practicing at all, and therefore to losing any physical attainments you may have made. You won't lose everything -- you will still have had the experience, which is now part of your history -- but all of that muscle training will start to go.

The payback is not what some would imagine -- for example, compliments from other people (which tend to be far and few between in any case). Gratification comes when I put my hands on the keys and they feel familiar, and when what I imagine in my head translates into the sound that comes out of the piano. If I wasn't practicing every day, this would be elusive if not impossible. This is what I continue to pursue.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Short-term goal

It looks like I have a slot on an AMSF recital in a few weeks. I signed up for this even though I didn't have a specific piece in mind to play because I like to take advantage of every opportunity to play in front of people and because these recitals fill up quickly. Last week I decided that I would play the Bach B flat minor prelude and fugue from WTC I, even though they are not up to my minimal personal standards. I don't have them memorized at all, for one thing; for another, I don't have any kind of mental image of how I want them to sound. Vague ideas, yes, but specifics, no.

I have been working on this set for about 5 months, but of course I've been doing a lot of other things as well (e.g., performing Pezzo Capriccioso on cello with an orchestra!), so it hasn't gotten my full attention. I wouldn't have chosen it on my own precisely because it's a little too complicated for me to get my mind around -- all those thick dissonant chords, five voices in the fugue, the black-note key -- but my teacher suggested working on it, so I was game despite all that. It's been good to work on because it contains lots of challenges to my weaknesses.

I don't think I've met all of those challenges fully, but I can play through the set quite decently while reading from the music, so I'm going to see what I can do to polish or develop it as best I can to make a pleasurable presentation. I was reading an interview with Angela Hewitt recently in which she talked about her tour a few years ago performing the entire WTC (both books), and she admitted she used the score in the earlier part of the tour, although by the end of it she was playing the whole thing from memory. If using music is okay for her, it's certainly okay for me.

Here's a version on harpsichord with Kenneth Gilbert:

I like the tempos he takes here. Many times you will hear this played agonizingly slowly, which just seems wrong to me. Yes, this is a profound piece of music (my teacher says it reminds him of the opening of the St. Matthew Passion), but it shouldn't sound like the sludge at the beginning of the universe, either.

One of the viewer comments on the above video is . . . interesting  . . .

Isn´t it wonderful to be part of an unending incomprehensible cosmos where we are just small particles tossed around like tiny specks shining while we burn our lives with our little fears and loves. We burn in seconds that seem endless. Just little puffs of electrical fire we are, light up for a few seconds of eternity and dissapear. Small tufts of conscience we are, grasp a little, then subside in the tide and make way for the next to arrive....

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What I'm playing this week

I haven't done one of these posts in a long time, so here goes:

On the piano:
Scales and arpeggios, hands together, parallel and contrary motion (C minor this week; btw, with all those years of piano lessons, this is the first time I've learned scales in contrary motion); trill exercises; and chord progressions (modulations using I/V7 and I/II7). Reasons and aims: obvious.

Bach, WTC I in D minor and WTC I in B flat minor. I am breaking my self-imposed rule here by moving on to another piece before memorizing the last one. Also, I'm going back to one I learned, memorized, and recorded a little over a year ago. However, this is what my teacher has suggested, so I'm going with it. I'll keep working on the B flat minor set at least to keep it in my fingers. It really is a hard one to memorize because the texture is so thick, with big chords in the prelude and five voices in the fugue, plus the key is more complicated. The D minor from Book I has some challenges that are things I need to work on: moving the hand instead of stretching, learning to separate different lines within the same voice (in the perpetual triplet patterns in the right hand), keeping track of the beats when the modulations don't fall in with the bar lines. I don't exactly have to unlearn everything I did last year, but almost.

Chopin, Preludes 1 to 4. The idea with these is to eventually perform them as a group. No. 3 is still the sticking point. I may need to practice this for another year before I get it.

Brahms, Op. 116 No. 6 and 118 No. 1. These are exercises in subduing all but one line. One overarching characteristic of Brahms' music is its thick, complicated texture (many voices, many rhythms, many unexpected modulations), and these pieces are miniatures containing all of these elements. 118 No. 1 is something I worked on on my own for a couple of years, to little avail, so we'll see if it's better this time around. (I think it will be.)

Schumann, Kinderszenen, Nos. 1 to 7. I'm up to "Traumerei." At the last lesson I had on this, we talked about schmaltz and how to achieve it on the piano. See, I'm used to being able to get this on the cello by using a lot of vibrato and a lot of sliding shifts -- aside from the fact that the cello is in itself the essence of schmaltz in music. On the piano, it's a different experience -- you have to learn to sing the melody and to apply rubato to get this effect.

One thing I've been noticing is that even when I play music that I'm not working on in my lessons, I'm thinking about what my teacher would say if I were. So this is good. It's the "teach a man to fish" approach.

On the cello:
I have to admit I'm kind of bummed out that I couldn't do the audition I wrote about a month ago, even though I know it would have been an exercise in frustration, given all the other things going on in my life.

In lieu of that, I have been wanting to relearn the Schumann concerto and the Bach E flat suite -- both pieces I learned when I was in school. I performed the Bach on a recital but never felt like I really imbibed it totally. In some ways it's the most difficult because the key is so awkward on the cello.

And then the Schumann -- this piece has always intimidated me; it's so very unidiomatic to the instrument. I guess I started thinking about it because it was one of the two concertos one could choose to play at the audition, and I realized it was a real deficit that I had never brought this to any kind of polished level because it IS one of the great romantic works, period, let alone for the cello.

I've made some stabs at both of these pieces, but I have been frustrated by lack of time, at least if I want to sleep more than 4 hours a night and eat regular meals.

We have an orchestra concert coming up in about a month, but the music for this is not difficult, so not much practicing is required. The folk group may become more active now that summer is ending and people are back from vacations.

That's about it for now. Not terribly exciting, but at least I'm keeping at it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Piano progress

I thought I'd report on how things are going with the piano after about a half a year of lessons with my current teacher. It's been my best lesson experience ever, and I want to explain why.

