Sow’s Ear

10 Oct

In my family, everyone (except my father) was required to take piano lessons. When I came of the age to begin this process, the teacher of choice in our small town was Brunhilda French, whose maiden name was Wagner and was alleged to be a close relative of Richard Wagner. A graduate of the Eastman School and of the New England Conservatory, she was, I have always been told, a wonderfully gifted musician and a marvelous teacher. I only remember that she was very old and thin, spoke with a very “cultured” accent, and was much more enthusiastic about the songs I played than I was. The only song I remember playing was that old favorite “Here we go up a row” which I have reproduced here in case you would like to learn it too…here.png

Brunhilda was born in 1897, so I suppose she was really only in her late 60’s when I studied under her. I took my lessons in her very old Victorian house high on the East hill. The house was stuffed with very old maroon velvet chairs, dark oaken cabinets, dim oil paintings and other historical artifacts. I don’t remember her piano at all, but high on the wall to its right hung a large and very old and dim painting of Jesus knocking at the heart’s door, which I studied (with more interest than I ever studied piano) while Brunhilda and my mother chatted after my lessons.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ watchful eye did not move me to any real diligence at the piano and I stubbornly resisted becoming a virtuoso.  Though I can’t remember any of the music beyond “Here we go,” I think I took lessons for a year or two, until my exasperated mother yielded to my endless complaints. She would later describe receiving the revelation that “she was trying to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear” though she never meant to imply that I had no musical potential.  Nevertheless, the comparison to a sow’s ear somewhat weakened my confidence with regard to musical greatness.

piano.jpg When my first son was old enough to take lessons and there was once again a piano in the house, I set out to prove I was no sow’s ear, and spent several months practicing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” until I could play the whole thing by memory without mistakes and at a reasonable tempo. It was actually thrilling to make music like that flow from my own fingers and for the first time I had a hint of why folks are willing to invest all those hours of practice.  But the investment I had made in “Fur Elise” was pretty steep and I didn’t repeat it. Now and then, I would try to play a few hymns, but the silk purse never materialized.

(Brunhilda French memorial)


Dreams and Fears

15 Oct

I don’t remember if I even knew what a cello was before college. I know I never touched one in person! But in college, I fell in love with the deep, mellow sound of the thing. There is so much beautiful music for the cello, but I especially loved the slower, sweeter pieces. Maybe this music charmed me because I could hum along with it, feeling the vibrations and the yearning of the song in my chest. The dream was born – someday I would love to play that instrument.

I kept someday at bay for over 30 years. I occasionally mentioned the dream to friends, but I never seriously consider doing something about it. I think I was just afraid of failure. Piano had not been easy, and I’d heard that strings were the hardest instruments to play. I never had the nerve to even find someone with a cello and see what it felt like. It was safer to imagine playing than to risk the disappointment of finding it too difficult.

I didn’t even buy many recordings of cello music. Now and then, I’d get a CD of someone or other and discover a beautful cello part in back of a song or two. And the dream would stir, get up on one elbow, then roll over and go back to sleep.

But middle age has a way of changing a person. In the last ten years, I’ve processed a lot of old fears and discovered a lot of new freedom and joy. I guess it was inevitable that this dream would poke it’s head up again above the receding waters and get my attention once again.

I started to think about the possibility again. I even borrowed a cello teaching video from the library and watched a little on YouTube. I learned a little more about the instrument and how it works, so I wouldn’t feel so dumb if I actually encountered one somewhere. The dream was gaining strength with the passing months.


Chinese Cello

23 Oct

A few times this summer, when work was particularly frustrating, my mouse clicks wandered to eBay, where I discovered dozens of offerings of brand-new Chinese cellos for as little as $180. Some are even available in a variety of bright colors. Low risk testing of the dream seemed possible, but this must be too good to be true. Maybe these cellos are all junk and the frustration of trying to play them will kill the dream after all. I searched the forums for someone who’d tried one of these cellos and found mixed reviews. The cynics claimed nothing could make them sound like anything but a tin can. One more reasonable fellow said his sounded pretty decent, after replacing the strings and having his luthier do some adjustments.

