Friday, May 7, 2010

Second-Guessing The Gavotte

Last Saturday morning I had my first cello lesson in just under a month (twenty-six days, to be precise). Suddenly I had to decide between the Lully gavotte and the Bach gavotte for the June recital, which felt slightly unfair because we’d set the deadline at the last lesson at the beginning of April and I haven’t had a chance to work on it with my teacher since then. I really do want to play the Bach, though, so my teacher said we’d do it. On the way home I second-guessed myself and was sure I’d made the wrong decision, and I’m still fairly certain I’ll blow it badly. But then, I’d feel the same way about the Lully, so I can’t win either way. In the lesson we worked on the upper body being free to move from side to side with the elbow-led bow stroke, which felt very awkward and wrong, but it did create some very nice sound. I think I’m too locked up when I play, so my teacher’s trying to get me to loosen up while still being aware enough of my body to control the sound.

Things to remember: Keep fingers aimed more toward the bridge instead of parallel to it, remember to use the back of the thumb instead of only the side in thumb position, don’t shortchange the last note before a new bow or phrase, stop leading RH movement with the wrist (my teacher was also initially trained to do this and her teacher still calls her on it, so I don’t feel as hopeless about this as I could, although I still feel pretty hopeless indeed), and the speed of the shift needs to match the speed of the song.

* The original post at Owls' Court
* Owls' Court: the main journal

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Which She Takes The Boy To A Concert

On Sunday afternoon the boy and I packed up and headed out for the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra's free concert called "1910 - A Celebration in Music," programmed to celebrate the city of Beaconsfield's centenary. The last time I heard the WIYSO was, erm, sixteen years ago, when I was looking for a cello teacher. Not only was this a chance for me to actually attend a concert (imagine! live orchestral music that I wasn't playing!), it was an opportunity to share a concert-going experience with my son. And finally, I'd also have the chance to see my new conductor in action with a different group. I explained to the boy that this orchestra was made up of kids, and he immediately asked if he could join. I told him that these were older kids, but in four three years (holy cats) he would be eligible to join the junior orchestra, if he liked.

I let him choose where we sat in the auditorium (on the cello side, halfway between the wall and the aisle; we had the whole row to ourselves), and he explored the fold-down seats and asked all sorts of questions about the theatre (he thought we were going to a movie theatre, for some reason). When the lights went down for the orchestra to tune, he caught sight of the conductor just offstage, and he turned to me. "It's Stewart!" he said with great excitement, and I had to laugh; he made it sound like he and the conductor were old buddies.

Overall, he was very good. They played the music "all in a row," as he told HRH back home; in other words, there was no intermission, and the concert lasted just over an hour. He was a bit squirmy, climbing from his seat to my seat to the seat on my other side, or lying down across my lap with his sweater over him as a blanket, but he wasn't disruptive or distracting, and we never needed to resort to pulling out his books or colouring books. His first favourite bit was the Maple Leaf Rag (who can resist ragtime?), and he pretended to play a trombone through it, humming into his straw bottle of apple juice and moving his free hand forward and back in front of him. The guy sitting behind us thought it was hilarious. The Joplin was blown out of the water by Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, however. It may have been partially due to the fact that in the music he could hear the story that Stewart had briefly outlined for the audience before the piece began. "Mama," he whispered during the first movement, "do firebirds have fur?" "No," I said, "they have beautiful, long feathers made of flames." "Not the babies," he said authoritatively. "They have fuzz." "Oh," I said, "so they get their fire-feathers when they grow up?" "Yes," he said, quite firmly.

He crawled onto my lap at one point to snuggle, and had his head on my shoulder when the first crashing chord of the Danse Infernale began. He must have jumped six inches into the air before sitting straight up and staring at the orchestra. I had to try very hard not to giggle, and I could hear the guy behind us muffling a snicker, too. The boy sat up very straight and applauded loudly when it was over, the first piece for which he'd done so with such enthusiasm. He talked about it had been the best part of the concert and about firebirds and baby firebirds all the way out and through the parking lot, to the amusement of other patrons. It seems that my son is a budding Stravinsky fan.

He'd been so good that we picked up a doughnut on the way home.

* The original post at Owls' Court
* Owls' Court: the main journal

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Vague Cello Update

I missed a week of orchestra and a cello lesson while I was away, and my lesson this weekend has also been cancelled because my teacher is out of town for her birthday. I have no problem with that; I will just work on my Bach gavotte on my own. I will turn it into a celloy operatic aria, and surprise my teacher when we finally do get together again at the beginning of May. (May! Good grief.)

