Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bach is my safe haven (Practice Session 8)

Hey look, it's Tuesday!  Better get off my ass and practice!

On my ass is where I was for pretty much three straight days this past weekend.  Saturday, Sunday, and Monday all went the same way: I got up, watched TV, messed around on the internet, and dawdled until evening plans made me leave the house.  Monday was only slightly different due to a touch of atonement and fasting.  I figured all that time spent not eating would open up my schedule for other things, such as practicing, but no.  My body wanted nothing more than to sit in a chair staring at a glowing box all day, much like I do on weekdays.

So we once again arrive at Tuesday evening, the night before rehearsal, and I once again haven't looked at the music in six days.  I asked my friend Kate if she'd been reading my blog and she admitted that it's kind of a downer.  I agree.  In my blog I do nothing but bemoan my lack of discipline and the consequential lack of improvement.  I pledge to fix that.  The only way to fix that is to practice more.  Look at all of the things practicing fixes!

Tonight's practice session was a half-hour long.  After a few scales, I decided to start with the Brahms, since I didn't get to it last time, and I did horribly on it at rehearsal last week.  That was a mistake.  The Brahms is very difficult, and it discouraged me right away.  I then went through the Russian Dance from The Nutcracker, and most everything else I either tacit on or playing the piano.  Wanting to raise my spirits, I indulged in some memorized pieces written for other instruments.  I played the right hand of a Bach Minuet, one of the violin parts in the Bach Double Violin Concerto (down an octave and a fifth), and the first violin part of Bach's Fugue in G Minor (down an octave and a fifth), just as much as I could remember.

I almost wish I weren't in an orchestra.  The orchestra music is not beginner's music.  I'd really like to start from the beginning, with a teacher, and not have to worry about this music that is above my level.  A private teacher is laughably out of the question right now as I can barely find the time to sit down and practice, let alone have a lesson.

I'll try for a cheery post next time. :)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Damn I sound good! Oh wait ... that's not me. (Rehearsal #2)

I'm happy to report that my cello seems to have gotten over its fear of tuning.  While we were rehearsing the Chinese Dance from the Nutcracker Suite, I thought the cello was significantly out of tune.  I waited until the end of the piece to retune it only to discover the instrument was perfectly in tune.  I was just reading the music wrong!

I still have a hard time hearing myself, and I often mistake the cello playing going on around me for my own.  Often rehearsal is going so fast that I only have time to slap my finger down on the string and hope for the best.  When this miraculously results in the correct pitch, I am thrilled for a moment at my skill/luck, and then I realize, no, that's Mathew.

I sightread the celesta part in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on piano.  I got the music minutes before rehearsal began, so I focused on the ascending arpeggios in the middle of the piece where my part is completely exposed, thinking I'm doubled in the winds for the rest of it.  Well it turns out the entire piece is a solo for the celesta, so I'll be practicing that a lot.  Fortunately, it's not that difficult, and it's on an instrument that I know (well, I know the piano, anyway).

The Brahms Serenade is beautiful, but I'm worried it might be completely unattainable for me right now.  Nonetheless, that's getting some attention from me next time I practice (which will be ... no idea).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Oh hello, blog! How I've missed you! (Practice Session 7)

Tonight, after jauntily scaling and arpeggioing up and down for a few minutes, I focused once again on the music for QUO.  I practiced the music in rehearsal order, which of course means I did not get to the music in the second half.  Fortunately, I don't think the artistic director conducting those pieces reads this blog :)

I was delighted to find that cellos are tacit in the Overture to the Nutcracker Suite, and the cello parts in the Chinese Dance and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy are very easy (slow and pizzicato).  The March is also pizzicato, but fast.  Still, I was able to muddle through it, and I surprised myself by playing a five-sixteenth note run across two strings.  It sounded like a rusty door hinge at first, but after three or four times, I had it.  The Waltz of the Flowers was daunting, mostly because it's long, but I have the melody, which is nice.  After I was done practicing, I went into the living room where my roommates were and asked them if they heard me playing the Waltz of the Flowers.  Lindsay said "I definitely recognized something at some point."  I'll take it.

I think I'm playing celesta on Sugar Plum Fairy, which will be fun, but it's unfortunate that that's one of the easy cello pieces.

Then I worked on the fifth waltz of the Blue Danube, and I rocked it (as much as I, at this juncture, can rock anything on the cello).  I began practicing the coda, which, in my opinion, is way too long to call itself a coda.

I practiced for an hour before I got fed up with myself and stopped.  I didn't have enough time to really work on any of it because there's so damn much of it, and I started so late (9pm).  Even if I hadn't started late, my tolerance for listening to myself play is low.

My main pet peeve with my playing is accidentally bowing an adjacent string.  My intonation isn't spot on, but it's getting there.  It's the bowing the extra string accidentally that really makes my playing sound like crap.  I know that practice will take care of that.  Practice will take care of everything.  I would be making real progress if I would just sit down and practice more.  With rehearsal tomorrow and band stuff Thursday, the rest of this week is shot.  I'll have to make myself practice multiple times over the weekend.