The overwhelming benefit is that he has patiently gone back to the beginning and is teaching me the basic motor skills needed to play the piano. This is something no piano teacher I've had has done. The others have just let me slug out the notes without much discussion of how to do it. All I remember my first teacher, with whom I started when I was 9 years old, mentioning by way of instruction on technique was to curve my fingers, keep my hands still, and lift my fingers high, plus practice with the metronome to get pieces up to tempo. Now, granted, I wasn't the most diligent practicer back then, but I probably did more than a lot of kids, and I really had some native talent, but I learned nothing about how to produce and control the sound that came out of the instrument or even really listen to it, except in the simplest way. Subsequent teachers were pretty much the same.

These lessons, however, have been very different. I don't know how this all would have fallen out had I been the sort of student who insisted on playing only advanced repertoire or my favorite pieces, or who quibbled about what my teacher was asking me to do, but it all has made sense, and he somehow inspires trust, so I've gone with it and have done, or tried to do, everything he has suggested. I think it sounds better. It definitely feels better.

As far as repertoire goes, my sense is that it has been chosen to build certain skills. I've not found it boring or limiting -- the pieces, though short, are all masterworks in the piano literature. After all those years of flailing around with pieces that were much too difficult, I appreciate being given music that I can realistically get my hands around, and in an organized fashion. At the same time, the challenges are such that I would have had a very hard time figuring them out on my own.

Another facet has been experiencing a way of teaching that is both demanding and respectful. I've had a few teachers who were "nice" (like that first one) but who never asked for much more than just playing all the right notes. Most of the others (and this is both piano and cello) were demanding, all right, but in that unfortunately typical teacher way of making the student feel stupid -- acting as though the answers were so obvious that only an idiot would miss them. I've certainly had a lot of moments with my current teacher of feeling stupid, but I never feel I can't ask questions or that he pretends to have all the answers and I'm just being obtuse.

I'm probably not your average adult piano student, given the intensity of my musical background. But my aesthetic sense of the piano is pretty crude. I am now learning how to listen more acutely to other people's playing as well as my own -- what is a beautiful sound, and why? What makes something expressive? It's great to be able to discuss these things every week with someone who has definite opinions.

I have occasionally pondered whether I would have benefited from this type of teaching if I had had it earlier in my life. Aside from the fact that it's a moot point because there's no time machine -- and also, even if there were, it's not so easy to find such teaching, so I kind of lucked out here -- I think I may not have been ready for it, or at least not as receptive to it as I am now. For one thing, I am a mature adult and so have more patience and perspective. For another, because I have experienced the frustration of trying to do things my way in the past, the help I am getting now is a much-appreciated lifeline. Also, and this is key, it hasn't been until the past few years that I have firmly established the habit of practicing every day and of sticking with it for the long haul no matter what.

So those are my notes from the bench.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The amazing three cellos interview

There are no words* . . .

*Well, maybe there are, but we can't use them here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Audition

While I was driving back from Massachusetts on Saturday evening, I hit a spot between mountains where I could tune in to All Things Considered on NPR. One of the stories was about a percussionist, Mike Tetreault, and his audition for the Boston Symphony.

A Musician and the Audition of His Life

I hope I don't spoil the story for you by telling you that after practicing for a year (while juggling all the other jobs typical of a freelancing musician) he did not get the job, and in fact was voted out after the first round after playing for 10 minutes. The slant of the NPR story was in a positive direction, but I did a little more Internet searching after I got home and found this article in Boston Magazine that was a bit more sobering:

The Audition

"Civilians" (i.e., nonmusicians) are always shocked when they hear the nitty-gritty reality of what is involved in an audition. They don't quite believe how tough it is, though these days when even an experienced computer programmer can't get a job they are a little more understanding.

I have not done a lot of auditions. None on the piano -- though really, the piano is a different beast altogether than the cello; I imagine not too many piano auditions involve learning a few snippets of some impossibly difficult ensemble part that when actually performed cannot be heard individually. Think, for example, of the opening of Strauss's "Don Juan" -- that famous up-swooping arpeggio played by the entire orchestra -- and then imagine playing that on the cello in front of a screen, behind which sits a committee marking down every mistake. I did one audition when I played this, and the principal cellist who was on the committee sarcastically asked me to play it again, "This time with the right notes." This was for a regional orchestra in a small southern city; I was a poor college student at the time, and I had driven down there and stayed in a crummy motel at my own expense and then trundled over to the audition site, which turned out to be an unairconditioned church (the audition was in the summer). I think the job paid less than $10,000 a year. They ended up not hiring any of us who auditioned. IIRC, they hired the principal cellist's wife.

However, though one can bitch and moan about the awfulness of auditions, what other way is there to do it? One hopes at least to be treated with some respect, but in the end the results are the subjective opinions of human beings.

This has been on my mind recently because I have been considering taking a local professional audition that's scheduled for the end of August. It's a good job, full time with benefits. The various civilians I've mentioned this to have said variations on, "Oh, you must do this! What do you have to lose?" And in a way they are right. But at the moment I am very far from being able to play the required repertoire, which is extremely difficult. I would like to prove that I could play it beautifully rather than imagining that I could, but the reality is that a month is not enough time for me to prepare properly, especially given the fact that I only have a few hours for it in the evenings (after a full day at work). I don't begrudge time spent practicing the cello when I know I'm actually going to perform, but an audition is a poor substitute for playing in front of a real audience.

The other part of this, though it sounds arrogant to say so, is that in my heart of hearts a job like this isn't my preference -- not as something to do for years on end, night after night, playing in a section, and not playing the kind of music I'm really interested in. In that way I am different from Tetreault, who says it's always been his dream to play in the BSO. Though of course a percussionist is always a soloist, whereas a section cellist is never one (except by accident!).

