August 22, 2017
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Ever since I started watching The Piano Guys I've wanted to have an electric cello. The NS Design advertisements in Strings magazine always caught my eye, and after reading some reviews and watching this Bach G Major Suite Sarabande video I decided this was the electric cello for me.
NS Design has two electric cello models, the CR and the NXT. The CR has a pre-amp built into the instrument while the NXT is passive only. The CR comes in 4-, 5-, or 6-string models, while the NXT offers either a 4- or 5-string cello. The CR is roughly twice as expensive as the NXT.
Three years ago I bought a black NXT5, 5-string cello and added the Cello End-Pin Stand (CEPS). I also bought a high E-string as the factory setup is F - C - G - D - A, and I wanted C - G - D - A - E. Finally I purchased a Peavey Max Series Bass Amplifier so my new cello would make sound.
NXT5, 5-string Cello
I selected the 5-string cello for no reason other than it was an option. My limited knowledge of cello literature tells me that the 6th Bach cello suite would benefit from a 5th string, but I am not likely to take on that piece any time soon. Having the E-string will introduce new fingering options. Having two instruments that have a fundamental differnce like this will force me to improve as a musician.
The NXT5 that I bought from Amazon cost $1,699. The neck and body are solid maple, and it has an ebony fingerboard. The peg box has worm-gear tuners with a 12:1 ratio eliminating the need for fine tuners. The pickups are polar directional piezo crystals.
The fit and finish on my NXT5 is excellent. The color is uniform with no blemishes. All of the fittings, edges, and corners are smooth. The cello has a nice heft to it when you pick it up. At 4 pounds, without the included tripod stand or the optional CEPS, it weights about 2.6 pounds less than my acoustic cello. The end-pin stand adds 2.2 pounds so a "traditional" setup weighs 6.2 pounds.
The tuners work very well, but with the addition of the 5th string the placement of each tuner is different from an acoustic instrument. The cello comes setup with these strings: F - C - G - D - A. Since there isn't any traditional cello literature written below C2 (the C-string) I ordered this D'Addario NS Electric Cello Single High E String from Amazon. More on swapping the strings in a little bit.
The cello has two knobs and a toggle switch. The upper knob adjusts the instrument's volume. Turning the knob fully clockwise it clicks into a bypass position. In bypass the volume and tone control are eliminated entirely, allowing for the fullest tone and output level. The lower knob is a tone control for the treble range. The toggle switch lets you choose between arco or pizzicato modes. Pizzicato mode allows for smooth attack and long decay. Arco allows for massive attack and a relatively faster decay.
The NXT Cello Instructions indicate that due to the high output impedance of the cello, most electric guitar amps will not suffice. Instead you should get a bass amp. After a visit to the local guitar shop I ended up testing and then getting a Peavey Max Series Max 110 Combo Bass Amplifier.
I don't know anything about guitar amps, but the Peavey I have does a good job with the NXT. To be
honest, once I got the bass, mid, and treble settings adjusted, and the gain set, the only button I
use is the power button. The dealer sold me a 10 foot patch cord, that has a 90° angle at one end.
This allows the plug in the back of the cello to not stick out. In my living room I have the volume
set to 1 or maybe a shade higher. With some felt pads on one side of the amp, and the amp laying
over on that side, it makes a decent stand for my CD player and stereo amplifier. If people see it
at all, it looks like a speaker - which it is.
It is possible to play the NXT without any amplification. The stings make a faint but discernable
sound. I have taken the cello without the amp on a couple road trips, and practiced in my hotel
room. Unfortunately the instrument is just long enough that a hard sided case large enough to hold
it and a bow would not be carry on luggage on a plane. It would have to be checked. NS Design does
sell a hard sided case that would serve this purpose, but it's very expensive, something like $800.
- NXT5 Cello $1699
- NS Design Cello End-Pin Stand (CEPS) $299
- D'Addario NS Electric Cello High E String $22.28
- Peavey Max 110 Bass Combo Amplifier $199
- 10' Instrument cable $19.99
$ 2,239.27 (without taxes or shipping/handling charges)
Re-stringing to C-G-D-A-E
With the D'Addario E-string in hand I set out to re-string my cello from the factory F-C-G-D-A to C-G-D-A-E. So that I would never have more than one string off the cello at a time I started by removing the A-string and putting the new E-String in its place. There was a lot of extra string at the peg end, so much so that after I had it on and tuned I debated taking it off and shortening it. However my eagerness to finish the re-stringing caused me to ignore the excessive winding on the peg and move on to the D-string/A-string swap. After removing the D-string and threading the A-string through the tail-end of the cello I discovered that the factory had trimmed the excess string. The A-string wasn't long enough to reach any other peg but the one it had originally been on.
The A-string side of the peg-box has three tuners, which from the factory held the (from bottom to top) A-string, the D-string, and the G-string. The other side of the peg-box held the (again, bottom to top) F-string and C-string. All of the factory installed strings had been trimmed to reach their peg perfectly. After considering this for a few moments I decided to put the new E-string on the upper peg on the three-peg side of the box. This allowed me to leave the A-string on the lower peg on that side, and put the D-string on the middle peg. The C-string moved to the lower peg on the two-peg side, with the G-string taking the upper spot.
While tightening the G-string on it new peg, the tail end of the string unraveled leaving me temporarily upset. Until I remembered that I have two old sets of strings from my acoustic cello that I keep as spares against string breakage. I grabbed one of my spare G-strings and put it on the new cello.
With all 5 stings in place and reasonably tight I set about tuning each string. I prefer violin temperment over even and with ClearTune up and running on my phone I cautiously started in tuning the E-string. E4 is surprising high and therefore requires a lot of tension. So much so that I stood to the side as I turned the tuner in half-turn increments.
