This is a diary of my love affair with the cello.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tag - Seven Things

CelloDonna tagged me for 7 things. I'm such a slacker - just getting to it now. Here it is...

1. I was born in Malaysia, moved to Canada when I was 8. On my first day of school in Canada, the teacher could not pronounce my Chinese name. It wasn't that hard but every time she said my name, she got it wrong in a different way. After weeks of this, my parents came up with an English name for her to use. I still remember the look of relief on her face. I have used that name ever since that day! Very few people know that it is not my real name. Because of this, I often feel that I was born at the age of 8 - new family, new culture, new language, new name.

2. I once got a 68% in high school biology. I was so scared of my Dad's reaction that I forged a new report card with a 78% in biology. He looked at the forged report card and commented that I should have done better than '78%' in biology.

3. My grandmother has passed away now, but I still feel good every time I think about her. Here is a story about her: She came to live with us in Canada a couple of years after I moved there. When she got to Canada, she decided that she wanted to be a Canadian. She was illiterate in Chinese, having grown no education because her family was very poor. This did not seem to faze her as she tackled the challenge of learning a new language well enough to pass the citizenship interview. She went to classes every week and spent nights and weekends studying with me. Years later, she passed the test on her first try. She never did learn to speak English. She learned enough to answer the hundreds of possible questions she could be asked in the interview. It was a decade later before I appreciated what a feat she had accomplished!

4. A palm reader once told me that I have 2 guardian angels, probably some ancestors, watching over me. Maybe this is why I have always felt very lucky.

5. I secretly love reading Hollywood gossip.

6. I love to cook, at least that's what I tell everyone. The truth is that I love to eat!

7. I just got an iPhone. Please pray that I don't become an Apple evangelist lurking around the Apple Store Church! It's pretty hard though...I'm ooohing and aaahhhhing every time I use it!

I think most of the people I want to know more about have been tagged.....Has CelloMuser been tagged yet? I really like his blog. If not, consider yourself tagged! Do tell!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Orchestra Rehearsals #3 and #4

Concert this weekend - boy that was quick. I really need more time to work on this stuff! Our guest performer this concert is a trio who will be playing the Beethoven Triple Concerto in C with us. They came to rehearse with us last night. The cello part is both beautiful and maniacal. I hope one day I can get to a level where not only can I play something like that...but to hold it together well enough to play it for an audience. Watching the cellist yesterday made me realize that I will never get "tired" of studying this instrument. I have so far to go and there's enough learning here to last through the rest of my life.

I am feeling a bit more comfortable at rehearsals now....I decided to hold off on the wine for now and instead, started practicing for the rehearsals :) Still not as relaxed as I need to be..but hopefully that will get better with time.

One thing I never understood though...why do the weakest players sit in the back of a section? When you sit towards the back,
  1. It's harder to see the conductor
  2. You can't hear your section
  3. Bowings and fingerings travel back to you last so you constantly have one eye on the front of the section to ensure correct bowing...
Don't the weaker players just get weaker?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Little white lie

I called my teacher this morning...

Me: "Hi D, I forgot I had to work tomorrow I need to cancel our lesson tomorrow. Probably best to cancel for the it alright if I just see you next week?"

D: {pause}..." need some time to practice so you have something to show me next week?"

Me: {hahahahaa} "Yah, that too"

Doh! Busted.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Orchestra Rehearsal #2

Last night, there were some more new members to the orchestra. I now have a stand partner who is a sophomore in high school. The string section is a bit small so I suppose there must have been some heavy recruiting efforts last week to fill it up.

Stand partner, C, is really nice and seemingly quiet...until she pulled out her cello and exploded with some runs from Saint-Saens A minor concerto to warm up. WOW. I recognized what she played because I gave that movement a go for a couple of weeks before deciding that I was not ready for it. This girl is GOOD. She'd only been playing for 5 years. In fact, it later came out that some of the students who joined the orchestra last night were students who did not make the big youth orchestra in town. I can only imagine what kind of nuts are in this youth orchestra if she didn't make it. Scary!

