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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2.5 weeks

Two and a half weeks without a cello. I love traveling but I need to find a way to have it with me. I'm gone for over 3 weeks this month and could go for longer if I had my baby with me.

I miss my cello!!! And I even miss struggling with Popper #19. The agony of Popper would really balance out all the fun I'm having.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Popper #19, continued

This is meant to be the post from last week but in a scramble to get out of town for vacation, I didn't get it out.

Two weeks into Popper and I'm still struggling with it. Memory issues but I think most of it has to do with the bow. The spiccato is really starting to mess up my memory which sounds really odd so I have to reevaluate whether I really know it. In a push to finish it, I think I have glazed over the whole thing a bit too quickly. Lesson learned that the so-called 'short cut' is really a waste of time. I should just spend more focused practice on smaller sections and get it really solid in my mind as well as fingers.

And then I had to leave for a vacation so the whole thing needs to go on hold. I'm currently on vacation and was catching up on my blogs when I saw that I got a mention on The Cello Etudes blog. Thanks to you for the inspiration. I am not an undergrad at Georgia though although I wish I was. Just an amateur cellist who has a cello obsession. My pace will be much slower than the cello etudes blog so I hope it won't be too boring.

More on the Popper when I get back from a 3 week vacation. Basically means I need to start over. It's just as well because my last attempt at #19 before I left for vacation left me feeling like I need a do-over on this one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Popper #19

Still trudging through Popper #19. I've been working on this etude for a couple of weeks now. Spiccato definitely adds to the difficulty. I started learning this etude the same way I've been attacking the other Popper etudes - learning the notes slowly and then incrementally building up the speed. After a week, I started reading a blog of a cellist's study with the Popper etude ( and decided to change my approach a little bit. Mainly, I decided that I was going to memorize the etude. It's been very enlightening to add memorization to my etude study. Here are the things I noticed:

1) Firstly, I memorize music pretty easily. I've been working on the Brahms E minor sonata and I pretty much have all three movements memorized. Not intentionally but it just gets in my ear and not before long, it is memorized. However, the Popper etude has been a pain! I'm about 3/4 of the way through the etude and I have it in my memory but it's pretty shaky.

2) Making myself memorize it changed my approach to learning the etude. I was forced to learn the 'road map' of the etude rather than just read the notes. The surprising thing is that this is a quicker way to really learn it. Having the pattern in my memory took away the extra step of reading the notes and then getting my hand in the position to play them. This makes the speed of this etude a lot more doable.

3) I made a lot more marks on these two pages than any of the other etudes. This was because I was making notes to myself of the patterns so that I could remember them. With the other etudes, I just read it. This time, I circled the patterns to give myself variously landmarks so that it helped me know what came next.

I'm almost done learning the whole thing. I've been playing it at a slower tempo- about 72 for the quarter note. By the end of this weekend, I hope to have the whole thing memorized and playing it at 84 or so.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shaky and nervous

I've always known that my vibrato is shaky and nervous but I had very few ideas on how to correct it. I'm ok with a few slow notes but it starts to get very jerky when the tempo goes up and it involves shifts. This video by Alan Harris is the best I have found on Youtube. I'm pretty excited about incorporating some of this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Etude Project

Yesterday, Mike posted a link to the blog of cellist who is documenting his practicing on etudes for the next few months. Check it out:

Very interesting stuff and I wish more cellists would do this. This guy (can't seem to find a profile on him) is far beyond my current playing level but I was able to get some very useful ideas from his experience with his practice of the first etude, Popper #8.

This Etude Project has him performing an etude every 2 weeks with practice every day limited to 45 min. on each etude. By the 4th day, he had memorized Popper #8. I was pretty shocked by that. I've worked through about 6 or 7 of the Poppers now but the thought of memorizing any of them was never a possibility in my head. It was always hard enough for me to play them well much less try to memorize it. So as an experiment, I started the task of memorizing the current etude I was working on, Popper #19- the Lohengrin.

I'll document the practice I've done in the past 2 weeks on this etude as well as the results of the memorization effort in the next post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The broken record playing in my lessons

My lessons as of late focuses on a few select things:

1) Keep bow *in* the string. Sounds logical enough but so hard to do. When I sound bad, I can almost always pick it out to be this particular problem. I used to think that keeping the bow in the string should be an easy enough task but I think it's actually harder than it sounds. It takes a certain amount to strength to keep the bow in the string...strength that is built over years.

