I play a lot of music that has numerous accidentals in it.  Popper etudes, for example, are loaded with them .  In fact, I hardly bother with looking at the key signature as there are so many accidentals, I seem to spend lots of time just making my brain roll with the changes.

I’m working on thirds in thumb position.  They are difficult for me because while the thumb may be moving 1/2 step, the other finger on the next string may be moving 1 step.  And to complicate this, as you move up (down?) the fingerboard toward the bridge, the spacing gets smaller.  Remember, it’s all about shifting and spacing, so this concept REALLY applies.

Having a lot of trouble with this so my fabulous teacher shared a book of Matz exercises (and who wouldn’t love anything Matz?).  These really seemed to help.

In the first two measures, your left hand is slowly learning the spacing and shifts to move from one position to the next.  It works well.   Until I got to measure 3.

If you look closely you see the last 3 eighth notes: E flat-D sharp-D flat. ( E flat=D sharp, then a full step from D sharp to D flat.)  This seems out of context with the theme of the first two measures.   It seemed to be a misprint.  Until I looked at the next two lines.

Again, the same weirdness.  The first two measures slowly teach the shifts and spacing to move from one position to the next, but in the third measure you again have the strange notes of G flat-F sharp-E, and in the next line B flat-A sharp-A flat.  It makes no sense.  But a misprint over and over?  I wasn’t sure if it was an error, or if  Matz was trying to teach me some new technique, as odd as it seemed.  So  I presented this to some experts (internet cello experts) who agreed that it was a GROSS misprint, and called it “ECF”- Error Carried Forward.  My teacher had seemed pretty sure it was a misprint, but it was hard for me to believe that a misprint/mistake could continue repeatedly in the music.

Thus my blog title.  Don’t always believe what you see on the page.  Sometimes your gut instinct (and your teacher) are right.

 

 

I want to be sure you know about 2 events coming up for amateur musicians.

The first is the Adult Strings Weekend at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL.  It is sponsored by their Community Music School and is open to amateur adult players of all string instruments, even bass!  It’s run by Dr. Anne Witt, cellist extraordinaire, and Joe Lee, an excellent musician and our conductor.  Joe offers insights into music that you’ll hear nowhere else.  (What does “Forte” mean? Not loud, as I thought. but strong!)  And he’s a nice guy to boot!  Many have been going year after year but you won’t find a nicer, more accepting group of adult amateurs.  Take advantage of all they offer.  Mark your calendar, Aug. 24-26 and check it out at https://cms.music.ua.edu/adult-strings-weekend/

The second event is cellos only- at the South Carolina Cellobration, to be held this year at Furman University in Greenville, SC (the location rotates between SC colleges).   This is the 39th year of the event and you will be in a sea of 200 cellists of all ages and abilities.  OK, it’s mostly kids, but there are many adults there as well.   It’s a 2 day event, Sept. 21-22.  On Friday there are master classes to observe and be amazed.  A concert by the clinicians Friday night, is not to be missed.  On Saturday it’s play-all-day on stage with your new 200 friends.   It’s somewhat overwhelming, but don’t let that stop you.  You can choose your music level to play and with that many musicians don’t worry about a missed note (or measure, or phrase!).  Don’t be intimidated by the 8 year old who plays like a pro.  It’s the experience of playing with that many people who share your passion.   There is really nothing like it.

For me, the Right Hand Rules.  After all, the sound comes from the bow, not your left hand fingers pressing on a string.   But intonation, which is arguably an important skill, does come from the left hand.

In my lesson yesterday, I was working on 4 measures that are particularly gruesome when played incorrectly and particularly fabulous when played correctly.  Unfortunately, if you’re off on one note, it’s likely to throw everything after that off and you’re now playing in an entirely different key!  Doesn’t work well if you are playing with a piano accompaniment!

My brilliant teacher sums it up with 2 words: Shifting and Spacing.  Everytime you shift, your hand position changes, getting smaller as you move down the cello towards the bridge or larger as you move back toward the neck.  The shift puts you in the correct place and then your hand has to change to the correct spacing for the position you are now in.  When you have a small shift, 1/2 note or one note, the difference isn’t as great as if you’re shifting from first position to fourth, for example.  Even greater when you’re shifting from first position to the “home base” for thumb position.     And it gets progressively smaller as you continue toward the bridge.

This realization was helpful to me in thinking about how to practice.  More than practicing finding notes (and I’m a great believer that there is no guessing in cello!), it’s really about practicing the shift and creating the correct spacing with my hand and fingers.   The notes will be there.

If you’re spending most of your cello time in your own personal cello space, you probably don’t get too many distractions.   You have your chair and stand ready and waiting, good lighting, a tuner and metronome nearby, and your cello just needs some rosin and tuning and you’re ready to go.

Sometimes, there are distractions. 

I happen to have a cat who loves to jump on my back when I’m leaning over to mark my music.  Then he’s happily on my shoulder and licking the fingerboard.