Now the cello section is really good...2 high school students (both really good!), 2 veterans from the orchestra Unfortunately, I can barely keep up. My teacher says that I am really lucky to play with people far better than I am but I feel really uncomfortable with this group right now. We all know what lack of relaxation does for cello tone........ :(

Maybe I need to have a glass of wine before each rehearsal ;)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

New member

I made the local orchestra I auditioned for on Monday. Honestly, I think they would have accepted any cellist brave enough to audition but....whatever. I opened up one of the pieces we're playing for the first concert (Barber's Adagio for Strings) and saw treble clefs. hmmm Hopefully I survive the year.

When they gave me the audition details, they told me that the audition was just before the first rehearsal of the year. They were having a potluck dinner and they said that I should plan on joining them for the potluck after the audition. My first thought was..."What if I don't make it?" It would be a bit awkward to sit through a potluck with them if they rejected me! However I didn't want to sound unsure of a good audition so I asked if I could bring something to the potluck. I did have a funny thought of me having a bad audition, not making the orchestra and having to walk back to my car dejected with cello and plate of food in hand. Good thing it all worked out and I didn't have to eat by myself :)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lesson Notes 9/22/07

Great lesson! When crossing to an upper string, arm should 'push forward' and bow will pivot. I think Emily Wright talked about this in one of her Podcasts. I have been lifting the bow and placing it on the new string. Instead keep weight down and push forward - kind of like shifting in a car. Mentally, this is really hard to do but the times I did get my arm to do it, it instantly sounded better. I need to work on this more.

Also, I've been hearing breaks in tone. This is caused from me pushing into the string. My cello does not like to be pushed. The very first time I played on this cello, it complained when I started getting tense. Seriously! If I relaxed, the cello relaxed and rewarded me with beautiful tone. As soon as I started getting nervous and tense, it started whining. Pushing is bad habit anyway so cello wins this time.


I have an audition for a local orchestra tonight! I will play:

1) Popper Etude #11
2) Vocalise, Rachmaninov

The Popper is not feeling so great at the moment so I will hope for the best for that one. Vocalise feels pretty good. I'm really proud of getting Vocalise up to performance level. Last year, I went to see a cello performance student's grad recital at Emory. As I listened to her play Vocalise (beautifully!), I remembered thinking that I should add to this to my lesson repertoire. It sounded out of reach at the time but I wanted to play it badly.

I have studied that piece on and off for over a year! The notes in this piece aren't particularly hard but creating the smooth lines was really difficult for me. I had to dissect this piece up and practice minute sections at a time concentrating on constant bow arm movement that is fluid. This was also the piece I started thinking about breathing while playing. At places where I had faltering intonation, I had to practice those areas a few thousand times. Note to all: When you practice something a few thousand times, you actually do get to a point where you can do it right consistently! I never thought I would have the patience to slug through a piece like this for so long. Even if Vocalise doesn't turn out well tonight...I feel pretty good at the learnings I got from it. I hope this is an inspiration to those who are currently on a plateau with something they are working on.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Coming from an Asian background, a lot of was expected of me. Asian parents tend to push their kids to 'succeed' with a lot of force. This is both a good and bad thing but sometimes more bad than good.

I've always had a huge drive to "do well" - a drive that was well nurtured by my workaholic parents. As I got older, this sometimes became a bit of a problem. My definition of "doing well" gets further and further out of my reach the more I "do well". Love what you have, friends have told me, but how do I do that when I don't have enough?

At my lesson one week, I finished playing an etude and commented to my teacher that I hear more bow noise when crossing strings. He told me that I am not creating more bow noise than's just that my ear is getting better and I have become more sensitive to the way I sound. My expectations are growing....and that I should keep those in tact. I should not let the noise of expectation come into my practice.

I realized how true that is for everything in life. I once read a little piece on how to meditate. The first point made in this article was to let go of all expectations of the practice of meditation and what it will do for you. What a great perspective! When you are not bound by your expectations, you have......freedom.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Lesson Notes 9/01/07

I'm still recovering from this lesson. Total frustration! The more I get deeper into this, the more I realize how impossible this instrument is. However, I know it's not impossible because I've seen plenty of people of YouTube doing it!!!!

