Friday, December 26, 2014

Strange turns

A couple of weeks ago, I was perusing Facebook and saw a post by one of my FB friends about a meeting of a local group that gets together to play the viola da gamba. It was featured on one of our local NPR stations:

Local Viol Fans Stay Loyal

The viola da gamba is something like a guitar, in that it has six (or seven) strings and frets, but it has a curved bridge and is played with a bow. It is played somewhat like a cello, in that it is held on the legs (where the "gamba" part comes from, Italian for "leg") in a vertical position. It is made in a a range of sizes (as depicted in the illustration above). Once the violin became popular, in the late 17th century, the viol became virtually obsolete. It has continued to be played and listened to by people interested in antiquities but for the most part not by mainstream musicians or audiences (with some exceptions, most notably Bach's three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord).

Anyway, something about this stirred a desire I didn't know I had: I wanted to play one of those things. So I messaged the guy who posted the story -- he teaches both Baroque cello and viol -- and asked how I would go about getting started, and he offered to lend me an instrument. The upshot was that within a week I was sitting in his studio having a lesson on the bass viola da gamba. He sent me home with the loaner and a beginner's book.

A couple of days later, I was searching around on the 'net for info about viols and somehow came across an auction listing: an estate sale that included a lot of three violas da gamba, with bows, plus a pile of music and some extra strings. They were made in the 1970s by an amateur who had taken up violin making after he retired from his job as an engineer.

In an normal state of mind, I would be leery of this sort of thing, but I was apparently not in a normal state of mind because I soon found myself bidding. I didn't even notice until after I had made my non-rescindable bid that they were described as "tenor, alto, and treble" -- when what I really wanted was a bass.

The auction was set to end the next evening, and I spent the interim beating myself up mentally over being so stupid and hoping someone else would outbid me. There was one other person who bid a few more times, but I had craftily bid the highest amount I could imagine wanting to pay, so my bid automatically increased after each of his bids. I guess he hit his limit because at the close of the auction I was the proud (?) winner.

I went to pick them up the next day. I had no idea what to expect.

The pickup location turned out to be a modest retirement community, rows of plain one-story buildings spread out like caterpillars. I parked my car and proceeded down the row I'd been directed to; the door of the house was open, and I was greeted by a pleasant young couple who were handling the sale out of the owner's emptied-out place.

I was feeling fairly grim about the whole thing at that point, but they seemed so excited about it that I agreed to look at one of the instruments before I took them. They unzipped the largest case, and yep, it looked pretty darned amateurish: shiny red varnish, a very crudely carved face in place of the scroll. I don't remember what I said, but their enthusiasm made me feel a little better. The guy helped me carry all the stuff to my car, and I drove home.

After I had sorted through all the music and examined all the instruments, I realized that the largest one was actually a bass (what I had wanted in the first place), the middle one a tenor, and the smallest one (about the size of a violin) a treble -- the usual members of a consort. The treble's sound post was down, so I couldn't do anything with it, but after I replaced a broken string on the bass and tuned it and the tenor up, I realized that yes, these were playable and not totally terrible, especially for the price I paid. The music alone would have cost several hundred dollars, the strings another several hundred. I started to feel a little happier about my purchase. And then, I'm a sucker for instruments in general. So I guess these little guys will entertain me for a while.

"Christmas gambarama"

I did promise my husband not to make a habit of this.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bach G major suite recording

I finally got the audio file from last week's concert fixed up -- here it is:

Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major for Solo Cello, played by me

Monday, November 10, 2014


I have a complicated relationship with musical stress. Putting myself into situations where it's inevitable provides motivation to practice with greater care and attention than I might otherwise but also can tip me over into being an emotional mess. This past week is a case in point.

This was what my week looked like:

Sunday: 5 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal
Monday: 10 a.m. - 11 a.m.: trio rehearsal
Tuesday: 10 a.m. - 12 noon: teaching (moved students here because of recording session and because they had the day off of school because of the election); 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.: recording session
Wednesday: 1:45 p.m. - 2:45 p.m.: piano lesson (moved because of trio rehearsal); 4 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: teaching (only a half hour, but requires driving to and from; this week, I went directly there after my piano lesson, having rescheduled both because of the trio rehearsal on Thursday)
Thursday: 11 a.m. - 12 noon: trio rehearsal at the church; evening was dinner and a movie with my husband.
Friday: full day off to freak out.
Saturday: 10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal; ~ 2 hours to chill, then 3 p.m. - 5 p.m., trio concert and reception.
Sunday: 2:15 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: sound check + concert (at another church); 5 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal; post rehearsal, I went out to dinner with a friend from the orchestra, got home around 9:30.

The recording session came about this way: A friend of the couple I've been playing quartets with is an amateur composer, and he wrote what amounts to a cantata in memory of his wife. He decided to go all out and have a professional recording done, and he asked the couple to put together a string quartet, so they asked me to be the cellist. The music wasn't difficult, but the recording session was grueling -- five hours for about a half hour of music (which, I might add, is not unusual). The recording engineer called out every tiny slip of intonation, bow, or ensemble. If any of us tapped a foot or counted under our breath, it showed up on the recording and we had to redo that measure. Plus, we were being video-recorded, and you all know how much I love that! Even though it was interesting to get immediate objective feedback on what sounded good and what didn't (and to verify that yes, those little oopsies that you think no one notices are indeed audible), after five hours of this under hot lights, with no dinner, I was wrung out.