2) Related to #1 - don't pick up the bow when crosing strings. Sounds obvious enough but I cheat on this in the most subtle ways. Just the tiniest of lifts when crossing strings will throw the sound off. arrrrrggghh

3) Slow down the bow changes. If your left hand needs to move fast, it doesn't mean that your bow changes need to be fast as well.

There you have it! The three things on the broken record playing in my lessons. I'm happy that I can pick out three things to correct whenever I sound bad. What about you? What's on your broken record? Do share!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My poor neglected blog..

So much has happened! Italy was a great trip for musical growth. My playing has changed a lot since coming back. I'm not the only one who has made this teacher as well as friends around me has commented on how much better I am playing.

I'm still trying to figure out what it is about the trip that changed me. I think it was being in the company of student musicians and working with them for a week towards a concert that made me realized that everyone has their struggles (with intonation, with rhythm, etc). As an adult amateur, we rarely get that group environment. Being in this environment gave me so much inspiration to really practice. My goals didn't seem so lofty anymore...almost attainable.

Since then, the way I practiced changed. I learned to do a lot of the things that I've been reading about..slowing down to really learn the notes, practicing with a metronome, patient repetition. If you throw these three things into anything you want to learn, it's impossible not to reach your goal one day.

Yesterday - I got to perform the first movement of the brahms e minor with a pianist. I was pretty relaxed on stage (a first for me!) and it turned out to be one of my best performances. After studying this piece for what seems like forever...I finally see some improvements.

Anyway- these are some thoughts that I wanted to write in my neglected blog before they get too far away from the present.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sextets Are Fun

I am meeting this weekend with a sextet ensemble formed because I love Brahms sextet #1 so much that bought the music. It is mostly members from the quartet I play in plus 2 or 3 other players. We met a few months ago to read Brahms #1 and it was a lot of fun. I like this sextet configuration (2vln, 2vla, 2cello) - everyone has different parts but you're not alone. A sextet is practically a chamber orchestra so you create a lot of sound...hiding any mistakes I might make in sight reading. :)

This time, I ordered more sextet music from Shar - Brahms Sextet #2 and Dvorak Sextet in A major. It was shipped in a Priority Mail box with a picture of a cello on it. Now how did they know I was a cellist???

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Suspect Drain

Taken from

Plug the holes where your life energy is escaping.

If you are at all feeling overwhelmed or becoming more fatigued, then it might be time to take a look around for your energy drains. It could be the people with who you associate often, that bill you haven't yet paid, a project you haven't touched for a while, or a shirt button that still needs sewing. Anything incomplete that's hanging around in your life, are potential energy drainers. Either decide to be 100% OK with the way they are and let them go, or attend to them.

A few weeks ago, my car battery died after only a couple of years. AAA came to the rescue with a new battery. After performing some diagnostic tests, they told me that there was a "suspect drain" on my car battery that needed to be checked out. I got it checked and it turns out the suspect was the trunk light which never turned off, draining my battery over time.

What a great term - "Suspect Drain". I have many little things in my life that I put off and it is a drain on my daily energy level whether I realize it or not. I think I put them off because I don't want to take the time to find a solution. Putting it off today takes less energy than doing it today so I decide to put it off. Not before long, I've spent more energy procrastinating than I would have spent dealing with the task at hand. And worst yet, I'm still standing in the same position.

So..goal this summer is to procrastinate less and eliminate suspect drains on my life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Now that I'm on Twitter...

no time to post!

For those of you in the southeast, you may want to consider going to Chamber Music Weekend in Chattanooga, I went last year and had a great time. Four days of playing in various ensemble groups - duos, trios, etc. It's heavenly to have access to all kinds of music and the people to play them.

I'm going again this year. Email me if you if you want more information.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Play like your ax is made of gold

A while ago, I read a book called the Violin Maker by John Marchese. This is a story of a luthier named Sam Zygmuntowicz who was commissioned to build a violin for Eugene Drucker of the Emmerson String Quartet. The book follows the building of the violin right from the selection of the wood to the end product. Gene Drucker owns a Stradivarius but wanted a modern instrument that would hold up better in his travels. Zygmuntowicz has to build Gene's rival violin.

