Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tired and overwhelmed

You'd think that not having a job would mean no more of that tired, overwhelmed feeling. Well, okay, it's definitely better than it was, but the things I'm doing are stretching out to fill my days.

I blame most of the overwhelm on the Schumann concerto. Sometimes I question my sanity in choosing to perform this piece. But then I think, c'mon, Schumann himself would have been happy that you are playing it, however imperfectly. And what is "perfect," anyway?

Earlier this week I got together with a pianist friend and we played through it. It was good for me to have to go to someone else's house, unfamiliar territory, and play in front of another person. Plus, I recorded it, so that gave me good feedback. I did pretty well with it until the third movement; as everyone says, this where the real difficulties lie. The worst place was the development section, which consists of little fragments of one to two measures passed between the cello and the orchestra, ranging through numerous keys and chord progressions. Hearing the orchestra part totally threw me off, even though I thought I had it figured out.

Aside from that, the biggest issues I could hear on the recording were these:

  • A lot of slamming at the beginnings of notes and phrases, resulting in scratchiness throughout
  • Too much all the same dynamic (loud) and energy (forced)
  • Not enough shaping of phrases

Oddly enough, these things are similar to what my piano teacher has been telling me, especially the forcing. I need to trust that my sound will carry at soft dynamics. We're always told that the cello has to "cut through the orchestra," but when I look at how Schumann orchestrated this, many times there are only a few instruments accompanying, which allows the soloist to be heard without trying so hard. So actually, this makes my task easier and more enjoyable: instead of drilling everything at fff, I can relax and figure out how to make it sing and let the cello do its thing.

Next week, I have a lesson with a cellist in the National Symphony (different person than the one I have been consulting with -- the latter recommended that I go to this other guy because he recently performed the piece, plus he's taught it quite a lot). I'm also getting together with a cellist friend who is playing a concerto with another amateur orchestra; we are going to play for each other. These ventures should help as well. I hope.

My overall concern is that I don't have a clear idea of what I want to say with this. That's probably one of the most difficult things for us classical musicians to achieve. We get so caught up in playing the notes and markings, in producing a beautiful tone, and in demonstrating our technique that the art of telling a story gets lost. In some ways, the music does it for us in its structure (sonata form, ABA, rondo), but that only takes you so far. I will continue to ponder on this.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Anxiety dreams

I think everyone has these at times -- the dreams where you have a test you haven't studied for, in a class you haven't taken, or you have to give a speech and you're naked and don't have any notes.

When I have these kinds of dreams, they are almost always about performing music. I had one the other night: I was supposed to play a difficult solo piece with an orchestra, and I hadn't practiced it even though I could have, so I felt not only anxious but guilty. I had blown it off, thinking I could do it, but now I was with the orchestra at some vast performance venue, and we were milling around while waiting for a rehearsal, and I was in a panic. I was also worried about my cello, and I looked inside through the f-holes and saw that the sound post was not only leaning, it was oddly shaped, like a twig, skinny at one end. Then it fell, and the bridge fell, and though in the dream I started crying I was also relieved that maybe I wouldn't have to play.

This dream also fed into my anxiety about my appearance, because in the next part, I was examining my shoes, remembering that when I had picked them out, they were a sort of gold color, but now they appeared to be an orange-ish red patent leather, and when I slipped one off I noticed it was the wrong size (too small).

I've had many other dreams like this.

I've also had some real-life experiences that were too close for comfort, but I'll keep those to myself!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

For the sake of inclusiveness

Given that the purpose of this blog is to describe my musical experiences, I thought I should mention one I had this past weekend.

I've been a member of the Adult Music Student Forum (see link in the sidebar on this page) for some years now. I think I joined sometime around 2005 or 2006. It was founded in 1988 with the purpose of providing opportunities for adult amateurs to perform, and it certainly does that very well. The founder of the group, Matthew Harre (you can check out his website, Musical Fossils, in the sidebar as well), is a fine piano teacher; though I have obviously known about him for a long time, a series of fortuitous events led me to finally get it together and begin taking lessons from him about a year and a half ago. As I've documented a bit here, I've learned a tremendous amount from him, about the piano and music in general. His level of teaching would not be out of place in a great music conservatory.

After I'd been studying with him for about six months, he surprised me by asking me to join the board of directors of the AMSF (though he is no longer on the board, he is closely involved in a number of ways), and then I was further surprised to be appointed treasurer. So I was suddenly forced to become more involved with the group. I also suggested that my adult cello student join, so that makes me both a teacher (as a cellist) and a regular member (as a pianist). When we started planning this year's annual meeting, which is a milestone as the 25th year of the group's existence, someone made the suggestion that we organize a performance of AMSF teachers for the entertainment part of the meeting. I volunteered to play, and that is how I found myself bringing my cello to this AMSF event.

I had chosen the Largo movement of the Chopin sonata because it's both beautiful and simple to put together -- neither part is difficult. In fact, it's one of the few romantic cello sonata movements that is both high art and requires only modest ability from both players. My duo partner for this occasion was the excellent pianist Frank Conlon, who has been present on the D.C. music scene for as long as I can remember and who also has a long connection with AMSF.

I was really pretty nervous for this because it was the first time any of these people (including my piano teacher) would hear me play the cello, and also, because we were last on the program, I had to play without warming up at all. When Frank and I rehearsed the piece last week, I recorded it and was dismayed at how bad I sounded: it was pushed and forced the entire time. But what I love about performing (as opposed to endlessly spinning one's wheels in solitude) is that this forced me to figure out what was bothering me and how to fix it. So I sat down with the music and analyzed where it needed to be gentle, where it should ebb and flow, and where the climax was.

At the event itself, there was some initial awkwardness with getting set up and putting my endpin holder on the floor (necessary because it was slippery wood), and then someone took a picture of me just before I started (I am always so insecure about how I look), but I carried on and felt good about how it went. Unfortunately, there is no recording, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

ETA: This is the picture that was taken of me as I got ready to play:

Here's a video of Daniel Gaisford, looking a little like Franz Liszt, in a tasteful performance of this piece: