This January, I was reminded of my old free-lancing life with a plethora of non-job related musical projects. I was also totally blown away by the commitment of a host of local musicians, a full sized orchestra of them, who volunteered their time to record a new piece by Chris Dietz in Bowling Green, OH. It quite re-energized, and re-focused me, to feel the strength of the new music community here in SE Michigan and N Ohio. I also met my long-time hero, percussionist Han Bennink, at the UM SMTD. I've been a fan since I first heard him in the Trio Clusone with the cellist Ernst Reijseger some 15 years ago. Meeting him was very liberating and inspiring, and oddly homey (I miss Europe...)
And by the way, I was very happy with the Bach and the Ballerinas - I had a couple of bad memory slips in the dress rehearsal, but both performances were stellar - I only made mistakes in my head, not out loud :)
This is kind of a long story so I'm going chronological -
E3Q has practiced two times since school is out. In and of itself that is remarkable. Mark has written a sweet chord sequence in C phrygian, and so I've been playing around ("fooling around") with the Phrygian. I love it - I think it's my current favorite mode. I have also been toying around with another progression that I wrote, and thinking about how to use the modes to write a Prelude for the Lullaby Project (recording soon!). At the same time, my friend Maria and I have been picking repertoire to play for a concert this summer, and I thought of the Cassado Solo Suite, which I have neither played or thought of in 13 years. Today I decided to play all the C modes (Major, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian...) to warm up, before reading through the Cassado to see what was what. And, low and behold, how does the Cassado start? First declamation, D dorian. Repeat that in C mixolydian, then c lydian. And so forth. The whole thing is modal. And I heard them, and was able to recognize them by ear and also by pattern for the first time. I didn't really know that before: I probably knew that he piece was modal in some way, but I didn't really KNOW it. Mind completely blown.
What sort of freaks me out is that apparently my ear knew, and nudged my sub-conscience ("remember the Cassado?"), but it wasn't until I actually played the piece that I realized how exactly the Cassado fits all the other things I am currently working through.
The things us classical instrumentalists hear from our teachers, "always practice with thought","don't just fool around but have intent" are certainly words of wisdom. I know that growing up, "fooling around" on the cello, and "playing without thinking" were somewhat synonymous. Now I am really questioning that. In fact, when I "fool around" with the modes or any other set of of parameters, I am thinking very hard and certainly, have just as much intent, if not more, than when I read music or practice music written down by somebody. I think "fooling around with intent" should be highly encouraged in instrumental learning! I really would love to see some brain imaging done on improvisers brain compared to a brain reading music...The two processes are incredibly different.
Also, I wonder how long it would take to play through the circle of fifths doing all the modes on all 12 notes...108 scales if you do all three minors.
This Saturday, I will be performing the Bach Bourrees from the 3rs Suite with 16 lovely ballerinas. This is at once an exhilarating opportunity, and something that scares me out of my wits. Solo Bach is notoriously difficult to perform correctly when memorized. I always tell my students when they get lost, that it's sort of an initiation and so many much more famous cellists than them have been tripped up by Bach - indeed, I don't think I have ever heard a complete Suite without any mistakes played live (with one notable difference: I heard Erling Blondal Bengtsson play all six Suites in one concert at University of Michigan, completely perfectly from memory). Most recently when I have had to (or have chosen to) play Bach memorized, it hasn't felt totally absolutely horrible because I am better at improvising than I used to be, and if I know the form and the chords, I can make up stuff until I get back on track. Not so much, when 16 people on stage are depending on me to deliver exactly the right count of beats! There's no room for doubling back to a wrong spot when taking the repeat, or playing in circles like often happens with memorized Bach.
My main concern is that I get so involved in watching the lovely dancers, or get so visually distracted, that I forget where I am in the form. So, I have enlisted the help of my kids. This week they are in charge of distracting me where I practice - today's session included ballet (obviously), and a round of "Q&A", where I had to answer their questions while playing through the piece. This should probably qualify for setting up an IRA for them, as my assistants?
I remember my teachers telling me that some people practice while reading the newspaper. I've always thought that it's a little silly, it's just playing not practice, but perhaps that kind of practicing has a point in some instances..."playing" and "practicing" being two very distinctly different things in the classical world.
So, come Saturday, wish me luck :)
1. always memorize everything possible, it speeds up the learning process so much. To memorize something you don't just have to remember the notes, you have to remember the music. So, in a short amount of time, as part of the memorization process you end up doing harmonic analysis, motivic analysis, structural analysis...
2. always make your young students memorize everything: even more than speeding up their learning process, it'll help them when they turn 40 - that stuff is still somewhere in the old brain!
3. writing short little Lullabies (Lullaby Project) in the style of Bach has really helped my understanding of actual Bach. So maybe that should be a part of the instrumental training, writing little pieces in the style of whichever composer you're studying at the moment? Or at the very least, in the style of the biggies for solo cello rep: Bach, Kodaly, Britten? And probably Popper and Piatti...Definitely slower in the short term, but maybe faster in the long term? The ability to see the stylistic specifics of any composer is really handy, especially when playing new music. I feel like this should be taught as part of the comprehensive theory curriculum - but those idiosyncrasies are so instrument specific that it should probably be taught by the instrumental teacher rather than the theory prof who doesn't play your instrument...
Maybe people do it on their own and I'm just so dumb that I didn't realize? I guess better late than never.
I'm learning so many new things that my brain is on total overload - and, as usual, I feel like I have so many good idea floating around I have no way of remembering them or writing them down, and certainly no way to follow through on any of them.