The trio concert on Saturday was the culmination of all our work on this music. This could have been the fun part, after practicing together for half a year and performing the program a couple of times. But the place where we played was a church sanctuary, and though the acoustics were pretty good, the setup with the piano was dreadful. The piano was an indifferent Kawai baby grand that was in a box -- it looks like they might even have built this wall around the piano while the piano was sitting there. So there was no way to move it for the best sight lines. The flutist and I had to sit up on the altar as close to the piano as possible. I could only see either of them if I completely turned my head, and all I could see of the pianist was her face. At this point, we knew the music well enough to stay together sort of by instinct, but it was frustrating. Also, we didn't get much of an audience, so that was disappointing. We did get some nice feedback from the people who did attend, but oh well.

The concert on Sunday was when I played the Bach G major suite. I was stressing out about everything -- my bowing and fingering choices, my tempos, the fact that I didn't feel secure enough to play from memory, and how I was going to look. I reacted by sinking into a scarily black depression. My theory about why this happens is it's the body's way of coping with the stress, letting one retreat into a much more calming (though not fun) "I don't care" state. As it turned out, because I was in this state of calm, the recital went swimmingly. I used the music and played well. I got lots of nice compliments afterward. There is a recording but I haven't listened to it yet.

One interesting aspect is that at none of these events did I experience cold or shaking hands. The worst point of tension while I was playing the Bach was in my right leg, with a bit of shaky foot, but since I wasn't playing the piano it didn't really have an effect.

In between all of this, orchestra rehearsals started for next weekend's concert. We are playing warhorses: Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave" overture, the Haydn trumpet concerto, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. You know, that Beethoven is pretty hard, which you quickly realize when you hear an amateur orchestra try to play it. But I'm sure the audience will enjoy it way more than the usual odd pieces we play. Dress rehearsal is Friday, concert Sunday, and then I am done with prescheduled stress for a while -- at least until the next time I do this to myself.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Refining the Bach G major cello suite

About a week ago, I was offered the opportunity to play a solo piece on a concert that is taking place next weekend. It's a series featuring chamber music, basically just for fun -- no one is paid, and there's no admission charge. Since this is something that doesn't happen to me that often, I said yes, and my suggestion of the first Bach suite as my repertoire was met with enthusiasm.

I've performed it before, in its entirety and in bits and pieces here and there (I remember playing the prelude for a fashion show once!) and didn't think it would be such a big deal to put it together. But naturally, the more I have delved into the piece the pickier I have gotten about how well I want to play it.

The bowings especially have made me think hard. There are slurs marked in the original copies of the piece (there is no manuscript in Bach's hand), but they are not consistent and often seem erroneous -- grouping notes or adding articulations in odd places. This invites experimentation, and with every cellist doing it differently, there's no one right way.

So I've been going through each movement trying to decide exactly how I want to play it. In recent years, in contrast to the rather gluey Romantic interpretations of the past, many cellists have "gone for Baroque" with it (sorry) -- using lighter bowing, faster tempos, and crisper articulation. My explorations are a little more in this direction.

It's a bit daunting, in the sense that I realize how slapdashedly I've been playing it all this time. But at the same time, it's fun because I do have the time to work on this now, and I much more master of the tools required (mostly patience, awareness, and trust in my abilities).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Concert nerves

About a year ago (shortly after I became more at liberty after I left my full-time job), I was asked to play in a trio -- flute, cello, and piano. The flutist is principal in my orchestra and is an excellent player, as is the pianist, so I agreed. Earlier this year we began rehearsing a short program with the plan to play it once in October and once in November.

The October performance is upon us, and I do not feel 100% ready. I wonder if anyone ever does, really? There's so much that's unpredictable. But aside from that, I'm now wishing I'd practiced the music more -- a lot more. We did a run-through of the concert this past weekend at my house in front of about a dozen friends and family, and though it was a nice social occasion and we generally played well together, I had too many wobbly moments (at least based on my listen to the recording), and gee, my sound wasn't all that good! I just got back from a string-buying expedition; fresh strings should help quite a bit with response and tone. I hope.

Ah, well. It's all a learning experience. I doubt anyone is going to listen to me more critically than I do. But there's that not-so-hidden desire to play not just adequately but superbly.

Here's a taste of the program: a trio by George Alexander Macfarren (1813–1887). I do think I improved somewhat as I warmed up (which I didn't have a chance to do in the couple of hours before we played). I felt sorry for the pianist having to play this on my Baldwin upright (the living room piano; I keep the grand in a more climate- and sound-controlled space in the house).

(Note that there is a bit of silence at the beginning. The piece is about 9-1/2 minutes long.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cello Tales

I have a video recommendation -- this documentary:

Cello Tales

The blurb at the above link:
Four strings, a wooden box that has lived for 300 years.
The cello is the most human-like of all musical instruments in shape, size and sound.
A daughter searches for her father's stolen instrument for a decade. An artisan looks for the best way to craft the perfect piece of wood. A soloist travels the world playing. A copyist recreates the sound of the great masters.
The cello. More than just a musical instrument.
It's about an hour and a quarter, mostly in German, with English subtitles. I didn't try to download it and just watched online.