We had a group lesson on Sunday, where only half the older students could make it (the younger ones have their own group lesson just before we do). It was pretty focused, though, and things are starting to come together. My teacher ended up deciding to transpose the accompaniment for one of the quartet pieces, so I'm transposing it on my own, something I do because I think it will be good for me, but I'm always worried I will make tonnes of mistakes.

This past rehearsal at orchestra we went in early. There is a Beaver colony that meets in the church basement right before we use it, and they arranged for us to do a presentation for them. It was a lot of fun. They had a basic intro before we got there, and a chance to explore the timpani, then they coloured some handouts while we all set up. Our conductor introduced the instruments one by one, having the principal of each section play the first phrase of "Twinkle" so the boys could hear how they sounded different. Then we played the first half of the first movement of the Haydn Symphony 83 that we'd done for the last concert so they could listen for the chicken theme, and after that we played one of our new pieces, Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance march no. 4. It was very enjoyable; they were bright and responsive. When things were breaking up at the end their leader told us that they were the biggest group in the West Island; other colonies had between five and ten kids, but they had thirty! "I like to think it's our great programming," he said.

Then we spent the entire night on the first movement of the Mendelssohn, with a play-through of the second movement at the end. Lots of really hard work. Our conductor assures us that the first movement is the hardest thing in the concert. If pressed to name a favourite symphony of all time, I would have to say it is this one, Mendelssohn's Reformation symphony, so I am loving every single moment of this. Playing a piece of music in orchestra means I get to break music down and visit it from the inside out, something that adds infinite richness to my enjoyment of the music both on the stand and via a CD player, and I'm so incredibly thrilled to have the opportunity to do that with this piece.

My back was murderously painful, though. Stacking wooden chairs that slant backwards are not optimal for a cello payer to begin with, but my lower back was moderately screwed up thanks to two train rides and a week of sleeping in a bed not my own. I stretched it out as best I could at the break, and ended up on the floor to try to give it some relief. It had gotten steadily worse after I got home; I finally asked HRH to massage it and get rid of the walnut-sized knot on the left side, and that plus some tiger balm seems to have helped a lot. I really, really need to get one of those firm orthopaedic wedge cushions that a couple of the other cellists in the section use.

* The original post at Owls' Court
* Owls' Court: the main journal

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Which She Admits To Being A Bad Blogger

Eek; I haven't imported the cello-themed posts form my main journal in five months. Some of that has to do with the fact that often I just mention cello in passing, but it also has to do with not having a lot of energy to write about it in detail in the first place, or do the physical cut and paste. I'm going to catch up and try to get back on the regular updating here as well as on my much more regular main journal. I apologise in advance for a slew of backdated posts that may show up in your RSS feeds, although if your feed is smart it shouldn't pick up anything dated older than two weeks or so. If it does, then hey, you get a huge dose of AutumnCello. I suspect I'll do monthly summaries and paste several smaller or brief cello mentions into one post per month. That should keep the roar on your RSS feeds to a minimum.

March 2010 Summary (to date)

1 March 2010:

Saturday morning I had my cello lesson, which was notable for happening half an hour after I woke up. I’d been sleeping badly and HRH decided to let me sleep in, which was lovely, but then he realised at 8:26 that I had a cello lesson at 9:00, and woke me up when I’m usually stepping out the door. I got dressed in record time, he made me tea in my travel mug, and I flew out to the West Island. The lesson was pretty good. It’s nice to be asked, “How long have we been working on this étude?” and to answer, “Well, actually, you assigned it last week and this is the first time I’ve played it for you,” and then hear the teacher say, “Well, you’ve done what you needed to do with that, let’s look at the next one.”

I asked to work on ‘The Entertainer’, which we’re playing in a quartet arrangement for the June recital, and gah. I’m playing Cello 2, and there were some rhythmic things that I just wasn’t getting. My teacher tried all sorts of rearrangements and subdivisions to help me get it, and they just succeeded in confusing me more. I’m a very basic kind of ‘just play the correct rhythm for me and I’ll internalize it’ kind of girl; rhythm tricks just worsen my muddle. I got it in the end, mainly because a few bars later the same rhythm showed up with different notes, only preceded by two eighth notes instead of a quarter note and that seemed to make all the difference. Then we moved to the Boccherini minuet.

Oh, Boccherini. Really.

