Thursday, October 31, 2013

The crux of the matter?

At my piano lesson today, after we had worked for a while on the Brahms Rhapsody in B minor (Op. 79 No. 1), which I've been slogging away at for months now, my teacher said (paraphrasing a bit, but this was the gist of it), "The problem is that you don't know what you want to do with this. It's not technical ... You're just letting whatever happens happen." And he was mostly right (as usual). We have talked about things like imagining the piece orchestrated (which instrument would play which line, etc.), which somewhat helps, but when I sit down at the piano all of that flies right out of my head and there I am, thinking only of what notes I have to play.

But exactly how loud or soft do I want those notes to be? How articulated and phrased? What mood do I want to evoke, even if just in myself?

It is obvious that if you have a really clear idea of how you want something to sound, it is much more likely to come out that way. I think this is why sometimes technically difficult pieces are easier to convey -- you have no choice but to think hard about what the end result should be and how to get there. It's the easier pieces that often harder to pin down, perhaps because there are so many more options.

The Schumann cello concerto, though admittedly difficult enough technically is also difficult in this way, too. I'm afraid I'm not too clear on the answers to these questions with regard to this piece, either. This is the scary part about it.

Yet I balk at making decisions. I'm not sure why this is. I keep playing and practicing it, hoping it will all become clear to me, even though I know it should be the other way around (i.e., clarify mentally and then play and practice to achieve that result).

So big sigh ... but I will keep at it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An eerie calm ...

Image from *

I'm performing the Schumann cello concerto in three weeks, and I'm not in a panic, which somewhat worries me. But maybe this means I have progressed in some way and have more self-confidence. The first rehearsal with the orchestra is this coming weekend.

I had something of a break this past week from the deep practicing I have been doing because I had a big editing job that was due yesterday. The freelance projects I've taken since I stopped working full time help me keep my hand in the editing biz, which I somewhat enjoy for its own sake, plus its being a source of income. I took this project because I thought it would be a good distraction from obsessing about the Schumann, and it did help with that, but it took quite a few hours; I feel much freer now.

My task for today is to record the concerto for the conductor so he can listen to what I'm doing. I suggested this because he doesn't have time to meet in person before we start rehearsing, but thanks to the Internet, we don't need to!

I've been doing some reading and thinking about practicing. I finally read The Talent Code after my piano teacher mentioned it every week for about a month. Interesting stuff, though I have to say poorly written in the sense that it's dumbed down to the extreme. I found this review by a random blogger that I think is spot on.

There's a section in the book describing the author's visits to Meadowmount, the famous summer music camp started by Galamian in 1944, and I found the "gee whiz!" POV kind of silly, as if the kind of work promoted there was unusual. The reader would have been better served if the author had mentioned (if he even knew this) that this is a pretty standard conservatory-level approach. Also, that Meadowmount is extremely selective both in terms of faculty (who all have to be famous musicians) and students, so by the time they get there, both are already on a high level.

But I have to say, this book put a spotlight on why all the bad teachers I've had were so bad. (Not to be too negative or anything.) And, for that matter, why the bad therapists I've had were bad, too. I've always felt that the best way to teach is to get right down to exactly what the student can do to improve, in microscopic detail, rather than using shaming, personal attacks, or vague niceness. The idea that deep, behavior-changing learning takes place in a focused, practical, problem-solving way rings true to my experience, but most of the teachers I've had did NOT teach that way, or did not go far enough in one direction or another.

I also purchased an e-book about how to practice by an accomplished pianist and teacher, and fellow blogger (Graham Fitch, of Practising the Piano, which you can find on my blog list). I'm finding all of his little practice tips interesting and helpful, to the extent that I will read a section and then rush to the cello to try it out on the Schumann. I spent a session doing what he calls "little bits fast": taking small sections of a measure or two and cycling them up to tempo and then joining them together. This almost miraculously helped smooth out a number of problems, especially in the opening of the last movement, which is annoyingly both simple and devilishly difficult.

I've also been practicing the piano a bit. I started working on a Beethoven sonata, Op. 90 in E minor. My lack of time for this right now is leading me to try to understand more efficient practicing. It bugs me that it always takes me so long to learn something -- like, months and months of flailing around ineffectively -- and I'm sure I can improve on this. If I don't, my repertoire will continue to be severely limited. When I mentioned my poor practice methods, my teacher agreed that is probably the case. But I've clung to them for so long because they do seem to work up to a point.

