Rebuilding My Technique

July 13, 2016 | posted in: technique

For some time my practice has been unsatisfying; I feel as if I am not making any progress. Pieces that I can play one night are gone technically the next night. I've been struggling with Suzuki book 6 for over a year now.

I fear that I have reached a technique cul-de-sac. I need to correct several aspects of my technique otherwise I'm not going to advance much further.

Toward that end I am going to start over in a way. Between my schedule and my teacher's schedule I won't have another lesson now until late August - call it six weeks. I'm going to start with book one of the Sussmannshaus Cello series, and work my way through every piece, every exercise, every page. And then book two and then book three. My focus will be on correcting all the little things I do now in my Suzuki studies that are preventing me from advancing.

A by-no-means complete list:

Flying Fingers

There are two parts to this. One I pull my fingers way, way, way too far off the fingerboard when they aren't stopping a string. This wastes time and it distorts the shape of my hand, which leads to poor intonation among other things. Two, I tend to only have the finger necessary down. For example, if I'm playing an F# on the D string with my 3rd finger, often as not, that's the only finger on a string. All the others are waving at the audience.

C-Clamp Thumb

Instead of using my arm and shoulder to pull my fingers into the fingerboard, I squeeze with my thumb. Sometimes hard enough to make my thumb ache. A clenched hand isn't mobile. Not only does it make my hand sore, it prevents me from playing fluidly and quickly.

Curved Fore-finger

In extensions I tend to curl my fore-finger making the note it's playing sharp.

Collapsed Hand

I let my hand shape collapse, losing intonation and hand position between notes

Floaty Little Bowing Finger

My right hand shape suffers at times too. Most visible is my little finger floating around off the pearl.

Straight Bowing Thumb

At times my bowing thumb is straight rather than curved. This make my bow less responsive and harder to use

The reason I am going to use the Sussmannshaud books is that I've never played any of those pieces. I don't have any muscle memory to overcome, and no expectations for the pieces from prior experience. To this day I can't properly play "Happy Farmer" from book 1. The hundreds of times I played it incorrectly have firmly cemented it into my fingers. Using a different method's initial books will give me material that is simple enough to play that I can focus on my technique.

I want to build a good, natural, pain-freee techinque so that I can play the pieces I want to play to the best of my ability. Until I rebuild my technique I fear that I'll continue to be frustrated and unmotivated, and moreoever, that I'll never be able to play pieces much beyond where I am today.

Finishing A Piece

January 25, 2016 | posted in:

Your teach assigns you a new piece, the Courante from Bach 3rd Cello Suite say, and you start to practice it at home.

The first few attempts are pretty bad. You can't even really hear the melody. Finally you resort to ignoring the rhythm, playing half notes for everything. Doing this allows you to understand the left hand movements. Here a shift, there an extension, at this point bar two strings with your fore finger.

With the rough blocking in place you add in the rhythm and it starts to sound like a piece of music. Slowly, carefully, you keep adding measures and phrases on to the tail end of what you can play.

After a few nights it starts to sound like the recording. Albeit much slower than the recording, but still recognizable as the 3rd Suite Courante. Woo-hoo, you've learned a new piece.

Only you haven't.

You've discovered all the parts of the piece, and can hold some subset of them in your playing if you focus. A subset, but not the whole thing yet. Rhythm and slurs and nicely bouncy but somewhat poorly intonated. Intonation nailed down cold, but no consistent tempo.

Starting a new piece is fun and exciting. Finishing a new piece is plain hard work. The work of discovery and figuring out at the start of a new piece is vastly different than the work of polish and mastery that comes in the middle stages.

At first you are mindful of one thing at a time - half notes to hear the tones of the piece. Then the printed rhythm without slurs, grace notes, or any dynamics to get the melody. Each layer of the piece is added individually. Once you have all the layers assembled, you have to shift mental gears. You have to find a way to make the piece a part of you so you can play it without thinking about it.

In Karate-do we talk of mushin or the mind of no mind. Watch an adult tie their shoes sometime. The motions are swift, economical, sure, and not thought about consciously. A practiced typist doesn't think about each letter, they form words and phrases fluidly and gracefully. Their hands and fingers know what to do with out being guided every step of the way.

I've come to the realization that completing a piece requires a bit of mushin. I need to be able to play the notes without thinking about them. The movements of my arms, hands, and fingers need to be flowing, fluid, graceful, economical, and sure - all without my consciously thinking about it.