I won't ruin the end of the book in case any one wants to read it but there was a point made in the story that I thought was great. No one knows why a Strad sounds better than a modern instrument. There are lots of theories - aged of the wood, kind of wood available when Stradivarius was alive, etc. This book addresses an interesting point though. Part of the reason why a Strad sounds better could be because of the musician's connection with a historical instrument. It's hard not to romanticize owning and playing an instrument with so much history. When a musician plays on a Strad, they are playing with all that history in mind. I have heard of musicians feeling like they need to "live up" to the instrument they own. This HAS to affect how they play which in turn affects how an instrument sounds. They have done tests with audiences listening to a strad vs. a modern instrument - and most times, the audience cannot hear the difference. So..the deciding factor is how the musician is playing, not so much the instrument itself. And how a musician is playing is dependent on so much.

The reason I thought of all this is because I recently had a sound post adjustment on my cello. Since then, my cello has not sounded as good. It sounded good in the shop but I'm know what it used to sound like in my house and it is not close to being as good. I need to go back and get it redone but I've been too busy. I can't tell you how much this change in sound has affected my playing. Notes that used to ring don't ring the same way. Other notes sound nasally at best. It's awful - I had to give it to my teacher at the last lesson to play so that I could hear it away from the instrument. Strangely, it sounded fine. Very frustrating! All this made me think of the point that was made in The Violin Maker - that our connection to the instrument plays a big part in how we sound. I felt like my cello was inferior in setup when I got home. Once that gets in your head, it's tough to work your way out of it and make yourself think it's ok no matter how good it sounds when someone else plays it.

Wow - is it all in our heads? This relationship with the instrument?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hynotic cellists

Some cellists do not look good when they play. They could play beautifully but something about the way they play is not enjoyable to watch. I remember seeing a cellist perform the 6th Bach suite and although she played it beautifully (she was a student of Starker's so she's obviously GOOD) I was nervous the entire time I watched her. I kept feeling like she was going to miss notes. Every shift looked like an effort. I remember another cellist a couple of months ago who was so rough on the cello that I felt sorry for it! Enjoyable to hear but a little nerve racking to watch.

Then there are the cellists who hypnotize you when they play. There's no worry in their playing. Every note is as if their hand was built to reach it and every phrase looks as if it was built for their bow. I remember watching Matt Haimovitz play a few years ago and it was such a lovely experience. It looked easy! So easy that I felt I could go home and do it too, at which point I am reminded of how NOT easy it is. Today I saw a recording of David Starkweather, professor at UGA, performing a Schumann piece. Very hypnotic because it looked like he was meditating on the music. I could stare at him play all day.

One day, I hope to make it look easy.

Back at it again!

It's been a few weeks but I am officially out of 'I hate cello week'. I guess it wasn't a was almost a month.

I've had some good lessons during this time though. Here's some notes on the breakthroughs:

1) I picked up Popper #2 again a few weeks ago to see if I made any progress since working on it 2 years ago. Not a hard piece but the etude has long bows. During the lesson, D noticed that I was pushing and pulling throughout the entire draw of the bow creating excess junk in the sound. He told me that once the bow is drawn, I need to let go and not keep drawing throughout the phrase. The action is at the beginning of the down bow or up bow but after I start the initial draw..I need to let the bow move without forcing it. This worked wonders for me! (I'm not sure that I'm explaining it very well)

2) Still working on Bach 3 Prelude and had a major breakthrough here too. This month...I focused on not clunking down on the string when I changed get as even of a legato sound as I could. At the last lesson, I played the whole thing for him and he said that I was torqued the entire time I was playing it. I needed to find places to release tension. I am still having bow issues and working too hard at it. D had me pick out certain spots in various phrases where there was an increase of tension with the bow and then we picked out where I would release that tension in the phrase. This increase/decrease in tension sets up my phrase. He used the visualization of a top spinning. I would draw the bow (similar to pulling a string to get a top spinning) and once the bow moved, let it spin on its own (decrease of tension) for the rest of the phrase. I tried it with a few phrases and the change was astonishing. It's funny how visualizing something like this can help. Not only was my tone better, I felt so FREE. I haven't been able to get that feeling back this week in practice but I feel like I'm really close. I understand it much better now. I see how the breathing plays into it. The breath in is really the increase in tension and the breath out is the release of that tension.

