Right Hand Focus

June 01, 2015 | posted in: practice

With a local cello camp coming up in just three weeks, I've started to prepare the études on the syllabus, Lee numbers 20-30. Last night while working on these pieces I tried to focus on my right hand. My bow grip suffers from a couple of issues.

I tend to lift the little finger off the frog when playing and I tend to lock my thumb rather than keeping it flexible.

For the little finger I've found the rolling the bow stick slight more towards me when I play somehow makes it easier to keep all my fingers in contact with the bow. Having the bow rolled more toward me also helps with overall tone production. It's easier to get more or less bow on the string for more or less sound.

Making sure that I keep the proper part of my right thumb in contact with the bow helps to keep it properly shaped and flexed. Making sure that my little finger is covering the pearl, and the rest of my fingers are naturally spaced out along the bow stick also helps to get my thumb into the right position and shape.

I've also been using scales to practice my bowing, at least those scales that I'm better at. F# still requires focus on fingering and left hand movement so bowing takes a backseat there.

Learning to Breathe

February 23, 2015 | posted in: practice

Before someone signs up for karate-do lessons if you were to throw a rock at them, they'd duck or move out of the way. Sheer instinct. After about 6 or 8 weeks of lessons, which start with basics like up block and inside-out block, if you were to again throw a rock at them, they'd stand there and try to block it. Instinct has been overridden by the desire to use the newly learned skill. Once a karate-ka has learned the basics and starts to combine them into larger sequences of moves, they have to learn out to get out of the way all over again.

Before I learned to play the cello I was able to breathe. Most if not all of my daily activities, even the stessfull ones, were common place and reoccurring. Therefore my body didn't tense and I didn't hold my breath. Playing a new piece or a difficult passage in a piece causes me to tense up. It causes me to hold my breath which impedes my ability to play fluently and as naturally as possible.

One of the pieces I'm currently working on are the two Bourree's from the C Major Bach Cello suite. I'm very comfortable with the first Bourree and I'm gaining comfort on the second. I'm comfortable enough with the first that I am noticing my breathing. When I start to approach a passage that is trickier, if I consciously relax my shoulders and breathe, suddenly the tension releases and the tricky part isn't so hard any more. I can't reliable do this with all my pieces (yet), but it feels good to have gained enough experience and skill to start to think about more than just the next note, bowing, slur, extension, or dynamic. My capacity for awareness of my playing now extends beyond the mere mechanics of making music. That's pretty cool.

Help Me Rondo, Help Help Me Rondo

February 18, 2015 | posted in: practice

The capstone piece in Suzuki book 5 for cellists is an excerpt of the Rondo from Concerto No. 4, Op. 65 by Georg Goltermann. It is easily the most difficult piece in the book. It has numerous challenges: shifts, triplets galore, and significant passages beyond 4th position.

It has taken me weeks upon weeks to put this piece together. Even now I would not want to perform it in a recital, although I am able to play it from end to end without too much difficulty. My teacher informed me that at my lesson next week we'll perform a mini recital, just to two of us, to end the piece.

While I haven't mastered the piece in a performance sense I have learned a great deal from it.

On the first page (which has a completely different character than the rest of the piece - one that, if you watch a YouTube recording of the actual piece, is repeated - hence the rondo) the spiccato section starting at measure 17 has improved my spiccato playing tremendously. This new skill comes back in to use in the running triplets starting at measure 160.

Speaking of triplets, learning to keep an even tempo in the last measures on the first page (mm 70-71) was a small challenge too. That the fingering goes 4-3-1-4-2-1-4-3-2 doesn't help.

Beginning with the high-B in measure 96 and down through measure 112 took a lot of slow practice. First with the tuner to make sure I was playing the right notes, then with separate bows to get the rhythm down, and finally with slurs (slowly at first) to get the final sound.

The slurred triplets from measure 176 to 183, and again from 200 to 214, were the most challenging part of the Rondo for me. At my teacher's suggestion I started by playing only the lowest note in each measure. So C# - C#, D - D, D# - D#, and so forth. Then I added the second note to each measure: C# - Bb - Bb - C#, D - B - B - D, and so on. Then I added the last note in each triplet: C# - Bb - E - E - Bb - C#, D - B - G - G - B - D, and so on. All of this done slowly and separate bows. Once I could reliably play the triplets one after the other separate bows, I added the slurs and gradually sped up my tempo. I followed the same pattern for mm 200 - 214.

The part of these arpeggios that is still hard is relaxing my hand after those chords that require one finger smeared across two strings. In karate-do your arm is relaxed while throwing a punch or recoiling from a punch. The only time there is tension is at the point of impact. In cello, fingering chords (arpeggios) the tension should only exist for the duration of the note and then be gone. Much easier to say than to do.