It's both educational and nicely done, with some good music. It approaches the "cello mystique" in a non-mystical way, which I liked very much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bad, bad blogger: Updates

I apologize for the radio silence these past two months.

I've been doing a number of musical things, but every time I have started to write about them it all seemed too complicated to explain and not terribly interesting to anyone but me.

So herewith some brief updates:

The first week in August, I attended the Bennington Chamber Music Conference (linky here) as an auditor for five days -- basically, I read through a lot of chamber music with random pickup groups, but I wasn't assigned to a set group and didn't get coaching (except for one session when I filled in for a bassoonist in the Schubert octet). I am seriously considering going back for a full week next year. When I first heard about it, it didn't sound appealing (haven't I had enough chamber music coaching in my life already?), but there was something very pleasant about the experience as a whole.

I had a whole month of no piano lessons because my teacher went on vacation (one reason I decided to go to Bennington) -- the longest since I started with him in January 2012! But I kept practicing as usual (maybe a little less diligently on the scales :)). I've been working on Bach (B flat partita), Chopin (Op. 25 No. 1), Brahms (Op. 79, Nos. 1 and 2, and Op. 119, No. 1). Everything still seems like a struggle, but I have noticed that when I do play easier music, I play it much better than I used to. I'm much more aware of the sound that's coming out of the piano. At my first lesson after the break, my teacher suggested we start a new piece, and he chose the Mozart Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. Holy whatever! It's 30 or so pages of finger twisters thinly disguised as sedate classicism. But I'm game.

On the cello, I've been reading string quartets with one of my teachers from college and his wife (a violinist and violist). We've been getting together about once a week for some months now for approximately 2-hour sessions of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and so on. He retired some years ago, but he's played and taught just about everything, so what he lacks in finesse at this point he more than makes up for with intimate knowledge of what these pieces are all about.

I'm in a trio (flute/piano/cello) that is playing a couple of concerts this fall, and we've been rehearsing about twice a month since the spring. The other players are both excellent, which makes it a bit challenging.

I've also been attempting to give my cello practice some structure with two newish things. A while back, I heard an interview with Marta Casals Istomin in which she talked about Casals's late-life daily routine. She said that every day, he worked on a different Bach suite: Monday was G major, Tuesday D minor, and so on; the D major Sixth Suite he would do on both Saturday and Sunday because it's the most difficult. So I decided to try this myself. I had forgotten how hard those last two suites are! I have to confess that I haven't been able to do this every day, and I don't have a set routine, like, if it's Wednesday it must be Suite No. 3, but it's been a good refresher course.

The other is that I decided to work my way through the Popper High School of Cello Playing -- 40 etudes that are the closest thing cellists have to Paganini. I learned a few of them when I was in college, but I never treated them as music, and they really are. Inspired by this guy, I'm also attempting to memorize them. I realize that as a somewhat old lady I will never have the sex appeal of a Gen Y-er videoing himself playing Popper while sitting on the edge of his bed, so I don't know if I'll ever record these at all, but I do like working on them.

Then there's orchestra, which is gearing up for the season's first concert this month.

I'm still teaching a few students. I haven't tried to find more yet. I do enjoy teaching, but not the competition with other teachers, plus I'm not willing to take on just anyone. I don't think my forte is very young students, or hooking kids' interest by being an entertainer.

There are a few other odds and ends, but that should do it for now. I hope to be more inspired to write in the months ahead.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Old -- eight eyes?

I've worn glasses since I was 8 years old. At first I would sometimes forget to put them on when I went to school; as time passed and I became more nearsighted, they progressed from optional to necessary.

When I was about 20, I started wearing contact lenses, which worked for me until sometime in my 40s, which was when I became deeply embedded in my job that involved staring at a computer all day in a dry office. The contact lenses were more trouble than they were worth.

About 10 years ago, I noticed I was having trouble reading at close distances -- enter progressive lenses. These have served me pretty well. I eventually acquired prescription sunglasses, also with progressive lenses (after an ophthalmologist told me that if I didn't protect my eyes better I'd end up with cataracts sooner rather than later).

Sometime in the past month or two, I noticed I was having increasing difficulty reading music at the piano. I could see the music, but I couldn't focus my eyes well enough to take in its meaning. This really evidenced itself when I was playing piano duo music -- I was straining my eyes so hard that I felt dizzy. So back to the eye doctor, who, after some testing, wrote me out a prescription for "piano glasses." Within a day, I had my new glasses in hand.

They do indeed enable me to read music on the piano, and it's beautifully clear. But it's disconcerting to look across the room (to see what time it is, for example) and see -- a blur. At first when I tried them out for reading music while playing the cello, they they didn't work, but as my eyes have become accustomed to them, they help with that as well. I doubt if they would work in an orchestra situation because it would be hard to see the conductor. So I may not be done with adding eyeglasses to my life.

I have noticed, even in this short time, that in a strange way they help me focus on what I'm doing at the piano because I can't look away. I can look either at the music or the keyboard, but nowhere else. It made me aware how much I look around the room or away from the piano when I'm playing. With the glasses on, I become more tunnel-visioned on either the music or my hands -- and I think this is a good thing.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What happened to June?