I have a hate/love relationship with pops and chestnuts. They’re overplayed and so I grit my teeth at them, turn them off when I can, and resist them. If I have to play them, I discover all sorts of lovely things about their internal workings, admit there’s a reason for their popularity, find something to like about them when I hear them, but I still don’t enjoy them. Boccherini’s Minuet is a classic example of an overplayed pop that I hate. And I hate it all the more now that I have to play it, because those opening sixteenth notes are a huge obstacle for me. I can play them in the repeats, but starting from a static bow? Gah. No.

It’s one of those pieces that is all about bow speed and weight and control and I’m sure it’s very character-building, but I’m hating myself because I can’t flipping get that mini-run of sixteenth notes. My teacher pointed out that I can play the piece with my left hand, and that I regularly play much harder pieces in orchestra. (In fact, she expanded that to cover all the Suzuki material I’ve done and will do, which was very gratifying to hear, since sometimes I beat myself up about being on book three after playing for sixteen years.) The point of this is to work the right hand, and my problem does in fact lie entirely with the bow. From a dead stop, I can’t micro-manage the speed to get that lovely sort of swoop and jump for precise phrasing on those two first bars. (There’s an argument in the music world about the validity of the Suzuki method for adults, and what people tend to forget is that review is a huge part of the method. Yes, after sixteen years, you can go back to the earlier books and work on the pieces with all your knowledge and still find technique to polish. The method is a philosophy, not just a set of books.)

We spent the last ten minutes focusing on phrasing those two bars and trying to play them over and over, and I finally said I had to stop because it was getting worse and I was tensing up and losing control of bow and phrasing entirely, and it was doing more harm than good. That’s the kind of thing that stays with me, and despite the lesson overall being great, I had to keep telling myself not to brood about it on the way home.

8 March 2010:

I took the cello downstairs to practice in the basement because I had a lesson scheduled for that night and I wouldn’t be able to play in my office like I usually do since everyone was home. I regret not practising downstairs before, because the sound is phenomenal down there. And the phenomenal sound went with me to the lesson, which was great. We are moving on from Boccherini and working on Webster’s Scherzo now, which is nice for the change, but is also all about the incredibly controlled bow movement.

9 March 2010:

It’s that time of year again! The Lakeshore Chamber Orchestra proudly announces their spring 2010 concert.

Date: Saturday the 27 of March
Time: 19h30
Location: Beaurepaire United Church, 25 Fieldfare Ave, Beaconsfield
Admission: $10, free for children under 18

The Wasps Overture - Vaughn Williams
Symphony no. 83 (’The Hen’) - Haydn
Méditation from Thaïs - Massenet
The Banks of Green Willow - Butterworth
Petit Suite - Debussy

This is a gorgeous programme. The concerts usually last approximately two hours, including the refreshment break. There are driving directions and public transport info on the church website, linked above. I usually encourage people who are vehicle-less to find someone who has a car and share the cost of the driver’s admission to the concert among them. It’s more fun to enjoy the evening in the company of others, after all.

Mark your calendars now! And feel free to share the information with anyone you like; it’s a public concert. See you there!

11 March 2010:

I am giddy to announce the release of A Modern Cellist’s Manual by Emily Wright. I had the very enjoyable task of editing this book.

A very different sort of cello method, A Modern Cellist’s Manual combines technical information and plenty of photographs with advice on approach. Topics addressed range from the basics of a painless bow grip to injury avoidance, working with a metronome, and tenor clef. Emily’s tone and sense of humor lighten the mood of any practice session. A Modern Cellist’s Manual is suitable for those taking private lessons as well as returning cellists looking to bolster rusty technique.

A Modern Cellist’s Manual can be purchased via for now, and should be listed at major online retailers eventually.

Congratulations, Emily. You’ve worked hard for this. And for those who read it and want more… I have it on good authority that she’s working on it.

15 March 2010:

Saturday was a great lesson with some excellent breakthroughs (such as one doesn’t move one’s left elbow forward while crossing strings, one moves one’s forearm, so as to avoiding “breaking” the wrist; I love making discoveries like that), but it was an intense lesson and very draining.

Sunday we had our monthly group cello lesson, where I played my lines rather better than I’d anticipated. It’s so much easier when you hear the other lines and figure out where your line fits in (Yes, I realise this contradicts my complaint of last month, where I said that I couldn’t play my line because I didn’t know how it fit in. Yesterday was magically different. Or I practised the new material. One of the two.) We also sight-read two pieces, a cello quartet arrangement of the theme from Haydn’s quartet op 76 no 3 (we sight-read this one last time, too, but we all had different parts this time; last time I think I had the viola part, and this time I had the first violin) and a piece by Rameau.