Geez...I hope one day I don't have to think about it so much. The visualization helped a lot! I asked D if he had think about it like this all this time. He said he used to but he doesn't have to's second nature now. So..there's hope for me yet! I hope some of this is helping somebody else out there. I felt so good when I nailed it in the lesson that I threw my arms up in the air and exclaimed, "Yay!!!!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Down on practice

The last few weeks have been low on practice for me. Teacher says that if you practice through those times when you don't feel like practicing, those are usually the times when you will grow the most musically.

Ok...I'm ready for that growth now...and for me to want to practice again.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Last week

Had my lesson this past weekend. I told D that I was having an "I hate cello" week. He said he doesn't ever have those. I corrected myself and said that I was having an "I hate ME on the cello" week. I think this bug must be going around - I seem to remember reading a few "down in the dumps" posts last week. To those who had that kind of week - you'll be happy to hear that my teacher (cello player extraordinaire) said that he has had plenty of those weeks. Nice to know that it happens to accomplished cellists as well.

I'm still kind of in it actually. Rising pollen level is making me sick and allergy pills make me a bit nauseous. I opened up an old etude, Popper #2, to procrastinate on practice. I discovered that this is not a good piece to play when you are feeling nauseous.

I hope "I hate me on the cello" week ends soon. I really need to get the Bach Prelude ready for public consumption. Right is not even ready for self consumption.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Another performance

In an effort to not fall into a lull after spending months preparing the Haydn for a master class, I volunteered to play solo for a church service sometime in April or May. The people were really laid back and let me decide what I wanted to play. So I reached into my bag of "pieces I've been working on forever but still haven't gotten right" and decided on the Prelude to the Bach Cello Suite 3.

I remember when I first started it over 2 years ago. Learning the notes to the piece was never hard for fact, I think I had it memorized within a month. The hard part for me was getting through the piece without pain. Yes, pain was what I had to overcome and here's some things I did to get the pain out of my playing.

First, my bow grip was seriously flawed. I was gripping the life out of the bow with my thumb. To keep the bow even and balanced while doing this, I had to engage my pinky to help keep the bow balanced. These two things made my right hand really sore halfway through the piece. Until recently, the bow has never been comfortable in my hand. One etude that has really helped with this is Popper etude #1. It's really a wrist etude but you can't really pull it off without having a good bow hold. My bow grip is not perfect but it's come a long way in the past two years. The proof? No more hand pain! So..if you're struggling with getting a comfortable bow grip, Popper #1 helped me a lot.

My body was tense. I was using muscles that really shouldn't be used when playing. Like - the jaw muscle? I clenched my jaw and my shoulders were tense while I played so I had to use other muscles to force the sound out. No wonder I was tired halfway through the Prelude! I realized that playing with tension is something a lot of cellists struggle with. I've had many teachers in the past but my current teacher is the only person to make this my primary focus when playing. This is such an important part of cello playing that I'm baffled that it took 6 years before someone mentioned tension to me. This is not to say that I now play with no tension. Unfortunately, 2 years of correction doesn't quite purge out 6 years of playing with tension but I'm much more aware of it now and can try to stop it when it happens. I've come a long way with it. The proof? I can play through the Prelude many times in practice with no pain. Feels nice!

Of course...being able to get through the entire piece without pain is only a baby step forward. The things I now have to overcome are much more elusive...phrasing, evenness and giving each note the full value of importance. Oh...the Bach Cello's such a mountain to climb! You know a piece of music is complex when you can work on it for a few years and still be engaged.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy happy happy

I'm so insanely happy today. I feel so grateful for so many things. Since this is a cello blog - I'd like to give a shout out to my cello. How lucky am I to have found something that can instantly shut out the noise of emails, text messages, TV, internet, Facebook, blogs, news, etc.

A few hours on the cello makes my world peaceful again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's beautiful but I can't enjoy it

I've been working on the Prelude to the Bach Suite 3 on and off for a couple of years now. The Bach suites are so beautiful but when I start to really work on them...the beauty of the pieces become secondary. What I mean by that is that while I am playing it, I am so focused on playing it beautifully that my enjoyment of the piece gets put on the shelf.

