Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘cello’ Category

The School of Velocity

Posted by midiguru on April 20, 2014

I have a couple of advanced cello students (high-school age) whom I’d like to prepare for symphony work. They can already play 95% of what a classical composer calls for — but then there’s that other five percent. In a typical cello part, you get a lot of whole-notes, a lot of easy quarter-notes, and then the composer throws you a terrifying run in 16th-notes. And of course the conductor is going to take the piece at a hair-raising tempo. No mercy.

I haven’t yet found any exercise books that could help students prepare for these passages. (And the Internet Cello Society forum, where I’ve posted questions in the past, appears to be dead.)

Yes, there are books of etudes with two-page etudes marked allegro that are entirely in 16th-notes. Tricky ones, too. But I’m not quite merciless enough to ask a student to master an entire two-page etude and play it flawlessly at a breakneck tempo. Anyway, that’s not how orchestral cello parts work. Typically, your terrifying run is going to be from two to six measures long, and then you can go back to breezing through the quarter-notes. Also, composers of etudes are fond of tossing finger-twisters at players, which is fine, but most composers of symphonic music don’t toss in finger-twisters merely for the sake of challenging the players. They’re more likely to ask you to run up and down a scale pattern in the key of A-flat. Or D-flat. Or F-sharp.

For those of you who aren’t cellists, perhaps I should explain that in the key of A-flat, you can’t use the open A and D strings. In the key of F-sharp, you can’t use any open strings at all. The cellist’s hand spans only three scale notes, and the strings are tuned a fifth apart. As a result, any scale that doesn’t use open strings forces you to shift up or down the fingerboard to a new hand position after three notes.

If the tricky passage is, let’s say, four measures of 16th-notes, that’s 64 notes. Divide by 3 and you’ll find that you’ll need to do as many as 20 rapid and precise shifts, often while crossing from one string to another, at odd rhythmic spots, and usually to or from notes like D-flat and A-sharp that your intermediate method book studiously avoided. Even fairly advanced method books don’t typically use double-sharps or double-flats — but composers don’t hesitate to do so.

So yeah, here’s another cello method book I ought to write.

Posted in cello | Leave a Comment »

Let’s Get Together

Posted by midiguru on October 6, 2011

The town where I live is not huge. It qualifies as a city only in the rhetoric of our elected officials. Even so, we have a thriving Art Association. Local painters, photographers, and jewelry makers have banded together for many years to put on shows and workshops.

It’s a curious fact that we have no equivalent for composers of music.

A web search reveals a few organizations for composers in San Francisco and the Inner East Bay. But as I get older, I’m far less inclined to want to hop in the car, drive for an hour, hunt for a parking place, and walk back to my car after dark in a strange neighborhood. Sorry, sports fans, but that’s how it is. If it’s within 20 minutes of my house, I’m happy. Anything further afield is a chore. If I never have to drive to San Francisco again as long as I live, I’ll be very happy.

So why isn’t there a group of active composers here in town?

I put it down mainly to the difference in media. This plays out at both the beginning and the end of the artistic process.

Painting — or at least, representational painting, and trust me, that’s most of what you’ll see at a show of the Livermore Art Association — is an art form in which your eye can be trusted to tell you, quite intuitively, whether you’re doing a decent job. If you try to paint a cat and it comes out looking like Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music, society & culture | 2 Comments »

Whip It Out

Posted by midiguru on July 17, 2011

Back in the early ’70s I played in two or three bands. Did a lot of gigging, made a little money, had a bunch of neat experiences. Both of the bands that I was most involved with were composed of people I had gone to high school with. That made it easier to put things together, I’m sure.

In the late ’70s I was working for a fledgling music magazine called Keyboard, and I had a look around in the South Bay to see if I could find a band to play with. No luck. I answered a few classified ads, but what I encountered were either wannabe’s — people who had a desire to play, but were variously clue-impaired — or gigging bands who were doing commercial music of a type that I didn’t care for.