I woke up yesterday and realized that it's now July and that I didn't write a single blog post in the month of June. But things have been going on -- in fact, this past weekend ended the month in a veritable whirl of musical activity.

On Friday, I drove out to the far reaches of Virginia for not one but two rehearsals. The first was with a pianist I've been working with on chamber music. For her benefit, we are doing some cello-piano duos, and for mine, some piano-four-hand duos. On this particular day, we were preparing three movements of the "Dolly Suite" by Fauré for a recital on Sunday. It's not terribly difficult, but playing four-hand piano is new to me and gives me a new perspective on the piano.

After an hour or so of that, I had to rush over to a rehearsal for a concert of Piazzolla tangos with a small string ensemble. This was the same group I played the absurd concert with in May. For this gig, we were playing about 20 different pieces with a bandoneon player, which was logistically challenging, and they were not all that easy, either. We rehearsed for 5 hours and didn't exactly polish everything, although I was again impressed by the level of playing.

Saturday, after teaching a cello lesson in between some frantic practicing, I put on some dressy black clothes and set out for the tango concert. This time we were in a beautiful performance space (a converted movie theater that now features semi-pop groups) with a great sound system. The gig itself was at 8:30 p.m., but we were supposed to be there at 5:00 for a sound check -- which meant a couple hours of cooling our heels until performance time. The one-hour sound check ended with some warm words (well, actually, yelling) between the conductor and the soloist. I never found out what it was all about, but by the time of the concert, everything was fine again. There were a few wobbly moments here and there, but overall it didn't sound too bad.

Sunday I participated in the final AMSF public recital of the season. My adult cello student played a Vivaldi sonata, and I accompanied her on the cello. Vivaldi wrote nine sonatas for cello and continuo, with the latter part being simply a bass line. The player of the chordal instrument (e.g., harpsichord, lute) was expected to improvise an accompaniment. So we were in fact playing the piece exactly as written, though maybe not as intended!

My piano duo partner and I played our three movements of Fauré also. In this genre of music, the "primo" is the person who sits at the high end of the piano, and the "secondo" sits at the low end and works the pedal, so the latter part is usually more difficult though perhaps less obviously so. I was playing the primo part.

My piano teacher attended the recital and made the interesting observation that I did great things with my very easy primo part, which consists mainly of the melody in octaves, so he was wondering how to get me to do the same thing with all of my music! We spent a good chunk of my lesson a few days later working on this with the Brahms Intermezzo I'm learning (Op. 119 No. 1) -- not just bringing out the melody line, but also shaping and adjusting it in context, and learning how to treat it as the vital element that it is. For some reason, this gave me a lot of insight into things we've been talking about for the past 2+ years. It's one thing to say "bring out the melody," but you have to experience what that means to be able to do it.

Speaking of doing, it's now been exactly a year since I gave notice at my job. It has gone by awfully quickly. I keep worrying that I'm wasting this beautiful time that I have now; I never feel like I'm accomplishing enough. But I have no regrets.

Friday, May 30, 2014

And what of the piano?

I haven't mentioned piano in a while, but rest assured that I am still taking my weekly lessons and practicing diligently every day.  My current program:
  • Scales, arpeggios, broken arpeggios, chord progressions (one key per week)
  • Three-finger exercise (where you play 1-2-3, then 2-3-4, then 3-4-5 for an octave, up with the right hand, down with the left hand; first white keys, then chromatic, then whole tones)
  • Trill exercises
  • Bach (we've moved on to Partita No. 1 after my teacher decided I was bored/frustrated with No. 2 after working on it for a year)
  • Chopin étude Op. 25, No. 1 (the "Harp" -- or as my teacher calls it, "Harpy")
  • Brahms Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1 (though I haven't entirely put aside the B minor Rhapsody -- in fact, I find it interesting to go from Op. 119 directly to Op. 79 since they are in the same key)
  • A prelude by Ruth Crawford [Seeger] (I put "Seeger" in brackets here because she published these pieces between 1924 and 1928, before her 1932 marriage to Charles Seeger, father of the later famous folk singer Pete)
  • Piano duo (currently, some movements from Fauré's "Dolly" suite -- not exactly a favorite of mine musically, but pleasant enough, and a good introduction to playing four-hands piano)
Also, I try to play/practice the Beethoven sonata about once a week so I don't lose it entirely.

My teacher and I have had some discussions about how to improve my technique, especially how to achieve greater clarity, after I complained about how unevenly I was playing in the Bach (though probably in everything else, too; it's just more obvious in Bach). A lot of it lies in knowing when to lift my fingers higher and when to use more wrist. Scales are good for working on this, though it takes a lot of patience. I am so in the mindset of wanting to get to the music -- and if I have limited time, that's what tends to take precedence. But I do notice that I play better when I've been doing scales and exercises every day.

I have to persist in the face of the feeling I'm not "getting anywhere" with all of this -- though where exactly I'm expecting to get, I don't know.

From time to time, I do a little practicing of the WTC I/2 (the prelude and fugue in C minor that I set aside more than a year ago) to see if I feel like I can record it. It's still not quite there, believe it or not. My standards have definitely changed since I started that project!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Oh, the absurdity

The latest orchestra gig was oddly stressful. Going into it:

I didn't know the conductor.
I didn't know how big the group was or who else was in it.
The rehearsals were all in the far reaches of northern Virginia and required driving in rush hour traffic.
We were only going to have three of them.
The third rehearsal was going to be a recording session.
The music was really hard.
I was playing principal, so I had to put in bowings and generally be more prepared than usual.