A big challenge I had at rehearsal last week was hearing myself.  Now that I know the music better, maybe that will be less of a problem.  I'll let you know, readers!

Still haven't named the poor guy.  Lindsay has decided his name is "Cookie."  It isn't.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rehearsal #1

It's not that interesting to read about a frustrating rehearsal experience, so I'll just share with you this comparison.  It was a struggle to play anything, so I was just happy I got the occasional note in.  I was chatting about this with Dan who is just learning to play the viola and he empathized.  I've memorized which staff lines are open strings so when I see one in the music I grab it and say "Ha!  I can play that note!"  Granted, it's not always meant to be played on the open string, but I gotta take what I can get.  I compared it to listening to Spanish language radio and catching words like "amigo" and "cabeza".  Mathew and Dan both agreed that, yes, that is what it's like.  Particularly, that is what it's like to muddle through the Brahms Serenade.

There is much work to be done.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The night before the rehearsal (Practice Session 6)

My only plan for tonight was to practice.  I left work at 6pm, stopped to buy printer paper (because I've finally run out of documents with blank backs to print on), moved my car, and was home by 7.  After tooling around on the computer and eating for an hour, I decided I'd better get to practicing before it got too late.  After all, that was the plan.

I was really dreading picking up the instrument.  My last practice session had left me sour, and I hadn't picked it up in four days (are we noticing a trend?).  I knew it was going to sound terrible and I was going to get frustrated.  I decided to ease myself into the cello by practicing the piano part of that Brahms Cello Sonata I mentioned in my last post.  After I couldn't avoid it any longer, I picked up the cello.

I was delighted to find that it was in tune (enough), because tuning it is the biggest challenge.  I was also delighted to find that I could make it all the way through a two-octave C major scale without wanted to jab the tip of my bow into my ear repeatedly.  My intonation was passable, and I was glad for that.  Then I got crazy and played a B-flat major scale and that was okay.  I flipped through my Klengel book and landed on scales of quarter notes bowed in groups of four.  I did that in C major, and called it a warmup.

Enough fooling around.  It was time to actually practice the music I would be playing tomorrow.  There are five pieces:
  • The Blue Danube
  • The Lone Ar-Ranger
  • The Nutcracker Suite
  • Brahms Serenade no. 1
  • Dvorak Serenade no. 2
I practiced the first two pieces.  My intonation was horrible, I kept forgetting the key signature, I kept bowing adjacent strings, and then I decided to create a Twitter account for the Big Apple Corps.

So far, I am the same music student I was as a ten-year-old.  I can't concentrate and I have no discipline, and this means I never practice.  When I do practice, I get frustrated very quickly and stop.  Now, when you get frustrated while playing the piano you can bang on the thing, creating a very satisfying, loud noise that accurately conveys the rage that's going on inside you.  When you get frustrated when playing the cello, there's not much you can do other than scream.  It's a quandary very similar to when I got a flat screen monitor at work.  Before that, I had a piece-of-crap CRT monitor that you could bash with your palm as much as you like and do no damage.  When I got my nice, new flat screen, it could not weather such abuse so I had to keep my anger inside.  So, instead of erupting in a fit of rage when I get frustrated playing the cello, I create Twitter pages.

I'm not going to be able to keep up with the orchestra tomorrow, no matter how slow they go.  I'm going to play very softly, and get lost a lot.  And when we're done, I'm going to drink.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Distracted by Brahms (Practice Session 5)

My blog is an accurate representation of my progress with the cello, so nine days without a post did indeed mean I hadn't practiced in nine days.  My excuse is thus: I spent five of those days in New Orleans at a LGBA Conference, and when I got home I had three straight days of meetings after work for the Queer Urban Orchestra and the Lesbian & Gay Big apple Corps.

Finally, yesterday, Mathew came over and we practiced.  We did scales and some of the music for QUO rehearsal, but I had barely looked at the music and was getting frustrated.  I think Mathew was getting frustrated with my frustration (he's a naturally cheerful person, and it must have been exhausting to deal with my gloom), so he suggested we play some of Brahms's Cello Sonata no. 1 for which I'd told him earlier I was working on the piano accompaniment.  He'd been practicing the cello part at home.  We played through the exposition section of the first movement a few times, stopping to correct things and try again a few times, and it was actually really fun.  Mathew enjoyed playing with an accompanist which he'd never done before, and I enjoyed being competent on a musical instrument again :)

I've never been a good accompanist, which I think is because accompanists usually have no connection to the music they're playing.  They're often doing a favor for someone, sometimes called in at the last minute, and of course, the soloist chose the piece and the accompanist doesn't necessarily have any interest in the piece itself.  Often the part is a piano reduction of orchestral music.  As a young pianist, I tried accompanying several times and each time was an embarrassing failure both for me and the soloist.