The final chords of the piece: D-A-F#-D, G-D-B, D-A-F#-D, G-B-G, again require you to smear two strings with one finger and then let go, only to repeat it again. I'm slowly getting better at using just enough tension to make clear notes, but not so much that I can't let go of strings for the next chord.

At times I have wondered if I would ever finsih this piece. The book has been tossed to the floor more than once in frustration. My teacher won't let his students say they don't like a piece until they can play it. I can play it now, and my like for it has grown. The whole, un-editted piece is lovely, but the Suzuki edit will never be one of my favorites.

Anchor Notes

February 12, 2015 | posted in: practice

I'm currently working on several pieces; Bourrée I & II and the Gigue from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major, and both the Goltermann Rondo and Bach Arioso from Suzuki book 5. Last night I spent some time on the middle section of the Arioso using what I call "anchor notes."

In my mind an anchor note is one that repeatedly occurs in a passage; the music keeps returning to it. Identifying such notes is particularly useful when shifts are involved. Scales with open strings have built-in anchor notes as you know those will be in tune (i.e., have the correct intonation), whereas a scale like E Major which has no open strings has no guaranteed intonationally correct notes.

Here are measures 10, 11, and 12 from the Arioso in Suzuki Cello Volume 5.

Arioso Exerpt

There are several factors at play here. First, the piece is in Tenor clef, only the third or fourth Suzuki piece to employ this clef. Second, we are fairly high up on the fingerboard: 4th position and beyond. Third, there are some rhythmic niceties with the pair of 32nd notes in the first excerpted measure and again with the triplet in the second measure shown. Finally, there are some subtle (and not so subtle) shifts to navigate.

Finding some thread to lead the way through this passage is essential. Fortunately the A4 (A above middle C) appears 7 times in these three measures. As a bonus, A4 is located at the mid-point of the string meaning you can play a harmonic A there as an intonation test. By locating A4 and then working up to C5 I was able to work out the finger spacing required for correct intonation in measure 10. A photocopy of the piece and some colored pencils helped me to sort out the rhythm of that measure. (Thanks Sibylle!)

With A4 firmly in my ear it was easier to find the proper intonation of measure 11. Initially I ignored the grace notes and worried only about the triplet on the third beat. Once I had the rhythm sans grace notes down, I added those in to complete the measure.

Having A4 as an anchor note, and being able to spot check its intonation quickly using the harmonic A greatly increased my confidence that I was sounding the right pitches. The challenge for me has always been to eliminate as many uncertainties as possible. I practice rhythms on open strings, getting the pattern down before adding intonation to the mix. Separate bows before ties or slurs, and always grace notes last.

Adding anchor notes helps to increase my confidence, which makes my playing better, which makes it easier.

Courting the Courante

August 26, 2013 | posted in: practice

One of the assignments for this week's practice was to work on the second half the the 1st suite Courante. Saturday evening I sat down and started in with the first half of the second half of the piece. At first I just played half notes for each pitch, working on intonation and left-hand movement.

Next I set my metronome for 80 and played through the piece very slowly, using all slurs and bow markings. By very slowly I mean one click per sixteenth note, two for eighth and so on. That went fairly well so I increased the metronome speed to 90. And then 100, 110, 120, 130 and finally 140. 140 for sixteenth notes is still not performance tempo, but the music was holding together. My intonation was good, my bowings were all correct, and it actually began to sound like a Courante.

Encouraged I reset the metronome for 120 and started at the beginning of the piece and played through to the middle of the second half. Then at 130 and finally at 140 several times.

In all I spent about 45 minutes on this one piece and the progress surprised me. I had imagined this piece to be difficult and was anticipating a great struggle to play it. I must have been in the right space to make big strides as that is what happened.

Sunday evening I returned to the Courante and focused on the final lines of the second half. The passage of C# - G - A - G, A - G - C# - G, C# - G - A - G, C - F# - A - F#, A - F# - C - F#, C - F# - A - F# beginning in measure 31 gave me some trouble at first. The rapid string crossings required to use the open A string felt awkward and constrained. After working on that passage for a few minutes it started to feel easier.

As with Saturday evening's practice I started without the metronome and just played half notes all the way through to hear the piece. Then I set the metronome for 90 to the sixteenth note and played through slowly. Once that was working I increased the metronome by 10s up to 140 again.

By the end of 40 minutes work I was playing the entire piece at 130 or 140 with relative ease. What I had once thought would be difficult and frustrating proved to be musical and flowing and enjoyable. Spending two evenings practicing the 1st suite Courante was delightful and making music while I did so was why I wanted to play the cello in the first place.