In my old life, I certainly would not have taken this job at all. But now, I think I need the stimulation of interacting with other people, especially musicians. Plus, there was something appealing about it; maybe it was because in the initial email I got from the conductor, he said, "I know that you are great musician." Who could resist that?

There were two monster pieces on the program: The serenades for strings of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Parts of these I simply could not play when I first tried them. I had to get out my metronome and slog through some tortured work, and it took a couple of weeks to get them more or less under my fingers. I didn't know if this would be a big group with a bunch of cellos, or just me, or something in between, or the group was going to be dreadful or good, but I had to prepare. I didn't want to look (or sound) like an idiot, just in case it mattered (though I thought it unlikely that it would be some astonishing but unknown local version of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra). As I was practicing the music for this, I reflected that I could consider this penance for all the many times I was unprepared and coasted on the preparation of others but still got paid.

Plus, the driving. I have structured my life so that I don't have to drive much. I kept my last car for 18 years and it only had about 75,000 miles on it when I traded it in on a new car (I would have kept it, except the exhaust system was a mess even after a new muffler, and the whole car was disintegrating a bit every day). But for this gig, I had to drive about 60 miles round trip for each date involved.

So before the first rehearsal, I was quite a bundle of nerves. I left the house around 5:45 for a 7:00 start time; I didn't get there until probably 7:15 because of just horrendous traffic (i.e., the kind where you sit there inching along for an hour to get about 5 miles down the road).

The orchestra turned out to be a group of 13 string players: seven violins, two violas, two cellos, two basses. They were all quite excellent players, but only a few had played together before or knew the conductor, who was a personable but rather intense guy who doesn't talk much -- perhaps because his English is a bit spotty.

This conductor had an interesting way of doing things. For example, he started with the slow movements of both the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Also, he tried out different tempos for everything. I could tell he was really listening to what was happening and was trying to figure out how to make it sound better. It was sort of refreshing, in contrast with most conductors I've worked with who put on the pretense that they are infallible. On the other hand, when people asked him questions, he kind of ignored us, I guess with an eye on the clock.

Anyway, what with the driving, the nerves, and the demanding music, I found the first rehearsal exhausting. But I felt like I fit in. In fact, I am still marveling at how this guy found so many good players and got them to do this job.

For the second rehearsal, he asked us all to stay an extra hour (until 11:30 p.m. -- that's four and a half hours, folks!) because we were going to start recording. The evening started out with all area drivers in a panic because of pending rainstorms, resulting in more bad traffic jams -- but I actually got there on time because I left even earlier and took some back roads. Somewhere around 11:00, my arms and wrists burning, I said, "I can't play anymore!" I felt like such a whiner because I was the only one who protested, but geez, I wasn't about to give myself carpal tunnel syndrome over someone else's emergency, you know? But with everyone staring down at their shoes, I was persuaded to do one one more short piece and then he let us all go. I drove home through a raging downpour and didn't get there until after midnight.

The third rehearsal was supposed to be shorter to compensate for the extra hour, but it was not. It was another four hours (at least this time in the afternoon). By this time, I had given up practicing between rehearsals to save my poor arms and hands as much as possible. I lost count of how many times we recorded the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. As I was leaving that day, I asked the recording guy, who was sitting outside the practice room, how it sounded. He kind of made a face and said, "Oh, okay, I guess." I said, "Not ready for Deutsche Grammophon?" He said, "Not exactly."

The big finale of all this, the concert, took place on Saturday afternoon, outdoors at a park in Frederick as part of an Italian festival. It was a gorgeous day after all that rain. We got in the car (husband came with me) and headed out -- only to run into another huge traffic jam, so we took a detour and got there about a half hour later than planned. But the first hour was only supposed to be dinner (a little perk for the musicians), so that was not a problem. What was a problem was that the small stage we were to play on was set directly in front of the truck with the generator for the lights and sound system. This was probably why the band playing before us was playing so loud. When we finally got up there to play, we could hardly hear ourselves, let alone manage any nuances.

It was also rather chilly (though I suppose preferable to being hot) and breezy. I'd brought a handful of clothespins, which came in handy for holding the music on the stand. By the time we started, most of the crowd had left. Those remaining seemed to enjoy the music, though no one announced what we were playing so they probably had no idea what they were listening to -- except maybe for the waltz theme from "The Godfather." We went through the entire Tchaikovsky (four movements), then some of the shorter pieces, then the Dvorak (but skipped the slow movement), then a few more shorter pieces, then done. By the time we were finished, the crowd had thinned out even more. We all stood around waiting to get paid (the conductor handing each of us his checkbook and asking us to write our names for him to save time), then drifted off.

And so, after all that work, finis.

By way of celebration/consolation, my husband and I stopped at an excellent Turkish/Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Frederick and had some food (and I had a beer) before getting back on the freeway and wending our way home.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reflections on a gig

There were some good and not so good things about playing with an orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

The best part was playing on a beautiful real stage, with plenty of room; good chairs, lighting, and sight lines (yes! I could see the conductor!); and no religious emblems on display (sorry if that offends anyone, but that stuff always makes me uncomfortable).