So I bought a synthesizer and an 8-track reel-to-reel, and got into electronic music. That was when I started writing science fiction too, come to think of it.

Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to play some live music again — something besides the local community orchestra. So forgive me while I think out loud for a minute.

What I’m finding is that the scene is pretty much what I remember from 35 years ago. Today I was scouting through the musicians’ classifieds on craigslist. My favorite ad so far Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music | 2 Comments »

Picture Yourself Playing Cello

Posted by midiguru on March 18, 2011

My new book for beginning cellists is due to arrive in bookstores at the beginning of April. Here’s a low-tech home-brew video in which I talk about the book:

The book is written mostly for folks who are new to cello playing. It’s packed with photos, a fact that I forgot to mention in the video. If you’re struggling with the first stages of learning to play the cello, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the book!

Posted in cello, music, writing | Leave a Comment »

Starting from Scratch

Posted by midiguru on January 11, 2011

Now and then I get a call from an adult who has conceived a desire to play the cello. Because I teach, I’m always happy to help them get started. But I’ve learned to give them a gentle warning up front.

What I tell them is this: I’ve had several adult students who started as beginners, stuck with it for several years, and made very considerable progress. But I’ve also seen several who started taking lessons but soon gave it up. I’m sure the main reason is because learning to play the cello turned out to be more of a challenge than they were prepared for.

When I get that initial call, I usually suggest that if the prospective student doesn’t already have a cello, they should find a nearby store that does monthly rentals with a rent-to-own option. A decent cello is expensive, and there’s no point in laying out a pile of cash until you’re sure you’re going to want to stick with it.

How expensive? Depends on what you mean by “decent.” I usually try to find good things to say about a student’s cello, but if you’re spending less than $2,500, you’re not going to enjoy playing as much, because the cello is simply not going to produce the kind of warm tone that probably inspired you to want to start taking lessons.

Once they’ve started lessons, I usually tell them this: When you watch a good cellist, he or she makes it look easy. Yo-Yo Ma is inspiring to watch, because he can do anything on the cello and make it look easy and natural. But in fact, the use of the arms, hands, and fingers is not Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music | 3 Comments »

I Sing the Cello Electric

Posted by midiguru on January 10, 2011

For the past year or so, my electric cello has been languishing, in its case in the closet, surrounded by its amp and other accessories. Yesterday I had an impulse to get it out and start using it again.

In spite of the obvious major similarities, it’s a very different instrument from the acoustic! And not just visually, but as an instrument. Visually, it’s a plank. There’s no body. And the headstock is a flying-V design, with all of the tuning gears on one side. They’re black — very classy — but yet it’s clear at a glance that we’ve left the Italian Renaissance far behind.

It’s a five-string cello, with a high E string. I once phoned Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito and said, “I need to buy a cello E string,” and the person said, “There’s no such thing as a cello E string.” Ah, but they were wrong. You can also buy a low F string, if you want to play in the bass register. My cello came with a second nut, grooved for the lower string set (F-C-G-D-A), but after trying it out for an hour I decided Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music | Leave a Comment »

A Joyful Noise

Posted by midiguru on November 20, 2010

Community orchestras are a wonderful thing … sort of. Last night I played a concert with the Silicon Valley Symphony. Tonight we’re repeating the program. It’s a good orchestra, capable of tackling fairly challenging repertoire and bringing it home. But I see both the plusses and the minuses.

Playing in such an orchestra is enjoyable first and foremost because it gives you a chance (indeed, an obligation) to sit in a chair and pay close attention to a complex piece by Brahms or Beethoven for 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch. Being in the audience just isn’t the same: In the audience, your mind can wander. At least, mine does. And an audience member is unlikely to sit through the same pieces week after week, becoming more closely acquainted with them.

There’s some satisfaction in being able to do a good job. Also, the orchestras provide a welcome outlet for soloists who are very capable but are not quite ready to play a concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, and may never be.

On the other side of the coin are two issues.