What are the things I love to do musically? I love playing the piano; playing the cello in small groups, including folk and jazz; and teaching receptive students. I've been enjoying taking piano lessons with my current teacher. I do appreciate playing in a good orchestra, but it's not at the top of the list. And so I have decided to pass on the audition and put my energies elsewhere.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Piano camp

When I arrived at Williams College for the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat last Saturday after a long and tiring drive, it was hot. I discovered that my room was on the third floor of an unairconditioned dorm and the practice room pianos in the 1970s-era concrete-constructed music building were entry-level Yamaha uprights.* That first night I couldn't fall asleep until 3 a.m., and I was thinking something along the lines of, "I've been to music school; I have a nice piano at home; I could have stayed there and taken the week off of work and just practiced, so why the heck did I come?" But there was also the anticipation of the unknown and the stimulation of being on a bustling college campus and the excitement of being handed a crisp information package with times scheduled for everything. So I gave myself up to the moment.

The moment consisted of

  • morning lectures on various topics, specifically Alexander technique by Debi Adams, piano technique and history by Alison Barr, and free-flowing music appreciation by Peter Mose
  • afternoon practice (involving some scuttling around finding the best pianos) and private lessons;
  • evening discussion sessions and other activities;
  • lots and lots of enjoyable and stimulating conversation (over meals and coffee, with wine at the dorm at night, and in between all of the above).

The group was small (limited to 20 students), and the ages ranged from 40+ to 70+. Some were retired, some still working, and two were even music teachers. Most came from the Boston and Toronto areas (because that is where the three teachers were from), but one person was from California, one from Colorado, one from Texas, and another from Louisiana. They were all really great people; I can't remember another occasion when the company was so congenial. We were all very different and had different backgrounds and playing levels, but the common thread of enthusiasm for playing the piano was strong and created a real bond right away.

Most human social groups tend to get competitive in some way, but this one did not (at least from my perspective). I think this was a factor of the more mature age group and that this experience was specifically designed to be nurturing and noncritical. There is a fine line between that and treating students like kindergartners, but I felt the retreat masters managed to walk that line successfully, for the most part. Even the less successful attempts, such as sculpting the scapula bone from Play-Doh or trying to pass rubber balls around the room in time to the Pachelbel Canon, at least made us laugh. 

I think everyone appreciated the way the various activities were tied together. For example, Debi and her duo partner, Mike Serio, performed a recital one evening; there was a class on the technical problems of playing four-hand piano the next day; and throughout the week students worked on duo movements together and then those who wanted to played them for the group informally on Saturday morning. Another example is the Brahms recital at Tanglewood by pianist Gerhard Oppitz that we attended: Peter acquainted us with some of the musical material early in the week; the day of the recital, Alison gave a brisk lecture on Brahms with more detailed discussion about the music we would be hearing; and then the next day we had a group discussion about the concert.

So these were all tangible things I can describe, but I would categorize the less concrete, though perhaps more important learning as the emphasis on listening -- to oneself, to the music, to others; on body awareness -- what is comfortable, what is not, and why; and on music as a human experience, with all the weaknesses and foibles that entails as well as the good stuff. 

People were not required to perform. We were given a few opportunities to play for each other, which some of us did -- I took every one possible -- but there were some from whom we never heard a single note the entire week. But, as Stuart Smalley would say, that's . . . okay. 

Somehow I have come away from this feeling more comfortable at the piano. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of being immersed in it for a week and in having so much of what I've been doing validated by what I was hearing (both verbally and by example). In any case, staying home and practicing would not have been the same.

*In case anyone is reading this and considering signing up for next year who is perturbed by my description of the facilities: Except for that first unusually hot night, the room was very pleasant. I slept well and I woke up every morning looking up into the branches of a huge maple tree outside my window. As for the pianos, in addition to the practice room clunkers (which at least had been tuned for us), there were several very nice Steinway grands in the teaching spaces that we could practice on when they weren't being used. The one in the recital hall was wonderful, and I was able to play for several hours on it during the week.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Side by side

Last night, after pondering my playing experience in the afternoon, I decided to record the Bach on my own piano, playing from memory. It was about midnight. I kind of zipped through it a couple of times, and done.

When I got home from work this evening, I listened to my "live" effort from the afternoon, and though you can hear the tension (a few missed notes, a bit of rushing here and there, some uncontrolled sound), it does have that vitality of being played in front of other humans.

So for anyone who has the interest or patience, or both, here are both versions.

WTC II, Prelude and Fugue in D minor, "live"

(If you listen carefully, you will hear it start to rain outside at the beginning of the fugue.)

WTC II, Prelude and Fugue in D minor, "studio"

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Shaky foot!

I performed the Bach today. I felt relatively well prepared. The audience was small and sympathetic -- mostly the other performers and their SOs. The piano was okay; nothing special (a Boston baby grand) but adequate, and the room was pleasant.

Leading up to  recital time, I felt eerily relaxed -- knowing I would have the music in front of me seemed to take away most of my nerves. They had put me second after the intermission, so I had to sit for an hour, waiting my turn, but I was calm, my hands were warm and dry, and all seemed well.

However ...

When I finally started playing, as I proceeded, my right foot started shaking uncontrollably. I have never experienced anything like it. It was like all of my nerves went straight to that foot, and nothing I did could stop the shaking. My hands were fine, but I was so unnerved by the shaking foot that I missed a few notes here and there because I was wondering how to get it under control. I guess I should have just put it on the floor and stopped trying to use the pedal, but I kept thinking I would calm down. Instead, it got worse and worse.

I did manage to complete the piece with some finesse in spite of this, and at least I did not rush. I got lots of compliments afterward. But it was disappointing because it could have been so much better. The recording tells the tale of the stunted performance. I don't think I'm going to post it -- at least, not until I've had time to think it over.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Recital ahead

In response to a note from a concerned friend on Facebook, our electricity was restored on Monday (yay!), so we're not sweltering in this 100+ degree heat.

Assuming there will not be another storm that knocks the power out again, my musical endeavor for the week is an Adult Music Student Forum recital this coming Sunday, for which I'm playing the D minor Prelude and Fugue from WTC II. I can't believe I've been working on this for almost 4 months, and relearning it at that. But I realized that my stage on the piano is such that learning any piece involves more than being able to play the notes or even develop an interpretation. What I mean is that I've been learning an almost entirely different way of playing, and though I think it is getting to be more natural for me is not quite there yet.