I don’t have a luthier on retainer. I don’t even know any luthiers. But I do know a young man who began studying cello this year, at age 16, and I discovered he had a $300 Chinese cello! Not wanting to be too bold, I waited until we happened to be at his house and casually asked to see his cello. Sam played for me for a while – some things that I recognized and loved, like Amazing Grace and Ashokan Farewell. Though he had only been playing a few months, the music was beautiful. The cheap Chinese cello sounded mellow and sweet. Certainly lovely enough to make me happy for a long time, if I could learn to play it half as well as Sam did.

merano_cello.jpg So the die is cast. I cautiously told my wife I thought I was going to take the plunge. Oddly, I expected her to laugh at the idea – perhaps I hoped she’d laugh so I could put it off again. But of course she didn’t laugh. She said “Go for it. Get the cello!” I was excited, but suddenly fearful. I had subconsciously wanted her to discourage me so I could continue to procrastinate and it wouldn’t be my fault. Now I have no excuse. I have to buy the cello and face the fears.

I’ve decided to play it safe and buy the cheapest new cello on eBay. Online Guitar offers a Merano (nice Italian-sounding name, isn’t it?) cello for $179 with free shipping. In a week or so, it will be mine…


Machine Head(s)

30 Oct

The cello arrived two days ago. I was scared to open it and face the music. A flimsy cardboard box, some hunks of styrofoam, and the black nylon carrying bag were all that protected this fine instrument on its journey. I drew it from its bag unscathed and held it close, trembling a bit. The strings were loose and it had to be tuned. I called for my guitar-playing son to help me. At the piano, we figured out which C, G, D and A we were after and tried to match the pitches. Jonathan is used to tuning guitars with nifty worm geared heads and he was frustrated with the cello’s crude wooden pegs wedged in tapered holes. After a few minutes, a few grunts, and a disheartening twang, the A string was broken and I was sinking into despair. How am I going to play this thing if I can’t even tune it? I scooped up the cello, stuffed it in the bag and fled to my bedroom to sulk.

The next day, the engineer in me arose and considered the problem rationally. Granted, the wooden pegs are a sacred tradition of stringed instruments, and no good cellist would violate that tradition. Besides, if you play a $100,000 Strad, you’d be crazy to mess with it just to make tuning easier. But I have a $180 Merano and no luthier anywhere nearby, so I can do as I please.

korg_tuner.jpgFirst stop is the web. First I find that I’m not the only one who finds the pegs unwieldy. There are geared tuners made especially for cellos (Cello Machine Heads), and even traditional-looking pegs with planetary gears hidden inside (Pegheds) so only your luthier knows for sure. Encouraged, I decide that the official cello solutions are too pricey for my cheap experiment, so I order a set of bright chrome bass guitar heads for $25 on eBay. I also order a Korg electronic chromatic tuner for $15. I left the cello in the corner for the next week and went on with my life.

mach_heads.jpg The machine heads work perfectly. I would not recommend bass guitar heads for anything but a dirt cheap cello, since the shaft diameter requires drilling out the tapered peg holes, and the plates must be screwed to the outside of the pegbox with little woodscrews. But I don’t care. This is just an experiment, and very little money is at stake. After a day or two, the strings were stretched and the cello body compressed and now the thing stays almost perfectly in tune for days. And it only takes a minute or two with the Korg tuner to get it right when it does go a bit flat. I start with the C string and work up to the A, and it rarely requires a second pass. The cheapest cellos have plywood bellies and backs and I think that makes them more stable than better instruments.

Once the cello was tuned and playable, it had to be played. I discovered that the bow makes essentially no sound at all without rosin, and it takes a lot of rosining the first time. The cello came with a little block of cheap rosin that was rather like a piece of glass – brittle and crumbling. I was able to rough it up and get enough on the bow to play, but I promptly ordered some real Melos rosin on eBay.