Lesson Notes for 22 August 2013

August 23, 2013 | posted in: lessons

Yesterday marked the return of regular weekly lessons following my teacher's annual summer break. It's been a month since my last lesson so it feels good to be back on a regular schedule again.

The last few weeks I've been focused on the G Major Bach suite and the second movement of Vivaldi's Sonata in E Minor, Op. 14, No. 5. I've also been spending some time in Feuillard’s Daily Exercises book.

I like the Feuillard book as the exercises are short, usually just a measure long. Like a karate-do waza they force you to focus on the essence of a technique. Already I have found several extension patterns or shifting patterns from the Feuillard book in my repertoire practice. Being a completionist I appreciate that the Feuillard exercises are short — I can work on several in just 10 or 15 minutes time.

In the 1st Bach suite I am working primarily on the Sarabande and Courante. I can play the Sarabande completely now. However I need to focus on an even rhythm though the piece. David altered the final bow strokes for each repeat. At the end of the first repeat I'll hook the final two Ds using a down-bow for each. This will set up the up bow for the first note of the second pass through the repeat. Hooking the two Ds forces me to be very aware of my bow conservation.

I've been focused on the first half of the Courante until now. It's a bit rougher than the Sarabande, but coming along. David wants me to start working on the entire piece now.

On my own I figured out the second half of the Vivaldi E Minor Sonata 2nd movement. At first the fingering for the first line of the second half confused me but Sibylle helped me to see that the notes were a 5th apart allowing me to stay in the same position to play them. David and I worked on a couple of places where I've been struggling a little bit. In one case I had been using a 1 x 3 extension where it would be easier to play 1 - 4.

The biggest challenge with this movement is its tempo. I made a new copy of the MP3 and reduced the tempo 30% in order to have a recording to listen to that is closer to my current tempo. I despair at times of ever getting my playing up to allegro tempo. Intellectually I know that I am still reading music note-by-note (which is itself pretty amazing when I think where I was only a couple of years ago) and that I need to read phrase by phrase. My hope is that persistence and more experience will gradually bring my playing speed up to par.

David added a couple of new Feuillard études for me to practice, and suggested that I work out of the Position pieces book, especially on 3rd position.

Careful readers of this site will note that I made no mention of orchestra today. The orchestra board had expressed some concern over having an adult participate in what is a youth orchestra. After discussing the situation with Sibylle and with David I decided to resign. My focus will be on my solo repertoire with two long term goals. A solo recital to mark my 5th year of cello playing and eventually being able to successfully audition for the university orchestra.

2013 Orchestra Repertoire

July 15, 2013 | posted in: orchestra

Rehearsals for the 2013 season start in just five weeks on August 24th. This year's repertoire includes these pieces.

  • Hovhaness: Psalm and Fugue, Op. 40
  • Arensky: Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky
  • Telemann: Oboe Concerto in E Minor
  • Finzi: Romance, Op. 11
  • Grainger: Molly on the Shore
  • Grieg: Elegiac Melodies
  • Copland: Hoedown from Rodeo

So far I've worked on the Telemann, Hovaness, and Arensky pieces.

The Telemann has two slow movements and two faster movements. I was quite pleased to discover I could sight-read the two slower movements with only a couple of rhythmic stumbles. And I can play the faster movements, just not at performance tempo. Most encouraging.

The Hovhaness is also somewhat approachable. The opening Psalm is slightly more complex rhythmically than the Telemann, but still within my grasp. The trick is to practice the more complex rhythms at a dead-slow tempo until they are ingrained in my muscle memory and then gradually speed things up to tempo. The Fugue is more challenging. I've only just started it this week and hope to have the first three lines ready for my lesson Thursday.

I've also been working on the 3rd Arensky variation. It's mostly arpeggios, including one that wanders between bass and tenor clef. Working a note at a time, and ignoring the slurs, I was able to play the first line with relatively little effort. I've started adding in the slurs which introduces some fingering decisions. Several times two notes a 5th apart are slurred together. I've been working on placing my finger down across both involved strings so that the slur is un-broken. Smearing my finger from one string to the other while playing the slur never sounds good to my ear.

Overall I am less intimidated by the sheer amount of repertoire to learn than I was a year ago. Still, it's daunting to look at all the pages and imagine being able to play them all. Starting with slower movement and less rhythmically complex passages helps. Last year I had one piece signed off as complete. I'll be happy if I match that this year, and thrilled if I exceed that mark.

Cello Camp

June 19, 2013 | posted in: camp

Earlier today I finished this year's Cedar Vista Cello Camp — three half days of études, basso continuo, technique, cello orchestra, and solo recitals.

