Cellospeak Sunday

July 26, 2015

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.

Fingers

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.

Singing

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.

Pausing

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.

Intent

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.

Breathing

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.

Tension

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.

Circles

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.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.