Cello Playing

20 Nov

The first question I’m usually asked when I tell a friend I’m learning the cello is “Are you taking lessons?” No, I’m not taking lessons at this point – meaning I don’t meet in person with a teacher. Some friends are troubled by that answer. It may be the fear that I’ll learn bad habits that will be difficult to un-learn later, and will limit my progress as a cellist.  I can think of a few reasons I have put off lessons so far… 1) It’s logistically difficult, given my location and schedule. 2) I’m afraid it would be difficult for a teacher to deal with my independence, constant questions and strange ideas. 3) Maybe I really want to reach a certain level of skill and be able to say “I did it my way!”

I don’t mean to be arrogant. My friend Sam has a teacher and has made amazing progress in the past year. I have no doubts that the right teacher could be a big help to me as well, but it could take some effort to find the right teacher.  In the mean time, there are abundant online resources for the DIY cellist. I especially like the video lessons by Hans Zentgraf (Cello Academy). Hans’ first lesson is worth watching just to hear him say “Hi, dear friends! This is our beloved cello.” You can find these and many more cello lesson videos on YouTube. There are also some wonderful videos of Yo-Yo Ma, Maisky, Rostropovich, du Pre and other great cellists performing. Sam actually learns to play serious pieces by watching YouTube!

mattlin.jpg Videos are very helpful because you can watch the cellist’s hands and see exactly what they are doing (if your eyes are quick!). But my most important teacher is Cello Playing for Music Lovers, by Vera Mattlin Jiji. “Music Lovers” is a euphemism for “older beginners” and this is definitely the method book for someone starting in over fifty, like me. Jiji’s book assumes no musical background, and unlike a lot of books that make that claim it actually delivers on the details, with excellent explanations of the basics of tuning, holding, and playing the cello. Jiji has chosen a fine selection of songs that are playable for the beginner yet still interesting. “Twinkle, Twinkle” isn’t in this book.

Jiji places great importance on playing with “alert relaxation” and she does a good job coaching toward that goal. For the first few weeks, I was completely tense – arching my back and holding my breath as I played – because of my concentration and fear of making a mistake. The result was so much back pain that I feared I would have to give up the cello altogether. For a few days, I even wore a back brace when I practiced and that helped, but it was not the right answer. Alert Relaxation is the right answer and following Jiji’s advice, I slowly learned to relax while playing and the back problems are gone. When I try to make no mistakes, I sound terrible. If I throw caution to the wind and play as though I was good at it, I sometimes sound great!


Fiddle Method

27 Nov

I love fiddle music. Maybe it’s the soul of my Scottish and Irish forebears still alive in me. The lively jigs and reels that make you want to dance – or the ballads and airs that make you want to cry – evoke some romantic longing for the old country. That soul came to the new world and lives on in Appalachian and Bluegrass music.

Fiddle music is fun. But it’s not much connected to my instrument of choice, the cello. The cello grew up in the high culture classical music tradition, and was never part of the peasant life that produced the fiddle music I love. Nevertheless, a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument (When you’re buying, it’s a fiddle. When you’re selling, it’s a violin.) and a cello is just a big violin. So you ought to be able to play fiddle music on a cello. An appealing thought, and not an original one as I discovered.

farr.jpg I bought the Mel Bay American Fiddle Method cello book and gave it a try. First, I found out what a method is. When engineers apply for patents on methods of doing things, they have to explain the method in detail, so someone of “ordinary skill in the art” can duplicate the idea. And the method must be novel – something no one thought of before. None of this applies to a musical method. In the world of music, a method is just a sequence of songs to learn that gradually introduce progressive skills. The sequence is usually embodied in a book, also called a method. The engineer in me was disappointed to find precious little explanation of how to play the cello like a fiddle – that’s up to the student to figure out – though the Mel Bay book includes a CD of all the tunes so you can pick up the style by listening and trying to get the same effect on your instrument. Traditionally, fiddlers didn’t learn from books – they learned by watching and imitating better fiddlers.

Anyway, the Fiddle Method is a fun change. Most of the tunes are familiar and challenge my sluggish fingers to step lively, like the dancers the old-time fiddlers fiddled for. Fiddle tunes, of course, were composed for violins, and some require real finger stretches on the cello, where the notes are spread out. That’s forced me to learn some phrases in higher positions.

Of course, the pieces are transposed down, usually by an octave, to the cello’s range. The tunes work there, but I miss the edgy fiddle sound. Makes me want to get a cheap Chinese violin…


Complete Cello Technique

04 Dec

alexanian.jpg Whatever the American Fiddle Method lacks in methodical engineering approach, Complete Cello Technique makes up for. I thought I could learn the fine points of bowing and fingering if someone would just explain it point by point (like I think a teacher might do in a lesson) but it hasn’t worked for me. Alexanian dissects every possible movement on the cello, describes them in great detail (in English and French) along with photos and diagrams, and provides the most intimidating exercises to drill each new skill. Some of it is interesting, and I’ve gleaned a few new understandings, but mostly I’ve just found the book funny. It might be helpful to read after you learn a skill, or perhaps to help a teacher put words to something they know intuitively, but I don’t think it’s very useful as a self-teaching tool.