I used to dream about the day when I can really play something beautiful and how great that would feel to create such beautiful music. I guess I envisioned an emotional enjoyment very much like being a listener in the audience but that it would be even better because I would be the one creating that beauty. As I think about this isn't like that at all. My teacher has talked a lot about not becoming emotionally tied to the music...that the enjoyment of the music belongs to the audience. As a player, you have to be somewhat detached from the piece so that you can deliver it with the correct intention.

As a listener, I used to enjoy the major change in the color halfway through the prelude of the 3rd suite. As a player, that same enjoyment isn't there anymore. I told D during the last lesson..."...this part this soooo beautiful but I can't enjoy it because I'm too focused on trying to keep it all even. Arghhh!" He said...."It'll be a few years before you enjoy that section..."

What I've realized is that my consumption of the music I play is different than being a listener...It isn't satisfying in the way I thought it would be. The enjoyment has shifted to an enjoyment that comes from being able to play the way I want it to sound....rather than enjoying the music produced by me. Maybe it'll change as I get better but it's so much less romantic this way!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Master Class

I've had so many thoughts I'd like to post about my experience in a master class but have been too busy to sit down and write. I'm forcing myself to throw down the points I do remember before it all becomes a distant memory!

First of all, Emily was great! She braved crazy weather across the country to give us all such a great experience. Her master class was the inaugural meeting of the Atlanta Cello Project, started by my friend Ann. It is a group of cello enthusiasts in Atlanta..currently at 30+ members. The master class drew 15+ people even though we had a snow storm that day!

Without a lot of thought (and hopefully not too redundant), here are some observations from my experience in preparing for the master class:

1. I played the Haydn C, first mvt. I thought I had been working on this (on and off) for a year but in looking back at my's actually been 1.5 years! ha! It did get exponentially better in the weeks leading up to the class though. I'd say I really really worked on it in preparation for the master class for about 2 months.

2. Having this goal changed my practices. It forced me to work on the parts of this piece that were hard for me. I didn't have the luxury of ignoring them anymore. Runs that I thought were impossible had to become a possibility so I focused my practices on making the impossible possible. The other downside of brushing over problem areas for so long is that you actually train your ear to ignore the problem areas. My teacher pointed that out in many places. As if I didn't have enough to work on, I also had to re-train my ear to the hear the right thing.

3. The impossible did start becoming possible! It was interesting. Before, I couldn't fathom how I could ever play the harder parts with any consistency. If you work on it will come.

4. Positions that seemed physically impossible became possible as well. There were a few thumb position double stops that I just accepted as positions that my hand just does not do. Guess what? If you practice the position enough does become 'not uncomfortable'. I learned to accept that uncomfortable positions can be comfortable with enough practice.

5. I have to start practicing with a metronome all the time. I did this in the month leading up to the master class but I still clipped my rhythms when I performed. If I started practicing with a metronome from the start - I wouldn't have had to un-practice the rhythm problems. Sounds easy enough but so hard to do. Why did I think that a month of practice with the metronome would undo the 1+ year of practicing it without?

6. Fix problem areas from the start instead of practicing the wrong way only to un-practice it later and repractice it the right way. I am doing this more in my practices. Un-practicing is SO boring so it is a pretty good motivator.

7. The best part? My lessons became more productive too. I had a goal...and because of that, my teacher had a goal. Lessons became focused as well.

I learned a lot from the experience and look forward to more opportunities like this!
I also enjoyed meeting Emily...after years of chatting with her via blog was nice to chat live.

Happy practicing!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When things work out (in my favor)

A friend called me up and asked me if I was going to the Yo-Yo Ma concert in May. Oh no...I had completely forgotten about it!! With very little hope, I went on the website to see if there were any tickets left. I clicked to purchase and up came a large seating map with all the seats grayed out (indicating occupied) except for one little tiny seat in the 7th row. ONE seat left! Needless to say, I quickly bought it.

The next day, my friend emailed me saying that the concert was sold out. Why can't things work out like this all the time?

My friend ended up finding a seat for him and his girlfriend towards the back so...we are all good.

So...Hooray!!! I finally get to see him perform.