To reach that stage of playing requires a different mindset than learning the mechanics of the piece. This transition from mechanical playing to organic music making is where I get bogged down. My mechanical self wants to get all the notes correct - correct intonation at the correct time with the correct dynamic and so on. This interferes with producing music organically. I need to learn to trust that I can play the piece and focus on making music. And that focus needs to be relaxed, broad, and encompassing, not narrow, nit-picky, and precise.

I know that this organic music making is possible. I can and do play organically, but usually pieces of music that I've played for a very long time. My hope is to shorten the incubation period so that I can finish a piece is less time, with less struggle.

Cellospeak - Friday

July 31, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Today was the final day of Cellospeak 2015. It has been an incredible week. It is going to take me a long time to digest and take in all the information I got in my lessons, in my technique classes, and from the music that we played together. I came here with no expectations because I didn't know what to expect. And I have been blown away by the atmosphere and by the sense of community. There are over 60 cellists here between the faculty and the students and everyone of them is supportive and encouraging.

The camp culminated with a presentation of the music each of the four skill groups has been preparing all week. Beginner, elementary, intermediate, and advanced all played between two and four pieces, and then we all played a couple pieces together. The faculty once again thrilled us with two more superb pieces, including a multi-part rendition of "Hall of the Mountain King" that was stunning.

Sibylle and I are already talking about coming back here next year. This is truly a unique setting and a unique camp for adult cellists. I am very happy that we got to come here. And I am looking forward to coming again.

Cellospeak - Thursday

July 30, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Today I had my final Cellospeak lesson, learned a little about Tai Chi and cello, practiced pieces for tomorrow's presentation and saw yet another superb recital from students and faculty alike.

Pulse and Rhythm

Kris and Marion continued their wonderful workshop on rhythm and pulse. As a cellist who has struggled with internalizing the concepts behind pulse and rhythm and bow rhythm, I have found their ideas to be enlightening and very helpful. Conducting yourself while tonguing the rhythm is a very powerful learning technique.

Elementary technique and musicianship

We spent a lot of time preparing the "Pavan" for tomorrow's presentation. Gary, the resident conductor, stopped by our session and led us through the piece a few times, and also through the "Cello Song" and "Shenandoah". What the organizers did is kind of interesting. Each student has different parts for different pieces. You may be the 1st cello part for one piece, and the 3rd for another. That way you have some pieces that are challenging and some that are more within your comfort zone.

Where this causes a bit of a wrinkle is seating arrangements. While the people around you have the same set of parts as you, the 1st section or the 4th section moves around the room as we play different pieces.

Tai Chi

The was a brief presentation late this afternoon on tai chi and cello playing. Like all martial arts, tai chi focuses on balance and movement. Cello playing requires balance and movement. It was interesting to sit and slowly rock to one side or the other while miming a up bow or down bow. Focusing on how your body moves and where tension or lack of movement might be in the way.


For my final lessons Alan and I worked on the Bourrées from suite 3 of the Bach Cello Suites. Earlier in the week we had briefly looked at the first Bourrée and talked a little about breathing and thinking of a circle when playing chords. Today we looked at the second half of the first Bourrée, then at the second Bourrée, and finally at the first half of the first Bourrée. Alan focused a lot on the phrasing of the movements. The Henle edition I have often times breaks the longer phrases up in to shorter ones through the indicated bowings. Alan wants the sound to swell as the notes go up in pitch and to fade as the pitch comes back down. When the upward (or downward) passage has multiple bow direction changes it is hard to keep an even increase or decrease in the dynamic.

We also worked some on how I am holing the bow, particularly for up bows. He rotates his hand toward the tip of the bow on up bows. His arm moves first and the hand trails after propelling the bow. This gives him better weight control on the bow hair. We also worked on bow speed. When the passage is moving upward and you want to increase the sound you need to use a lot less bow initially so that you have plenty of bow left for increased bow speed as the intensity builds. Adding variations in the bow speed is like adding another ball to a juggling pattern. At first you drop all the balls. It'll take me some practice to incorporate varied bow weights and speeds to add nuance to my Bach.


Tonight's recital was once again incredible. The student pieces were beautifully presented and sometimes quite emotional. The faculty pieces were sublime.

After the recital there was a presentation honoring Dorothy Amarandos for her vision and perseverance creating Cellospeak and guiding it for 15 years.

Cellospeak - Wednesday

July 29, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

The sessions for today followed the same pattern as Monday: Warm Ups for the Cello Athlete, Elementary technique, musicanship, practice time, and then an evening recital.