The phone rings, your computer bings, your kids/husband/girlfriend yells. All these distractions actually become normal and you can deal with them.  It’s the unusual distractions I’m thinking about.

I was at a gig with a substitute violist.  He was fabulous.  Fabulously loud and fast.  I just wasn’t used to hearing it in my ear and found that it was distracting me.  Later that week at another gig we were playing a Disney tune and an adorable little girl was happily dancing away.  I could hardly keep my eyes on the music as she was so delightful to watch.

Unfortunately, when you’re performing, you must stay focused and you don’t have the advantage of enjoying the bystanders or becoming annoyed at the distractions.    Even when you’re feeling that you’re doing so well and the group is performing like pros- don’t give in to that feeling of savoring the moment.  You’ll lose the focus and wander off track.

Maybe when I’ve done this for 20 years I’ll be able to relish those good moments or get better at tuning out the annoying distractions, but for now it’s all about concentration and staying fixed on the job at hand.   I can enjoy my cat on my back at home later.

 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a friendly pianist who would be available at your whim to play with you?  And how much better if this accompanist were a true professional and elevated your playing?

I have such a friend: my sister, who lives 600 miles away, so not a great option.  I also have a wonderful friend who I do play with often, but she’s not exactly living next door so there is some effort involved.

There are other choices.  One is Pianoescort on YouTube.  There are some recordings for cello that you can use, free of charge, but there isn’t a large selection.    Maybe you’re looking for something that isn’t available.  Let me introduce and welcome you to  PianoAccompanimentsTracks.com.  There are some recordings that are free, and others are available for a nominal charge, depending on the piece.  You can hear a sample of the music before you purchase.   But be warned, the playing is so good you’ll be wanting it and more.

I was looking for an accompaniment to Meditation by Thais.  PianoAccompanimentsTracks had a recording, but it was for violin.  I emailed them to ask what key it was in and got a speedy reply telling me it was in D.  Too bad, as I need it in G.  No problem, was the response.  And before I knew it, I had a recording that was beautifully expressive, played by a very talented pianist.  In Italy.  And now it was next to me and an inspiration to my playing.   All for $4.49.  A bargain to me.

You should check it out.  You too could be inspired!

I had to learn 12 pieces for a special Palm Sunday service.  We received the music only 10 days before the service.  I buckled down, loaded the music into my iPad Pro, transferred the recordings they gave us onto my computer, then onto my ipad, then into Amazing Slow Downer so I could play along with the music.  Then the task of going through the music, marking fingerings, repeats, noting dynamics, changing key signatures, changing time signatures, and generally trying to figure it all out quickly.

I felt pretty good about it when we had our one and only rehearsal one week later.  Until this.

Don’t be thrown by the 6 flats.   That was the least of my problems.  I had practiced the rhythms.  Once you get the hang of it, it just continues for about the next 100 or so measures.  Or it seemed like it.   What I failed to practice was going from several measures of half notes, lazily counting 1-2-3-4 and then changing to the 1/16 note pattern.   It took me several measures in the rehearsal before I got the hang of that rhythm and was able to play it.   Actually many more than “several”.   But I learned a great lesson.

First of all, it’s great to go to rehearsals and make mistakes.   This mistake was huge for me.  I had practiced the rhythms, but not changing my internal pulse and my counting BEFORE I actually got to the changes.   What I needed to do was to start the new rhythm internally in the half note measures before they started.  When I went home after rehearsal and figured this out, it made such sense that I wondered why I hadn’t considered it before.  BUT OF COURSE I was so focused on notes, fingerings, shifts, etc., etc., etc.

There are lots of things we have to do as cellists.  It’s a good thing we get to rehearse, make mistakes, and then have the opportunity to work through them so we can learn for the next time.

 

 

I spent last week at SCOR camp.  String Camp On the Road as I like to think of it, also known as String Camp of Rochester, as the home base is Rochester, NY.   If you live in the USA and you haven’t experienced a SCOR camp, you are missing an opportunity unique to amateur adult string players.  If you don’t live in the USA, come on over!

In addition to SCOR camp, I had several out of town SCOR friends at camp and rehearsals and concerts for 3 orchestras.  It was a busy week and I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t even take my cello out of the case yesterday.  Well, a little ashamed.

One of the many excellent sessions at camp included “Understanding Learning”.   The basis was that adults do not learn the same way as kids.  I think we all know this intellectually, but there are a few ideas that are worth drilling.   My favorite was in the “Knowing vs. Doing” section.

We are smart.  We are grownups.  We understand the premise of how playing a string instrument works.  What I fail to remember is that playing the cello is a very physical endeavor.   I am working with an older body.  There just isn’t the flexibility of an 8 year old.  My third and fourth fingers haven’t been trained to stay rounded and after 50 years, they do not want to start doing so.