The level of playing was really good; it made me play better.

I liked the piece quite a bit -- though fairly simple, it is cleverly composed.

The not so good:

Despite my telling myself it did not matter in the least, I felt left out because I wasn't in a starring role. The level of playing here made me realize what I've gotten used to in my usual orchestra gig. So I've felt a bit down about it.

But there was a review in the Washington Post, with a picture! That's me, inside second stand:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Opportunity or exploitation?

I've made lots of mistakes in my musical life (let's not talk about my nonmusical life!). I've been offered playing opportunities that I turned down that probably would have been beneficial to me, and I've accepted others that turned out to be miserable and a waste of time.

At this stage, I frankly don't need whatever small amount of money I can earn doing random gigs, so whether something pays or not is beside the point. When asked to play somewhere now, I ask myself: Will this be fun, interesting, and/or challenging? Will I interact with new people who might prove to be stimulating in some way? Is it worth it just because it will get me out of the house?

I've recently had a few of these crop up, and after asking myself these questions I've accepted all of them. The first was a query from my piano teacher about playing at a school assembly with a couple of the faculty. The school is a small private school (what used to be called an "alternative" school), and the other musicians were amateurs with some musical training -- a trumpet player and a singer. Because (1) the request came from my teacher, whom I like very much; (2) it involved playing the piano in front of people, which is something I try to do as much as possible; and (3) the school is about a mile away from my house, I accepted immediately. We played a Handel aria, and it was fun to do. It was YouTubed:

The second is a concert at the Kennedy Center with an orchestra that plays a lot of tangos. I am playing only in once piece, a "Misa Tango" -- that is, a Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) with music based on tangos. This will take place this coming Sunday. It sounds impressive to say "I'm playing at the Kennedy Center" but it actually can be a bit of a pain because of traffic, parking, and logistics. And sitting in the back of a cello section isn't my ideal. But something about this interested me.

Tango! Soul and Heart

And then I got an e-mail asking me to play principal in a string orchestra for this (click on the "Entertainment" tab):

Festa Italiana

The rehearsals are way out in Virginia somewhere, the music is difficult, and the pay is just a token. I mentioned it to a friend, saying it could be wacky but I'd know more after the first rehearsal, and he said "What part of 'exploitation' don't you understand?" But again, something about it interested me.

Finally, the amazing pianist Brian Ganz, whom I've mentioned here a few times, asked if I'd be interested in playing duos with a good friend of his who's an amateur pianist and a member of AMSF. She's even way-er out in Virginia than the string orchestra, though she's willing to drive to my house some of the time. But I like Brian, and she seems very nice, and I was able to answer "yes" to my three questions. We are going to work on some cello and piano duos and piano-four-hands music. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

This is all in addition to what I think of as my "personal" practicing. A lot to do … but certainly not boring.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Beethoven, finally

I played the Op. 90 Beethoven sonata this past weekend at an AMSF event, a small house concert. Aside from the six of us performing, there were only two people in the audience, one of them my husband, so it certainly wasn't a high-pressure situation.

Listening to it, I was not happy with the second movement; it was a bit too slow and way too clunky. The piano was a good one but balky, with a heavy touch and a stiff pedal, so in many places my pedaling didn't hold the notes I was intending to hold. One of the other performers turned pages for me, which was a big help, but because I'd never played the piece with a page turner before it threw me off a little as well.

The sonata is dedicated to Beethoven's friend, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky. From Wikipedia:
Unlike a typical sonata, this piece consists of two highly contrasting movements:
Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout)
Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen (Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner) (cantabile)
The first movement is written in a 3/4 tempo, sounding mysteriously agitated and restless, described by Beethoven as "a contest between the head and heart," based on the situation of the Count deciding whether he should marry a young Viennese dancer. It starts out with powerful chords, responded by more subdued material. The falling semitone, particularly the G-F sharp, dominates the first and second subject groups, and most of the episodic work between.
The second movement, a rondo in the tonic major, however, quiets down into a beautiful melody with a 2/4 rhythm. The two contrasting movements suggest an agitated situation calmed by restful contentness. Notably, Beethoven uses German tempo marks for both movements.
English composer Bramwell Tovey characterized the movement as one "full of passionate and lonely energy." This contrasting gesticulation of emotion is especially evident in the piece's discernible dialogical form, where the head exposes an idea which is thereafter disputed by the heart.
Here is my performance. The sound level is unfortunately too low, so you may need to turn up your volume.

Beethoven, Sonata in E minor, Op. 90, complete

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What I've been up to

I haven't posted much recently. I've been practicing the piano quite a bit because I have the pressure of weekly lessons, and I have the time, so why not? Although I feel I'm worrying too much about memorizing to the detriment of other things, like musicality and pianism.

What I find most difficult is maintaining concentration. I will be sitting there playing and realize my mind is a million miles away. The biggest problem with this is that when I finally get to perform something and both want and need to concentrate exclusively on what I'm doing, I can't because I haven't practiced that way. Duh. I think the key to dealing with this is to just stop when I notice this and refocus, as well as think about what I will concentrate on BEFORE I start playing -- stuff like bringing out the melodic line, security of fingering, knowing what is coming next, dynamics, articulating, pedaling, and on and on.

