Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cello Buddies (Practice Session 3)

Tonight I went to a practice session with my cello friend, Mathew.  When I took my cello out of the case, I was surprised to find that it was very nearly in tune.  Nice.  My cello goes out of tune after one octave of a scale, but a car ride from Astoria to Washington Heights does nothing to it.

I was worried the session would turn into a cello lesson for me and Mathew would get nothing out of it, but I think the session ended up benefiting both of us, as intended.  I got to learn from him, and he got to practice as well.  Despite how horrendously I played for most of the evening, I was definitely playing better by the end.  Mathew noticed that my bridge was really crooked and fixed it, which will hopefully help the tuning situation.  He also gave me a whole bunch of pointers on the basics of cello playing, which I hope I remember.  I'm going to try practicing in front of a mirror, because I can't for the life of me keep my left hand where it's supposed to be.

Mathew also suggested I improvise on the cello as a way to learn the instrument better.  This reminded me of something one of my composition professors told me in college.  He is an avid improviser.  His primary instrument is the violin, but he often improvises on the piano.  He told me he's not a pianist, but he becomes one when he improvises.  When you're not worrying about the notes you're playing, the resulting music is free and effortless.

I am so thankful to Mathew for our practice session and for being my cello buddy.  My learning the cello is still a personal journey, but it's a lot less lonely (and treacherous) with a guide.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Practice Sessions 1 and 2

Since I bought the cello on Monday, I have practiced on it twice: Tuesday and Thursday.  Being me, I thought I was going to sit down, put bow to string, and beautiful music was going to glide out of the instrument.  Well, no.  It wasn't quite like that.

I currently am in possession of Klengel's Technical Studies for the Violoncello - Volume 1.  I also have J. S. Bach's Six Suites for Cello Solo and Brahms' Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor.  Cellists reading this post will be saying "Andrew, no."  These pieces are well beyond my level, as I can barely make it through the scales in the Klengel.

My first practice session was kind of disastrous, as I couldn't even get the damn thing to stay in tune.  I didn't know whether it was the instrument, me, the climate, or some other factor.  All I knew is once I finally got the instrument in tune, it was immediately out of tune after I finished a single scale.  I muddled through a few two-octave whole note scales before giving into temptation and attempting the Bach.  It was a good exercise in finding the notes, but I certainly couldn't take more than a few measures.

Thursday's results were similar to Tuesday's.  I struggled to get the instrument in tune.  This time, I would tune a string, and then the action of tuning another string knocked the first string out of tune.  That was maddening, and I screamed once (but didn't throw anything) before finally getting all the strings at pitch.  I got bored with the two-octave whole note scales and tried some quarter note scales with different bowings.  I then treated myself to a few measures of the Brahms.

What I need is a beginner's book of cello solo pieces so I can actually begin learning where the notes are.  Having played the violin, I can maneuver myself around the cello.  Of course, the increased distance between the notes is an adjustment I need to make (it's greater than I expected).  On the violin, the next pitch up always meant one additional finger.  On the cello, it sometimes means two fingers.

Since every good blog has links, I will give you my secret to tuning without a pitch pipe/tuner/tuning fork.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I say hello

I've decided to take up the cello.  It's not as completely random as it sounds, as you'll read below, but it is inspired by something completely unrelated to music.  I really haven't had my brain to myself since my boyfriend and I broke up in January. I think about him constantly, and when I'm not thinking about him I fixate on other men. I needed something new in my life. I decided that, rather than go on moping, I would spend that energy doing something productive, hopefully something beautiful.

When I was in third grade, I was given the choice of learning the violin, the viola, or the cello. After a year or two of private piano lessons, the idea of music as a group activity was different and exciting. I chose the violin because it seemed the most manageable, and listed viola as my second choice. When the woodwind and brass instruments were offered in fourth grade, I stuck to my guns and my violin. We were once again given a choice in fifth grade, and this time I listed violin as my first choice but cello as my second. My orchestra teacher, Mrs. Ramsden, noticed this change and asked me point blank if I wanted to switch to the cello. A little part of me did, but it was still a very big instrument and it seemed impractical. Even as a child I was considering storage, schlepping, etc. I once again stuck with the violin.

Once I stopped growing, my parents bought me a violin (rather than continuing to rent) and my fate was sealed. I stopped thinking about the cello.

I don't know what got me thinking about it lately, but when the opportunity to join an LGBT orchestra came along, I found my chance to take up the cello. I didn't want to go back to playing the violin. I was never very good at it, and it's just such an awkward instrument to play. You have to hold it in place with your chin and your shoulder. Your left hand holds the neck of the instrument, but it's there to press the strings, not to hold it up. A cello is anchored to the floor. It just seems like a more comfortable performance situation.

I also decided I would buy the instrument, rather than rent it. The idea came to me gradually, and I started my search lazily, posting a call to my Facebook friends and browsing Craigslist fruitlessly. As the search picked up, I was directed to a fellow band person who manages a Sam Ash in Midtown. I also found a cellist friend of a friend to look at cellos with me and offer his opinion on them. Once I started really looking, things happened fast. I found a cello I liked last Thursday at Sam Ash, Mathew (the cellist friend) gave it his seal of approval on Monday, and I bought it right then and there. I asked them to hold it for me because I was meeting friends as a bar, and I left the store. I'd gotten about a block away when I decided to turn around, get the cello, and bring it home.

I'm excited to be starting something new, but I'm also concerned. I've never been a good student, especially of music. As a young pianist I was prone to fits while practicing, when I actually bothered to practice. Even as a college student I was irresponsible. I'm hoping things will be different with the cello, as it was entirely my idea to take it up and I'm very motivated to do well at it.