First, playing in a symphony is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative activity. Someone hands you a stack of paper with little dots on every sheet, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in ways that match the dots. Years of training are required, so the activity is a little more sophisticated than being a ditch digger, but if it took years of training to be a ditch digger, the two would be quite comparable with respect to the scope one has for personal expression or meaning.

Beyond that, even the best community orchestras are not, in my experience, able to do truly fine performances. There are always rough edges. Someone in the bass section can be relied on to jump in early during a rest. The violins’ intonation is likely to be quite shaky during fast passages. French horn entrances are hit-or-miss. Once in a while, the conductor may even drop a beat; it’s rare, but it happens.

So the upshot is, I drive down to rehearsal on the freeway, week after week, in order to perform what is essentially a mechanical activity, for which I don’t get paid, and after the concert I find myself saying, “Well, that wasnt too bad.”

I’m not a candidate for a better orchestra. I make a few little mistakes from time to time too. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I just wish it was more satisfying.

Posted in cello, music, society & culture | Leave a Comment »

Three’s Company

Posted by midiguru on November 13, 2010

An inspiring concert tonight — the Tilden Trio onstage at the Bankhead in Livermore. They played Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 3, the Dvorak F minor trio, and … well, apparently there was a chaotic scene last night at some hotel in San Francisco, where they played at a gala honoring Michael Tilson Thomas. The violinist’s sheet music for the third trio piece got lost. So they substituted a virtuosic violin/cello duo by Bohuslav Martinu. Wow!

Sometimes I think all I want to do is play, listen to, and compose music. Why bother doing anything else? I now have a keen desire to rush out and buy several CDs of music by Martinu. On the other hand, I have a box set of CDs containing all 14 Shostakovich string quartets, and when was the last time I listened to them? Heck, I have a couple of hundred LPs and a functioning turntable, and I can’t remember the last time I played an LP at all, other than to let one of my students hear Pablo Casals playing Bach.

I’m strictly an amateur pianist, but I keep at it. Over the last few years I’ve learned several Haydn piano sonatas. But when I don’t play a piece for a while, it falls apart. One of my goals for this winter is to expand my repertoire by relearning a bunch of piano music that I’ve learned and then set aside. Right now I’m working on the Haydn C# minor sonata. And lots of Bach. And Clementi, who was amazing.

The wonderful thing about playing the piano is that there’s an endless supply of great music that you can play by yourself, in your living room. I enjoy playing the cello too, but the cello is not Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music | Leave a Comment »

Book Report

Posted by midiguru on July 30, 2010

Details coming soon. Right now we’re nailing down a few details in the contract, but it appears this fall I’ll be writing a book on cello technique. For beginners. To be brought out by a major publisher of instructional books.

I’m certainly not the World’s Foremost Authority on cello playing, although I did have good teachers (notably Laszlo Varga). Mostly, I was in the right place at the right time. The idea came from the publisher’s acquisitions editor, in fact, and I had sense enough to say, “Yes, please.” They were swayed by the fact that I’m a writer, and that I have plenty of practical experience from teaching beginners.

It’s an interesting project. I’ll need to take lots of photos. (Taking photos of your own hands … there’s a challenge.) Also shoot video for the DVD. The inclusion of a DVD with the book is going to be a huge plus. There are many aspects of cello technique Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music, writing | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Me, Myself, and I

Posted by midiguru on July 11, 2010

I’ve always loved pop tunes — everything from Christmas carols to “Walk like an Egyptian.” It’s all good.

A couple of years ago I started thinking I’d like to do a solo cello set with some of these great tunes. Record new arrangements in my studio, using synthesizers, take a P.A. system into a club or wherever, and play the melodies on cello over pre-recorded backing tracks.

I did quite a lot of work on the recordings. “Lady in Red,” for instance. I never cared for it when I heard it on the radio, but it is an awesome cello solo. I basically have the entire set on my hard drive, ready to go. But as I got close to being ready to look for gigs (this was back in 2008), I started feeling Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music | 1 Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 118 other followers