I have been going back and forth for the past month about whether to play from memory. I could do it; however, I decided that I want to feel relaxed enough to be able to apply what I've been learning about how to play the piano without having to worry about missing notes. I have enough things to think about that are new -- among others, how I'm using my hands, pedaling, and what my teacher is going to think (even if he is not at the recital, I'm sure he will hear reports) -- that I was afraid I would fall back on old habits of tensing up and grabbing at the keys or whatever it is I was doing before. So, with music it is. It feels like a bit of a defeat, but I console myself with examples like Richter, who used music at the end of his career though you know he could have played without it had he wanted to do so.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Practicing by candlelight

We are once again in thrall to PEPCO's whims and weaknesses -- about 60 hours and counting. So no electricity in our house. I am writing this from the air-conditioned comfort of my office while sipping ice water (two luxuries we won't have for the rest of the week at home, if PEPCO's website is to be believed).

The storm hit Friday night, and the lights went out immediately. A half hour later, they came on again, and relieved, I went downstairs to practice the piano. While I was playing, the power went out again, and this time it stayed out. Since I was sitting there in the dark playing, and there wasn't much else I could do at that point, I continued. A few times I peered down through the darkness to make sure I was starting in the right place, but otherwise was playing by feel. Interesting that I was able to do it without missing any more notes than usual. I guess there are lots of blind pianists.

So that was Friday; on Saturday and Sunday, I either practiced by what natural light was available or used a candle in the evenings. I find it almost impossible to sight-read in such low light, but playing music I know well and basically have memorized is no problem.

Because my piano is in our basement, even though it's been close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature is not a problem, though I am afraid to look at what the humidity is down there.

If we had a decent way to store food, this lack of electricity wouldn't bother me that much. Except for not having a telephone. Or access to the Internet. Or ... well, on second thought ...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My other blog

A while back, I set up another blog for the folk music group I'm in. The four of us are neighbors, and it's pretty casual (that's a nice way of saying it's not very professional), but I think we sometimes get a nice sound.

Yesterday we got together and recorded a few tunes, and I threw them up on the blog, which you can view here:

Whitney Street

I don't know how often we'll post over there, but I'll add it to my list on the side.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Think method

In my piano lessons, one of the pieces we've been working on, as I've mentioned, is the D minor prelude and fugue from WTC II. It has proved to be a worthy vehicle for all sorts of techniques and practice methods. Hands separate and together, staccato, legato, slow, fast, conducting with one hand while playing with the other, counting aloud, playing each note twice, playing different rhythms, with pedal, without pedal ... and so on (I've probably left some out). At my lesson last week, we had worked on it for a while, and my teacher sat back and said, "You sound like you're bored with this."

I said, "Maybe you're bored."

He said, "That may be! Anyway, I want you to not play this for a week. Don't play it until you come in for your next lesson."

And so, dutiful student that I am, I followed this instruction. I did practice mentally and look at the score (I even made a copy of it and took it on vacation with me). At my lesson yesterday, we were wrapping things up and I reminded him that I was supposed to play this on a recital in a few weeks, so I pulled out the music and played it for him. And you know, it was much better! Not sure how that worked.

Maybe like this?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This past week, I've been doing this both physically (resting my overworked, tight, and burning arm muscles so they could get back to their normal state) and mentally (not thinking too much about playing music). It's kind of crazy how learning such a short, albeit intense, piece took up so much of my energy on both fronts. It was a serious challenge for this amateur musician, but in the big scheme of life, obviously not so important.

I arrived home yesterday from five days of vacation with my husband and no cello OR piano, and now I'm back at work, getting myself reorganized. Coming up in a few weeks, I'm scheduled to play on a piano recital. I've been planning to play a Bach prelude and fugue (D minor from Book II), but I'm still struggling greatly with trying to absorb and implement all my teacher's suggestions. It doesn't feel like "me" exactly, more like something imposed from the outside. Sometimes I think I am a little out of my depth on this; other times it seems about right.

And then the following week I'm going to this piano camp for adults: Piano Retreat. I need to figure out what I want to work on there. I was thinking maybe some more movements from "Scenes from Childhood" because they are short. And/or more Bach. But I'm not sure.

So there you have my groggy and jet-lagged update. Perhaps in a day or so I will be fully functioning again (and wondering why I posted anything on the Internet until I could think straight).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'm going to be brave (video from concert)

When I pulled out my recorder to review the audio of my performance the other day, I realized my friend who was recording for me had chosen to do video as well. It's very clear and gives a good idea of what the performance was like, so I have decided to share the whole thing. Here it is:

This was recorded on a Zoom Q3 and is completely unedited, unretouched (as if you couldn't tell!), and uncut. I'm pleasantly surprised that the video came out as well as it did with the low light in the venue. It is 8+ minutes because entrances, exits, and applause are included.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mission accomplished

So I'm done with Pezzo Capriccioso! I held it together very well (if I do say so myself) until the very end when I missed a few notes, but even there kept it going. I got lots of nice compliments from people afterward, and I actually enjoyed playing, even though I certainly don't look like it in this picture:

A friend of mine culled this from a smart phone movie she took. I would post the whole movie, but (a) the beginning was cut off and (b) I look like a grumpy old man the entire time. I swear, I wasn't upset at all, just concentrating really hard, though I was pretty relaxed.

I've got some audio, but I need to decompress a bit before I deal with it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

What (not) to wear, for the cello lady

I was mucking through some draft posts that I wrote for this blog and found this one, which is apropos as I once again prepare for a solo turn in front of an orchestra.


Portrait of Guilhermina Suggia by Augustus John

In an ideal world, music would transcend fashion. In actuality, what a performer wears affects how the audience responds.

Women have a harder time than men figuring out what to wear on stage. Men can wear a suit or a tuxedo (including nice comfortable shoes!), and as long as they don't wear white socks, they are okay.