22 March 2010:

On Friday night I had my cello lesson where some things fell apart, and others worked. I guess overall it was good, but there were parts that left me really down. This is the part of the-tearing-apart-current-technique process I hate. I know to expect sounding awful while my brain and muscles struggle to implement new info, but it doesn’t do much for feeling good about yourself or your work. A new étude that my teacher assigned had me trying to figure out what it sounded like, and I finally made the connection: it was in the same key and rhythmic pattern as the piece my teacher had suggested doing for the spring recital back in January, the Bach Gavotte from the third Suzuki book, a piece I love. I shared this insight with her and she was slightly taken aback, because we haven’t started it yet and usually she prefers students to present a polished piece they’ve worked on for a good long time. So there was miscommunication: I expected her to assign it when she thought it was time, and she perhaps forgot or had just been thinking aloud. She suggested doing the Lully Gavotte instead, but told me to work on both as the Lully has lots of stuff we can apply to the Bach, and if the Bach is good enough we can do that. We have three months; we’ll see what happens.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 2010 Summary

17 February 2010:

After a severe setback yesterday wherein I lost most of the day to researching ways to embed fonts on a Mac, and then finding that using Open Office to make a PDF had resulted in borking my document (it was supposed to make things easier!), I finally finished the cello manual layout and proofing today.

It’s been a really fun six weeks, taking a text document and doing a basic layout, then a copyedit, then the endless tweaking that happens when two people trade a document back and forth once a week for a while. Some of that tweaking was to condense the layout; some fixed things that became problematic; some involved adding material; some fixed errors that popped up thanks to the document format. Still, six weeks from plain text to a finished PDF ready for printing is a really good timeline for two busy people. (I come from a publishing world where three to six months for all this is the norm!) I’m crossing my fingers that there aren’t any problems with the printing process. (That’s what all the PDF and font-embedding strife was about. It was a whole thing.)

And today, apart from finishing the book PDF, I managed to wipe myself out having a shower, scrubbing the bathroom, and doing yoga. The fibro is really in my bad books these days. It would help if it gave me some sort of warning sign instead of just handing me a tonne of fatigue and pain all at once when everything seems to be going well.

I have a freelance project due on Friday that I really wanted done earlier this week, but PDFs and fibro are messing that up. I have orchestra tonight, and I fully expect to perform horribly despite practising this week. It occurred to me that I might discuss dropping orchestra with my teacher. Or taking a break. It’s been a really tough winter for me in a lot of ways, and orchestra’s getting trounced in my priority list. I love this new conductor, and I love the music, but I just can’t handle it capably. I know the rest of the section feels the same way, though, so I suspect I’m overreacting in a maudlin self-defeatist fashion borne of fatigue. Still; I really don’t want to drop it, but I feel so stressed about it that I don’t know if the tradeoff is worth it.

Time for winter to be over, I think. The cold and damp is really bothering the fibro.

18 February 2010:

The thing is, if you stick with something long enough, the bad parts usually get better.

Yes, orchestra rocked. Why would I drop something that challenges and rewards me? When it’s going badly it’s bad, but when it works, when everything comes together, it’s glorious. And I wouldn’t give that up.

Besides, Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow” alone makes up for any frustration. (Including the frustrating passage of stormy strings a third of the way through where everything sounds like it’s falling apart, but is actually building before the absolutely gorgeous climax.) I’ve played some very pretty things, but I find this piece absolutely spectacular and it gets me every time. The transition in the middle is throat-clenchingly exquisite, and then the arrangement of the folk song at the end (the same one that Vaughn Williams used as the second movement of his Folk Song Suite, “The Bonny Boy”; Butterworth and Vaughn Williams were both interested in English folk songs, and Butterworth worked with Cecil Sharp to collect them) is gentle and ethereally beautiful in its simplicity.

I loved this piece even before I found out that Butterworth was killed in the First World War, after destroying the music he though unworthy of survival should he not return. His remaining catalogue is slim, and you can’t help but wonder what he destroyed, and what he might have composed had he lived through the war. Knowing it’s one of the few pieces that survived makes it all the more precious.