What's different about this situation is I LOVE this piece.  I've been listening to a Yo-Yo Ma recording of this piece (and his other Cello Sonata: no. 2 in F Major) since I was a teenage Barnes & Noble customer (Borders hadn't come to my town yet).  The piano part is pretty easy (I only sightread it once before playing it with Mathew yesterday), and when I don't know an area of the music from the page, it's easy to fill it in from my memory of how the sonata sounds.  I'm looking forward to learning this piece well and perhaps one day performing it with him.

But back to the cello.  I need to practice, seriously.  Mathew commented that my intonation had improved.  My biggest challenge was understanding where the notes are on the instrument.  I can read music just fine, but I can't sightread a cello part because I'm still learning what pitch each string is where on the fingerboard each note is.  He said that will come with practice.

My opportunities to practice between now and our first Orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday are minimal.  As I type this entry, I'm already running late to meet my sister on Long Island to try on suits for her wedding, and the rest of the day is consumed with a LGBAC gig.  Sunday is my grandmother's unveiling, followed inevitably by a long family lunch, and then I have to write the first band newsletter of the season (I'm the Board Secretary of the LGBAC) and catch up on two month's-worth of minutes and a number of other things I stupidly volunteered for.  Monday is LGBAC rehearsal, so that leaves Tuesday.  I'm nervous about rehearsal on Wednesday not only because I'll have not practiced enough, but also because my cello still takes a good fifteen minutes to tune, and then continues to go out of tune for the first half hour of playing.  I'm going to have to keep stopping in the middle of rehearsal to tune.

Still haven't named the cello yet.  Maybe that will help.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Naming the cello

Last week, I posted pictures of my cello on Facebook and asked friends to help me name it.  The thirty-some responses I got were all over the map, but there were some trends (friends who suggested are in parentheses):
  • Alliteration: People suggested names that begin with a "ch" sound.  Imagine these cute names preceding "the Cello":  Chelsea (Kim O), Chester (Stephen S), Charlie (Casey S).
  • Citrus: My alcoholic friends favored names that made my cello sound like Italian lemon liqueur: Lemon (Susan P), Lime (Sara B), Limoncello (Tompy), Liz Lemon (Lynne C).
  • Girly: I hadn't prefaced my call for names with the fact that my cello is a boy, so I got these suggestions: Kitty (Amy N), Trixie (Jim B), Peony (Mimi), Lola (Christian S), Gertrude Wang (Jennie B).
  • Old-timey:  Something about the cello seems to invoke in my friends images of suspenders and plaid: Hubert Shalaily (Annabel), Oswald (Karen M), Barnsley (Kim F), Ernest (Courtney Y).
Then there were the names I could not categorize
  • Cielo (Adrianne)
  • Cello-X (Gary L)
  • Steve (Holly)
  • Dmitri or Sasha (Leslie)
  • Sauce (my sister Lauren)
  • Tadah (Quang)
  • String Thing (Smatt)
  • Zanzibar (Alyssa C)
  • Jaws (Tim K)
  • Wang (Danielle M)
  • Moonchild (Travis)
  • Buns (Laura R)
  • Yo Yo Cello-Ma (Jin)
  • Yo-Yo-Mamma (Patrick)
Some of those have explanations, but most do not.

Feel free to leave your suggestions as comments, but as I warned my friends on Facebook, I will probably not choose any of them :).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Time does not fly when you're playing the cello (Practice Session 4)

I think the hardest thing about practicing a new instrument is to keep going when you sound HORRIBLE.  Tonight, I sounded horrible for about a half hour straight before I decided to stop and blog about it.

My cello is still being a little bitch about tuning.  I had to retune each string at least five times before I could even begin playing it.  Each string got at least another two retunings once I started on scales, and the D string is still giving me trouble.  All that retuning has made me paranoid when I'm playing up the scale and I arrive at a new string that sounds nothing like I expect it to.  I stop my scale and bow the open strings only to discover that the instrument is in tune, and I'm just fingering the note miles away from where I'm supposed to.

This frustration feels very familiar.  I alluded to it in my first post.  I just can't stand the sound of me playing an instrument poorly.  It bugs me even more than learning the piano because you can generally expect the right sound to come out of any of those 88 keys any time you play them.  You can even SIT on the piano and you know you'll at least hear a nice, pan-diatonic mush, if you just sit on the white keys, that is (which I suppose requires a small butt).

Tonight, I trudged through a few scales, followed by a scale in thirds to spice things up a little.  Then I listened to myself play the first piece in the first cello Suzuki book, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations," and, unable to bear sounding like a six-year-old, I moved on to the second piece: "French Folk Song."  I played that a few times and then I began to improvise when I decided I needed a break.  So did Penelope (the cat featured in the masthead photo of this blog), whom I did not realize was in my room until I heard her clawing at my bedroom door to get out.  I don't blame you, Kitty.

I'm going to return to practicing now, because if I don't, I know I'll be glued to the TV for the rest of the evening.