Women have a much wider choice. We can do the modest and comfortable outfit, highlighting face and hands, or leave much less to the imagination. You can guess which end of the scale I've tended to (though there was the sleeveless harem pants jumpsuit I wore a few times in my 20s, but better not to dwell on that).

There are several requirements for female cello-playing garb that are not always easy to find in a store:
  • wide skirt (or pants), for obvious reasons
  • sleeves that are not too long or too wide (they get in the way)
  • plenty of room in the shoulders (for those big shifts and long bows)
  • no hard buttons or trim on the front of the garment or sleeve cuffs (they scratch the cello)
And then, most evening wear poses problems, hence my pet peeves, or things to avoid:
  • sleeveless or strapless or "strappy" tops (let's just say that I need a certain amount of coverage to avoid embarassment)
  • tight and uncomfortable garments
  • high heels (anything higher than about 2 inches throws my playing posture off completely, not to mention makes it difficult to walk out on stage carrying a cello)
I need all that, plus I want the garment to be flattering. It's not easy. I went through a phase when I made gowns for myself; looking back on it, they were not that bad, and it was a lot more fun and inexpensive than shopping for what I needed. These days, I end up tearing my hair out trying to find something nice to wear. I often end up fishing the basic black out of the closet.

Speaking of hair, this is another thing that no one ever mentions. The ideal cello posture is to sit with the neck of the cello close to your neck, so that the cello is as vertical as possible. This is because the left-hand fingers should be at close to a right angle to the strings for the best hand position and most secure intonation. It's impossible to sit this way if you're trying to manage a head full of long, flowing hair -- looks great, but whenever I try that, a little piece of hair always gets caught under my fingers just as I'm executing a shift, or my hair gets caught in the pegs when I'm making a tasteful gesture with my head.

This is why when I play a solo I have to brush all of my hair away from my face and stick it in a ponytail or a bun. I'd just cut it short, but years of hairdressers shaking their heads when I ask them if it would look good on me have scared me off of that.

After an experience with a teacher telling me I "looked like heck all the time," I became a little paranoid about my appearance and for a time put quite a bit of effort into it. I wore contact lenses, styled my hair, wore mascara, and teetered to my concerts in high heels. I played at Carnegie Hall once with a chamber group, in the small recital hall, and of course dragged all my primping accessories along (curling iron, make-up, pantyhose, etc.). One of the guys in the group seemed to find my preparations hilarious -- so irritating. Did he think I liked doing all that? Men reading this, here's the scoop: we would prefer being able to fling ourselves out into the world without artificial enhancements, but we are treated less positively without them.

I still like making an effort to look nice, but I've given up most of what my colleague found so amusing. I wear my glasses, just a touch of make-up, and the most comfortable shoes I can get away with. But it's hard to feel good about it all. The standards are so impossibly high, and the acquisition of all the necessary fashion accoutrements takes so much time and energy, and this all really has nothing to do with how the music is going to sound -- other than the dash of self-confidence that such things can add.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remember that video?

I blogged about it here:

Interesting experience

The video of me playing Bach and a short written interview have gone live on Nancy Williams's blog, Reflections on a Grand Passion:

A Cellist Takes Adult Piano Lessons

It now being a half a year later, and after several months of ground-up piano lessons working on my basic technique, I would play the piece differently, but it's a snapshot in time as all recordings are. I believe the videographer joined audio from one take with video from another at some points so there would be different camera angles, and that's why the sound and picture don't sync up in places, but this was done with no cuts or splicing. I just played it through four times and we chose the best version.

Note that some people have trouble loading the videos from the blog; they seem to work better on YouTube. Link:

(Of course I look at this and have feminine horror at my hair, etc., but what can you do?)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Action shot

My husband took this picture today.

You might notice my (relatively) new toy here. I had wanted a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello ever since I heard about them more than 10 years ago, but I had no real reason to get one. Yo Yo Ma has been famously featured in their ads:

Earlier this year, a friend of mine was selling his and made me an offer I couldn't refuse (well, I could have refused it, but it was just too good to pass up). So it's mine now, despite my desire to simplify my life and have less stuff.

It's very fun to play. The smooth carbon fiber fingerboard makes shifts really easy, the size and shape make it especially comfortable to hold, and it's lively and responsive as well as being extremely resonant. My only problem with the sound is that it has a slightly buzzy edge to it that is a bit unpleasant under the ear. I seriously considered using it for the concert next week when I play the Tchaikovsky Pezzo Capriccioso, but that sound quality dissuaded me. I simply did not have enough time to experiment, so I am playing it safe by using my wood cello.

Here's a quickie recording I made with this cello of a Bach Allemande a few months ago:

Bach: Allemande in G major from Suite No. 1

I was practicing on it today because I'm going to use it for a coffee house gig I'm playing with my folk group this evening. I figure it will at least save me some playing fatigue, and it will also be a conversation piece if nothing else.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sausage making redux

Sometimes rehearsals are like sausage: if you knew what went into it, you wouldn't want to eat it. (Not that I eat sausage anyway, but I needed a cheap simile here.)

So you are forewarned.

But here is today's rehearsal with the orchestra of Pezzo Capriccioso.

I cut out the talking and dead time, so it's about 14 minutes. You will hear things repeated. I do think it got better as it went along on the part of the orchestra. I felt actually very good about how I was playing, although it was cold and clammy in the room and by the end of the rehearsal, my hands started to feel like they were coated with rosin.

The only other adjustments I made to the raw file were boosting the sound a bit because my recorder was situated behind me.

Pezzo Capriccioso working rehearsal

Saturday, May 12, 2012

From "The Genius of the Cello" to the Portsmouth Sinfonia

I had my first rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky with the orchestra today. Um, I think my post title says most of it.

(Hey -- if anyone from the orchestra is reading this, JUST KIDDING!)