For some reason, this is less of a problem when I'm playing the cello. I think it's because my body is more involved. When you play the cello, you have to move your arms, and there is by the nature of the instrument physical follow-through on every note, whereas on the piano, it's possible to just sit there and zone out because you only need to do something physically at the beginning of each note.

My current roster of piano music is Beethoven Op. 90 (the complete sonata, two movements, which I am scheduled to perform at a house concert in a few weeks), Bach Partita No. 2 in C minor, Brahms Rhapsodies Op. 79 Nos. 1 and 2, and a prelude by Ruth Crawford [Seeger]. I also have not forgotten my WTC quest; I'm still fussing around with the C minor set from Book 1.

On the cello I'm trying to discipline myself to do a scale every time I practice using this book:

Each scale is set in a different rhythmic pattern with its own bowing and then is followed by arpeggios and various other technical exercises in the same key. Some of them are quite difficult (scales in sixths in four octaves, octave arpeggios in thumb position in four octaves, etc.). When I first acquired this book, I thought I needed to master each key before I went to the next, which proved an exercise in frustration. I like just working through one key on one day and then moving on.

I am also practicing Popper etudes. These are the 40 studies that have long been considered the centerpiece of cello technique. I am not sure that is really true, but they do offer many challenges and are also musically interesting. Since I have started teaching, I've become more interested in figuring out how to master technical issues as well as how to explain them, and it was bothering me that I never fully learned (up to a decent performance level) any of these etudes. So I've been working on No. 1, which is considered among the easier ones but certainly is not easy.

Then there's the Bach suite.

And here I sit typing when I could be practicing . . .

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arts and crafts

I've been picking away at the Bach cello suite in E flat (No. 4). I learned and performed it years ago, though not very well, and I never was able to memorize it. The Prelude, in particular, is daunting, both because of the key and because so many of the phrases begin with the same arrangement of notes. 

As I was trying to figure out how to mark the music to help my memory, I came up with the idea of copying it and cutting up the score so each phrase is on a separate line. After a half hour with scissors and tape, this is how it looked:

My crummy cell phone pictures may not show that I also numbered the phrases (there are 19 -- purely based on my instinct rather than any deep analysis). I found it interesting that the number of measures in each phrase varies from eight to two. Though of course they vary in length; otherwise, the piece would be pretty boring, right?

This does make it seem more manageable, so we shall see! I can already play each phrase from memory; now the task is being able to string them together.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In the interests of honesty ...

My performance of the Brahms Rhapsody today was, um, kinda bad.

The only sort of good part, other than the fact that I got up there and played without stopping until I got to the end, is that I didn't rush excessively. But I missed so many notes, and I made mistakes in places I've never made them before. Also, I thought it all sounded blah, without enough contrast in dynamics or sense of melodic line or emotional involvement. Double ugh. I did play it much, much better at home, and even the last time I played it at my piano lesson. Very disconcerting (ha).

So the sole relic of the occasion I'm going to share here is a still from the video:

Friday, January 17, 2014


So I performed the Bach movement this past Sunday, and I will be performing the Brahms Rhapsody (Op. 79 No. 1) this Sunday. And then at my piano lesson this week, my teacher urged me to sign up to play the Beethoven sonata I'm working on (Op. 90, in E minor) in April at an AMSF "Sonata" recital (designed so people can play longer works), which I have just done. I think he can see I operate better when I have a specific goal, but this feels scary for some reason. When I thought through it, though, I realized I have almost three months to practice the piece, so I should be able to do it. It's not like it's the Hammerklavier or the Waldstein. It does have its moments, however.

There's a pleasant recording of the piece here on IMSLP (hard to believe the pianist is 90 years old!):

Piano Sonata No. 27, Op. 90, performed by Randolph Hokanson

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Video of Bach Partita movement

Okay, here goes.* Every time I see myself on video, I cringe and think I need (a) a girdle and (b) a haircut. But this is the real me, and I guess need to suck it up and live with it.

The video is a little shaky because my husband was holding the recorder in his hand because I forgot to bring the tripod.

*For faithful reader Bill, because he asked!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Creative resolution, first steps

I've been thinking of how to go about this and have actually done a couple of things already:

1. I contacted the music director at a church where I've played a number of times asking if I could perform there. They have a decent piano (a Kawai grand), and the director is sympathetic to serious music. I explained what I want to do, and I am now waiting for him to get back to me. If that doesn't work out, there are lots of other options. Or maybe I could even do each program twice -- once there and once somewhere else.

2. I have started practicing the suites. Suite No. 4, in E flat major, is the main focus because I never felt like I got a handle on it when I played it before. Because of the key, it's probably the most awkward of the six, and it's the hardest to make sing, I think.

3. I decided that if I follow through on the idea of pairing the cello suites with preludes and fugues, I will stick with Book II of the WTC. The corresponding sets in Book I are not as appealing (at least to me). I learned the G major set two years ago (see my recording in the sidebar), and I love the E flat set. So I started looking at these. Another thought is to play only the preludes, but the fugues are so good ... or maybe play some other pieces, like movements from the partitas or keyboard suites.

