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.