Every June for three years now, my teacher has hosted a cello camp in the circa 1880 one-room school house that serves as his studio. Cellists from beginners to accomplished participate for three half day sessions, culminating in a short recital on the third day.

This year's theme was basso continuo. Basso continuo, or continuous bass, is the musical accompaniment, usually provided by a cello, that augmented the harpsichord, for a soloist. The music my teacher plays to accompany my solo pieces from the Suzuki method is typically basso continuo.

Along with learning several basso continuo parts we discussed the job of accompanying; the need to speed up or slow down with the soloist, and to alter dynamics in concert with them. It was a fascinating look at a whole new aspect of playing for me.

We also focused a lot on technique, making heavy use of Louis Feuillard's Daily Exercises book. The volume is filled with hundreds of single measure études that focus on one technique. The idea is to play them over and over and over again until the technique is ingrained in your muscle memory. They are all deceptively simple. Once the notes and rhythmic pattern are learned you can vary bowing, focus on tonal production, focus on left hand shape, use alternate fingerings, and so on. Because most are just a measure long you can repeat the technical study many many times in just a few minutes.

The Schröder 170 Foundational Studies book provided us with four longer études. Ten cellos playing in harmony can really make an otherwise plain étude sing. Throughout the étude work we talked bout bow technique, and fingering options.

Since the cello has such a large tonal range, a cello orchestra is a wonderful sounding ensemble. In addition to individual recitals on Tuesday and Wednesday, we completed the camp today with a short performance of five or six short pieces. With three or four part arrangements of the music we were able to produce a rich, full sound, even though there were only ten of us playing.

As with the previous two years I feel like I learned quite a bit over the course of the three mornings. I have come away from the camp invigorated and wanting to practice more. In addition to Bach and my other solo repertoire, I now have the orchestra music for this seasons Gold Orchestra, so I have plenty to practice.

And more practice is just what I need as, in just a couple of weeks, I am attending a 3-day orchestra camp (also directed by my cello teacher) that will be quite challenging for me.

Chanson Triste performance

May 18, 2013 | posted in: performance

After not being at all satisfied with my last recital performance, I resolved to be far better prepared for this recital. I picked the piece months ahead of time, and have been polishing it for the last few weeks. I am very pleased with this result.

2013 Spring Recital

May 17, 2013 | posted in: lessons performance

Tomorrow morning I have my spring recital performance. Since the beginning of the semester in January I have been mentally preparing for this date, and every day since then some portion of my practice has been devoted to the piece I'll be performing, Tchaikovsky's Chanson Triste.

I feel better prepared for this recital than any performance I've given. The piece is memorized; I can even play it through with my eyes closed. I've played it way too fast and way too slow. My wife will be accompanying me on an electric piano tomorrow, so we've been practicing at home, both with the acoustic piano and with an electric one. One evening we practiced immediately after I completed a 45-minute treadmill workout. I was sweaty and slightly out of breath, with an elevated heartbeat. Sort of like how I've felt at the start of every other performance I've given. I played it as well that night as I ever have, rich and full and with confidence.

In short, and not trying to jinx it, I think tomorrow's performance is going to be superb.

In addition to preparing for the recital, my spring has been good cello-wise. I'm continuing to work my way through the G Major Bach suite. I have a good start on the Prelude, Minuet 1 & 2, and Gigue. I need to speed up the Gigue a bit, and I am still mastering the ending of the Prelude; otherwise the four pieces are coming along nicely.

In the last couple of weeks David has add the Sarabande and Courante to my plate. I started the Sarabande and have carefully worked through the first line. David requested that I begin by listening to it, and listen to it with a metronome set. Next I set the metronome to 80 for the eighth note, and read the piece visually — no cello in hand — to see how the rhythm lays out. He explained that the pace is deliberate enough that players often lose the pulse. This very measured approach is paying off as I can play the first line reasonably well after just a few practices.

The Courante has had less practice time. I hope to delve into it more over the next couple of weeks.

In about four weeks is my teacher's annual cello camp. He has already sent out an email saying that we'll be working on 4 études from the Schröder book, and so I've been working on those as well.

My personal goal for the summer is to work on speed. I need to be able to play faster. Toward that end I think working on vibrato will help. In order to create a good vibrato you have to let go of the cello neck (somewhat) and that requires relaxing. I still tend to grip the cello like someone is trying to steal it. And I want to complete my circuit around the circle of fifths, memorizing all the major scales so that I can play at least their two-octave version. So far I have C, G, D, A, E, B, and F memorized.

I am having as much, if not more fun, than ever with cello. I am learning new pieces faster and more completely, and I am far less frustrated with the gap between my mental understanding of technique and my physical ability to perform.

It's going to be a good cello summer.