We were talking about this at my last lesson, and one thing he said about focused, bit-by-bit practicing, was, "You have to have faith that it's going to work." I'm trying to apply this approach to learning the Beethoven, which is a completely new piece for me -- I've never even heard it, let alone played it. So we'll see. In any case, this gives me something to look forward to musically after the Schumann performance.

*Believe it or not, the caption under the source for this image reads: "Does an eerie calm precede a storm or is that just an old wives tale?"

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A self-referential query: Comments, anyone?

I've been writing this blog for about 4 years now. I loosely keep track of visitors to this blog and which pages are popular.

These three are the big hits:

How to sell a cello

What not to wear for the cello lady

There has been a fairly steady stream of visitors but very few comments over these years, and I've been wondering what does or does not move you to comment on a blog. So a question for visitors: What brought you here? Did you find it interesting or useful? Will you return? What were you looking for when you found me?

Other bloggers run giveaways or contests to get people to comment, but unfortunately I have nothing to offer along those lines. But I promise to read all comments.

And whether you comment or not, thanks for reading.

Thanks for your input.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Another chance to excel

My husband went through a phase when he joked around in the morning before he left for work, saying, "Another day, another chance to excel!!!" (yes, with at least three exclamation points).

Today I had another chance to excel. A friend is playing a concerto with another amateur orchestra in a few weeks and came up with the idea of us playing for each other -- two cellists of a certain age reclaiming some youthful vigor by putting ourselves out there in front of an orchestra. So I went over to his apartment and listened to him play through his concerto, and then he listened to the Schumann. We kept the criticisms to a minimum, offering just a few constructive ones, wished each other luck, and called it a day. It was very much worthwhile.

But I got rather nervous, even in these relaxed circumstances. I had to will my leg not to shake -- not sure what that's about. I had a few places where I slipped (though my friend said my recovery was great), but overall, everything was there and in place.

Since my lesson this past Monday I have been more conscious of a lack of nuance and have been working on it. I think it's a bit better. Musing on this, after I got home I searched around and came across a video of Bernard Greenhouse teaching this piece in a master class. He was in his 90s at the time, I believe -- amazing, actually. Anyway, he emphasizes here how there are numerous ways to be expressive by shading and shaping the sound with vibrato, choice of fingering, and bow but that ultimately it has to come from inside, and it has to be controlled by the demands of the piece. My favorite thing that he said was,
You have to learn to control your emotions when you play the instrument according to the dictates of the music you're playing. You can't just get on stage and be full of energy and play everything with the same energy. It doesn't make music. You have to learn how to control that hand of yours and control the emotions which go with it.

It's between 4:00 and 6:00 on the video:

Maybe it will help to think of each note, gesture, phrase as a "another chance to excel" (vs. "another chance to screw up" :)).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Motivation and self-esteem

I'm having a little trouble here.

I'm not feeling comfortable about this Schumann performance and am trying to analyze why. Yes, it's a difficult piece, and yes, I know it won't be perfect (whatever "perfect" means), but (as the guy I took a lesson from earlier this week put it), no one's going to die.

I think the difficulty lies in what my piano teacher describes as "being mean" to myself. In fact, he ascribes to the philosophy of "strict but not mean." What this means, in a nutshell, is holding oneself or one's students to the highest standard while not denigrating the person or self-flagellating. He concludes:
To be mean is to instill fear. Fear gets a certain result. It gets what the teacher wants or great rebellion. It does not get a creative result, a free result, or a musically adventurous result. These are much more valuable than just right.
Students are first and foremost fellow musical travellers. Respect them and care that they learn how to do things right. Sometimes it’s necessary to be firm and direct, but weaknesses in the playing never justify personal insult. Let people be themselves and they are usually quite wonderful. They also do their most expressive playing that way.
(Click the link to read the entire piece.)

Maybe I'm pressuring myself more because having quit my job, I feel I have to prove something -- though not sure what. That I'm "serious" about this? That I have to make it all "worth it"?

The answer, however, is NOT to avoid practicing (like I'm doing at this moment, at almost 11:30 on a sunny Wednesday morning) but to practice without saying bad things to myself, like, "You can't do this"; "You are not good enough to play this piece"; "This is going to sound awful"; and "WHAT was I thinking???"

Way too much of this has been creeping into my practice sessions, with the result that I feel I've been beaten up by the time I'm done. I'm going to try to shift my attitude from here on out, with my goal being to approach practicing the cello in a positive light: as exploration, adventure, communing with the composer, challenging myself technically and artistically, and figuring out how best to create an enjoyable experience for myself as well as the orchestra, conductor, and audience.

And if I don't quite manage to do that, I'll have to try not to hate on myself for hating on myself! Tricky stuff ...