4. In thinking about the actual programs, here is my idea at the moment, though I may need to put Suites 5 and 6 on their own rather than pairing them with 3 and 2 and thus break this into four programs rather than three. Though none of the suites are any longer than about 20 minutes, and the prelude and fugue sets are less than 5 minutes apiece each, that's a lot of music and might be stretching it a bit both in terms of my skill level and the audience's patience. In that case, Suites 2 and 3 would be paired together, and 5 and 6 would each get their own programs.

Program I

Prelude and Fugue in G major, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 1 in G major

Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major

Program II

Prelude and Fugue in C major, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 3 in C major

Prelude and Fugue in C minor, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor

Program III

Prelude and Fugue in D minor, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor

Prelude and Fugue in D major, WTC II
Cello Suite No. 6 in D major

This all could be just a wild fantasy on my part, but it's interesting to imagine it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Pic from yesterday

Someone took photos of us as we were playing or (in my case) trying out the piano at the recital yesterday. I have my usual grim and studious expression. However, my shirt totally matched the wall behind me!

There is a video but I haven't gotten up the nerve to watch/listen yet, even though I pretty much enjoyed playing and didn't have any shaking in hands, feet, or other body parts. I've been feeling kind of bummed today, for no particular reason, and am putting it off. If it's not too embarrassing, I will post it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The wages of sloppy practicing

I had one of those piano lessons yesterday that made me feel like I haven't been practicing at all. First up was the Sinfonia (first movement) of the Bach Partita in C minor. I am going to be playing it on an AMSF recital on Sunday -- I figured since I've been working on it for ALMOST A YEAR NOW (ahem) I should give it a go in public. Only five minutes of music, after all. I had hoped to be able to play it from memory, but it's still in that shaky stage where I'm not 100% sure of the notes. In front of my teacher, I got through all but the last page or so and then broke down -- though before the breakdown, it wasn't going so well either. He had me put the music in front of me and try it again, and of course it was much better. So I'll probably use the music on Sunday.

But it wasn't just the memory thing bothering me. The 16th notes are uneven, for one thing. For another, I don't feel I have the balance between the hands worked out, and the hands aren't entirely together. This piece is pretty much in two voices, so the counterpoint is really much simpler than in most of Bach's music.

For those who don't know this piece, it's in three sections (thus, the title "Sinfonia"): a French-style slow opening, with lots of chords and double-dotted rhythms; then an aria-like andante, with walking bass in 8th notes; and finally, a lively fugal section in 3/4. It's the last section I have the most trouble with. This evening I went through that section in small chunks, hands separate and then together, and discovered some dismaying sloppiness and lack of certainty about fingerings that, sigh, I've been baking into it with sloppy practicing. The usual result of impatience, going too fast, and practicing without really listening.

I spent more than two hours last night practicing each small chunk in different rhythms and speeds, and by the end of the session it was cleaner. I can't fix it entirely by Sunday, but I'll try to get it at least a little better by then.

At this same lesson, I also played the Brahms Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 1, in B minor. Also a piece I've been working on for most of the past year. I am planning to play it at a recital the following Sunday to see what happens with it. Again, I've wanted to play from memory, and I can do it at home, but I didn't even try for my teacher. I've rigged up a way to use the music with minimal page turns, so I did it that way. But with this piece, some sections are so vast and move around the keyboard so quickly that I can't really play and watch the music at the same time. So I need to orchestrate when I can look at my hands and when I look back up at the music. Sloppiness and lack of clarity aren't so obvious in this as in the Bach, but I know they are there. My teacher did compliment me on how I played the B major middle section. He said it sounded like Brahms.

When I was still working full time, that was my excuse for not practicing wisely; that's gone now! I need to figure out a better system or I will continue to have these problems.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Creative resolution?

A couple of weeks ago, my husband mentioned that he'd heard an episode of the radio magazine "Studio 360" that featured an amateur cellist, so I looked it up to check it out:

Creative New Year's Resolutions: A Recital Realized

At the end of 2012, the show's producers had asked people to share on their blog creative projects they wanted to tackle in 2013, and they chose four people's ideas and followed them throughout the year. This guy's was to do a cello recital. What had me scratching my head a little is that he is a music teacher but had never performed solo on the cello, and also he seemed to have little idea of what is involved in preparing for such a thing. And though I applaud the concept and his desire to do this, the realization of it is quite modest (there is some audio at the link I've posted here).

Anyway, this got me thinking. There are two things I've been wanting to try. One is to rework all of the Bach suites and record them, just to see what I can do with them. I have learned and performed them all over the years, some a number of times, but not with the maturity and understanding I could bring to them now. Another wish I've had is to combine my piano playing and cello playing somehow. And then the idea came to me: I could find a performance space and play Bach on the piano and on the cello. One possibility I am envisioning is choosing prelude and fugue sets, or other pieces, in the same keys as the cello suites and playing them in juxtaposition.

I would not attempt more than two cello suites on one program. More than that would be a bit much for both me and the audience. Maybe even just one suite and one piano piece would be enough at one time. But spread out over a couple of years, this could be a fulfilling endeavor.

Studio 360 is running this contest again for 2014, and I even went so far as to post my idea on their blog, though I doubt if they'd want to feature a cellist two years in a row. But I have to thank them for giving me the nudge to dream this up. Let's see if I can actually make it happen.