Once I had all 5 strings in tune I quickly checked each one again. Unlike my acoustic cello, where major tuning of one strings tends to throw out neighboring strings that were previously in tune, the NXT didn't lose much tune in the process.
The pegs are considerably smaller than acoustic cello pegs, and therefore pulling the string through and trimming it before tightening was essential. The 12:1 ratio of the tuners helps as they are both peg and fine tuner. Not having to work with traditional pegs to roughly tune and then fine tuners to finish was nice.
The 90° angle where the string comes through the body of the cello and heads toward the bridge puts a lot of stress on the strings. I believe the broken G-string was a result of not reusing the kink in the string but rather bending it another way inadvertently. Since I don't plan on re-stringing again any time soon this shouldn't be an issue, but someone who wanted to change their setup frequently would be wise to be careful with threading the string through the body so that the previous bend was reused rather than bent again.
Playing the NXT5
The sound of the cello is surprisingly good. It's not the same tone quality as an acoustic
instrument, but it isn't completely alien sounding either. The $200 amplifier I purchased does a
very good job of producing lots of sound. I've never had the volume above perhaps 2 on the 1-10
scale. Of course I'm sitting right next to it in my practice area. Someday I'll drag it out on the
deck and see what 10 sounds like.
The strings speak quickly and with very little effort. The decay in sound lasts a long time. Having
reference marks on the fingerboard makes it easier to find some finger positions. Since the NXT5
doesn't have a traditional body, the neck doesn't change shape at 4th position. There is a tiny
little brass bump in the neck for your thumb, as an indicator of 4th position. At first I tended to
over shoot this marker, but with practice I've gotten better about shifting just far enough.
Having an extra string changes the geometry of the instrument. The strings are slightly closer
together than they are on my acoustic cello. It is very easy to catch a neighboring string with your
bow. Also, I have to retrain my mind to understand that the A-string is now #2 and not #1. At first
these subtle differences were very frustrating and I started to think I should have purchased a 4
string electric cello. Over time I have gotten more used to the NXT5 and I am able to play it
without too much difficulty now.
Tripod Stand versus Cello Endpin Stand
If you just but the NXT you get a tripod stand. This is great for storing the cello, and you can
play the cello while it is on the tripod, but not comfortably. The cello endpin stand, which I
bought as an extra, allows for a more natural playing style. However, storing the cello between
practice sessions with the CEPS on is cumbersome. There's no way to stand it up or lay it down. For
a long time I resorted to taking the CEPS off and putting the cello back on the tripod to store it.
This made practicing with the electric cello less enjoyable and so I didn't use it very much.
Recently I saw a posting online about guitar holders and bought a Hercules Stands Wallmount Guitar
Hanger. The grip on it is large enough to
accommodate the NXT5. With careful placement on the wall I am able to stand my NXT up and have it
gripped at the next and have it's weight supported by the end pin on the floor. Now I just reach
over and pick up the cello and start playing. When I'm done I can stand it up in the grip again. The
downward pull of the cello on the grip causes the ears to close and keeps the cello securely in
place. Having this wall mount has greatly increased my ease of playing the electric cello.
Last summer I took it with me to Cellospeak and let everyone (who wanted to) try it. The reviews
were generally good, and the people who did play it were delighted with how it sounded and how easy
it was to adapt to. I continue to play around with it. I use it for scales, as the fingerboard
markings help me to find the correct position after shifts or in extensions. After getting the scale
in my ear on the electric cello, I switch to the acoustic and find that I can play the scale more
fluidly than I would have without the electric warm up. Thanks to the Hercules wall mount I am
playing it more frequently now, and my bow control and left hand shaping are improving due to the
tighter geometry of the strings. Over time this will make my acoustic playing better too.
Would I buy it again? Yes. Although I might opt for the 4 string model -- simply to have something
that matched my other instrument. Having an electric cello along side your acoustic cello is a bit
like having a motorcycle along side your car. Both provide transportation, but in a very different
way, requiring different aspects of the same driving skills. Playing the NXT forces me to pay
attention to different aspects of my cello playing technique, which will eventually result in better
September 01, 2016
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I want to build a cello. At the very least I want to understand how one is constructed and put
together. I've always liked wood working and have made a couple pieces of furniture. A desk, a
coffee table, and a mirror are all nicely square; the hardest part in their construction is lining
the joints up for a neat finish.
Nothing on a cello is square, much of it is hand carved and shaped. I still want to try, if only to
be able to say I did try.
I've been watching videos, and reading books on the subject. Today I've taken the first real step
forward - I downloaded a set of plans. Both for the cello and for the mold the ribs are constructed
around. Making the mold is the first step. That's relatively straight-forward and well within my
level of skill. Plywood and a sabre saw, sand paper and some fasteners.
Next will be getting some spruce and maple and trying to make the ribs. Carving out the arch on the
back and belly of the instrument will be a real challenge. Not only will it require some investment
in tools, it will require some investment in learning how to use them.
Carving the scroll and shaping it will be the most challenging part I suspect.
I don't have a deadline, just a dream. And idea. A desire.
I want to make my own cello.
July 13, 2016
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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:
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.
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.
In extensions I tend to curl my fore-finger making the note it's playing sharp.
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
Straight Bowing Thumb
At times my bowing thumb is straight rather than curved. This make my bow less responsive and harder
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.
January 25, 2016
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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
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.
July 31, 2015
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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.
July 30, 2015
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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.
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.
July 29, 2015
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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.
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.
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?
July 28, 2015
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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.
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.
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.
July 27, 2015
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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.
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.
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.
July 26, 2015
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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.