However, I at least did not fall apart -- not at all. So that's encouraging.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello

I have heard all the stories about Rostropovich over the years and of course have heard many of his recordings (and I saw him play once, in the early 1970s, when my parents took me to the first concert he gave in DC at the Kennedy Center, though I'm afraid I didn't totally appreciate it at the time).* But I recently happened across this BBC documentary about him that I found enlightening and that made me appreciate him in a new way.

I loved this film both for informative value and as a piece of cinema. It's beautifully done in every way. There are interviews with many of Rostropovich's students, with his wife, his daughters, and with him, as well as footage of performances going back to his Soviet days. There is a great deal of discussion about the many works that he inspired or commissioned and how this revitalized the cello as a solo instrument. One very interesting technique here is a number of sequences in which the interviewees are filmed while listening to the same music the viewer of the film is hearing -- it's quite moving.

It's about an hour and a half, well worth the time. I recommend it highly.

*After I posted this earlier, I was remembering that I believe I actually shared a stage with Rostropovich once, at the first Cello Congress that was held at the University of Maryland in 1982. There was an orchestra of about 200 cellists (scary thought, isn't it?), and I was somewhere in the back while he was conducting. But I don't remember him.

Also, I was once a finalist in the National Symphony's college level concerto competition, and though I didn't win, I did get a certificate that was signed by Rostropovich, who was conductor of the NSO at the time, though I'm sure he wasn't at the finals when I played the Rococo Variations on the stage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (and a good thing, too -- my friends who came helpfully told me, "You were the most out of tune of everyone who played." At least they were honest.).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

More practicing help

I recently discovered a blog, Practising the Piano, written by the pianist Graham Fitch (I have added it to my blog list here), and his most recent post is an excellent guide to how to make the most of your practicing experience, starting with having a good teacher and going on from there. Here is a link to that post (British spelling courtesy of the original author, and respect for cultural differences :)):

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practising

I actually already do a lot of these, but one I have been trying out the past couple of days is the idea of doing "one measure + one note"; that is, play just one measure and the following downbeat, stop, rinse, repeat as needed. He suggests at least doing a set number of repetitions, perhaps three, but I am finding that some measures require many more.

So far I'm finding this is especially helpful for two main issues:

  1. Understanding where each downbeat is (in fact, where each beat is).
  2. Ferreting out where there are technical and musical problems on a small enough scale to be able to fix them then and there.
I'm sure as I delve into his list further it will continue to help, but I wanted to share this particular idea because it kind of goes against a distaste for emphasizing bar lines that I have somehow imbibed over the years. Maybe you don't always want to emphasize them, but you do need to know where they are.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


A quick follow-up from the last post:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Down with the count

I started playing music when I was so young (4 or 5) that I don't remember learning to read it or how I understood rhythms, meters, or counting; I just kind of did it. My formal lessons on piano didn't start until I was almost 10, and my teacher must have assumed knowledge on my part that I didn't necessarily have because I appeared to know so much already.

A few years later, when I started playing the cello and playing in groups, counting assumed more importance because I had to stay with the group and follow the conductor. Again, I don't remember this being much of an issue. I obviously have some native-born talent at this music stuff and an instinctive sense of how to do things, so the years went by, and I didn't do too badly overall. I eventually learned to play the cello well, earned three college degrees, and played innumerable concerts.

BUT ... until I started taking lessons with my current piano teacher a few months ago, no one had asked me to count while I played. A little cursory research has revealed that it's not at all common for this to be mentioned or taught, so it's not surprising that I had never encountered this as a discipline. Oh, I had done it on occasion, when working on something tricky or when teaching a student or playing chamber music, but not as a regular thing. I have always relied on the metronome to learn pulse and speed, and it is a useful tool, but it doesn't solve everything. Well, I've had more than a dozen lessons with this teacher so far, and I believe at each one he has asked me at least once, "Are you counting?" (after yet another display of my stumbling and rushing), and I have had to say, "Not really." I kept thinking, "I can do this any time, I just forget."

I finally decided I'd better get with the program, and I rolled up my sleeves and went at it. First on the cello, with Pezzo Capriccioso, because as I've whined about continuously here, I don't seem to have a handle on the pulse at all. Those reading this who play an instrument and want to try this at home: It is not at all easy! What I ended up doing was working on small sections (a few measures at a time) until I could play them at various speeds while counting (or at least grunting) out loud. I spent an hour and half on this at my first pass, and when I was done, it was the first time I felt really hopeful about being able to play this piece in public.

Counting the beats, whether out loud or mentally, works at a fear I've always had that I didn't really know what was happening on which beat, or vice versa. Also, counting out loud is a physical act that engages a different part of one's brain than playing and makes connections with intellectual understanding of what one is doing physically. And then, there's the sense I always have that any crazy new thing you do to add another dimension to practicing is at least useful, though this is more basic than that.

Speaking of another dimension, moving this to the piano adds more layers of complexity. Because it is possible to play the piano without using large muscles (which is not the case with the cello), it is harder to feel the beat, so counting takes much more effort and concentration. Plus, obviously, you have two hands playing different stuff from each other, and usually more than one line within each hand or crossing from hand to hand. Again, I am finding I have to break pieces down into small sections and practice counting through each one while playing. Another method my teacher likes to apply is playing one hand while conducting with the other, and I've been doing some of that this week also.

I spent some hours on this with the Bach D minor Prelude and Fugue from WTC II. And when I played it at my lesson today, darned if it wasn't much better! It's the first time it hasn't felt hopelessly out of control.

So, some exciting new ventures.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Practice tips and warming up

This is a meandering post about these two points, so I apologize for it being compositionally incoherent.

I found a wonderful list of practice tips here:

Practice tips
It's odd how I know all of these things, as I'm sure most trained musicians do, but when I'm in the heat of practicing it's hard to remember. I'm posting it here in case any readers are in the same boat. (NB: The link doesn't always work, but keep trying; it's worth it.)

The best one -- and one we all need to remember -- is not to practice faster than you can comfortably play perfectly. This is one of the hardest for me. I have been panicking ever since I heard what Pezzo Capriccioso sounds like when played too slowly that I won't be able to play it fast enough, and I've been trying to prepare by practicing it fast, which I am doing too much, I know. OTOH, once I warm up I can play it much faster than when I try to play it cold.