Now the family gathered around for my debut, and we all thrilled to the first strains of “Twinkle, Twinkle”. I am now a cello student.


Violin Making

06 Nov

I’m an engineer by trade. Engineers usually do a lot of research before starting a new project, but I’m one that likes to dive in and work on what I think will be the most challenging parts right away. I do the research along the way when I know what questions I can’t answer already.

That’s not the way to learn to play the cello, I think. Playing any instrument is a lot different than designing a machine. You have to start with the easiest parts. And you don’t just get them done and move on, you have to do them over and over. For me, this seems the hardest adjustment. I realize I haven’t tried to learn any significant motor skill since I took on bike riding as a little boy. The challenges I go after are mental ones, where I can work on the problem in my head – out of sight – and then just do the thing. The cello isn’t an engineering problem at all. It’s like learning to walk or talk, and it’s slow going – especially for someone over fifty! I just have to practice the simple tunes day by day and trust that the motions are working their way into my subconscious.

marchese.jpg In the meantime, the engineer is still alive and the cello has opened a new world of inquiry. When I’m too tired to face the instrument with bow in hand, I read books about it. The world of stringed instruments is as esoteric as any art and craft can get, and abounding in obscure lore and legend. The Violin Maker, by John Marchese, is a fascinating look at that world. Marchese quotes violinist Eugene Ysaye, “The violin is a poet whose enigmatic nature may only be divined by the elect.” The elect are those who play the instruments well and those who make them well. Marchese weaves a fascinating story of both, as he follows modern luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz’ work on a violin commissioned by Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet. Along the way, he explores the lore of Stradivari and even explores Cremona, searching for reasons why a few of the luthiers of that Italian town have become so renowned.

Marchese debunks some of the mythology about Stradivari and his less famous contemporaries, yet preserves the mystery. He believes Strad had no real “secret” but was indeed a very careful and consistent craftsman, who had meticulously experimented with tiny adjustments to the design to make it more perfect. The biggest change he wrought in the form of the violin was flattening the arch of the belly, allowing it to vibrate more freely, increasing the violin’s volume and projection. This change was not appreciated until performance in large venues became more common in the 19th century. Ironically, most of the Strads that exist today were significantly modified in that century, by tilting the neck back and making it of uniform thickness to facilitate shifting, and by increasing the string tension to make the sound brighter and louder. Stradivari’s body form was now preferred, but the violins look and sound different today then when he made them.

It is really remarkable that all standard violins are virtually identical in shape and construction. The great differences in tonal quality are almost entirely due to the source and selection of the wood used for the “belly” and the back, and the carving of those pieces to the ideal thickness profile. Modern violin makers almost always copy one of the best specimens of those few old masters. Skill and patient care in the copying, along with the ability to make the small adjustments necessary for each unique piece of wood, are the marks of a true modern master.

heron-allen.jpg Marchese refers often to a much older volume, Violin-Making: As it was and is, by Edward Heron-Allen, first published in 1884. I found it at my library, but you can read it on Google Books. This book goes deep into the history of the violin, the leading old makers, and the details of their work. This is the source if you want to learn to distinguish the ff holes of Bergonzi from those of Guarnerius, or to cut the points of the purfling in the unique way of Stradivari.

There are a number of good modern books on violin making that would be most helpful if you wanted to actually make a violin, but these two gems were the most interesting to me. I’ll certainly never own a cello of an old master, but understanding the instrument’s construction and history just makes this new adventure more satisfying for me. Or maybe I’m just trying to compensate with knowledge for my lack of skill!

By the way, all this talk about violin making is not a departure from the cello at all. The instruments are nearly identical in form – the cello is just a scaled up violin with the main difference in proportion being the thickness of the body. The methods of construction are the same. And Stradivari made some great cellos too.