Warm Up

The continuation of Monday's workshop on warm ups was very good. In addition to physical stretching and muscle warm ups we are getting into musical warm ups. For example: using a perfect 4th and a perfect octave to find first position. We also did a drill with "Mary Had a Little Lamb" using whole steps, half and whole steps, and half steps for Major Mary, Minor Mary, and Modal Mary. As it turns out the major scales all follow a major, minor, modal pattern.

Elementary technique

We focused a lot on extensions (or stretch position as they tend to call it here). One of the ideas that I really liked was that when you play a G or a G# on the D-string, you are also playing a perfectly in tune E and a perfectly in tune F# - you don't hear them. In other words, always place all the fingers possible on the fingerboard and place them correctly.


We worked on more of the pieces for Friday's presentation. Each of us was given a variety of parts, some harder, some less difficult. That way we all get some growth opportunities and a chance to shine perhaps. I didn't spend much time preparing any of the Cellospeak pieces so I am lagging behind on a couple


Tonight's recital was wonderful. The student's played beautifully, and the faculty presentations were fantastic. The final piece, Souvenir de Seville by Stephenson, was incredible. Having 8 or 10 world class cellists playing together night after night is unbelievable. As thrilling as it is for the audience, it must also be incredible for the faculty. How often to they get to play together with 6 or 8 or 10 of their peers?

Cellospeak - Tuesday

July 28, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Today's schedule pretty much mirrored yesterday's: three technique classes in the morning and private lessons and practice time in the afternoon.

Pulse and Rhythm

The first group session this morning was all about pulse and rhythm. Using our hands and feet while walking in a circle we practiced different rhythms against different pulses. We also learned basic conducting motions. By self conducting as you audiate a piece you can start to identify which beat a particular figure of the rhythm belongs to. We also talked about the rhythm of the bow - which is not always the same as the printed rhythm of the music.

Throughout my lessons David has talked about the bow "playing half notes", or "whole notes", meaning one bow for several notes. Hearing this stated as the rhythm of the bow helped to drive that concept home for me.

Elementary Technique

We had a different pair of teachers for the elementary technique and musicianship sessions and they used our assigned Cellospeak music to further drive home the ideas of pulse, rhythm, and bow rhythm. It was a good session that not only helped us to progress on our music for Friday's performance, it helped me to better understand how to translate the notations on the page to physical motions in my left and right arms and hands.

Private lesson

At my lesson with Alan today I was able to perform the open three lines of the Tarantella with improved tempo and fluency. We reviewed the first couple of lines and then spent a lot of time on the 10-note slur that ends the second line and finishes with a harmonic A.

This passage has given me trouble since I started the piece and today I feel like I unlocked it. I'll have to practice it several times to really grasp my new understand, but I see that it is possible to play it rapidly and fluently.

We didn't have time for the Bach today, but we'll start with it tomorrow.


Tonight was the first night of student recitals and they were very good. The support and positive feeling from all the members of the audience was incredible. After the students played we had one more faculty performance and then a wild tango with several of the faculty. Included in the tango was a skit beautifully pantomimed by two faculty members.

Sight Reading Jam

After the reception for tonight's recital I joined about 8 or 10 cellists who sigh read a bunch of pieces in increasing difficulty. I was pleased with how well I was able to keep up. What throws me are notes several ledger lines above the staff. I don't recognize them on sight yet and once that happens, I'm lost. Some times I can jump back on, other times I sit and listen until the end. It was a good hour to end the second full day of Cellospeak with.

Cellospeak - Monday

July 27, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Today was the first full day of Cellospeak. Three morning session and then private lessons and practice time in the afternoon. Following by another evening recital.

Warm Ups for the Cello Athlete

The first session this morning was all about the physicality of playing and how to avoid injury. The teacher, Robert Jesselson, led us through several warmups and talked about the major sources of tension cello player experience. He talked about placement of the cello against the player's body, the endpin height, and angle of the cello. He has another session on Wednesday and will finished up his talk on Friday.

Elementary Technique

My next session was elementary technique. Elementary in this case refers to the group I was slotted into based on my prior playing experience. There are four groups: beginner, elementary, intermediate, and advanced. The first hour was spent talking more about cello position and physical setup.

The second hour was musicianship, where we played through two of the group pieces we had been email prior to the start of camp.The approach was pretty much tossing us into the deep end of the pool and encouraging us to swim. After the first play-through of the Bryd "Pavan" we then looped back around and focused more on the second half - particularly the first phrase of the second half. After playing pizzacato a few times we picked up our bows and played arco again, and there was some improvement.