Related to this, I'm finding that I simply cannot play the 32nd-note passages up to tempo before I warm up and practice them slowly for about 45 minutes. I started worrying about this because I was thinking about the logistics of the concert in June and realized that there is no backstage at all in this church. The space where we used to play was also a church, but it was a huge old building with a rabbit warren of rooms and hallways behind the altar where you could warm up in complete privacy. Here, there's a little space off to the side of the altar that is in full view of the audience and that's it. There are a couple of small rooms at the back of the altar, but we really aren't supposed to use them.

I'm pretty sure I'll be playing immediately after intermission, so I guess I'll just have to practice thoroughly before the concert and then sit off to the side and noodle as best I can before the second half.

The link above doesn't have any really helpful suggestions for this problem, but I also found a discussion here by pianists about this very issue:

Performing without warming up

Pianists have to deal with this all the time because they can't touch their instrument until they walk out on stage.

The following suggestion was intriguing, and I will try it this evening and report back:
The Percy Grainger warmup: sit down in any regular, straight-back chair. Smack your knees with your hands, repeatedly, hard and fast, for 5 minutes. If it doesn't hurt you're not doing it hard enough. It's actually quite hard to keep going for 5 minutes but it certainly gets the blood flowing.
(Seems like you could end up with bruised knees, though.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Maybe this helped

While I was at work yesterday, I plugged into YouTube with my headphones and pulled up a bunch of versions of Pezzo Capriccioso, ranging from sublime (Steve Isserlis playing a sprightly rendition; an entrant to the 2011 Tchaikovsky competition playing a conservative reading; etc.) to horrible (wobbly virtuoso wannabes, etc.). I don't know how many I heard, but given that the piece is 7 minutes long and I was listening for over an hour, at least ten. I heard things I wanted to do (beautiful tone, nice phrasing, steady rhythms) and things I didn't (bad intonation, scratching and scraping), but I have to say, all of them pulled it off to some extent. The piece isn't a "master" piece, and in fact, I felt a little like I'd had too much candy after hearing it that many times, but I did get to know it much better and to hear all the ways it could be played.

I also found a "Capriccioso" Tchaikovsky wrote for piano solo, as part of a suite of six pieces  (Op. 19) that is almost identical in structure to the cello piece, though it's about half the length and does not have the emotional punch. It's somewhat inverted moodwise because the lyrical sections are in happy B flat major and the virtuosic middle section (in this piece, marked Allegro vivacissimo -- instead of keeping the same pulse but with faster note values as in the cello piece, Tchaikovsky marks a tempo that ends up being about double, so it's the same idea),  is in D minor. Here's a version by Richter:

Then when I got home, I found the cello parts for all of the next concert's music in my mailbox, including the part for Pezzo. Somehow, seeing the accompaniment and imagining being in the orchestra playing it with a soloist put it in more perspective for me, on top of the listening I had done, so when I was practicing last night it felt much better. When I checked my speed with the metronome, I found I was playing it easily at 69 = quarter note (my original goal was 60).

So if I can build on this, and keep polishing and getting a good sound, I will be happy with it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Despite the compliments from my friends I described in my previous post, I feel so unsatisfied with the Tchaikovsky. Perhaps it's one of those situations where the closer you get to the ideal, the farther away it seems; smaller and smaller problems grow bigger and bigger by comparison. Considering that when I started working on this in January I couldn't play it, and now I can, apparently something has been happening. But every day when I put my cello away after an hour or so of practicing it, I wonder if I am spending the time wisely. Every day that goes by feels like leap of faith that I am.

The fact that the piece is only 7 minutes long almost makes it more difficult, more like an etude, where every note is a test and each stands out. Okay, I have heard some sloppy awful performances of this from good cellists who probably barely practiced it, or maybe they did but tossed it off as bon bon to lighten a longer program. I heard one extremely talented and well-known person play it on a recital and have a major crash (he either looped back or jumped ahead to the wrong place at one point where there is a pattern repetition -- IIRC, the pianist managed to limp along after him and they kept going without having to start over). But because this is all I'm playing, it is important to me to make it better than that. At the same time, I don't want to make too much of it because that's not the spirit of the thing.

I have about a month now until the first rehearsal with the orchestra. I console myself with the fact that I will still have several weeks after that to fix anything really glaringly bad.

Yay for positive affirmations!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Weekend of cello-ing (and piano-ing)

To test out how the Pezzo Capriccioso is coming along, I arranged a couple of tryouts over the weekend. Saturday, I played it for an accomplished cellist acquaintance. It wasn't exactly a lesson, but it was the closest thing to one I've had on the cello in more than 20 years. He was very complimentary about the technical level and how prepared I am so far in advance of the concert, and he had some suggestions (e.g., use more bow rather than pressure to get a bigger sound). I was happy that I was able to play through it with minimal problems and without any train wrecks.

Then on Sunday, a pianist friend came over and played it through with me a few times; the finale was that three other friends came over and listened while I recorded it (to put the most pressure on). I felt good about it until I listened to the recording later on. Oh, it was clean and musical up to a point, but the big problem was the tempo, which kept getting slower and slower. This was partly because of the pianist, who followed me and didn't push it, but the particularly bad part was that I again took the "non cambiare il tempo" section much too slow. It just sounded ridiculous to me.

The reason this keeps happening, I think, is because I don't trust myself not to play it too fast, so I err on the side of too slow, which I guess is better. But just right would be best, no? So I spent an hour or so last night practicing with the metronome, both slow and fast; perhaps if I do a lot more of that it will help.

My piano lessons are continuing, always interesting. I have been practicing a couple of hours every day, but it is not always the most productive practicing. I will get to the end of the time I have available (i.e., I will look at the clock and it will be after midnight) and will feel like I haven't really done anything. And then I get into my lessons and am all stumble-fingered. But maybe things are happening incrementally.