I got schooled a bit by the good professors, in preparation for our concert of the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet this Sunday. Bad for the ego, great for the learning process and long term development. I was just reminded how it's really awesome to get direct feedback. And how you can either get unnerved by it or use it for your benefit. I'm choosing the latter.
There are also some really great reminders going on facebook. One of my favorites is a poster reminding to practice not until you get it right, but until you can't get it wrong. The only problem is, who's got time for that? I'm getting so wrapped up in practicing that I forget everything else. In theory this is very good for my soul and also for my playing, but not so good for the family, the students, the house or the job. It's kind of hard to work on the work/life balance when work is also a major part of the "life" to which that refers. Somebody let me know when you figure it out, please...
First chamber music experience with the Silvestre after having really mapped out the fingerboard...Dohnanyi Piano Quintet with the Michigan Chamber Players, couldn't be better! To be honest, it's a little overwhelming to have all the choices I didn't have before. I never had the choice of crossing strings whenever I want - to those who don't speak cello, what I mean is there are 4, sometimes 5 ways of fingering a note on a given string. Those were always available on the Hubicka, of course. For some notes, you can also play them on 3 or 4 different strings - and so the possibilities on fingering a passage are too many to count! The strings on the new cello are so well matched that I can cross strings whenever I want/need. I feel a little bit like a kid in a candy store - too many good choices and I can't commit, after all you only get to play a passage once!
The Popper challenge is good for me. The Popper challenge is good for me. The Popper challenge is good for me...
I've slowly and systematically played through 1-15 in the High School of Popper. I guess you could say I'm in the teens, which I find extremely difficult. I'm a little behind the schedule I set for myself, with which I'm totally fine. The only problem will occur on Monday when we go back to school and I won't have as much time again. But I will stick to it! I have to say: this is working. I'm learning a whole lot about Her Majesty the HC and myself. My thumb callus peeled five days ago, then I was playing on raw skin, then a blister formed and now, that has popped. If I remember correctly from the last time I had to form a thumb callus (24 years ago), I should be pain free in about two weeks, with a nice thick skin on the side of the thumb. Meanwhile, I have to keep playing on it! Show biz is so glamorous.
Music has such time and place association, I've been through High School and my main home teacher's lessons, and I've moved on to College, where I learned the majority of these. I think about my teachers all the time and what they siad about this and that. I'm identifying gaps in my technique and keeping careful track, and when I'm at the end of the book I will go back for seconds, maybe memorize a few and make a goal to get them performance ready. I love all the double stop ones - even No.13. I hate the chromatic triadic thumb ones. I love that some of the ones that I have never learned I can still get pretty easily - they actually look a lot harder than they are. I remember it being the other way around, and that is a good thing.
I need to do more research on what has been written about the Poppers, in terms of level and what each etude is good for, I don't think I know enough. I think that might be one of my summer projects - for now, I'll concwn
To really know this new instrument, I feel a need to play all the repertoire I have ever played. That's not really possible, and certainly not probable. Plus, I've now run out of lesure time and have to be ready in three weeks for prime time. So, what is a cello player to do when there is a need for mapping out the fingerboard once and for all? There's really only one answer - Popper. Going back to High School.
There's a great (young) cellist, Joshua Roman, who just completed an amazing Popper Project, posting a video on youtube of all 40 Popper Etudes, one every week. I'm very impressed. I must admit I wondered why...but I think I get it now. The process is important, and intent changes the process.
As students taking lessons, we play technical studies (etudes), to our teachers, who hold us accountable for notes, rhythms, styles, correct technique, flow etc. We learn to perform musical pieces and so we learn accountability in performance also. But the etudes usually stay within the confines of the student-teacher relationship, at the most we share them within the studio. Unless you are Janos Starker or Erling Blondal Bengtsson, in which case you record them for the world to hear. After school, who cares if we never play another etude ever again? Well...playing etudes is kind of like taking your vitamins. In the summertime when the sunshine is plentiful, you can get away with not taking them so much, but when the winter-funk strikes you better take them regularly or else...you risk loosing things. Without a teacher, though, nobody holds me accountable but myself - and I find that after ten years of no school, I'm slacking. I blame it on life and job, but it doesn't make me play better. We've already started a practice diary shared as a google doc with some school friends, with the hope of more discipline coming out of peer-pressure and semi-public humiliation for not practicing. This week I'm adding my own Popper self-challenge in two parts.
Part one, a two week challenge in which I play through the book. This translates to roughly three etudes every day. I've studied most of them (I think?), and so there are a couple of reasons for starting with a "play through". I want to identify the ones that I need to really learn (or re-learn as the case will be). But first and foremost, I want to map out the fingerboard on the HC.
Part two, learn the ones that I don't know. These are all the ones that are 5 pages long, have 6 flats and are played on the thumb, mostly. This is the hard part: I don't know what platform to use to humiliate/motivate myself to learn them well enough to "perform". One option is to record them for myself - ugh. Or ask friends and children to listen - double ugh. Ideas? Let me know... definitely no youtube though. That has been done.
Anyway, I already learned from contemplating this challenge that the process will be different because it's a formal challenge with specific, stated goals and some kind of performance (ie public or private humiliation) at the end of it. Now I get why, Joshua Roman.
I guess it was Heifetz who said that "after 1 day not practicing, I know. After 2 days of not practicing, the critics know. And after 3 days of practicing the audience knows."
I had to take a day off on Saturday to be the mom taxi for the various kid-related activities around town. No time to practice. I thought I was solid on the fingerboard after my circle on Friday. Today, I spent 15 minutes just trying to find my first finger spot on the C string, first position. Sigh.
Katri Ervamaa, cellist