I really love the painting by Thomas Eakins on the cover of the Dover edition. Someday maybe I can put on a tux and look this dignified behind my cello!


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11 Dec

pleeth.jpg I think I might have quit the cello by now if I had not happened upon this book at the library. William Pleeth’s Cello was the perfect antidote… or counterpoint to Complete Cello Technique, and the medicine I needed to keep going. Pleeth was a brilliant cellist, but also a brilliant teacher, probably best know for teaching Jacqueline du Pré in her youth.

Cello is a comprehensive book, including an interesting history of the cello and it’s repertoire. But the heart of this fascinating book is Part One: The Philosophy of Playing the Cello. Like some ancient wisdom text, I keep returning to these pages and gleaning some new insight each time. Pleeth introduces his discussion of technique with the words “The spirit of the music is the only thing which can rightfully dictate physical action on the cello.

He urges a oneness between cellist, cello and the music but “…one hears instead the opposing forces battling against each other – ‘me versus my cello, and the two of us versus the music’ – and cellists often reduce themselves to that kind of battle…” I can relate. The days I feel like throwing the cello out the window are the days of battle. Pleeth helps me see that the goal is to feel the music within and let it out naturally – bowing a phrase is like breathing it out. Even the left hand, instead of mechanically hammering each note, must feel the flow of the music and express it on the fingerboard. This ideal is at once lofty and seemingly unapproachable to a beginner like me, but as I have relaxed and allowed playing to be a more mystical experience, I’ve found truth in his words.

In practice, sometimes I need to work on technique, slowly stepping through a passage that is too hard, so that my fingers get used to the movement and can memorize it. But I must balance that work with the joy of playing something simple – something I have already internalized – and allowing it to flow from the heart.  I think that’s what I most enjoy about string playing – it’s possible to play a very easy piece with great beauty, even as a beginner.

Pleeth does give instruction in technique, but always in a philosophical setting. He discusses the “architecture” of the music and the importance of discerning it and playing from it, rather than numbly moving through the printed notes. He emphasizes working the left hand always from a place of “release” instead of holding on tightly. Freedom of movement and lightness lead to agility in fast passages. He urges the student (and the teacher) once the basic fingering and bowing are grasped, to explore as many alternatives as possible and see how they affect the music.  He warns against two attitudes that block us in the pursuit of technique… the search for security and the greed for achievement.

He nailed me! Here am I, the rank beginner, full of fear of making mistakes and at the same time frustrated that I can’t do what Yo-Yo Ma does.  If I am going to enjoy this new adventure – if I am going to even continue it – I must give up both of these attitudes. The search for security and greed for achievement are just two sides of that same evil coin – comparing myself to someone else. I won’t measure myself against Yo-Yo Ma or any other cellist. That’s not the point at all.

Play with abandon. Experiment. Relax. Enjoy. Tap into the passion of my heart and see if I can let it out freely on the strings. Yes, there is a time for hard work. But that time is when I am feeling good about the cello, and that isn’t every day at this point. Yes, I want to become a better cellist, but if it’s only so I can feel part of the “club” or think I’m better than someone else, then it’s pointless. The reason for improving is so that I can make the music I long to make.

I will keep returning to Pleeth’s well. There is much more there than I can understand right now, like the cello itself. This book will be a companion to comfort and prod me on along this unfamiliar path.



09 Jan

knilling_violin.jpg Last week, my sixteen year old son was hanging around while I was fiddling around on the cello. He let me know that he thought he would like to play the fiddle. He’s taken piano for several years, but said he feels chained to that bench sometimes. He’s a pretty kinetic fellow and I could imagine him fiddling on the roof, or in the woods, or in a tree. He tried fiddling a bit on the cello and liked the feel of bowing, so we decided to buy a real fiddle.

We ordered a Knilling Perfection violin online from the Woodwind & Brasswind. It’s special attraction is that it includes “Perfection Pegs” which are the same as PegHeds. I love the machine heads on my cello, but the violin’s pegbox is pretty confined to install guitar heads, so I thought the geared pegs would be great. The violin with pegs was only $150.

The fiddle arrived a few days ago and I enjoyed a unique experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever touched a violin in my life, yet I was able to pick out a few tunes right away since it’s so much like playing the cello.  I bought Peter the violin version of the Mel Bay American Fiddle Method, which has the same set of songs as my cello fiddling book, so we can play them together sometimes. He’s getting the hang of fiddling pretty quickly and he’s excited about it. This thing is contagious…

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