We are doing scales (hands separate, a routine involving varying use of wrist and fingers), chord progressions, and right now a trill exercise. We are continuing with Chopin preludes, including ongoing discussion about Prelude No. 1 -- for a 1-minute piece, there's a lot to talk about -- and now Prelude No. 3, the one with the fast, rippling left hand. My teacher gave me a clever fingering for the awkward spot in the piece where it goes to the dominant, involving using the right hand to play some of the 16th notes (however, I was cruising YouTube last night and noticed Pollini just plays it all with his left hand, as I 'm sure most others do on that level; oh well). We began working on Kinderszenen a couple of weeks ago, something I had never touched before (except occasionally reading through "Of Strange Lands and People" when I came across it in graded collections).  And now another Bach: WTC I/22, the somber set in B flat minor with a five-voice fugue.

I fear I am falling behind in my progress recordings. I really want to do the C major and D minor sets from WTC II. I will try to do that in the coming week, just to keep the record straight. But maybe I will also try to keep those under my fingers by continuing to work on them and play them at least a few times a week. It's more a matter of available time than desire or lack thereof, but I will do the best I can.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Soul surgery

I bought my cello new 10 years ago. It had a warm, full, mellow tone and was even from bottom to top. I could play an open A and not have that characteristic piercing whine that is a tendency for that string on the cello -- any cellists out there will know what I'm talking about. Over the past year, I've felt the cello wasn't sounding its best and knew I should take it in to a shop to get looked at but kept putting it off, thinking I just needed new strings, like that visit to the doctor when you think maybe you only need vitamins or some cortisone cream but want to know for sure.

Also, I am bad with hardware type things. I don't seem to have an instinctive ability to grasp technical issues in relation to the eventual outcomes. When I have to choose an appliance or gadget or other object, it's hard for me to sort out these issues, and I dread falling into the hands of an incompetent or unscrupulous salesperson because I can't explain exactly what I want. In this case, I feared getting my cello messed up.

But there is a shop I have some confidence in, so I finally took the plunge last week and took the cello over there. After five minutes in the back room with the luthier, the assistant brought the cello out to me and gave me the diagnosis. He said everything was fine EXCEPT for the fact that the soundpost was too tight, and was actually pressing the wood of the top out in a little bump I could feel when it was pointed out to me. What had caused this? Perhaps settling, perhaps the wood drying out a bit and shrinking. I would suspect this last might be the reason because the wood was probably not aged as long as it could be before the cello was made, given that this was an inexpensive student-level cello.

In any case, they recommended replacing the soundpost. When I asked about  new strings, they said things might change with a new post, so they would rather wait until the post was in and I could try the cello, and then work on which strings would be best.

A soundpost, for those who don't know, is a little wooden dowel that is inserted into the instrument through an f-hole and wedged between the top and the back, and it serves to transmit the vibrations from the top to the back and amplify the sound, so shaping and placing it is a very important bit of luthiery. In fact, according Wikipedia,
The sound post is sometimes referred to as the âme, a French word meaning "soul". . . . The Italians use the same term, anima, for this. 
I had to leave the cello there for several days. When I went to pick it up earlier this week, instead of this being a simple matter of whipping out my credit card, I ended up spending about two hours working on adjustments. My first reaction was not happy -- the A sounded biting and harsh. The luthier moved the new soundpost a bit -- and it sounded worse! Moved it a bit more -- sounded horrible! So he put it back where it was at first and we moved on to choosing strings.

After years of buying strings hit or miss over the Internet, it was a luxury to be able to hear some different strings without having to commit to them -- well worth the higher price I had to pay for my eventual choices because I was buying in a full-service store. We quickly decided on the same type I have been using for the G and C (Obligato). But the A was a problem, and the D would be affected by the A. We started with a Larsen, then tried a Kaplan, then an Obligato, then a Dominant (yuck on that one! sounded like a piece of tin). The Larsen ultimately was best, and to go with that, the Obligato D was good.

I still wasn't 100% bowled over. It was like seeing a loved one after surgery -- yes, there he is, but he looks weird. So yes, this was my cello, but it sounded weird to me.

However, when I got up the nerve to get it out at home that evening, I started enjoying the sound. It definitely is different than it was when new; it's a bit brighter and more open, but it has some depth and power. It has lost its childhood softness and has more edge.

That's life, I guess; as soon as you get used to something, it changes.

The patient, resting comfortably.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bach project update

It's been a while since I posted a new recording, and here's why. I've been working on the C major set from WTC II since last fall (after making the video of the G sharp set from WTC I that I mentioned here, and which I believe will be posted soon). I played the C major for my new teacher in January, and right away he zeroed in on my excessive forcefulness. It's excessive because not only is it not needed to produce sound, it strangles and deadens the sound that is produced, and it also works against speed and flexibility. So he has been working on getting me to use the least amount of force necessary. The goal with Bach, he says, is more transparency and a more dancelike approach. This has been the theme of my lessons these past few months.

I don't disagree that my teacher is correct -- or at least, that this is a valid point of view. I also agree completely that the fact that I can't play this way is a weakness that is worth examining and rooting out, but this change of touch does not feel natural. Although I can stutter out a performance of the C major prelude and fugue, it's not very convincing. I'm still attempting to put these changes into practice. I could slap together a recording, but I keep hoping things will come together and that I can make something that will be significantly different from, and better than, what I have been doing.

And then a few weeks ago, we started working on the D minor set from WTC II. This is one of the more charming sets of the whole 48, with a sparkly prelude and a sinuous and spare fugue, so I couldn't say no to it, even though starting another before I come to a resting point on the preceding set is something I've tried to avoid. On the other hand: This is actually a reworking in that I learned the D minor set when I was first getting back to playing the piano, about 6 years ago; also, I'm curious to see if I can work on two sets at the same time with positive results.

Between all this and practicing the cello, and of course going to work every day, the weeks have been whizzing by before I even know it. However, I have been practicing every day -- although most days don't end until after midnight -- so I do feel I'm getting something out of this. Sometimes these opportunities come up and you just have to go for them, ready or not.