My brilliant brain understands the idea of shifting.  It’s really not that complicated.  My body, however, needs a lot of repetition to remember what it takes to make that shift.   So while “a lot” may mean 10 times for an 8 year old, it means hundreds of times for a 64 year old.   As we learned at SCOR, skill repetition is not for your brain.  It’s for your body.  Of course your brain understands it.  Your older body needs more training.   Skill training is for your body, not your brain.

So while I may never coax my third finger to be rounded, I can practice that octave shift so many times that my arm (not my brain) has learned exactly how far it needs to go before I land my fingers on the string.  I stop thinking about it and let the physical process do what it has been trained to do.   That is Doing, not Knowing.

This is a question I frequently ask my teacher, my duet partner, or my husband, who always gives an emphatic yes, but he’ll be the first to admit that he has no musical ear at all.  What I’m really asking is do I still sound like a squeaky first grader?

I think there are many items which contribute to sounding more like an intermediate cellist and less like one in the begining stages of study.  Certainly intonation is important, as is having a lovely vibrato.  But one thing that seems to be more elusive to me is articulation.

From Wikipedia:  “In  music notation articulation marks include the slur, phrase mark, staccato, staccatissimo, accent, sforzando, rinforzando, and legato.”  More simply, articulation is clarity in the production of successive notes.  So it’s about playing the note in a certain way (short, smooth, loud…) that sounds… correct.  Of course, you say tomato and I say to-mah-to.  Or putting it another way, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I guess the same goes for listening.

There are certain things that “beginners” do that “non-beginner’s” don’t do.  One of these is a “zing” at the end of a phrase.  Yes, sometimes we get louder at the end of a phrase (think of endings to many symphonies) but often we’re getting quieter.  Think of it as you are speaking.  Your voice typically goes down in volume at the end of the sentence (unless of course, you’re having a discussion with your 16 year old about driving).   It’s so easy when you’re now changing bow direction and you’re on a down bow and you’re at the frog and WHAM it’s loud.  And you’re so happy you played the right note and you’re thinking about counting the rests and getting ready for the next entrance that you’re not…listening.  Thus the problem.

Or you want to get to the frog and you’re getting pretty far up the bow so you play that 1/8 note fast and long to get back to the frog. It sticks out and you didn’t hear it because you’re thinking about so many other things that listening is far down the list.

There’s no quick solution.  We have to practice listening to ourselves.  Maybe turn on that recorder.  Maybe just memorize a phrase (ONE phrase), then close your eyes, play it and listen.  I’m as guilty of not listening as anyone, maybe more so since I’ve had my hearing tested and it’s not 100%.  But I think it’s more that I’m doing the other things and putting listening last on the list.  It’s going to take practice, but I think it’s another skill that needs more attention.

There are several cello sites on Facebook, and being a cello-nut, I tend to check them out.   The downside is that it takes a lot of time away from actually practicing.  The upside is that there are a lot of adult amateur cellists who have  a lot of great ideas about playing the cello.   From technique and books to instruments and products.  Everyone has an idea and opinion.

Which brings me to the latest one that really seemed to generate a lot of comments.  Rosin.  What kind do you use?  What works the best?  One writer did an entry about Andrea Solo Cello Rosin.   He was funny, saying how much the rosin improved his sound, but he was sincere as well.  There were many, many comments after his touting this brand of rosin.  Most were very favorable, saying how much the rosin improved their tone and how it helped with their bowing.

I’ve never noticed one rosin was any better or worse.  But that’s just me.  I’m certainly not an expert on rosin.   I’ve used Hill’s Dark Rosin, Magic Rosin (fun because it shines), Pirastro Cellisto Rosin, and Salchow Rosin (really cute in a heart shape).   But I was inspired by all the rave reviews.  Always grasping for that “magic” that changes my tone from struggling adult beginner to sultry du Pré.

So I made the leap and shelled out $32 for a cake of the Andrea rosin.  I was pretty excited when it finally arrived- 2 days thanks to Amazon.  I rushed to my cello, whipped out my bow, rosined it up, and turned on the Korg.  After being sure I was in tune, I pulled out something lovely and romantic- Shubert’s Standchen Serenade.  New, but I could play it.  I played and listened.  Recorded a few measures.  Listened carefully.  Played again and recorded again.

My analysis:  It’s just rosin.  No magic.  For me, there isn’t any substitute for playing, listening, and experimenting.   It’s just that simple.

When I’m starting a new piece, I like to find YouTube videos and listen and watch how the pros do it.  But as we all know, there are many ways to play a piece.  There are choices to be made about fingerings, bowings, dynamics, and a multitude of possible means of expression.  The thing to remember is this is music.  It’s art, not math.  There is no right or wrong.  If you can justify what you’re doing (“I really like how this sounds”) you’re AOK.

So in this light, I stumbled across these two violinists who are extremely funny as well as talented.  I’ve watched several of their videos, but this one fits my thoughts about having many choices to make while making music.

Here’s the video.  I hope you enjoy it as I did, but also that it gives you a wider range of options in your playing.  (P.S. The Adult Beginner is spot on!)