This lesson was Haydn C major concerto. All thumb position...thumb all over the finger board.

Things to remember:
1) Thumb must be locked..especially in positions.
2) Wrist should be below the knuckles.
3) Weight from thumb should come of the shoulder...not originate from the hand.
4) Fingers should be curled.

I welcome any suggestions for practicing these runs!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lesson Notes 8/25/07

Lesson today - things to remember:

1. E minor scale 4 octaves - again, 3rd and 4th octave need fine tuning as intonation is off.
2. Popper #11 - Should stay in the upper middle part of bow keeping weight down at that part of bow. Keep bow down when crossing strings to cut down on unnecessary noise when crossing strings. Don't lift the bow up which creates noise.
3. Popper #3 again - boy is it hard to go from #11 and then play #3. Completely different kind of etude. If I'm tapping with my left hand to get the note, don't tap with the bow as well. Keep bow running smoothly across the notes...draw the sound out with constant smooth bow. Sixteenth notes shorter

Side note - the Popper etudes are called the "high school" of cello playing. Are they serious? If this is what high schoolers are mastering...I'm in trouble!

4. Brahms again - start playing with metronome again. My tempo is all over the place, especially speeding up when adding intensity.

Posture note: shoulders back and shoulder blades closer together. Initiate power from the lower back..slightly forward. Right shoulder should provide a heavy dead weight down the arm. Weight should redistribute through arms to bow. When playing..that weight would be on all parts of the bow - even the tip.

Finally - keep expectations in tact. Don't expect too much of myself at the moment and just keep up the practice. Wait for the posture changes to settle into a habit.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lost Love - A take-home trial gone wrong

This is a story about a cello I fell in love with.

I had been mildly shopping around for a new cello for almost 2 years. There was nothing wrong with my Chinese made student model but I just wanted a great cello....I figured, I play on it almost everyday..why not? My close relationships to a few violin shops in town only threw more fuel to this fire.

One day, a shop showed me a restored early-1900s American cello by a not-so-well-known American maker. When they brought out the cello for me, I fell instantly in love with it. I was always a sucker for looks I suppose. This instrument was beautiful. The back and sides were made of bird's eye maple and it was one striking-looking instrument. I HAD to have it. Of course, it was kinda above my price range...details...details...

I took it home for a trial just before Christmas. My teacher played on it and loved did the cello quartet. The sound was gorgeous...with a deep and mellow tone that comes with age. One night, after playing duets with a friend, I set the American down on my stand. The house was quiet and I was sitting at my computer. All of the sudden, I heard a loud squeal that lasted a couple of seconds. It came from my dining room where both cellos were. It had been a dry winter and I figured the pegs must have slipped. I looked at the Chinese...pegs in tact. I looked at the American...pegs in tact. Hmmm. I was pretty sure the sound came from one of the two cellos so I started looking around. And then I saw what it was...

It was the American. The wood on the front of the cello had split. There was a crack about almost foot long from the bridge area down to the bottom. I was in shock. What happens when an instrument is damaged in my possession during a trial??? hmmm I put the instrument back in the case. It was too late to do anything at this point...I would have to wait until the morning.

I called the shop in the morning and told them and I would bring the cello in (figured I would save the detail about the crack when I got there hahaha). I got to the shop and the owner (whom I hadn't met) greeted me. I told him that I had the American out on loan cracked last night. I got a funny look from him before he opened up the case to take a look.

Turns out that the wood had not cracked. The front seam came apart. They never did anything to the front when they restored the cello and I guess it was old glue. Apparently, the glue is intentionally not super strong so that the instrument has some wiggle room to expand and contract. With the low humidity as of late....the seam just broke.

He said that it could be repaired by middle of next week and asked me what I wanted to do...The shop had called me earlier in the week saying that someone wanted to try it out. I said that I liked the cello and go ahead and repair it. When I got home, I guess I was distressed from what had occurred and wasn't ready to do such a big purchase a few days before I left town for the Christmas I called him back and said that I wasn't ready to move on it and that he should let the other person have a go at it. I would call him when I got back from vacation in a couple of weeks and if it was still available..I would give it another try.