23 February 2010:

My monthly group cello lesson later that afternoon was great; we had a new student there, and did some good work on the Corelli. I’m having a stupid time counting, for some reason; I got lost in the middle of everything that I wasn’t playing the first cello line for (I’m fine with first and whatever the bottom line is, but I’m wobbly on the middle voices because I’m not sure how the harmonies are supposed to move or sound like yet). Despite this, our first read-through of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” went pretty well. We sight-read a new piece, “Soldier’s Joy,” that will be paired with “The Ashokan Farewell,” as well as getting the official new music for our quartets and trios. I really enjoy my group lessons, and I wish we could do them more often, although I know they’re a tonne of work for my teacher and the scheduling is enough of a nightmare.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 2010 Summary

11 January 2010:

Saturday morning I had my first cello lesson of the year, and it went well. This may have had something to do with the hour and a half of work I did on Friday reacquainting myself with book 3, or the beautiful weather (cold, but sunny and still) but whatever the reason, I was in a terrific mood, and pulled off a decent Gavotte. We then filled my slate with working on the musicality of the Gavotte, the 3rd pos Ruined Castle tonalisation, and the Boccherini minuet. (Good grief, what is the Boccherini doing so early in book 3?) And with the pile of work we have to do for orchestra, that’s going to be plenty. When one’s teacher shakes her head over the orchestra material and says, “This is going to be a challenging programme,” you know you’re in for it. I’ve been very afraid to look at the orchestra material. As much as I love it all, it’s hard, and I know that means I will love it less very soon, and least of all right before the concert. It will take a couple of months before I enjoy it again.

I also have to keep reminding myself that the work I’m doing in the Suzuki material is supplementing my orchestral development in particular, and my musicality in general. It’s not like I’ve never used third position, or extended shifts, or seen these keys before. I’ve reviewing things I’ve learned elsewhere, and using simpler pieces to work bits of technique and provide a relatively easy environment to play with musical expression. I need to get past the oddness of telling people that I’m on book three, but I’ve been playing for fifteen years. (Whoa; I just checked, and I started in July 1994. That means we’re rapidly coming up on sixteen years.)

18 January 2010:

Going back into last week a bit, the layout of the cello manual is going very well, and it’s looking more and more like a real book. Today I get to finish photo sizing, adjusting placement, and adding captions, and then I have to look at the ordering of sections to maximize the use of the space available so that people don’t have to turn pages in the middle of an exercise or to compare the before/after kinds of photos.

Saturday morning I had my weekly cello lesson, where we worked on musicality, using the Lully Gavotte as the focus. I learned a tonne of stuff about using the weight of my bow arm and staying in the string, which was really nice considering I hadn’t worked on my lesson stuff at all during the week. (There was lots of work, and orchestra, and I looked at the orchestra stuff and not the lesson stuff, okay?) We looked at the Boccherini minuet, which I’m starting next, and talked about my solo for the spring recital; I think I’m going to do the Bach Gavotte in C minor. On Sunday I packed up my cello and music and drove to my monthly group lesson. It was the first one of the new year, and I love getting new music. We’re doing a lovely quartet arrangement of The Entertainer, a trio arrangement of Ashokan Farewell, and a quintet arrangement of a Corelli theme, and the sight-reading went pretty well in general. We finished by sight-reading some quartet and trio arrangements of some of the Suzuki material, trying them out to help our teacher decide what to programme.

21 January 2010:

[Part of the 2009 year-in-review post]

Things I Did In 2009 That I Have Never Done Before:

Bought a brand-new cello.

Sold my primary musical instrument (to someone very deserving!).

Things I Did in 2009 Of Which I Am Proud:

I bought a new cello. If you follow my journal regularly you were privy to the angst I felt about the whole buying a new 7/8 cello when the 4/4 I had was so very excellent an instrument. This was a huge issue for me, because I had to deal with my preconceptions regarding thrift and what I deserve versus going overboard, and what constitutes any of those things. I am very, very happy with my choice to sell my first cello and buy this brand-new 7/8. The sound is evolving nicely and we play well together. We’re a good fit. This was HUGE for me. I am so very proud of myself for taking this enormously weighty step.

I am very proud of not quitting my cello lessons. As of mid-October it was one full year of lessons down, and I can tell that my technique has improved by leaps and bounds. I wasn’t ever really in danger of quitting them entirely, but I came close to asking to move to a biweekly schedule for the sake of finances, a move that would have had negative repercussions on my development.

I am proud of sticking it out in second chair at orchestra and not asking to be moved. I really, really struggled with the music this past fall, and I came very close to asking to be switched. Actually, I did ask, indirectly; I told the section leader that if she wanted to rotate me to the back to give someone else a chance, I’d be fine with that. She immediately vetoed that idea, which felt nice on one hand, but made my heart sink a little on the other. I’m sure this is very character-building for me.