We also worked on the "Turkish Drinking Song" by Mendelssohn. This has a much more complex rhythm so we started it without our cellos and just clapped the rhythm. After doing the first 30 or so measures a couple times through, we then played the entire piece. The varied skill levels in the meant that we sounded pretty muddy at times. Between being unfamiliar with the music and trying to watch the conducing I managed to get lost several times.

Finally we worked briefly on the Schubert "Serenade". Five parts were sent out, but the conductor's score is from a different arrangement so there was some confusion at first.

Individual Practice

Since the four students I'm part of agreed to have 1-hour lessons every other day, I had an unstructured afternoon. In addition to some practice on my own, I took a nap and explored the Cellos2Go offerings at the vendor booth. I played several cellos including a 1934 German cello with a wonderfully gritty and growly sound.


I managed to fall going down a flight of stone stairs during the morning break. Fortunately I only missed the last step but I still scraped my elbow and managed to bang my back against a corner of a wall. I took Ibuprofen at lunch and at dinner, and will be taking more before going to sleep tonight. I expect to be stiff and sore tomorrow, but hopefully not so bad that I can't continue to participate.


Tonight's recital was once again performances by the faculty. After several beautiful individual pieces, eight of the faculty played an utter sublime arrangement of the final movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, followed by a couple of Beatles arrangements. A very enjoyable evening.

Cellospeak Sunday

July 26, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Cellospeak began official today with lunch followed by a brief orientation meeting. Three days this week I'll have a session titled "Warm Ups for the Cello Athlete", the other two days will be rhythm and reading. All five days have technique classes. In the afternoons we have private lessons and practice time. After dinner there is a recital and reception each evening.

The three other students sharing a teacher with me and I, all agreed to have 1-hour lessons every other day rather than a 30-minute lesson every day. The longer format allows for more in depth focus, and the lesson doesn't feel rushed. My lessons started today, and I'll have two more, one Tuesday and one Thursday.

My teacher, Alan Saucedo Estrada, was very good. I played a good bit of the Squire "Tarantella" from Suzuki book 6 for him and then we spent a lot of time working on ways to improve my ability to play faster. I also played the first Bourrée from Suite 3 by Bach for him.

All of the ideas Alan shared with me we aimed at improving muscle memory. By breaking pieces down and focusing on small sections and fewer techniques, you can more rapidly improve your muscle memory. He likened it to reading a book. Our eyes are scanning ahead of what our mind is reading. We need to practice music the same way, learning to look ahead so that the hand knows what to do next.


The first thing Alan had me work on was not lifting my fingers, particularly my third and fourth fingers, so far off the strings. The farther away from the strings they are the farther they have to travel to be on time for the next note. Lifting my third finger is hard due to the way the muscles for that finger are arranged. I tend to pull my little finger way back to help lift the ring finger. So the goal is less finger movement - keeping the finger tips as close to the string as possible.

Alan gave me a simple finger exercise that can be done away from the cello. On a flat surface place the fingers of the left hand down like they would be on the fingerboard. Lift first the second (middle) and tap the surface. Then lift and tap the third (ring) finger. Back and forth. This will help to strengthen the third finger. Variations, like doing triplets and emphasizing the 1st beat, can be done as well. His finger speed was impressive.


Alan was quite specific about being able to sing the piece before being able to play it. If you can't hear it in your head then you can't play it reliable. Singing it requires that you know and understand the rhythm. At first with the Tarantella I was unable to sing the first measure or two. With Alan's coaching I was able to start singing it and then I was able to play it better.

Once I could sing it slowly and match the singing with my playing, we sped the singing and playing up. After a few minutes my overall speed was greatly improved and the sound was good too. Oddly enough the weakest sounding note tended to be my middle finger. I need to focus on all four and not only the third and fourth.


Not only does Alan want me to sing the passage before playing it, he wants me to pause between repetitions. In my words, you have to know before you play what it will sound like, and then after you play you need to determine if it did sound like your expectation. If not, you need to be able to say what was not as expected and make adjustments. Pausing between repetitions was hard. Apparently my habit is to repeat a passage immediately without stopping to assess and adjust.

Pausing to assess with also help to train my ear. I'll learn to hear what I am playing. At present I am so focused on the motions my left hand and right arm are making, that I don't really listen to the music I am producing.


Alan also spoke about having intent (again my word). Without knowing what you want before playing there is no way to know if what you played is what you wanted.

The example he used was making fast, accurate shifts. He suggested practicing a passage up to the shift, and then practicing the passage moving on after the shift before practicing the shift itself. Isolate the shift and really slow down so that each repitition is correct.