When I came back from Christmas, the American had been sold.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On loneliness and music

After my cello lesson one day, I pulled into a gas station to fill up my car. I drive a two door convertible so the only place I can put my cello is in the front seat. This puts the cello in plain view which tends to draw a lot of questions or comments about the instrument when I am out. This one day, a guy (with an unkempt, starving artist look) got out of his car at the pump next to mine and the conversation went like this:

"Is that your cello?", He asked.
"Yes", I answered.
He stared at me in a playful way..."Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Yes", I answered

Then he started on a rant...barely intelligible, but here is what I got out of it...
"I know how it want to get fully into music and play and play...but let me tell you play music hard because you're lonely...that's why you get so feeds you when you're lonely. Then you get a boyfriend and you're not lonely anymore and your drive for music is not as strong. You'll always be chasing it...why you play. You have someone in your life and you feed your music less and less....I know how it is..I was there. Loneliness creates that music..."

I dismissed his rant as mindless banter at first but as I thought more about it I think he had a point. I fully immersed myself in my cello studies because I was lonely. At the time, I had just gotten out of a relationship and the cello filled the empty space created by that loss. I made huge progress because of it. Five years I was single...and I feel like it shows in my music. I am now in a relationship with a wonderful man. Still trying to figure out that balance between the two loves. I still want to feed my love for music, but I don't get that same high as when I was lonely and playing. I wonder whether this is what having kids is like. How do you balance it?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lesson notes - 8/16/07

Today’s lesson was a short one. I was late and flustered. I backed out of the garage this morning and rolled into the boyfriend’s car parked in the driveway. Both cars are fine but it got me all flustered for the lesson…not the best of starts.

I started with the harmonic A minor scale, 4 octaves. First two octaves were fine…third was passable but the fourth octave was sharp and flat all over the place. I think I need to focus more on the 4th octave during practice so that it can be consistent. To top it all off, the last few notes of the A minor scale are beyond the finger board which throws any hope of control out the window.

Next was Popper #3 again. It was better this time, but I still need to work on keeping the bow smooth and in constant motion to avoid choppiness. We had a long conversation about this Popper etude and how it teaches many things. First is to master getting the chromatics in consistent half steps. After you can do this, there is another layer of learning how the notes fit in the music line. Depending where the notes lie in the series of notes in the music line, you may want to play a certain note slightly flat or slightly sharp. I’ve heard this concept a few times from a few people but I still get a bit lost regarding this concept.. I’m very much still trying to “get the note” much less fool with the note so that it is on the sharper or flatter side, depending on the music. However, something tells me that this very concept is why I love the string instrument sound so much. There is an infinite range of color for each note that the possibilities are endless. It is a close mimic of the human voice. Absolutely beautiful.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Learning as a kid

I just got back from Sandestin with my boyfriend and his 2 daughters. One of his 2 daughters is 7 and has just started taking violin lessons (I tried pushing her towards cello, but in the end- violin won out). She has had 3 lessons. I've been able to watch her progress and noticed some things that are worth sharing.

First observation - 7 year olds treat the instrument and bow as a toy!! I cringe as I watch her point and twirl her bow around like a baton! The instrument gets bashed around too. She's pretty good about putting the violin back in the case, loosening the bow etc. but I realize how young a 7 year old really is!!

Her first lesson was about how to hold the violin and bow and to draw sound from each string. Second lesson was a simple scale up the A string...then the same thing up the E string. Third lesson had her "reading" Twinkle Twinkle Little Star from Suzuki 1.

I saw a lot of her throughout the first few lessons and here are the things I saw:

1. Practice sessions are about 10 - 15mins long at best. The attention span of a 7 year old is pretty short.

2. She held the violin and bow almost perfectly right from the start...and was able to remember how to hold it. For me, when I first held a bow, I remembered how uncomfortable it was. It was really the only thing on my mind as I tried to play some notes. For her, I saw that she was actually uncomfortable as well but her main focus was playing the notes. I don't think comfort level comes into the picture at all.