When I played the Bourrée Alan talked about breathing and phrasing. At the end of a breathe the notes tail off when some one sings. As cellists we want to mimic that sound so the bow needs to become lighter so that there is a natural softening of the sound.

Not only are there breathes in the piece, I need to breathe naturally too. Holding your breathe creates tension, which upsets everything else.


Something that I had never considered before - tension in one hand will generate tension in the other hand. If you grip the bow tightly then you will tend to grip the neck tightly too. And vice-versa. Along with this tension, Alan cautioned me about over-preparing for a note or phrase. Tensing the hand in preparation for the start of a piece or movement is not what we want. The goal should be to be relaxed and fluid.


Playing chords is describing a circle. If the bow arm moves in a counter-clockwise circle so that the bow hair catches the string or strings at the bottom of the arc, then you get a nice rich sound - the whole cello resonates. If the bow is pulled horizontally across the string or stings you get a mechanical sound without the richness. Imaging this circular motion made my chords sound much fuller.

It was a good first hour, filled with lots of information. Sibylle was able to be in the room with me and she, with Alan's permission, videoed portions of the session. Once I've had a chance to look at these videos I'm sure I'll have more thoughts and more things to incorporated into my playing.

The first day ended with a recital by the Cellospeak faculty. All of the music was superb. For me the highlight was hearing three movements, chosen at random from all 36 movements, of the Bach Suites.

The first day as been exceptional.

Cellospeak Travel

July 25, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

With a driving distance of more than 1200 miles, flying to Cellospeak was our only real option. Since flying with a cello is both expensive and potentially risky for the cello, I am renting a cello from A. Cavallo Violins. The Bryn Mawr A. Cavallo location is only open until 5 pm on Saturdays and flying from the Midwest we wouldn't arrive before 7 pm. So we came a day early.

Traveling the day ahead of a deadline is very relaxing. We had good flights with plenty of time between them for lunch in Dallas. Through we reserved a room at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott. After collecting our bags we strolled through an enclosed walkway to the hotel and checked in. We had dinner and then walked a bit on the hotel's treadmills to stretch our legs.

This morning we had a leisurely breakfast before checking out of the hotel. The SEPTA trains were quick and easy to navigate, and we arrived in Bryn Mawr at 12:30 pm. Roughly 4 hours before the rooms would be ready. At first this was frustrating as we were hot and thirsty. We called the university number we had been given but they weren't really prepared to help us. Eventually we discovered a deserted campus coffee shop and waited in air conditioned comfort for a while. At about 1:30 pm we went to Rhoads Hall, where we'll be staying this week, and were able to have our bags locked into a closet in one of the rooms.

Free of luggage we walked back to the town's business district and had lunch at Tango, a restaurant advertising "new American fare and Mexican dishes". Getting some much needed food and water did a lot to revive both of us.

After lunch we walked about 5 minutes to A. Cavallo where I picked up my rental cello. It's a beautiful instrument, valued at about $5000, making it almost three times as expensive as my cello. I also have a very nice wooden bow that feels quite a bit different than my Coda bow at home. Sibylle also picked up a viola for the week. With instruments in hand we walked back to the train station were we picked up a cab for the short ride to Rhoads hall. A cello isn't terribly heavy, but it is awkward to carry long distances.

The university was still finishing up preparing the dorm for our stay. The group that had been in it until this morning was apparently a little slow leaving and delayed the preparations. By 4:30 pm we had our room and were moved in. The room is actually setup for three people. The single hallway door opens to a 12 x 18 foot room, with two smaller rooms, attached, one on either side. The beds the staff had prepared were in the two outer rooms. Sibylle and I will rearrange the beds so that we have one double-wide bed in the center room.

Tomorrow the Cellospeak registration happens, when there will be more orientation and details about the workshop. Until then we are largely on our own.

It's been a long couple of days getting here, but not terribly stressful or exhausting. I'm tired this evening, but excited for what the rest of the week holds.


July 20, 2015 | posted in: cellospeak

Next week I am attending the 2015 Cellospeak Skill Builder workshop at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr PA. My cello teacher received a post card about the workshop that he passed along to me. I'm his only adult student, and I'm the only adult beginner I know. Being able to experience cello with other adult beginners is very exciting.

The workshop is a full week, Sunday through Friday, with private lessons, ensemble and technique classes, daily practice times, and opportunities for individual recitals. Participants stay in dorms on campus, and all the workshop activities are on campus.

My wife and I are flying to Philadelphia on Friday so that I can pick up my rental cello on Saturday. The whole thing starts Sunday afternoon. It's going to be a full week, but I am excited for the opportunity.