3. The fact that she was out of tune didn't really faze her. She was happy if she got through what she intended to do, regardless of how it sounded. Why couldn't I be so satisfied with that when I started cello lessons? Can you imagine how fast we would progress if we didn't judge ourselves all along the way?

4. She was anxious to display what she could do...even after the first lesson. Now here is the main thing that separates us adults from kids. I never had a performance urge when I started. I was very self conscious about how I sounded. For her, she ran into the room after the first lesson and said "Showtime!"...indicating she was going to play for us.

5. And finally - kids don't remember to practice. The parent has to remind them and then at the same time, sit with them through the practice to keep their attention on it. Even though she loves her violin and wants to practice, it doesn't come to her mind.

Anyway...just some observations. It hasn't been that long since I started the cello so it gave me a chance to compare her start with mine.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Lesson notes

I just got back from my cello lesson today. I had practiced Schroeder #29 all week with a metronome set to subdivided 16ths. Finally got it at the lesson today (I had tried it last week and it was pathetic!). I played my first Popper etude (#3). Surprisingly went a lot better than I thought it would. It's such a pretty etude...a bit of a tongue twister for the ear though. I think there are more accidentals in this piece than non-accidentals.

Moved on to the Brahms E Minor Sonata. Although I've played through this whole piece...and even tried it with a pianist friend of mine...we barely get through 8 measures. Focused a lot on tone and color, big big shifts crossing strings without lifting bow off the string, fingers off the string quicker to avoid unnecessary noise, breathe breathe breathe. I got home from the lesson and got a call an hour later from my teacher. He wanted to tell me that he felt that the sonata was coming along, to keep at it and that it will sound really great soon.

That felt good!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A cello rock band - how sexy!

Last night, I went to see a New York band called Rasputina. I've had them on my radar to check out for a while...but missed them when they were in town 2 years ago. The band consists of 2 female cellists (both on vocals) and a drummer. They came out in Victorian costumes...feathers and all. How cool is that?? The music was great (think Dead Can Dance, Portishead, PJ Harvey mix) and both cellists impressed me with the range of sounds they could create for that kind of music. LOTS of spiccato bowings and endless double stops...resulting in a need for a rehair the next day I'm sure!! I was also pretty impressed with them doing all this and singing at the same time. I'm just not that coordinated!!

I've been playing in a string quartet now for 3 years. It's my favorite kind of ensemble. Sometimes I feel so lucky to have met 3 other people who can put up with me (as well as my technical limitations) on a regular basis. My personal playing improved greatly after joining this group but the big high for me was when we started some coaching sessions and improved as a group. What an experience! I also discovered a huge love for string quartet literature.

That said, I've also experimented with playing pop music. The tough part for me is to "jam". Pop musicians get together and they just start playing...whereas I'm still looking around for some music to read. It's a leap that I haven't quite made but would like to do more of in the future. Has anyone done this? I think I'm a classical stiff - how do I loosen up and jam? I've gotten many invitations from band people to come and "play" with them. Like me, I think bands LOVE the idea of a cellist in the group. Unfortunately I've turned a lot of them down. My confidence is not too high when it comes to improvising and it makes the whole experience very uncomfortable for me. I guess if I just tried it more often, it would become easier.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

New blog, new learnings

I was procrastinating at work one day when I came across a few blogs by people who started learning the cello as an adult. It got me thinking that I could create my own. I never thought I would do a blog because I don't usually have much of a "voice" to document but I realized that this could be a good way to track my "journey". Also - maybe I could attract some people who are "in the know" who can add some input as well. How cool would that be??

I started cello lessons at 29 (I'm 35 now)...It's been quite an experience - not all of it cello related! Anyone who has read the book - "Never Too Late" by John Holt will know what I mean. If you haven't read it - you should pick up a copy. The book is by a man who started learning the cello at 40, detailing his learning process. Learning an instrument as an adult is an interesting topic in itself, but the book covers so much more than that! I found this book at a time when I was very frustrated with my cello "education". The ideas in the book changed my life, giving me some much needed relief to the frustration I felt in learning this instrument I loved so much. Sorry to get so deep - but as we get older, there are fewer and fewer life-changing things. I was very excited to have one dropped in my lap when I needed it most!